Off the Beaten (Inca) Path

Choosing an alternative trek to Machu Picchu

By: Marissa Tinloy

This is the first Image
The author at the top of Salcantay Pass,
the highest point on her trek to Machu Picchu.
Offering an ideal combination of archaeology, adventure and, undeniably, awe, Machu Picchu rightly beckons to visitors from around the world, enticing with its intricate and mystical Incan architecture and largely mysterious history.

Buried in the Peruvian sub-tropic northwest of the picturesque city of Cusco, the splendor of the towering city built of massive quantities of granite and impressively intact was difficult to grasp even in person. Standing on Huayna Picchu, or “Young Peak” (a semi-challenging, but highly recommended, 45-minute climb to just above Machu Picchu), the expansive settlement looks like a postcard, with amphitheaters and homes majestic above the breathtaking plunge to the Urubamba River and valley below.

In fact, beyond the architectural and historical significance of the site itself, much of Machu Picchu’s appeal rests in its beautiful natural surroundings, best experienced on the pilgrimage to get here. The Inca Trail, the best known and most traveled of these routes, hosts thousands of hikers each year, making it an enjoyable but, unfortunately, more-crowded and less-idyllic trek than some might like. Additionally, in an effort to protect and repair the damages of overuse on the natural environment, restrictions imposed in 2006 limit the number of travelers permitted on the trail each day, making reservations on the Inca Trail costly and hard to come by. Trips require permits and months of advance notice, especially during peak season (March-October).

Nonetheless, the opportunity to make the journey by foot is one not to be missed which is why alternatives to the Inca Trail provide a valuable and under-utilized option for interested travelers. With an enormous variety of packages and trails, all eventually leading to the illustrious “Lost City of the Incas,” there is a trip for all actively inclined travelers, thrill-seekers and naturalists alike. Recommended by Prom-Peru, the country’s tourism commission, tour operator InkaNatura Travel offers five different trekking options to Machu Picchu, ranging from the Weaver’s Way and Inca Quarry Trail packages (four days, three nights) to the Choquequirau and Machu Picchu package (12 days, 11 nights).

Packages start at $825 depending on the number of travelers in your group and the selected trail adventure, and include an English-speaking guide, camping equipment, a chef to prepare all meals, porters to carry luggage, entrance fees and bus transportation, all of which greatly contributes to comfort and convenience. Being out on the trail all day certainly gave me a new appreciation for warm food and comfortable camping accommodations.

Another option, particularly for those with children or looking to explore other parts of the country, is the variety of trips led by Andean Trekkers. Alternatives to the traditional Inca Trail, such as the Moonstone to Sun Temple trek (four-five days) and the Salcantay Trek (six days), range from $550 to $920 and include porters, cooks, tents and guides. The Salcantay trail, a strenuous but completely worthwhile journey, never failed to challenge and awe me with its extreme climbs, alternating climates and spectacular views. Far from the crowds of the Inca Trail, it provides the ideal route for an exhausting, but wholly satisfying, adventure.

Andean Trekkers also leads multi-faceted tours, such as the Empire of the Incas package, which includes Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail and other wonders of Peru, such as Isla Taquile at Lake Titicaca (15 days; $1,732).

A third trekking option, Kontiki, provides more luxurious adventure trips for those seeking to see the sights with varying levels of strain. En route to Machu Picchu, the Mountain Lodges of Peru and Cusco package traverses the Salcantay pass while simultaneously providing the comforts of mountain lodges to hikers less interested in roughing it each night (10 days, starting at $3,525 including airfare from Lima to Cusco).

Other deluxe trips from Kontiki offer viable options for the less athletic or more pamper-inclined traveler. For example, the fully private Deluxe Orient Express package splits time between Cusco, Lima and Machu Picchu, using the Hiram Bingham historic train to arrive at the ruins in style (eight days, from $6,827 with airfare from Miami).

Whichever route takes you to Machu Picchu, the journey is well worth it. In fact, for me, it was the journey itself that made my time in Peru unforgettable. Arriving at the stone civilization, the sun breaking through the fog and Machu Picchu glimmering in the morning light below, I was stunned. This time it wasn’t the altitude that took my breath away.


Andean Trekkers