Before the Spanish arrived in Peru in the 16th century, the Incas didn’t use horses, nor did they use the wheel for transportation, so the Inca trail was almost exclusively populated by people on foot, including the chasqui, or messengers, who carried parcels, including fresh fish, for the rulers in the sierra. One end of this famous trail is, of course, Machu Picchu, “The Lost City of the Incas,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site and voted one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” in a worldwide internet and phone poll in 2007. Machu Picchu is important for many reasons, one of those being that the Spanish never found it during their conquest, making it one of those rare, culturally intact ancient sites.
The Inca Trail has been the preferred route to get to Machu Picchu for centuries now, from the chasqui to today’s tourists. The pre-Columbian 15th century Inca site has been a must-see destination for travelers for since its discovery in 1911. In 2003 alone some 400,000 people visited this ancient ‘estate’ situated on a ridge above the Urubamba River. As the most recognized icon of the Inca world, Machu Picchu quickly became one of the most popular destinations in the western hemisphere. The way one got there was the Inca Trail, which was open to everyone and offered unparalleled landscapes and Incan ruins along the way. Snaking your way through the Andes, through cloud forest and alpine tundra, past settlements, ruins, and ancient tunnels, the Inca Trail culminates spectacularly at the Sun Gate, providing travelers with the total experience—incredible journey and equally incredible destination—that has turned this Lost City into a hot spot for international travel.
These strengths soon became the trail’s weakness, as the crowds became excessive and the Peruvian government was forced to step in and limit both daily access and create strict regulations. Suddenly travelers had to book months in advance, and even then they’d often find there were no available spaces. Clearly an alternative route to reaching Machu Picchu had to be found, one that was no less stunning. The Salcantay Trail has proven to be not only a viable alternative but just as incredible of a trek.
The 20-mile Camino Salcantay trail cuts through cloud forest, Andean peaks, and jungle on its approach to the famous Lost City of the Incas. Far less crowded then the Inca Trail (and now far easier to set up, there are still no permit limitations due to the trail being less known), Salcantay has become a favored alternative way of reaching Machu Picchu. The Trek is slightly more difficult, with an extra day of travel required, higher altitudes, a bit more wild.
Like the Inca Trail, the Salcantay is not for the feint of heart. You have to spend two days in the city of Cusco to acclimatize to the altitude, because soon enough you’ll be trekking 15,092 feet above sea level. Trek Peru offers an 8-day excursion that includes stays in Indian villages to recuperate. As you acclimatize to the altitude, there are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman and the Sacred Valley of the Incas right outside of Cusco to explore.
Once your body has adjusted to the altitude, it’s time to get trekking. You’ll pass through the towns of Mollepata, Cruz Pampa, and Soraypampa which is 12,631 feet above sea level and where most people make camp. Then it’s off to Pampa Salcantay, the trek curving around the Umantay and Salcantay glaciers as the trail winds through the Cordillera Vilcabamba mountain range, where the Salcantay peak rises 20,500 feet into the air. The trek continues on through cloud forest, hot springs, and across the Urubamba river via their “cable car,” which is actually just a basket hung by a cable that carries two to three people, very slowly, across the Urubamba. A day later, past the town of Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu is visible.