Hiking Machu Picchu is one of the few UNESCO World Heritage Sites to have earned the designation both for cultural and geographic reasons. Weaving through the Peruvian Andes, the many treks to Machu Picchu pass through some astoundingly varied topography, culminating in the beautiful cloud forest that surrounds the ancient Incan city.

It’s possible to take transportation and visit Machu Picchu on a day trip from Cusco. If you like crowded buses and hordes of people. But nothing can beat the feeling of arriving at Machu Picchu after several days of hiking through the Andes. For many, this is the gateway hike – the first multi-day hike you’ll ever do. Be warned, it’s addictive!

Machu Picchu: A brief overview

Machu Picchu lies at 2,430m/7,972ft above sea level, right where the Andes mountain range meets the beginning of the Amazon basin. Built in the mid-1400s at the apex of the Inca empire, it was soon abandoned during the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. The ruins became famous when American explorer Harvey Bingham was led to them by a local farmer in 1911.

Machu Picchu is divided into an agricultural sector complete with terraces, and an urban sector with religious astronomical structures. It’s built in typical Inca style, with huge blocks of stone that fit together with no need for mortar.

Also, it’s in perfect harmony with the surrounding environment. The city emerging from the mist in the forested mountains is breathtaking.

Researchers are still trying to understand why this Incan city was built in such a remote location. But today’s hikers aren’t complaining – very few treks in the world can boast such a stunning grand finale. Machu Picchu, a wonder of the world, showcases the architectural brilliance of the Inca civilization.

When to go: Machu Picchu Weather

There are two main seasons in this part of the subtropical Andes: the cold, dry season and the wet season. The wet season stretches approximately from October to March, with the dry season starting in April and lasting through September. Average temperatures vary only slightly between wet and dry seasons.

The best time to hike to Machu Picchu is definitely during the dry season. However, June-August is high season and you’re likely to find hordes of people on the trail. During high season, the permits for the Inca Trail get snapped up almost immediately after their online release (this year, they will be released in October).

Best Months to Go:

April, May, September and sometimes early October are the best months to go. Especially if you want to find a balance of good weather and fewer crowds.

Wettest Months:

January and February represent the wettest months of the year, making it inadvisable to embark on treks during this period. Please note that the Inca Trail undergoes renovations in February, while Machu Picchu remains open for visitors.

During your trek, you’ll be going from low jungle to high-altitude mountain passes. In one instant you might be under the scorching sun, and an hour later you might be shivering in the wind next to a glacier. Nights can drop below freezing, especially during the dry season. Be sure to pack clothing for all kinds of weather, regardless of which month you go.

Machu Picchu is located more or less at the cloud level. Indeed, there’s a good chance you’ll find it blanketed in mist when you arrive. Don’t worry: the mist usually clears later in the morning.

Packing list

One thing I didn’t factor in was the cost of all the equipment I would need to hike to Machu Picchu. As a hiking amateur, I didn’t have a lot of fancy trekking gear. I had to spend a pretty penny investing in some of this equipment. But the good news is that trekking is addictive! Certainly, this probably won’t be the last time you’ll use your new gear!

This list is designed for people who will be making the trek with a tour operator who will provide sleeping bags, etc. There are strict weight restrictions on most Machu Picchu treks so you won’t be bringing much extra stuff.

On most treks, you’ll be given a bag where you can pack all the stuff you won’t need. The porters (or pack animals) will carry this for you to the campsite every day. You will only carry a smaller day pack.

Remember to pack essential items in your daypack since you won’t have access to your larger bag until you reach camp. Also, consider the weight of water and snacks when packing your daypack. Ensure easy access to layers for quick on and off throughout the day.

Most Cusco hostels store your suitcase while you hike the Inca trail.

What to wear

Remember to dress in layers when traveling through mountain passes, as the weather can quickly change from tropical to glacial.

However, don’t let yourself be deceived into splurging your entire monthly income on state-of-the-art trekking gear. Just wear something you feel comfortable in, that can handle temperature changes.

Start with these essentials and add a nice outfit for selfies if you still have room afterward!

Base layers: Your base layer should be comfortable and moisture-wicking. Stay away from cotton; go for merino wool or synthetics. I brought a long-sleeved shirt (the same one I use for skiing), and a few short-sleeved shirts. If you run cold, you can also bring long underwear.

Fleece mid-layer: You’ll probably be putting this on and taking it off with every mountain pas. So try to find one that will fit easily into your day pack.

A waterproof, windproof outer shell: Some people also bring a plastic poncho – choose a semi-decent one that won’t fall apart.

One pair of pants: DON’T WEAR JEANS. Choose comfortable non-cotton hiking pants made of a moisture-wicking substance. I searched for tearaways before my trip but didn’t find any. You might want to bring shorts, but be cautious of the temperature drops at the mountain passes.

Scarf or balaclava, and gloves: At a freezing mountain pass, we had to stand still for about 45 minutes, holding coca leaves in our bare hands.

However, none of us were appropriately dressed. BRING GLOVES.

Underwear: A pair per day. Unless you buy into the happy fantasy of that underwear that doesn’t require washing.’ Um, ew.

Sports bra: And a normal bra for evenings.

Merino wool hiking socks: These are a fantastic investment. They fight odor, minimizing the amount of socks you have to bring; and they make for warm, dry, comfortable feet, which also helps you avoid blisters.

A hiking protection hat: Not only to protect against the sun but also to cover your unattractive hiking hair. I brought a baseball cap and a beanie, and I used both.

Note: You might regret not buying one of those kitschy traditional Peruvian hats with earmuffs. Don’t worry, there will probably be at least one Quechua woman who wanders into your camp in the middle of nowhere and tries to sell you one. There’s no guarantee the price won’t be inflated.

Warm pajamas: Nights get COLD at altitude. Bring a pair of warm pajamas and be prepared to sleep in your hat, mittens, and/or socks.

Trekking gear

Proper waterproof hiking boots: This is THE most important thing you can invest in. Be sure to break them in well before going, to prevent blisters. During the wet season, consider wearing leg gaiters or waterproofing your boots.

Blister plasters: Just in case.

Hiking poles: These will save your knees on the downhills. You have the option to rent retractable poles for the official Inca trail, as long as they have rubber tips. These poles can be easily stored in your backpack when they are not in use.

Extras

Snacks: Tour companies should provide lots of food, but I recommend bringing trail mix, energy bars, chocolate, etc. to avoid getting hungry between meals. If you want to make new friends, bring something shareable. Keep in mind that salty snacks will make you thirsty and chocolate can melt.

Toiletries: You’ll have enough water to brush your teeth, so bring a toothbrush and toothpaste. Also bring deodorant, if you still want to have friends after four days of hiking. If you know you’ll have access to a shower, then you should also pack soap, shampoo, and conditioner. And a hairbrush.

Coca leaves and/or altitude sickness pills (acetylzolamide): Especially if this is your first time at altitude. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll be needing these.

Rehydration sachets: Altitude dehydrates you, as does diarrhea. Rehydration sachets or electrolyte water enhancers can be a lifesaver in replacing your electrolytes in these instances.

Water purifiers: Depending on whether your tour operator provides fresh water, it might be a good idea to bring water purifiers so you can safely drink from streams. If you don’t like the taste of purified water, then you can add flavor enhancers.

Basic first-aid kit: Band-aids, ibuprofen, diarrhea pills. These are all things my co-trekkers borrowed from me because they didn’t think to pack them. Did I mention they were all med students? Durr.

I also brought hay fever pills and Gravol, just in case. The Gravol actually came in handy on the winding road to Aguas Calientes. To get an idea of the road conditions: we had to get out several times and push the van across a running waterfall. Did someone say carsick?

Some people warn against taking Imodium (anti-diarrhea medication) at altitude because it slows your digestion. Also, your digestion is already slower at altitude. I guess it depends on how badly you need it…

In some cases, diarrhea is caused by bacteria that need to work their way out of your body. If you have a fever or a bloody stool, it might be better to take an antibiotic. But always: take advice from your doctor, not from an online article!

Get the appropriate vaccines before your trip to Peru. Certainly ask your doctor if it’s ok to keep taking your prescription meds at altitude.

Check out our guide on common hiking injuries to find out what other first-aid supplies you should bring.

Toilets on the Inca trail are mostly squat toilets. Between camps, you may need to use the bushes, known as the Inca toilet. It is recommended to put toilet paper in a bag and dispose of it in Aguas Calientes instead of throwing it into the bush.

One trekker once mistakenly threw their toilet paper over what they thought was a cliff during a midnight bathroom break. However, they discovered the next morning that it was actually someone’s garden.

There are paid toilets on the Inca trail and paid showers at Wi’ay Wayna; remember to bring coins for these. You can usually rent towels at the showers.

Some fancy tour operators provide toilet tents so their guests can avoid the public toilets.

Ladies: There’s always the chance you might get your period on the trail. Many people swear by those menstrual cups, an eco-friendly and convenient option if you’re on a trail with no proper toilets. Otherwise, just use whatever equipment you usually use. And carry the garbage with you until the end of your trek so you can dispose of it properly.

Ladies and gentlemen: Some people swear by a pee bottle so you don’t have to make a nighttime trip to the toilet. I’m a bit squeamish about this but to each their own! As a girl, in the daytime, I wasn’t shy about peeing behind boulders. However, on a crowded trail, you might want to consider using a Shewee for more confidence.

Quick-drying towel: I brought a small PackTowl for the hot springs. Some tour operators also give you bowls of hot water so you can wash up in the morning.

A note to anyone with long hair: I bought a smooth PackTowl which was pretty useless at drying my thick, curly hair. I recommend a PackTowl with a rougher texture.

Swimsuit: This will be handy for the hot springs, if not at Lares then at Aguas Calientes.

Flashlight: A flashlight is a must-try using the squat toilet at midnight without one! A headlamp is even better if you have one. On the first day of our trek, we were so slow that we arrived well after sunset. Hiking on narrow paths next to steep drop-offs, over rocks and rivers, and who knows what else, is not fun in the dark.

Hydration bladder: If you don’t have one, make sure your pack has water bottle pockets on the sides for easy access while hiking. Even if you have a hydration bladder, also bring a water bottle that you can fill with boiling water and use as a heat pad at night.

Also, I advise a hard plastic BPA-free water bottle that can handle boiling water. Since metal bottles get too hot and a normal plastic one probably gives you cancer when you drink the water out of it the next day.

Side note: On the last night, I put my tentmate’s hot water bottle in her sleeping bag for her without screwing the cap on properly. When she came back to the tent, her sleeping bag was soaked through with icy water! We made do with a combination of sleeping bag liners but I definitely recommend screwing the cap on tight. Sorry, Rachel!

A good day pack: You’ll be carrying your daypack for about ten hours a day so make sure it’s comfortable.

Plastic bags: These aren’t environmentally friendly but I will begrudgingly recommend you bring a few, just in case, for garbage and leaking liquids and whatnot.

Flip flops or light closed shoes: Your feet will thank you for not having to squeeze into your hiking boots in the evenings. However, with squat toilets in mind, I would personally opt for closed-toe shoes.

Bring an extra pair of socks for the evening, especially if you’re sharing your tent.

A travel blogger recommends using long socks that you can tuck your pants into while using the squat toilet. This tip helps prevent wet hems from filthy public toilets.

Sun protection: The sun burns quicker at high altitudes so load up on sunscreen and SPF lip balm, and don’t forget a hat and sunglasses.

Tips for the guides, porters and cooks: You wouldn’t have been able to do this trip without them! Bring appropriate amounts of local Peruvian soles according to the number of days and people.

Waterproofing materials: Consider taking a waterproof cover for your backpack, or a dry bag. This can also compress your stuff so you can cram more in there. You might also want to take a small umbrella.

Bug spray: Don’t let bug bites ruin your trip!

Phone and important documents: I stored them in a Ziploc bag because it wasn’t waterproof. Throughout the trail, my phone remained in the bag until we reached Aguas Calientes, as there was no coverage available.

For a lightweight and efficient solution, consider a camera with extra batteries or a solar charger. This versatile tool will become your best friend, allowing you to effortlessly capture quick photos without impeding the pace of your group. Phone batteries seem to die quicker, and you’d hate to run out of battery on your phone.

Music: I enjoyed talking to my fellow trekkers and being at one with nature, but if you want to listen to music while hiking, bring an mp3 player with a long-lasting battery.

Sleeping bag: In most cases, you can rent a winter season sleeping bag, liner and insulated sleeping pad from your tour operator, who will also provide tents. You’ll need an all-season sleeping bag that can handle the colder, high-altitude temperatures. Remember, the dry season is also the cold season.

Pillow: I stuffed a bag full of clothing but those inflatable pillows are also an attractive option.

Ear plugs and eye mask: If you’re a light sleeper, this article on how to sleep well in a tent might make the difference between a torturous vs. an enjoyable Machu Picchu trek.

A padlock: I trusted everyone in my group, but a small padlock might make you feel more comfortable, especially if you have a larger group.

Swiss Army knife: There’s no need for fancy equipment if you’re going with a tour operator, but if you have dreams of tackling the Cordillera Vilcabamba independently, you might want to bring a multi-tool. Of course, in this case you’ll also need to add food, etc. to your packing list…

Trekking insurance

Most travel insurance policies will not cover you when you ascend higher than 3,000m/9,840ft above sea level, due to the inherent risk of acute mountain sickness. While Machu Picchu itself sits at 2,430m/7,972ft, most trails to Machu Picchu rise above 4,000m/13,123ft. You’ll need to choose travel insurance that covers you when hiking above 4,000m.

Should you get severely ill from the altitude, should you stumble and break a hip, should you get caught in an avalanche or anything of the sort, you’ll be glad to have proper trekking travel insurance. Look for a policy that includes search and rescue costs. It’s also nice to have trip cancellation insurance.

Always carry travel insurance info and share emergency contact details with a hiking partner.

Avoiding altitude sickness on your trek to Machu Picchu

Altitude sickness is caused by ascending too much, too fast. It affects everyone differently and doesn’t differentiate based on your age or physical condition. The symptoms typically begin at high altitudes of around 2,500m/8,200ft, where the air is noticeably thinner and breathing becomes less oxygen-rich.

You can be the fittest person on the planet, but you might still get terrible altitude sickness. The only way to be safe when you start going higher and higher is by taking the time to acclimatize properly and not overexert yourself.

Cusco sits at 3,400m/11,155ft above sea level, placing it at the top end of the “high altitude” category. It’s the perfect place to acclimatize before tackling the “very high altitude” mountain passes over 4,000m/13,123ft that you’ll encounter on your trek.

Altitude sickness can be mitigated by ascending in small increments. Most trails to Machu Picchu incorporate a significant descent after each high mountain pass, which helps to beat the symptoms. Most treks also organize the ascent to the highest point of the day, followed by a descent to a lower-down campsite. ‘Climb high, sleep low? is normal protocol for altitude trekking.

If you’re planning on doing a trek to Machu Picchu, you should arrive in Cusco at least a few days earlier so you can acclimatize. One option is to take the bus from Lima to Cusco instead of flying in, making the ascent more gradual.

Usually, your body will adapt after a few days, increasing red blood cells and promoting efficient oxygen use. Take it easy, drink water, avoid alcohol, and you should be functional enough to hike. Drink at least 2 liters of water a day on the trek.

The Incas historically used coca leaves were historically used by the Incas to give much-needed energy to their messengers, the Chasquis. Coca leaves are still a popular way of combating altitude sickness today. Mate tea made from coca leaves is available for free in most hostels, and I chugged this stuff while I was in Cusco. It tastes odd but it really works (honey can make it taste better).

Straight coca leaves can also be chewed into a wad and kept in the corner of your mouth for hours. I strongly recommend buying a bag of coca before you go on the trek, just in case you suddenly decide you need it. It’s a cheap and easy fix for altitude sickness.

Medicine: Diamox, or acetylzolamide, is a preventative medicine that many doctors recommend for altitude sickness. It’s usually prescription-only, so you should get some before you leave your home country.

Note: Acetylzolamide depletes your magnesium and potassium, which can cause a tingling sensation in the tips of your fingers. I freaked out when this happened to me, thinking I was experiencing some crazy tropical disease! Luckily, one of the med students on my trip figured it out and told me to stop taking acetylzolamide. The tingling stopped almost immediately.

Altitude sickness can be fatal, but it starts with small annoyances like shortness of breath, lack of energy, and a mild headache. Read our detailed article on altitude sickness before your trek.

Choosing a tour operator

It is forbidden to do the Inca trail without an official guide. And while it is possible to do most of the alternative treks independently, they are generally more logistically convenient when done with a tour operator. Choosing a tour operator will be one of the most important parts of your preparation for hiking to Machu Picchu.

There are numerous tour operators that offer treks to Machu Picchu, making it challenging to find a reputable one that fulfills the promises mentioned in the tour itinerary and details. If you’re booking online before setting foot in Peru, you’ll need to do your research.

Many companies outsource when they lack sufficient sign-ups, even though international companies are expected to have higher standards. This may result in being grouped with a guide from another company whose standards are not satisfactory.

I researched many company reviews before choosing the Lares trek. During low season, for less popular treks like Salkantay or Lares, you can wait until you arrive in Cusco to seek advice from people who have recently completed the trek.

This also allows you to visit the office in person. However, for the Inca trail, it is not advisable to wait until the last minute as it is unlikely to obtain a permit.

Here are some things to look for in your tour operator:

Safety: Although Machu Picchu is not Kilimanjaro, you’re still heading into a very remote location at high altitudes. Make sure your tour operator is safety-conscious, trained in first aid, and properly equipped for an emergency.

Communication: This is important at every step of the way.

Does your tour operator answer your emails and phone calls? Poor communication before you even get to Peru can be a warning sign that your tour operator is not very professional.

Does your guide tell you exactly what the itinerary is for the day? Does anybody check to see if you’re feeling sick from the altitude? This ties into safety as well.

And, something that was really important to me: is your guide well-versed in Inca history? This is the person who will introduce you to one of the world’s most famous ruins. You want to get it right!

Budget: You should prioritize important aspects such as safety, food, clean water, proper tents and sleeping bags, and porter welfare when choosing a trip that fits your budget. If the classic Inca trail with a reputable operator is too expensive, consider alternatives like the 2-day Inca trail or a trek that doesn’t require a permit.

Group size: My group of 4 turned into a group of 16 at the last minute, which significantly impacted the trekking experience. Booking with a reputable tour operator, particularly a larger one that does not outsource tours, can help prevent this issue.

Good conditions for the porters, cooks, and guides. Be especially wary of super-cheap tours, which might mean they’re skimping on wages. Tipping should be an extra, not the bulk of their earnings.

Each porter is allowed to carry a maximum of 44lb/20kg, including 5kg for their own personal gear.

Some tour operators pass luggage between guides and trekkers to bypass checkpoints. If you see this or notice your porter lacking personal gear due to carrying excessive equipment, report it.

If you notice the porters are relying on eating the trekkers? leftovers, this is also a warning sign, as it means they may not be getting enough food.

Porters may sleep in the dining tent, so please be considerate and avoid staying up late talking. This will ensure they can get a proper rest. Check if there is a mat on the floor of the tent. If not, it may be wet.

There is a national porter’s minimum wage of about USD 15 per day. Does the tour price cover this? It also includes the Inca trail permit, entry tickets to Machu Picchu, and transportation costs.

Treks under USD 600 are usually too good to be true and the porters are getting ripped off.

Getting your hands on an Inca Trail permit

Machu Picchu has withstood centuries of natural disasters and it’s only starting to crumble now that tourists are heading there en masse. To protect the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, the Peruvian government limits daily visitors.

There’s a cap of 500 people per day on the Inca trail, including porters, guides, cooks, and trekkers. The cap applies to the start date, so for a 4-day trek, you only need a permit for the first day.

Note: One of the reasons for the growing popularity of alternative treks such as Lares and Salktantay is that they don’t require permits. The 2-day Inca trail does require a permit but it’s much easier to get than the 4-day Inca trail permit. Accordingly, some tour operators combine the Lares or Salkantay trek with the 2-day Inca trail.

Pack animals aren’t allowed on the Inca trail, because their hooves damage the trail. This means that in addition to guides and cooks, every Inca trail group will also need a few porters. Out of 500 daily permits, after you count the porters, cooks and guides, there are only about 200 left for the trekkers.

Permits for the Inca trail sell out quickly, especially for high-season dates. To secure a permit, you must book through a licensed tour operator and be accompanied by a registered guide.

This year, permits are going on sale in October for the next calendar year. I recommend booking with your tour operator BEFORE this, so that when the permits go on sale, they can jump in right away to get your permit for you.

Specific people are assigned permits. Your tour operator requires your passport information and a list of your preferred dates to attempt to acquire a permit as soon as they become available.

Please note that permits are non-refundable, non-alterable, non-transferable, and non-exchangeable. Therefore, it is crucial to carefully verify your information when making a booking, as there is no opportunity for modifications.

Tour operators require a deposit at booking, refundable if they can’t secure a permit for your dates. The deposit is necessary because your permit cannot be used by anyone else if you don’t show up for the trek.

Your passport must not expire within six months of your travel dates. It will be checked on the Inca trail to ensure it matches the information in your permit, so bring it with you. If your passport is about to expire, you can book with your old passport, but you MUST bring both your old and new passports to present at the Inca Trail checkpoint.

There’s no waiting list. Once the trail is full, it’s full. Book with a reputable organization with a good track record. Consider providing alternate dates in case your preferred start date sells out quickly. You can check the availability of permits on the government website but you’ll have to book the permit through a tour organization.

Be cautious of tour operators selling Inca trail treks without available permits. Some organizations may deceive you with a different itinerary unrelated to the Inca trail.

It’s advisable to delay booking the remaining aspects of your trip (transportation, accommodation, etc.) until you have confirmed your permit.

Routes

In Peru, all roads lead to Machu Picchu! Well, more or less. Given the popularity of the Inca trail and the near-impossibility of getting a permit, a number of tour operators have come up with alternate routes to get to Machu Picchu. While some of the routes end at Machu Picchu, others will require a quick shuttle ride.

Every one of these trails has possibilities for variation, so don’t be surprised if your trek looks different than the itinerary you were given. Also, be wary of the time estimates they give you! My group found them to be absurdly optimistic. Even if you’re fit, there’s a high chance of altitude sickness or diarrhea in your group.

This could result in arriving at camp late at night or not having enough time for proposed itinerary activities. This is more likely in a bigger group.

Treks vary widely in price depending on the itinerary and the company. You can also complete most of these treks independently, but be aware that the trails are often poorly marked. Only experts who are well-prepared and well-acquainted with the territory should set out without a professional guide. I would also heavily recommend bringing a GPS.

You can choose whether you prefer to do the classic Inca trail or one of the off-the-beaten-path alternatives. If you’re short on time, you can take transportation to Aguas Calientes and hike up to Machu Picchu from there.


Classic Inca Trail

The 4-day Inca Trail is the traditional route used by the Incas to travel from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. It has well-established campsites, paid toilets, and showers. Although it can be crowded, some people appreciate the sense of conviviality.

There is a 5-day Inca trail that follows the same route but takes an extra day. You hike less each day and camp in different locations to avoid the crowds. The 5-day itinerary is a good choice if you need more time to acclimate and want to savor the view instead of rushing.

Most trekkers take a bus through Chinchero, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo until km 82 of the Inca trail, where they start the hike. On the first day, you’ll see the ruins of the small Incan fort, Huillca Raccay, and the popular ruins of Llactapata, and then follow the river to Wayllabamba (3,000m/9,840ft) where you’ll camp for the night.

The second day is a 3-hour ascent through the cloud forest to Llulluchapampa meadow, followed by the notorious climb to Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200m/13,780ft. The weather gets frigid as you ascend and then warms on the steep descent to Pacamayo camp.

On the third day you’ll see the circular ruins at Runkuracay (3,800m/12,467ft) and continue along the original Inca trail to Abra de Runkuracay (3,950m/12,960ft). A stone staircase will take you to Sayacmarca, aptly named “inaccessible town” and protected on three sides by sheer cliffs. Follow the trail past Conchamarca and down into the cloudforest where you’ll see orchids, hanging mosses and an Inca tunnel set into the cliff face.

Tackle the third pass (3,700m/12,140m) with views of Salkantay (6,271m/20,574ft) and Veronica (5,682m/18,642ft), the highest mountains in the area, and then you’ll arrive at Phuyupatamarca, the ruins of an Inca town in the clouds.’ A steep flight of stairs takes you past 6 Inca baths, through the cloud forest again and then finally to Wi’ay Wayna.

This campsite is the final one before Machu Picchu. It is always busy and offers a restaurant, hot showers (for a fee), and toilets. Nearby are the well-preserved ruins of Wi’ay Wayna, including buildings, agricultural terraces, and 10 baths possibly used for ritual cleansing on the way to Machu Picchu.

On the final day, wake up early to hike the last few hours to Machu Picchu and catch the sunrise from the Sun Gate..

Pros

  • Archaeological ruins
  • sense of conviviality
  • varied terrain

Cons

  • Disgusting toilets
  • crowded
  • hard to get a permit
  • lots of stairs (original trail built by Incas)

Length: 43km/26 miles (4-5 days)

Highest point: 4,200m/13,780ft (Dead Woman’s Pass)

When to book: ASAP (preferably at least six months in advance, or before permits go on sale)


2-day Inca trail

The 2-day Inca trail is a great option if you didn’t manage to get a permit for the 4-day Inca trail and you still want to see some ruins, or if you don’t have time for a multi-day hike. It’s only one day of hiking, plus one day to see Machu Picchu.

While you do need to apply for a permit, there are an extra 250 spaces allotted just to the short Inca trail and so far they are much easier to snag. There are often spaces available until the last minute, depending on the season.

Trekkers take the train from Ollantaytambo through the Sacred Valley, following the Urubamba River to km 104 of the Inca trail. You’ll hike to Wi’ay Wayna (2,680m/8,792ft), but instead of overnighting here, you’ll continue directly on to Machu Picchu via the famed Sun Gate.

After a small poke around Machu Picchu you’ll have dinner and sleep in Aguas Calientes. The next morning you’ll go back up to Machu Picchu for a proper tour, and take the bus back to Cusco.

Pros

  • Archaeological ruins
  • easy to get permit
  • practical for time or fitness constraints
  • chance to see Wi’ay Wayna when it’s less crowded (overnight campers have already left)
  • arriving at Machu Picchu via Sun Gate

Cons

  • Short- arriving at Machu Picchu in the middle of the day instead of at sunrise

Length: 13km/8 miles

Highest point: 2,650m/8,792ft (Wi’ay Wayna)

When to book: Up to the last minute, depending on season


Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu is the mountain that overlooks the town at Machu Picchu – the characteristic peak you see in the background of most Machu Picchu photos. A short 45-minute climb will get you to the top, where you can explore some more ruins and get a bird’s-eye view of the city below. There’s also a longer 3-hour traipse to the Temple of the Moon that you can complete if you have more time.

Although Huayna Picchu is not a long trek, it’s fairly steep and requires going through a dark tunnel and a lot of steep stairs. Huayna Picchu is infamous for its “stairs of death,” rickety pieces of jagged stone sticking out from the side of the mountain over dizzying heights. You don’t have to go on these.

If you want to hike up Huayna Picchu, you’ll have to book a permit several months beforehand. There are 400 permits given out daily, allotted by time slot: either 7-8 am or 10-11 am. I advise showing up a bit early to beat the line. Don’t forget to bring your passport for the passport control.

Personally, I found Huayna Picchu to be my favorite part about visiting Machu Picchu. You get to escape the bulk of the crowds, and you really feel like you’re on top of the world, with views of the surrounding forested mountains and the river stretching into the distance.

Another option if you’re full of beans when you get to Machu Picchu is to hike to the Sun Gate, where you can snap the traditional Machu Picchu selfie with Huayna Picchu in the background. The Sun Gate, of course, forms part of the normal itinerary of the classic Inca trail, but most of the other treks don’t lead you there. If your group is only spending the morning at Machu Picchu, you won’t have time to do the Sun Gate AND Huayna Picchu AND explore the city.

Alternate routes

Unlike the official Inca trail, these routes fill up less quickly and they can usually be booked once you get to Cusco (except during high season).

The advantage of this is you can talk to other people who have just done the treks and get advice about which companies are reputable and which route is best for you. It’s also usually cheaper to book in Cusco rather than pre-book.

The disadvantage is that you might decide you want to do the Inca trail after all, and by then it will be much too late.

If you’ve waited all your life to see Inca ruins, then I strongly recommend either the classic Inca trail or one of the alternate routes that has ruins, like Choquequirao or the Salkantay+Inca trail trek. I did the Lares trek and I loved it, but I regretted not seeing more ruins.


Laress

Instead of hiking through the Sacred Valley, the Lares trek meanders through the adjacent Lares Valley, which is like the Land That Time Forgot. Peaceful Quechuan communities exist here as they always have, cultivating corn and potatoes, herding llamas, weaving and making pottery.

We spent a good ten minutes watching a woman chase her llama back and forth, up and down the hillside. Don’t you hate it when your llama evades you and you have to sprint repeatedly up and down a hill at an altitude of 3500m above sea level without breaking a sweat? Just another day in the life.

There are many different versions of the Lares trek. Most of which start near the town of Lares where you can enjoy the hot springs, and take you through the Lares Valley to Ollantaytambo. While the Lares trek doesn’t naturally terminate at Machu Picchu, many hikers choose to catch the train to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo and visit Machu Picchu the next day.

The best part about the Lares trek is the lack of other trekkers. Over four days of hiking, we ran into ONE other group of trekkers. Basically, you’ll have the mountains and valleys all to yourself. You’ll come across glacial lakes and high-altitude mountain passes where you’ll most likely take part in a traditional coca leaf ceremony of thanks to the mountain gods, or Apus.

What’s more, you’ll also have the chance to connect with local communities and get an authentic glimpse into the lives of the Quechua people today. In fact, some tour operators have strong bonds with these communities. If you’re lucky, you might be able to take part in some communal activities with them.

Pros

  • Unspoiled and completely devoid of crowds apart from the locals
  • hot springs
  • possibility to do trek independently
  • cheaper than Inca trail


Cons

  • Doesn’t pass through the cloud forest
  • no Inca ruins

Length: ~40km/25 miles (~4 days)

Highest point: Up to 4,600m/15,090ft depending on route

When to book: Up until the last minute, depending on season; unless combining with the Inca trail


Salkantay

Mt. Salkantay, or “Savage Mountain,” is the highest mountain in the Vilcabamba mountain range of the Peruvian Andes. The Incas considered Salkantay to be one of the most important Apus, or sacred peaks. Due to its altitude, this trek has a reputation for being quite challenging. You can do a standalone Salkantay trek or combine it with the short Inca trail.

The Vilcabamba mountain range connects the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers and runs along the threshold of the Amazon basin. As a result, the topography of the Salkantay trek is breathtakingly varied.

Trekkers usually start by taking the bus to the small town of Mollepata (2850m), sometimes stopping along the way to see the ruins at Tarawasi. The trek follows the Mollepata valley along an Inca canal and up to Soray Pampa.

The classic Salkantay trek then passes the striking Humantay glacial lake with its crystalline turquoise waters and continues up to the Salkantay pass, the highest point on the trail at 4,630m/15,190ft.

Continuing on, you’ll see waterfalls and natural hot springs at Collpapampa in the Santa Teresa valley, and coffee plantations at Lucmabamba. You’ll walk along an original Inca road to the ruins at Llactapata, which have a great view of Machu Picchu.

The Salkantay trek normally ends by taking the train from Llactapapa across the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes, from where you can take the bus to Machu Picchu in the morning.

When combining the Salkantay trek with the short Inca trail, you’ll most likely diverge at Soray Pampa or Lucmabamba to meet up with the Inca Trail at Wayllabamba. If you snag a 2-day Inca Trail permit, you can stay overnight at Wi’ay Wayna and hike directly to the Sun Gate in the morning.

In terms of amenities, the Salkantay trek more closely resembles the Inca trail, with small towns, hotels and established campsites. Some guided groups even stay in fancy glass igloos. However, you also have the option of doing this trek independently and opting for a much more down-to-earth experience.

Pros

  • Challenging trek
  • no need for Inca trail permit unless combined with Inca trail
  • less crowded than Inca Trail, longer
  • possible to do Salkantay-only trek independently
  • cheaper than Inca trail
  • varied terrain


Cons

  • Fewer Inca ruins
  • harder to find tour operators
  • busier than other alternate treks

Length: 60-75km/37-47 miles (5-7 days)

Highest point: Salkantay pass (4,630m/15,190ft)

When to book: Up until the last minute, depending on season; unless you want to combine with the Inca trail


Choquequirao

Less well-known but arguably just as incredible as Machu Picchu is the Incan city of Choquequirao (°Cradle of Gold?), tucked away in a remote location at the end of the Apurimac Valley.

The sprawling city is still being excavated and sees just a handful of visitors every day. The only way to reach it is via a 5-day round-trip hike from the small town of Cachora, a 4-hour drive from Cusco.

The Peruvian government plans to open up a road and a cable car to Choquequirao soon. The principal bridge on the Classic Choquequirao trek (Rosalinas bridge) was completely destroyed in April 2022, by a landslide in the Apurimac canyon. Neverless, if you're considering doing this trek, check with the government and trekking options.

Trekkers wishing to combine this trek with a visit to Machu Picchu will keep going after Choquequirao instead of doubling back to Cachora. After conquering the Yanama Pass (4,668m/15,315ft), the highest point on the trail, the trail meets up with the last portion of the Salkantay trek at Collpapampa or Lucmabamba, continuing on to the ruins at Llactapata before arriving at Hidroelectrica to catch the train to Aguas Calientes.

Pros

  • Once-in-a-lifetime chance to see remote ruins before the masses arrive
  • challenging
  • no need for permit


Cons

  • Not anywhere close to Machu Picchu

Length: ~75km/47 miles (7 days) from Cachora through Choquequirao to Machu Picchu

Highest point: 4,668m/15,315ft (Yanama Pass), if hiking to Machu Picchu

When to book: Up until the last minute


Vilcabamba

The mountains of the Cordillera Vilcabamba were the last refuge of the Incas during the Spanish conquest. A hike through this region boasts not only fantastic scenery but also the chance to see some of the last structures built by the Incas, including the famous Yurac Rumi (White Rock?) at the Vilcabamba Archaeological Park.

There are many variations of this trek, which has a reputation for being the most challenging trek to Machu Picchu. The classic route includes three mountain passes over 4,000m/13,123ft. Like the Salkantay trek, this route will take you through varied topography including jungle, canyons, fruit and coffee plantations and high-altitude mountain passes.

Only a few companies offer this trek, and although it is possible to undertake it independently, the trail lacks clear markings. It is advisable to attempt this trek independently only if you possess extensive trekking experience. This trek gets very muddy in places, so don't even think about doing it during the wet season.

The trek doesn't end at Machu Picchu so you'll have to take transportation for the final stretch. Most tour operators provide a shuttle bus to take trekkers from Yanatile to Hidroelectrica, from where you can walk or take the train to Aguas Calientes.

When Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu, he mistakenly assumed that it was the fabled "Lost City of the Incas" to which they had retreated after the Spanish invasion.. In fact, the lost city he sought was actually Vilcabamba, otherwise known as Esp'ritu Pampa, located deep in the cloud forest.

Some history buffs choose to combine a Vilcabamba trek with a visit to Esp'ritu Pampa (and/or Choquequirao).

Pros

  • Remote, challenging, off the beaten path
  • no amenities or established campsites
  • possible to do independently (if experienced trekker)
  • no need for permit

Cons

Doesn’t end at Machu Picchu

Length: ~60km/37 miles (5 days)

Highest point: 4500m/14,765ft (Tulla Tacanca Pass)

When to book: Up until the last minute


Other routes

Other possible treks include the Ancascocha trek, which reaches 4,959m/16,270ft, and the Ausangate trek, a difficult 5-7 day trek that ascends to altitudes of 5,150m/16,895ft. The Ausangate trek is arguably one of the most beautiful alternative Machu Picchu trails, as it passes through a series of striking rainbow-colored mountains.

If you're looking for an easier alternative to the Inca trail, you should also consider the Quarry trail, so called because it passes through the Kachiqata Inca quarry. This 26km/16-mile-long trail passes through similar scenery to the Inca trail, and you'll also get to see some ruins. The trek lasts three days (plus one day to transfer to Aguas Calientes) and the highest point is the Kuychicassa Pass at 4,450m/14,600ft.

The Sacred Valley and surrounding regions are littered with Inca ruins and astounding scenery. If you've already seen Machu Picchu and you still can't get enough of Vilcabamba mountain range, consider looking into some other routes that don't center around Machu Picchu.

Recommended read: Winter Hammock Camping? How to Stay Warm in a Hammock

How to tip your porters, guides and cooks

After you see the porters in action, you'll be tempted to throw money at them. The staff is the last to go to sleep and the first to wake up, cooking you breakfast and seeing you off, then packing up all the tents and gear and practically sprinting to the next camp.

Loaded down with all the gear, so they can have lunch or dinner ready for you by the time you huff and puff your way there. These people are amazing!

How much to tip the staff is a tricky question, and every tour operator has something different to say. Some go by the number of days, some by several porters or group size, and some suggest a flat rate based on a 4-day trek.

In the traditional tipping structure, the guests usually tip the lead guide the most, followed by the assistant guide, then the head chef, and finally the cooks and porters. The hierarchy in this context is established by the requirement for the lead guide to obtain a diploma and be licensed as an official guide on the Inca Trail.

As a very vague idea, porters might take home around 60-80 soles, cooks around 80-100 soles, head chefs around 120-160 soles, and guides around 200-300 soles in tips after a standard 4-day Inca Trail trek. But of course, it all depends on your group size, the level of service, the number of porters, cooks, etc.

Tips should be given in the form of Peruvian nuevo soles in small denominations. In my opinion, it's best to pool the money from all the trekkers, divvy it up into portions and hand each person their tip directly. But some tour operators recommend handing over a "pot" to be distributed by the guide, so check with them before you go.

Traditionally, tourists give tips to the cooks and porters after dinner on the penultimate day. It is important to note that the cooks and porters do not usually accompany you to Machu Picchu.

Tour operators warn against excessively over-tipping, as this can cause problems. If you're feeling very generous after the uplifting experience of hiking to Machu Picchu, consider donating clothing, school equipment, etc. or donating to a local charity.

There is no set amount for tips to guides, cooks, or porters on the Machu Picchu treks. If you really didn't like the service, you're under no obligation to tip them. But please don't short them on tips just because you're stingy!

One of my favorite parts of the trip was chatting with the staff, most of whom are from local Quechua communities. If you speak a bit of Spanish, don't miss out on this opportunity to get a glimpse of a whole other culture.

Can I do it? Can I hike to Machu Picchu?

For many people, the bucket-list trek to Machu Picchu will be their first-ever multi-day hike. And even if you're in good shape, there are some things you need to prepare for.

You can expect to be hiking at least 10km a day for several days in a row. You'll be feeling much weaker than usual due to the altitude, and you probably won't be getting a sound 8 hours of sleep a night. There's a high chance you'll be suffering from diarrhea or altitude sickness.

Then there's the terrain: the classic Inca trail has a lot of original Inca stone steps, and even the alternate treks will take you over bumpy stone roads and thin paths on the edges of steep hillsides. If you're very afraid of heights, I don't recommend any of the Machu Picchu treks.

Hiking to Machu Picchu is first and foremost about conquering yourself. It sounds clich?, but it's really true. If you're able to push through some discomfort, you can probably do the Inca trail. There are all sorts of reports from people who are in terrible shape but still manage to do it.

At the end of the day, you're not actually walking that much more than you would on a normal day of sightseeing. The difference is the altitude, the hills, and the terrain. Prepare yourself properly and you'll be fine.


All set: Ready for your trek to Machu Picchu?

There's a great feeling of conviviality on the Machu Picchu trails because there are a lot of first-time trekkers and everyone is in it together. It's encouraging to know you're not the only one who's suffering!

Every group will have the typical characters: the one who gets ill and lags behind, the superstar who just got back from Everest and is always miles ahead of everybody, and the enthusiastic novice with old running shoes that got absolutely soaked through on the first day but who is still cheerful and friendly.

I fell into the category of the freak who will do anything to get a picture - I got back from my trek with 1147 photos taken over four days. This meant I was constantly dashing ahead or staying behind to snap a pic, stumbling over rocks and almost falling off the narrow trails more than once. It was worth it!

There's nothing that prepares you for the first time you realize you're in the middle of nowhere and you can't just nip over to the pharmacy to buy some ibuprofen. It's truly just you, the mountain and your team. But I have to say, my group was a pretty motley crew and we still made it. The most important thing is not what you pack or what shape you're in, but your attitude!

If I have one regret, it's not having booked a longer holiday. Machu Picchu is spectacular but there are so many other things to see in Peru, including some pretty majestic examples of Mother Nature's best work. I strongly recommend trekking around South America for at least a few weeks if you have that luxury.


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