Alternatives to the Inca Trail
March 27, 2014 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I would like to take about a week-and-a-half-long trip in late May / early June of 2014. I originally wanted to go to Machu Picchu to hike the Inca Trail. However, after some research, I'm not sure if it's the best option for me.

According to Frommer's, in addition to having to pay to be part of a group hike - ideally, this would be solo - "hiking the Inca Trail, beautiful and mystical as it remains for most, is not a silent, solitary walk in the clouds. At least in high season, you will contend with groups walking the trail both in front of and behind you, and some will invariably be noisy student groups." I want the solitary walk in the clouds!

I want to take advantage of my current demographic (healthy, resourceful 27-year-old male in excellent physical shape with experience traveling alone in non-native-English-speaking countries). I can get by in a country where people speak only Spanish, but I have minimal other language skills (beyond English).

Can you think of alternatives to the Inca Trail that offer comparable scenery, a challenging hike, and that I could solo?

Feel free to try and change my mind about the Inca Trail!
posted by 3FLryan to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Are you married to the Sacred Valley of Peru? Because a week long trip is simply not going to be enough time to get there, acclimate to the altitude, do a multi-day hike in a remote area, and then get back to Lima and home. If you could go for ten days it might be feasible. Two weeks would be better.

How long are you looking to hike for, specifically? Are you looking for an overnight, or are you looking to spend your whole trip trekking? There are lots of other treks in Peru -- some in the Sacred Valley, some not -- but without knowing the length you're looking for it's hard to recommend something specific.

I'm not sure it is advisable to do any multi-day treks alone in Peru. More remote areas are not safe, and the treks closer to the tourist trail are dominated by package tours for various reasons.

If I had to pick a region where it might be both safe and possible to do a short/overnight solo trek in Peru, I'd be thinking more around Arequipa and the Colca Canyon area rather than the Sacred Valley. You'll also deal with fewer acclimation issues, which makes it ideal for a shorter trip. And Arequipa is a pretty interesting base for a trip to Peru.

Keep in mind that the Inca Trail itself is absolutely out of the question for a June 2014 trip, and was, from the get-go. There are limited spots at any given point, and they sell out several months in advance.
posted by Sara C. at 11:09 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could do a stretch of the camino in Spain. There would be lots of people around that time of year, but you could walk by yourself and do whatever you want.
posted by cacao at 11:15 AM on March 27, 2014

Response by poster: I am willing to go anywhere in the world - not just Peru, or even South America - as long as I can get by with the languages I listed (English and Spanish).

I'm not really married to anything, other than not having to buy a ticket to be part of a guided package.

It doesn't even have to be an overnight hike - I'm more looking for "breathtaking natural scenery that I can get to on my own, preferably outside the US". That's all the more detailed I can get at this point - this is more "I'll know it when I see it".
posted by 3FLryan at 11:24 AM on March 27, 2014

Oh, you can totally experience the breathtaking scenery of the Andes without doing the Inca Trail trek. I went solo in 2010 and just took chicken buses and did day hikes to random villages and ruins on my own. The feeling of being a solitary wanderer around the Sacred Valley is one of my favorite memories of that particular trip. You can walk for miles along the road, from village to village, just observing Andean rural life.

If you want to go to Macchu Pichu, my advice would be to take the train to Aguas Calientes and then hike up to the site on your own from there. It takes an hour or so, through challenging jungle terrain, and is a good taste of an Inca Trail sort of hike without the four day commitment or package tour vibe. When I did it, my youth hostel buddy and I got up before dawn, did the hike up to the ruins at daybreak, and were at Macchu Pichu in time to do all the things you can't really do if you opt for the Inca Trail, like take sunrise photos of the deserted ruins and hike up to Huayna Pichu. We had the trail to ourselves in the morning and Macchu Pichu pretty much to ourselves when we arrived.
posted by Sara C. at 11:34 AM on March 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

You should look into the Salkantay Trek instead. But I agree you may need longer than a week.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:53 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a good travel blog entry on hiking Salkantay. Reading this, it's not only longer than the Inca Trail, but also more challenging, with higher ascents. Apparently solo hikes are allowed, but I don't know, do you really want to be alone in a remote* area doing a very challenging activity at high altitude?

That said, it's a much quieter trail, and if you're up for the challenge and give yourself ample time (you'll need at least a day in Cusco before the trek, to acclimate), it could work. Here's another travel blog entry about the trek, this time from some people who did the trek unguided (but, it should be mentioned, not completely solo).

*While the Salkantay route is apparently close to "civilization", keep in mind that "civilization" doesn't include hospitals or ambulances or cell phone reception in this case. When you're alone in this environment, you are alone.
posted by Sara C. at 12:09 PM on March 27, 2014

You could consider hiking in the Himalaya in Nepal. If you stay off the most busy routes you can avoid most people and since so many people hike there the infrastructure is reasonable. It is certainly reasonably challenging.
posted by kadia_a at 12:10 PM on March 27, 2014

In Peru, you can go to Huaraz and find any number of guided group treks through the Andes, surrounded by extraordinary snowcapped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca.

I think there's one trek that climbs to one of those peaks, Nevado Pisco, without climbing experience required. I didn't do that but I did do a separate four day trek with unmatched scenery. Highly recommended.
posted by lewedswiver at 12:13 PM on March 27, 2014

If you are willing to do a different continent, I suggest walking the West Highland Way in Scotland. Your Spanish won't help you there, but, to some extent, neither will your American English.

You can do this safely alone, and, at that time of year, you will have some wonderfully, gorgeously bleak solitude.
posted by TrarNoir at 12:14 PM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Re: Huaraz

Just seeing the "solitary" requirement. There were definitely people doing the trek without guides, but make sure to get very good maps.
posted by lewedswiver at 12:18 PM on March 27, 2014

Kind of doesn't meet your 'out of the United States' requirement, but I just got back from a week in Puerto Rico and there is some truly breathtaking hiking there, especially on the Western side of the island which is less tourist heavy. I was specifically thinking of the Guanica forest, which I haven't been to, or Toro Negro, but even El Yunque which is the most visited rain forest in the world is ginormous and steep, which means that if you take some of the higher trails you will very likely be able to be alone. And the clouds are lovely :) Here's an article about Guanica and El Yunque. Airfare to PR is also generally dirt cheap, which means you might be able to afford more time, see more areas of the island.
posted by theweasel at 12:26 PM on March 27, 2014

The South American Explorer's Club might be able to help you to find alternatives. Many years ago, after finishing the Inca Trail walk to Machu Pichu, they helped me figure out a nice walk in the Cordillera Blanca. In addition to their Web presence, they also have offices in Lima and Cusco. You'll find many other countries/options on the linked page, as well.

And just throwing this one out there because it's on my "wish I'd done it" list: Consider a walk to one of the Venezuelan tepuis. Much harder to pull off as a solo walk though.

For future reference, since it wouldn't be advisable in May/June, you might consider Nepal. Wonderful walking in the Annapurnas.

Have fun.
posted by zueod at 12:57 PM on March 27, 2014

I did part of the Annapurna Trek in Nepal in June many years ago. This trail is very crowded in the high season but pretty much empty that time of year, because it's the rainy season. When I went, we had our pick of lodging (it's a teahouse trek) and often had lodges to ourselves.

Of course, this presents its own problems, namely that you don't get as many of the amazing snowy peak views as you would other times of the year. The other thing is that you're hiking village-to-village, so you do often see other people (porters bringing supplies to villages, kids on their way to school, farmers heading to the fields) but that is a really interesting cultural experience.
posted by lunasol at 12:59 PM on March 27, 2014

Response by poster: Awesome answers so far, thanks everyone.

I should also clarify I don't mind seeing some people (especially if they are locals). I just want to minimize the feeling that I'm walking in some big, gated and ticketed, outdoor amusement park.
posted by 3FLryan at 1:08 PM on March 27, 2014

It's probably too early in the year to consider anywhere in the north, but in the future you might be interested in checking out the Chilkoot Trail (lots of history, consider reading Pierre Berton's book on the Klondike goldrush at the same time), Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon, or for an even greater challenge, the Akshayuk Pass in Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island (though, this is maybe better with a partner or group due to some of the dangers of hiking there.
posted by jamincan at 1:17 PM on March 27, 2014

Isle of Skye?
posted by stompadour at 1:29 PM on March 27, 2014

Best answer: The thing about hiking in Peru, at least around the Sacred Valley, is that it's good to have really really good directions or a guide because there are just SO MANY trails of use, many ancient and many still used by people living remotely. The good news is sometimes these people can give you directions or some potatoes, Quechua helps. It is possible to hike solo but riskier if you're talking about overnights and best if you can sit down with someone whose done it and have a good long conversation (South American Explorers club would likely be fruitful.) Also, getting a guide doesn't necessarily mean you have to hike in a big mixed group. You can probably find someone to hire just for yourself or they may suggest joining up with a small group.

I know you said you would consider anywhere in the world but the hikes I did around the Sacred Valley were some of the best of my short life and were exactly like you describe: really cool ruins amidst magical, misty mountains.

Choquequirao Equally huge and stunning complex but less uncovered/restored than Machu Picchu and NO crowds. I personally really enjoyed hiking this trek with a guide (just one guy plus myself and boyfriend.) I would recommend 5 days so you get a whole day at the site itself and aren't exhuasted so longer than a week total trip would be ideal/necessary.

Headquarter yourself in Ollantaytambo or Urubamba and take a million awesome day hikes. To find out about the best ones and get reliable directions, it helps to be there and ask at your hostel or around town. There was a local hiking guide for sale in town at one time. Hiking up the Patacancha valley from Ollanta offers a lot of different options including the popular and accessible Pumamarca ruins, so so beautiful (and by popular I mean you man see 1-2 other people there or none.) 3-5 hours round trip from town. There are Las Canteras which can be found in guidebooks, you could also camp out up there for a night. A hike starting in nearby Pachar to Naupaiglesia ruins, Socma town and Perolniyoq waterfalls and more ruins. Hiking from Ollanta to Lares hot springs (many guides offer this trip but it's still not a crowded trail), two overnights and take a bus out from Lares. Day trip to the Salineras (natural salt pools), Moray (ruins) and Maras (church)...this can involve some hiking but is more on the sightseeing side. You will see other tourists at all sites.
posted by dahliachewswell at 1:37 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Choquequirao. I haven't done it, but I thought about it and it seems like exactly what you're looking for-- a less traveled inca trail to a site that is similar to machu pichu but not overrun with tourists.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:12 PM on March 27, 2014

My family did the Inca Trail this past summer, at the height of the season, and the Frommer's information is horribly outdated. The number of groups allowed on the trail is limited, and we only dealt with the noisy masses on the last day (when you share the trail with day-hikers).

For the first three days we'd see other hikers at the designated lunch spots, but otherwise we were almost always on our own. When we did see other hikers they tended to be as tired (or just quietly awestruck) as ourselves. It was a fantastic journey.

That fourth day, though, was awful. Suddenly it felt like we were in the Amazing Race, with groups of people rushing to get to the best viewing spots before anyone else. If you even stopped to take a picture a group would rush past to get ahead. Fast hikers actually pushed my nephews aside to pass! While slow hikers would try to block any faster hikers from passing. It was a strange experience after three days of peace.

Still worth it, though.

Of course, as Sara C. pointed out ... it's probably too late to get a permit for this season.
posted by kanewai at 7:31 PM on March 27, 2014

A few suggestions:

-If you're willing to go as part of a group of with a guide, the 'alternative' treks to machu picchu are all great and (in my experience) uncrowded. I did one of the alternative treks and we didn't see any other tourists until we arrived in aguas calientes.

-The mountains around huaraz are spectacular. There are many different treks you can do in the area, and you will probably only see other tourists on the most popular routes (and even then, very few). You can do this alone, though I'd make sure someone knows where you are.

-There are lots of day hikes that can be done from cajamarca and chachapoyas, and I'd guess that there are some longer treks. You can also trek to kuelap, billed as the next machu picchu, though still undergoing excavation. This part of peru is not visited by many western tourists though it's well worth the time.
posted by btkuhn at 10:24 PM on March 27, 2014

I'll nth Choquequirao. You can do a there-and-back trek to visit just those ruins, or you can actually do an ~8-9 day trek that visits Choquequirao and continues on to finish at Aguas Calientes / Machu Picchu. We would see other people on the trail maybe once every few days, so you can be as solitary as you want, and the mountains are amazing. But there are small villages, campsites, and trailside shops here and there (about one per day), so you're not completely alone.

With that, you get a great trek, see some great ruins that as others say are much less busy than Machu Picchu, and still see Machu Picchu at the end. I did the Choquequirao - Aguas Calientes trek with one friend, no guide. We were fine with enough preparation (SAE is a great resource, as others say), maps, and a GPS. And as mentioned above, after we got to Aguas Calientes we were able to hike up to Machu Picchu before sunrise and literally spent the entire day in the park: we were second in line to enter when they opened, and we left when they kicked everyone out in the evening. I highly recommend the trek and the all-day Machu Picchu experience.
posted by whatnotever at 8:10 AM on March 28, 2014

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