Machu Picchu Treks

How To Book A Machu Picchu Trek

How To Book A Machu Picchu Trek
By Maureen Santucci

Peru’s best-known archaeological site is shrouded in mystique.

We’ve all seen postcard photos of the astounding ancient citadel, sprawled out on a dazzling green hilltop. It stirs imaginations and raises questions that even the expert tour guides can’t fully answer. Why did the Incas build such a lofty perch? Why was it abandoned? How did the Spanish miss such an important site during their colonisation of Peru? How was it finally discovered by the outside world?

While certain mysteries of Machu Picchu may never be solved, the veil has been lifted on travel to this super-site. What used to be an arduous several-day hiking journey can now be simplified to a several-hour train ride. No longer a privilege of seasoned adventurers, a visit to Machu Picchu has been democratized and put within reach. For kids, seniors, those with decreased mobility, and even first-time overseas travelers, the journey is more accommodating than ever. All are welcome!

Fog near Cusco Peru

Fog at the Machu Picchu ruins

When to visit Machu Picchu

When timing your trip with the season you’ve got two main choices: dry season or rainy season. There are pros and cons to each, so if you’re flexible it’s worth trying to coincide your visit with the most appropriate time of year for your group.

That said, the weather in Cusco and the surrounding region can be unpredictable to say the least. Use the following information and weather forecasts to get a reasonable idea of how the weather should behave, but be prepared for surprises!

The dry season

The region’s dry(er) season runs from April through November. Skies are mostly clear and free from heavy cloud and mist, and the likelihood of intense rain is low–although still entirely possible!

The obvious advantage is that the trails are firmer underfoot, and views are less obscured by cloud. Another important but often overlooked advantage is increased reliability of transport connections and roads remaining open.

The downside to the more agreeable climate is that it brings heavy demand, particularly for the most popular months between June and August. Travelling during this period necessitates early bookings and advance reservations, particularly when securing the all-important Inca Trail permits.

Don’t be fooled by the name – dry season can still be very wet and, since temperatures are usually lower, this can mean snow at altitude. Come prepared.

Rainy season average temperature/rainfall

Temperature

Low: 7 C (44 F)

High: 19 C (66 F)

Precipitation (monthly)

130mm


The rainy season

Many travellers will write off the rainy season completely. With heavy average rainfall (after all, Machu Picchu is located at the edge of the world’s largest rainforest) adding wet gear and muddy trails to the hard slog of a high-altitude trek can seem like more pain than it’s worth.

But it’s not always that clear-cut. Yes, there will be more precipitation but the rainfall is rarely disruptive. There will be heavier cloud cover but it’s the wisps of fog over Machu Picchu that make the classic postcard shot. And then there’s the dramatically lower footfall during this period–incomparably quiet compared to peak season with lower prices and higher availability to match.

There are ways to mitigate the risks. Add a few days buffer in case your itinerary gets disrupted and give yourself two full days to visit Machu Picchu, just in case visibility is poor on the first go round. Use common sense with your packing list–you probably want to bring gaiters, waterproof boots, rain pants and hiking poles whatever the time of year, during the rainy season they’re essential items.

Most importantly, travel with comprehensive insurance to cover delays or disruptions to your travel plan. It’s rare but not unheard of for roads to be blocked and transport links to be cut during the heaviest downpours.

Dry season average temperature/rainfall

Temperature

Low: 3 C (37 F)

High: 19 C (66 F)

Precipitation (monthly)

20mm


“Sunrise” at Machu Picchu?

Catching the sunrise at Machu Picchu sounds like a mystical moment in the making. Indeed, travellers rise at wee hours in order to catch the first shuttles to Machu Picchu and be inside the gates as daylight breaks. The reality can sometimes be less than mind-blowing:

  • If you are taking a shuttle from Machu Picchu Town, be prepared to rise early and wait in line for one of the first shuttles.
  • Heavy fog and clouds often obscure the sun’s first rays.
  • Because the landscape is mountainous, the sun’s light appears long before the sun itself. This makes for less photogenic sunrises.
  • On the other hand a big advantage is simply being on-site before the daytime crowds arrive, giving you a blissful hour or two to enjoy the ruins in all their majestic serenity.

Temperature

Daytime temperatures don’t fluctuate enormously throughout the year. The dry season is the southern hemisphere's winter but if the sun is out it can feel much warmer than a wet day in the rainy season’s “summer.”

Nighttime is another matter entirely. Dry season/winter nights can get very cold, easily dropping to freezing point, especially at altitude.

For many, the ideal zones are around early May and late September when nights are a bit warmer but you’ll still have a good chance of staying dry. These are also outside of the peak season so the trails and Machu Picchu itself will be that bit quieter.

Private vs group tours

You have the option of booking a private trek for your group, or trekking with other people in a larger group. Aside from the cost implications, there are pros and cons to both, especially when factoring in younger travellers.

There’s immense pleasure to be found in meeting and trekking with new people–after several days supporting and coaxing each other along the way, you’ll feel like lifelong friends.

On the other hand, a private group means more flexibility and fewer worries about holding anyone else up. It’s a decision you’ll need to make for your own group and preferences.

Alkantay Trail towards Machu Picchu peru

A group of hikers on the Salkantay Trail towards Machu Picchu

Getting to Machu Picchu

Arrival to Lima
Most international flights from the USA arrive in Lima late in the evening. The Costa del Sol airport hotel is a hassle-free choice to spend the night before an onward morning flight. Your travel agent will advise you on their recommended hotels.

Flight to Cusco
Numerous flights on Peru’s major airlines (Avianca, LAN, and Star Peru) offer the one-hour flight from Lima to Cusco anytime from early morning through late afternoon.

Acclimation in the Sacred Valley
Cusco is the highest-altitude point of the Machu Picchu circuit, so it’s best to head directly into the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu Pueblo (Machu Picchu Town, formerly called Aguas Calientes), rather than spending your first day and night in Cusco on arrival.

Train to Machu Picchu Town
The easiest and by far the most popular way of reaching Machu Picchu Town is by train. Choose from PeruRail’s mid-range Vistadome or luxury Hiram Bingham, departing either from Cusco (3.5 hours) or Ollantaytambo (2 hours). Book your train tickets in advance, as they tend to sell out during the high season.

Bus to the Citadel
The train will arrive to Machu Picchu Town, five miles below the Machu Picchu entrance. Shuttle buses run every 30 minutes up and down the hairpin-curved road.

Cusco Peru

A fruit market in Cusco

Where to stay

Sacred Valley
Spend a night halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley, for acclimation and a sample of rural Andean culture. Hotels are springing up in and around the towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. You’ll find everything from five star luxury resorts to simple lodges and guest houses.

Machu Picchu Town
Decidedly lacking in character of its own, Machu Picchu Town serves as a base for the closest lodging to Machu Picchu itself (except for the expensive Sanctuary Lodge, adjacent to the citadel entrance). Here, hotel options abound. It’s recommended to stay a night at Machu Picchu Town — single day trips to Machu Picchu tend to feel too rushed.

Cusco
A gem of a colonial city set at the staggering altitude of over 11,000 feet. Worth exploring for at least a day and a night, although save this for after Machu Picchu to help with acclimation. Cusco hosts a huge variety of lodging. It’s good to book ahead during the high season’s Inti Raymi festival, when the entire city books up in advance.

Visitor regulations and permits

As Machu Picchu grows in its renown as a destination, a permit system has been enforced in order to keep the sheer volume of travellers in check. Permits to the following sites are required, and can be found at http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ (Note, however, that the site’s language options are limited and the online payment portal is notoriously spotty). You can also pay directly at the office at Machu Picchu Town, or have permits arranged through a reputable tour operator.

Inca Trail permits

The classic four-day Inca Trail route is strictly regulated by a permit system. The limit is 500 people per day, including guides and porters, and permits sell out months in advance. Any variation of this route (even the one-day “Km 104 hike”, which overlaps with the last stretch of the Inca Trail), requires a permit. The Inca Trail is closed for conservation work every February.

Machu Picchu permits

Entrance to the citadel itself is capped at 2,500 per day. While this limit is rarely reached, it’s better to reserve in advance — especially during the peak season and festivals.

Huayna Picchu permits

For a short but steep hike to the top of the peak hovering behind Machu Picchu (called Huayna Picchu), reserve in advance. This permit is added to the entrance ticket, and is capped at two waves of 200 people per wave. Less popular is the hike up Machu Picchu Mountain, which is also permit-regulated and can also be added to the entrance ticket.

Visitor regulations

As a protected area, certain rules apply to Machu Picchu visits. It is prohibited to bring food, sound systems, or pets into the citadel. Hiking poles must have rubber covering metal tips, in order to protect the stonework. The gates open at 6am and close at 5pm each day.

How To Book A Machu Picchu Trek

Maureen Santucci

Maureen is based in the ancient Peruvian capital of Cusco, where she works as a travel advisor and journalist covering Peru for Fodors Travel Guides and a variety of other publications.

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