There is no more popular destination and bucket list experience right now than hiking to Machu Picchu. The challenge, the emotional and spiritual journey, and the incredible scenery make it a must for anyone who is healthy and fit to do the hike.
When I finalized my plans for Peru last summer, my heart was completely broken upon discovering that the Inca Trail was completely full. This is a “problem” that many people face if they are not willing to book travel plans a year in advance. Don’t worry though, there are THREE great trails that offer truly wonderful experiences! Although I have not done the Inca Trail, I was actually very happy that it was reserved, because I had the most incredible time doing the Salkantay Trail.
1. What kind of experience are you looking for? (From most to least popular)
A) Inca Trail: 43 km for 4 days, the highest point of elevation ~ 13,800 feet. This is a great option if you want:
See more of the Inca ruins
Do the “traditional trail”
Arrival on foot to Machu Picchu
B) Salkantay Trail: 49 km for 4 days (5 days is the standard hike, 59 m), the highest point of elevation ~ 15,300 feet. National Geographic named the Salkantay Trail one of the best hikes in the world for its beauty and the wide range of microclimates and ecosystems that you can experience during the hike. This is a great option if you want:
A wide range of REALLY epic views (Andes and Salkantay Mountains, cloud forests, mountain jungles)
The least traveled scenic option
A different and challenging trekking experience in Machu Picchu
C) Lares Trail: 33kn for 4 days, highest elevation point ~ 14,435 feet. This is a great option if you want:
An easier trekking option.
A cultural experience focused on peoples and people.
To get a lot of natural beauty all the way.
2. What level of difficulty do you feel comfortable with? (From the most difficult to the easiest)
A) Salkantay: more difficult. Being asthmatic, I struggled on the climb to high altitude. Most of our trekking group had problems with the descent because it is very hard on the muscles and knees.
B) Inca: Second most difficult. This trail does not reach such high altitudes (13,800 is not an easy hike), but has multiple ascents and descents.
C) Lares: the easiest of the three trails. It still reaches high altitudes, but it takes you through towns with less drastic ascents and descents.
3. How far in advance can you book? (From longest to shortest delivery time)
A) Inca: more than 9 months, you must look to see when the passes open and reserve them the day they are available.
B) Salkantay: we booked 3 months in advance with our company (I highly recommend Salkantay Trekking).
C) Lares: before is always better, but you can probably book this in Cusco when you arrive if you can’t do it in advance.
TIP: acclimatize to the altitude. I recommend 2 full days in Cusco before doing a difficult hike at high altitudes. I am in good physical shape and almost passed out walking to the Salkantay Pass at 15,225 feet. Nothing can prepare you for the altitude, but coca leaves and coca tea are also extremely helpful.