There used to be just “one” trek to do when in the Cusco region, the 4 day Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which ends at the famous Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu.
Due to a permit system that protects the stones of the ancient Inca Trail and ruins along the way, the trail is booked out months in advance and visitors who miss out on a ticket ask themselves, “which alternative trek is best for me?”
The Salkantay trek, which features fantastic alpine scenery but no local culture, is now the second most popular route in the region. Salkantay (also spelt Salcantay) is normally done in five days, but can be done in a 4 day ‘Express’ version if you are fit and hardy. The Salkantay route is showing the effects of the lack of regulation and is not recommended for those looking for a wilderness camping and hikig experience.
The Vilcabamba to Machu Picchu trek is a 5 day trek that begins at the “Last Bastion of the Incas”, in Vilcabamba. Though it’s a long drive to the trailhead (approx 12 hours) its well worth it for the stunning high mountain scenery, Inca ruins, and the chance to walk along Inca roads, plus an untouristed atmosphere. Despite its many attributes, very few trekkers know about this trek and those that do brave the long initial drive are well rewarded – and rarely see another tourist on the trail.
There are about 25 different routes through the Lares region, so when booking your Lares trek, you need to be clear with your travel agent about which trek – its difficulty, number of days, and scenery along the way. Lares can be structured for the complete trekking novice with just 1 or 2 nights of camping and short and relatively easy days. However, a Lares trek can also be designed for the experienced wilderness hiker and has dramatic, moon-like scenery. The region also offers exceptional interaction with the weaving communities that are amongst the most traditional people you can find in Peru today. They continue to live an isolated, remote and ‘authentic’ lifestyle and without doubt the Lares region is the best trek for those interested in culture.
The “ace” of trekking around Cusco – and also the toughest – is the combined Choquequirao to Machu Picchu route, done in 7,8 or 9 days, linking the spectacularly situated Choquequirao ruins to the much more famous city of Machu Picchu. The hiker passes through a breathtaking, snow capped mountain range, and remote villages before hiking into Machu Picchu. If people have one complaint about this trek, it´s when they join with the Salkantay route it pales in comparison with the rest of the hike.
For this reason, you can also do the 8 day Choquequirao to Vilcabamba hike that is stunning, untouristed and truly adventurous. If you link your tour into a visit to Machu Picchu, your trek will feature three great ruins, and gives you a strong feeling of affinity for the Incas.
Alternative treks, as they are unregulated, allow for a great variety of quality in the service offered. When booking your trip, demand that your trekking agency pays your staff properly, supplies them with adequate food and shelter and follows sustainable environmental practices. In order for a well organised trek, try to book several months in advance which enables staff to be scheduled correctly!