Walking the Inca Trail – What Are Your Options?

By 12 August, 2011

The Inca Trail is one of the most popular tourist attractions for anyone visiting Peru. Here we take a look at some of the various routes that people can take to reach Machu Picchu, highlighting routes for all abilities and interest levels as well as for people looking to trek the more obscure paths.

Route options

The legendary “Inca Trail” trek has become a ‘must do’ for many travellers. However, the popularity of the trek has meant that the trail and the ruins along it have had to deal with an increasing number of visitors. To counter the detrimental effects of this influx, the Peruvian government has imposed a strict limit on the number of people able to start the trek at any one time. The result has been that lots of people have fallen foul of the regulations and been unable to tackle the trek.

The good news, though, is that there are a number of alternative treks in the Cusco region, many of them on original Inca trails to other, less well-known but similarly stunning sites such as Choquequirao and Vilcabamba, routes and ruins that may be more appealing in some respects as you don’t have to share them with 500 other people every day. There are also two much longer, more difficult expeditions that actually link several of the key Inca sites and provide you with a wonderful, broad experience of the region, its history and its archaeological remains. Most of these forest trails can be taken up by greenhorn travelers, but only a very few daring expeditioners take up the rest of the trails, and with the accoutrements recommended at www.shoehero.com.

The classic Inca Trail (3-4 days)

This is the trek that most people think of when picturing Peru: it has become synonymous with the country. Beginning at Km88 on the railway line to Aguas Calientes, the trek follows an original Inca path uncovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham and developed in 1944 by Dr Paul Fejos, past the restored ruins at Patallacta, Runcu Racay, Sayacmarca, Phuyu Pata Marca, Intipata and Huinay Huayna to arrive eventually at Machu Picchu. The 43km (261/2 mile) trek takes 3-4 days and is reasonably gruelling; although some of the trek is through exquisite cloud forest and rich subtropical jungle, other stages are through exposed mountain scenery and the path also crosses two steep-sided passes at 4200m/13,750ft.

This trail is subject to the Inca Trail regulations and permits must be secured well in advance of departure. It is closed completely during February.

Variations on the classic Trail

There are two straightforward variations to the classic Inca Trail. The first begins at the village of Chilca, which stands at Km77 on the railway line before tracking alongside the Urubamba River to join the original trail from Km88. Dry and dusty, it isn’t all that interesting and not really worth the additional day’s hike unless you have a bike to ease the arduous climb uphill. Speaking of which, I wished that I could have someway bought my bike, as I had just put a great bike cover on it. The other option is to begin at Km82, which offers half a day’s more riverside stroll than the Km88 option, but is less monotonous than the Km77 stretch. You also get to visit the ruins at Huillca Raccay, which overlook Patallacta. Trekkers on both these routes are at the mercy of the Inca Trail regulations and must secure a permit well in advance.

Shorter Trails

For those pushed for time or not inclined to mount a four-day trek to Machu Picchu, there are several options that allow you to get a sense of the approach route to the ruins and then explore the site itself without having to resort to the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes.

Km104 and the Purification Trail (2 days)

There are two route options from Km104 on the railway, both of which take two days to complete, although only one of these is actually spent trekking. From the Inca ruins at Chachabamba you can either scale a steep hillside on a narrow, exposed path to reach Huinay Huayna and then join the classic Inca Trail for the final approach to Machu Picchu, or you can head down the river to Choquesuysuy before tackling an arduous three-hour climb to Huinay Huayna along a route nicknamed the ‘Purification Trail’.

People using either of these routes used to be able to stay at the Trekker’s hostel at Huinay Huayna, but this is now no longer the case. Consequently you must descend through Machu Picchu to stay in Aguas Calientes before returning to explore the site the following morning. Both options are subject to the Inca Trail regulations and trek permits must be reserved well in advance. The route is open during February though, when the main, classic approach to Machu Picchu is shut.

Km88 Riverside Trail (2-3 days)

From Km88 on the railway line it is possible to follow the Río Urubamba all the way to Km104, from where you are able to ascend to Huinay Huayna via one of two routes. The scenic stroll avoids the tough climbs associated with the classic Inca Trail but it also avoids all of the ruins that you would otherwise encounter along the route, making it a far less attractive option. This trek is also subject to the Inca Trail regulations and should be arranged well in advance.

Other Treks to Machu Picchu

There are two other methods of trekking to Machu Picchu. One is an extended hike that begins with a genuine wilderness experience and a chance to explore the slopes of Mt Salkantay, the sacred mountain of the Incas, before joining the classic Inca Trail for its final three days; the other is an excellent, charming alternative to the classic trail that is currently unregulated and therefore is very popular with those who have fallen foul of the strict Inca Trail regulations.

The Salkantay Trek (6-7 days)

The name Salkantay derives from the Quecha word ‘Salka’, meaning wild, savage or invincible. It is an apt name for the mountain under which this trek, a dramatic extension of the classic Inca Trail, begins. Typically it takes 6-7 days and combines wonderfully a stretch of wilderness walking largely free from crowds and the rather more popular and crowded classic pilgrimage. Also known as the Mollepata Trek by some agencies, trek providers and writers, this trail ascends from the village of Mollepata into the mountains where it climbs over a 4950m/16,235ft knife-like pass on the eastern shoulder of Mt Salkantay. From here it descends into the valley of the Urubamba and joins the classic Inca Trail at Huayllabamba before continuing along the traditional route to reach Machu Picchu. Because it joins the Inca Trail, the Salkantay trek is also subject to the Inca Trail regulations and requires you to have a permit, secured well in advance.

The Santa Teresa Trek (3-4 days)

This route to Machu Picchu, via the ‘backdoor’, has become increasingly popular with those who have fallen foul of the Inca Trail regulations and failed to book far enough in advance to secure a trek permit for the classic Inca Trail. It is also usually quieter and less heavily used than the traditional route although as more and more people discover it so the amount of traffic on the trail increases. It’s also the only route where there is the option to stay in lodges rather than simply camp, assuming that you choose to trek with the agent that owns the properties.

The 3- to 4-day trek begins from Mollepata and climbs over a pass (4700m/15,420ft) on the western shoulder of Mt Salkantay before descending into the very attractive, forested Santa Teresa Valley. From here it clambers over a ridge into the Aobamba Valley and then joins the Urubamba Valley, finishing at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain. Although there are hardly any Inca ruins along the trek, it is a very scenic walk through some of the region’s most picturesque landscapes. The sprawling, partially uncovered yet highly significant site at Llactapata and the fact that the trek finishes on the doorstep of one of the finest archaeological sites in the Americas are some compensation though. At present, and despite rumblings to the contrary, this route remains free from the Inca Trail regulations and you are able to trek it independently and arrange your own guide and porters. You do need to pay s/129 (approximately US$46) for an INC permit at Soraypampa if your agency has not incorporated the cost into the total fee; this is in addition to the entrance fee for Machu Picchu. Some agencies might try to avoid the checkpoint so as not to pay the fee but this is not to be condoned.

The Vilcabamba Trail (6- to 9-day trip with 4 days of walking)

This remote, rarely tackled trek follows the low-level route the Incas took as they fled from the conquistadors deep into the jungle, where they built the last capital of Vilcabamba. The trek itself takes roughly four days but because the path is rarely used it’s sometimes overgrown, often muddy in places and prone to damage by landslips so it’s worth factoring in additional time. You will also need to take into account the time it takes to get to the out-of-the-way trailheads at Huancacalle and Chaunquiri too, and might want to include additional days in Quillabamba or Huancacalle. To be safe, set aside six to nine days for the entire expedition.

The ruins at Espíritu Pampa, thought to be the site of Vilcabamba, are less immediately spectacular than those at Machu Picchu or Choquequirao, because they lie buried in the thick jungle and haven’t been particularly cleared or restored. Instead they have a different type of appeal, and much of the magic and reward for walking this route comes from the jungle that you pass through and the varied flora you are able to see. Since the route isn’t currently subject to any regulations you may trek it independently or arrange your own guides and arrieros to help shoulder the burden.

The Choquequirao Trek (4-5 days)

This trek travels from Cachora to the ruins at Choquequirao, the first major Inca site uncovered outside Cusco and yet one that is still to be fully explored. Having reached the ruins at the end of the second day you then retrace your steps and walk out along the same trail. With a day at the ruins to explore this extensive site you should reasonably expect the trek to take 4-5 days.

The trek is physically quite demanding as it requires you to descend 1500m/4920ft into the sheer Apurimac Valley in order to cross the Apurimac River, only to then have to climb 1800m/5900ft up the similarly steep opposite cliff to access the ruins perched on a ridge far above. It’s hot and dry, and there are few points at which to collect water along the route so you must be prepared to carry additional supplies for much of the trek. However, the vertiginous valley is spectacular and the ruins themselves, which resemble Machu Picchu in many respects, are fascinating, meaning that the trek is set to replace the classic trail as the serious hikers’ alternative. It isn’t currently covered by any regulations, although this may well change as its popularity grows.

Combining Routes

Many of these routes can be combined, tackled in stages or done in the opposite direction. The exception is the classic Inca Trail which must be tackled in the direction described in this guide. There are also numerous alternatives in the mountains and valleys around Cusco. Two of the finest combination routes are the longer, more adventurous paths that connect Huancacalle to Choquequirao, and Choquequirao to Machu Picchu. Neither of these routes is regulated at present and both can be trekked independently with a team you have sourced and hired yourself.

Choquequirao to Machu Picchu Trek (8-9 days)

This is potentially the finest outing described here. The 8- to 9-day trek links two of the most spectacular Inca ruins by way of a stretch of stunning countryside. From Cachora the path follows the Choquequirao route to the ruins perched precariously high above the Apurímac valley. Descending past the ruins at Pinchu Unuyoc the trail tumbles down one hillside only to have to clamber steeply up another, before crossing the Abra San Juan and going down to Yanama. From here it cuts away east and climbs through a section of pretty puna to cross another pass in the lee of a number of giant glaciated peaks before dropping into the jungle to join the Santa Teresa Trek at Ccolpapampa and approaching Machu Picchu via the ‘back door’.

Not for the faint hearted, the route represents quite an undertaking but it does provide you with two exceptional archaeological sites and leads you though a wide range of Peru’s vegetation zones so that you’ll experience a huge amount of native flora.

Huancacalle to Cachora Trek (8-9 days)

This epic trek, which takes 8-9 days and can be done in either direction, sets off from Huancacalle, via the archeological sites at Vitcos and Ñusta España to cross the high pass at Choquetecarpo and descend into the valley beyond, where it passes through the remote, traditional hamlet of Yanama. Beyond here it climbs and descends steeply to cross the Abra San Juan and breach the valley of the Río Blanco before arriving at the partially reconstructed ruins at Pinchu Unuyoc.

A further steep ascent leads to Choquequirao, perched high above the plunging Apurímac valley. After a day exploring the site join the Choquequirao Trek trail as it plunges into and then rears out of the deep canyon to arrive eventually at Cachora. Tough and occasionally tricky to follow, this route is a real challenge. The rewards, though, are spectacular and you will spend much of the walk free from crowds.

If tackled in reverse, finishing at Huancacalle, there is the opportunity to then push on to Espíritu Pampa following the route outlined in the Vilcabamba Trail description to complete a spectacular traverse that would probably take more than two weeks to complete.

This is an excerpt from The Inca Trail, Cusco & Machu Picchu 4th edition by Alexander Stewart, published by Trailblazer, 2011. Price £12.99. Available from www.trailblazer-guides.com where postage is free worldwide.

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