The Inca Trail is the most authentic path to Machu Picchu and one of the most iconic trekking experiences in the world. It is part of an extensive Andean road system built by the Inca. Spanning 30,000 kilometers, the Qhapaq Ñan was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2014.
On a length of 45 kilometers with a maximum altitude of 4,200 meters, the Inca Trail passes through several types of Andean environments, including cloud forest and alpine tundra, and past many Incan ruins. It is the only trail which ends at the Sun Gate, Inti Punku, the historic entry point to Machu Picchu, from which hikers enjoy a spectacular view over the sacred city.
The ‘classic’ Inca Trail is completed in four days and three nights (4D/3N), costing between $600 to $800. The price tag is mostly the result of imposed trek limitations. In an effort to reduce damage done from over-use, authorities have restricted the number of people allowed on the trail to 500 per day, roughly 200 trekkers and 300 guides or porters who carry camping equipment. Hikers are not permitted to complete the trek without a guided group. As a result, peak season dates with the roughly 200 licensed guide companies book out months in advance.
A popular and cheaper alternative to the Inca Trail is the Salkantay Trek.
The trek offers a similarly diverse trekking experience with a mix of different terrains, ranging from dry environments and snowy peaks to tropical areas. The biggest highlight of the approximately 55-kilometer trek is crossing the Salkantay Pass at a lung-busting 4600 meters above sea level and enjoying spectacular vistas into the valley below and views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
As there are no permit limitations on this Trek, tours can be booked a few days in advance from one of the many outfitters in Cusco. Most trekkers opt for the 5-days-4-nights (5D/4N) tour, costing around $250, but going it alone is possible for those with experience and with camping equipment suitable for sub-zero conditions.
Starting in Mollepata or Sayllapata, the Trek finishes in Aguas Calientes, where hikers stay for the night before visiting Machu Picchu the next day. Officially renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo, Aguas Calientes is the village closest to Machu Picchu and the principal access point through which all visitors must pass either on their way to or returning from the sacred city.
For travelers not exclusively focused on hiking but with an eye on adventure, the Inca Jungle Trek is an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail or Salkantay Trek.
On this tour to Machu Picchu, thrill-seekers first head to the top of Abra Malaga at 4,316 meters, where they strap on protective gear and ride mountain bikes 2000 meters down winding mountain roads. Next, adventurists have the opportunity to go white-water rafting on Grade III and Grade IV rapids of the Urubamba River. Rounding off the trifecta of adrenaline-fueled activities is Zip-Lining in Santa Teresa at up to 150 meters above ground.
The typical Jungle Trek takes place over four days and three nights (4D/3N), starting in Cusco with a drive to Abra Malaga and finishing in Aguas Calientes. Tours are offered by many outfitters in Cusco at a cost of $200 to $300 and can be booked a few days beforehand. It is worth shopping around, as prices, exact routes, and included activities may vary.
‘Machu Picchu by Car’ is a great option for travelers with limited time and money and who wish to get to Machu Picchu without being part of a guided tour. The name is somewhat misleading as travelers are not driven all the way to Machu Picchu or Aguas Calientes.
Instead, dozens of minibuses ferry passengers to nearby Hidroelectrica, a hydroelectric power station at the end of a long and narrow dirt road in the Urubamba Valley. Hidroelectrica is connected to Aguas Calientes via a train line, but many people prefer complete the route on foot instead. Most hostels and hotels in Cusco sell tickets for around $15 one-way.
Taking two to three hours to complete, the hike itself is an easy one across even terrain, but in beautifully scenic surroundings no less. Following the train tracks as they snake through the Urubamba Valley alongside the river, hikers first circumvent Machu Picchu Mountain and Wayna Picchu to their right and then circle past Putucusi Mountain to their left until they reach Aguas Calientes.
For travelers short on time and otherwise unwilling or unable to make their way to Machu Picchu on foot, arrival in Aguas Calientes by train is an ideal solution. It is also the only option with which travelers can avoid an overnight stay in the village altogether and instead arrive in the morning from either Ollantaytambo or Poroy (Cusco).
Prices for tickets differ depending on the advanced time of booking, the time slot chosen for the day of travel and the type of train. The more economically priced Vistadome and Expedition trains come with large panoramic windows and skylights through which passengers can enjoy the stunning vistas of the Sacred Valley. Costing on average $80 one-way, the trains depart for the three-hour train journey from Poroy, a small village outside Cusco, or the 30-minute ride from Ollantaytambo several times a day. The Belmond Hiram Bingham turns the luxury level up a few notches with the inclusion of gourmet food, drinks and on-board entertainment. Running only between Poroy and Machu Picchu, the service offered during the three-hour train journey doesn’t come cheap, at about $385 each way.
Tickets can be bought online from the PeruRail website, from several train stations and a handful of vendors (see list online). During the peak months of May to September train tickets sell out quickly, so booking ahead is essential for those on a tight schedule.