In May 2019, Albert Ciardi, an attorney from Philadelphia, traveled to Peru and, like millions of other visitors, trekked the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which he describes as “a sanctuary of unparalleled beauty.” But Ciardi also trekked the Inca Trail’s lesser-known cousin, the Great Inca Trail, which traverses another section of the 25,000-mile Inca road network that is the largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. This second trek allowed him “to get lost in the size of the empire,” and took him to the Chavín de Huántar, arguably the country’s most important pre-Incan ruins. But he was one of only 10 non-Peruvians there, which he says was “a shame.”
It’s an experience Peru’s government and private tourism are increasingly trying to change, by offering new trails and sites both to protect their prime attraction and to bring tourist revenue to other parts of the nation. As international tourists increasingly flock to Peru — up by almost 40 percent in the past five years — Machu Picchu has come under increasing pressure. Despite having to take both a two-hour flight and a three-hour train ride to reach the site from Lima, Machu Picchu saw 1.57 million visitors in 2018.
Restrictions on the entrance to the Inca Trail and to Machu Picchu are one part of the strategy to control the tourism there. The new daily limits — only 200 tourists and 300 guides or porters can trek on the Inca Trail — are spawning an array of other multiday hikes. Joining the better-known Lares and Salkantay treks in that growing roster is the newer Inca Quarry Trail, started by travel firm Intrepid Travel. Last year, some 2,000 people hiked the Quarry Trail with Intrepid (a threefold increase since 2013), says the firm’s Latin America general manager, Gary Cohen.
Farther afield, Nick Stanziano, co-founder and “chief explorer” of SA Expeditions, another firm, has pioneered the Great Inca Trail after hiking more than 2,000 miles (and counting) of old Inca roads himself. The trail — Ciardi is one of its early patrons — was launched commercially last year. To date, SA Expeditions has invested “well into six figures” in a project that Stanziano believes can ultimately bring in profits while also conserving the road and “promoting dignified development of Andean communities.”
Meanwhile, the government is investing heavily in attracting tourists to some sites. It recently spent $25 million on a cable car to Kuélap, the largest stone ruins complex in South America. Carlos Diaz, president of the Peruvian Association of Adventure and Ecotourism, says total visitor numbers there have trebled (from 50,000) as a result of the investment. And Diaz’s firm, Green Tours — which specializes in northern Peru — has seen inquiries double in the past two years.
Such efforts to diversify tourist offerings are commonplace in the First World but are rare in developing countries. Cambodia? Angkor Wat. Jordan? Petra. In Peru, too, some are content to continue milking Machu Picchu. But increasingly, many others are seeing the writing on the (megalithic stone) wall.
“Peru is getting more and more tourists, but everyone wants to go to the same places,” says Diaz. “It’s impossible to increase this way … It just won’t fit.”
To be sure, many of these initiatives are still nascent — and battling tough odds. On the Quarry Trail, for instance, Intrepid has found some travelers disappointed that they couldn’t get on the Inca Trail, though the firm has received no “negative feedback” on the new experience, which is less crowded and just as grueling. It helps that the Quarry Trail still ends in a visit to Machu Picchu (even if you do get there by vehicle). Beginning next year, members of the U.S.-based Sierra Club will be able to hike the Great Inca Trail with SA Expeditions — a partnership that will surely boost numbers.
Some of the Peruvian government’s efforts have raised eyebrows, however. At Machu Picchu, the day is split into three shifts, ostensibly to control crowds. But critics point out that this effectively allows for greater footfall daily than would otherwise be the case. And it recently resuscitated a plan to build a new, larger airport at Cusco, the nearest big city to Machu Picchu, which can accommodate more flights.
At Kuélap in northern Peru, only 20 percent of the 150,000 annual visitors are foreign. And despite the spike in inquiries, Green Tours has seen bookings increase by only 25 percent in the past two years. The challenges in promoting international tourism in Kuélap include the fact that the nearest proper airport is four hours away and there is a dearth of top-notch restaurants, guides and hotels in the area, says Diaz. That’s in part due to the region’s extreme rainy season, which has put large investors off.
But for those who have tried these new trails and destinations, the experience has been worth it. Ciardi, for instance, says that on the Great Inca Trail — where the road, with its ancient causeways and staircases, is the monument — he saw “no other hikers for five days.” That’s not surprising. The country is blessed with hundreds of important ruins, among them a dozen or so to rival Machu Picchu — including Chavín de Huántar, Marcahuamachuco and Kuélap.
The biggest challenge facing all these new attractions on Peru’s menu is to recalibrate the mental associations that have been taking shape ever since Hiram Bingham’s quest to find the Lost City of the Incas over a century ago. (Nevermind the fact that, according to historians, the honor of that title actually belongs not to Machu Picchu but to Vilcabamba, which sees hardly any tourists.) It’s no coincidence that Kuélap is often described as “the next Machu Picchu” despite being 2,000 years older than the Inca sanctuary. Or that both Cohen’s and Stanziano’s new trekking product contain the term “Inca Trail.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this all as lazy marketing, but in a world of hashtags and search engine optimization, those behind these initiatives argue that piggybacking on established brands is the way to go. “We need to harness the power of the Inca Trail brand and use it to spread visitors over a larger array of Inca trails. Trails that are just as impressive as the one leading to Machu Picchu and far less crowded,” says Stanziano.
After all, remember that the trek the world knows as the Inca Trail is a tiny 26-mile stretch of a 25,000-mile network of trails built by the Incas — a network that’s once again opening up to the world.