Preparing for the trek to Machu Picchu, whichever trail you take, can be overwhelming. There’s a wealth of information on the internet, but sorting through it takes a lot of work and can have you pulling out your hair, leaving you feeling more stressed than excited about your awesome upcoming journey. I want to make things easier for you from beginning to end, so I’ve compiled everything you need to take and to know about hiking to Machu Picchu. And I mean everything: when to book, visas, medication and a downloadable packing list specific to Machu Picchu, Peru.
When to go
Peak season: May to September (especially busy August and September)
Shoulder season: mid-March to May; October to mid-November
Low season: mid-November to mid-March
The Inca Trail is closed every year through the month of February to allow conservation work to take place. So if you were dreaming of a February visit to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail… well, you can’t do it. Sorry.
Generally, the peak season is when most people choose to go: the weather is drier and the temperature is warmer. The low season is the wet season, so although there are few crowds, the trail is much more difficult due to wet and slippery conditions (think mud, lots of mud). That being the case, most people suggest October and May as the best months, striking a more forgiving balance between crowds and weather.
When to book
As with many things, the earlier you book, the better. But there is a restriction on how many visitors are allowed on the Inca Trail per year – that and the fact that it’s so popular means that you’ll need to be quicker than usual when booking a tour. You can get away with booking only three to four months in advance, but you’ll notice that there are significantly fewer dates available. It’s advised that you book at least six months in advance to ensure your place on a tour.
As a general note, you cannot hike the Inca Trail independently, you have to book a tour. No getting around it, daredevils!
- 2-day Inca Trail – a fairly short option, perfect for travellers who want to say they’ve done it but don’t have a lot of time to spend.
- 4-day Inca Trail – this is the most popular amongst travellers.
- Salkantay 5-day Trek – this is the number one alternative to the Inca Trail. The advantage is that fewer people do it and there’s no limit on visitors like there is for the Inca Trail.
- Salkantay 7-day Trek
- 2- or 3-day Lares Trek – this is a bit further away from Machu Picchu but much less crowded and many tours often include a trip to Machu Picchu anyway.
The cost of the trek varies between tour operators, seasons, group size and which trail you’re doing, but you’re looking at spending between US$500-$1500. This will include transport to the trailhead, the guide, trekking permits, Machu Picchu entrance fees, meals, tents and return transportation to Cusco.
You should remember to budget for your time in Cusco before the trek. This will vary depending on your personal preferences, but spending a minimum of USD$35 per day is completely doable.
Tipping on the trail isn’t mandatory but is highly recommended as the porters, cooks and guides are on this hike with you the whole way, even carrying your things in the case of the porters. How much you tip will be dependent on the size of your group and what length of trek you’re doing, but the best way to handle tips is to pool money together with your group and distribute to each person. Make sure you give the tips directly to each person rather than let the guide or cook distribute.
The guide below should give you a rough idea of what to tip while on your trek to Machu Picchu. It’s geared more towards the classic 4-day Inca Trail trek, so if you’re doing a trek of a different length, adjust accordingly:
- Porters: 50-80 soles each
- Cooks: 80-100 soles each
- Guide: 150-200 soles
- Assistant guide: 75-100 soles
Things you need to know
First thing’s first: make sure your passport is valid for at least six months upon entry into Peru. North Americans and most Europeans receive a visa when they arrive in Peru, making pre-planning unnecessary. If you’re unsure, check your embassy’s website.
The main thing to say here is that you should always check with your doctor on matters of health and immunizations or medication. No jabs are legally required for Peru, but sometimes a few are advised, they can include:
- Yellow Fever (this is not required for only Cusco and Machu Picchu)
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
If you’re heading exclusively to Cusco and Machu Picchu, there’s no need to take malaria medication. If you’re doing a larger South America trip or heading into the Peruvian Amazon, then you will and should ask your doctor for advice.
Altitude and You
Considering Cusco is at an elevation of 3,399 metres (11,152 feet) and Machu Picchu is at 2,430 metres (7,972 feet), altitude sickness is something to prepare yourself for. Everyone reacts to changes in altitude differently. These are some of the symptoms you could experience:
- Shortness of breath
While there’s no real ‘cure’ for altitude sickness, there are ways you can prepare:
- Before starting the trek to Machu Picchu, spend a few days in Cusco so you can acclimatize – and take it easy there!
- Drink lots of water
- Take deep breaths
- Avoid alcohol
Of course, we have to state here that this shouldn’t be used as a substitute for a real, professional, qualified doctor. Book an appointment and forward any concerns to them and be safe in the knowledge that you’ve been given advice from the best.
What to put in your daypack
The way the trek works is that the porters will carry the majority of your things, but you still need a smaller daypack (a small backpack or similar) for the day-to-day essentials you’ll need whilst hiking. This should include:
- Rain jacket/poncho
- Water bottle
- Blister pads/bandaids
Top Tips from Bloggers
Don’t think that the Inca Trail is the only way to get to Machu Picchu. We tackled the Lares Trek as we didn’t want to book in advance. It was less crowded and we got to share bread and hot chocolate with local Quechua kids, they were adorable. Oh and don’t forget your passport on Machu Picchu day, like Craig did initially (cue mad dash back to hotel). Remember the Machu Picchu passport stamp too.
– Gemma and Craig, Two Scots Abroad
Get to Machu Picchu right as the gates open, which will give you lots of time to explore the Lost City before the large groups of tourists arrive. Most Inca Trail treks time their arrivals for sunrise, and if you’re just doing a day trip you can catch one of the first buses from Aguas Calientes to enjoy the site mostly to yourself- which means you’ll get photobombed by alpacas, not people! Also, book a hiking permit to climb Huayna Picchu well in advance: it takes a couple hours to get to the top, but the incredible views of the ruins sprawled out below are so worth it!
– Tamara, Globe Guide
If I was doing it again I would make sure I stayed overnight in the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. The town is very touristy but staying would give you more time to take in the majesty of the area. Make sure you wear comfortable clothing; the guides are wonderful and you will learn so much. Take time to sit and reflect, I can’t describe the feeling I had at my first sight of Machu Picchu, it was overwhelming and I am so grateful that I got to see it in my lifetime.
– Rosalind, Frequent Traveller
Make sure you train for the hike at least somewhat before going. I focused my workouts on strengthening my legs and building up my cardio about 4 months prior to my trip, and I’m so glad I did. The hike is so much more enjoyable if you aren’t exhausted while doing it.
– Brittney, Britt and the Benjamins
Machu Picchu is a hard place to get to, it requires planes, trains, and buses to get yourself to this famous monument. But once you’re there, it is truly breathtaking. My best tip for visiting Machu Picchu would be to enter the monument around 3pm and stay until they close at 5pm – because most people have to leave around 2:30pm to make their trains back to Cusco, you’ll have the monument almost to yourself as the early dawn shadows start to fall in the late afternoon and it’s truly magical!
– Casey, Land of Marvels
Altitude dries out your skin, so take a lip balm to soothe chapped lips. Put all your clothes in plastic bags to keep dry, and wear layers as there are drastic temperature changes along the way. Comfortable walking boots are vital, and walking poles are useful to take some pressure off your knees. Take band aids too, as I guarantee you will get blisters! Most importantly, don’t forget your passport, otherwise you won’t be allowed to enter Machu Picchu!
– Claire, Tales of a Backpacker
The classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu might be the hike with the most hype, but don’t forget that there are other – more adventurous – options. Look instead for alternatives such as the Salkantay or Lares, both of which trek through landscapes of sky-piercing mountains and tiny, adobe brick communities before plunging into the sticky humidity of cloud forest and finally ending at South America’s most famous landmark.
You won’t be taking the conventional route to Machu Picchu, but you’ll be surrounded by far fewer hikers and discover a part of Peru that hasn’t changed since the time of the Inca.
– Steph, Worldly Adventurer
Featured image by Geraint Rowland Photography