The Inca Trail and its alternative routes are some of the best trekking destinations in the world. Perhaps nowhere else combines stunning mountain scenery with beautiful and important historic sites, with the peaks and valleys of the Andes a dramatic backdrop for a series of spectacular Inca ruins. The destination is the most impressive of all, as you stand at the Sun Gate and gaze at the stunning lost city of Machu Picchu below. First explored by Hiram Bingham in 1911 and opened for walkers in 1970, the Inca Trail today is extremely popular and, with a limited number of permits issued by the government, you may need to book up to five months in advance. To escape the crowds, the alternative Lares Trek passes through similar scenery and altitudes but is well off the beaten path and away from the tourist crowds. At the end of the trail at Ollantaytambo, you can catch the train to Aquas Calientes and onto Machu Picchu.
The classic Inca Trail is a 4 day trek from Chilca (Kilometre 82) to Machu Picchu. The first day's trek (13km) is relatively easy and passes the ancient hilltop fort of Huillca Raccay and the beautiful archaeological site of Llactapata. There are also stunning views of Veronica Peak (5860m) before reaching the campsite at Wayllabamba at 3000 metres. On day 2 (11km), the most difficult part of the trek is the climb to Warminwanusca, or ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ (4200m), the highest point on the Inca Trail. The views here are breathtaking with, surrounded by the Vilcanota and Vilcabama mountain ranges with the ruins of Runkuracay ahead and Rio Pacamayo (Sunrise River) in the valley below. The descent from the pass takes you to the campsite at Pacamayo (3600m). On day 3 (15km) you pass the Inca ruins of Runcuracay and climb the Inca staircase to the Runquracay pass (3998m) where there are spectacular views of Pumasillo (6245m) and the entire snow-capped Vilcabamba range. The descent from here takes you past the ruins of Sayacmarca and through a cloud forest full of orchids, ferns, flowers and hanging moss and at one point through an Inca tunnel. This is followed by a steep downhill section along 2,000 Inca steps to the beautiful ruins at Winaywayna (2450m). The final day (5km) comprises a short trek to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, from which the dramatic spectacle of Machu Picchu is revealed below. Descending to the ruins to explore, there is also the option to climb Huayna Picchu, a mountain overlooking the site which provides a stunning overview. There are some alternative campsites on the trail which will change the daily itinery but the route is the same for all.
The Lares Trek offers an alternative to the busy Inca Trail and avoids the need for permits. Trekking from Lares south-west to the ancient Inca village of Ollantaytambo, the route offers the same stunning mountain scenery of the Inca Trail and with similar altitudes and difficulty levels, though you don't get the chance to trek to Machu Picchu itself. Further off the beaten path though, this is an area relatively untouched by tourism and you will pass authentically traditional Andean villages and herds of wild llama and alpaca. The first couple of days has some spectacular views of the mountain peaks of Colque Cruz (5960m) and Veronica (5750m) as you pass through the highest point on the trail. Descending towards the finish, you see the Inca ruins at Pumamarka and Ollantaytambo. From here you can take the train to Aguas Calientes and the bus on to Machu Picchu.