For most of us, trekking to Machu Picchu in Peru is synonymous with the Inca Trail. This is the most famous route to the ancient Incan ruins and is the royal road that the Quechua people used to take to the sacred site hundreds of years ago.
But trekking the Inca Trail is not the only way to get to Machu Picchu. With the increasing popularity of the trail – and daily limits of 500 people allowed on it (including guides and porters), many people choose to take a different route to the ancient site.
So what are the alternative routes to Machu Picchu, and which should you take? Well, the most popular choices are either the Salkantay Trek or the Lares Trek. These are both great options for travellers looking to get a bit off the beaten track on the way to Machu Picchu.
However, each way has different qualities and highlights that are worth considering when deciding which alternative trek to Machu Picchu to choose.
In this article, we’ll lay out the similarities and differences between the two routes to help you work out which trip is right for you.
Salkantay Trek vs Lares Trek: The basics
Now, before we get into the nitty-gritty of what each trek has to offer, we should take a look at the basics of each route. Whilst your decision will ultimately come down to personal preference, there are a few steadfast elements you’ll need to consider when matching the best route to your requirements.
Firstly, have a think about how long you have to complete the trek. Some companies offer Lares and Salkantay treks offer differing time periods, from three to five days, but each of our options involves four days of trekking.
We’ve set out our Machu Picchu trips like this because we think it gives you a good balance – we’re not rushing to finish the hike super quickly (giving you ample time to acclimatise), but we also have enough time for a couple of days in Cusco either side of the trek – and of course, a full day exploring Machu Picchu itself.
Then there will be the matter of distance. Whilst both of our Inca Trail alternatives take four days to hike, they cover rather different distances. The Lares Trek is the more easygoing option in this sense, covering around 22 miles over the four days. The Salkantay Trek, on the other hand, covers 45 miles, making it the more strenuous option of the two.
With all of our trips, we like to use a challenge rating to help you understand how difficult and adventurous the itinerary will be. Each of these trips gets a challenge rating of three, meaning that they involve multiple days of hiking to altitudes over 3,000 metres. Neither trek involves any specific skills and can be undertaken by anyone with an average level of physical fitness. But, due to the extra distance and more rugged trails, the Salkantay Trek has to be the more challenging of the two.
An important element of each trek’s difficulty is the maximum elevation that each trek reaches. There isn’t a huge difference here, but the Salkantay Trek does reach a higher altitude of 4,600 metres, compared to the Lares Trek’s maximum altitude of 4,400 metres. However, both trails follow a great route offering a good acclimatisation profile, giving you the best chance of success.
One aspect of the Salkantay Trek vs Lares Trek debate that doesn’t differ so much is the accommodation. On both treks, you will be camping along the way in camps that our porters will set up for us in advance.
However, on the Lares Trek then camping is less heavily regulated, meaning that there can be fewer facilities in place – although they do still have basic toilets and shower blocks, they will be cold! Instead, you will be able to immerse yourself in village life as the camps are situated near local settlements.
On the Salkantay Trek, the campsites are fully supported and are set beneath the impressive Vilcabamba range. The Salkantay route tends to have quieter campsites, and all groups stay at the same campsites according to a set schedule. There are also a wider variety of accommodation options here – although they are, of course, at an additional cost.
The final basic consideration to take into account when choosing between the Lares and Salkantay treks is the seasons that the trails are open. On the Salkantay Trek, the trails are open from April to October, but to ensure the best conditions, we run our Salkantay trips between June and August. The Lares Trek is viable for a slightly longer period, so we are more flexible with our dates, running our Lares trips any time from April to August.
To make things a little easier to digest, we’ve made a table of the essential info about each trek so that you can compare them side by side.
So, now that we’ve looked at the essential factors, let’s take a closer look at what each Inca alternative trek to Machu Picchu has to offer…
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
After the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trek is probably the most well-known route to reach Machu Picchu. This is also geographically the closest route to the traditional Inca Trail, heading from Mollepata high up through the immense mountains of Humantay, Salkantay, Tucarhuay and more all the way to Aguas Calientes – the gateway to Machu Picchu.
As we’ve mentioned, the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is the more strenuous of these two treks as it covers twice the distance in the same time period.
You are also trekking at a slightly higher altitude – but this arguably gives you even better views above the clouds, with sweeping snow-capped Alpine vistas, high-altitude glacial lakes and even cloud forests. As we drop down towards the end of the trek, we reach the Andean jungle, crossing the picturesque Lluskamayo River and its valleys full of waterfalls and tropical plants.
The Salkantay Trek is a great choice for those in search of a rugged trek with plenty of opportunities to see local wildlife such as chinchillas, Andean condors and maybe even the spectacled bear!
Along the way, you’ll trek with horses all the way to Aguas Calientes, rather than having to take a train there as you do on the Lares Trek. So, if you’re looking for a purist’s experience, this one might be for you!
Oh, and there are hot springs at Aguas Calientes, too, so you won’t miss out!
Lares Trek to Machu Picchu
The Lares Trek to Machu Picchu is quickly becoming one of the most popular Inca Trail alternatives for offering travellers a well-rounded experience of the Peruvian Andes. Whilst the Lares Valley might not feel as dramatic as the Salkantay route, this is a magical part of Peru where the trails have changed little over the past 500 years.
You will begin the trek in Cusco and hike to Ollantaytambo, where you will board a scenic train ride to Aguas Calientes, then transferring the next day to Machu Picchu for your day’s tour.
If you’re looking for a trek that combines the culture of the Incas with Andean nature, the Lares Trek is a great choice. Here, there are more ruins than on the Salkantay route (although not as many as on the Inca Trail), and you will also encounter local Quechua villages, where families have lived for generations passing on their agricultural and weaving traditions.
The scenery here is also spectacular. You will hike through beautiful mountain passes along the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash in Áncash, with arguably better chances of encountering wildlife due to the lower number of visitors the trail receives. One day you will be able to experience the traditional weaving village of Huacahuasi, and the next you will be able to camp right beside the beautiful Ipsaycocha Lake.
And, of course, there is the Lares Hot Springs, which offer fantastic thermal waters – the perfect way to end a day’s hiking in the mountains.
Which Inca Trail alternative should I choose?
So now that we’ve been through everything you know about the alternatives to the Inca Trail, all that remains is for you to decide which one to book! Which trail wins for you – the Salkantay Trek or Lares Trek?
If you’re still undecided, feel free to give us a call and we can discuss the itineraries, dates and prices in further detail to help you choose. You can contact us by calling 01769 309 007 and we’ll be happy to help!