Machu Picchu is a set of Incan ruins nestled amongst the mountains in Peru in South America.
This picturesque destination was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and in 2007 was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Standing atop a 2,500 metre mountain ridge in the Cusco Region of Peru, this Incan citadel draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
The number of visitors to Machu Picchu each year has grown from just over 100,000 in the 1980s to a peak of nearly 1.2 million tourists in 2013 – a 700% increase!
The site features three primary structures: the Intihuatana; the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.
Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of how they originally appeared, with work beginning in the 1970s and restoration still ongoing.
This incredible site can easily be reached by a combination of road and train in a one-day round trip from Cusco.
However, to get the full experience, the best thing to do is to reach it via the Inca Trail.
The Inca Trail offers a time-worn path to Machu Picchu, passing through ancient Inca ruins clinging to hillsides along the way.
The best part of choosing this trail is that there is something fascinating to see at so many points along the way – not just at the final destination.
The history each day is dense and fascinating and the views over the valleys below will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
The total distance covered during the trek is around 45 kilometres and takes four days, camping on the mountain and ending with an incredible visit to to Machu Picchu.
The first image of Machu Picchu you get from the Sun Gate on your final morning as you blink away the sleep out of your eyes is unsurpassable.
Done with a credible company, a benchmark cost for the Inca Trail trek would be between £350-450. This generally includes transportation to the trailhead from Cusco, a guide, porters, three meals a day, hiking permits, entry to Machu Picchu and tents.
If you want to really tick all the boxes, on arrival at Machu Picchu, you can also climb Huayna Picchu, the steepest peak that lies behind the main site.
Huayna Picchu is the stunning mountain that appears behind Machu Picchu in its classic postcard photos.
We’ve provided more information in the ‘About the route’ section below, but note that you will need one permit for both the Inca Trail and a separate one for Huayna Picchu.
Other options for reaching Machu Picchu are the Lares Trek and the Salkantay Trek (include hyperlinks once complete).
- Trek an ancient route to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
- Breathtaking scenery with views of snow capped mountains, cloud forest and preserved ruins.
- Come over the top of mountain at sunrise, to see sacred ruins without the crowds of tourists.
- See ruins along the way with alpacas roaming freely through them.
- Get your passport stamped with a special Inca Trail / Machu Picchu stamp as you leave the site.
Treks and tours to Machu Picchu are run out of Cusco – a major city in the Peruvian Andes and once capital of the Inca Empire.
This is also the place to settle for a few days before you go to acclimatise and visit some of the local shops to rent poles and pick up food and other supplies. All tours will include your transport from Cusco to the start of the trail, just be prepared for the early start!
The Inca Trail takes four days to complete, with only three of those really involving trekking and the final one acting as a reward for your hard work as you get to peruse the ruins.
The total distance covered is around 45 kilometres, varying in length from day to day, tailored to match the difficulty of inclines and distance between camp sites.
Huayna Picchu, should you choose to do this, can be completed from the Machu Picchu site on your fourth day and only takes a couple of hours to ascend and descend – depending on how quickly people are moving through the steep slopes and stair areas.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The days vary in difficulty, with the first and last being fairly easy and the middle two being tougher. The terrain undulates with slopes up and downhill and amazing views over the valleys and crossing through wet forests and dry mountainsides.
Starting at km82 at an altitude of 2,700m you climb up to a high point of 4,215m at Dead Woman’s Pass (at which point you’ll be trying to take in all the oxygen you can get from the thin air) and descend slightly over the next couple of days.
The second day in particular is probably the most gruelling. Your group will ascend from the village of Wayllabamba village (3000 metres above sea level) to the Dead Woman’s Pass – Warmihuañusca – which lies at 4200 meters above sea level.
This takes approximately four hours depending on the weather and pace of the group.
Although it is tough, groups can often be heard cheering on team members as they approach the summit and the view of all of the Sacred Valley and the Urubamba Valley below makes it worth it.
The short descent down the other side is over cobbled and uneven steps – one of the main reasons it is worth getting a hiking pole and ensuring your boots have sufficient ankle support.
When you get to Machu Picchu on the final day, you can even opt to finish the experience off with one final hike.
Trekkers can take on Huayna Picchu Mountain if booked in advance. This mountain is 2,693 metres above sea level and around 260 metres higher than the Machu Picchu site.
The steep peak features additional remnants of a famous temple complex erected by an ancient civilisation. Parts of it are incredibly steep and some sections require you to hold security cables to balance – not one for the faint-hearted or anyone with vertigo.
The Inca Trail offers long periods of time without seeing anyone outside your trekking group, whereas Huayna Picchu requires you to wait your turn to be able to use the path. Due to its steepness, it is quite a physically demanding climb, especially at that elevation, despite its short length of around two kilometres.
No experience is required as such, as long as you are relatively fit and able-bodied. Backpackers, families and individuals of all ages have completed the route. However, due to its nature of being a four-day walk, it would certainly be worth doing some longer walks in the run up to your trek – just to adjust to spending all day on your feet.
Equally, we would recommend arriving in Peru a few days before you begin the Inca Trail in order to acclimatise to the elevation. Due to the fact that the air is thinner, even menial tasks can feel like you’ve really exerted yourself.
Although you might read about the Lares trek being harder (due to its more consistently high altitude), you are dealing with more ascents and descents on the Inca Trail, which provides challenges of its own – particularly on dusty tracks or slippery steps.
The Inca Trail is the most well-known and sought after of the various routes.
As a result, it’s not just a case of turning up a few days before, strapping on your bag and taking to the trail.
There is now a limit of 500 daily trekking permits to ensure that the route doesn’t get too crowded or get damaged and worn down.
Whilst there are times when you’re trekking with no one else around, some sections are much busier sections and campsites can get busy.
We would recommend booking your trekking permit as far in advance as you can – ideally as soon as you’ve booked your trip.
Dates are non-flexible, so you’ll need to lock yourself in and make sure that you’re in Cusco a few days ahead of your trek. Most reputable companies will send you proof of purchase of your permit and require you to be in town two days before you set off to get a copy of your passport, provide a briefing and give you your shopping list.
Guided or Self-Guided
This walk should be completed with a trustworthy tour company, who will ensure your guides are knowledgeable about the Inca Trail, both from a safety perspective and also from an educational one.
When booking, you should search around for a reputable tour company that specialises in Inca Trail tours. The good ones will not only provide but also carry all of your food, drink and camping equipment.
The porters (known as chaskis) are nimble-footed and incredibly fit locals that will race ahead and set up your tents and prepare two-course meals and water tanks.
Less favourable companies will ask you to carry more of the equipment, along with your own clothes and supplies, and also ask that you bring snacks to supplement the light meals they provide.
Their knowledge of the mountain is usually still good but they are unlikely to have the same insurance and safety policies in place.
The wet season in Peru falls from November through to March, during which time you are almost guaranteed to get wet and the conditions on the trail can be slippery and precarious.
The Inca Trail closes every year towards the end of January through February to allow trail maintenance. The trail reopens in March but the highlands remain wet until early April.
In the dry season – Peru’s winter – temperatures drop close to freezing at night – another reason to go with a reputable tour company who will provide high quality tents and sleeping bags.
However, days can still be gloriously sunny and there are often fewer clouds or fog to interrupt your views over the Andean valleys below.
May and October are the best times to trek the Inca Trail as permits sell out less fast than peak months, plus warmer than June, July and August.
The Festival of the Sun (Inti Raymi) happens at the end of June and Peru’s national holiday falls at the end of July – both of which make the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu itself much busier than usual.
August and September offer dry conditions and good temperatures for trekking.
November starts to get wet again but the Trail is open and permits are easier to come by.
Possibly the best time to go and see the mountains is mid to late April, because it’s after the rainy season and everything is green but without the trails being too slippery.
Regardless of the time of year that you go, it’s important to go fully prepared with kit for wet, dry, warm and cold.
Because the Inca Trail rises and falls so much, descending just a few hundred metres can take you out of wind-blasted plains and into wet, tropical-feeling montane forest. We recommend waterproof clothing and boots, layers, sun cream and a lightweight fleece along with at least one walking pole.
On the Inca Trail itself there is only one accommodation option, and that’s camping.
Because of the permit system there are regulations on the route’s campsites meaning there are specific spots where trekkers can pitch a tent.
Depending on what travel agency or tour company you do it with, these will be pre-chosen for you and your tents erected by the time you arrive each evening.
Many even greet you in the morning with a cup of hot chocolate or coffee! Most sites have working toilets and some even have showers – cold or refreshing, we will let you decide.Thanks to its popularity as a tourist destination – for trekkers, backpackers, flash-packers and everyone else – Cusco is well-equipped for travellers of every type and budget.
The city is relatively small and walking between your accommodation and the shops, Plaza de Armas and restaurants/bars will be easy enough wherever you stay.
At the bottom of the budget range there are hostels and homestays to suit every taste. In the few days before your trek it is worthwhile choosing somewhere that has less of a party vibe and can be used as a place to rest up whilst you acclimatise.
One up from this are B&Bs, apartments and budget hotels, which are also scattered around the city and will provide a higher level of comfort, with private rooms and bathrooms and some peace and quiet.
At the higher end there are a handful of hotels – mostly around the three-star mark, with some more luxurious ones on the outskirts.
If you’re going in the hotter months you might want to seek out somewhere with a pool and fans or air conditioning, but note that even in the top hotels you should avoid drinking tap water.
Cusco is the world’s ninth-highest city, lying at 3,400 metres above sea level – so you’ll feel the difference in your breathing as soon as you step off the plane or bus.
As well as the Inca Trail, there are plenty of things to do in Cusco. From the vibrant traditional clothing worn by locals, to hearing Quechua (the local language used by descendants of the Incas), you feel like you’re in another magical world.
Cusco is one of the hotspots of South America, with a blend of cobblestone streets, colonial period architecture and unmistakable Peruvian street spirit. Friendly locals, colourful markets and varied cuisine make it the perfect place to while away the days either side of your trek on the Inca Trail.
Top recommendations include visiting the remains of Coricancha – a church complex considered the holiest site in Incan mythology, hanging out in the bohemian San Blas, or checking out Cusco Cathedral.
The markets just off the square offer colourful woven items, as well as a chance to get a photo with local kids and their pet alpaca. Grab a coffee in one of the second floor cafes that overlook the Plaza de Armas or wind down after the Inca Trail with a cheap massage.
If you want to get some walking practise in, take the breathless walk up to Limbus Restobar, which offers an incredible view over Cusco, and sit and have a drink. Food and drink varies throughout the city. Try out local delicacies like alpaca or guinea pig, or indulge in locally made chocolate or some great veggie cuisine.
Mama Africa, Mushrooms, Paddy’s Irish Pub and Norton’s Rat Tavern are some of the go-to places for late-night drinks on Plaza de Armas but maybe save them for after the Trail!
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Difficulty||2/5 - 3/5|
|Starts at|| Ollantaytambo, Peru|
(shuttle bus from Cusco)
|Finishes at||08680, Peru|
|Length of route||45 Km|
|Average time to complete||3 - 4 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||No|
|Highest point||4215 metres|
|Equipment needed||Camping equipment, Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots|