Although this sounds frustrating, the overall aim is a good one. Without the permit policy the Inca Trail would soon wear down and crumble under our very feet. In fact, the policy has proved so successful that there is talk of the government initiating the same scheme in Machu Picchu. For now though, the ancient citadel is open to anyone and everyone.
Due to the vast popularity of the Inca Trail, permits sell out months in advance and trekkers need to be extremely well prepared if they wish to trek the Inca Trail. Tourists cannot book the trail themselves and anyone wishing to trek the trail has to book through a recognized operator.
Because of this, many people forgo the opportunity to trek in to Machu Picchu, instead taking the train or bus. However, there is another way thanks to the Inca's love of road building! There are many alternative routes to Machu Picchu whereby people without permits can simply turn up and start trekking.
Most alternative routes to Machu Picchu have their own charm and unique sites that tourists on the Inca Trail don't get. In fact, we often hear trekkers say that they prefer one of the alternate routes, especially as they don't get anywhere near the same amount of crowds as the Inca Trail.
Below we have listed our 5 favourite alternative routes to Machu Picchu.
1. The Lares Route
If you want a crowd free authentic route that is relatively easy, the Lares trek is the one for you.
Beyond the crowded Sacred Valley sits the Lares Valley. Here life remains much as it has for hundreds of years and the occupants still wear traditional dresses, raise herds of llamas and weave cloth for locals and tourists. The locals you see on your trek may well be the only people you see on your journey, and the still and quiet feeling you get on this trek is a far cry from the busy Inca Trail. The trek begins in the town of Lares (which has some lovely hot springs) before a winding trail takes you below the towering Mount Veronica where you get some lovely close up views. The trek concludes at the ruins of Ollantaytambo where you take a short train journey to Machu Picchu. Please click here for more details on the Lares Trek.
Trip Length: 3 to 5 days, depending on route
Difficulty Level: Easy - Medium
2. The Salkantay Route
Whilst the Inca Trail is notorious for its changing scenery and topography, the Salkantay is even more impressive! Recently voted by the National Geographic as one of the top 20 treks on earth, the Salkantay trek is ideal for anyone looking to experience the awesome mountain scenery of Peru.
Mount Salkantay, standing at 20,500-feet, is one of the most important religious apus in Peru. It is a sacred peak that is still revered to this day. The trek is slightly more difficult than the Inca Trail and you'll no doubt be assisted by mules. The trek climbs through the stunning Mollepata Valley before traversing around Mount Salkantay at an altitude of 15,000 feet. From there you descend down into sub-tropical cloud forests before coming onto an ancient Inca highway that leads to the lovely ruins of Llactapata. Some of the most stunning views in the whole region can be seen from Llactapata, looking down across the valley where a side view of Machu Picchu can be seen! After visiting Llactapata you descend to a local train station where it's a short journey to the ruins themselves. Please click here for more details on the Salkantay Trek.
Trip Length: 5 to 8 days, depending on route
Difficulty Level: Medium - difficult
3. Choquequirao Trek
One of the more challenging treks to Machu Picchu. This trek is for anyone that likes the wilderness. Anyone who has trekked this route will tell you that you will most likely not see another person the entire week.
This mountainous trek requires good stamina as there are a number of long uphill sections. The trek begins by trekking through the mile-deep Apurimac river canyon for several days before arriving at the remote and very impressive ruins of Choquequirao (cradle of the gods). The Choquequirao ruins are one of the most important recent discoveries of Inca civilization. Sitting astride a high ridge set among snow-capped peaks, the Inca outpost of Choquequirao rivals Machu Picchu in size and splendour! Not only this, but the ruins have been likened to Machu Picchu because of the skillful stone work on display. The trail continues through the wilderness of the Cordillera Vilcabamba that still looks today like it did centuries ago. The trek takes you around several mountains and through a wide array of scenery, including cloud forests, grasslands, dry scrub and lush valleys. After visiting several smaller ruins you take a short train journey to Machu Picchu.
Trip Length: 7 to 13 days, depending on route
Difficulty Level: Medium-Difficult
4. Ausangate trek
One of the least known treks in Peru, the Ausangate trek takes its visitors through mountainous scenery that is simply stunning, including 3 high passes.
Lying roughly 150 km south of Cusco is the Vilconota mountain range. This is without doubt one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Peru, including several peaks over 6,000 meters. The trek is a wild wilderness circuit that winds its way through the mountain range, taking lush valleys, high-altitude lakes and one of the most colourful landscapes in the world! Condors are common here, as are traditional herdsman and hot springs. The trek is incredibly picturesque and most camp sites are beside beautifully clear lakes. Be prepared for some tough climbs though as the trail ascends over three passes above 5,000 meters. Although the trek is not near Machu Picchu, our itinerary gives you the option to visit the site afterwards. If you want a remote trek at high altitude with stunning scenery, this is the one for you!
Trip Length: ~10 days, depending on route
5. Inca Jungle Trek
By far the most adventurous route to Machu Picchu. The Jungle Trek takes in biking, zip-lining and white water rafting before reaching the ancient city. The perfect trek for adrenaline junkies!
The trek begins by driving to the top of Abra Malaga Pass (4,316m) where you get stunning views of the surrounding area. From here you begin an epic downhill mountain biking experience! You literally won't have to pedal as you fly down the mountain road all the way to the base of the pass. After your downhill session comes white water rafting on either grade III or IV rapids. You then begin your trek the next morning with a lovely jungle trek, taking in coffee, coca and various fruit tree plantations. There is also a nice little hot spring to have a dip in. Next on the itinerary is zip-lining. Totally optional but a favourite among most trekkers. From there you take a short train journey and bus up to Machu Picchu.
Trip Length: 3 - 4 days, depending on route
Difficulty: Easy - Medium