Insider’s Guide to Hiking Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of 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 in 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-1400’s at the apex of the Inca empire, it was soon abandoned during the Spanish conquest in the 1500’s. 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, and it’s in perfect harmony with the surrounding environment. The sight of this incredible city rising out of the mist amongst the thickly forested mountains will take your breath away.

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. One of the new seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is a lasting tribute to the architectural genius 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 season.

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. In fact, permits for doing the Inca Trail during high season get snapped up almost immediately after they are released online (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 if you want to find a balance of good weather and less crowds.

Wettest Months:

January and February are the absolute wettest months and it’s not recommended to trek during this time. The Inca Trail (but not Machu Picchu) is closed for renovations every February.

During your trek, you’ll be going from low jungle to high-altitude mountain passes. 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 cloud level and 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 the fancy trekking gear, and I had to spend a pretty penny investing in some of this equipment. But the good news is that trekking is addictive and 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 that you won’t have access to your larger bag until you get to camp, so be sure to put anything you think you might need into your daypack. Also keep in mind that water and snacks will take up some weight.

When you pack your daypack, try to make it so the layers are easily accessible, as you might be whipping them on and off throughout the day.

Most hostels in Cusco allow you to store your suitcase with them while you complete the Inca trail and pick it up afterwards.

What to wear

Remember that the weather can go from tropical to glacial in a matter of minutes as you go through the mountain passes: layers are your best friend!

That being said, don’t be fooled into spending your entire monthly income on state-of-the-art trekking gear. Just wear something you feel comfortable in, that can handle changes in temperature.

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

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 pass, 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 conducted an unsuccessful search for tearaways before my trip and was crushed to find out that apparently they stopped existing in the ‘90s, so I had to settle for a pair of yoga pants. You might want to bring shorts as well, but beware of the sudden drops in temperature at the mountain passes.

Scarf or balaclava, and gloves: We did some kind of ceremony on top of a freezing mountain pass where we were required to stand still, clutching coca leaves in our bare hands, for about 45 minutes. None of us were dressed accordingly. BRING GLOVES.

Underwear: A pair per day, unless you buy into the happy fantasy of those underwear that “don’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 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 the 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 pyjamas: Nights get COLD at altitude, so bring a pair of warm pyjamas 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 packing gaiters or waterproofing your boots.

Blister plasters: Just in case.

Hiking poles: These will save your knees on the downhills. You can rent retractable ones (they must be rubber-tipped to be allowed on the official Inca trail) and stick them in your backpack when 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 hangry 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 will be providing fresh water, it might be a good idea to take water purifiers so you can safely drink from streams. If you don’t like the taste of purified water, 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, and your digestion is already slower at altitude. I guess it depends 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, and 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.

Toilet paper, Kleenex, baby wipes, hand sanitizer: Most toilets on the Inca trail are squat toilets. In between camps you might have to use the bushes, which we referred to as the “Inca toilet.” The eco-friendly action is to put your toilet paper in a bag and dispose of it once you get to Aguas Calientes instead of tossing it into the bush.

One of the people on my trek had previously had an experience where they flung their toilet paper over a cliff after a midnight poop, only to wake up the next morning and find out it wasn’t a cliff at all but actually somebody’s garden!

There are paid toilets on the Inca trail and paid showers at Wiñay 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, but if you’re on a more crowded trail, you might also consider investing in a Shewee that lets you do your thing in total 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 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. 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 of these, you’d better have water bottle pockets in the sides of your backpack for easy access while hiking. Even if you have a hydration bladder, you should also bring a water bottle that you can fill with boiling water and use as a heat pad at night. I advise a hard plastic BPA-free water bottle that can handle boiling water, as a metal one gets 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.

One travel blogger recommends long socks that you can tuck your pants into while using the squat toilet, to avoid getting your hems wet with that mysterious gunk that seems to accumulate in 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: My phone wasn’t waterproof so I kept it in a Ziploc bag, along with my cards, money, passport, travel insurance info, etc. There was no coverage on the trail so my phone stayed in the bag until we reached Aguas Calientes.

Camera with extra batteries or solar charger: A lightweight camera will be your best friend – I whipped mine out all the time to snap quick photos without having to slow my group down. 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 sleeping bag, liner and 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 some tools. 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.

I always keep a copy of my travel insurance info on me, and tell one of my hiking partners exactly where it is and which number they should call in case of an emergency.

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 generally start around 2,500m/8,200ft above sea level, when the air becomes noticeably thinner and each breath delivers you less oxygen.

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 overexerting 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 are also organized so that you ascend to the highest point of the day but then descend 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 start to adapt after a few days, increasing the number of red blood cells and promoting more efficient use of the oxygen you breathe. You won’t have piles of energy, but if you take it easy, drink lots of water and avoid alcohol, you should be functional enough to hike. On the trek, you should drink at least 2 litres of water a day.

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 the acetylzolamide. The tingling stopped almost immediately.

Altitude sickness starts out with small annoyances like shortness of breath, lack of energy and a mild headache, but severe cases of altitude sickness can be fatal. Please read our more detailed article on altitude sickness before your trek!

Choosing a tour operator

It’s forbidden to do the Inca trail without an official guide. And most of the alternative treks, although they can be done independently, are logistically easier if you go 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’s a seemingly infinite choice of tour operators that operate treks to Machu Picchu, and it’s notoriously difficult to find a reputable one that will keep its word about what’s promised in the tour itinerary and details. If you’re booking online before setting foot in Peru, you’ll need to do your research.

International companies are assumed to have stricter standards, but many companies outsource, especially if not enough people sign up. You might find yourself grouped together with a group and guide from another company, whose standards aren’t up to scratch.

I read millions of reviews of different companies before going on the Lares trek, figuring that was the best way to get honest opinions. Another option during low season if you’re doing the less popular treks like Salkantay or Lares is to wait until you get to Cusco, where you can ask advice from other people who just came back from the trek. This also gives you the chance to scope out the office in person. Don’t do this for the Inca trail – there’s no way you’ll get a permit if you wait until the last minute!

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’ll want to choose a trip that fits your budget, but don’t skimp on the important things like safety, food, clean water, proper tents and sleeping bags, porter welfare, etc. If you find you can’t afford to do the classic Inca trail with a reputable operator, then maybe consider doing the 2-day Inca trail, or an alternate trek that doesn’t require paying for a permit.

Group size: My group of 4 turned into a group of 16 at the last minute, which made a huge difference to the trekking experience. Booking with a reputable tour operator – especially a bigger one that’s unlikely to outsource tours – is one way to avoid this.

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 try to get around this by passing luggage back and forth to the guides (and sometimes the trekkers) before and after the checkpoints. If you notice this, or if you notice your porter has hardly any personal gear (i.e. they weren’t able to bring proper warm clothing) because they are carrying too much other gear, then you should 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 often sleep in the dining tent, so be considerate and try not to stay up too late talking or else they won’t be able to get a proper rest. Check to see if they have a mat on the floor of the tent – if they don’t, it’s likely to be very wet.

There is a national porter’s minimum wage of about USD 15 per day. Does the price of your tour seem high enough to cover this? Don’t forget that the price of the trip also includes the Inca trail permit, the entry tickets to Machu Picchu and the transportation costs. It depends how many people are on your trip, but the rule of thumb is that 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. In order to preserve the integrity of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, the Peruvian government limits the number of visitors per day.

There’s a cap of a total 500 people per day on the classic Inca trail, and this includes porters, guides, cooks, trekkers – everybody. The cap refers to the start date, meaning for a 4-day trek, you only need to obtain a permit for the first day.

Note: One of the reasons for the growing popularity of the 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 sell out months in advance, often very soon after they’re posted online, especially for high-season permits. You must be accompanied by a registered guide on the Inca trail, so the only way to get a permit is by booking through a licensed tour operator.

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.

Permits are assigned to specific people. Your tour operator will need your passport information and a list of your preferred dates so they can try to get you a permit as soon as they are released. Permits are non-refundable, non-alterable, non-transferable and non-exchangeable so triple-check your information when booking, because you only get one shot!

Tour operators will ask you for a deposit at time of booking, which they’ll only return to you if they’re unable to secure you a permit for your dates. If you don’t show up for the trek, nobody else can use your permit, hence why you pay the deposit up front.

Your passport can’t expire within six months of your travel dates. It will be checked on the Inca trail to make sure it matches the information in your permit, so be sure to bring it with you on the trek. If your passport is about to expire, you can book with your old passport but you MUST bring both your old and new passports on your trip 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 to make sure they’ll be able to get you your permit on your preferred start date, and consider providing a few alternate dates in case your date sells out too fast. You can check the availability of permits(link broken) on the government website but you’ll have to book the permit through a tour organization.

Be wary of tour operators who try to sell you an Inca trail trek when you know there are no permits left. Some organizations will lie to you about the itinerary and take you on a tour that has nothing to do with the Inca trail.

It’s recommended to wait to book the rest of your trip (transportation, accommodation, etc.) until you know for sure you have a 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 yourself are in good shape, there’s a high probability that you or someone in your group will succumb to altitude sickness or diarrhea. This means you might get to camp well after nightfall, or you might not have enough time to do the extra activities that were proposed on the itinerary. 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 really short on time, you can even take transportation to Aguas Calientes and just hike up to Machu Picchu from there.

Classic Inca Trail

The classic 4-day Inca Trail follows the route commonly used by the Incas themselves to get from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. The trail is fairly standardized (itineraries may vary slightly between different tour operators and depending on group ability), with well-established campsites, paid toilets and showers. The classic Inca trail suffers from more crowds than the alternate routes, although some people say they enjoy the sense of conviviality.

There’s also a 5-day Inca trail that follows the same route but takes a day longer. You hike a bit less every day and camp in alternate locations, away from the crowds. The 5-day itinerary is a good option if you want more time to get acclimatized, and if you want to stop and enjoy 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 short 3-hour ascent through the cloud forest to the meadow of Llulluchapampa, and then the most notorious part of the whole trek, the ascent to the notorious Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200m/13,780ft. The weather will get frigid as you ascend and then warm again on the equally 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 Wiñay Wayna.

This is the last official campsite before Machu Picchu so it’s always busy and boasts a restaurant, hot showers (for a fee) and toilets. Nearby are the ruins of Wiñay Wayna, with well-preserved buildings, agricultural terraces and 10 baths which might have been used for ritual cleansing on the way to Machu Picchu.

On the final day you’ll wake before the crack of dawn so you can hike the final couple of hours to Machu Picchu in time to see 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 Wiñay 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 Wiñay 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 (Wiñay 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 7-8am or 10-11am. 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 wanted 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.

Lares

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, most people 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. 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.

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: Unspoilt 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 Wiñay 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 combining 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, meaning if you’re considering doing this trek, you should do it now before it gets crowded like Machu Picchu.

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 Hidroeléctrica 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 handful of companies offer this trek and while it’s possible to do it on your own, the trail is not well marked. You should only attempt it independently if you’re a very experienced trekker. 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 Hidroeléctrica, from where you can walk or take the train to Aguas Calientes.

When Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu, he mistakenly assumed it was the fabled “Lost City of the Incas” where they had retreated after the Spanish invasion. In fact, the lost city he sought was actually Vilcabamba, otherwise known as Espíritu Pampa, located deep in the cloud forest. Some history buffs choose to combine a Vilcabamba trek with a visit to Espíritu 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.

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 are 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 number of days, some by number of porters or group size, some suggest a flat rate based on a 4-day trek. Usually the lead guide is tipped the most, followed by the assistant guide, then the head chef, then the cooks and porters. This is partly because the lead guide must complete a diploma in order to 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. Tips are traditionally given after dinner on the penultimate day – the cooks and porters don’t usually go to Machu Picchu with you.

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 to 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 cliché, 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 who still managed 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 that just got back from Everest and is always miles ahead of everybody, 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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