If the Inca Trail is booked up, or you don’t fancy camping, or you want to hike away from the crowds, there are more treks in Peru‘s Sacred Valley than you might think. Meera Dattani finds some beautiful alternatives to the Inca Trail worth your time, energy and camera-clicks, yet without the permit restrictions.
It’s the end of rainy season, the vegetation is lush, and we’ve only seen a handful of other hikers. This is what trekking is about, right? The twitter of birds. Sighs of relief after a tough climb. The sound of silence. The sight of soaring peaks and deep valleys.
“Welcome to the Salkantay Trail,” says my guide Wilfredo, beaming. It may not be as famous as the Inca Trail but it’s beautiful, moderately challenging and – and if you’re not a camper, you can even trek lodge to lodge. The Salkantay is also one answer to the growing problem of overtourism, a hot topic in these parts.
The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu has and always will be a ‘bucket-list’ destination, but with over half a million visitors a year – that’s over 2,500 a day – and 500 daily permits issued for the increasingly popular Inca Trail (amid reports of overflowing squat toilets and litter along the route) it’s time for travellers and authorities to rethink. And encouraging people to arrive by rail, limiting hiker numbers and promoting alternative trails are among the solutions.
...with over half a million visitors a year and 500 daily permits issued for the increasingly popular Inca Trail (amid reports of overflowing squat toilets and litter along the route) it's time for travellers and authorities to rethink.
While the Inca Trail is the only route ending inside Machu Picchu Sanctuary, there are other equally scenic, if not more spectacular, hikes around Cusco‘s Sacred Valley, such as the Salkantay and Lares. And if you desperately want to hike into Machu Picchu, one-day hikes do just that anyway, and permit rules don’t apply.
With many arriving in Cusco too late to even apply for Inca Trail permits – some departures are sold out months in advance – these other trails are worth considering. Whatever you choose, allow time in Cusco for acclimatisation, regardless of fitness: Altitude sickness has its own rules and coca tea alone isn’t always enough…
"We'll hike through 15 different ecosystems," Wilfredo tells our small group at the Salkantay Trail briefing.
It's a much longer route than the Inca Trail at 74 kilometres (46 miles) but it's hiked over six days, with day seven at Machu Picchu. Some ascents are certainly testing, for the amateur hiker at least – such as the 4,600-metre-high Salkantay Pass, the trail's highest point – but the pace isn't rushed, there's an emergency horse, and it helps to know there's a delicious meal (and hot tub and log fire) waiting. You can even book a massage. And if you don't want to hike, swap for horse-riding, biking and zip wires.
There's a cultural element too, with Mountain Lodges of Peru's community-run lodges run by local Quechua people, where you can chat to staff, learn to make pisco sours and try cuy (guinea pig) and support micro-businesses – day one visits a women's craft co-operative in the village of Mollepata and an organic farm.
But really, the Salkantay is about the vistas of the Peruvian highlands; the brilliant purple lupin and wild orchids, lodges coming into view at the end of a long ascent, views of brilliant blue Lake Humantay and towering Mount Salkantay, the exhilaration of reaching the Salkantay Pass, heading down into cloud forest and into coffee plantations, and that first glimpse of Machu Picchu mountain from the Llactapata Pass on the final day before catching the train to Aguas Calientes. Here, in the town closest to Machu Picchu, an early night beckons before a morning's exploration of the 13th-century citadel that has literally seen jaws drop on first sight, mine included.
There's another trek in these parts that's worth doing: the Lares. With homecooked lunches, beautiful hikes and llama farms, it mixes action and culture in equal doses, with a closer look at Andean life, its weaving heritage and communities of the Sacred Valley between the towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. "Wait till you try the pachamanca," our guide Miguel tells us. And this meal of meat and potatoes (Peru has 300 varieties of the latter) slow-cooked under hot stones by a family in the farming community of Viacha is certainly memorable, not least for a special ceremony thanking Pachamama/Mother Earth.
Other highlights include Awanakancha, a weaving centre and camelid exhibition home to adorable alpacas and llamas, the brilliant market in Pisac, and exploring Ollantaytambo, the best-preserved Incan town of all with its maze of streets, ancient ruins and views over terraced hills. And that outdoor jacuzzi at above-the-clouds Huacahuasi Lodge, sitting high at 3,800 metres, is a real treat.
The Lares Trek also has one of the prettiest hikes; descending from the Lares Pass is a barely-touched ancient Inca trail along a canyon and into the village of Totora, passing fairytale-esque glens and verdant valleys. Like the Salkantay, the five or seven-day tour finishes at Machu Picchu. Several years ago, Mountain Lodges of Peru added luxury lodge-to-lodge trekking to this route too, and on any given day, you can do a cultural activity or choose an easy or challenging hike, making it popular with less keen trekkers.
However you see the valley – whether you trek or go on horseback, camp or choose luxury lodges – there are paths less trodden here, where the magic of the Sacred Valley remains very much intact.
Consider taking the road less travelled with a tailor-made trip, such as the Hidden Gems of Peru trip to Northern Peru. If you're set to visit Machu Picchu, check out our Incan Empire sample itinerary. All itineraries can be modified to it your preferences and travel style.