This article was written by Zoe Smith on behalf of Viator.com.
Few bucket lists are complete without a trip to the Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites and Peru’s number one tourist attraction. Built in the 15th century, the site is not only world-renowned as an architectural masterpiece but also known for its dramatic location, perched on a 2,430-meter high mountaintop high above the city of Cusco. Few travelers pass through Cusco without visiting the magnificent Lost City of the Incas, but for adventurous travelers, the ultimate challenge is hiking the legendary Inca trail, a high-altitude, multi-day hike through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu.
With Machu Picchu’s popularity soaring, dozens of tour operators and guides now offer tours to the Inca city, and with numerous trekking routes to choose from, plus government restrictions to contend with, it can be hard to know where to start planning your trip. To help you decide, here’s a breakdown of the different options to help you pick your perfect Machu Picchu trek.
Getting to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is located 112 km northeast of Cusco in southeastern Peru and the archaeological site is open all year-round, typically from around 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The easiest way to visit Machu Picchu is to take the bus or train from Cusco, a scenic two-hour journey, stopping in the mountain resort town of Aguas Calientes, from where it’s a 20-minute bus ride up the mountain to the Inca city. For hikers there are also a number of options, the most popular of which is the classic 4-day Inca Trail, renowned as one of the world’s most spectacular hikes, showing off numerous sights and ruins of the Sacred Valley of the Incas en-route to the final destination.
When to Go
If you’ve decided to hike to Machu Picchu, the next thing to consider is when to go. The classic Inca Trail is closed for maintenance during the whole month of February, but if you must visit at this time, you’ll still be able to get to the site by train or via an alternative trekking route. The most popular time for trekking is between May and September, the driest months of the year, but it’s still possible to trek throughout the rest of the year. The shoulder seasons of March-April and October-November have the benefit of warm weather and fewer crowds, but there’s also a good chance of rain.
Due to government regulations, visitors on the classic Inca Trail are restricted to 500 hikers per day (typically around 200 tourists and 300 guides and porters) and the trail must be booked in advance with a registered tour company. You’ll need to book at least two months in advance, but as permits are given on a first-come first-served basis, you might need to book up to six months in advance for the most popular time slots like June-August. You’ll also need to provide correct passport information upon booking, so that you can be allotted a space.
Choosing a tour
The next thing you need to think about is what kind of trek you want to do, starting with which route to take. The classic Inca Trail takes four days and is unquestionably the most popular, but there are a number of other options that offer the chance to explore more off-the-beaten-track places, challenge yourself with a longer or tougher trek, or combine your trek with a multi-day tour of Cusco or Peru. Less-experienced hikers could even opt for a one- or two-day ‘mini-Inca-trail’ hike instead [Editor's Note: the Machu Picchu Adventure tour by G Adventures offers this one-day trek option]. When choosing a tour, there are also other things to consider, like accommodation options, cost, and the availability of porters. While many travelers will be looking to save money, the cheapest treks are not always the best choices, and you should think carefully about the camping facilities, porters (to carry your luggage) and food provided before selecting a cheaper tour.
Choosing a trekking route
There are now a number of increasingly popular treks to Machu Picchu, only one of which is the classic Inca Trail and if you have the time and money to hire a private guide, you will find a whole network of alternate trails and possible routes waiting to be discovered. To help you choose, here’s a rundown of the five most common trails.
The Classic Inca Trail
When you hear ‘Inca Trail’ this is the route that they’re talking about: the official 4–day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. A tough but manageable 43-kilometer (26-mile) trail, starting out at Qorihuayrachina near Ollantaytambo and climbing through the Sacred Valley (Urubamba Valley) to Aguas Calientes, you’ll hike steep mountain passes, rock-hewn stairs and cloud forest trails, taking in Inca sites like Q’entimarka, Sayaqmarka, Phuyupatamarca and Winaywayna along the way. You’ll spend three nights camping out in the mountains on the route before making the final climb to Machu Picchu in time for the sunrise. While the distance might not sound long, the altitude and steep climbs mean you’ll need to be fit and used to hiking to complete the trek—you should also give yourself at least a couple of days in Cusco to acclimatize to the higher altitude before setting off.
An increasingly popular alternative to the Inca Trail is the 5-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, known for its more challenging route and higher altitude. Climbing to heights of 4,600 meters and offering jaw-dropping views of the imposing Cordillera Vilcabamba mountain range (include the 6,271-meter tall Mt. Salkantay) this is not a trek for the faint-hearted, but those up for a challenge can’t help but be impressed by the natural sights on-route—waterfalls, glacial lakes, looming mountain peaks, and lush valleys filled with wildflowers.
Inca Quarry Trail
Those looking to take the road less traveled should opt for the Viator Exclusive 6-Night Quarry Trail to Machu Picchu, a unique route that climbs the 4,400 meter Chancachuco mountain pass and the Inca quarry of Kachiqta, taking in smaller archaeological sites like the Inti Punku (Sun Gate) along the way. A good option for adventurous types that still like to travel in style, there’s less camping and hiking on this trek than the others, but still plenty of stunning views.
A shorter and less busy alternative to the classic Inca Trail, the Lares Trail to Machu Picchu is a 33 kilometer, 2- or 3-day trek running through the Lares Valley and taking in many of the highlights of the Sacred Valley. Passing beneath the Vilcanota mountain range, trekkers get the chance to follow ancient Inca Trails through traditional Andean villages, take a dip in the Lares hot springs and visit the Inca ruins of Pumamarca.
Following a similar path to the main Inca Trail, the Ancascocha Trail is often nicknamed the “hidden Inca Trail” and the rewarding route remains largely free from tourists. Taking four or five days to reach Machu Picchu, this is a challenging route with undulating terrain, passing through traditional villages like Usutapampa, past the Ancascocha lagoon and over the 4,876 meter Inca Chiriaska.