Its purpose is still shrouded in mystery, but Machu Picchu, Peru’s famous, mountain-perched ruins, and everyone’s bucket-list destination, attracts nearly 2,500 visitors daily. While bus tours can bring you right to the steps of the ruins, there is no doubt that hiking to them makes getting to Machu Picchu a truly memorable experience.
Choosing the Right Trail
First off, it's important to understand your own druthers when it comes to visiting Machu Picchu. There are over a dozen trails that lead to the ancient city, with a great range of durations and difficulty. While you can take a train and a bus to the base of Machu Picchu and hike to the ruins and climb the thousand steps to iconic Sun Gate in a single day, you may regret missing some of the world’s greatest panoramas on a trek through Peru’s Andes. Likewise, as Machu Picchu is a popular attraction, you are likely to meet a formidable crowd at the ruins -- however, several hikes employ remote routes that see very few trekkers.
The Classic Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is by far the most popular route to Machu Picchu; you will definitely encounter other trekkers while hiking. The hike -- 27 miles and four days in its entirety -- begins 50 miles from Cuzco and follows an ancient Incan road until arriving in Machu Picchu. While the full trail is a test of endurance -- especially in the high altitudes of the Andes -- and a testament to Peru’s natural grandeur, there are several “shortcut” versions of the Inca Trail, including two- and three-day options. While one-day options also exist, the final leg of the hike -- the climb to the Sun Gate -- is most impressive when accomplished in time to watch the sun rise. This trail's extreme popularity has made a permit necessary for trekking; plan to get this permit well in advance.
The Salkantay Trail is also quite well known, but more so for its unsurpassed beauty and relative difficulty. While you won’t see as many ruins on this five-to-seven-day trek as on the Inca Trail, you also won’t see as many fellow travelers. The trek, often considered the Inca Trail’s number one alternative, is especially attractive because permits are not required for hiking through the Salkantay Pass. Sauntering over the pass, you experience jungle, rivers and the snow-capped ridges of glacial Mount Salkantay before making the descent toward Machu Picchu over a total of 39 miles. The hike, beginning 60 miles west of Cuzco, is one of the most highly regarded treks in the world.
Dancing to Vilcabamba
Vilcabamba, a mountainous region of high jungle, holds historical significance for housing the last group of Incas. If you're interested in backcountry hiking through ancient Incan strongholds, and can stomach the six-to-eight-day trek, then opt for the Vilcabamba Trail to Machu Picchu. You're unlikely to see anyone else on this trail, which borders both the Andes and the Amazon Rainforest, making for an epic trek to Machu Picchu. The Vilcabamba trek begins in Huancacalle, a village about 150 miles from Cuzco in the Vilcabamba Valley, where you will get a first taste of the rugged trail ahead upon ascending into the Azutina Pass.
Preparation for Hiking
For all treks to Machu Picchu, you should find a decent group tour to guide you there. Not only is the terrain challenging, especially on the more remote treks, but the tours normally provide food and can help you carry your things when the high altitudes become too tough. Cuzco’s altitude is great enough that at least two days of acclimation are recommended before you set out on any trek. Altitude sickness is a legitimate concern on these mountainous treks, and consideration should be taken to avoid its effects. Depending on the season, you may be hiking in the blazing sun, under rain and snowfall, and through dense jungles -- so pack accordingly.