Why the Inca Trail may be replaced on your bucket list, writes Guy Wilkinson.
Few travel excursions will top as many bucket lists as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. And for good reason. Combining sub-tropical jungle, lush cloud forests and staggering alpine scenery, the 43-kilometre trek is ranked among the finest in the world.
But there are certain drawbacks. With an increasing number of travellers looking for their piece of the action – 2012 saw 62,789 pass the main gate of the trail according to PromPeru – this is one adventure that’s fast becoming overrun.
In a bid to minimise environmental impact, the Peruvian Government now issues just 500 permits a day (with up to 300 of those going to cooks, porters and guides), meaning those looking to travel in peak season – May to September – will often need to apply for permits months in advance.
But to avoid crowds and red tape, a great option is to look at some of the lesser-known alternative treks. The Lares (or Weavers Way) is fast becoming a popular choice with its mix of sprawling tropical valleys and remote Andean communities. But the exhilarating, high altitude Salkantay Trek is steadily growing a reputation as the front-runner.
Encompassing five different ecosystems over the same number of days, the ancient path offers a mind-blowing mix of snow-capped glacial mountains, lush tropical rainforests and vast Lord of the Rings-style plains across Mt Salkantay rising 6271 metres above sea level.
And while the Salkantay may not possess the international brag factor of the Inca Trail, its advantages are many.
Firstly, you don’t need a permit (for now) meaning the trek can be booked last-minute. Secondly, you won’t be fighting off busloads of tourists or gritting your teeth behind Maureen from Minnesota as she puffs her way up another flight of steps in a pink tracksuit.
“The Salkantay Trek offers a different experience to the Inca Trail and delivers the best vistas of the Salkantay mountain as well as superb hiking,” says expert trekking guide and President of the regional Chamber of Tourism of Cusco, Roger Valencia.
“Also, you don’t need porters. We see a lot of travellers on the Salkantay Trek using animals, such as mules. You get really close to the majestic Mt Salkantay, and it’s possible to stay either in lodges or camp.”
This versatility is another trump card. More intrepid travellers not afraid to rough it can opt for an inexpensive camping trek, with each day ending at fully catered, pre-prepared campsites.
Alternatively, if you value creature comforts, you can plunge for the pricier but more luxurious option of bunking at lodges or guesthouses instead.
Even if you are on a budget though, you’ll still experience a few hours of the good life, the trek includes a half-day excursion to natural hot springs on the outskirts of the small town of Santa Teresa during day three.
It’s important to note the Salkantay Trek doesn’t lead directly to Machu Picchu though it does still culminate at the site following a brief transfer from nearby Aguas Calientes on the final morning.
It’s also a more strenuous alternative to the Inca Trail, the altitude is higher and there’s some steep, rugged terrain to tackle. That said, a little bit of prior training goes a long way and as Valencia suggests, “People of all ages, in good physical condition, with some hiking experience are best suited to this trek.”
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of acclimatisation. The majority of trekkers base themselves at the UNESCO World Heritage listed town of Cusco for a few days before setting off.
Located 3400 metres above sea level, the former capital of the Inca Empire is a charming mélange of cobbled streets, ancient churches, restaurants, museums and bars. It’s also the ideal spot to gear up with last minute provisions and kit, the most important of which will undoubtedly be your camera.
NB: If Salkantay trekkers wish to climb Huayna Picchu (next to Machu Picchu), a permit is required to be booked a few weeks in advance.