Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail are extremely popular destinations, and there is concern that the large number of tourists visiting the region each year will cause lasting damage to the fragile sites. The Peruvian authorities have tried to address the problem by limiting the number of visitors and the hours at which they can visit Machu Picchu, and by imposing restrictions on walkers on the Inca Trail. However, they are also moving ahead with plans to build an airport nearby, which will only increase the number of visitors, leading to more damage and overcrowding.
If you are unable to get a ticket to visit Machu Picchu or a place in an Inca Trail walking group, if you prefer to avoid crowds, or you simply don't want to contribute to the problems caused by over-tourism, you may want to look at alternatives. Fortunately, there are a number of other sites and alternative trails that may be of interest.
These pages describe the so-called ‘Classic Inca Trail’. This trail was only one of many Inca roadways that connected the far-flung Inca empire, so there are other ‘Inca trails’ throughout Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
There are a number of alternative trails in the Machu Picchu region. Some of these are shorter (or longer) trails that ultimately lead to Machu Picchu. Some are simply alternative trekking routes in the area that may or may not follow Inca roadways but which will give you a chance to see other parts of the fascinating and spectacular area around the Sacred Valley. Even if a particular trail does not terminate at Machu Picchu, tour operators offering tours on these trails will often include a visit to Machu Picchu and transportation to the site as part of the package.
Some popular trail routes near Machu Picchu include:
The ‘Classic Inca Trail’ is generally organized as a four-day hike. For travelers with less time, some tour operators offer a one-day hike that runs from Km 104 on the railway to Machu Picchu, covering the final seven miles of the classic trail and requiring seven or eight hours of hiking time.
Some tour operators offer another cut-down version of the classic trail. This covers much the same ground as the one-day trail, but postpones the Machu Picchu visit to the second day, and includes sleeping accommodation in Aguas Calientes.
Some tour operators offer treks in the nearby Lares valley. The treks typically begin at the village of Lares and end at Ollantaytambo. The trek offers glimpses of rural life, and involves some quite demanding high-altitude walking.
A demanding mountain trek, the Salkantay trail involves high-altitude walking through spectacular mountain scenery. This is usually organized as a five-day trek, ending at or near Aguas Calientes.
Some companies offer organized treks in the Vilcanota Cordillera, near Ausangate, the highest mountain in the Cuzco region. Ausangate treks range from 4 to 7 days, depending on the itinerary chosen. The treks are at high altitude, and are generally rated as difficult. In compensation, they offer spectacular scenery, including views of the rainbow-colored Vinicunca Mountain.
Tour operators may also offer ‘adventure’ treks in the region that include activities such as mountain and quad biking and ziplining.
Note that any tour that covers the same ground as the classic trail, including the one-day and two-day trails, is governed by the same regulations as the classic trail. This includes the requirement that walkers are accompanied by a licensed guide. For other trails, a guide may not be required, but is often recommended.
The list of trails above is intended to give a sampling of some of the trekking options typically offered by tour operators in the region. Individual companies may have their own variations on these treks, so details -- such as start and end points, transportation provided, and duration -- may vary.
Other archaeological sites
Machu Picchu is the most famous and spectacular of Peru’s archaeological sites, but there are large numbers of others, both in the vicinity of Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, and elsewhere. These are some other sites of interest, several of which are significantly less crowded than Machu Picchu.
Montana Machu Picchu
One of the attractions at Machu Picchu itself is the climb up Huayna Picchu, a terraced peak overlooking the site. Unfortunately, access to Huayna Picchu is possible only by ticket, and only a limited number of tickets are issued each day. If you would like to climb Huayna Picchu but can't get a ticket, try to get a ticket for Machu Picchu mountain (‘Montana Machu Picchu’) instead.
Often visited as part of an organized tour of Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo is an Inca ruin located in the Sacred Valley close to the start of the Inca Trail.
The Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman, a short distance from Cuzco, is the most spectacular of the Inca relics in the immediate vicinity of Cuzco.
A well-preserved Inca hilltop settlement, Pisac is about thirty kilometers from Cusco, and can be reached by bus or shared taxi.
Another spectacular hilltop Inca site, located not far from Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is less accessible than Machu Picchu and receives fewer visitors. This may change, as the construction of a planned cable car route to the ruins will make it easier to reach.
An Inca agricultural site, with unusual circular terraces.
The fortress of Kuélap was built not by the Incas, but by the Chachapoyas, a tribe subsequently conquered by the Incas. Located in the north of Peru, Kuélap receives far fewer visitors than Machu Picchu.
Another popular tourist destination, Nazca is notable for the famous Nazca Lines, elaborate designs made in the desert. The Lines are the work of the Nazca culture, a pre-Inca culture based in the south-western part of Peru.
Other options include Inca sites outside Peru, as well as sites built by other pre-Columbian cultures elsewhere in Latin America.
Inca ruins in Ecuador
The Inca Empire stretched as far north as Ecuador. Notable Inca sites in Ecuador include Ingapirca, Pumapungo and Rumicucho.
Inca ruins in Bolivia
The Islands of the Sun and the Moon on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia feature extensive Inca terracing, and are worth visiting in their own right.
The spectacular ruins at Tiwanaku in Bolivia were not built by the Incas, but by another, earlier culture.
Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida (literally, ‘Lost City’ in Spanish; locals know it as Teyuna) offers perhaps the closest experience to the Inca Trail in the days before mass tourism; it is a terraced stone city in the jungle, reachable only by hiking. The city is believed to have been built by the pre-Columbian Tairona culture.
Another pre-Columbian culture, the Maya civilization, left ruined cities and temples throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and other adjacent countries. Many of the better-known sites suffer from the same problems of overtourism as Machu Picchu, but there are many smaller or more remote sites that are rarely visited.