A hike to Peru’s ancient city of Machu Picchu is sure to be one of the most memorable adventure experiences in your lifetime. This handy guide answers the top questions hikers, (and non-hikers) have about hiking to Machu Picchu, and how to prepare for the trip, and what to expect in the marvelous region of Machu Picchu.
There are actually many hikes in the Peruvian Andes that also include a trip to Machu Picchu, but there is only one hiking trail, the historic self-named Inca Trail, that you can hike all the way to, and through, the Sun Gate entrance of Machu Picchu. All the other hikes, (also often called treks) actually end the hiking part of the trip at Aguas Calientes, the little town that is the gateway to Machu Picchu. From there, visitors (hikers and non-hikers) alike can take a bus up to this UNESCO World Heritage site. Machu Picchu is also known as the lost city of the Incas.
This guide focuses on the classic Inca Trail hike that goes all the way to Machu Picchu, and shares information about Machu Picchu and the hiking experience and natural environment hikers experience.
About Machu Picchu, Peru - One of the World’s Seven Wonders
Machu Picchu is a 15th-century ancient Incan society situated almost 2500 m above sea level – roughly 8000 feet. Nestled among the Andes mountains in the Cusco region in Peru, Machu Picchu attracts as many as 5,000 people a day during the high season between May and October, with about 1 million people visiting the site yearly. (pre-covid).
Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site, spanning 32,592 hectares (80,537 acres) of lush mountains and valleys. Typically, when people think of Machu Picchu, the iconic archeological monument La Ciudadela de Machu Picchu (City of Machu Picchu) comes to mind. Made of approximately 200 structures, the ancient Incan stone terraces are full of religious, ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural history.
Why Machu Picchu is Called the “Lost City of the Incas”
Machu Picchu is often called the “Lost City of The Incas.” Located in the Cusco region of Peru, it is one of the most impressive ancient sites in the world. An icon of the Inca civilization, it is a popular stop on many Peru tours.
Constructed around 1450 AD, at the height of the Inca Empire, it was built as an estate for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti. However, the site was mysteriously abandoned approximately 100 years later, though it is suspected the Incas left because of the arrival of the Spanish. Rediscovered (by the outside world) almost 500 years later, in the early 20th century, Machu Picchu soon became a popular tourist destination. The descendants of these ancient Incas did know of Machu Picchu – for that is how Hiram Bingham “rediscovered” it!
The name “Lost City of the Incas” comes from the civilization’s modern day “re”-discoverer, Hiram Bingham. In 1909, the American explorer set out to retrace the steps of Simon Bolivar and follow the old trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima. After hearing rumors about “the last resting place of the Incas” on the trip, Bingham returned two years later in search of it on foot and by mule. A local farmer tipped his party off to ancient ruins on a nearby mountain top, and soon the explorer was, in his own words:
…confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stone work. It was hard to see them for they were partly covered with trees and moss, the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, appeared here and there walls of white granite ashlars carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together. . . . Dimly I began to realize that this wall and its adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world. It fairly took my breath away.
How to Get to Machu Picchu: Train, Bus, and Hiking
Most tourists actually make it to Machu Picchu via train, not via hiking the ancient Inca Trail itself. The majority of tourists take the train to Aguas Calientes from either Poroy (closest train station to Cusco) or Ollantaytambo, then take a bus up the switchbacks to the ancient site of Machu Picchu. Regardless of which station you leave from, the trip is about 4 hours from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. For those looking for a little more hardy adventure and incredible time in the Andean mountains, a hike from the Sacred Valley outside Cusco, Peru to Machu Picchu allows visitors to walk the same footpath and carved stone steps as the Incas themselves. The full hike up the mountain via the Inca Trail is 25 miles/40 kilometers and takes about four to five days, but you can also do only part of the Inca Trail hike in two days, if you are short on time or not a big hiker. This is a really great option for many people who still want to experience hiking on the historic path, but just aren’t cut out for four or 5 days of trekking, even with exceptional campsites and gourmet camp meals.
For many, traveling on the Inca Trail is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The enchanting mountain vistas and valleys are visually arresting. Yet, knowing that one is hiking in the footsteps of ancient peoples can only give one pause to reflect upon centuries past and the timeless majesty of the place. Alpaca Expeditions features expert, experienced, multi-lingual, local guides who have a wealth of information to share about the trail, the ancient Incas who built Machu Picchu and the overall Andean landscape that is impressive, to say the least. In fact, the guides of Alpaca Expeditions are the descendants of these ancient Incas!
Inca Trail Permits – What They Are and Why Hikers Must Have Them
The Inca Trail Permit System was created by the Peruvian government to help prevent serious overcrowding, overuse, and erosion on the historic Inca Trail. A limited number of total permits are available each day to hike the Inca Trail. Permits are required for all hikers – including porters, guides, and trekking customers, meaning dates sell out 3 to 6 months in advance (especially during the most popular months for seeing Macchu Picchu, May through August). Alpaca Expeditions has a 99% success rate at helping customers get the permit dates they want, with advance planning – read all about it here.
Alternative Treks not on the Classic Inca Trail Trek/Hike – No Permits Required
Alternative Treks are amazing hiking tours in the Peruvian Andes that take place on ancient trails that are not the classic “Inca Trail”. The Inca Trail itself travels along the mountains to the actual Sun Gate entrance to Machu Picchu. Because Alternative Treks do not go on the classic Inca Trail or through the Sun Gate, they are not regulated by the government and do not require a permit. This means they are easier to book, more readily available, and equally as beautiful and rich in history. They are often far less crowded, too!
How Hard and How Long is the Hike to Machu Picchu?
Longest Day is ~10 Miles of Hiking
A hike to Machu Picchu is sure to be one of the best outdoor adventures in your lifetime. Don’t let the experience be ruined by being under-prepared! The full trail to Machu Picchu takes four to five days, takes you over rivers and mountain passes. Through Alpaca Expeditions, your longest day will be around 10 miles. Thankfully, our amazing porters will be carrying the bulk of your gear, lightening your load and making the entire trek much more accessible to trekkers of various fitness levels.
Tips on Physical Preparation to Successfully Hike the Inca Trail
That being said, physical preparation for this hike will go a long way. Step machines at gyms, jogs, and aerobics of some sort will help prepare you physically (and mentally) for the adventure ahead. A 30 minute or so jog everyday a week before the hike will make things go a lot more smoothly when the time comes.
Spending a day or two in Cusco after the trek to recuperate would be ideal too. They can offer cheap massages for those sore muscles! To plan your Peru adventure and to learn more about the hike to Machu Picchu, get in touch with Alpaca Expeditions. Alpaca Expeditions is a Peruvian travel operator with a main office in located in Cusco, Peru, and we are the top-rated tour operators of the Inca Trail.
High Altitude and Acclimatization Tips for Hiking to Machu Picchu
Some other difficulties that hikers deal with are high elevations/altitude sickness and the large stone steps that make up the trail. Altitude sickness symptoms involve getting out of breath very fast and mild headaches. The highest point on the Inca Trail is 4200 meters/13,779 feet. All these symptoms will pass after some time with rest. As for the large stone steps, there is no rush! The steps might throw off your hiking rhythm a bit, but taking the time to enjoy the beauty surrounding you will get you to Machu Picchu just the same. The elevation of Machu Picchu is 2430 meters/7,992 feet. The best way to prepare yourself is to arrive in Cusco (altitude 3399 meters/11,152 feet) two days early, and take a tour to get out and about – thus helping your body adjust to the altitude a bit before you start your hike to Machu Picchu.
Best Packing List for Hiking to Machu Picchu
The final step of preparation is packing your bag. We’ve got you covered with the Ultimate Packing List for trekking the Inca Trail. But the gist is, bring layers of clothing for inevitable changes of temperature that comes with elevation gain and loss, a waterproof jacket or other form of rain protection, and a comfortable day pack. Other miscellaneous items you don’t want to forget include toiletries, good hiking shoes (and extra socks), flashlights, and a good sleeping bag for chilly mountain nights. You can rent very high quality, top adventure brand trekking poles, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads from Alpaca Expeditions – which is totally recommended so that you don’t have to lug your own gear. Insiders Tip – bring your own silk or cotton sleeping bag liner for a great night’s sleep. They are super small and light to pack, and a real pleasure to have on your trek!
Think Hiking the Inca Trail Is Too Overwhelming?
The #1 Tour Operator In Peru Makes All the Difference!
A trip of this scale can be overwhelming to feel prepared for. The best preparation is making sure your guides and company are reputable. Alpaca Expeditions is rated the #1 tour operator in Peru, for good reason. Alpaca Expeditions has taken thousands of people to Machu Picchu. Since 2012, we have won awards (including, most recently, Peru´s Best Tour Operator 2022 for the third time.), and prioritized serving our community through social activism. Read our reviews for yourself – Alpaca Expeditions will take care of you!
The 6 Different Inca Trail Hikes to Machu Picchu
Hiking to Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most iconic treks.
If you hike to Machu Picchu, then there are several advantages including seeing other, lesser-known ruins along the way up that are not visible by the train. Trekking through the different landscapes–desert scrub to snowy passes to cloud jungle–and seeing the natural wonders is one of the main reasons hikers of varying skill levels love the journey.
Choose your Inca Trail hike based on your hiking experience, fitness, length of time, traveling companions, interests, etc.
Classic 4 Day Inca Trail, Group – One of our best sellers, the world-famous 4-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu is 26 miles (43 kilometers) from start to finish, is a sacred part of what was an extensive network of Inca footpaths called Qhapaq Ñan, meaning “Royal Road.” It was once the only route leading to the remote citadel, and today offers a unique way of arriving at the sacred ruins of Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. Learn more.
Classic 4 Day Inca Trail, Private – All the best parts of the Classic trek, but with your group, and your group only! Experience the famous Inca Trail for 4 amazing days, and pass through the Sun Gate at sunrise for that first magical sighting of Machu Picchu.
5 Day Inca Trail – same trail as the 4 day, but a slower pace over 5 days. You can spend more time at each ruin along the way. This is a great option for those worried about their hiking capability and speed, as well as families with younger hikers.
7 Day Inca Trail plus Salkantay – For those looking to combine the best of our two most popular treks, this is for you. The Inca Trail or Salkantay Tour is a lot to take in, together these treks are powerhouses, showcasing some of the best views in Peru!.
Short Inca Trail 2 Days – Camping Our 2-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu is 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) from start to finish, with only one day of hiking and then taking a bus on the second day to the ruins. Enjoy a moderate hike that is suitable for families with smaller children while still ending your trek by walking through the iconic Sun Gate with the most spectacular view of Machu Picchu from above.
Short Inca Trail 2 Days – Hotel – Our other best seller. Enjoy the benefits of the 2 Day Inca trek – but add a dash of luxury! Spend the night in a hotel instead of a tent.
Cusco Day Trips- A Must Add to Your Hiking Trip to Machu Picchu, Peru
Another way to optimize your chances of a successful visit to Machu Picchu is by including a day or two to acclimate yourself to the higher elevation. You will also learn even more about the local culture and history with this extra time, well spent! Here are three trips that work well before your trek to help you acclimatize, or simply enjoy after your trek.
SACRED VALLEY – FULL DAY
The Machu Picchu Sacred Valley of the Incas is the destination with lots of great stops on the way to fully immerse in Inca culture and history.
MARAS MORAY – HALF DAY
This is a fantastic half day tour to explore part of the Sacred Valley. You will see amazing views of the Urubamba mountain ranges, the Veronica mountain and the green valleys of farms. On this half day trip, you will be able to learn about agriculture, textiles, and the history of the Incas.
CUSCO CITY TOUR – HALF DAY
Cusco is the center of the Inca history and home to some of the most important ruins. Exploring them with a member of the Alpaca Expeditions team will help make this period of history come alive. Visit the beautiful cathedral in the main square, Temple of the Sun and then head by car to the city limits to visit the 4 main Inca ruins including Sacsayhuaman. From here you will also see some of the most beautiful views of Cusco, so don’t forget your camera.
Taking The Train To Machu Picchu – Great for Non-Hikers
Skip the hiking and enjoy a relaxing ride on the Machu Picchu train! Your first day will be spent exploring the Sacred Valley, beginning your Inca education at spectacular ruins and leaving time to shop at one of the region’s oldest markets. After spending the night in nearby Aguas Calientes, you’ll arrive at Machu Picchu the next morning bright and early for your guided tour.
If you’re on a tight schedule, traveling with small children or don’t want to hike but still want to get the most out of your then Alpaca Expeditions’ tours by train are the best option. Alpaca Expeditions takes care of all the logistics for you. Our team will purchase your Machu Picchu tickets and will handle all the details so you can relax and enjoy your time in Peru.
Your time on the train to Machu Picchu is an experience all its own. You’ll be awed by the magical scenery that the path towards Aguas Calientes has to offer. You will witness the entrance to the rainforest and be blown away by the views.
Cusco and Sacred Valley Combination Tours with Train Ride to Machu Picchu- Perfect for Non-Hikers
Here are four tours that include great scenery around Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and get you to Machu Picchu by train. The Alpaca Expeditions Sacred Valley Tour to Machu Picchu includes visits to all of the archeological sites located within these cities. It’s truly an incredible tour package option to take in a lot of key historic sites while you are in the land of the Incas, in addition to the big prize of Machu Picchu!
These tours include highlights of Cusco City where you’ll explore ancient Inca-built streets, altars, and temples. They also include visits to a working weaving center and alpaca farm and exploring an intact Inca village in Ollantaytambo, and authentic Peruvian cuisine.
An unusual part of most Sacred Valley tours includes visiting the impressive Salineras, or Maras Salt Mines. The local economy is supported by the salt obtained from thousands of salt pools which act as evaporation chambers. Later, you’ll get a tour of Moray Inca Archeological Center and Chincheros. You’ll learn about the terraced farming techniques used by the Inca. Plus, you’ll see a colonial church and visit a textile center. Finally, the day concludes with dinner and a breathtaking train ride to your hotel in Aguas Calientes where you’ll prepare to visit Machu Picchu.
What to Expect Visiting Machu Picchu via Bus Ride from Aguas Calientes:
Wake up early the next day to see the sunrise and an amazing view of Machu Picchu. Our guides will provide an informative 2-hour tour and then you’ll have time to explore on your own. Tickets are required to climb either of the mountains (Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu) – you can book these at the time you book your tour or when you get to Cusco, with Alpaca Expeditions. It is best to arrange those well ahead of your trip. After exploring you’ll take a bus back to Aguas Calientes for lunch and then a train ride back to Ollantaytambo. You’ll look back on your adventure with awe and a new appreciation for the Inca culture.
Here are four Sacred Valley, Cusco, Machu Picchu combination tour package options that include the train ride to Machu Picchu:
CUSCO CITY, SACRED VALLEY 2 DAY & MACHU PICCHU 4D/3N See the highlights of Cusco region and learn what made the Incas so remarkable. This tour visits all the highlights in Cusco and the Sacred Valley before making your way by train to the Lost Citadel of the Incas, Machu Picchu. By the end of the 4 days, you will be an expert in Inca History. Let Alpaca Expeditions handle all the logistics and relax and enjoy the splendor of Cusco.
SACRED VALLEY & MACHU PICCHU 2D/1N Sacred Valley of the Incas. Without a doubt one of the most beautiful parts of Cusco and it also has variety of different places to visit. This amazing area is made up of different cities such as Calca, Urubamba, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo.
The Natural Environment of Machu Picchu - From Llamas to Birds, Orchids, & Other Plants
Machu Picchu’s Plants, Flowers, & Birds
Along with Machu Picchu’s ancient history, the area’s flora and fauna is something to be revered. Lush forests and mountain landscapes provide home for over 3,000 orchid varieties alone. A haven for photographers, birdwatchers, and naturalists in general, the unique setting of the Amazonian rainforest provides once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Picture it now – as the birds of Macchu Picchu dash to and fro above you, the flowers and plants of the Incan Trail will surround you with their dazzling beauty, just waiting to be admired.
Why Machu Picchu is a Birdwatching Paradise
Peru is home to 1,800 species of birds, comprising almost 20% of the world’s total bird species. It also has the best climatic conditions for hosting multiple varieties of birds. Additionally, new bird species are still being discovered in Peru’s forests and mountains. As they hike through the different altitudes of the terrain, travelers on the Machu Picchu trek have the opportunity to watch these attractive birds. While trekking through the land of the Inca, hikers observe tanagers, hummingbirds, thick-billed Euphonia, torrent duck, and many indigenous species which are fundamental in the ecosystems around Machu Picchu.
Many birds in Peru are characterized by immense beauty and striking colors. Find some species in lush trees and others hopping on the ground. Look for Peru’s national bird, the cock-of-the-rock. If you are lucky enough to see it perform its courtship ritual dance, it’s a fantastic display. Hopefully, you can spot the Rufous-Collared Sparrow, famous for its distinct vocalizations. Additionally, observe the Band-Tailed Seedeater, which is always spotted in pairs. These are just some of the fascinating birds that the Machu Picchu trek offers. To see a great variety of these birds of Machu Picchu along with beautiful scenery, book a tour with Alpaca Expeditions.
Flowers and Plants You’ll See On the Way to Machu Picchu Peru
The valuable 32,592-hectare reserve has enormous ecological variety, making the Inca Trail a hotspot for scientific interest as well. Because of the humid and mild climate of the famous region, Peru has an estimated 25,000 plant species, which is 10% of all species on the entire planet! In fact, with 84 of the 103 ecological zones existing in the world, the Peruvian flora is one of the most diverse on the planet. The primary forest ecosystem has lush vegetation (such as cedar, romerillo, laurel, among others), shrubs, ferns, and ancient tall palm trees. In higher elevations, endemic mountain species can be found such as the beautiful queñual tree or Polylepis. Learn more about the plants and flowers of Machu Picchu here.
Photo credit: Bamboo Garden
Orchids – the Crown Jewel of Flowers in the Machu Picchu region
The Llamas of Machu Picchu – Their Role in Inca Society
The llamas of Machu Picchu were so important to the Incan society that hunting them was forbidden. Llama herders and breeders held elevated places in the culture, as preservation and the health of the herds directly affected the survival of the people. Disease or poor health of the herd could have catastrophic consequences for the villagers. Llamas were even used by the Inca priests in religious ceremonies.
Domesticated about 4000 years ago by the Incans, alpacas, and llamas are still part of the native culture today. Although they wander free atop the summit and Machu Pichu ruins, farther south, they are herded and used to support the local population. Wool from the animals is used to make sweaters that are thick and warm, with the added benefit of being hypo-allergenic. Not only are the herds still maintained by the native people, but the lean, nutritious meat also feeds many in the nearby urban areas.
Llamas, being herd animals, tend to socialize with each other in a variety of “play,” from neck “hugging” to wrestling, kicking, and spitting. Farmers must be careful not to over-socialize baby llamas with humans, otherwise, the llama will grow up to treat humans in this manner. Their social structure is family, then herd, with ranking within the herd being fluid (although the young are commonly “disciplined” by their elders). Llamas are also very gentle – you can find them outside of Peru in many U.S. petting zoos and farms. They can be easily trained to harness, and are very curious. Photographers at Machu Picchu will find their vacation camera rolls full of llama “photobombs.”
ISO (International Organization for Standardization)
In the pursuit to stand out from the rest, Alpaca Expeditions has obtained four ISOs plus our carbon footprint certificate to date. These achievements result from our efforts to implement the internationally-recognized integrated management system. They also represent our commitment to all of our clients and staff of operating sustainability and responsibility in every way possible.
World Travel Awards
Alpaca Expeditions is internationally recognized as a leading tourism company in Peru. As proof, we have been awarded the World Travel Award for Peru´s Best Tour Operator 2021 for the second time.
Our goal at Alpaca Expeditions is to create the best experience for all of our clients. We create journeys that are to be remembered for a lifetime. Journeys you can be proud of and can share with everybody around you.