Machu Picchu Expeditions – Culture, Authenticity & Avoiding the Crowds

Expedition: Machu Picchu Trek – Peru: Hidden Valleys of Salkantay

360 Expeditions

Perched atop steep cliffs, shrouded in mist and hidden by the mountains, Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most striking archaeological sites and an unmissable destination for any enthusiastic trekker. A 15th-century Incan citadel abandoned in the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, no Europeans visited Machu Picchu until the 19th century, when a series of explorers and plunderers were re-introduced to the site by locals. The citadel’s scale, surroundings and mythology have bewitched visitors ever since. Today, more than 1.5 million people visit Machu Picchu every year and the Inca Trail – the trekking route leading to the site – ranks amongst the most popular in the world.

Over the years, the 360 Expeditions team has taken many routes to Machu Picchu. While the “official” Inca Trail remains the most popular with visitors, we believe the amount of traffic on the trail means it is no longer the best option. With this in mind, we wanted to take the opportunity to discuss culture, authenticity and avoiding the crowds when visiting Machu Picchu. At the same time, we provide an alternative trekking route that avoids many of the issues associated with the Inca Trail.

Understanding Inca culture and heritage

We still have much to learn about Machu Picchu, its Inca inhabitants and the culture in which the site was built, developed and abandoned. Modern archaeologists, anthropologists and other experts continue to expand our understanding of pre-Columbian America and a civilisation that spanned parts of modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador. A staggeringly successful empire that rose to prominence without many technologies considered central to European cultures, including the wheel, a written language, or iron and steel, the Inca’s achievements fascinate and enthral the scientists, writers, academics and travellers who encounter them.

From complex knot-based record-keeping systems and advanced road networks that spanned 40,000 kilometres of coastline to remarkable agricultural innovations and a widespread money-less economy, the Inca civilisation was intriguingly distinct. Sites like Machu Picchu speak to the power and capabilities of a people who left no written history and about whom we know relatively little.

Much of which we do know is tempered by Europe’s role in the end of the Incan civilisation. Beginning in 1532, the Spanish conquest and colonisation of the Incan empire was complete by 1572. In forty years, the greatest empire the continent had ever seen collapsed under the weight of imported epidemics, infighting and Spanish superiority of arms. Understandably, today’s scholars are increasingly wary of taking Spanish accounts of Incan culture at face value and what we know of the Inca is constantly being reappraised and reassessed as new information comes to light.

Emphasising authenticity and appreciating your surroundings

With this cultural context in mind, 360 wants to provide an expedition that enables you to immerse yourself in the majesty of the Andean landscape, connect with the contemporary communities that call this region their home, and fully appreciate Machu Picchu and its cultural and historical significance. We want to offer an authentic and respectful experience that recognises Machu Picchu is more than a destination to be ticked off the travel list and endeavours to show you the trails less trodden. 

From remote sheep-herding communities and ancient Incan canals to glacial lakes and secluded mountain passes, the 360 Expeditions trek explores the world the Incas inhabited. It culminates in your arrival at Machu Picchu via Inti Punku – the Sun Gate – but it isn’t your traditional Inca Trail itinerary. We’ll explain the reasons for that later. 

The Inca Trail itinerary 

The Inca Trail is arguably the most famous of the Machu Picchu trekking trails. Usually a four-day expedition, the popular route sees participants transferring from Cusco to KM 82 by bus, from which the day’s 14 km trek begins. Passing the Inca site of Patallaqta, you will head for the town of Huayllabamba, where you spend the first night. All in all, it is a relatively easy start to proceedings.

Day two takes you from Huayllabamba to Pacaymayu via an 11 km route. However, there is considerably more elevation gain, with a severe climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass. Day three is a 16 km journey from Pacaymayu to Wiñaywayna and involves a long, steady descent. Many people think this will be an easy day, but it is hard going and often catches people out. The final day sees trekkers rise early to reach the Sun Gate for dawn. You then have half a day to explore the site before heading to Machu Picchu Pueblo and transferring to your next destination.

The reality of the Inca Trail

We’ve walked the Inca Trail many times and it passes through some astonishing landscapes. However, if you haven’t experienced it first-hand, it is difficult to comprehend just how busy the trail is. It certainly isn’t a peaceful trek through secluded Peruvian wilderness. It is a well-oiled tourism machine, with trekking groups allotted strict departure times and staggered to ensure things keep moving.

Popular with young trekkers and with 500 permits given out daily, the Inca Trail can feel crowded. That is not the kind of expedition 360 likes to organise. We enjoy experiences that emphasise the cultural and try to provide an authentic insight into our destination’s historic and contemporary communities. We prioritise less busy routes and prefer accommodation that meets minimum standards for cleanliness and comfort – both of which are tricky to find on the “official” Inca Trail.

However, we understand that the Inca Trail is iconic and that many people want to experience it. For this reason, we always make sure our final day incorporates the classic trek up to the Sun Gate on the Inca Trail. It means participants get a little time on the trail and enjoy that wow moment of reaching the citadel on foot. Which is a big deal. The moment you first see Machu Picchu spread out beneath you is unforgettable – the culmination of a challenging and rewarding trekking adventure. You don’t want your first sighting to be from the bus.

Avoiding the Inca Trail until the final day also means we spend most of the time on a route we prefer in almost every way. If you’re looking for an utterly unique Machu Picchu trekking experience that avoids the crowds, introduces you to ancient Incan trails and allows for interactions with the land’s modern inhabitants, the Hidden Valleys of Salkantay route is for you.

The 360 Hidden Valleys of Salkantay Trek

The Hidden Valleys of Salkantay is simply spectacular. Few trekking routes anywhere in the world can compete with the sublime landscapes you encounter on this quiet and secluded Andean odyssey. Starting from Soraypampa, the route encompasses high plateaus, mountain passes, glacial lakes, sacred mountains and Incan archaeological sites. It takes you to parts of the mountains few people ever see and offers an achievable physical challenge, making the trek’s climax at Machu Picchu feel well-earned.

To give you an idea of how a Hidden Valleys of Salkantay trek unfolds, here is the 360 Expeditions itinerary. It does not include the three days of preliminary hiking around Cusco, Moray and Moras to settle in and acclimatise. You can find the full itinerary on our Machu Picchu Trek expedition page.

Day One – Soraypampa to Salktantaypampa 

(4 km, 510 m ascent and approx 5 hours)

Typically, we take the first day to acclimatise to the altitude. To do so, we ascend to the base of the Humantay glacier (4,200m) and one of the region’s most beautiful lakes. From here, the views are fantastic and foreshadow the incredible scenery you will pass through over the coming days. We descend back to our camp for lunch, before making the two-hour trek to our Salktantaypampa campsite. 

Day Two – Salktantaypampa to Sisaypampa

(16 km, 1,050 m ascent and approx 8-12 hours)

Today, the trekking begins in earnest and, following a good breakfast, we start on a long and challenging ascent up to Salkantay Incachiriaska Pass. At 5,200 metres, this is a true high mountain pass and the sacred Nevado Salkantay mountain will overlook us throughout much of the day, an imposing presence expressive of the Andes’ sheer scale and monumental size. Sitting down for lunch just after the day’s high point, we will descend to tonight’s camp at Sisaypampa, arriving mid-afternoon.

Day Three – Sisaypampa to Chamana

(17 km, 0 m ascent and approx 8-12 hours)

Just because the trekking is all downhill does not make this an easy day – it is certainly still a challenge. However, the Pampacahuana Valley makes it worth the effort. As well as a range of small farm settlements, we pass an ancient Incan canal and several archaeological sites. Towards the end of the day, we approach the “official” Inca trail, passing Huayllabamba, where most Inca Trail trekkers spend their first night. To guarantee a more pleasant and relaxing evening and night, we camp at Chamana.

Day Four – Llactapata to Piscacucho

(6km, 50 m ascent and approx 5 hours)

Now on the edge of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, we will spend the morning exploring the Llactapata site, famous for its impressive terracing and landscaping. We then follow the original Inca trail to the famous bridge at Quoriwairachina, more commonly referred to as Km 88. Crossing the river, we switch to a less busy trail to the road-head at Piscacucho. This is Km 82 – the starting point for most trekkers tackling the official Inca Trail.

At Km 82, we will meet our drivers and make the short transfer to our hotel in Ollantaytambo, where warm showers and real beds await!

Day Five – Inca Trail km104 to Machu Picchu

(11km Chachabamba 2,100m up to 2,650 Sun Gate. Descent to 2,400 Machu Picchu is (11km 550m ascent, 250 descent in 5 hours)

We begin the day by catching the train to km 104, where we will pick up what is arguably the most beautiful stretch of the Inca Trail. Taking in the restored ruins at Chachabamba along the way, we will gradually ascend through cloud forest toward Wiñay Wayna. Climbing old Incan stairways, you will have time to explore the terraces, buildings and water features that line the way.

After stopping for lunch, we continue through lush vegetation, wild orchids and tropical songbirds contributing wild flashes of colour. Before long, you will approach the final set of stairs leading up to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. As you crest the climb and step through the gate, Machu Picchu appears beneath you. After marvelling at the site and taking your photos, we will carry on past the site to catch the bus down to Machu Picchu Pueblo and your hotel. Tomorrow, we return to explore the site for real.

Day Six – Machu Picchu

Today is all about exploring an iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the wonders of the world, Machu Picchu. Trekkers usually discuss and arrange their preferred arrival time with their 360 guide the day before, though we typically aim for an 8 am entrance as this avoids the manic sunrise rush and allows for a more leisurely breakfast. 

After a 20-minute bus journey up to the site, you will finally enter Machu Picchu. You have the entire morning to explore the site and will benefit from a fully guided tour of the residential, religious and agricultural features. In the afternoon, we catch the train heading down the Sacred Valley of the Incas and then transfer via to our hotel.

Why choose the Hidden Valleys of Salkantay route over the “official” Inca Trail?

At 360, we think there are four main reasons to choose our Hidden Valleys of Salkantay route over all others.

  • The crowds

For most trekkers, this is the biggest reason to avoid the “official” Inca Trail. It is rarely peaceful and does not provide that sense of seclusion so many people seek from the mountains. In contrast, the Hidden Valleys of Salkantay route takes you far off the beaten track, to places that few other Machu Picchu visitors will ever see.

  • Accommodation and food

The number of trekkers passing along the Inca Trail means the facilities are less than stellar. In fact, they are typically smelly, rowdy and uncomfortable. Things could not be more different on our 360 trek. The accommodation and food are first rate – each meal is a very welcome three-course delight and the team comes around to your tent with a hot drink every morning and a hot water bottle at night. The quality is just next-level and not something you typically expect on a trek like this.

  • Authentic insight

Our fully accredited guides on the Hidden Valleys of Salkantay route are local and their passion for the region shines through. They benefit from unparalleled knowledge and bring the trip alive, providing authentic insight into local communities and their connection to the land and its history. They are all fluent in English and speak Spanish and the local dialect.

  • Emphasis on culture

Often, “official” Inca Trail experiences fail to deliver when it comes to communicating the cultural, historical and natural contexts that make Machu Picchu so special. Yes, the site is remarkable in its own right, without any of this knowledge. But a better understanding of why Machu Picchu is so important and has captured the imaginations of so many, so strongly, really enhances the experience. On the 360 Hidden Valleys of Salkantay trek, we aim to emphasise the cultural aspects of the experience, while providing a physical challenge.

Machu Picchu Trek – The Hidden Valleys of Salkantay with 360 Expeditions

For us at 360, the Hidden Valleys of Salkantay trek is hands-down the best way to experience Machu Picchu and the surrounding region. While the “official” Inca Trail benefits from the romance of being one of the continent’s most iconic trekking routes, the reality is far from romantic and certainly does not provide the experience most trekkers want. With the Hidden Valleys, you get that sense of seclusion and natural wonder, visit places few other trekkers will ever step foot, and enjoy authentic historical and cultural insights. It is a unique opportunity to experience one of history’s great civilizations without the crowds, accompanied by people who truly care for and understand the region.

Learn more about our trek on the 360 Machu Picchu Trek – The Hidden Valleys of Salkantay expedition page. Alternatively, reach out to the 360 team with any questions you may have.

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