Trekking In Peru

Day Hikes To Machu Picchu

Day Hikes To Machu Picchu
By Maureen Santucci

A bucket-list trip to Peru often culminates with a visit to Machu Picchu.

The ruins complex itself merits several hours of guided meanderings on foot. Take time to stroll along the stone pathways and terraces. You’ll learn about the ancient city’s various sectors, pass through the Main Gate, marvel at the Temple of the Sun and wonder at the Sacred Rock.

A day at Machu Picchu is itself an outdoor adventure with plenty of walking built in, especially if you roam up to Inti Punku (the “Sun Gate”) from below or mosey over to the Incan Drawbridge.

Active hikers, however, will often level up their trip with one of the following day hikes to Machu Picchu. This chart compares the three main Machu Picchu day hikes, followed by a more detailed description of each one.

View to top of Huayna Picchu with terraces Machu Picchu Peru

View of Huayna Picchu

Best Machu Picchu day hikes

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Day hike to Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu is best known as the sharp tooth-like peak that towers behind Machu Picchu in all the classic photos. If you don’t have the time or energy to commit to two days of Machu Picchu hiking and exploration, rest assured that there is plenty of walking you can do during a one-day visit–especially if you get an early start. One such option is to hike up to the top of Huayna Picchu. Many of the breathtaking photos you’ve seen that are taken from a vantage point far above the ruins were shot from this peak.

Also an "Inca Trail"

“The” Inca Trail is far more than just one official hiking route to Machu Picchu. The Inca created a huge network of roads and footpaths that extended throughout their vast empire. The network spans thousands of miles, not just in Peru but through parts of Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina as well.

Before committing to this hike, it’s important to know that it is definitely not for people who have a fear of heights. While this can be an issue anywhere in the Andes, climbing Huayna Picchu involves plenty of narrow paths with exposure to sheer drop-offs. There are handrails in the worst spots, but these are few and far between.

What you’ll see

Although there are some ruins toward the top, the main reason people do this hike is for the great perspective it gives you, looking down on Machu Picchu. If you are more adventurous, in good shape, and choose the early entry onto the mountain, you can also go over the top and around the other side. This will allow you to visit the Temple of the Moon and the Great Cavern.

Length of the hike

As with so many hikes in Peru, the hard part isn’t the distance as such, it’s the vertical gain over a very short distance that makes the route so challenging. Be prepared for over 300m (1,000 ft) of ascent, with steep rock stairways all the way up. It takes most people between one and two hours, if not more. If you choose to do the hike around to the back as well, you should give yourself a good five hours to complete the circuit.

How to book

Entrance tickets to Huayna Picchu are limited to just 400 per day; 200 people may enter between 7 and 8am, and 200 more between 10 and 11am. All are expected to exit by 2pm. The entrance tickets must be purchased at the same time as the ticket for Machu Picchu itself; availability will generally sell out a couple of months ahead of time.


A llama at Machu Picchu

Day hike to Machu Picchu mountain

A great alternative to Huayna Picchu, and one which does not sell out so quickly, is Machu Picchu Mountain. Higher than Huayna Picchu but a more up-and-down sort of climb, the hike to the top is longer and more gradual, although it will take longer. While Huayna Picchu is the one most known for its photo opportunities of Machu Picchu, many feel that Machu Picchu Mountain actually offers some more impressive vistas.

What's in a name?

The ancient city of Machu Picchu took its name from the highest mountain that guards it. The phrase translates to “old mountain” or “old peak” in the Quechua language. Why name a grand city after an old mountain? Because mountains are godly, of course. According to the local mythology, “apus” were mountain spirits that protected the people.

Between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, it’s hard to say which is more difficult. Some feel that the up-and-down nature of Machu Picchu Mountain, combined with the longer distance, makes it more difficult. Machu Picchu Mountain also reaches a higher altitude–3,000m (10,100 ft) vs. Huayna Picchu’s 2,720m (8,924 ft). Others prefer Machu Picchu Mountain for its lighter traffic, wider path with less crumbling stairs, and less exposure to sheer dropoffs than Huayna Picchu–although there are a few dicey spots.

What you’ll see

There are no ruins on this mountain. The climb is purely for the adventure of it, plus the fantastic views that you will get of Machu Picchu below. Another plus is that it is not as popular as Huayna Picchu so the path tends to be less crowded.

Length of the hike

To reach the top of the mountain, you will gain a little over 610m (2,000 ft) in altitude. You’ll need between one and two hours to reach the top, and about an hour to return to the bottom. From there, it’ll take you some time to make your way back to the front gate, so be sure to allow for that when considering your return train.

How to book

Entrance tickets to Machu Picchu Mountain are limited to 800 per day; 400 people may enter between 7 and 8am, and 400 more between 9 and 10am. Although this is twice the number as are permitted on Huayna Picchu, given the longer trail, it doesn’t tend to get as bunched up. In addition, many people who purchase the entrance tickets don’t end up doing the hike. The entrance tickets must be purchased at the same time as the ticket for Machu Picchu itself; even in high season, tickets often don’t sell out until the last minute.

Aguas Calientes Peru Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes town at the foot of Machu Picchu

KM 104

The two day Inca Trail trek

Although tour operators typically refer to this as the Two Day Inca Trail, it actually only involves one day of hiking. The second is a full day at Machu Picchu after spending the night in a hotel Aguas Calientes.

By foot to Machu Picchu, Inca-style

The KM 104 hike overlaps with the last stretch of the Four Day Classic Inca Trail, which brings you directly into Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate (Inti Punku). There’s no doubt that it is an amazing feeling as you walk in through the same entrance that the Incas did more than 500 years ago, with the ancient city cresting into view.

The tour you book will include a night’s lodging in Aguas Calientes to rest and relax after a full day of hiking. It’s a good idea to inquire about the class of hotel that is included, as you may want to upgrade it. The following morning you will go up to Machu Picchu to have your citadel tour, beginning with the first morning light just the main entrance opens if you’re an early riser. A return train to Cusco will also be included.

Besides arrival through the Sun Gate, another advantage to this trail is that it is relatively easy, so it’s a nice way to get the feel of hiking to Machu Picchu without needing to be in tip-top physical shape. Think of it as a bite-sized sample of the more rigorous Inca Trail experience. You start out at a lower altitude than other hikes and treks, and there is no huge change in elevation.

The trail begins near the KM 104 train station, hence the alternative name for this hike. You will take the train towards Aguas Calientes and but alight before the town to reach the trailhead. The walk takes you into the high jungle which surrounds Machu Picchu, replete with a wide variety of flora and fauna. In particular, you’re likely to see different types of orchids along the way.

What you’ll see

In addition to the beautiful scenery, you’ll also get the opportunity to visit a couple of Inca sites, Chachabamba and Wiñay Wayna, before getting to Machu Picchu itself.

Length of the hike

The distance covered is a little over 8 miles and will take 6 to 7 hours. You will stop for lunch along the way. The hike is considered to be of easy to moderate difficulty, as it’s an uphill route and involves some stretches of climbing steep steps.

How to book the Two Day Inca Trail

Note that, as with the longer Inca Trail, this hike is permit-based and can only be booked through a travel agency and with a licensed guide. New this year, there is a separate booking system for the Two Day/Km 104 hike, with just 150 permits available per day. Although that does help with availability (as they are no longer part of the Classic Inca Trail permit system), it will still sell out months ahead of time.

Unlike the multi-day Classic Inca Trail trek, there’s no way to view permit availability online, so you’ll need to check with your tour provider. In order to secure your permit, your passport information will be necessary. Permits are taken in your name and with your passport number, and it is not possible to transfer the permit to someone else once purchased.

Day Hikes To Machu Picchu

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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