Alternatives to the Inca Trail

The popularity of the Inca Trail and the scarcity of available spots have led to the opening of several alternative hikes of varying length and difficulty.

The four- to seven-day Salkantay trek (typically five days) is named for the 6,270-meter (20,500-foot) peak of the same name. It begins at Mollepata, four hours by road from Cusco, and is a strenuous hike that goes through a 4,800-meter (15,700-foot) pass. The seven-day version of the Salkantay excursion joins the Inca Trail at Huayllabamba, and for this one you need an Inca Trail permit.

The Ausangate trek takes its name from the Nevado Ausangate, 6,372 meters (20,900 feet) in elevation, and requires a day of travel each way from Cusco in addition to the standard five to six days on the trail. Nearly the entire excursion takes you on terrain more than 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) high.

Multiday hikes through the Lares Valley, north of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, offer a little bit of everything for anyone who enjoys the outdoors; a series of ancient trails once used by the Inca wind their way through native forests and past lakes fed by runoff from the snowcapped mountains nearby. Excursions also offer a cultural dimension, with stops at several traditional Quechua villages along the way. The Lares trek compares in difficulty to the Inca Trail.

The lesser-known but remarkably rewarding trek to Choquequirao (Cradle of Gold) takes in stunning Andean scenery as you make your way to ruins that have been heralded as Machu Picchu's "Sacred Sister." The site, another long-lost Inca city still under excavation and not yet engulfed by mass tourism, sits at 3,100 meters (10,180 feet). The four-day trek entails a series of steep ascents and descents. If you have more time, you can continue trekking on to Machu Picchu from here.

The Chinchero–Huayllabamba trek has two selling points: it can be accomplished in one day—about six hours—and is downhill much of the way, although portions get steep. The hike begins in Chinchero, north of Cusco, and follows an Inca trail that offers splendid views as you descend into the Sacred Valley toward the small village of Huayllabamba.

Although the Rainbow Mountains near Ausangate have been getting widely sold as a destination, it should be noted that doing this in a single day as it is often marketed is rather long, uncomfortable, and crowded. It's best to do this as a two-day trip from Cusco, including one night of camping.

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