Those who are looking for an authentic Peruvian experience that is just as beautiful yet far less traveled than the Inca Trail may want to sign up for the Moonstone trail hike, named for the moonstone carvings found near the beginning of the trailhead.
The 4-day hike covers 25 miles, beginning in a quiet valley between Cusco and the Sacred Valley at 10,575 feet and ending at an elevation of 9,315 feet above sea level.
The Moonstone trail crosses two high passes with a maximum elevation of 15,170 feet and ends in the royal town of Ollantaytambo, located just over 30 km from Machu Picchu.
Those planning to visit Machu Picchu can take a short train from Ollantaytambo to the village of Aguas Calientes also known as “Machu Picchu Village”. From there it’s just a 25 minute (and very nerve-wracking) bus to Machu Picchu!
How to Get to the Moonstone Trail
Once you have decided to trek the Moonstone Trail, and you’ve signed up for your guided adventure, you’ll have to book your flights. The Moonstone Trail adventure begins outside the city of Cusco, once the empire of the Inca civilization. Depending on where you are traveling from, you will likely have a connecting flight in Lima, the capital of Peru.
Cusco is a short hour and a half flight from Lima, and ideally, you should arrive in Cusco a few days before you begin your trek to give your body plenty of time to acclimatize to the altitude (Cusco is located just over 11,000 feet above sea level).
The longer you spend in Cusco, the less likely you are to suffer from altitude sickness on the trail – this is also the perfect excuse to spend a few extra days in historical Cusco, exploring and taking in the sights.
When to Go to Trek the Moonstone Trail
The dry season (May through October) is the best time of year to trek the Moonstone Trail. During the rainy season (December through April) some trails and roads become impassable due to extreme rainfall.
May and October are the shoulder seasons, and the best time of year to trek the Moonstone Trail and visit Machu Picchu. I completed the Moonstone Trail in late May and it was the perfect time of year – dry weather, warm temperatures but the landscape was very beautiful and green from the recent rainy season.
Temperatures during this month are also ideal with daytime average highs around 21 degrees C and night-time average lows around 3 degrees C.
What to Pack for your Adventure in the Moonstone Trail
Like any multi-day trek, the correct gear is essential for an enjoyable and safe experience. If you are traveling during the dry season, temperatures will range between 2 degrees C to 22 degrees C, so layering is a must! On the Moonstone Trail, packhorses are used to carry your gear and camping supplies, rather than porters who carry your luggage on other trails.
It is important to pack light so bring items that are versatile. Please note that all hikers will be required to carry their day-pack consisting of their personal water supply for the day, snacks and any items you will need between camps. Please see my suggested packing list below:
- Thermal base-layer shirt
- Dry-fit t-shirts
- Long sleeve dry-fit shirt
- Warm moisture-wicking hoodie
- Pair of thermal base-layer pants
- Pair of long hiking pants (water resistant if possible)
- Puffy outer layer jacket (down-fill or synthetic down) to wear at night
- Waterproof/wind resistant shell jacket
- Wool hat
- Light gloves
- Waterproof hiking boots/shoes
- Running shoes to wear at camp
- Day pack
- Water bottle or hydration bladder (minimum 1 liter)
- Solar Battery Charger
- Winter weight sleeping bag (rated to 20 degrees F)
The Moonstone Trek : Detailed Itinerary
On this 4-day trek through the Andes, you will follow in the footsteps of the Incas. This is an isolated route… you could very easily hike the entire trail and not encounter any other travelers. In fact, one of my guides on the Moonstone Trail told our group that less than 200 hikers set out on this particular route each year – to put things in perspective, there are 500 hikers on the Inca Trail each day.
On this trek, you will pass through seldom-visited Andean villages, explore ancient Inca ruins and be surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. The Moonstone Trek also provides a unique and incredible camping experience. Away from other hiking groups and settlements, you and your fellow adventurers will have the opportunity to take in the spectacular night skies.
Day 1: Quillarumiyoq to Chillipawa
The first day begins in a dusty valley, where after a brisk start you will find yourself gaining elevation quickly. Here you will get your first glimpse of some incredible views. You’ll end Day 1 in the remote village of Chillipawa.
Day 2: Chillipawa to Chancachuco
Day 2 offers additional rest breaks as you prepare to cross the Accoccosa Pass. At 15,170 feet, this is the highest elevation you will experience on the Trek. Once you cross the Pass (about midday), you will descend into the spacious Chancachuco Valley, surrounded by the beautiful snowy peaks of both the Huayanay Range and the Urubamba Range. The rest of the afternoon is downhill or flat before arriving at your second camp.
Day 3: Chancachuco to Cachiccata
On your third morning, you will follow the stream into a narrow canyon. The scenery here is far different from anything you will have seen thus far.
The climate in the canyon is subtropical and you will pass through a small grove before exiting the canyon and heading north along a ridge above a deep and very steep valley. This section of the hike is not for the faint-hearted. It is important to have hiking shoes or boots with great traction for this section of the trek. You will then have a short but very steep climb up to the second and final high pass.
After a rest stop for water and snacks, you will continue along to Huayrapunku, the Gate of the Wind. This Inca shrine oriented to the spectacular Mt. Veronica offers some of the most beautiful views you will see on your trip. Continue along to your final campsite along the edge of the vast Cachiqata Quarry.
Day 4: Cachiccata to Ollantaytambo
On the fourth and last day on the Moonstone Trail, I’d recommend waking early to watch the sunrise over the Sacred Valley. After breakfast, you will descend along a broad Inca trail that passes through the lower quarry zone. Your hike continues as you cross a river and end in the ancient village of Ollantaytambo. You will have some time to explore this quaint town before catching a train to the Aguas Calientes, the town of Machu Picchu.
Why Choose the Moonstone Trail
For those who have dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu, the original Inca Trail may have been on your bucket list. In fact, when I learned that the adventure company I was planning to travel with only offered the Moonstone Trail option, I considered looking for a different company that would offer the prestigious Inca trail.
I am so grateful that I did not pursue another option and decided to sign up for Discover Outdoors’ Moonstone Trail adventure. I can honestly say that this off-the-grid experience is a once in a lifetime adventure.
If you are wondering if the Moonstone Trail is right for you, consider that this alternative trek will allow you to:
- Get away from the crowds! The highlight of the Moonstone Trail is just how isolated the entire trail is. For those looking to wander off the beaten path, connect with themselves and nature, this is the right adventure!
- Push your limits – with a maximum elevation of 15,170 feet above sea level, the Moonstone Trail is higher in elevation than the traditional Inca Trail. Those looking to challenge themselves physically, may enjoy this slightly more difficult trail.
- No permits required – while the Inca Trail has limited annual permits that sell out months in advance, the Moonstone Trail does not require permits. This gives you greater flexibility in terms of when to book your trip.
- Still experience the beauty of Machu Picchu – most travelers complete a trek with the goal of visiting Machu Picchu at the end. While the Inca Trail ends at Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate, the Moonstone Trail finishes in Ollantaytambo, a short train ride away from Aguas Calientes.
Aguas Calientes is well known among tourists and locals alike for its thermal baths located a short walk from the heart of town. While the hot springs are basic, they are affordable to visit and may just be the perfect way to soothe your sore muscles after four days on the trail. A stay in Aguas Calientes also allows you to eat a delicious local meal and get a restful sleep at a hotel or guesthouse before your early morning wake-up call to visit Machu Picchu!
The Moonstone Trail is ideal for adventurers who want to explore new trails, new cultures and who enjoy the challenge of hiking at altitude. This trip is recommended for participants with a moderate to high level of fitness.
Those new to hiking can maximize their enjoyment on the trail by having the proper gear and following an appropriate training plan prior to their time spent on the Moonstone Trail.