The Inca Trail is by far the most popular trekking route in the Cusco area because of its spectacular route of ruins and varied ecosystems. But there are other excellent treks in the Cusco area worth considering. Though they do not have the Inca Trail’s variety of ruins or the cachet of leading to Machu Picchu, they are less crowded and plunge into remote areas of Andean villages, tumbling jungle, and out-of-the-way archaeological sites.
While all hikers on the Inca Trail must go with a licensed agency, the other routes described here can be done independently by those with enough Spanish to ask directions.
The best time to trek in the Cusco area is during the dry winter months April–November, though the most crowded months on the Inca Trail are June–August.
Make sure your agency is one of those licensed by INRENA, the government conservation agency. A list of approved agencies can be obtained through Iperú (www.peru.info). Before scheduling your trip, ask ayour chosen agency pertinent questions: What is included in the price (e.g., train fares and entry fees), what type of tents and general equipment do they provide, what is the maximum number of trekkers in a group? Also very important is to confirm that your operator is bringing a bathroom tent. The most reputable and responsible agencies do not use the public bathrooms but instead carry PETT toilets, which use organic compounds to break human waste so that it can be packed out of the trail and disposed of properly. Groups are accompanied by porters and there is a legal limit of 20 kilograms (44 pounds) for group gear and 5 kilograms (11 pounds) for personal gear, per porter, which is checked at the beginning of the trail.
A list of recommended Cusco trekking agencies is here.
Nevado Salcantay Trek
Nevado Salcantay, at 6,271 meters, is the sacred mountain that towers above the Inca Trail and eventually drops to Machu Picchu itself. Many agencies offer a four- to five-day trek starting from Mollepata, a town 3.5 hours from Cusco in the Limatambo Valley. If you are trekking on your own it can be reached by any bus heading from Cusco to Abancay. In Mollepata, you can hire mules and local guides.
The route traverses part of the Cordillera Vilcabamba, including spectacular views of several snow-covered peaks. It crests the 4,700-meter Salcantayccasa Pass before descending between the stunning glaciers of Humantay and Salcantay. The trek then goes through the lovely Huyracmachaypampa and down through forested slopes to the hot springs at Colpapampa.
From here the trail follows the Santa Teresa River to the humid lowlands with the option to trek a little farther to the Inca ruins of Patallacta. From here you descend to the hydroelectric station at Intihuatana, where you can board a train for the short journey to Machu Picchu. The alternative is to walk 2–3 hours along the train track to Aguas Calientes.
Choquequirao is a huge Inca complex perched on a ridge top in the Vilcabamba area that includes many fine Inca walls and double recessed doorways. It was probably built as a winter palace by Inca Túpac Yupanqui, in the same way that his father, Pachacútec, probably built Machu Picchu. It was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, though it was lost again until the 1980s when a series of explorers trudged through this rugged territory to find this and other ruins in the area. The Peruvian government (INC), backed by UNESCO, launched a campaign to restore the ruins, and much of the work has been completed to a very high standard. It is worth spending a full day exploring this site as it has some unique features, such as the wonderful stylized white stone llamas.
The most common approach is from Cachora, where guides and mules can be rented, reached by taking a bus to Abancay and getting off at a road past the Sayhuite Stone. The first day is spent hiking down to the Río Apurímac, and the second continues straight up the other side, a long six-hour slog uphill onto the cloud forest ridge. Some agencies offer a combined 10-day trek that leads from Choquequirao all the way to Machu Picchu. Another option is to reach Choquequirao from Huancacalle, near the Inca ruins of Vitcos, a spectacular eight-day traverse of the Cordillera Vilcabamba.
Trekking the Cordillera Vilcanota
There are various trekking routes through the Cordillera Vilcanota, the range to the east of Cusco that is dominated by the sacred Nevado Ausangate (6,384 meters). Trekking guides say that this is one of the more untouched and spectacular areas of Peru.
The classic route is a seven-day loop around the peak of Ausangate, which begins at the town of Tinqui in the high puna grasslands and crosses four passes between 4,300 and 5,500 meters. The views include the fluted faces and rolling glaciers of all the mountains of the range, including Colquecruz and Jampa, and the route passes through remote hamlets of llama herders and weavers. This area is famous for its Qoyllur R’itti moveable festival in May or June, when thousands of campesinos converge on the slopes of Ausangate.
Espirítu Pampa Trek
The truly adventurous and fit may want to try reaching Espíritu Pampa, the true “Lost City of the Incas” that served as the base for the Incas’ 35-year rebellion against the Spanish. Gene Savoy’s discovery of the ruins in 1964 made world news, and several subsequent expeditions have tried, in vain, to keep the jungle from growing over the immense site.
The trip starts from the village of Huancacalle, which can be reached by taking a truck or bus from Cusco over the Abra Málaga to Quillabamba and hopping off at the Huancacalle turnoff. The Cobos family, which has guided all the Vilcabamba explorers since Gene Savoy, operates a small hostel in Huancacalle and rents mules for US$7 a day.
From Huancacalle, a path leads to the Inca ruler’s original exile at Vitcos, where Manco Inca was murdered by the Spanish, and the exquisite sacred rock of Chuquipalta (the subject, among others, of Hugh Thomson’s book White Rock). The path heads to New Vilcabamba, a colonial-era mining town, and then ascends a 3,800-meter pass before plunging into the jungle below. The path includes sections of fine Inca staircases along a steep and tortuous valley to the ruins, which are in mosquito-ridden rainforest at 1,000 meters. Instead of walking back all the way to Huancacalle, it is possible to walk for a day or two alongside the river on good paths until you reach the town of Kiteni on the Río Urubamba. From here, a bus goes back to Quillabamba. This trip takes 7–10 days.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition