A lot of people have been contacting me for information about my recent trek to Machu Picchu. These ancient ruins are on many bucket lists, and after my hike, I can see why! For anyone looking to visit this picturesque region, I’ve written a “how-to” guide below. Leave a comment with any further questions and I’ll try my best to respond… if I’m traveling in an area with reliable Internet!
First, arrange a flight from Lima to Cusco. Cusco is the mountain town from which all hikes and trains to Machu Picchu embark. Peruvian, LAN, Avianca and Star airlines are currently options for the short hour-and-a-half flight. LAN has the most flights per day and so tends to be more expensive. Flights start at 5 AM and leave almost hourly through the evening, depending on the airline. Note that some airlines have a special price just for residents of Peru, so be aware that the cheapest might not be an option for you. Use Google search & Google translator for any clarification. Tripadvisor.com also has some helpful tips for understanding the different prices. As a general rule of thumb, airlines will offer a BASE, BASE PLUS, FLEXIBLE and FULL FLEXIBLE ticket. Foreigners want to get the BASE PLUS ticket. BASE is for Peruvians only and FLEXIBLE and FLEXIBLE PLUS are only necessary if you think there’s a chance you may be canceling or changing your flight. (If you book the super cheap BASE flight, you will be charged an extra $178.50 at the airport for booking a ticket you aren’t eligible for!)
You will have to take a taxi from the airport to your accommodation in Cusco. See if your hotel/hostel can arrange for a pick-up for you. They will be sure to book you with a safe driver and can suggest how much you will have to pay (usually around S./ 20). You would give the hotel your flight schedule and a driver will be waiting for you at the airport holding a sign with your name on it. Wait a few minutes if they aren’t there right away; sometimes traffic is heavy. Plus, you’re in Latin America where everyone is late.
Expect to spend 2 nights in Cusco prior to the start of your travels to Machu Picchu, whether you will be going via trek or train. Don’t think you’re superhuman and can beat the mountain! Altitude sickness can be very serious and affects even the healthiest and strongest of individuals. It is best prevented by staying and resting at a high altitude prior to exerting excessive physical activity at such elevations. You can also try chewing coca leaves during your climb. Coca tea is an option but it’s more of a touristy thing than a preventative. Ask a local for advice on how to chew the leaves–it’s quite an art. Headaches, shortness of breath and dizziness are all symptoms of altitude sickness. But you’ll be fine; just take it easy!
For your nights in Cusco—usually 2 nights before the trip to Machu Picchu and one night after—there are numerous reliable sites online for booking. Try oyster.com or airbnb.com if you’re not into the hostel life. Oyster has great hotel reviews; Airbnb offers great ways to experience a quiet homestay with a local perspective! If you’re up for meeting lots of new people, try hostelworld.com or hostelbookers.com. Not all hostels are party hostels, and many places have all-female and private dorms available for all sorts of travelers! Hotels are also an option but I like to keep it cheap, sociable and local. Be sure to read reviews!
It is only necessary to book a trek online if you are planning on hiking the traditional Inca Trail, which needs to be booked 6 months in advance due to limited space and popularity. The Peruvian government recently reduced the number of people allowed to enter the trail each day to 500 persons, and the trail can ONLY be accessed under the supervision of a licensed travel agency. Some agencies don’t offer the Inca Trail hike because they don’t have the permit. The Inca Trail is more expensive than the alternative Salkantay and Lares treks as you need to pay for your own permit and, aforementioned, it is a more coveted hike than the others. However, the Salkantay is ranked by National Geographic as one of the top 25 hikes in the world. I hiked it and loved it! All of the hikes are challenging, but it makes your time at Machu Picchu incredibly rewarding. You worked for this; you deserve it! That kind of thing. The Inca Trail follows a path past numerous ruins leading up to the ultimate mega-ruin, Machu Picchu. The Salkantay and Lares take you through more landscapes and climate changes. The Salkantay covers more distance but does not reach as high of an elevation as the Lares (4680m vs 4900m).
Prices vary greatly. Online prices for an agency will be double what you can haggle if you stop by the agency yourself once in Cusco. The Salkantay and Lares always have space available, though it is more competitive during busy season (our summer, their winter—June-August). The alternative treks run anywhere from $250-$450/person off the street (double online!), with the Inca Trail being closer to $600+. If you are booking in person like I did, BARGAIN BARGAIN BARGAIN. You will learn that everyone in your hiking group paid a different price, so don’t be the one who got ripped off! Also, be sure to research the tour agencies you stop at before booking anything. Does the tour include EVERYTHING or are there some things missing? Does the agency have a website? What kind of reviews does it have on Tripadvisor?
Treks range from 3-5 nights. The last night is spent in a hostel (typically pre-arranged by your tour agency) while the other nights are spent in tents. You can bring your own tent but most agencies provide them for you. Sleeping bags and walking sticks are available for rent from most agencies, too.
Most agencies also provide all of your meals except breakfast on the first day and lunch and dinner on the last day; the meals will be included in your booking price. Ask about vegetarian and vegan options which are also available! If you book with a reliable group, they will also offer you snacks and hot tea throughout the trek. Water is best when boiled or bottled, though sterilization tablets can be purchased ahead of time. However, there are a lot of trace minerals that remain in the water once purified with these tablets, and the water might still upset your stomach. Again, reliable agencies will give you boiled water to pour into your bottle for the hike. You will pass through many small villages that also offer hikers bottled water and snacks, so bring extra soles (the Peruvian currency) for this.
It is important to clarify if you have to carry your large backpack or camping equipment most of the trip, or if mules (or sometimes porters) will carry it for you. Some people like the challenge of carrying 7+ kilos a minimum of 15 km/day up and down rocky, steep terrain. I, however, was content to have just my daypack strapped to my back!
Tour groups usually meet the evening prior to departure for a briefing. You should get picked up the morning of at your hostel or hotel accommodation. Expect to have early mornings—hiking begins between 4-6 AM each day! Transportation back to Cusco is usually included as well. The agency books your train from Aguas Calientes (the town you will spend the last night in at the base of Machu Picchu) to Ollantaytambo, and from there you will get on a “bus” (usually a white van referred to as a “colectivo”). Drivers are at the train station with signs that have your name on them. You just join up with them and hop on in!
Also remember you’ll have to tip the porters/horsemen, cook and guide when they leave you. How much is up to you, but most of the workers from the village rely solely on tips. Guides are usually on salary but worthy of a tip.
USD ($) are accepted by most tourist companies and restaurants throughout Peru. In fact, prices are often only listed in US dollars! However, have handy plenty of PEN (also abbreviated S./ and referred to as the Peruvian Nuevo sol, or plural soles). Smaller, local shops will not have a lot of change available either, so be sure to have a lot of 1, 2 and 5 PEN coins with you. You can break big bills at the grocery store or restaurants. In fact, always try to pay with bigger bills at these places as you will otherwise find yourself hard-pressed to obtain smaller currency! And remember, you’ll want to have Peruvian money with you along the way during your hike (breakfast on day 1, meals on the last day, tips for the tour staff, souvenirs, snacks, bottled water).
WHAT TO BRING
Regardless of the weather forecast, it is important to be prepared for rain, cold and heat. Peru is near the equator, too, so the UV is strong even on cloudy days! Remember, tour groups provide different things, so don’t rely solely on this list!
- Hiking shoes
- Warm weather clothing
- Cold weather clothing (hat & mittens recommended!)
- Rain jacket
- Bug spray
- Toilet paper
- Water bottle
- Sleeping bag (?)
- Extra money
- Head lamp or flashlight + extra batteries
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
Every experience is different—weather, crowds, tour agency, agility. But here are some additional options to improve your once-in-a-lifetime Machu Picchu experience—so you can feel really good about checking it off your bucket list!
- Trek prices include the entrance ticket to the Machu Picchu ruins only. Currently, 2500 people are allowed to enter the ruins each day. Ask your agency to add on Machu Picchu Mountain ($5) for the typical yet beautiful panoramic view looking down on the ruins. Huayna Picchu Mountain tickets are also available but limited in number (200 people between 7-11 AM, 200 people after 11 AM). This hike is very steep! Experienced climbers only!
- The Salkantay and Lares can be hiked without a tour group if you fancy.
- If you have time, stay a night in the village of Ollantaytambo on your way back from Machu Picchu. Tour agencies can accommodate you if you want your travel plans to veer slightly from their agenda. It is a quaint, quieter village in comparison to the touristy Aguas Calientes and Cusco.
- Get a massage in Cusco after your hike! You will be annoyed at first by all the ladies on the street asking you if you want a massage, but when you finish your hike, you’ll understand why they’re hounding you! These ladies are typically reliable, but you can check with your hostel/hotel for a recommendation if you’re concerned. The massages are cheap and goooooooood!
- Most tour groups take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, which is included in the tour price, but the group disbands after your tour in the ruins. Hence, a return bus is not included but can be purchased at the park entrance for about S./40 one-way. Buses are always available and leave when filled with passengers. There is no time schedule. Buses start heading to the ruins from the bus station at 5:30 AM. If you’re not with a group, be sure to wake up early to beat the crowd and catch the sunrise!
- It is possible to hike from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, but the hike is largely on the road and you won’t be missing out on much if you choose to take the bus.
- Some tours include a train ride at the end of the camping leg of the trip from Hydro Electric Station to Aguas Calientes. If you choose to walk, it takes about 2 hours and is worthwhile. But your legs might feel like jelly from walking downhill all day, and the train ride offers nice views as well. This part of the hike largely follows along the train tracks.
- If you don’t want to do a hike, it is still recommended to acclimate as there is a fair amount of climbing at the ruins themselves. You would have to book a train from Cusco to Urubamba Valley/Aguas Calientes and book the train back to Cusco. It is possible to do Machu Picchu all in one day but I recommend staying overnight either in Aguas Calientes or Ollantaytambo. (If you stay in Ollantaytambo, you will need to book a separate train back to Cusco or catch a much cheaper “colectivo” bus back.) There are 3 train options available. The Expedition is the cheapest, most common and quite comfortable. The Vistadome is a step up from the Expedition, and the Hiram Bingham luxury train is outta this world fancy (and expensive).