- Machu Picchu can only be reached by train or on foot
- On foot there are several options; the Inca Trail or Salkantay Hike
- The Inca Trail provides a long (4 days) and short (2 days) version
- The Inca Trail also visits other Inca sites that can only be reached via these trails
- The Inca Trails arrive through the Sun Gate and the Salkanty via Aguas Calientes
Hikes to Machu Picchu
The train is by far the easiest way to get to Machu Picchu but hiking is without doubt the most beautiful. Arriving through the Sun Gate and laying eyes on Machu Picchu for the first time is the best reward one can imagine after having conquered the traverse called the Inca Trail. For the Inca Trail there is the classic 4 day version which is quite an intense hike and involves three nights of high altitude camping or the 2 day short version that does not include camping but has you spend the night in a hotel. Apart from the two Inca Trail options there is one other hike that arrives to Machu Picchu, or Aguas Calientes better said; the 5 day Salkantay Hike. All of these hikes have to be done with a licenced hiking operator and cannot be undertaken on your own account. Whenever you would be looking for an operator for these hikes, make sure that you have some references and a detailed list of what is and what is not included.
Classic 4 Day Inca Trail
The so-called Classic 4 day Inca Trail takes you over the original Inca Trail leading from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu, about 43km (26mi) long in total. You will be crossing mountain passes well over 13,000ft (4,000m) above sea level and will be ascending or descending for most of the time. You will also enjoy some amazing Inca sites that can only be visited doing this hike and enjoy some of the most impressive views you will lay eyes on. The trail itself takes a minimum of 4 days with three nights camping, arriving at Machu Picchu in the early morning of the fourth day. In recent years more and more people make it a 5 day hike arriving to Machu Picchu in the afternoon of day 4 and adding one more day to visit Machu Picchu to the fullest. If you have the time, this is probably the best option. The trail itself has 1 large climb on day two called the Dead Woman’s Pass and this involves a climb of about 1,200 vertical meters (4,000ft). Apart from this major climb there are about 5 smaller climbs with altitude differences between 50 and 500 meters (160 and 1,600ft). The hike starts at a place called Km.82 which refers to the distance of this point of the train tracks from Cusco. This is the last part where one can get in a vehicle. From here the only way on is by train or in this case; on foot. For the 4 day Inca Trail there are 500 spaces available daily and these sell out several months in advance. The hike can only be done with an officially licenced hiking operator.
Short 2 Day Inca Trail
The shorter 2 day version (this is often confusing as the hiking part is only one day and the second day is a full day at Machu Picchu) is the option for those looking to hike, arrive through the Sun Gate but for camping is a bit much. The short Inca Trail starts at a place called km104, which means 104 km along the train tracks from Cusco. The only way to reach this point is by train, meaning that for this short Inca Trail you will also need to catch the train to Machu Picchu. Once you get off the train; keep in mind there is no actual station. You can cross the suspended pedestrian bridge over the Vicanote River and pass through the checkpoint. After the check point you will start this 12km (8mi) and altitude will not be too much of an issue with the highest point at about 9,000ft (2,700m). The daily available permits for the short Inca Trail are 250 per day and these do not sell out necessarily but for the high season (June through August) can sell out for some days. For those who are relatively fit, we consider this to be the best way to visit Machu Picchu as you can enjoy a more complete experience and it makes the visit all the more meaningful.
5 Day Salkantay Hike to Machu Picchu
The most popular alternative to the Inca Trail hikes to Machu Picchu is the 4 or 5 day Salkantay Hike. We recommend the 5 day option as the 4 can feel somewhat rushed. This hike is named after the 20,550ft (6,264m) Salkantay Mountain that is circled with this hike. This is the second highest peak in South Peru and one of Peru’s most beautiful ones. You start hiking in a small village called Mollepata, located about 4 hours drive from Cusco. Here you will start hiking and one of the good things about this hike is that it can be done with horses that can carry most of the luggage and personal belongings for you, allowing you to focus on your pace and the surroundings. You will camp the first night in Soraypampa with views on the snow capped Salkantay Peak. The next day you will have another full day of high altitude hiking during which you cross also the Salkantay Pass at 15,250ft (4,650m) above sea level - the highest point of the hike. From here you will start descending till Chaullay where you will camp your second night. On day three you start descending into the cloud forests and temperatures will go up and the surrounding will turn much greener and lush. Passing through the Santa Teresa Valley you will pass several orchards of local exotic fruits as well as coffee plantations. In the afternoon you will arrive at La Playa, the final camp site. Finally on day four you will hike or take the train to Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Town. The final part depends a little on your budget as taking the train for the last part comes at an additional cost. This last part is the hike from the Hydroelectrical Plant to Aguas Calientes, a hike of about 10km (2 hours) over the train tracks. This is not dangerous or anything but is not the nicest walking underground. The surroundings and views (you even see the lesser known side of Machu Picchu) are of course more than worth the hike. The last night you spend in Aguas Calientes and on day 5 have a whole day to visit Machu Picchu. In the afternoon you can then take the train back to Ollantaytambo or Cusco where your trip will end.
Finally there is also an alternative option that allows you to hike and visit Machu Picchu; the 4 day Lares Hike to Machu Picchu. The Lares Hike is actually a hike taking you through the Sacred Valley of the Incas ending in the town of Ollantaytambo to take the train to Machu Picchu. The hike itself is a true highland experience with some amazing views dotted with snow capped mountains, deep blue lakes and some glaciers in the distance. This hike will also take you pass some authentic Andean villages where time has stood still and still manage the art of Andean Weavings. On day 3 you will end the day in Ollantaytambo and take the train to Aguas Calientes for a full day visit to Machu Picchu on day 4.