If it turns out the big, bad Peruvian government has thwarted your travel plans this summer, don’t despair just yet. As this article points out, there are a few alternative routes to the famed Inca Trail including the Salkantay Trail, which also climaxes at Machu Picchu, along with the scenic Lares Valley and the spectacular Colca Canyon.
And if you’re still dead set on that Inca Trail trek? Give it another try in the off-season. You might even have that million-dollar view at the top all to yourself.
The Inca Trail has already reached its quota of walkers until September. Paul Torpey scours the Andes for alternative treks
It has long been a highlight when visiting Peru, but anyone planning on walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu this summer will need to revise plans if they haven’t already booked, as the trek is full up until September. Restrictions imposed by the Peruvian government on the number of people allowed to hike the trail haven’t diminished its popularity and this year’s peak season sold out with unprecedented speed.
A standard itinerary used to be to arrive in Cuzco, select a travel agency on the Plaza de Armas and, after acclimatising to the high altitude, set off a few days later for the fabled lost city of the Incas. However, in 2005, the government acted to limit those trekking the "classic" four-day route to 500 a day as the rapidly growing number of walkers threatened to overwhelm the route’s infrastructure and damage Inca ruins. In reality, only around 200 people can now set out every day on what was previously a virtual free-for-all because the necessary expedition support staff are included in the permitted total. These include guides, cooks and the legendary local porters, whose ability to trot around the trail carrying three times their own body weight with only sandals on their feet never ceases to amaze trekkers struggling to carry a water bottle while clad in state-of-the art hiking gear.
Fortunately, plenty of alternatives exist for stretching the legs around Cuzco and the Sacred Valley. The problem is, of course, that these routes now also run the risk of becoming oversubscribed with potentially serious repercussions for the surrounding environment and archaeological heritage.
With the front door now employing an admissions policy tighter than some nightclubs, attention has turned to Machu Picchu’s so-called back door, at the end of the Salkantay Trail. This four-night trek is named after the Cordillera Vilcabamba’s highest peak, which you hike around, and undulates between high mountains and sub-tropical valleys. As this hike also climaxes at Machu Picchu, it’s in the most immediate danger of becoming overcrowded and subject to Inca Trail-type regulation. For this reason, it’s important to book with a tour operator that minimises its environmental impact.
· Journey Latin America offers the Salkantay trek from £395pp camping, excluding flights, and recruits porters from communities involved along the route, providing a vital source of income. Their guides also follow a strict waste disposal and community sensitivity code of conduct.
If you’re prepared to forgo the sight of the sun rising over Machu Picchu at the end of four days’ hard slog (the traditional start to the fourth day of the Inca Trail), there are other treks in the area which will satisfy cravings for both scenery and contact with local communities. Choquequirao is sometimes referred to as Machu Picchu’s sister and is a similarly sized ruin, still in the process of being uncovered in its majestic mountaintop setting.
· KE Adventure Travel offers a 15-day itinerary for £1,145 per person excluding flights, with four nights’ in hotels and lodges and nine nights’ camping. The eight-day trek includes a descent into the imposing Apurimac canyon, followed by a steep 2,000m climb out again and five days hiking over high passes in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, taking in Choquequirao and several other recently excavated Inca sites such as Corihuayrachina.
The Lares Valley has scenery to rival the main Inca Trail meaning it is only going to increase in popularity as a tourist destination, again raising inevitable questions of sustainability. The local people live in thatched stone huts and herd llama.
· Tucan Travel has a five-night programme that includes two nights’ camping in the valley; the trek is of a similar difficulty to the classic Inca Trail with one particularly high pass. Journey Latin America can you take you through the Lares Valley for £243pp plus flights on its three-night Weavers Trail, named for the main occupation of the local people, finishing at the hilltop Inca citadel of Ollantaytambo. To limit impact on this pristine area, the company has limited the tour to three departures a year and arranges it on a bespoke basis, with other activities and destinations attachable.
Moving east away from Cuzco, a common next stop on the backpacker trail is the pretty city of Arequipa. Adventure opportunities abound, including climbing El Misti, the volcano that looms over the city and is the source for the white volcanic rock from which many of Arequipa’s colonial buildings are constructed. Many travellers will pass through Arequipa on their way to the spectacular Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and another excellent destination for hiking.
· Black Tomato includes this area on its nine-day Colca Canyon/Huarez experience. Prices start from £1,799pp, based on two sharing, including international flights, accommodation, and a nine-day private tour including most meals.
The staggering mountain scenery accessible from the small city of Huaraz (420km north of Lima) is at least the equal of anything in the Cuzco area and is less crowded. There are two main trekking routes; the Cordillera Blanca, site of Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak at over 6,700m and the more demanding Cordillera Huayhuash circuit, where the events in the book and film Touching the Void took place in 1985.
KE Adventure Travel will take you around the imposing Huayhuash circuit on an itinerary which includes 16 days’ intensive trekking and camping. This route takes in 12 high passes and, if you’re a glutton for punishment, an optional ascent of the 5,000m Cerro Jyamy. It’s packaged at £1,495pp, excluding flights.
Walks Worldwide concentrate on the Cordillera Blanca, with 16 days’ guided trekking through the mountain range which has the greatest number of peaks over 6,000m outside the Himalayas. This tour costs £930pp excluding flights but including hotel and camping accommodation, transfers, mule support, most meals, entrance fees and expert guiding. To get the best of both mountain ranges, join The Adventure Company’s 17-day Huayhuash and Cordillera Blanca tour, which costs £1,449 per person with flights and includes 11 days’ supported trekking.
Trekking and volunteering
Plenty of companies now also offer holidays to Peru that incorporate a volunteering or fundraising element. Handsup Holidays‘ 15-day Andes Explorer trip costs £1,450pp excluding flights, and takes you to the Huaraz region where you choose between renovating a school, cattle gathering, harvesting and teaching English for your three days’ voluntary work. Charity Challenge has a 10-day trek to Machu Picchu via the Lares Valley for £1,889 per person, which includes international flights, internal transfers to and from Cuzco, meals, accommodation and an English speaking expedition leader and full local support team. Finally, Journey Latin America’s Community Adventure Tour lets you experience Cusco, the Sacred Valley, the Lares Valley and the Colca Canyon, with homestay accommodation and opportunities to assist local communities with their work. This is a 15-night trip and costs from £1,198pp plus flights.