Trekking to Machu Picchu

The terraced structure of Machu Picchu seems dwarfed by the mountains around it.

Approaching Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate Path.
Photo by Chang’r licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Most travelers to Peru think there is just one option for trekking to Machu Picchu — the four-day Inca Trail hike. The truth is there are at least four ways to hike to the Inca citadel. If you don’t have the time or ability to hike to Machu Picchu you can always opt for train service provided by the Machu Picchu Train (Andean Railways), Inca Rail, and PeruRail, but for the more adventurous travelers, the following treks are really the best ways to enter into this world treasure.

The Four-Day Inca Trail Hike

This hike, which threads two 4,000-meter passes on the way from the high Andes to the cloud forest, has become a signature experience for arriving at Machu Picchu. Recent regulations and trekker quotas have made the Inca Trail more expensive and at times hard to book.

The Two-Day Inca Trail Hike

If camping is not your thing, or you are short on time, try the new, abbreviated versions of the Inca Trail, which range 2–3 days. With these new variations, trekkers start farther down the trail in order to take in the final set of spectacular ruins and enter Machu Picchu at dawn and through the Inti Punku or Sun Gate. You’ll spend your first day hiking the Inca Trail and seeing ruins and your first night sleeping in a hotel in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. The second day is spent exploring Machu Picchu.

The Salcantay Five-Day Trek

It is true that the trek past sacred Salcantay, a 6,000-meter-plus peak, does not contain the stone paths and Inca ruins of the Inca Trail. But this five-day trek offers a wilderness experience and even better views of the surrounding snow-covered peaks. It’s also much less expensive than the Inca Trail, and trekkers are free to trek independently (unlike on the Inca Trail, where all hikers must sign up with a licensed agency). The trek is longer and higher than the Inca Trail, but new sustainable eco-lodges have been built along the Salcantay route to allow trekkers to travel fast and light and stay in relative comfort.

The Inca Jungle Trail

This multi-sport option, offered by an increasing number of agencies, is a good choice for backpackers on a budget and with spare adrenaline. This route enters Machu Picchu from the high mountains and cloud forests on its downstream side. Participants are first transported to Abra de Málaga (4,350 meters), a high pass into the jungle, for a stunning mountain bike descent from the alpine zone to lush cloud forest nearly 3,000 meters below. From here, trekkers camp and then head out the second day on a cloud forest trek to Santa Teresa, a riverside village. On the third day, hikers head up the Río Urubamba to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

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