If a trek to Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains of Peru is on your near-term bucket list, you’ve got an amazing journey ahead of you, but you’re far from alone. People from around the globe are drawn to this archeological treasure of the Incan Empire, considering the trek to be a cherished lifetime achievement.
Machu Picchu’s worldwide popularity has created an overwhelming flood of tourists, which ultimately led to the Peruvian government taking steps to preserve it by regulating access.
The number of total daily visitors in Machu Picchu itself is capped at 2,500 and the number of Inca Trail hikers per day is capped at 500. The government won’t allow you to do the trek on your own, so you’ll need to book with a registered guide company.
Below are our expert tips to help you plan your trip, including how to choose a guide company, and how to prepare and pack for your trip once you’ve booked it.
Machu Picchu Guides, Fees and Permits
Choosing a Guide Company
Arrange your trip with a tour company in Peru or go with one of many adventure travel providers in the U.S. In fact, REI Adventures has several types of Machu Picchu trips available.
Be aware that limits on Inca Trail permits have led tour companies to develop alternative trekking routes where numbers are not capped, but they may not match the dizzying cloud-forest paths and spectacular archeological sites you find on this fabled world-class trek.
These routes will be less crowded, but only the Inca Trail approaches the city with the beautiful view you’ll get at the famous Sun Gate. Other treks require a final train leg to Aguas Calientes, where you hike or hop a bus with the rest of the tourists heading to Machu Picchu. Before you book your trip, make sure you understand the type of trip you are choosing.
What’s included when you book: The trip cost typically includes fees for all of the necessary permits. Note, too, that additional permits are needed if you want to hike to the top of one of the mountains overlooking Machu Picchu. Both Huyana Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain permits cost about $50. Many tours include one of these mountains and many trekkers consider it an essential part of the Machu Picchu experience.
In addition to a qualified guide, tour companies provide meals, group gear (e.g. tents, sleeping pads and cooking gear) and porters to carry heavy gear.
Tipping: Gratuities to guides and trekking support staff are encouraged but not always included, so check with your tour company. REI Adventures trips to Machu Picchu include the tip for everyone but the lead and assistant guides, for example. Your guide company can suggest recommended amounts and staff members for its tour and you should bring cash for all the tips you choose to offer.
Travel insurance: While prices vary widely, a trek to Machu Picchu is a substantial investment. So consider getting some travel insurance, especially for a longer, full-service tour. (See our article about travel insurance for more information.)
When to Book Your Trip
You need to book your trip six months or more in advance in order for your tour company to be able to secure the needed permits. And they will need your passport details to do that, so you also need to get that travel document well in advance.
Dry season: June through September is when you’re less likely to have rain. The tradeoff is higher tour prices and throngs of tourists. Because this is prime vacation time for Peruvians, the crowds will have a strong local flavor.
Wet season: October through April is the rainy season, when mudslides have happened in previous years and when muddy trails can present a challenge in any year. The Inca Trail is closed in February, although visitors can still tour the ruins. Prices and crowds both drop significantly at this time of year.
Regardless of the season you choose, the combination of high altitude, nearby rainforests and equatorial latitude creates weather conditions that can vary dramatically over the course of a single day. Be prepared for the changing weather by carrying the appropriate clothing layers. And be prepared with plenty of insect repellent, because mosquitoes and tiny biting midges (also known as sandflies) are an issue year-round.
Preparing for Machu Picchu
Get any required vaccinations: Before traveling to Peru, make sure you’re up to date on needed vaccinations. Also talk to your doctor about other medicines you might need. See our Health Concerns for Travelers article for more information.
Get in shape: The journey requires you to be in excellent physical shape. Machu Picchu itself is at just under 8,000 feet in elevation, but passes along the Inca Trail are more than 13,000 feet high, so you must prepare to hike at altitude.
Train months in advance. Incorporate swimming into your training because it helps increase lung capacity. Cusco, the starting point for most tours is 11,000 feet high, so spending a few days here will help acclimate you. Go slow and stay well hydrated for your first few days. Staying well hydrated will also be important when you’re hiking at altitude on your Machu Picchu trek.
Packing for Machu Picchu
Trekking to Machu Picchu involves a combination of international travel and backpacking. Depending on where you live, you’ll most likely require one or two days of travel to reach Peru. Most tours depart from Cusco. Many hotels here let you store bags, so clothing and essentials for other travel you plan to do before or after your trek can be packed in standard luggage.
While hiking to Machu Picchu, you will typically carry the gear you need for trekking from one camp to the next in a medium-sized daypack. The rest of your clothing and gear goes in a large duffel bag that will be carried by a porter. Many guide companies provide this duffel bag, although some require you to buy your own.
Know your weight limits: The Peruvian government regulates the maximum amount that each porter can carry, which impacts the weight your tour company allows in your duffel bag. REI Adventures, for example, limits that to 7kg (15.4 lbs.) on its Inca Trail Trek. Depending on how many porters your tour company hires, this limit could be higher or lower.
If you need to carry more weight, your tour company should offer the option of paying an added fee so they can hire another porter. Weight limits vary and are subject to change, so double check them with your tour company. Also check with your airline and train companies about their weight limits.
Trekking Gear List for Machu Picchu
The following list is designed for a guided trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Tour companies generally include food for meals, group cooking equipment, tents and sleeping pads. Check with your company ahead of time to be sure you understand what gear is provided.
Included in this list are many of the Ten Essential Systems you should have on every backcountry trip: navigation; sun protection; insulation; illumination; first-aid supplies; fire; repair kit and tools; nutrition; hydration; emergency shelter. Essentials are omitted from the list below only because you cannot trek to Machu Picchu without utilizing a tour company that will be bringing those items.
There may be overlap with equipment for travel and equipment for trekking. Keep this in mind when choosing quantities.
- Airline tickets (confirmation and itinerary)
- International health card (immunizations listed)
- Valid passport (needed many places, including Machu Picchu, where you get a souvenir stamp)
- Luggage locks
- Luggage tags
- Travel wallet
- Passport/money belt
- Sleeping bag liner
- Travel plug adapters (A and B) and converters
- Wicking, quick-dry boxers or briefs
- Wicking, quick-dry sports bra
- Synthetic or wool T-shirt
- Long-sleeve, travel-friendly shirt
- Lightweight, travel-friendly pants
- Casual shoes
- Midweight wool or synthetic socks
- Wicking, quick-dry boxers or briefs
- Wicking, quick-dry sports bra
- Midweight long underwear bottoms
- Midweight long underwear top
- Synthetic short- and long-sleeve T-shirts
- Midweight fleece or soft-shell jacket
- Midweight down or synthetic jacket
- Convertible hiking pants
- Fleece pants
- Lightweight waterproof/breathable rain jacket
- Lightweight waterproof/breathable rain pants
- Midweight fleece gloves or wool gloves
- Midweight fleece/wool winter hat
- Sun-shielding hat or cap
- Midweight wool or synthetic hiking socks
- Liner socks (optional)
- 1-liter water bottles (2)
- 2-liter hydration reservoir (optional)
- Watch with alarm (altimeter feature is optional)
- Compass (optional on a guided trip)
- Signaling whistle (optional)
- Action camera (or regular camera; optional)
- Spare camera battery and spare camera memory card
- Camping pillow
- Camp towel
- Insect repellent
- Pocket knife or multi-tool
- Personal first-aid kit
- Eye shade (optional)
- Ear plugs (optional)
- Journal and pen (optional)
- Book or e-reader (optional)
- Small binoculars (optional)
- Cash in local currency (nuevos soles)
- Large plastic garbage bags
- Compact roll of toilet paper
- Personal wipes / hygiene items
- Hand sanitizer
- Toothbrush (travel size)
- Toothpaste (travel size)
- Dental floss
- Sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher)
- Lip balm (SPF 30 or higher)
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Razor and shaving cream
- Skin lotion
- Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Prescription medications for traveler’s diarrhea, altitude sickness, malaria
Guide companies generally provide breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinking water during your trek. You’ll want to add to this by bringing snacks, drink mixes and energy foods. Check with your guide company to see what food is provided.
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