Trekking through the clouds and lush highlands of Peru to see the fabled city of Machu Picchu is the trip of a lifetime, but you have to be prepared. We reached out to our friends at Andean Treks, a licensed tour group recommended by Moon Machu Picchu author Ryan Dubé, for some tips and insight on planning your Incan adventure. You can find more details, itineraries, trek suggestions, and background information in the Moon Machu Picchu travel guide.
Decide When to Go
The traditional trekking season in Peru is May–August, but the best weather is in June and July. Avoid the last week in July, when Peru’s hotels are often booked solid for the Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) celebration around July 28. The “shoulder months” of April, May, September, and October are the best times to trek in Peru, as they are outside of both the rainiest months (November–March) and the busiest tourist months (June–August). April and May, and even March if you don’t mind an occasional rainstorm, are especially scenic because the rainy season has just ended and the highlands are lush and green.
Inca Trail permits sell out completely for most dates from March through mid-November, so you will encounter roughly the same number of people every month, with the exception of odd dates in November, December, and January. The trail is closed to trekkers in February for maintenance.
Make Advance Reservations
Machu Picchu is one of the most popular tourist attractions in South America. If you want to hike the Inca Trail during the high season (May–October), book six months ahead. For the rest of the year, three to four months is recommended.
Choose Your Trail
The popular Inca Trail trek takes two to four days exploring smaller Incan ruins before arriving at Machu Picchu. Longer treks are also available. All trekkers must hike with a licensed guide; there is a limit of 500 people per day. Sign up early—six months or more ahead of time. Bookings are almost exclusively online. To check availability, visit the website www.machupicchu.gob.pe.
If you are too late for the Inca Trail, there are several excellent alternate routes which do not require permits. The Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is an excellent option: you experience the beauty and excitement of the Inca Trail without having to commit to four days of challenging trekking. The route has a maximum elevation of 2,707 meters over roughly nine kilometers of trail leading to the citadel of Machu Picchu. The route requires a trail permit and licensed guide, but usually permits are still available up to a month prior to your travel date.
Consider a Day Trip
If you don’t have the time, ability, or confidence for a trek, consider a two-day tour from Cusco. Most tours spend the first day exploring the Sacred Valley by van before reaching the small town of Ollantaytambo. From Ollantaytambo, a PeruRail train continues on to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town below Machu Picchu. The next morning, shuttle buses begin heading up to Machu Picchu every five to fifteen minutes, starting at 5am. Visitors with tickets in hand begin lining up at 4am or even earlier, hoping to get on the first bus and avoid the crowds.
Choose Your Guide
It’s easiest to sign up with a reputable agency and let them take care of all the details. Tour companies from Lima, Cusco, and abroad organize both day trips and the longer hikes.
If you can find a reliable trekking or climbing guide, available for US$80–110 per day, he or she can organize all these details for you for an extra fee.
Plan for Acclimatization
Altitude sickness is a real health concern when traveling in the Andes. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, quickened heartbeats, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
After arriving in the Andes, plan for at least three to four days to acclimatize before heading out on a trek. One strategy is sleeping low and hiking high: spend your first few days in the Sacred Valley and then hike up out of the valley floor from places like Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo, gradually adjusting to the higher elevations.
Minimize altitude sickness by avoiding heavy exercise until you get acclimatized and by drinking plenty of water and liquids in general. Also avoid alcohol; dehydration is a real risk at high altitudes. Many travelers carry acetazolamide, commonly known as Diamox, usually prescribed by a doctor in doses of 125–250 milligrams, taken during the morning and evening with meals. However, these medications are not for everybody and can cause drowsiness. In Cusco, coca leaf tea (mate de coca), taken in plentiful amounts, is the best remedy. A 100-milligram dose of the Chinese herb ginkgo biloba, taken twice a day, seems to work efficiently too. If you feel sick, it’s good to know that all hospitals and clinics in Cusco have bottled oxygen.
Book Your Flights
For flights to Cusco, the main carriers are LAN, Avianca, Peruvian Airlines, STAR Peru, and LC Peru. LAN has the most flights and best-equipped airplanes, but unless you’re booking six months out, it is typically considerably more expensive than its competitors.
Book Your Hotels
Just as the trek permits sell out, so does your lodging!
Remember Your Passport
No one wants to get to the airport all set for adventure and have to race home for your documentation; put your passport in your suitcase first thing.
Andean Treks has been operating treks and tours to Machu Picchu and beyond since 1980, making it one of the most experienced adventure operators in Peru. Their reputation is built on reliable operation, attention to detail, and fair treatment of porters. With an operations office in Cusco and sales office in USA, their experts can answer your detailed questions and speed your trip planning. In addition to treks they can assist with custom Peru adventures, as well as addressing your travel needs in Galapagos and Patagonia. USA toll-free telephone 800/683-8148.