Exhilarating, life changing, out-of-this-world – this is how Machu Picchu is described, and rightly so. But trekking through the Andes, completely submersed in nature, is part of the epic experience – without it, you might as well take a 40-person bus to the ruins and call it an “adventure.”
So for decades thrill seekers have hiked the Inca Trail, trying desperately to get off the beaten path and into the exhilarating wild. Today I’ll explain about Hiking to Machu Picchu and why you should choose a different route – longer, higher and more diverse – and I give a unique tip on how to get there.
First lets review some history. Heading into the year 2000, the Inca Trail was overrun with hikers – from 1984 to 1998 alone the number of trekkers rose from 6,000 to 66,000. The rise signaled Machu Picchu’s growing popularity but with it brought increased pollution, widespread litter and over-crowding.
This led UNESCO to threaten to remove Machu Picchu’s World Heritage designation, a potentially fatal blow. In response, the Peruvian authorities instituted a 500 per day cap on the number of trekkers on the Inca Trail in 2002. While the impact was a positive step, it was considered not enough by conservationists and locals alike. With minimal action since then, UNESCO is again looking into the treatment of the ruins.
Luckily, hidden in the Peruvian Andes there is another path – longer, higher, and more diverse. The five-day, four-night Salkantay Trail will take you through the same natural beauty but with less interruption by other humans. After completing the trail myself, I strongly recommend this over the more-popular Inca Trail – here’s why.
By some estimates, 160 trekkers start the classic Inca Trail every day while only 15 begin the Salkantay Trek. So overcrowding is a significantly smaller problem – on my hike, I saw only a handful of other groups for the entirety of the four trekking days and it was almost always at the campsites for the night. I saw more donkeys than humans on the Salkantay, if that is any indication.
Why do people flock to Mount Everest, even in the face of a very real chance of death? Because it is the highest mountain in the world. And why does every student learn about the Nile River? Because, quite simply, no river runs longer. We are drawn to the highest peaks and edges of our capabilities – it is just human nature. So at 1,500 feet higher and 11 miles longer than the Inca Trail, the Salkantay Trail is the undisputable juggernaut of the many different paths to Machu Picchu.
On the second day alone, trekkers pass through snow-capped mountains at 15,000+ feet, walk through vast greenery in an alpine countryside, make their way down through a colorful jungle and end walking next to the massive Andes Mountains. The 11 miles are like four day hikes combined into one – and that is just one of the five days.
Still aren’t convinced? Or do you just want more – more days, more miles, and more donkeys? Well, fortunately, there’s a little known secret that joins these two hikes: that you can complete both in one go! The Salkantay Trail actually feeds into the Inca Trail, so if the Inca Trail is on your bucket list in permanent marker then be at ease and book the 7-day Salkantay and Inca Trail package (I recommend Llama Path).
OK, that was a lot of information and hopefully I’ve helped place Machu Picchu and the Salkantay Trail near the top of your travel list. Unfortunately the (big) problem with travel is that it costs money. And with the need to hire a guide and potentially porter, chef, etc., means that the roughly $500 per person cost of the 5-day Salkantay Trail can rise quickly. I’m not going to refute that.
For those that can manage finances though, the flight doesn’t need to cost so much. Welcome to the world of credit card churning, where thousands of people – including me – earn frequent flyer miles via credit card bonuses to enable significantly cheaper travel. As someone who earned 2,000,000 frequent flyer miles in three years – and saw my credit score rise in the process – all I will say is a $70 business-class flight to Cusco made the Salkantay Trail price that much easier to swallow.
After traveling to 30+ countries, the Salkantay Trail and resting my eyes on Machu Picchu was among the top two or three experiences in my lifetime. It is also the first destination I recommend to people and I recommend doing it right. But ultimately, whether it is via the Inca, Salkantay or some other trail, making a multi-day trek hiking to Machu Picchu is a travel badge of honor and should be on everyone’s travel lists.
Kyle is the writer behind Mr. Free Miles, which shows readers how to earn frequent flyer miles and then use them to travel the world for less. Currently on a 40 country around-the-world trip, Kyle can be contacted on his website, Facebook or Twitter.
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