Machu Picchu

Peru's archaeological rock star

The world-famous ruins that have come to define Peru's tourism industry. Despite now drawing millions of visitors a year, the crowds can't dent the ruins' sheer scale and undeniable magnificence. You'll almost certainly pay a visit to Machu Picchu while in Peru, but don't let its rock star status overshadow the country's countless lesser-visited ruins and archaeological sites.

Seasons and climate

Peru’s climate varies depending on where you choose to go, with the country split into three distinct regions: Amazon rainforest, mountainous highlands and the coast. Each region has its own climate, with the rainforest typically hot and wet, the mountains dry and temperate with variations in temperature, and the coast sunny and dry.

While Peru’s seasons can be generally split into wet (October-April) and dry (May-September), the country’s geographical diversity means there’s always somewhere worth visiting no matter the time of year. Just be prepared for the temperature change in the highlands — days can be warm and sunny, but temperatures plummet at night.

Peru_Cusco_weather-chart

Month-by-month

January and February are two of the wettest months to visit Amazonian Peru, with the Inca Trail closing during February for maintenance and cleaning.

March and April see the rains continue across the highlands, but this can be a good time to book permits and treks as travellers wait for the drier summer months.

The summer months are the peak months for Peru’s historical ruins. Permits for the Inca Trail can book up months in advance as the rains recede in the highlands. Remember that temperatures can drop quickly at night, so pack appropriately.

By September, the crowds are beginning to disperse as the dry season comes to an end. Treks are less busy — at least until December, when the holiday season brings the crowds back to Peru.

Events and holidays

The wetter months at the start of the year means that celebrations are few and far between until February’s Candlemas, which is especially lively in the mountainous regions. Expect folkloric music and dance over a two-week period.

Peru’s carnival might not be as well-known as Brazil’s, but it is still wildly celebrated across the entire country. Held just before Lent each year, carnival is a riot of parades, costumes and plenty of dancing.

For a taste of an Inca celebration, visit Cusco during June for Inti Raymi (festival of the sun). Held to mark the winter solstice, the Inca festival attracted 25,000 revellers to Cusco. Today, visitors can watch the procession from Cusco to Sacsayhuaman, which culminates in the ritual sacrifice of a llama.

The high season also sees Peru mark its independence day on July 28th and 29th, with festivities in the southern cities beginning earlier than their northern neighbours.

November is Peru’s festival month, with the start of the month celebrating All Saints Day before the world-famous All Souls Day (Dia de Los Muertos on November 2nd). Families take offerings of food and flowers to family graves, with festive parades in Andean towns. Finally, Puno Week (starting November 5th) sees street parades celebrate the emergence of Manco Capac — the first Inca.

Hiking in Machu Picchu

Trekking in the footsteps of the Inca

Lush and mountainous, Peru is one of the most beautiful places on earth to hike and trek. The region surrounding Machu Picchu is readymade for hikers of all kinds, with a great variety of trails that have been established over time–often by the Inca themselves many centuries ago.

No matter where your interests lie; nature, local culture, archaeology or all the above, you’ll find a hike that is right for you. What’s more, many of these are quite easy to combine with a trip to Machu Picchu, which makes for a picture-perfect hiking reward.

How to get there? Machu Picchu and the surrounding region is remote, yet easy to reach. Here are three areas that hikers will encounter on their trip:

Cusco

Most travellers fly into Cusco, the gateway to all kinds of hiking, trekking, and outdoor adventures. Whichever trail you choose, you’ll certainly want to spend some time here. As the capital city of the Inca Empire, and later a stronghold of the Spanish conquistadors, the city is a fascinating blend of the two cultures. Beware of the altitude on arrival: Cusco sits at a lofty 3,400m (11,100 ft) above sea level!

The Sacred Valley

Between Cusco and Machu Picchu is a peaceful, rural region known as the Sacred Valley. This is where some of the most popular multi-day treks begin. It’s not a bad idea to overnight in the Sacred Valley before your trek if you are hiking the Classic 4 Day or the 2 Day Inca Trail, or the Lares Trek. Not only will you be at a lower altitude than Cusco, allowing for easier acclimatisation, you’ll also be closer to the trailhead, allowing you to sleep a bit later the morning you start out.

Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes

It’s important to note that there is no car service to Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machu Picchu (also known as Machu Picchu Town). You can only reach it by train or on foot.

Once in Aguas Calientes, your choices to get up to the actual citadel include hiking up (note that this will take over an hour and is not recommended if you want to get there when it opens) or taking a shuttle bus.

Of all the multi-day treks, only the classic Inca Trail will lead you directly into the Machu Picchu citadel on foot, a dramatic experience that makes this one of the most coveted trekking routes in the world.

​Think ahead: hiking permits

The secret is out on Peru’s world-class hiking routes. For good reason, the classic Inca Trail and its alternatives attract more and more visitors every year. To handle increasing volumes, the local government has implemented a permit system for several of the most popular hikes. Best way to secure permits? Work with a reputable tour operator and plan ahead! For travel during the high season of April through September, permits are likely to sell out months in advance.

Trekking to Machu Picchu

Everything you need to plan a hike to Machu Picchu

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!

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.

Dry season average temperature/rainfall

Temperature

Low: 3 C (37 F)

High: 19 C (66 F)

Precipitation (monthly)

20mm

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.

Rainy season average temperature/rainfall

Temperature

Low: 7 C (44 F)

High: 19 C (66 F)

Precipitation (monthly)

130mm

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.

Can you trek to Machu Picchu with kids?

There’s no reason the vast majority of younger travellers can’t enjoy a trekking trip in Peru, provided you follow some common sense preparation. All responsible operators have a minimum age policy which will depend on the hike or trek, usually between 8 and 12 years old.

Fitness

These are not short strolls and they require a good amount of stamina to complete. In most cases, you will be hiking in remote areas of the country without car service. Once committed, it will not be easy to turn around, nor will you be able to cut a day of hiking short if the kids are tired. Plenty of time to acclimatise before heading out is key.

Emergency horses

Aside from the Inca Trail, there will usually be the possibility of using a horse for at least part of the way. Keep in mind the horse is an “emergency” horse in case of serious injury or accident, and shouldn’t be relied upon for completing the trek. It may be a good idea to request an additional horse when trekking with kids.

Food and snacks

With a good trekking outfitter, your porters and chefs will work miracles to provide three delicious meals per day–the food is often a highlight of the trip! You’ll also get plenty of snacks throughout the day. These aren’t provided as a luxury, they’re essential for maintaining energy levels. If you’ve got picky eaters you might want to bring your own snacks, and make any special food requests when you book (not just before your group sets off!)

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.

Machu Picchu packing list

Any adventure activity in an unpredictable climate demands careful preparation and sensible packing. Use the climate advice above as a guide but be prepared for rapid changes in weather and hiking conditions.

Check what camping equipment is provided by your operator. Tents and foam mats are usually provided, but you’ll probably need to bring your own sleeping bag–a three-season rating is recommended. Some operators will rent these, check when you book.

Gear

  • Backpack to carry all your gear: Depending on the trek this may be carried by porter or horse. There may be weight restrictions. You can leave excess baggage with your operator HQ in Cusco.

  • Waterproof backpack cover: Essential during the rainy season.

  • Daypack: This is what you’ll carry yourself while hiking–layers, snacks, water, camera, etc.

  • 1-litre water bottle.

Footwear

  • Hiking boots: Quality boots for uneven, rocky and sometimes slippery surfaces. Be sure to wear them in before you start hiking.

  • Hiking socks: Four pairs of synthetic or wool hiking socks.

Outerwear

  • Waterproof, breathable rain jacket (Gore-Tex or similar). Waterproof rain pants for rainy season.

Layers

  • Synthetic or wool (no cotton), long-sleeve top.

  • Synthetic trekking pants.

Headwear

  • Warm hat: Beanie or similar.

Around camp

  • Sleeping Bag: Synthetic or down sleeping bag.

  • Two waterproof compression sacks, one for your sleeping bag, the other to fit your extra layers.

  • Sleeping pad: Closed-cell foam pad or inflatable air mattress.

  • Headlamp.

  • Heavyweight synthetic top: For staying warm around camp.

  • Thick fleece or wool gloves.

  • Sandals: For around camp and crossing streams and rivers.

  • Sacred socks: Heavy, warm pair of socks to put on at night. Keep dry at all costs!

Personal items

  • Sunglasses with case

  • Toiletries

  • Personal medications

  • Sunscreen/lip protection

  • Pack towel

  • Book/Kindle

  • Camera

  • Binoculars

  • Insect repellent

Optional items

  • Hiking poles: Important–metal tipped poles are not allowed on the Inca Trail.

  • Bandana

  • Accessory carabiners

  • Synthetic liner socks

  • Gore-Tex or Lightweight Neoprene Socks

  • Waterproof gaiters (for rainy season)

Machu Picchu trekking safety

Whatever trail you choose, hiking or trekking to Machu Picchu is a vigorous endeavour that should be treated with the respect it deserves. That said, thousands of people – of all ages and ability – complete these treks each year. There are no special skills required, just determination and thorough preparation.

You don’t need to be exceptionally fit and strong to complete a trek – moderate fitness is fine, although it won’t hurt to prepare with some cardio exercise in the weeks and months before you travel.

Altitude

By far the most important factor to keep in mind is the altitude. Machu Picchu is situated at 2,430m above sea level and Cusco at an incredible 3,400m. Arriving here from Lima or elsewhere you’ll immediately notice the thin air, with reactions ranging from mild breathlessness to headaches and nausea. Severity varies by person and is usually more pronounced for younger and older travellers.

It’s essential that you acclimatise before beginning your trek – a minimum of 3 days is ideal. During that time drink plenty of coca tea (the Inca’s secret remedy for altitude sickness), stay hydrated, avoid alcohol and heavy meals, and generally just go easy on yourself.

Medical conditions

Be sure to disclose any pre-existing conditions to your trekking operator at the time of booking so that they can be forewarned and prepared. If you have any heart or respiratory conditions it’s particularly important to get your doctor’s clearance before travelling at altitude.

Managing stomach issues

Foreign travel always carries a slight risk of picking up new stomach bugs. What’s usually a mild inconvenience in the comfort of a hotel can easily derail your trekking experience when you’re halfway up a mountain. Nausea and diarrhoea make it difficult for your body to stay hydrated and absorb sufficient nutrients from your food, which can make you feel weaker and less steady on your feet.

Bring whatever medication works best for you, and in the days prior to beginning your trek follow common-sense eating and drinking rules: avoid tap water, raw foods washed in untreated water and anything else that might risk a stomach upset.

Trail safety

Book with a credible, well-established operator for the reassurance of a professional, safety-conscious guide who will anticipate any problems before they arise.

Aside from the Inca Trail, many trekking routes follow faint or even non-existent trails, sometimes alongside sheer drops with no guardrails. It’s safe provided you heed your guide’s advice and pay attention to where you’re walking. It’s a good idea to use hiking poles here, even if you are typically sure-footed.

Nutrition

All food and drink will be provided, including three square meals and plenty of water and energy-dense fruit and snacks to keep you going through the day. Follow your guide’s advice and eat and drink plenty–it’s essential you remain well hydrated.

Travel insurance

This should go without saying but it’s astonishing how many people travel without proper insurance. The vast majority of claims are for transport delays but still double check that your policy covers trekking and full medical evacuation. Buy your policy in your country of residence before you travel. Don’t assume that your credit card provides comprehensive travel cover–it probably doesn’t!

Honesty is the best policy

While trekking, be honest with yourself and your guide. Don’t suffer in silence. Tell your guide if you’re experiencing extreme shortness of breath or feeling disoriented so action can be taken to relieve your symptoms in good time.

Emergency procedures

Ask about your operator’s emergency procedures and first-aid equipment and training before you book. Horses and mules are not allowed on the Inca Trail but on other routes, there should be an “emergency horse” for exhausted or sick trekkers.

Trekking tip

Upon arrival to Cusco, it’s worth immediately heading to the lower altitudes of the Sacred Valley to acclimatise for a few days before heading back to explore Cusco. After this your body should be well adjusted to begin trekking.

Responsible trekking

Part of the joy of travel is discovering the social context of your destination. It’s important to understand the background of the place you’re visiting, and the impact your presence will inevitably have. This is especially important in a largely indigenous area such as the Cusco region, where a long and often turbulent political and cultural history has reverberations that still echo today.

Peru’s problematic industry

Like much of the Andes, Cusco is a relatively poor region with significant poverty in its rural areas. Livelihoods, food security and basic healthcare and education are all in short supply. In this context, a booming tourism industry can have a pronounced impact, both for the good and the bad. On the plus side, it means new employment opportunities: more trekking means more demand for porters and guides, as well as hotels, restaurants and other services in the city.

The downside is that much of this new employment is low-level service work for international companies, with little wealth remaining in the surrounding area. It can also mean disruption for traditional livelihoods and farming, as people leave rural areas for more lucrative tourism work – causing a further knock-on effect on agricultural production, traditional livelihoods and the fragile economic balance within families and villages.

By asking the right questions you can understand – and mitigate – your role in this complex picture.

Find out how many locals are employed by your operator, and whether it has any employee-ownership structures. The best tourism businesses are ones that give local people a stake in their success.

Ask about responsible recruitment practices; trekking outfitters should have longstanding relationships with the villages they recruit from and should be aware of the impact that their recruitment has on rural communities.

Ask to see your operator’s porter welfare policy. There should be a strictly enforced maximum load and they should receive adequate accommodation, food and equipment (especially hiking boots) while on the trail. They should receive fair wages, be paid on time and have full life/accident insurance.

Ask about their wildlife and environmental practices. There should be a zero litter policy–all litter should be packed off the trail and toilet waste should be properly buried.

The best operators all proactively support community welfare, education and employment projects in the Cusco region. Ask your operator if and how they support and give back to their local community.

Tipping guides and porters

There’s no doubt that portering is an arduous occupation but, with a good employer and proper welfare policies, it can also be an enjoyable and financially rewarding job. Andean people are tough and purpose-built to thrive in a harsh environment–you’ll be amazed by their physical strength and stamina!

One of the many highlights of your trek will be getting to know your guide, cook and porters. You’ll be astonished by the minor miracles they work each day to get your gear, equipment and provisions up and down those mountain passes, with camp and a hot meal always ready and waiting for your arrival.

Showing your gratitude for their superhuman efforts is an important element to the overall experience. Towards the end of the journey, your guide will probably organise a group gathering to give you an opportunity to say thanks and present the support staff with a tip.

The suggested range is $8-12 per guide/porter per day. You can pool your tips as a group and they’ll split it out between them.

The tip isn’t considered mandatory, especially if service has been below expectations, but it is highly expected and makes a huge impact on the take-home pay for a group of extremely dedicated workers.

Be a respectful visitor

If your trekking operator is involved with community or education projects in the Cusco region they may appreciate gifts or donations to help support their work.

Some trekking routes wind their way through Andean communities and you may even spend a night in a local village. They’ll be well accustomed to gringos passing through and you’re bound to catch a friendly smile or two. Many trekkers enjoy bringing gifts to hand out to the local kids–try to think about what would be most beneficial. Avoid teeth-rotting sweets and opt for educational toys, pens, paper, colouring books, etc. Less tasty but much more useful in the long run!

Keep in mind that you’re visiting a socially conservative and reserved part of the world. Be mindful of your attire and how much skin you’re revealing (although you’ll usually be too wrapped up to worry about that!). Ask for permission before taking photos of people or their children, show courtesy and respect for your hosts, and generally aim to behave in a way that you’d expect from visitors to your own turf.

Day hikes to Machu Picchu

Easier-going routes to (and nearby) Machu Picchu

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.

Machu Picchu day hikes at a glance

Hike/route

Intensity

Length

Highlights

Permits needed?

Huayna Picchu

Moderate to difficult

Short, but with over 1,000 feet of altitude gain.
1-2 hours (4-5 hours to do the full loop with Temple of the Moon).

Reach a lofty bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu.

Complete the full loop on the uncrowded trail to the Temple of the Moon.

Entrance tickets are limited to just 400 per day; 200 people may enter between 7 and 8 am, and 200 more between 10 and 11am.
For purchase with Machu Picchu entrance ticket.

Machu Picchu Mountain

Moderate to difficult

Longer and more gradual ascent, with over 2,000 feet of altitude gain.

1.5-2 hours to summit, 3 hours with descent.

Lighter traffic than Huayna Picchu.

Dramatic bird’s eye views from the top.

Entrance tickets are limited to 800 per day; 400 people may enter between 7 and 8 am, and 400 more between 9 and 10 am.

For purchase with Machu Picchu entrance ticket.

KM 104
(aka the 2-Day Inca Trail)

Easy to moderate

8 miles, around 6 to 7 hours (depending on pace).

Arrive to Machu Picchu on foot.

Pass through the terraces of Wiñay Wayna.

Formerly regulated as part of the Inca Trail, which is limited to 500 per day.

New in 2016: This route now has a separate permit system, capped at 150 per day.

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.

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.

KM 104 (two day Inca Trail)

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.

Multi-day treks to Machu Picchu

How to trek to the world's most famous ruins

For the adventure-minded, there’s nothing quite like traversing a long trail over several days on foot, arriving to a new place by muscle power just like the journeymen of old. Peru’s treks satisfy this human instinct to travel by foot for days, to earn a destination after a hearty physical challenge.

The classic Inca Trail is so famously popular because its final destination is the most spectacular of all: Machu Picchu. Only on this classic route can you actually arrive at the Lost City of the Incas on foot at the end of the journey. For any of the alternative treks, the route will finish at a different point, and you’ll arrive in Machu Picchu via train to Aguas Calientes.

Yet, the advantages of choosing an alternative to the Inca Trail are many. The Inca Trail’s fame gives it a populated feel, even with the strict implementation of a permit system that caps traffic at 500 people per day and sells out months in advance. If you’re willing to give up the Machu-Picchu-on-foot finale, then you can bypass the permit system. You can delve deeper into traditional Andean villages and more extreme mountain wilderness areas. And with enough budget, you can even skip the tent-camping altogether and pamper yourself in the surprisingly refined mountain lodges to be found en route.

This chapter provides a side-by-side comparison of the Inca Trail to its best-known alternatives, followed by a more in-depth description of each trek.

Machu Picchu treks at a glance

Trek

Intensity

Length

Overnights

Highlights

Permits needed?

Classic Inca Trail

Moderately difficult (mainly due to altitude).

4 days, 3 nights,

approx. 28 miles.

3 nights camping, in designated campsites only.

World-renowned “bucket list” trek

Incan ruins and rewarding mountain passes.

Permits limit traffic to 500 people per day, including guides and support staff.

Lares Trek

“The Cultural Trek”

Moderately difficult, with options to increase the length and intensity.

3 days, 2 nights,
approx. 20 miles.

2 nights camping
or
2 to 4 nights in luxury Andean lodges.

Meet Andean villagers and traditional weavers
Stop at a hot springs to bathe.

No permits necessary, but book through a outfitter for quality and safety.

Salkantay Trek

“The Nature Trek”

Difficult (mainly due to altitude).

4 days, 3 nights, approx. 37 miles.

Variations possible.

3 nights camping
or

5 nights in luxury Andean lodges.

Dramatic, varied landscapes and ecosystems.
Move from glaciers to pastures to jungle.

No permits necessary, but book through a outfitter for quality and safety.

Ausangate Trek

“The Highest Trek”

Very difficult (due to altitude, exertion, and cold nights).

6 days, 5 nights, approx. 60 miles.

Variations possible.

5 nights camping at altitude
or
2-5 nights in luxury Andean lodges.

The surreal, striped “painted mountains”.

Vast wilderness areas with blue lagoons and rare wildlife.

No permits necessary, but extremely important to book through a outfitter for quality and safety.

Choquequirao Trek

“Machu Picchu’s sister ruins”

Difficult (mainly due to extreme ascents/descents).

4 days, 3 nights, approx. 40 miles.

3 nights camping.

Stunning, variable scenery.

Explore stunning ruins all to yourself.

No permits needed, fee to enter Choquequirao.

The classic Inca Trail trek

The Inca Trail is easily the most famous of all the Machu Picchu treks. Since it first opened, it’s been included in every roundup of the world’s best trekking routes, and for good reason. There’s something profoundly magical about making this pilgrimage, as the Inca once did from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

Meet your porters

Some hikers may be disconcerted to see local porters doing all the heavy lifting. Indeed, porter welfare on the Inca Trail has a thorny past, and there is still room for improvement. Many porters come from rural areas, supplementing agricultural income with tourism work. Here are a few tips for good porter treatment:

  • Book responsibly with an outfitter that respects the weight-carrying limit and pays at least the minimum required wage.
  • Get to know them. Despite language barriers, you can share photos and cocoa leaves, and ask your guide to help communicate.
  • Say thanks. Extend a message of gratitude directly to the porters, and be sure to bring cash for a tip at the end.

What you’ll see

Although you’ll certainly see your share of stunning landscapes as you head from the mountains to the high jungle, this trek is particularly known for its stop-offs at numerous Inca sites along the way. While you’ll be sharing the path with a great number of other tourists, porters, cooks, and guides, you can still snatch some private moments to take in the scenery, not to mention the history, of the trail.

How long is the Inca Trail?

It takes four days to reach Machu Picchu, covering a distance of around 28 miles. The first day starts out fairly gradually. The second morning is the hike’s toughest, as you climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which peaks at an altitude of 4,200m (13,800 ft). On the fourth morning, depending on where you camped on the third night, you’ll have a hike of between two and five hours to reach Machu Picchu, as there are two possible campsites allocated on a first come, first served basis when the permits are purchased. The earlier you book, the more likely you are to get the preferred final campsite which, in addition to being closer to Machu Picchu, has showers and a bar/restaurant.

How difficult is the Inca Trail?

The hike is considered moderately challenging, primarily due to its altitude. Even the fittest hikers struggle with this route if they are sensitive to high elevations. It’s good to find out how your body responds to the altitude before departure and to spend several days acclimatising in Cusco or the Sacred Valley before the trek begins.

Much of the trail is along stone paths which can be slippery during the rainy season. That being said, it’s probably the best of the multi-day treks during that time of year, as the other trails can be too muddy or you may even have snow at the highest points.

Camping on the Inca Trail

There are no lodges available on this trek, so you will be camping for three nights. Camping is in designated camping areas with minimal facilities (think squat toilets and cold showers). The quality of food and camping equipment will depend on your outfitter–at the highest end, a “glamping” option provides spacious tents with cots, pop-up toilets, and even a pop-up hot shower.

How to book Inca Trail permits

  • The Inca Trail must be booked through a travel agency, and permits must be purchased ahead of time.

  • Just 500 people per day are allowed on the trail, including support staff such as cooks, porters, and guides. Therefore, the actual number of permits available for tourists is limited to around 200.

  • Most operators will require a non-refundable deposit to secure your booking and permits. This is usually deducted from your final payment.

  • The Inca Trail trail sells out several months ahead of time, so it’s important to book well in advance–especially if you’ve got limited flexibility in your schedule or want to travel over the peak months of July or August.

  • Note that the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance and cleaning during the entire month of February. If you’re travelling over this period you’ll need to consider one of the many excellent alternatives.

  • Permits are associated with your passport number and cannot be transferred.

  • The typical package includes a return to Cusco on the 4th day. If you want to spend a night in Aguas Calientes, you should let the agency know this at the time of booking.

Support staff

You will be supported on your trek by a licensed guide, porters to carry the equipment, a cook, and at least one assistant cook. You may also hire a personal porter to carry your belongings so that you only need a daypack for essentials such as water. Porters must be booked at the same time as you book your permits.

Key considerations

  • After many years of substandard porter welfare, porter loads are now strictly regulated for their safety. You can typically hire either “half” a porter to carry 7kg (15.4 lb) or a “full” porter to carry 14kg (30.8 lb). Included in this weight will be your sleeping bag.

  • Most operators do not include a sleeping bag, although they can be rented.

  • Only rubber tipped hiking poles are allowed on the trail to prevent excessive damage and erosion to the ancient stonework.

  • You’ll want to bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of camping.

The Lares Trek

This trek is known as the “cultural trek” to Machu Picchu, as it offers plenty of opportunities to interact with local communities along the way. It’s one of the shorter treks, so can be a good option for those who are short on time.

Stories woven in

Traditional weaving is as important a tradition in the high Andes as alpaca herding and the Quechua language. Since Quechua was an oral language long before it was ever a written one, weaving was the main medium for communication, telling stories, and keeping records. By purchasing traditional weavings, travellers can help keep the tradition alive.

What you’ll see

Hiking through the gorgeous Sacred Valley and up to high mountain passes, you’ll be treated to some stunning vistas on this route. However, the real treat here is meeting the local inhabitants of Andean villages along the way, learning about ancestral weaving techniques directly from the descendants who are still practising them today. An added (and welcome) bonus is finishing at the hot springs in Lares.

How long is the Lares Trek?

There are several different routes for this hike, but the typical one will have you hiking about three days, covering just over 20 miles. On the third day, you will take a train to Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu the following day. The lodge-to-lodge Lares trek has two versions including the train and tour of Machu Picchu: a 5-day version and a 7-day version. Both offer some options in the number of hours you wish to spend hiking each day.

How difficult is the Lares Trek?

The trek is generally rated moderately challenging, although, on the lodge-to-lodge trek, you will be offered opportunities along the way to increase the difficulty of the trek, depending on your preferences and fitness. Either way, the challenging aspect is principally due to the altitude, which on the lodge-to-lodge trek can reach up to 4,420m (14,500 ft).

Camping on the Lares Trek

The traditional route has you camping two nights and spending the third night in a hotel. With the lodge-to-lodge versions, you’ll have two to four nights in a luxury lodge, featuring jacuzzi tubs and gourmet food. These lodge stays are usually followed by one night in a hotel in Ollantaytambo and one in Aguas Calientes.

How to book

No permits are necessary for hiking the Lares trail, but you will still want to book with an operator. They will have the right connections with local horsemen and employ qualified guides who know the area well and speak Quechua. This is key for interacting with the communities along the route, as well as for ensuring your safety in the mountains.

Support staff

With a good trekking operator, you’ll have a guide who is knowledgeable in the history, flora, and fauna of the region, enhancing your experience along the trail and within the communities. You will also have horsemen who will care for the mules and horses that carry your gear, and a cook and assistant cook to prepare your meals.

Key considerations

  • Although there will be at least one emergency horse, if you suspect you may have difficulties, it’s a good idea to request an additional emergency horse for your use (at an extra charge).

  • Most tours do not include a sleeping bag, although they can be rented.

  • You’ll want to bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of trekking, as well as to purchase weavings in the communities.

  • Bring small gifts to pass on to local children in the communities you visit. See Responsible Trekking for more advice.

The Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek is the number one alternative to the Inca Trail, described by National Geographic as one of the best treks in the world. While there are no ruins along the way unless you do the lodge-to-lodge version, the opportunity for gorgeous landscapes is even greater than on the Inca Trail, leading it to be known as the “Nature Trek.”



Savage mountain

Looming large in the background of this trek is the glacier-clad Mt. Salkantay. It forms part of the fierce Cordillera Vilcabamba range, with a peak that reaches a staggering 6,270 m (20,574 ft) of altitude. Worshipped for thousands of years by the local highlanders, Mt. Salkantay takes its name from a Quechua phrase meaning "savage mountain".

What you’ll see

From snow-capped mountains down to high jungle, this trek is known for its varied ecosystems and landscapes. You’ll pass high mountain glaciers, walk along rolling fields and pastures, and end up in the high jungle that surrounds Machu Picchu.

How long is the Salkantay trek?

The length of this hike can vary, both in mileage as well as in the number of days. The traditional version is 4 days of hiking, covering a distance of about 37 miles. If you choose the much more comfort-oriented lodge-to-lodge version of the trek, you will hike for 6 days, covering a bit more distance but with less hiking time per day.

How difficult is the Salkantay trek?

The trek is challenging, primarily because of the altitude. The highest point is the Salkantay Pass, at 4,630 m (15,213 ft) above sea level. Even after crossing the pass, although you will continue descending, there are some ups and downs that will feel very long if you’re not in great shape or not properly acclimatized.

Camping on the Salkantay trek

If you do the traditional version, you’ll be camping for three nights and spend the fourth night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes. Your tour of Machu Picchu will be on the fifth morning.

Salkantay lodge trekking

A popular alternative to the original camping route is the Salkantay lodge-to-lodge trek. This is a very different experience, which combines the sense of accomplishment with the added bonus of spending each night in a series of luxury mountain lodges, each with it’s own distinct character. Replete with goose-down bedding, gourmet food, on-site masseuse and the sublime pleasure of an outdoor jacuzzi, these luxury lodges are just the remedy after a hard day’s hike!

How to book

There are no permits necessary to hike the Salkantay Trek, although this is subject to change. Solo trekking is possible but even experienced trekkers are encouraged to use a trekking outfitter for the added benefit of experienced guides and horseman to ensure your safety and enjoyment of the experience.

Key considerations

  • Even for experienced trekkers and the very fit, Salkantay will be a challenge. Prepare yourself with plenty of cardio exercise in the weeks and months before travel, and ensure you’re properly acclimatised in Cusco before setting out.

  • Most tours do not include a sleeping bag, although they can be rented. Quality varies, and temperature drops to very cold at night. It’s recommended to bring your own four-season sleeping bag or a silk liner for extra warmth.

  • Bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of camping. You’ll also pass huts selling drinks, chips, and chocolate, small change needed!

The Ausangate Trek

Because Ausangate Mountain is in the opposite direction to Machu Picchu, this trek is not typically offered as an alternative to the Inca Trail. This can be to your benefit, however, as it also gives you the opportunity to explore the Andes on a trail that is far less travelled.

The classic Ausangate route is a beast of a trek, although -- as with Salkantay -- there is a lodge version that brings some very welcome creature comforts to the overall experience.



The colourful mountain

As a climax of this route, trekkers arrive on the fourth day to a sight they’ve seen in all the photos: the “colourful mountain”. This ridge has also been nicknamed the “painted mountain” and the “rainbow mountain” by those trying to express the surreal layers of pastel purples, greens, yellows and reds that stripe it. Describe the scene how you will, and have your cameras ready, but you really do have to see it to believe it!

What you’ll see

The landscape here is rugged, wild, and pristine. You’ll be surrounded by awe-inspiring glacier mountains, turquoise lagoons of various sizes, and wildlife such as an abundance of waterfowl, raptors, and vizcachas, a chinchilla-like animal. There are also some high mountain communities in this area who shepherd their animals in the region and offer some of the most beautiful weavings you’ll see in Peru. You’ll also get to sooth your aching feet in hot springs along the way.

How long is the Ausangate trek?

The traditional Ausangate trek spans six days and takes you over about 60 miles or so of terrain and up to a maximum altitude of around 4,800m (16,000 ft) above sea level. The lodge-to-lodge hikes are offered in variations from just two days up to seven, so you can find a route that meets your interest and fitness level.

How difficult is the Ausangate trek?

The classic Ausangate trek is extremely challenging, in particular, because of the altitude, not to mention the cold nights. The lodge routes (see below) are a very different experience, although the extra comforts won’t negate the altitude, weather and gruelling ascents.

Camping on the Ausangate trek

On the classic camping trek, which loops around Mt. Ausangate, you’ll be wild camping in unmarked campsites for five nights.

Ausangate trek lodges

The lodge route takes you from lodge-to-lodge, each one as beautiful as the last and all constructed from local materials. Part-owned and operated by members of the nearby Chillca community, the lodges are a great example of inclusive tourism. Although there is no electricity, the lodges are comfortable and cosy, especially in the evenings around the fire. The fresh meals prepared each day are delicious and you can even have a hot shower!

How to book

This is another trek that needs no permit and can, theoretically, be done solo. Yet it is highly advisable to book with a credible trekking operator. With the higher altitude and more remote conditions, you will need a guide and support staff who are well-versed in the requirements of trekking in this area.

Key considerations

  • Aim to reach the “rainbow mountain” before 9:30am, when the tour buses of day hikers start to arrive.

  • Even the very fit will find this a challenging route. An emergency horse will be available for exhausted trekkers but should not be relied upon for completing the trek. Make sure you’re fit, healthy, fully acclimatized and not suffering from any stomach troubles before you set off.

  • Be prepared for long nights at low temperatures (below freezing at night). If you are tent-camping, layers and proper equipment are vital. Most tours do not include a sleeping bag, but they can be rented. It’s advisable to bring an additional sleeping bag liner for extra warmth.

  • You’ll be able to purchase weavings in the communities you pass through--it’s much welcome support for a traditional (and waning) livelihood. Bring small change if you’d like to stock up on souvenirs.

The Choquequirao Trek

Largely unknown and vastly overshadowed by the “sister ruins” of Machu Picchu, the Choquequirao complex is a true hidden gem that receives just a handful of visitors each year.

This splendid isolation is down to the ruins’ absolute lack of access–no train and bus connections here, just a gruelling three-to-four day trek over challenging, but hugely rewarding, terrain.



The cradle of gold

Although Choquequirao (“Cradle of Gold” in Quechua) is known as Machu Picchu’s “sister ruins,” the only partially excavated site is thought to be significantly larger, more complex and more historically significant than the better-known ruins. Choquequirao’s remoteness and difficulty of access mean that only a few thousand people visit each year–compared to Machu Picchu’s two million annual arrivals!

What you’ll see

The Choquequirao trek is known for its stunning views, utter isolation and sudden changes to the surrounding climate and ecosystem. You’ll depart from the high Andean altiplano and gradually descend into the semitropical forest, winding your way through steep valleys along the way. You’ll spot condors overhead, tarantulas scuttling below and, if you’re very lucky, a spectacled bear (of Paddington fame) in the distance.

Although the ruins themselves are only partially excavated, numerous discoveries have been made. Choquequirao is famed for its uniquely llama decorated terraces, and impressive stonework reaching down steep valley walls. The site is much larger than Machu Picchu and takes at least a day to fully explore.

How long is the Choquequirao trek?

There are a variety of routes to Choquequirao, depending on the start and finish point. A typical route (approximately 40 miles) begins at the small village of San Pedro de Cachora, starting with rolling farmland, before entering the Apurimac Valley and following a long descent to the first campsite at Santa Rosa on the banks of the mighty Apurimac River. The second day is a gruelling climb back up the other side of the valley which eventually culminates at the gates of Choquequirao. Day three is devoted to exploring Choquequirao, and you’ll hike back out on day four–either the way you came or via a different route. Most tours include a connection to either Ollantaytambo or Aguas Calientes for a visit to Machu Picchu.

How difficult is the Choquequirao trek?

Choquequirao is generally considered to be a challenging trek. Mules and horses are allowed on the trail which makes carrying your equipment easier, but there are several long, steep descents and climbs that even the fittest trekkers will find demanding.

Camping on the Choquequirao trek

In an effort to improve the route’s popularity (and profitability) the government has invested in camping grounds, some including toilets and running water, along the route. As with all treks, the quality of your service depends entirely on your outfitter and how much you decide to pay.

How to book

  • It’s possible to hike the Choquequirao trek solo; be sure to arrive with an adequate map, provisions and season-appropriate gear.

  • Otherwise, the route is served by most trekking operators, which will include all transfers, equipment, food, guide and porters.

  • Permits are not required but there is a fee to enter Choquequirao which will usually be included in the trip price.

Key considerations

  • For some fascinating background reading on this region, try The White Rock by Hugh Thomson, the thrilling story of the area’s discovery and exploration.

  • Like the other Inca Trail alternatives, this isn’t technically a Machu Picchu trek, as you’ll need to take a connection from the endpoint to Aguas Calientes.

  • There has long been talk of constructing a cable car to improve access to Choquequirao. If this ever happens its days as a secluded backwater will be truly over – get there quick!

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