A big misconception about trekking in Peru’s is that there is only one ‘Inca Trail’. In fact, there are trails all over the country connecting the communities of today with the empires of the past. Indeed, the Inca were master road builders who blazed trails all throughout the Andes, building a highway, road and trail system in Peru of over 28,950 kms (18,000 miles). So, with so many options—where should one begin? Dust off those hiking boots and read up on four lesser-known—yet no less amazing—trekking options.
1. The Huayhuash Circuit
The snow-topped peaks and glacial lakes around Huayhuash. Photo courtesy Indrik M.
Situated north of Lima and serving as the capital of the Ancash Highlands, Huaraz is the gateway city to many of the area’s trekking options. Top billing is reserved for the Huayhuash (pronounced why-wash) Circuit—a seven-day challenge trek taking you to a maximum elevation of 5,000m (16,404 ft). Trekking here is becoming increasingly popular with travellers, due in part to the popularity of the Joe Simpson’s book and its subsequent film Touching the Void. Get ready to experience glacial lakes, snow-topped peaks, and rugged paths. What you won’t likely see too much of, however, of fellow travellers. This circuit truly is out-there—in all the best ways.
Comparable to the Himalayas and the Rockies in terms of snow-capped alpine beauty, Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash is a trekker’s dream come true. Located in one of the most remote sections of the Andes, the range asks a lot from those who trek it. Thinking of taking on the Huayhuash? Grab you daypack and learn more here.
2. Lares Trek
Trekkers make their way along the Lares route.
The three-day trek beginning outside of Cuzco is often suggested to travellers who weren’t able to secure a permit for the Inca Trail. Hit the ground in the illustrious town of Ollyantambo to make your way through the Lares valley on an undulating path that rises higher than the Inca Trail—its highest point reaching 4,750m 15,583 ft.
The scenery in the Lares Valley is no less gorgeous than its more famous counterpart—and one of its greatest advantages is that it brings trekkers closer to the indigenous Quechua people. Their villages are home to many weavers, offering travellers the perfect opportunity to learn more about this centuries-old tradition. Watch for condors and alpacas as you pass through Andean farmlands that allow for a unique glimpse into local life. You’ll notice there’s definitely a unique attitude at this altitude.
Avoid the crowds on and head off the beaten track on the Lares Trek—a great alternative to the Inca Trail. Offering opportunities for insight into rural Andean life as the trail passes through very remote mountain communities, this trek focuses on the Inca’s fascinating culture. Lace up your hiking boots here.
3. Salkantay Trek
Walk right up to the clouds on the Salkantay trek. Photo courtesy Monty V.
While the classic Inca Trail is notorious for its varied geography and flora and fauna, the Salkantay is even more magnificent; in fact, it’s one of the most spectacular peaks in the Peruvian Andes. Starting from the Sacred Valley and topping out at a trekking elevation of 3,900m (12,795 ft) this route takes you through the handsome passes of the Willkapampa mountain range. And with a lower overall elevation than the classic Inca Trail, this makes for a great route for those not used to walking in such thin air. Still requiring a hardy effort and by no means a walk in the park, this trek gives you the opportunity to drink in breathtaking views of Salkantay.
Trek in the shadows of the Willkapampa range, interact with its inhabitants and explore its forgotten ruins. The trek concludes at Santa Teresa – the backdoor of Machu Picchu – where you can opt for a train to Aguas Calientes for an early-morning visit to Machu Picchu. Learn more about the Salkantay here.
4. Choquequirao Trek
The Choquequirao complex at a distance. Photo courtesy Carlos D.
Here’s one for the history buff that yearns to learn more about lost Incan cities. The eight-day route takes you to the heart of the Choquequirao complex by way of the Willkapampa mountain range ending at the entry town to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. Pack your curiosity and travel back to an age when the Inca Empire flourished on this challenging yet rewarding pilgrimage to hillside ruins.
The ultimate trek for altitude junkies with a love of history, this challenging 12-day journey snakes its way between the most incredible Inca sites in Peru. Conquer a mind-blowing trek to the mountaintop fortress of Choquequirao – free of tourist throngs – before continuing onto Santa Teresa, the backdoor to Machu Picchu.
Follow the footpaths of the Inca to the roof of the Andes, passing ancient tambo ruins and breathing in pure mountain air by the lungful on any of these alternatives to the classic Inca Trail. Many travellers interested in trekking Peru have questions about the experience and the planning process. Check out a few of the most common ones here. And happy trekking!