If you are planning a trip to Peru, there’s no doubt that a visit to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu is already on your travel itinerary. Whether you plan to get to Machu Picchu on foot via the famous Inca Trail or take the train to the ruins, it’s a site definitely worth a visit.
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While everyone has heard of the famous Inca Trail, many don’t realize that there are also a number of alternative hikes in Cusco that are just as beautiful (if not more), just as historically significant and rich with archaeological sites, and just as worth the journey as a trip to Machu Picchu itself.
With the help of fellow travel bloggers who have experienced this region first-hand, we’ve put together a list of alternative treks in Cusco to assist you in your travel planning to one of the most famous destinations in South America.
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1. Salkantay Trek – 5 Days
Contributed by Eli from The Partying Traveler
The Salkantay Trek is a hiker’s dream, taking you across snow-capped mountains, vast valleys, misty forests and more. The epic journey culminates with a stunning sunrise at one of the world’s most amazing places, Machu Picchu.
Salkantay is regarded as a Holy Mountain and is part of the Apu Sacred Mountain group, which also includes Ausangate, Huayna Picchu, and the Machu Picchu mountain. It is believed that the spirits of these mountains are protectors of Andean peoples, and throughout Inca history, people have made offerings to the Apus.
The trek lasts five days, starting in the isolated mountains of Peru and ending at Machu Picchu. While the trek is undeniably difficult, the trek goes by pretty quickly, thanks to the stunning sights and natural scenery that surrounds you the entire time.
Each (literally) breathtaking sight will keep your tired legs motivated as you trudge closer to the ultimate goal. Despite Machu Picchu being the destination, the Salkantay Trek is also all about the journey. It takes you across a variety of terrains, from lush valleys to treacherous mountainous landscapes.
The second day is undoubtedly the most difficult, seeing you trek for up to ten hours. The altitude peaks at about 14,000 feet at the Salkantay Pass, and thankfully, it’s almost all downhill from there. That doesn’t mean it gets any less stunning.
Reaching the top of Machu Picchu was a surreal feeling after everything we had gone through as a group. The journey to these iconic Incan ruins was unforgettable, but we also faced our challenges on this high-altitude hike. Through altitude sickness, actual sickness, slight injuries, freezing nights and early mornings, our group formed a strong bond during the trip.
Having fellow trekkers to encourage each other and support one another throughout the difficulties and then celebrate our successes was one of the best parts of the experience.
It is hard to beat the incredible views and scenery of the Salkantay Trek, but if anything could beat it, it was the camaraderie and friendships that were formed during those five days. The Salkantay Trek deserves to be on any trekker’s bucket list!
For more information about the Salkantay Trek, read about Eli’s experience on The Partying Traveler.
2. Lares Trek – 4 Days
Contributed by Gemma from Two Scots Abroad
The Lares Trek is a 3-night hike to Machu Picchu. It begins with a very early bus ride from Cusco where trekkers can catch some sleep while the sun comes up. They are then treated to a breakfast of kings before prepping the muscles in the hot springs of Lares.
The next three days of hiking take you through and past villages with rosy-cheeked Quechua kids, local houses and complacent llamas. The scenery is green, which explains the constant drizzle and misty climate. There are areas of wide open space, then hills.
The first stretches of the route are pretty easy with a steady incline, but that all changes as you reach Condor Pass, which is the highest point of the Lares, reaching 4650m (15255ft) above sea level is tricky. It even snowed at the very top. The descent is just glorious. However, those who have not acclimatized will feel the impact. Although the first two nights involve camping, the final rest is in a hotel at Machu Picchu Pueblo.
For more information about the Lares Trek, read about Gemma & Craig’s experience on Two Scots Abroad
3. Jungle Trek – 4 Days
Contributed by John from Roaming Around the World
The Inca Jungle Trek is arguably the most adventurous way to reach Machu Picchu. It’s much more than just a hike to the ancient ruins, as this route incorporates an array of different adventure activities throughout the trek.
The hike begins with a harrowing downhill mountain bike ride, descending 2,000 metres in altitude down a rough and twisting road. It’s an incredible thrill! You start in a cold and barren alpine environment and end up in the lush and warm jungle.
If that somehow doesn’t get your adrenaline going, the Jungle Trek continues in a raft through whitewater! Hang on tight as you go over the class 3 rapids of the Urubamba River. And that’s all just on the first day.
The second day is more about actually trekking. The 21-kilometre hike hugs the edge of a steep and beautiful jungle valley, crosses a number of rickety suspension bridges and traverses a few shallow creeks. The day’s trek culminates with a final river crossing in which you’re loaded into a hand-pulled cable car that flies high above the valley!
That cable car acts as a tease to the adventure of the third day. That begins with a series of zip lines through the jungle, crisscrossing the river valley below. A final trek then ensues along the side of the scenic railway that leads to Machu Picchu.
The fourth and final day of the Jungle Trek begins in the early pre-dawn hours for a steep ascent toward Machu Picchu in the dark. Seeing those famed Inca ruins after such a multifaceted trek to get there is a thoroughly rewarding experience. But it’s all the adventures encountered during the four days reaching the ruins that really make this entire experience so much fun!
For more information about the Jungle Trek, read about John’s experience on Roaming Around the World
4. Ausangate Trek – 5 Days
Contributed by Campbell & Alya from Stingy Nomads
The Ausangate Trek in the Cusco region is still one of our favourites – even though we did many amazing hikes after that. The hike is quite demanding; the whole trail is above 4000m, so much altitude requires good acclimatization and a decent level of fitness.
Unlike some of the famous treks near Cusco, Ausangate is still unspoiled, and we’d say, underestimated. Many people know about Rainbow Mountain nowadays; you can even do a day trip from Cusco just to see it. But the Ausangate Trek is much more than that.
During the 4-5 days, you’ll walk through scenery that is absolutely stunning, see lakes of all possible colours, from turquoise blue to pink, and gasp at mountains with snow peaks. You’ll also see emerald meadows, hundreds of alpacas walking around and almost no people, one or two local shepherds (and rarely any tourists!).
The Ausangate Trek wasn’t on our bucket list; in fact, we didn’t even know about it! One day – by chance – we saw the name on a billboard of one of the tour agencies. After some research on the Internet (to be honest, there wasn’t much info, mostly photos), we decided to do the hike.
We spent about three weeks in Cusco and did two other hikes before Ausangate, which means we were very well acclimatised and had no problem with altitude. We hiked it in November, which is the beginning of the rainy season in the region, but we were very lucky with the weather. We had snow/rainfall only once and could really enjoy the hike and the scenery.
The route isn’t very well marked, and sometimes it is quite difficult to find the trail. But in the end, we were never lost and were always on the right track, though sometimes it felt wrong. Ausangate was a real discovery for us and a good lesson that even in a very touristy place like Cusco, you still can go off the beaten path and have an amazing experience.
5. Cachicata Trek – 4 Days
As one of the newest trekking routes offered in the Cusco region and based in the area around Ollantaytambo, the 4-day Cachicata Trek is a hidden gem for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. The area is not as known to the public, so it’s a great option for anyone looking for an escape and to really become one with nature.
The total walking distance for the trek is 25 km, making it easier in comparison to the other alternative treks in Cusco. During the trek, you’ll pass by stunning waterfalls, descend down into the Sacred Valley, and end the trek at the final destination of Machu Picchu.
6. Vilcabamba Trek – 5 Days
The Vilcabamba Trek is the perfect combination of a trail with wondrous sights and beautiful lush scenery that’s not heavily swarmed by tourists.
The 5-day hike takes you into the area of Cusco that has some of the last remains of the great Inca empire. The route includes a look into Vitcos, the place of the last Inca ruler, and to the beautifully stoned-carved Ñusta Hispana, also known as the ‘White Rock.’
Be advised that there are no facilities along the trail, which some may argue that it makes the experience more authentic – as this is how the Incas used to live.
7. Choquequirao Trek – 5 Days
Choquequirao trek is a fantastic alternative to hiking the Inca Trail. The 5-day return trek takes you to the ruins of Choquequirao, a lesser-known, but equally impressive set of ancient Inca ruins hidden deep in the Apurimac Valley.
The Choquequirao Ruins are often named the little sister of Machu Picchu, but the truth is, Choquequirao is actually much bigger than Machu Picchu. Over 70% of Choquequirao has not yet been excavated.
Choquequirao lies at an elevation of 3,050 m above sea level. The trail to and from Choquequirao spans over 60 kms and requires you to be fit enough to manage 6-8 hours of hiking per day with daily altitude changes of up to 1,000-1,500 m.
Due to the technical difficulty of the trek and the lack of infrastructure along the way, few people trek this route independently. From our experience, having a support team of guides and porters was essential for making this experience as enjoyable as it was.
The scenery of the Apurimac Valley is fantastic, making the hike that much more enjoyable. But nothing beats the excitement of reaching the Choquequirao ruins and having the opportunity to explore this ancient city without the crowds.
Read more about our experience on the Choquequirao trek in our post An Alternative to Machu Picchu: Trekking to Choquequirao, the Last City of the Incas
If a 5-day trek to Choquequirao is not enough hiking for you, consider the longer version….
8. Choquequirao To Machu Picchu Trek – 9 Days
Prepare for some seriously high altitudes and get your adrenaline pumping with this 9-day 100km expedition to the fascinating ruins of Machu Picchu. The route begins in a village called Cachora, 4 hours outside of Cusco, makes its way through Choquequirao and continues on until it reaches the last section of the Salkantay Trek.
The longest walking days are Day 1 and 6, where hiking routes will lead you to wondrous sights like the snow-capped Vilcanota mountains and the rocky depths of the Apurimac Canyon. You’ll also have a chance to visit the Inca silver mines and remote Inca communities along the way.
Although this is the most challenging of all the alternative treks in Cusco– even for the most seasoned hiker – it’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will have you checking off another item on your bucket list.
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If you don’t have enough time for a trek that lasts several days but still want to see the amazing sites in the Cusco region, don’t worry – we have you covered. Here are some amazing day hikes that bring you to stunning natural beauty and fascinating archaeological sites.
9. Humantay Lake Hike
The hike to this sparkling blue mountain lake is a bit strenuous but short enough for it to be a popular destination for a day trip. The trail is about 3.5 km each way, with an elevation gain of about 500 metres. Everything is clearly marked, and the scenery along the way is simply breathtaking.
If you would rather not deal with logistics, this guided tour will pick you up from your Cusco hotel early in the morning, treat you to breakfast in Mollepata village, and then lead you up to this picturesque Humantay Lake. This tour has a very early start, but this is the best way to enjoy the day hike – with very few people to disturb the peace of the gorgeous site.
10. Rainbow Mountain Hike
Humantay Lake’s elevation can make for a strenuous hike, so for an easier but equally beautiful alternative, Rainbow Mountain is a great option. This 7 km out-and-back trail takes about three hours to hike, and the sandy path brings you to a viewpoint over the stunning, colourful slopes of Rainbow Mountain.
Like the Humantay Lake Hike, no permit or guide is needed for this day hike. If you prefer to sit back and enjoy the scenic ride, this guided tour includes transportation plus breakfast and lunch in Cusipata village. While a self-guided tour would be cheaper, group tours like this are a great way to cut down on our carbon footprint and help support the local communities.
11. Sun Gate Hike
While technically part of the Inca Trail, the Sun Gate Hike is a much shorter trek that brings you to an incredible viewpoint of the Machu Picchu ruins. Also known as Inti Punku, the Sun Gate is located on the side of Machu Picchu Mountain.
The path is well-marked and direct, with a gradual incline that gets more challenging towards the last leg. You can reach the Sun Gate from the upper trail around Machu Picchu, following the signs to Inti Punku.
12. Maras Salt Mines Hike
If the Machu Picchu crowds aren’t your cup of tea, the Maras Salt Mines is a beautiful hidden gem near Cusco. This site holds around 4,500 salt ponds, all managed by locals from the nearby village of Maras. It is believed that these salt mines pre-date the Incas.
You can drive or take a bus to Maras town, then hike about 6 km north to the salt mines, or join a guided tour that brings you to the mines and other attractions in the area. This guided tour will pick you up from Cusco, and then bring you to the Maras Salt Mines and the Moray archaeological site.
13. Pisac Ruins Hike
Nestled in the eastern end of the Sacred Valley and about an hour’s drive from Cusco are the Pisac Ruins, once a strategic defensive site that protected the valley below. You can drive or take a taxi to the ruins, but it’s much more fun to hike there from Pisac Village. There are some steep steps and hills along the way, but you’ll reach the Pisac archaeological park within an hour or so. In the event of rain or if you just don’t want to hike back down, there are taxis available to bring you back to the village.
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14. Huchuy Qosqo Hike
If you’re up for a full-day hike where you’re likely to come across very few people, the trek to Huchuy Qosqo is perfect for you. This Incan archaeological site is often overlooked for its more famous counterparts, but it’s well worth a visit. Translating to “Little Cusco,” Huchuy Qosqo was the royal estate of the Inca Emperor Viracocha. Once you get there, you’ll see why – the views from the ancient estate are stunning.
There are a couple of different hiking routes leading to Huchuy Qosqo, but the simplest one starts at the trailhead “Qenqo” and is about 16 km out and back. Be prepared for a full day, as this hike takes most people around 7 to 8 hours.
With adventurous treks comes great risk. So, no matter which one of these treks you plan on undertaking, it’s important to remember to purchase travel insurance in case of any type of emergency that might happen on the trail. Since many of these treks go above 3,000m in elevation, travel insurance providers may charge a premium for this type of activity.