If you’re an independent trekker, you’d probably like to hike the Inca Trail without a guide. Maybe you’d like to trek the Inca Trail without porters and a cook, too. And, well, I don’t blame you.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible, unless you’re prepared to break the law and invest in some kind of cloaking device.
It’s Official: You Can’t Hike the Classic Inca Trail Without a Guide
The official Inca Trail regulations, as laid down by Peru’s Ministry of Tourism (MINCETUR), state that anyone walking the trail must be accompanied by an officially registered tour guide in an organized group. This has been the case since 2001.
Guides will normally be working for or with an officially registered Inca Trail tour operator, of which there are almost 200 (you can see my recommended Inca Trail tour operators here). Scheduled group departures are the norm, with groups of at most 16 trekkers (not including porters, cooks etc.).
Many operators also offer private Inca Trail treks. This is one way to ensure a smaller group size and greater personalized attention, but it’s significantly more expensive.
Alternatively, you can try to bypass the tour agencies altogether and organize a trip directly with an authorized guide based in Cusco. This is arguably the closest you’ll get to an independent hike in a small group: You could organize a hike along the Inca Trail with just you and the guide. It’s certainly more independent, but you’ll have to carry your own gear, including your share of the food and camping equipment. You’ll also have to place a great deal of trust in the guide, as you won’t be dealing with a larger tour agency (and it’s far easier to research a tour agency than to research the merits of a single guide).
These independent authorized guides can take no more than six trekkers in their group, and the guide is entirely responsible for the group and all services.
Ways to Hike to Machu Picchu Without a Guide
All of the information above refers to the classic Inca Trail. There are, of course, numerous Inca trails — and regular trails — that spreads across Cusco and Peru. You can, therefore, trek to Machu Picchu without a guide along alternative trails.
For example, you can hike the Lares and Salkantay trails without a guide, both of which lead to Machu Picchu. But you’ll need to be a fairly experienced trekker, and you’ll need to take into account things like the time of year (for weather conditions), your ability to communicate with locals along the route (so brush up on your Spanish — or Quechua), and the availability of maps.
Guides known these alternative routes like the backs of their hands, but first-timers can get lost. Signposts are rare, as are decent maps. You’ll also be far better off going with at least one or two trekking companions, mainly for safety reasons. While not inherently dangerous, these routes can pose a few potential risks, natural and man-made. Solo female trekkers need to be particularly cautious.
If all of the above doesn’t faze you and you feel sufficiently experienced to hike Salkantay or Lares without a guide, then go for it! It will certainly be a rewarding way to reach Machu Picchu — and significantly cheaper than going with a guide.