Your sights are set on Machu Picchu. The ancient city is one of the most awe-inspiring places in the Andes, if not the world. While hiking through the Sacred Valley to get there is half of the fun. But the Inca Trail, which passes through cloud forests and alpine tundra, is overrun with tourists. So much so that the Peruvian government now strictly limits the number of people on the path. Don’t despair. There’s another—equally beautiful—trek you can do to get there instead.
The Salkantay Trek is nothing to sneeze at. Though less well known—and therefore less popular—than the Inca Trail, it’s constantly rated one of the best hikes in the world by almost everyone. Salkantay is the highest peak in the Willkapampa mountain range. The trail starts in Mollepata, crosses the Salkantay Pass at more than 4,600 meters, and descends into the cloud forest. It passes Llactapata (more Inca ruins) and meets the Inca Trail at Aguas Calientes. Eventually, it brings you to Machu Picchu, that gorgeous archaeological site about which you’ve been dreaming.
But don’t rush. This is a trek to enjoy, not race through just to reach your destination. Plus, unlike most of the hikers who you’ll meet at the end, you’re hiking between lodges. Instead of dealing with tents, sleeping bags, and boiling water, you have down duvets, fireplaces, and gourmet dinners to look forward to.
After spending a few days acclimating to the altitude in Cusco, head to Mollepata to begin the Salkantay Trek. The first day is relatively easy, as you follow a dirt road, walk up small hills, and start breathing the clean mountain air. Pass Inca ruins and little mountain villages. Then, after six hours of hiking, enjoy a glass of Chilean wine when you reach the Salkantay Lodge, your home base for two nights. Instead of hurrying to the next lodge, you spend the next day hiking to Lake Humantay, a clear, glacier-fed lake, where you find stunning views of Salkantay and grazing llamas. Return to the lodge and sit in the jacuzzi to relax your now-aching muscles.
The next day is challenging, to say the least. Trek to the highest point on the Salkantay Pass. The three-and-a-half-hour hike up the trail is tiring; the five-hour hike down is the real killer, though. The views of the snow-capped Willkapampa range and the large glacier on the south face of Salkantay make it all worth it. You have no trouble falling asleep once you collapse into your comfortable bed, with that goose-down duvet, at the Wayra Lodge. The same is true after passing through banana plantations and avocado orchards to reach the Lucma Lodge the day after that.
The final day of hiking takes you along the Llactapata Pass. You gasp loudly when you catch your first view of the City in the Sky in the distance. Lots of photos quickly follow. Those climbing the Inca Trail miss this breathtaking sight. You meet those hikers in Aguas Calientes, where everyone boards the train to explore Machu Picchu. Instead of following the crowd through the ruins though, you climb steep Huayna Picchu for more jaw-dropping views of the ancient city. You can’t decide if your trek made you more adventurous or a glutton for punishment.