The Way to Macchu Picchu – Inca Trail & Lares Trek Compared

There are some questions that will continue to divide Man for all eternity – which one’s best, Pepsi or Coca Cola, Marmite or Vegemite, brown sauce or ketchup in your bacon sandwich? Pushing thoughts of food aside, for travellers the ultimate ‘which one is the best?’ question is reserved for the different trekking routes that take you to that most enigmatic of new world wonders – the incredible Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. If you currently find yourself faced with this particular dilemma, here’s our day-by-day, no-holds-barred comparison of the Inca Trail and Lares Trek to help you make the decision for yourself.

Day 1 – Inca Trail & Lares Trek Compared

Day 1 on Inca Trail - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
The Inca terraces of Llactapata seen on day 1 of the Inca Trail. Photo credit: Becky Lai

Inca Trail

The day begins in Ollantaytambo with a short drive to Kilometre 82, the official starting point of the Inca Trail. Today is probably the latest start you’ll enjoy at a very reasonable 10:30am. From KM82 you cross the Vilcanota River for a steep uphill trek considered the hardest part of the day. You’ll pass a small Andean village and the Inca hill fort of Huillca Raccay (or Willkaraqay as it is also known). Here you can enjoy impressive views of the agricultural terraces of Llactapata, located at the bottom of the valley. Following the Cuischaca River through undulating terrain, it’s a 7km hike along the left bank to the campsite at Huyallabamba, which you’ll arrive at around 4:30pm. Here trekking groups are spread out across the campsite to allow more space. There are toilets and hot showers here that can be used for 10 soles.

Trekking time: Approx. 4-5 hours.

Highlight of the day: The beautiful views of the surrounding landscape from the Llactapata ruins.

Low point of the day: The steep incline that greets you after crossing the bridge that marks the starting point of the trek.

Ancasmarca ruins - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
On day 1 of the Lares Trek you have these Inca ruins largely to yourself

Lares Trek

From Cuzco drive an hour to the town of Calca where you can enjoy breakfast at the main market before shopping for snacks and goodies to hand out to the Andean children you’ll meet along the trek. You’ll also visit a local bakery that uses age-old methods to create delicious bread rolls. Continue to the ruins of Ancasmarca where Inca storage houses are peppered across the mountainside. From here it’s around a 2 hr drive to Chancachaca where camp is set up for lunch beside a stream. It’s then time to put those walking boots into action as you begin the trek with an uphill route with some enjoyable flats mixed in. The trail follows a route to the village of Huacahuasi (3,780m), a typical Andean community that has remained largely immune to the modern way of life. The final part of the trek continues to the Sondor (4,200m) where you’ll camp for the night with barely a soul around.

Trekking time: Approx. 4-5 hours.

Highlight of the day: The views of the Sacred Valley from Ancasmarca and having the Inca site to yourself.

Low point of the day: There isn’t one! You’re eased in nicely to the day of trekking, see an Inca ruin and an Andean village while surrounded by incredible mountain scenery.

Day 2 – Inca Trail & Lares Trek Compared

Dead Woman's Pass - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
View from Dead Woman’s Pass on day 2 of the Inca Trail. Photo credit: Filipe Fortes.

Inca Trail

The day starts early with a gradual 2km-long ascent before tackling a further 7 kilometres of uphill dirt tracks and stone paths to Warmiwañusca (Dead Woman’s Pass). It’s the highest point along the trek at 4,200 metres above sea level and make no mistake – it’s a challenge! Today you’ll gain over a 1,000 metres in elevation so although the trek itself isn’t too strenuous, the change in altitude makes it one of the hardest sections on the trail. It’s a surprisingly lush terrain of high jungle with some original Inca steps along the way. Some shade is provided by the vegetation but you’ll definitely feel the heat today though at the high pass you’ll be exposed to the biting Andean winds so layers are essential. It’s downhill after the high pass along rocky and quite steep trails that bring you to your campsite at Pacamay (3,600m).

Trekking time: Approx. 8-9 hours.

Highlight of the day: The sense of achievement as you make it over Dead Woman’s Pass to the applause of your fellow trekkers.

Low point of the day: The ache in your knees after a long day of trekking and walking down steep steps.

High altitude lakes - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
These scenic high altitude lakes are a highlight on day 2 of the Lares Trek

Lares Trek

An early start for the longest and toughest day of the trek. It’s a steep uphill climb to the first pass of the day in the Pumawanka mountains at an elevation of 4,600 metres above sea level. From this pass you can see incredible views of snow-capped peaks and a high-altitude lake. The route continues to the second high pass of the day, Wayruruyoc, which takes around two hours. Expect more amazing views. You then descend to the day’s picturesque lunch stop at Siki estanque, where local Andean farmers and their children pop by to say ‘hello’. The rest of the day is spent trekking through remote Andean villages where you’ll meet children returning home from school and get a chance to hand out your gifts. By the late afternoon you’ll be inching closer to civilisation, following a main road to your campsite at Pallata (3,200 metres). It’s a permanent campsite with hot showers, toilet, electricity and a covered dining area.

Trekking time: Approx. 8-9 hours.

Highlight of the day: The views of the lakes from the high pass.

Low point of the day: The effects of altitude – not everyone will suffer but if you’re going to, today will be the day as you reach a staggering 4,600 metres above sea level.

Day 3 – Inca Trail & Lares Trek Compared

Runkurakay ruins - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
The distinctive circular ruins of Runkurakay on the Inca Trail. Photo credit: Teddy Sipaseuth.

Inca Trail

It’s another morning of uphill trekking as you reach the second high pass of the journey at Runkurakay (3,950m) where you’ll also have some time to explore nearby Inca ruins. It takes around an hour to reach the remains of this distinctive circular building. It’s then a 6-kilometre trek downhill through subtropical forest where you’ll see colourful hummingbirds and be treated to some incredible scenery. A stop will be made at the Sayacmarca ruins, a fortress overlooking the valley, and the spectacular Phuyupatamarca ruins, home to six ritual baths. After lunch you continue downhill along a section of original Inca steps and paving that traces a route along the mountainside – it’s tough-going on your knees and a good reason why walking poles are such an essential piece of your packing gear on this trek. Today you will have descended some 950 metres to the campsite at Winay Wayna (2,700m).

Trekking time: Approx. 7-8 hours.

Highlight of the day: Getting a taste of what Machu Picchu might offer thanks to the three interesting Incan ruins visited today.

Low point of the day: Using the washrooms at the campsite – it’s one of the busiest, which means more people and more dirt and queues to contend with.

Views of Sacred Valley - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
The highly enjoyable last section of the Lares Trek traces its way through the Sacred Valley.

Lares Trek

This morning you can shower at the campsite before bidding farewell to the mule team, for today is the last day of trekking. After breakfast it’s a relatively easy uphill hike to the pre-Inca archaeological site of Pumamarca (3,150m) where you can explore the partially restored remains of an ancient town overlooking the incredibly picturesque valley below. It’s then a very scenic hike along an original Inca trail that is mostly flat, tracing a route along agricultural terraces and farm houses before descending to the large town of Ollantaytambo. Here’s where the trek comes to an end with lunch in a local restaurant before boarding the 1.5hr scenic train to Aguas Calientes where you’ll spend the night in a hotel. The afternoon is free to sample what gives the busy little town its name – the local hot springs. There’s lockers in which to leave your stuff and pools of varying temperatures to help you unwind.

Trekking time: Approx. 4-5 hours.

Highlights of the day: Being able to fully appreciate the views of the Sacred Valley along an enjoyable trekking trail; soaking your tired bones in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes; and sleeping in a proper bed again!

Low point of the day: The niggling feeling that you had it easy as your Inca Trail counterparts continue to slog their way across the Andes.

Day 4 – Inca Trail & Lares Trek Compared

Sun Gate views - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
The views from the famed Sun Gate are often shrouded by cloud. Photo credit: David Hamill.

Inca Trail

Wake up at 3:30am to leave camp by 4:15am and reach the checkpoint where there may be some waiting time before the doors open. Once through, you follow a narrow and vertiginous trail only two-people wide to reach the dreaded ‘monkey steps’, a hike that goes both up and down for a good hour and a half. So steep and narrow are these steps that some are reduced to practically crawling on their hands and knees or sliding down on their bum! But the reward for this is reaching the famed Sun Gate where the 200-odd trekkers will all congregate to watch the lost citadel reveal itself through the clouds and mist. It’s then a 20-30 minute gentle downhill walk to the main site where a guided tour awaits. After some free time to explore on your own, take the bus down to Aguas Calientes for lunch and the train back to Cuzco.

Trekking time: Approx. 2 hours.

Highlight of the day: Machu Picchu of course!

Low point of the day: The mad rush that ensues once past the checkpoint with trekkers eager to catch sunrise at the Sun Gate. What they don’t know is that the citadel is usually shrouded by cloud and mist until 7am when the sun eventually begins to burn through – in other words, you won’t see much anyway so take it easy.

Machu Picchu - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
It takes a few hours for the cloud to burn off and reveal Machu Picchu in all its glory.

Lares Trek

Up at 4:45am to queue for the bus to Machu Picchu, which departs at 5:30am. Expect a long queue though there’s dozens of buses that ply the 20 minute route up to the lost citadel so you will get there eventually. Once at Machu Picchu you’ll enjoy a guided tour of all the top sites within the citadel with plenty of free time to explore more like the Inca Bridge and the Sun Gate if you want to experience the views that the Inca Trail trekkers did this morning. Once your time is up, it’s a similar story with a bus ride back down to Aguas Calientes for the afternoon train to Cuzco.

Trekking time: 0 hours.

Highlight of the day: Machu Picchu of course!

Low point of the day: Queuing for the bus there – it can take up to an hour.

Hikers in the mountains - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
No matter which route you opt for, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views on both

Quick Fire Comparison – Inca Trail vs Lares Trek

Still undecided on the right one for you? Here’s a little more info to help you make that choice.

Altitude: On the Inca Trail the highest point you reach is 4,215m while on the Lares Trek you’ll reach 4,600m. The highest located campsite on the Inca Trail is at an elevation of 3,600m compared to 4,220m on the Lares Treak.

The Trek: The Inca Trail is a 4 day trek with three full days of trekking whereas the Lares Trek is a 3 day trek with one full day of trekking sandwiched between two half days. There’s a mix of uphill climbs, downhill descents and pleasant flats on both treks though on the Inca Trail you have to tackle steep stairs and these are often considered the most difficult part of the trek. The Inca Trail is a total of 44km tackled in three full days and a few morning hours on the final day while the Lares Trek is 33km completed in the space of 48 hours.

The Permits: Only 500 permits are available for the Inca Trail on any given day and with over half of those permits required by trekking guides and porters, they often sell out up to six months in advance. This means you need to get in early to secure your spot on the trail, especially during the May-September high season. In comparison, you don’t need a permit for the Lares Trek so you can book onto this route with only a few weeks’ notice, perfect for those that have left their holiday plans to the last minute. And don’t forget that the Inca Trail is closed for the entire month of February for its annual maintenance. The Lares Trek is open year-round.

The Support: On the Inca Trail you have a team of porters carrying your camping equipment as well as 5kg of your own personal items (sleeping bags, change of clothes etc). On the Lares Trek you have a team of three and a few mules that carry all the equipment including 6kg of your own gear.

The Campsites: There are designated campsites along both routes but the main difference is in how many other people are at each campsite – on the Inca Trail you’ll be camping beside close to 500 other people while on the Lares Trek you’ll have the wilds of the Andes to yourself. On the Inca Trail you have access to showers on day 1 while on the Lares Trek this will happen on day 2.

The Sites: On the Inca Trail you’re following an original Inca route to Machu Picchu that passes numerous Inca ruins including the impressive fortress of Sayacmarca, the distinctive circular building of Runkurakay and the terraces of Phuyupatamarca, as well as a number of smaller ruins. You do also visit ruins on the Lares Trek – the Inca store houses of Ancasmarca and the dramatic site of Pumamarca – but you’ll have these largely to yourself unlike the ruins visited on the Inca Trail.

Machu Picchu - Inca Trail and Lares Trek compared
Whichever trek you choose, you’ll be awarded with this incredible sight

Conclusion

It may sound like a cop out but ultimately, it’s your decision. In general we find that the Inca Trail attracts those looking to tick off that bucket list entry, following the original route of the Incas to arrive at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. It may be busy and somewhat commercial but this popular route consistently proves to be the highlight of a trip to Peru. It also wins hands-down when it comes to the number and variety of Inca ruins you visit along the way. For those seeking a real challenge, common consensus is that this route is just that little bit more difficult – and longer.

On the other hand, the Lares Trek attracts those looking to escape the crowds and enjoy a more comfortable overnight experience before reaching the Inca citadel. The Lares Trek also appeals to those seeking a more cultural experience as it passes numerous Andean communities whereas the Inca Trail does not, tracing instead a route through uninhabited land. Whichever route you choose, both options are an incredible journey through spectacular Andean landscapes and enigmatic ruins, and are bound to be an unforgettable experience. Just don’t forget to prepare for the adventure!


Which one do you think sounds the best? Let us know in the comments section below or check out our full range of tours to Peru and get yourself on the way to Machu Picchu.

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