The epic hike to the sacred city of Machu Picchu is one of the most coveted adventures in Latin America. People plan their vacations—or even years of their lives—around taking this magnificent walk through the Andes. Thus, it should come as no surprise that it is also one of the most crowded hikes in the world.
The most famous route to the top, the famed four-day Inca Trail, has become so popular that the Peruvian government finally put limits on the number of visitors who can make the journey. Just 500 people—including guides and porters, so perhaps 250 tourists—can begin the trail each day. That may seem like a lot of hikers to share the trail with, but it’s only a fraction of folks who want to go, particularly during May, the trail’s high season. Thus, you’ll need to reserve your permit, either directly or through a reputable agency, months in advance.
Or, consider taking the “alternate route,” known as the Lares Trail.
The Inca Trail is but one relatively short segment in the Capaq Ñan, or Inca road system, a 40,000-kilometer (24,800-mile) network of trails, many paved with stones and staircases, that once connected the empire. Today, many of these ancient byways still exist, connecting villages, ruins and sacred sites that are otherwise inaccessible, and thus are still in use today. While most are just for local transportation, guides can arrange hikes on several, including the Lares Trail.
While the Lares Trail isn’t exactly the “alternate route to Machu Picchu” that some unscrupulous tour companies will try to sell you (it ends at the fantastic ruined city of Ollantaytambo, from which you’ll catch a transport to Aguas Caliente and the train to Machu Picchu), it is an uncrowded Andean alternative and well worth considering.
The Lares Trail generally takes four to five days, though add-ons can make it longer. It is a non-technical hike, graded by the Incas centuries ago. It begins in either the community of Cancha Cancha or Quiswarani (depending on the outfitter), then wends through the high Andes to fantastic views and a string of communities known for their outstanding textiles.
Highlights include hot springs little known to the outside world, glacial lagoons, cascading waterfalls, isolated cloud forests and the opportunity to enjoy the trail meeting few tourists other than those in your group. Most travelers love the fact that they get to meet people weaving, shearing llamas, and going about their daily business much as their ancestors have for untold centuries.
Like the Inca Trail, outfitters are equipped to keep you comfortable, with tents, hot meals, coca tea, English-speaking guides and the option of having your heavy equipment carried—but by pack animals rather than human porters. Unlike the Inca Trail, however, the cultural landscape isn’t entirely geared to tourism. Many of the weavers, llama herders and regular families are still getting used to the sight of travelers in high-tech hiking gear, wandering along the old roads they’ve used since childhood, which is part of the charm.
There are drawbacks. You won’t see the Inca Trail’s famed ruins—Wayllabamba, Sayacmarc, or Inti Punku (the iconic Sun Gate)—or hike into Machu Picchu for sunrise, always a popular option. But, to paraphrase Robert Frost, sometimes the road less traveled makes the real difference.
Packages generally include the final train ride up to Machu Picchu and a guided tour of the lost city, and finally transportation back to Cusco. Permits and advance reservations are not yet needed, so this is the best option for last-minute adventurers and anyone eager to get off the beaten trail.