Machu Picchu Routes: Inca Trail or Lares Trek?

There are those questions in life that are sometimes just too hard to answer: Sweet or savory? The Beatles or The Stones? Sunrise or sunset? They present endless years of debates and when you finally think you’ve made up your mind, something happens to turn it upside down again.

Well, Machu Picchu is a great example of one of these questions…the question being, “How do I get there?” Every traveler who does their research into Machu Picchu is faced with a dilemma – to take the famous Inca Trail or the less-explored Lares Trek? Both treks have the same incredible result, and both offer up intense beauty, culture, and unrivaled experiences. Both are popular with travelers the world over, and both encounter high altitudes.

So how do you choose? Unlike determining who’s your favorite band, you have to make a decision or you’ll never get anywhere. Machu Picchu is just waiting to be explored, and there’s no time like the present to slip on your hiking boots. You just have to make one teeny-weeny choice first…

Inca Trail vs. Lares Trek

Right, first off, you’re not going to like it, but I’m not here to tell you what’s right and wrong. I’d be crazy to take on that kind of responsibility! What I can do though is offer you a quick (yet in-depth) overview of both treks, and using this information you can make your own decision.

The Inca Trail

Certainly the most famous of the two treks, the Inca Trail is the more popular of the two. This could mean that it’s the smarter choice, but it could also mean that you’ll be trekking alongside 500 other people. Is your brow furrowed already?

The Inca Trail offers a huge amount of history, and it passes through a variety of Inca ruin sites unreachable to tourists by any other means. It’s also the only Machu Picchu route that will take you through the ancient city’s famed Sun Gate, an experience so overwhelmingly beautiful it will change the way you view the world forever.

The Inca Trail is ideal for travelers wanting to combine the cultural highlights of the Sacred Valley with the challenge of one of the world’s best known hikes. Essentially, it’s the final stretch of the Inca road to Machu Picchu, so it’s little wonder that historically, it’s one of the most recognized and photographed trails in the world. What you will notice, however, is that most of the Inca Trail passes through uninhabited territory. If you’re hoping to pass through local villages, you may be disheartened.

The Inca Trail is challenging, taking four days from the floor of the Sacred Valley up high mountain passes and through cloud forests and jungle that undoubtedly test the limits of mind, body, and spirit. But that doesn’t mean it’s too hard to take on. As long as you are reasonably fit, you’ll be able to manage the Inca Trail.

Day two is a tough one, there’s no denying it. It’s a 7 km uphill trek to what the locals call Warmiwañusca. Travelers prefer to call it “Dead Woman’s Pass,” and at 4,210 meters above sea level, it involves a lot (and I mean a lot) of steps. It’s a tremendous feat, but so utterly worth it.

There’s a reason why the Inca Trail is so famous. There is no other trail in the world like it and by choosing this option, you will be treated to awe-inspiring view after awe-inspiring view. The fact that the trail is challenging makes it all the more special. You can do the Inca Trail as part of a tour, like the Inca Discovery tour from Lima to Cusco. The 8-day tour begins with a guided tour of the Sacred Valley, before embarking on the Inca trail.

Lares Trek

The Lares Trek is slightly shorter than the Inca Trail, but you still need to be reasonably fit to tackle it. At 33 kilometers, it’s 11 km shorter than the 44 km-long Inca Trail, but it still has steep descents and high altitudes. In fact, the Lares Trek features two 4,520 meter passes, 300 meters higher than Dead Woman’s Pass. For most, altitude sickness isn’t a problem, but some do experience a bit of nausea.

The biggest difference with Lares Trek is that it is far more inhabited, yet much less touristy. There’s no competition for trekking passes and no need to book in advance – a big plus if time is an issue.

The Lares Trek doesn’t offer the same historical ruins as the Inca Trail, but the fact that you trek through villages is pretty spectacular and memorable. With a guide at your side, you can communicate as the Incas once did, with the villages of Kiswani and Cancha Cancha still practicing the Incan lifestyle and speaking Quechua. Plus, you will still spot ruins.

If you’re looking for a complete experience of beautiful scenery, history, and culture, this trek certainly delivers. The views are breathtaking and you get a glimpse into a life that is so different from the Western world.

How to Choose

A good way to compare the two treks is to look at the Inca Trail as a guide to what once was. It takes you back to Ancient Incan times and reveals centuries-old secrets and masterful craftsmanship. The Lares Trek, on the other hand, offers a look into modern-day Andean life, taking you through villages and farms and offering opportunities to interact with Peru’s indigenous people.

Choosing which route to take has to be a personal choice. Thankfully, whatever choice you make will result in an adventure like no other. One where the end result is Machu Picchu – one of the world’s most jaw-dropping, emotionally-charged, and unforgettable destinations.