How to see Machu Picchu in a sustainable way

“Here in the Andes we believe in reciprocity,” my guide Isao tells me, handing out coca leaves and instructing me to hold the dried stalks together, creating a fan of crisp green at my fingertips. Up until this point, I’ve chewed them and brewed them in tea for soroche – altitude sickness. Now, on the Salkantay Pass, we are 4,620 meters above sea level, just 200 meters from the summit of Mont Blanc in Switzerland.

To ask for safe passage on this hike, I place coca leaves on the rocks at my feet. It is an offering to the gods (known as apus) that, according to Andean beliefs, inhabit these mountains, including the snow-covered 6,271-meter Nevado Salkantay, in whose long shadow I am.

This talk of reciprocity is not just a buzzword in this part of the Andes. It is an integral part of the contract between humans and the environment – ​​something we might call “sustainability” in other parts of the planet – that has existed here for millennia.

I’m hiking the Salkantay Trail, a four-day, 64 km hike that winds through the high Andean gorges in the Vilcabamba mountain range, just a short distance from the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco. From the pass, the trail plunges into open river valleys covered in green cloud forest to reach Aguas Calientes, the town beneath the remarkable Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.

An explorer on the Salkantay Trail

(Steph Dyson)

Although I spent seven months living in Cusco a few years ago, I never set foot in Machu Picchu. Instead, I focused on immersing myself in the local scene, reluctant to add my footprints to those of the 25,000 hikers who walked the Inca Trail every year.

This mountain town’s battles with tourism and sustainability were widely publicized. In 2017, Unesco threatened to list Machu Picchu on its endangered heritage, while a controversial new proposed international airport in nearby Chinchero is due for completion in 2025, with major implications for excessive tourism.

Larger than Cusco’s existing airport, it will allow flights from as far away as Europe to bypass Lima and Cusco and land directly at Machu Picchu’s doorstep. Critics are concerned about the environmental impact that a dramatically increased influx of visitors can bring.

In 2017, Unesco threatened to list Machu Picchu in its endangered heritage, while a controversial new international airport is due for completion in 2025.

As a visitor, I am fully aware of contributing to the region’s sustainability concerns. Taking a less traveled trail that disperses visitors more widely across the Andes – as well as providing financial opportunities for local farming communities to diversify their income – is one way to minimize this impact.

Unlike the Inca Trail, on the way to Salkantay you won’t find rows of tired hikers or bloated camps. In fact, apart from my trekking group of just eight people, I encounter only a few other hikers along the entire route. Led by the indigenously-owned company Alpaca Expeditions, our tour stops at a local coffee farm and employs guides, porters and chefs from the remote communities that surround the Sacred Valley.


To help acclimatize before the hike, I swapped Cusco’s 3,399-meter elevation for the lower elevations of the Sacred Valley, a swath of fertile land 15km northeast of the city and revered by the Inca people for its bountiful harvests. At Inkaterra Urubamba, a sustainable five-star hotel operated by the world’s first climate-friendly hotel brand, I learned how they have supported sustainability efforts at Machu Picchu.

“First, we donated a compacting machine to process the seven tons of plastic waste produced daily in Aguas Calientes”, explains general manager Joaquín Escudero. It details how they built a treatment center to convert organic waste into biochar, a fertilizer now used to reforest the Andean forest around Machu Picchu. The Inkaterra team has also installed facilities to transform cooking oil into biodiesel – fuel that, it is hoped, will soon fuel buses that take visitors to the star attraction. All these initiatives aim to make Machu Picchu the first carbon neutral wonder of the world.

During my stay in Cusco, I made sure to stock up at Green Point, a pioneer among the city’s plethora of new vegan restaurants. Here, the plant-based take on dishes praised as ceviche (mushrooms, rather than fish, “boiled” in lemon juice) allow you to enjoy Peruvian cuisine with less impact on the environment.

Taking a less traveled trail that disperses visitors more widely across the Andes – as well as providing opportunities for residents – is one way to minimize its impact.

Back on the trail, the scenery changes as we descend from Santalkay Pass. Home to 84 of the world’s 103 ecosystems, Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. From the pebble of a now receding glacier, where pale blue butterflies flutter between periwinkle lupines, I enter the thick foliage of the Andean cloud forest.

Delicate orchids and rust-colored bromeliads cling like leeches to trees, while it’s impossible to convince hummingbirds that take pictures. I don’t see any, but Isao assures me that Andean spectacled bears – of which Michael Bond’s creation Paddington is the most famous – are also here.

When traveling with Alpaca Expeditions, it’s easy to feel good about your interactions with the locals. A pioneer in social sustainability, the operator has been working here on various socio-economic issues surrounding tourism. Its biggest mission has been to address the fact that porters who carry tourists’ bags on the trails do not usually enter Machu Picchu.

Untouched nature along the Santalkay Trail

(Steph Dyson)

As such, many porters trek the Inca Trail over 200 times and still never get to see the world-famous city. Alpaca Expeditions has already paid over 500 employees and their families to finally visit Machu Picchu and experience a vital part of its cultural history. It also organizes rubbish cleanups along the way, as well as being one of the first operators to hire guides and porters on their tours.

As we approach our destination, I am so grateful that I chose this company and this trail. Tackling remote mountain passes and taking place in rural villages feels more like the once sacred pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, so revered by the Incas, than the typical sightseeing tour.

Three days later, I am at the much-photographed viewpoint over Machu Picchu, its flattened plantation terraces and expertly assembled dry stone masonry looking as square and logical as a 15th-century version of Tetris.

I can see the beginnings of crowds exploring the once silent streets of the magical citadel, but it seems like a fair price to pay – after all, we avoided them for four glorious days of trekking through landscapes so overwhelmingly vast and wild. The Salkantay pass and my offering to the gods seem like a long time ago, but I get the feeling that traveling sustainably – with reciprocity in mind – is something we all owe to our Andean ancestors.

travel essentials

Getting there

Direct flights from London to Lima were shelved during the pandemic and did not return – the most direct route currently is via Bogotá, Colombia with Avianca, or Madrid with Iberia and LATAM. Once in Lima, it’s a 1-hour and 45-minute domestic flight or 24-hour bus ride to Cusco – if you’re going overland, split the trip by taking your time and making a few other stops along the way.

More information

The Salkantay guided hike can be booked through Alpaca Expeditions from March to early January, starting at £520 for five days, including all meals, plus coach transport to the trailhead and train from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco.

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