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What Is The Best Alternative Trek To Machu Picchu

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Published: 24th July 2017

The official Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is an incredible trek in the Andes: it passes a number of other Inca ruins along the way that cannot be visited on any other route (e.g. Winay Wayna), it is the only "official" Inca Trail trek, and it is the only trek that arrives at Machu Picchu on foot via the famous Sun Gate (it is possible to walk to Machu Picchu via different routes but often this is just a misleading walk to the entrance, not through the iconic Sun Gate). However there are a few negatives to the Inca Trail, in particular that access permits are limited to 500 people per day so the trek usually sells out around 6 months or more in advance, and it can also be quite busy (500 people per day start the Inca Trail) so isn't suited for everyone.

The Cusco region of Peru is blessed with magical valleys, mountainous snowy peaks and some of the most stunning scenery in the Andes and is home to many other options that serve as great alternative treks to Machu Picchu or to the Inca Trail. If you were wanting to trek the Inca Trail and there are no permits remaining for your preferred dates of travel or if you are looking for something a little different or more off the beaten track away from the crowds then the good news is that the Cusco region of Peru is full of many other options for you, so read our guide to find out what is the best alternative trek to Machu Picchu...

1 | Lares Trek

Lares TrekThe Lares Trek is probably the most popular alternative trek to Machu Picchu as it is the same length as the standard Inca Trail (4 days), starts / ends in Cusco, and includes a visit to Machu Picchu on the final day - so if Inca Trail permits have run out for your dates of travel this is a popular choice.

Lares Trek Information: The Lares Trek consists of a 4 day itinerary which is made up of 3 days of trekking followed by a visit to Machu Picchu on day 4. Trekking groups are collected in Cusco and there is a short road journey to the small town of Calca where the trek starts. From Calca the 3 day trekking route passes through a number of beautiful scenic valleys in the Lares Valley region, and the landscape is dotted with Andean lakes and stunning views of the snow-capped Andes mountains nearby. The trek route finishes at the town of Ollantaytambo at the end of the Sacred Valley (famous for the Inca fortress that overlooks the town) and travel from there to Machu Picchu is by train with a tour of Machu Picchu and return to Cusco by train.

Accommodation consists of 2 nights of camping on the evenings of day 1 and day 2 while the evening of day 3 is spent in a basic trekking hotel or hostel in the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo (also called Aguas Calientes) in the valley below Machu Picchu for easy access to the iconic ruin the following morning. The trek is considered easy to moderate. The highest altitude reached is around 4200 metres (similar to the Inca Trail).

Advantages of the Lares Trek: The trek is quieter than the Inca Trail so is a good option for anyone looking to avoid the crowds. As the trek is 4 days (the same length as the official Inca Trail) it serves as a good alternative to that trek and permits are also not required for the Lares Trek so you can reserve a spot with relatively short notice. While the Inca Trail passes through barren valleys the Lares Trek travels through valleys that are home to traditional farming and Andean villages and tiny communities, so is a great option to meet local people and see a traditional Andean way of life.

Disadvantages of the Lares Trek: The trek is frequently mis-advertised as a "trek to Machu Picchu" which is not strictly true as the trek ends at the Inca town of Ollantaytambo at the end of the Sacred Valley with onward travel to Machu Picchu by train. Compared to the Inca Trail the Lares Trek can be a slightly more expensive option as it requires an additional train ticket (from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu) and the cost of a hotel on the evening of day 3. Unlike the Salkantay and Choquequirao Treks the Lares Trek does not include any additional Inca sites other than Machu Picchu.

2 | Salkantay Trek

Salkantay TrekAlong with the Lares Trek the Salkantay Trek is one of the more famous alternative treks to Machu Picchu and travels through equally spectacular landscape near Machu Picchu.

Salkantay Trek Information: Whereas the majority of the alternative treks to Machu Picchu are 4 days in length (so the same length as the Inca Trail) the Salkantay Trek is actually 5 days in total consisting of 4 days of trekking with a visit to Machu Picchu on day 5. The trek passes through a variety of landscapes including tropical forest, cloud forest, high jungle and Andes landscapes so incorporates some epic scenery.

Trekking groups are collected from Cusco for a short road journey to the town of Mollepata where the trekking starts and from there it is 4 days of trekking through the Vilcabamba mountain range, passing the highest point at Apacheta Pass near the Salkantay Glacier, before eventually descending down to admire the Inca ruin of Llactapata before taking the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes) on the afternoon of day 4 for a visit to Machu Picchu the following day. The trek journeys through a wide variety of stunning scenery, includes the chance to swim in a beautiful waterfall, and there is also the chance to spot birdlife including condors, hummingbirds and the Peruvian "Cock of the Rock" bird (if you're lucky!).

Accommodation consists of 3 nights of camping while the final night is spent in a basic hotel in Machu Picchu Pueblo before the visit to Machu Picchu on the final day. The trek is longer than most of the other alternative options covering a total of around 38 miles and reaches an altitude of around 4600 metres so it is considered a more difficult trek.

Advantages of the Salkantay Trek: The Salkantay Trek includes the Llactapata Inca ruin (not to be confused with Patallacta!) which is not visited on other alternative treks (such as the Lares Trek) and part of the final day trekking on day 4 travels along the original Inca Trail route to Vilcabamba, part of the Chapaq Nan Andean Road System which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Disadvantages of the Salkantay Trek: The standard Salkantay Trek is a total of 5 days (including the visit to Machu Picchu) so is longer than most other alternative trek options which means it is usually a more expensive option, and it is also a more difficult trek at higher altitude (up to around 4600 metres) which is something to bear in mind. As with the Lares Trek this is not technically a "trek to Machu Picchu" as travel to Machu Picchu from the end of the trek is by train.

3 | Choquequirao Trek

ChoquequiraoChoquequirao is an Inca Ruin located around 4 hours drive from Cusco in the same region as Machu Picchu but hidden away in a secluded valley in the Vilcabamba Mountain Range. The ruin rivals Machu Picchu in scale and beauty although is visited by far fewer people per year (currently around 10,000 people per year visit Choquequirao compared with 3000 per day visiting Machu Picchu) so really is "off the beaten track" and can make for a magical experience. Unlike Machu Picchu access to the ruin of Choquequirao is currently only possible by trek which is why it is so rarely visited, although plans are in place to build a cable car for easier access so hurry and visit this epic site quick before the secret is out!

Choquequirao Trek Information: Generally this trek starts and ends in Cusco, although requires around a 4 hour road journey from Cusco to a small town called Cachora for the start of the trek. A number of trek options and routes exist from 4 days right through to much longer options of 10 days or more although the 4 day trek is the standard option and by far the most common.

The 4 day trek is through similar landscape to the Inca Trail and consists of luscious green valleys and cloud forest giving way to more barren tundra and beautiful rolling Andean landscape. Unlike the Inca Trail which treks in a linear direction reaching Machu Picchu on the final day, the Choquequirao trek is a circular trek which means Choquequirao is reached in the middle of the trek, so for the standard 4 day Choquequirao Trek the site is usually reached by the evening of day 2 with overnight camping nearby to allow an early morning visit on day 3. The trek always includes a visit and full tour of the ruin itself, and this can be a beautiful experience wandering this lost city in almost complete isolation, imagining how Hiram Bingham would have felt over 100 years ago when he first discovered Machu Picchu.

Due to the remoteness of the trek pack horses are usually provided rather than porters to assist with carrying tents and cooking equipment (although always check what is included before booking), accommodation is 3 nights of camping (expect rural camp locations) and toilet facilities are basic. The trek is of moderate difficulty.

Advantages of the Choquequirao Trek: The ruin of Choquequirao is one of the more special Inca ruins in the Cusco region so the main advantage of the Choquequirao Trek is a visit to this special and little-visited ruin.

From a trekking perspective the Choquequirao Trek is a perfect choice for anyone wanting to get away from the crowds of Machu Picchu and experience something off the beaten track and a little bit more isolated through similar landscape.

Disadvantages of the Choquequirao Trek: Unlike most of the other alternative treks to Machu Picchu listed here the 4 day Choquequirao Trek doesn't go to Machu Picchu. This isn't necessarily an issue, as visiting Machu Picchu is still possible the usual way by train from Cusco or the Sacred Valley, but this means the Choquequirao Trek can be a more expensive option comparatively as it requires the cost of the trek plus the cost of a visit to Machu Picchu, whereas the alternative treks to Machu Picchu (such as the Lares Trek and Salkantay Trek) include Machu Picchu within the price of the trek itself.

4 | Rainbow Mountain Trek

Rainbow MountainAs recently as 2014 the "Rainbow Mountain" (known locally in Cusco as Vinicunca or Cerro Colorada, and also called the "Mountain of 7 Colours") was rarely visited and little-known aside from a few adventurous travellers and the locals that live nearby, however over the past few years the incredible vibrancy of the colours of the mountain have spread across the internet on travel blogging websites, in travel magazines, in lists of "must visit" places in Peru, and in guide books, and suddenly the Rainbow Mountain has become a hot topic and a bucket list destination in Peru.

Rainbow Mountain Trek Information: In years gone by the Rainbow Mountain was only a small part of longer treks of 3 days or 5 days (or even longer) such as the Ausangate Trek and it was only possible to visit the mountain on one of these larger treks, however with the growing popularity in the destination new routes have been designed and it is now possible to visit on shorter 1 or 2 day options.

The trek itself starts in the Vilcanota Valley which requires a relatively long road journey to/from Cusco either side of the trek. The 1 day trek option departs Cusco very early in the morning and returns to Cusco late in the evening following the trek so it is a very long day which is why the 2 day option is a popular choice. The trek itself is a total of 7 hours of trekking (3.5 hours each way) through the incredible landscapes in this rural and isolated region of Peru, and despite being shorter than the other alternative treks it is considered moderate difficulty with altitudes in excess of 4000 metres. Longer treks are also possible combining the Ausangate Trek with visits to the Rainbow Mountain.

Rainbow Mountain Trek Advantages: The short 1 day trek provides a quick and cost-effective option for anyone wanting to experience a "trek" without committing for a number of days (and avoiding the requirement for camping).

Rainbow Mountain Trek Disadvantages: The Rainbow Mountain has rapidly become a very popular option and this means it can be busy with mini-buses operating from Cusco for the 1 day option - to really experience the isolation and beauty of this region of Peru the longer Ausangate Trek is the better option. Although there are thousands of photos on the internet showcasing the wonderful beauty and vibrancy of the Rainbow Mountain be aware that many of these photos have been edited to make the colours more exaggerated.

5 | The Ausangate Trek

Ausangate TrekIf you are looking for true isolation, unique and fantastic landscapes and a tougher "trekkers" trek then the Ausangate Trek is one of the best treks in Peru and might just be the best choice for you.

Ausangate Trek Information: The Ausangate Trek, also called Camino del Apu Ausangate, follows a trekking route through the stunning Cordillera Vilcanota which is one of the most beautiful areas in the Cusco region of Peru, home to semi-wild grazing llamas and alpacas, spectacular views of glaciers, and mountainous peaks over 6000 metres high. Unlike the majority of the other alternative treks which are all relatively close to Machu Picchu (north west of Cusco) the Ausangate Trek is south east of Cusco near Ausangate Mountain.

Advantages of the Ausangate Trek: Traditional Andean lodge accommodation is available on this trek (rather than camping) so this is a popular trek for anyone looking for a little bit of extra comfort at the high altitude. The landscape on the Ausangate Trek is beautiful and more barren and isolated than that found on some of the other alternative trek options.

Disadvantages of the Ausangate Trek: The trek reaches altitude in excess of 5000 metres so is possibly the most difficult alternative trek to Machu Picchu and certainly a minimum level of fitness and acclimatisation time will be required.

6 | Other Treks

Peru is the trekking capital of the Andes and there are a wide range of trekking options in the Cusco region, the Huaraz region and further afield. New treks are popping up all the time with trekking operators trying to create a point of difference and visit new and exciting destinations. In this blog article we have tried to list the more popular alternative treks to Machu Picchu to advise on the options available if there are no permits remaining for the Inca Trail for your dates of travel or if you fancy something a little more off the beaten track.

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If you are interested in further information on any of the treks listed here please get in touch or explore our Peru holidays which include trekking holidays to Machu Picchu, and our South America trekking holidays using the links below:

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