When people think of Peru the first thing that comes to people’s minds is Machu Picchu; some might know about the Inca Trail but beyond this Peru’s hiking routes are almost completely unknown. Just in the Cusco area alone there are a wide variety of routes that can easily be hiked without much pre-planning or preparation. To give you a taster here are some of the more common routes that are hiked by tourists.
The Inca Trail
This is Peru’s most famous hike and combines a wide mix of stunning scenery, visits to Inca archeological sites and the opportunity to see a variety of flora and fauna including many species of orchids that flourish in the Machu Picchu National Park.
Starting out from the Sacred Valley of the Incas and finishing at the Inca sanctuary of Machu Picchu this hike covers 41.5km / 26 miles of intact Inca Trail over a period of 4 days; the route passes by high mountains and through the enigmatic cloud forest that surrounds Machu Picchu eventually bringing you directly in to the city itself via the Sun Gate (Inti Punku). There is a limit of about 180 people (500 people in total including support staff) who are allowed to hike each day so Inca Trail permits need to be booked several months in advance to guarantee a place. Hikers need to book with either a licensed tour operator or guide to be permitted to enter the route.
The Salkantay Trek
If you missed out on booking a spot on the Inca Trail then the Salkantay Trek is the most recommended alternative route to bring you to Machu Picchu. Starting from the small village of Mollepata the path slowly works its way up to the base of Salkantay (The Savage) mountain before crossing the high pass (4621m / 15160ft) and heading down in to the lush valleys that surround Machu Picchu.
The route is considered to be one of the most spectacular on offer in the region passing beneath several peaks that tower over 5300m / 17388ft each. The highest peak is Salkantay itself which at 6271m / 20574ft is the highest peak in the region and the 38th highest peak in the Andes. In contrast to the high peaks, the route also passes through an area of verdant highland jungle in which a wide variety of birdlife can be spotted.
Covering a distance of 82.5km / 51 miles over a period of 4 days and with a 5th day to visit Machu Picchu this is quite a demanding route, especially considering it is undertaken at altitude. The path itself is very easy to follow and with obvious camping spots. Many people opt to hire local arrieros (mule drivers) in Mollepata to carry their gear as they not only ease the load but also serve as a guide to show you the way.
The Lares Trek
The Lares Trek is one of the most interesting of the routes on offer in the region as it allows you to immerse yourself in the culture of the Andes. There are a variety of routes that can be undertaken in the area, all of which pass through Andean villages where they maintain the customs and traditions of centuries past. The area around Lares is very attractive with highland meadows, glacial lakes and high peaks dotted throughout. Although it does not offer the dramatic scenery of Salkantay or the archeological interest of the Inca Trail, the fact that there are so many routes to be done and so few people who do them means that the chances of running in to other hikers are slim.
The difficulty of the routes and the length of time to do them vary, the shorter routes can be done in 2 to 3 days without difficulty with the longer ones taking between 5 to 6 days. All the routes have high passes to cross with the lowest pass being 4450m / 14599ft on the route between Lares and Patacancha.
The Choquequirao Trek
Few people have ever heard of Choquequirao which is a real shame. The sister city to Machu Picchu, this vast complex dwarfs Machu Picchu in size and scale and shows the ingenuity of the Inca people to construct their cities in seemingly impossible locations.
The reason the Choquequirao trek is undertaken by so few people is due to its remote location. Just to get to the trailhead requires a 4 hour drive from Cusco; it’s then a 2 day hike to get to the city and a 2 day hike the way you came to get back. The trail is hard (probably the hardest in the region) as you are walking in direct sunlight for long periods and with descents of well over 1000m / 3280ft as you make your way down to the base of the Apurimac Valley and the same again back up the far side to reach the city. The trail is well worth it though; the Apurimac Valley is stunningly beautiful and with a good chance that you will see Condors soaring on the thermals produced in the valley, the difficulties of the hike are quickly forgotten.
Most people choose to spend a full day at Choquequirao to explore the site to their heart’s desire and to enjoy just being in such a magical place without any disturbances or distractions. For the really adventurous there is the option to continue the hike on to Machu Picchu. Typically done over a period of 8 days the route eventually connects with the last section of the Salkantay Trek.
Many people choose to do the Choquequirao Trek by themselves; arrieros (mule drivers) can be hired at the village of Cachora where the trail begins and provisions can be bought at various points along the route from entrepreneurial locals.
All the above hikes (barring the Inca Trail) can be undertaken independently however if you prefer to go on an organized hike then you can find details of local trekking companies and guides at IncaTrailz.