"Nothing beats the feeling of doing it yourself!" indeed! I started today searching the options of getting there, and I also hesitate to go with everyone else, even though a tour of the place is probably desired, at least for a vacationer. Thanks to you and your friends for the article!
I will go there in late January 2012. Hopefully not a significant weather issue?
"you technically aren’t supposed to be walking on the tracks at all, so stay low-key. Some travelers miss the steps and keep going on the first set of tracks – this doesn’t work!" - what would they do to you if they catch you?
"The entrance fee [to Machu Picchu] is 122 Peruvian Soles (which is approximately US$44)" (source: http://www.perutreks.com/machu-picchu-by-train-1-day.html
). This is the Machu Picchu ticket which can be bought the the Ministry of Culture.
To go the Inka Trail you must have a guide and it will be touristy and will cost starting at 300 dollars. I have NOT researched thoroughly.
"If you want to get away from it all and trek on your own then there are some excellent alternative treks such as Lares Valley, Choquequirao or Ausangate." (http://www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/treks/incatrail_regulations.html
In this regard I got an email response from DRC Cusco Ministerio de Cultura: "Yes there are excellent alternative treks and you don't have to pay for them. For Choquequirao you have to pay only for visit the city. s/ 37.00 soles adult"
"Another alternative trek worth checking out is the Lares to Machu Picchu 4 day trek. The Lares Valley is a beautiful valley that runs parallel to and "behind" the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This series of mountain pathways takes you through unspoiled valleys well off the usual tourist trail."(http://www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/destinations/machupicchu/trekking-to-machu-picchu.html
So I will look into one of these treks. The information I found may be helpful for others considering going up there. If you think the rail path is better anyway, please urge me to take that, but I think an untouristy indepenent trek without railroad tracks may suit me well. And up there I think I will look for a guide to give me a basic show-around. Thanks!