“Lost City of the Incas,” one of the seven wonders of the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; whatever you’ve heard Machu Picchu referred to know that “magical” is probably the best way to describe it. That sounds pretty cliche, right? But it’s true. The entire Inca Trail hike was nothing short of a life-changing experience. Arriving at Machu Picchu gave me this feeling, this extraordinary feeling I can’t really put into words. It may have been an adventure high with a mix of the high elevation and coca leaves but it was truly enchanting. If you’re reading this you’re probably planning your own Machu Picchu experience. Read on and I’ll share my guide to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, including my packing list and tips/tricks to making your adventure that much more amazing.
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Inca Trail Weather
First things first: when to go. What’s the best weather for the Machu Picchu hike? There are two seasons in Peru: the wet season and dry season. The wet season is November to March and the dry season is April to October. However, the Inca Trail hike itself will take you through a variety of different climates. Occasional rains even in the dry months is normal in some areas. The rain is the heaviest is in February however the trail is usually closed for maintenance the entire month. The best hiking weather is June through August however, this is peak season which tends to be the busiest time. If you’re looking to beat the crowds, try the shoulder season months of April, May, September or October. I went at the end of March to early April and only experienced a small amount of rain on the trail, which again is completely normal.
How to Get to Machu Picchu
Now that we know the best time to visit Machu Picchu, let’s talk logistics because you’re probably wondering how to get to Machu Picchu or which airport is closest to Machu Picchu. Cusco, Peru is the gateway city to Machu Picchu and many other popular Peruvian mountains. In fact, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities in or near Cusco. For the “Machu Picchu” part of your trip, you’ll want to be in Cusco. Cusco has a small international airport, Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport (CUZ). If you’re flying from outside South America your best bet will be to fly into Lima, Peru, Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM) – where you may want to stay a few days – then purchase your flight in and out of Cusco separately.
I recommend staying in Lima for a couple of days and getting acclimated to the elevation change. Plus, it’s a beautiful metropolitan city with amazing food so don’t miss out on all the good eats. Lima and Cusco are vastly different but equally wonderful.
Hiking the Inca Trail and Permits
So now we know when to go and how to get there, let’s talk about how to hike to Machu Picchu. There are two ways of getting to the world wonder: by train or by foot. By train is the easy way. You take a PeruRail train into Aguas Calientes then a shuttle bus up to Machu Picchu. By foot is the adventurous way and there are a variety of different trails you can choose from. Most visitors, including myself, opted for the classic Inca Trail. The Inca Trail is 26 miles long and takes you through the same route the Incas took to get to the Lost City. You will pass through various archaeological sites and hike four different mountains.
Hiking the Inca Trail must be done through a tour operator. I did my hike with Alpaca Expeditions and had a wonderful experience. Rates vary depending on the company, what they offer and if it’s a group tour or private tour. My friends and I had planned our trip months ahead of time. And we began speaking with Alpaca Expeditions six months before and gave our deposits for the hike five months before our trip. Putting down a security deposit allows the tour operator to apply for your hiking permit. And giving your deposit sooner is better because it will place you first in line with that operator for the dates you’ve requested.
Permits for the entire year are released in the middle of January. This doesn’t mean they’re all sold out in January but if you’re looking to go during a busy time permits for those dates may not be available if you wait until after January. There are only 500 permits for each day on the Inca Trail. Only about 200 of those permits are allocated for tourists. The other 300 permits are for guides, cooks, and porters.
Getting To the Inca Trail, Getting Back to Cusco and Packing Details
Most tour operators will include picking you up via a shuttle bus from your hotel or hostel in Cusco so you won’t have to worry about transportation. Many of the hotels and hostels also offer luggage storage but it’s important to check upon making your reservations. You’ll only want to take your day pack and your belongings that the porters will carry for you during your Machu Picchu trip and leave the rest in storage. We stayed at Tierra Viva Cusco Centro and I absolutely loved my stay there. They offered luggage storage and had excellent customer service.
Alpaca Expeditions gave us a briefing the night before our hike and they went over important information and answered questions before our Inca Trail journey had started. This is also when we paid the remaining amount of what we owed. We were also given duffel bags to pack our belongings that the porters would be carrying for us. The maximum weight allowed in your duffel bag is 7 kg/14 lbs. If you’re renting a sleeping bag and/or air mattress the weight of these items will also be included in 7 kg limit.
Remember that what you pack in your duffel bag will be with the porters all day and will not be returned until you get to your first camping site, so pack all that you need in your daypack.
Machu Picchu Packing List:
Daypack (18-25 liter backpack):
•3-liter water bladder
Platypus is a great brand and their bladders are the easiest to clean!
•Waterproof rain jacket
Make sure whatever you use is indeed waterproof and not just water-resistant
•Headlamp (with extra batteries)
Black Diamond is a reputable brand and this one emits 300 lumens (that’s BRIGHT!!)
I always have my GoPro on me! And a selfie stick 🙂
•Plastic bag for trash
•Mini first-aid kit with a few band-aids, painkillers, “poop medicine” aka diarrhea pills, altitude medicine
Your guide will most likely have a complete first aid kit so just take what you personally need.
•Passport (you need this for the beginning of the trail)
•Cash to tip porters/cook/guide, and to buy chicha (Peruvian beer), or use the toilets/ buy snacks (first day on the trail and at Machu Picchu), and to buy souvenirs (when you reach Machu Picchu)!
Pack for porters:
•Quick-dry tops (3-4)
A couple of tanks and at least one long sleeve top
•Base layer top (for colder months)
I swear by this one because of it’s “omni-heat” technology. It reflects your body heat which helps to keep you warm.
•Waterproof hiking pants (an absolute must if you’re doing the trail during the wet season. I did without them and I was fine but I went at the beginning of the dry season)
•Quick-dry undies (4)
•Quick-dry sports bar (3-4)
•Hiking boots (broken in, do not take a new pair to the trail)
This is the boot that I used n the trail and I still use today (three years later). They’re a bit more expensive than the average boot but I had never had a blister and they’ve been the most comfortable boot for me.
•Lightweight sandals (to wear at camp)
•Beanie to keep warm at night and on the trail
I love these beanies because you’re able to keep your hair up.
•Moleskin to prevent blisters (put on/readjust each morning)
•Small travel towel
•Sleeping bag (rated at least 20 degrees)
If you get cold easily, pack some hand warmers. I keep these in my pockets in the morning when it’s cold and in my sleeping bag at night. You’re not supposed to keep them in your sleeping bag but it’s always done the trick for me. The brand I use is Grabber.
Going the Extra Mile… Add-on Hike
If you’re like me and have to get the extra mile in then you can opt for an additional hike. Huayna Picchu is 2,720 metres/8,920 ft above sea level and 360 metres/1,180 ft higher than Machu Picchu. It’s about a 45-minute hike going up and about an hour going down. It’s a steep climb but the views are astonishing.
Huayna Picchu in Quechua means “young peak.” It rises over Machu Picchu and is the highest point in classic Machu Picchu photos. You will have a similar view from the Sun Gate, the “entrance” to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail, where you’ll see Machu Picchu for the first time. However, Huayna Picchu is more dramatic of a view. Space is limited and if you’re considering this hike you’ll want to advise your tour operator before permits are released.
After your trek
You just trekked to Machu Picchu, what are you going to do next? Many tour operators will include your bus ticket down to Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machupicchu. There you can eat in the town, go shopping and take the train to Ollantaytambo. After the train, you’ll more than likely be picked up by your tour operator and taken to your hotel in Cusco.
Tour operators also give you the option to stay in Aguas Calientes. It’s a sleepy town and happens to be on the expensive side for tourists. My friends and I considered staying one night but expenses started adding up and we decided that we would spend the extra day in Cusco. I don’t regret this decision at all but next time I’m splurging!
All in all the Machu Picchu trek was an amazing experience I recommend to anyone with an appreciation for the outdoors.
If you want to see a glimpse of what the Inca Trail is like, check out my video here:
If you’re looking for things to do in Cusco, Peru, check out this video:
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