Alternative routes to Machu Picchu

choose your route to the ruins

Kathy Jarvis is the owner of our supplier, Andean Trails, and has recently updated Bradt's Peru Trekking guide. She describes and compares each of the most popular Inca Tarails - including the alternative routes to Machu Picchu: "Only 'the' Inca Trail is very well known, but the Inca stone paths actually stretch up into Ecuador, and right down south into Bolivia, so there is a vast network of trails. The only trek which is limited by permits is the four-day Inca Trail itself. Lares and Salkantay are the more commonly done alternative treks. They're different from the Inca Trail itself.
The Lares Trek passes through more rural communities; it's probably one of the most strongly "Inca" areas in terms of tradition and culture, so the people who live there are pretty pure Quechua, without as much outside influence. They still do lots of amazing weaving and follow a lot of Inca traditions - and you'll see that when you trek through the area on this alternative route to Machu Picchu.
The Salkantay Trek goes higher, so it's a bit more of a wild, mountain wilderness trek, and it also goes lower, though it takes you through the "ceja de selva" - meaning the "eyebrow of the jungle" - which is highland jungle. So it's really good for hummingbirds, maybe even bears. At the highest points you're virtually rubbing noses with the glaciers - so there's much more variety in terms of ecosystems than Lares, but its also longer.
There are variations on each of them, but they're all around a four or five day trek. Salkantay can end at Machu Picchu, while Lares ends nearby, so you can get the train at the end. They're on different mountains either side of the valley, but all roads lead to Machu Picchu."

Aguas Calientes

Now known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town's proximity to Peru's main draw has turned it into a fully-fledged tourist hub. Attractions include a botanical garden; Putucusi Peak - which has incredible views of Machu Picchu; and Quechua handcraft markets. Be sure to book your hotel in advance - with 1,500 visitors a day, this little pueblo fills up fast.


Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire, but for modern tourists, it may as well be the capital of Peru. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, sitting at a cool 3,400m, is the gateway to the Inca Trail, colourful Quechua culture and snow-sprinkled peaks. The colonial architecture of this cobblestoned city is beautifully preserved, and it's a great place to adjust to the altitude before setting off to explore the riches of the Andes.

Dead Woman's Pass

The ominously named Warmiwañusqa - known as "Dead Woman's Pass" - is the highest and most exhausting point along the Inca Trail. A strenuous 2.5-hour climb takes hikers up to the 4,200m pass, where guides normally allow for a break to recover before continuing with a steep descent into the Pacamayo Valley.

Huayna Picchu

The "young peak" overlooks the ruins of Machu Picchu, and is just as iconic as the Inca citadel itself - appearing in the backdrop of every proud photo of the site. Rising 360m above Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu also has Inca temples and terraces at its summit, which can be reached via a steep, slippery two-hour trail - but this is not for the faint-hearted.


Hikers opting for the five-day trek can visit the ruins of Llactapata on the first day and camp here overnight. Believed to be an Inca rest stop on the way to Machu Picchu, Llactapata was constructed by an Inca chieftain. As well as being a ceremonial site, its Sun Temple may also have served an astronomical role during the solstices and equinoxes.

Machu Picchu

Rediscovered a century ago, the "Lost City of the Incas" has not lost its ability to astonish, thanks to its phenomenal position atop a mountain peak, with panoramic Andean views. Stones cut so perfectly that they sit together without mortar demonstrate the Incas' phenomenal skills. The 500 year old ruins include the Temple of the Sun, steep terraces, around 150 homes and an astronomic stone clock.


The "Town Above the Clouds" gives visitors the strange sensation of floating in the sky when the clouds roll into the valley below this 3,670m-high, crumbling town. There is evidence here of the fascinating hydraulic system the Incas used to irrigate their terraces crops - incredibly, it still works. There are also ritual baths, bridges, plazas and protective walls, plus glorious views of snow-capped Salkantay.


Roughly translating as "basket house", this strange ruin, sitting at just under 4,000m, is believed to be an Inca tambo where messengers would rest and recharge while traveling along the Inca Trail. Its unusual circular shape means that its open passageways faced out in all directions of the Inca Empire, with views across the sweeping Andean ranges.


At 6,271m, Salkantay - meaning "savage" or "invincible" - is the Vilcabamba Range's highest point, and its sheer face rises up to a permanently snow-capped peak. Being located directly south of Machu Picchu, the Southern Cross appears above its summit when at its highest point in the sky, which the Incas attributed to Salkantay's sacred powers. The Salkantay Trek leads hikers around the mountain's base.


The "inaccessible town" sits high on a ridge with precipitous drops around three sides - hence the name. Saycamarca was built by the Incas' enemy, the Colla, but later adapted by the Inca. No-one is sure of its purpose, which adds to the sense of mystery of this strange, isolated site.

Wiñay Wayna

Translating as "eternal youth", Wiñay Wayna is an Inca site built into a steep slope, comprising houses connected by a sheer staircase, along with agricultural terraces for corn and wheat. The setting is suitably dramatic, as are the views of the Urubamba River, below. Wiñay Wayna is usually visited on the Inca Trail, and provides one of its most impressive detours.
Photo credits: [Trekking: Sarah Bareham] [Lares Trek: McKay Savage] [Hummingbird: Ivan Mlinaric] [Cuzco: Kenneth Moore] [Aguas Calientes: Kathy] [Dead Woman's Pass: Lisa Weichel] [Runkuracay: funkz] [Phuyupatamarca: Anthony Letmon] [Llactapata: Amelia Shepherd Photography] [Wiñay Wayna: Kevin Jones] [Salkantay: McKay Savage] [Huayna Picchu: McKay Savage]
Written by Vicki Brown
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