While there are tons of routes to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail is the classic one. But why is this one trek in Peru so special that more than 500 permits sell out every day?
It’s because the Inca Trail hikes directly to Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate rather than concluding in a bus ride. On the other hand, Inca Trail permits are expensive. You have to book them months in advance. You can only go with a guide from a licensed tour company. And those 500 permits mean that there are 2,000 people on the trail at any given time.
Only you can decide whether the Inca Trail is worth throwing elbows for four days over. But in my opinion? There are plenty of treks in Peru for those who prefer solitude. For people who hike for views. Those who favor cultural interactions. Wildlife. There are hikes you can do without a guide. Hikes you can do outside of trekking season. Hikes that don’t cost you much money at all. Hell, there are even alternative routes to Machu Picchu if you can’t part with the idea.
Why do the hike everyone else is doing? There are glaciers to see. Canyons that plunge 3,000m deep. Mountains that climb above 6,600 m. If you’re willing to seek them out, you’re likely to experience that the best trek in Peru isn’t the Inca Trail at all.
We’ve already covered some of the best treks in South America, but I’d like to turn the spotlight onto Peru for a sec, because it’s undoubtedly one of the world’s best trekking destinations. From the Choquequirao Trek to the Santa Cruz Trek, here are some of the best treks in Peru that aren’t the Inca Trail.
THE BEST HIKES & TREKS IN PERU
Trek Gran Vilaya
Nearest City: Chachapoyas // Difficulty: Moderate // Duration: 4 Days // Distance: 54 km
The Trek Gran Vilaya is trek in Northern Peru that travels through cloud forest and visits the sites of the Gran Vilaya through a combination of hikes and camioneta rides. Over the course of four days, you’ll hike through quiet villages and overgrowth on pre-Inca trails. You’ll also explore rarely visited archeological sites built by the Chachapoyas, a mysterious pre-Inca civilization.
Along the Gran Vilaya route, you’ll come to the prehistoric Karajia Sarcophagi and the Fortress of Kuélap, a site often called “Machu Picchu of the North”. But the real highlight of the Trek Gran Vilaya? It’s incredibly remote. It’s possible you won’t run into another trekking group until you reach Kuélap at the very end.
Why Go: It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Kuélap is built in a completely different architectural style than ruins in the Sacred Valley.
Santa Cruz Trek
Nearest City: Huaraz, Peru // Difficulty: Moderate // Duration: 4 Days // Distance: 50 km
The Santa Cruz Trek is a three to four-day hike through the Cordillera Blanca. The 50 km trail typically runs from Cashapampa to La Vaquería via Punta Union at 4,760m, though it’s also possible to do the hike in reverse.
The scenery on the Santa Cruz trek is diverse ranging from lush meadows to glacial lagoons to sandy basins. The trail is well-worn and easy to hike without a guide (although guided hikes are quite affordable, too).
The Santa Cruz Trek is a commonly hiked for acclimatization, but even if you don’t have higher altitude treks planned, the scenery is super worth it.
Why Go: The Santa Cruz trek is accessible and inexpensive, making it a good introduction to trekking in Peru.
Read More: A Get Outside Guide: The Santa Cruz Trek
Huayhuash Circuit Trek
Nearest City: Huaraz, Peru // Difficulty: Hard // Duration: 8-14 Days // Distance: 130 km
The Huayhuash Circuit is a 130 km hike through the Cordillera Huayhuash. While not technical, much of the trail is remote and rugged. The majority of the Huayhuash Circuit travels above 4,000m. And with year-round snow, seven high passes, and a high point of 6,617m, the Huayhuash Circuit is a tough one, even for experienced trekkers.
But the same features are what make the Huayhuash Circuit worth it. Because it’s remote, the payoff for doing it is isolation. The ruggedness make panoramic views from high elevations that much more worthwhile. And when you’re on the top of the world, the only place to look is down.
Why Go: Not only is The Huayhuash Circuit one of the best treks in Peru. It’s one of the best treks in the world.
Colca Canyon Trek
Nearest City: Arequipa, Peru // Difficulty: Easy // Duration: 2-3 Days // Distance: 20 km
While not as world-renowned as the Grand Canyon the Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest canyon dipping to 3,400 m at it’s lowest point. There are several hiking routes in Colca Canyon, but the classic Colca Canyon trek begins at the trailhead in Cabanaconde. From there, it descends to Sangalle where you’ll turn around and hike out the way you came.
The scenery of the Colca Canyon is completely different from what you’ll see on most treks in Peru. It’s mostly agricultural land that is both abundant and arid. But the real standout of hiking the Colca Canyon is that it’s one of the best places to spot the giant Andean condor.
Why Go: Go for the condors! The Colca Canyon trek is also at low altitude, making it good for hikers who are prone to altitude sickness.
Nearest City: Cusco, Peru // Difficulty: Hard // Duration: 4-9 Days // Distance: 62 km – 100 km
The Choquequirao Trek refers to the difficult four-day out-and-back trek from Cachora to Choquequiro. If you want to continue from Choquequirao onto Machu Picchu, the hike takes nine days.
The Choquequirao Archeological Complex is considered “the other Machu Picchu“. But sitting 3,000m high on a saddle in the Vilcabamba mountain range, it’s not nearly as accessible; the easiest way to reach it at present is on this four-day trek. While Machu Picchu gets an estimated 2,500 visitors per day, Choquequirao sees just 20.
The Choquequirao Trek is not an easy hike by any definition, but the rewards for those who tough it out are Inca ruins in relative solitude.
Why Go: Choquequirao is the best alternative to Machu Picchu and it’s still possible to hike onto Machu Picchu from Choquequirao.
Nearest City: Cusco, Peru // Difficulty: Moderate // Duration: 4 Days // Distance: 72 km
The Salkantay Trek is popularly hiked as an alternative to the Inca Trail with high passes and azure lakes. Over the course of four-day, you’ll trek travels from Mollepata to Hidroelctrica, where it’s an easy train and bus onward to Machu Picchu.
The Salkantay is supposed to be more beautiful and less crowded than the Classic Inca trail, although I will say it’s not as uncrowded as it once was. You’ll need to be fit to hike the Salkantay Trek since Abra Salkantay sits at 4,600m; but with well-established trekking towns along the way, it’s an awesome trail for independent trekking.
Why Go: It’s probably the best short Inca Trail alternative. Trails and campsites along the Salkantay are also quite developed and easy for hiking without a guide.
Nearest City: Cusco, Peru // Difficulty: Hard // Duration: 6 Days // Distance: 69 km
Ausangate is famously known for “Rainbow Mountain”, but the greater Ausangate Trek has so much more to offer. The real highlights of the Ausungate Trek are the three high passes above 5,000m, glacial lakes, and obviously, the color-striped mountain, Vinicunca.
It’s in the Sacred Valley so it’s often an alternative to the Inca Trail, though it doesn’t visit Inca ruins or naturally finish at Machu Picchu. Instead, it travels for six days through the Ausangate mountain range, mostly at elevations above 4,000m. For that reason, the Ausangate is a difficult hike that requires good acclimatization and preparation.
Why Go: It’s vast and uncrowded compared to other hikes in the Sacred Valley.