Alternative Versions of Famous Treks that’ll Rock your World
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Alternative Routes: 4 Lesser-known Versions of Famous Treks
When it comes to famous treks most people are quick to mention the Inca Trail, Everest Base Camp or Kilimanjaro. All three are amazing, but they are all super popular too. So how can you take on one of these treks without putting up with hordes of tourists?
Enter Mark Whitman, a trekking expert who has hiked extensively all over the planet. In this short guide he explains how you can still visit these famous locations but, for the most part, avoid the crowds.
Vilcabamba Trail to Machu Picchu
It seems like nowadays a trip to Machu Picchu is a right of passage for any intrepid traveller. And to be fair it’s obvious to see why. The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu are a truly amazing sight to behold. Most adventurers opt for the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the original pilgrimage route used by the Incas. I completed the trail in 2012 and 2013 and can confirm that it lives up to every expectation.
However, there are some downsides to the classic Inca Trail. First, it is permitted, which means to get on it you need to secure a coveted permit. These are in hot demand. During the peak season, May-October, permits sell out 6 months in advance. The Trail is also busy. Permits are limited to 500 a day, but that is still a fair amount of people on the Trail each day and in camp at night.
If you are not one for crowds and enjoy the trail less travelled, then I highly recommend you check out the Vilcabamba route. After completing the Inca Trail in 2013, my wife and I had more time to kill and we opted for this lesser known route. To say it was amazing would be an understatement.
HOW TO DO THE VILCABAMBA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU
The Vilcabamba trail begins in the far North-western side of the Cuzco region, a part that few tourists venture. And when I say a few, I mean we saw no other tourists on the trail. Not one!
The route is incredible. It’s more challenging than the Inca Trail as you cross three big 4000m+ passes, but the remoteness and variety of landscapes, from cloud forests to glaciated peaks is stunning. The route ends in Aguas Calientes, the town just under Machu Picchu, making a tour of the ruins super easy. Just make sure you secure entrance tickets to Machu Picchu before you depart Cuzco.
High Atlas Circuit to Mount Toubkal
Standing at 4167m, Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa. It’s a great trekking peak, ideal for novice hikers. I recommend it to all my friends if they are looking to experience high altitude for the first time. It’s also super popular! I couldn’t get statistics on the number of hikers each year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more than 50,000. Most treks to Toubkal are 3 or 4-day excursions from Marrakesh into the High Atlas. This is fine if you are in a rush, but I highly recommend spending more time in the Atlas. There is literally so much to see and rushing to get up and down Toubkal just seems silly.
HOW TO DO THE HIGH ATLAS CIRCUIT TO MOUNT TOUBKAL
Instead of following the main tourist track, which takes you through Imlil, I suggest taking a 6-day circuit route that sojourns through remote Berber villages before joining up with the main trail to Toubkal.
The best circuit route begins west of Imlil and heads towards Tacheddirt. From here you can continue on to Amsourzerte, probably one of the nicest Berber villages in the region, and finally, cross Tizi n’Ouanoums to prepare for your ascent of Toubkal. This route is longer and provides loads of time to acclimatise. It’s also less travelled so segments of the trek will be free of tourists, and most Gites (hostels) will not be busy.
TIP: If it’s a winter trek, adjust your gear choices
The climb up Toubkal is relatively easy going, however, if you plan to trek over the winter month, Nov-Feb, expect lots of snow and make sure to adjust your gear. The two most important points here would be to make sure that you pack crampons for your shoes and bring along the right sleep gear – the nights get very chilly. In terms of sleep, go with a light sleeping pad/air mattress with a high insulation rating (R value 5+). A full-on air mattress is not going to be an option since it will add too much bulk to your backpack (even the best of air beds will still weigh 5lbs or more.
Everest Base Camp via Gokyo Lakes
Visiting Everest Base Camp is every trekker’s dream. The privilege to stand at the foot of the world’s highest mountain and take in the amazing Himalayan scenery is second to none. Also, if you love mountains there really is no more epic mountainous region than the Solukhumbu of the Himalayas, home to 5 of the highest mountains in the world.
Like the treks mentioned above, there is a classic trail that is used by most tourists, typically called the Everest Base Camp Trek. This route starts in Lukla and follows the original trail used by Edmund Hillary and Tenjing Norgay when they hiked to EBC en route to successfully summiting Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. The classic route is a simple straight up and straight down trail that takes on average 12 days. It’s great if you are pushed for time, but definitely not the best route if you have a few days to spare. Instead, I highly recommend the Gokyo Lakes trek to EBC.
HOW TO DO THE GOKYO LAKES ROUTE TO EVEREST BASE CAMP
This trail also begins in Lukla, and follows the standard route for the first two days to Namche before veering west on a clockwise circuit trail up to Gokyo Lakes. At the point where the trail forks with the standard EBC route you will immediately notice there are fewer tourists, smaller villages and a general sense of remoteness. But this is only one of the main benefits.
The route itself is beautiful, offering stunning mountain scenery that can’t be seen from the Everest trail, and of course incredible views of the emerald green Gokyo Lakes. And when I say emerald green I mean it, check out the image below to get a sense. The water is pure melted glacier!
The Gokyo trail also affords you the opportunity to climb Gokyo Ri, one of the most famous trekking peaks in the Himalaya, cross the famous Ngozumba glacier, the longest glacier in Asia, and if that is not enough you will also cross the infamous Cho La pass, one of the three biggest passes in the region!
Once over the pass, you will continue on a glacier, before dropping down to join up with the classic EBC trail. All in all the Gokyo lakes trek takes 3 extra days than the classic route but is by far the better option.
Mount Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the most awesome challenges that literally any person with the right mindset and preparation can successfully achieve. I mean that because I have climbed Kili 4 times and been intimately involved in managing 100s of treks. I have literally seen every type of person climb Kilimanjaro! From young to old, overweight to disabled.
The famous peak is the highest in Africa, and one of the seven summits (the highest peaks on each of the seven continents). It is also the highest freestanding mountain and volcano in the world.
There are 6 main routes up Kilimanjaro and a few variations, but by far the two most popular are the Marangu route, the shortest and only route with hut accommodation, and the Machame Route. These two routes account for about 75% of the 35,000 or so trekkers that take on Kilimanjaro every year.
The Machame is a good option if you only have 6 or 7 days, but the ultimate route up Kilimanjaro, in my opinion, is the 8-day Lemosho.
HOW TO DO THE LEMOSHO ROUTE TO MT KILIMANJARO
This route begins on the far Western side of Kilimanjaro, a remote and wild beginning where I have in the past seen elephant and antelope roaming. The first two days are pretty tough going, as the Lemosho trailhead is higher than most other routes. However, this high start pays dividends later in the trek, as you will have acclimatised faster.
On day 3 the Lemosho crosses the famous Shira Plateau, the highest plateau in Africa, before joining up with the other southern circuit routes, like the Machame. From here the route heads around the mountain to base camp, called Barafu, a windy outcrop at 4600m and the starting point for your summit push.
If you have done any reading on climbing Kilimanjaro you will know that the summit attempt begins in the early hours of the morning, when conditions are most stable and generally culminates with sunrise from Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro.
From here the descent is epic! And very tiring! My top tip is to make sure you have trekking poles as a 2500m descent takes a serious toll on your knees.
All told though, reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro is one of the sweetest feelings and a memory that stays with you for life. The Lemosho route provides the perfect balance of remoteness, length and altitude profile for a safe and successful Kilimanjaro experience.
READ: How to do the Central Australian Larapinta Trail on the cheap
Mark lives and breathes the outdoors. He is an avid hiker and has trekked all over the world. When not trekking he is spending time with his wife and working on his passion project, Mountain IQ. Mark is also the author of the most authoritative online guides to Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu and Everest Base Camp and a sleep-gear consultant with TheSleepStudies – a website that tests and reviews air mattresses and sleeping pads.
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