Barring the extreme treks such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Everest, hiking to Machu Picchu is the Mecca of all moderate-to-difficult hikes, and it has by far one of the most rewarding destinations (now one of the New Seven Wonders of the World). While there’s no doubt it has been highly popularized to tourists and may not involve ropes and clips, it would be foolish to think that the treks offered by the many trekking companies are easy or for the faint of heart.
There are thousands of kilometers of popular trails throughout the Andes mountains (and thousands more of less traveled but still hike-able terrain), so it comes as no surprise that there are quite a few options to choose from when deciding to hike to Machu Picchu. The four-day/three-night Inca Trail is the main trek, the one that most people sign up for.
I went with the company Peru Andean Experience, which I highly recommend, as do many of my friends. While the treks are bound to be similar with any company, my descriptions are primarily based upon this particular company.
On the Inca Trail, you’ll start by bus and begin your hike in a small touristy town called Oyantaytambo, where you’ll have the chance to buy items in the local marketplace that might be handy on the hike (think coca leaves for altitude sickness (more on that later), apples, water bottles, day packs), and from there you’ll mostly be hiking moderately uphill and at points up steep terrain towards Machu Picchu. The hours and kilometers that you will hike per day will vary by the day and by the whim of the tour guide; however, you can count on sweating for a few hours a day, usually getting most of the day’s goal out of the way before a lunch break. After lunch, you will continue your trek for a few more hours until you reach your campsite and the porters set up your tents for a relaxing and early night. Count on being exhausted and embracing the circa 8:00pm bed time. Trust me. Also trust me that you WON’T want to carry your own frame-pack. I would not have been able to, and I am very fit. My boyfriend also admitted that he would never have been able to make it through had he been required to carry his own frame-pack, and he was a college athlete. A small day pack is the way to go. (You will see your frame-packs upon arriving at the lunch and camp sites).
What I’ve gathered is that this particular Inca Trail trek is the one to do if you’re in less than tip-top shape or if you’re traveling with family or older people. When in doubt, I’d recommend going with this one – there’s a reason it’s the most popular.
Other options (by Peru Andean Experience) include:
- The much lazier version of the Inca Trail, which is two days/one night and involves much less hiking and much more bussing. This is for people who don’t really wish to experience hiking for all its worth or to exert much energy other than to step up onto the train.
- Lares Trek: This is the trek that I personally completed. It was NOT easy in any sense of the word… although we definitely had a highly unique experience because of the fact that our tour ended up being private. It was just me, my boyfriend, and the guide, the cook, and the porter. Because of this set up, our guide felt at liberty to experiment with his navigation, which some people may have resented and reported but we absolutely adored. What was sure to be more difficult than the Inca Trail to begin with turned out to be one of the toughest and most physically demanding experiences of my life, but not completely unmanageable. I’ll put it this way: I was exhausted and ready to stop an hour or so before we were done for the day each day, and although the experience of summiting the highest point of any of the hikes was life-changing and absolutely beautiful and worth it, I don’t think I could ever get myself to do it again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but definitely once. Choose this trek if you’re up for literally anything including unanticipated changes in route, scaling down mountains in the rain, risking breaking your ankles, falling in llama and alpaca poop, freezing in tents, and experiencing what might qualify as the worst pounding headache of your entire life. That part was NOT enjoyable, but much like what I’d imagine a mother feels post giving birth, it was worth the serious and unmatched pain (although at the time, if I could be airlifted out of there, I would have been. That’s probably the most emotionally-affecting part of the trek; you will likely feel like absolute crap with a headache you never knew was possible, and you are practically alone in the PITCH black with nothing to save you and thanks to being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, no one to call).
- Salcantay Trek: At five days and four nights, this is the longest of the hikes. It is physically demanding at a moderate to difficult level, and much like the Lares Trek, you are likely to see fewer tourists along the way. I don’t know too much about it other than that it’d the longest and probably much more demanding than the Inca Trail.
There are two more treks to choose from, and the information about them can be found at the following links. I do not know too much about them, so it would be best to research thoroughly to see if they might interest you. However, the Inca Trail, the Lares Trek, and the Salcantay Trek will cover about 90% of Machu Picchu hikers.
Whatever trek you choose, whether it’s from Peru Andean Experience or one of the many other companies that exist, you are sure to do tons of walking, hiking, bussing, training, complaining, and spirit-building. You will see the most beautiful scenery you have ever seen – snowcapped mountains in the near distance, miles upon miles of open green spaces, trees interspersed with ancient stone Incan ruins, cloud-covered hills, pristine lakes that amplify the surrounding beauty in their reflections, and so much more. You might pass through local communities of pre-Spaniard invasion populations called Quechuans, many of who do not speak a word of Spanish or English and many of whom have never heard of the internet, and you might interact with some of the local children playing marbles in the streets. You will set up camp (read: tents, poles, sleeping bags, the works) in campsites along the way (the ones on the Inca Trail are obviously quite populated at night, but the ones on the Lares Trek, for instance, are decided randomly on the go and make for extremely interesting stories. For example, we slept next to a tiny ancient church and graveyard, and, I kid you not, there were eight human skeletal remains just 20 feet away from my face as I slept). (Not to mention the pack of wild dogs barking through the night…)
You will most likely experience a lot of pain (altitude sickness is not a joke) and anguish and cursing yourself for ever agreeing to such a trying and, at times, miserable adventure. But that’s what it is – an adventure – and you will thank yourself once you reach the top and see how incredible the world’s offerings truly are and realize that you personally just trekked kilometers and kilometers of wild terrain – uphill, through rain, over rocks, through altitude sickness, and through inevitable fear – to see it.
I highly recommend the company I went with – Peru Andean Experience (http://www.peruandeanexperience.com/). If you do go with the Lares Trek and you want the adventure of your lifetime (and are willing to experience much of the craziness that I went through as described above), request Rodney as your guide. (He is actually named after Rodney Dangerfield, something you will totally believe after spending a few days and nights with him).
Frequently Asked Questions about the treks can be checked out here. The answers provide a wealth of information.
But if Peru Andean Experience’s offerings do not necessarily speak to you, here is a list of some other Peruvian-recommended reliable companies to check out when considering trekking to Machu Picchu:
-Peru Treks & Adventure (http://www.perutreks.com)
-SAS Travel (www.sastravelperu.com)
-Llama Path (www.llamapath.com)
-Or one of the recommended trekking companies listed here.
Tips for picking the right trek can be found here.
Tips (from actual hikers) for what to pack on your trek can be found here.
Whatever trek you choose, go with an open mind, big water bottles (they will boil water for you at each meal), a day pack with some granola bars, a camera, face and hand wipes, Purell, layers of clothing (the temperatures vary drastically), a hat, and Motrin – trust me on that one. And remember – when you’re terrified at 3:00am in the pitch-black of the night alone in your tent with nothing to save you from yourself (or from the altitude, for that matter), cling tight to the fact that it will all be over soon enough. You will end up a better person for it.