The approach to Machu Picchu is a winding, narrow climb through a forest of begonias, orchids, and mosses. Moving clouds of predawn mist cloak the peaks. The chirping of parakeets rings through the thin Andean air.
That, at least, is the way the Incas walked into their sacred city 500 years ago. Nowadays such a serene entrance is nearly impossible, especially if you've hiked in on the Inca Trail, the traditional thoroughfare to the ruins. In the past decade this 28-mile route has been overrun by tourists; some 89,000 hikers made the trek last year, and complaints about noise, litter, and a general lack of tranquillity are widespread.
Recently, though, independent hikers and a few outfitters have re-discovered an entire network of ancient Incan paths to Machu Picchu that bypass the tourism superhighway. These little-known routes weave an interconnected skein through the heart of the Sacred Valley, bisecting fields populated by burros, bulls, and the occasional farmer, with the snow-capped crags of the Andes as a backdrop. Many trails wind through stone ruins similar to those along the Inca Trail itself. There's even a partially excavated ancient city called Choquequirao, with temples and living quarters on display.
Hidden treasures like these — and the thrill of traveling literally off the beaten path — are luring adventurous travelers. "I had no intention of staring at a middle-aged Englishwoman's sweaty ass for three days while poor Peruvian farmers carried our packs, set up our tents, and cooked our food," says Dave Panitz, a student from Northern California who was one of just 3,500 people who hiked the Choquequirao route last year. Camping at night in open fields and among ruins, he met local farmers and villagers — and very few outsiders. Other trails are even less traveled than Choquequirao.
Adventure Specialists, a Colorado-based boutique outfitter, has run trips on these alternate trails since the mid-1970s. But now local companies, such as Auqui Mountain Spirit, and a growing number of bigger American outfits, including Mountain Travel Sobek and Wilderness Travel, are responding to the demand for a more authentic experience in the Sacred Valley. "Once you get off the main thoroughfares, it's like stepping back in time 500 years," says Gary Ziegler, founder of Adventure Specialists and an archaeologist who has spent the last three decades in the area. Last year Ziegler was on an expedition that found Incan ruins two miles from Machu Picchu — an indication of how much undiscovered history lies just outside the tourist zone.
It used to be possible to walk the Inca Trail without a guide and without hordes of backpackers. But overuse was causing erosion, and the Peruvian government responded by instituting a slew of restrictions in 2001, including a higher trail use fee, a limit on the number of trekkers per day (500), and a requirement that all hikers use a registered guide. And the overflow from the Inca Trail is bound to find its way into the rest of the valley — which remains unprotected. "With too much disruption, it could end in disaster," Ziegler says. "But right now, the trails and the locals are wonderful."
Getting There: Fly into Cuzco, gateway city to Machu Picchu, via Lima; then take a bus to Ollantaytambo, the best place to overnight before your trek.
Trekking: If you go sans guide, buy topo maps from South American Explorers in Cuzco (saexplorers.org). Adventure Specialists leads 12-day hiking and horsepack trips (adventurespecialists.org), and Mountain Travel Sobek offers two-week treks (mtsobek.com).
Route-Finding: There are many ways to bypass the crowded Inca Trail. The favorite Men's Journal route is an easy-to-follow riverside trip along the Rio Urubamba beginning at the ruins of Qoriwayrachina, where most trekkers on the traditional Inca Trail also start, and hiking northwest 26 miles past several ruins to Machu Picchu.
Best Rest Stop: When you arrive at Machu Picchu the journey is only half over — you still need to hike back. Before hitting the trail again, rest up at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, in Aguas Calientes, 20 minutes by hotel shuttle from the ruins. A Zen-like atmosphere (whitewashed cottages set among waterfalls and the world's largest collection of native orchids), along with an Andean hot-stone sauna and a choice of spa treatments, will turn your stiff muscles to putty (inkaterra.com).
Best Trip Extension: Whitewater rafters on the Class IV–V Apurimac River get their fill of both adrenaline and archaeology. A new 10-day rafting and hiking trip with Bio Bio Expeditions World Wide (bbxrafting.com) begins with a strenuous climb up the Apurimac Canyon and includes a stop at the ruins of Choquequirao — set in a cloud forest more than 5,000 feet above the river.