There are several alternative treks to the Inca Trail, some of which have now become famous in their own right. However, for trekkers looking for a varied and challenging trek, the Vilcabamba trek offers an authentic experience of high-altitude trekking.
The Vilcabamba trek is a less commonly attempted trek that takes you away from the crowds to some remote high-altitude trails and through gorgeous mountain terrain with stupendous views in the area where the Inca made their last stand. It takes in some important Inca ruins on the first day before heading high up into the mountains and crossing at least seven passes of over 4,000 m. This challenging trek is for the more adventurous spirits and can be combined with a visit to Machu Picchu on the final day.
- Visiting the important Inca ruins of Vitcos-Rosapata and Ñustahispana (the ‘White ‘Rock’)
- Less common trekking route with few other tourists
- Beautiful scenery and stunning mountain vistas
- Succession of impressive high passes
- Easy to visit Machu Picchu on the final day
- No facilities along the route and no official campsites (some may argue that this make the trail even better and more authentic)
- Tough trek at high altitude with risk of altitude sickness, so advised to bring a professional trekking guide with you on the trek
|Trek Difficulty:||Challenging of all the alternative treks to the Inca Trail|
|Trek Duration:||5 days|
|Maximum Altitude:||4500 m while crossing the Tulla Tacanca Pass|
|Accommodation Type:||Camping but no official campsites|
|Best Season:||May - September|
|Start / End Locations:||Cusco – Huancacalle / Aguas Calientes – Ollantaytambo – Cusco|
|Permits Required:||None for the trek but ticket necessary to visit Machu Picchu|
|Fitness Level Required:||Good|
Day 1: Cusco (3399m) – Huancacalle (2975 m), 8 hours
A long drive from Cusco to the start of the trail at Huancacalle. Trekkers can then hike out to visit the ruins of Vitcos-Rosapata and Ñustahispana. This hike will take around two hours.
Day 2: Huancacalle – Racachaca (3570 m), 16 km, 8- 12 hours
The first day takes trekkers up to the Asuntina Pass (3915 m), taking around 4 - 5 hours. From the Pass, majestic snow-capped mountains are visible in the distance. Following this, the trail descends to the village of Pillaukasa and on to the campsite at Racachaca.
Day 3: Racachaca – Mutuypata (3000 m), 16 km, 8-12 hours.
This tough day of trekking involves crossing three high passes. The first is the Yanacocha Pass (4420 m), which is followed by the Tulla Tacanca Pass (4500 m), the highest point on the trek. After conquering the third pass, Abra Mujun (4100 m), trekkers descend to the campsite at Mutuypata for some well-deserved rest.
Day 4: Mutuypata – Yanatile (1124 m) – Aguas Calientes (2040 m), 7 km, 6-7 hours
From Mutuypata, trekkers will then head towards the village of Yanatile. From Yanatile, they will take a transport to the hydroelectric station. After two more hours of trekking, the trek ends at Aguas Calientes.
Day 5: Visit Machu Picchu and return to Cusco
An early morning tour of Machu Picchu is followed by a train ride to Ollantaytambo and then back to Cusco.
Most itineraries of this trek follow and stop at the same places as explained above. However, one variation may occur on day 1, if trekkers choose to camp near the ruins of Vitcos, which makes the duration of day 2’s trek slightly shorter. After this, the itinerary is same as outlined above.
Alternative treks to the Vilcabamba trek
There are a couple of highly adventurous and seldom-attempted alternative itineraries, and to some degree extensions, to the Vilcabamba Trek as per the below:
- Vilcabamba and Choquequirao trek: The trek will start at Huancacalle and head south, joining with the Choquequirao Trek (taking in the Inca ruins of Choquequirao) and finishing at Cachora after 7 or 8 days. This trek doesn’t finish at Aguas Calientes so it would be less convenient to visit Machu Picchu at the end.
- Vilcabamba, Choquequirao and Espíritu Pampa Ruins: Another rarely-attempted but highly rewarding Peru trek would be to combine the Vilcabamba trek with the Choquequirao trek plus a visit to the ruins at Espíritu Pampa, the site of the Incas’ last hideout before their final conquest by the Spanish. This trek would take around 12 days, starting at Cachora in the south and finishing at Chaunquiri in the north before catching a transport to Aguas Calientes for a visit to Machu Picchu at the end of the trek.
- Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness can strike at altitudes of above around 2000 –2400 m and there is no way to tell in advance who will be affected. This trek rarely descends below 2000 m where most of the time trekkers remain above 3000 m, and topping 4400 m twice. This means altitude sickness is a very real risk. The only way to prepare for strenuous activity at high altitude is to spend a few days acclimatising without exerting oneself. It is highly recommended to spend two days in Cusco before attempting this trek.
While on the trek, please drink enough water, get enough food, bring altitude pills such as Diamox, and don’t exert yourself too much. Please read our article about altitude sickness for further information.
- Physical Fitness
This is a very challenging trek involving difficult, steep sections and high altitudes. Therefore, the Vilcabamba trek should only be attempted by those in good physical condition. If possible, it is advisable to attempt shorter hikes at lower altitudes to build up fitness and conditioning in the days before attempting the Vilcabamba Trek.
- The third day while trekking the Vilcabamba trek can be muddy, even during dry season. Wear gaiters on this day to keep your feet and legs dry.
- While it is possible to trek this trail independently and without a guide, the trail is poorly marked and it is easy to get lost. This trek should therefore only be undertaken independently by highly experienced trekkers. However, even if you are a very experienced trekker, we highly recommend to bring an experienced trekking guide with you.
The Vilcabamba trek is a great option for those who like to take a different and remote trail. It includes high passes, spectacular and varied scenery, and rarely-visited Inca ruins. This trek is far from the more common approaches to Machu Picchu, and you are unlikely to see another tourist for the whole duration of the trek!