Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca citadel in Peru, was so well-placed that the Spanish Conquistadores never actually found it when they arrived in Peru. It was hidden for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham and later declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983. With thousands of visitors scrambling to visit this lost city each year, the paths leading to the sacred place are no longer shrouded in mystery. Here are the different ways to reach Machu Picchu today.
The Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is the most authentic trail to Machu Picchu and one of the most iconic trekking experiences in the world. It is part of an extensive Andean network of roads constructed by the Incas. Spanning 30,000 km, the Qhapaq Ñan was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2014. With a length of 45 km and a maximum altitude of 4,200 meters, the Inca Trail passes through many different types of Andean environments, including cloud forests and alpine tundra, with several Inca archaeological sites along the way. It is the only trail that ends at the Sun Gate, Inti Punku, the entry point to Machu Picchu, from which hikers enjoy a spectacular view over the sacred citadel.
The ‘classic’ Inca Trail is four days and three-night hike, and you must trek with an authorized operator. To reduce the damage from over-use, authorities have restricted the number of people allowed on the trail to 500 per day, roughly 200 trekkers and 300 guides and porters carrying the camping equipment. As a result, permits for the Inca Trail sell out very quickly, and a trek with one of 200 licensed companies, such as Valencia Travel, should be booked six months or so in advance (more in peak season).
Two-Day Inca Trail / Short Inca Trail
Getting to Machu Picchu via the short Inca Trail is the shorter version of the Classic Inca Trail, with just one day of hiking the trail and the 2nd day visiting Machu Picchu. You will take a train towards Aguas Calientes but disembark before Aguas Calientes at KM 104. The train journey is spectacular as you wind through the nooks of the Andes Mountains. From KM 104, the hike will take you through The Andes on ascents and descents around this mind-blowing mountain range. This intermediate hike enters the classic Inca Trail on day three. With plenty of rugged terrains, you will visit Chachabamba and Wiñay Wayna archaeological sites along the route to The Inti Punku sun gate, with impressive flora and staggering views from the top of the world in Peru. This option includes a night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes before visiting the archaeological magnificence of Machu Picchu the following day.
The Lares Trek
The Lares Trek to Machu Picchu is a four-day/3-night trek involving camping for two nights and a hotel stay the night before Machu Picchu. This is an excellent option when no permits exist for the Classic Inca Trail. The Lares Trek starts with a bus journey to the Lares thermal springs, where you can soak in the warm waters before you begin the hike.
The first day’s hiking will take you to the Andean weaving community of Huacawasi. You can try weaving using conventional techniques or interact with local children before dinner and have a good rest. The second day is the most challenging days hike. This is the hardest day as the trek involves a climb to 4650m elevation to the Condor’s Pass before descending to the village of Mantanay to our campsite. Day 3 is relatively easy, hiking to Yanahuara for lunch, then onto Ollantaytambo to take the train to Aguas Calientes. The 4th day is the visit to Machu Picchu.
The popular Salkantay trek offers a similarly diverse trekking experience with different geographical terrains, ranging from dry environments and snowy peaks to tropical cloud forests. The biggest highlight of the 55km trek is crossing the Salkantay Pass at a lung-busting 4600 m elevation and enjoying spectacular views over the valley below and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Starting in Mollepata, the trek first visits the magnificent Humantay glacial lake and finishes in Aguas Calientes, where hikers stay for the night before visiting Machu Picchu the next day. On day four, you can also visit the stunning site of Llactapata for your first impressive views over Machu Picchu.
For visitors who are short on time or prefer an easier way to get to Machu Picchu, a train trip to Aguas Calientes is the ideal solution. It is also the only option for travelers to avoid an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes. However, we do recommend a night in Aguas Calientes to avoid what would be a somewhat “hurried” trip to the ancient Inca citadel. There are many train options. The more economically priced Expedition trains are the tourist class trains and the Vistadome option, which has large panoramic windows and skylights through which passengers can enjoy the stunning vistas of the Sacred Valley. The Belmond Hiram Bingham is the luxury level “orient express-style” train, including gourmet food, drinks and onboard entertainment. Running between Poroy and Machu Picchu, the service offered during the three-hour train journey doesn’t come cheap but is worth the splurge as you visit the wonder of the world in the utmost style and comfort.
‘Machu Picchu by Car’ is an option for travelers with limited time and money who wish to get to Machu Picchu without being part of a guided tour. The name is misleading as travelers are not driven to Machu Picchu or Aguas Calientes. Dozens of minibusses ferry passengers to nearby Hidroelectrica, a hydroelectric power station at the end of a long, narrow dirt road in the Urubamba Valley. Hidroelectrica is connected to Aguas Calientes via a train line, but many prefer to complete the route on foot. This method has recently been formalized, and you can now only head to Machu Picchu by car with an authorized travel agency. It takes two to three hours to complete, and the hike is easy across even terrain, but in beautiful scenic surroundings, no less. Following the train tracks, as they snake through the Urubamba Valley alongside the river, hikers first circumvent Machu Picchu Mountain and Wayna Picchu to their right and then circle past Putucusi Mountain to their left until they reach Aguas Calientes. You can also take a train from hydroelectric if you don’t fancy the hike.