Please note: The Royal Inca Trail is currently closed. Trail repairs have not been made after the latest round of landslides and it is unclear if/when they will reopen. However, we now offer an additional easier route for the Inca Trail.
Most people think there is just one Inca Trail that takes hikers from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu — the “Classic” Inca Trail. However, there are actually two. The Royal (Alternative) Inca Trail starts and ends in the same place as the Classic Inca Trail but instead of going up and over the mountains, the Royal Trail stays along the Urubamba River. It is rarely visited, lower altitude, and has far fewer hills than the Classic Inca Trail, making it a fantastic option for many travelers.
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Zephyr Adventures guide Liz Miller guided a past Zephyr trip on the Royal Inca Trail. Here is her summary of this alternative route:
At nearly 14,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, Dead Woman’s Pass is a rite of passage on the popular Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The prerequisite of puffing over this pass may appeal to the no-pain-no-gain set, but others are intimidated, worrying about altitude sickness, fitness, and how their joints will fare on the route’s famed Inca staircases. If only they knew what I recently learned on my second trek to Machu Picchu: there is a lower, easier, four-day route to the emerald city of the Incas!
For many people, it is a life’s dream to explore the mystic ruins of Peru’s Machu Picchu. While it’s possible to reach this unburied treasure by train and bus, hiking to the area and getting a first glimpse of the ruins while entering the famed Sun Gate is a magical experience.
In 2008, I relished my first hike through the cloud forests and mountain ridges of the Peruvian high country. Our Peruvian guides led us over the same stone-reinforced trail the Incans used centuries ago to connect Machu Picchu and Cusco, the capital of their empire. Known now as the Classic Inca Trail, this is the most frequently traveled route to the famous ruins today. The 4-day Classic Route begins at 9,500 feet in elevation and, at its highest, climbs to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,860 in elevation. It also involves steep and significant declines to get back to Machu Picchu at less than 7,900 feet.
The Incas’ steep stair steps present a challenge for most hikers and a real trial for those who have difficulty adjusting to the altitude, poor fitness, or bad knees. Undoubtedly, many would-be hikers are turned off by the expected difficulties.
The Royal Inca Trail, also called the Original (or Alternative) Inca Trail, was most likely the first trail built by the Incas to connect Cusco to Machu Picchu. It starts in the Sacred Valley at the same departure point of the Classic Inca Trail, follows the Urubamba River canyon, and rejoins the Classic Inca Trail just before the final ascent to Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate.
The Royal Inca Trail averages 7,500 feet of elevation along the river canyon walls, rising only at the end to approach the ruins of Machu Picchu at just under 8,000 feet. Neither elevation nor killer hills are a usual problem with this route. An added plus is that during the three days we hiked on this trail we did not encounter any other trekking groups (and their many associated porters).
Is a trek to Machu Picchu on your bucket list? The Royal route is a photographer’s dream, with less altitude exposure, less strenuous hiking, and almost no crowds. It concludes with a fulfilling sense of personal achievement and a postcard-perfect first sighting of Machu Picchu’s emerald terraces.
All photos in this article were taken by Liz Miller on the October 2010 guided trek.