Up to 500 people hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu every day, booking months in advance. Sarah Gilbert finds the Inca roads less travelled
Seen as a quieter alternative to the Inca Trail, the challenging five-day Salkantay Trek is stunning in its own right. Whether camping or staying at lodges, hikers follow an ancient footpath that meanders through varied microclimates, starting in the beautiful Mollepata Valley and reaching its highest point with dazzling views over glacier-capped Salkantay, a mountain sacred to the Incas. The trail descends into cloud forest, with a glimpse of Machu Picchu from Llactapata Pass, and ends at Machupicchu Pueblo.
Choquequirao (‘cradle of gold’ in the Quechua language) is the stuff of ‘lost city’ fantasies. An imposing Inca sanctuary, the terraces and stairways of Machu Picchu’s partially excavated little sister are cut into a ridge high above the Apurímac River, 100 miles west of Cusco. Still surrounded by jungle vegetation, it normally takes four days there and back, with three nights of wild camping under a multitude of stars. It’s physically demanding with many ups and downs but you’ll have it — almost — to yourself.
Along the Lares Valley, village life continues as it has for centuries, with descendants of the Incas still working the land, weaving traditional clothes and living in thatched-roof adobe homes. The draw of this permit-free trail — along with the spectacular mountain scenery — are the virtually tourist-free archaeological sites and the living culture you encounter along the way. And now you can do it in luxury with Mountain Lodges of Peru, which has set up stylish lodges in partnership with remote rural communities.
Peru’s highest altitude trek traverses some of the wildest and most impressive scenery in the country, where you’re more likely to bump into llamas than other travellers. It crosses the Cordillera Vilcanota, 62 miles south east of Cusco, taking you over breathtaking passes —over 16 above sea level — and down into secluded valleys, passing multicoloured mountains, sparkling glaciers and turquoise lagoons. There are four- to seven-day options and hikers can camp or spend nights in rustic community-run lodges, dining by candlelight.
Santa Cruz Trek
The Cordillera Blanca, 249 miles north of Lima, is the world’s highest tropical mountain range, home to Huascaran, Peru’s tallest peak. Its most popular route is the four-day, 31-mile Santa Cruz Trek, through Huascaran National Park — considered to offer some of the best alpine hiking in the world, with dramatic views from the trek’s pinnacle, the 15,617ft-high Punta Union pass. It’s important to acclimatise in Huarez first and, while you can do it independently, a wiser option is to trek with a reliable operator.