A Hiker’s Guide to Machu Picchu

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Everything you need to know about where to go, when to visit and what to bring to this historic site

Along the train tracks next to the Urubamba River, a steady stream of poncho-clad backpackers walked toward Machu Picchu. The rain clouds lifted enough to get a glimpse of the famous Inca citadel and UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was built into the hillside between two peaks.

Two days earlier, standing on top of Salkantay Pass, a loud rumble caught my attention. Rocks and ice tumbled down the mountainside. The 20,574-foot Salkantay is the tallest mountain in the Vilcabamba mountain range in the Cusco region of the Peruvian Andes and the thin air surrounding it felt full of energy. We’d been walking since sunrise, watching the early morning sun cast a warm glow on the glacier-capped mountain and after a few hours, we finally reached the trail’s 15,255-foot high point. The low-hanging clouds in the valley below moved in and were soon hovering over the mountain’s summit.

The trail to the summit of Machu Picchu Mountain | Photo: Monica Prelle

Four of us were hiking the three-day trek along the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu with Refugios Salkantay. We were picked up in Cusco, driven in private transport to Mollepata, where we ate breakfast and learned the details of the trek before being dropped off at the trailhead. After a short hike to our first night’s lodge at Soraypampa, we sipped on a cup of cocoa tea, ate a hot lunch and hiked to Laguna Humantay for an acclimatization test. The trail was steep and unrelenting, and when our group reached the 14,100-foot glacier lake it was just starting to rain. We’d made it, which meant we were allowed to hike to higher elevations the next day.

From Salkantay Pass, we started the long and arduous descent. While most of us were prepared for the climb into high altitudes, none of us realized how difficult the downhill into the high jungle would be. The rocky trail descended 6,000 feet and quickly turned into a path that meandered through Andean grasses following glacier-fed creeks through a cloud forest into a lush canopy of ferns. Hummingbirds and wildflowers brightened the green foliage.

We eventually arrived in Lucmabamba, where we visited thermal pools in Santa Teresa, ate guinea pig and toured an organic coffee plantation. Rain soaked our feet on the final day of hiking along the Salkantay trek. When we arrived at the hydroelectric station, the option of sipping a Cusqueña while riding the train was tempting, but we opted to walk the final 6 miles into Aguas Calientes along the tracks.

Where to Hike 

Here are some of the most popular ways to see Machu Picchu—and what you need to know to get there.

The Inca Trail

There are miles of Inca trails in Peru, but the world-famous hike on the Camino de Inca, or the Inca Trail, in the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu is the most popular way to get to the ancient ruins. Highlights include the two 4,000-meter passes and entering Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. Hiking the Inca Trail requires a guide and a permit that needs to be booked six months in advance. Distances vary depending upon the starting point. There are numerous agencies that offer two- or four-day backpacking trips or a modified one-day hike on the Inca Trail.

[Recommended] REI Adventures offers a nine-day Inca Trail tour ($3,899 to $4,299 per person) including pre- and post-hike accommodations in Cusco and Aguas Calientes.

Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is a longer and more difficult route than the classic Inca Trail but, because it does not require a guide or a permit, it is quickly becoming a popular alternative. Typically completed in four days, the 38-mile route can be modified in distance with car and train assistance. Beginning at Challacancha near Mollepata and ending at the hydroelectric plant on the Urubamba River, the route climbs to a 15,200-foot pass and descends through a cloud forest to the high jungle. Most tours and independent trekkers pitch a tent at designated camping areas, but because the trail passes through small Andean villages, some tours offer eco-lodges or homestays. Camping and backpacking gear can be rented in Cusco, however, it will not be high-quality, lightweight equipment.

[Recommended] REI Adventures offers a 10-day journey ($4,599 to $5,099 per person), where you'll stay in mountain lodges along the way.

Alternate Treks

Because of the popularity of the Inca Trail and increasingly busy Salkantay Trek, there are a number of other alternative treks in the Sacred Valley that offer more solitude on the trail and include a visit to Machu Picchu. REI Adventures offers a 10-day Sacred Valley and Lares Trek, which is truly off the beaten path. Other operators offer many more options as well.

Travel Tips

Curious about permits, travel plans and what to bring? We've got you covered.

Regulations and Permits

Peru’s Ministry of Culture announced changes to Machu Picchu regulations and permits, effective July 1, 2017. The new rules are an attempt to control the numbers of visitors at any one time to preserve the heritage site. Entry times are now required in addition to dates. Tickets will be split into morning and afternoon groups and require visitors to enter and leave within a regulated time window. In addition, all visitors must enter with an official guide. Permits are still required to hike Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu. Some trekking operators take care of Machu Picchu permits and details while others don’t. You will need your passport to enter the site. Depending on availability, changes to permits may be made in person at the Ministry of Culture office in Cusco or Aguas Calientes.

Aguas Calientes

Also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, Aguas Calientes is the access point to Machu Picchu. Prices for just about everything are on the high side, but you’ll find almost everything you need. There are plenty of backpacker hostels, hotels, restaurants and shops. The thermal hot springs are a novelty and a popular evening activity. Depending on the time of your arrival, you'll likely want to stay the night, enter the historical site early in the morning and depart on an afternoon or evening train. Shuttles from town to the Machu Picchu entrance gate depart and return regularly, even though lines can be long. A steep and rocky staircase trail climbs the same hillside the road traverses and takes most people more than an hour to cover.

Return to Cusco

If you are not traveling with an all-inclusive tour, you have a couple options on how to return to Cusco after trekking to Machu Picchu. Two train companies, Inca Rail and Peru Rail, depart Aguas Calientes regularly. Services, schedule and pricing are similar. Trains to the Poroy Station, which is located 30 minutes from Cusco, are limited and expensive. From there, you will take a cab or bus to the town square. Most travelers opt for the less expensive train to Ollantaytambo, where you can either stay the night and enjoy the Sacred Valley and more ruins or take a two-hour collectivo (inexpensive mini-van busses) ride to Cusco. Tours from Ollantaytambo that stop at a few ruins and the salt flats on the way to Cusco are also available and can be negotiated in the town plaza.

When to Go

The North American summer and South American winter is the best time to visit Machu Picchu because it is the dry season. July and August are peak season and have high visitor numbers. May to June and September to October are also busy months with consistently good weather. But if you want to beat the crowds and don't mind some heavy rainfall, aim for the off-season (think: North America's winter). Note: Machu Picchu is open-year round, but the classic Inca Trail is closed in February.

What to Pack

Regardless of the season, Machu Picchu is said to have two types of weather: rainy or hot. Be prepared for anything. Lightweight pants and long sleeves are recommended even in warm weather for sun and bug protection. Hikers should carry a lightweight waterproof jacket or poncho and wear sturdy hiking shoes. Pack bug repellent, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses and plenty of water. The high altitude region can be cold at night. A down jacket is also recommended year-round. Read more on what to pack here.

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