Discovering Machu Picchu and Cusco, Peru: A Traveler’s Guide
A step-by-step guide on how to hike the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu
How to Hike to Machu Picchu
Things to do before and after your hike to Machu Picchu and in Cusco, Peru
If you’re looking for an extraordinary travel destination with an intriguing history that dates back to the 15th-century – then Machu Picchu is the perfect place for you. This archaeological gem is guaranteed to leave you speechless. If you’re physically fit and up for an adventure, I recommend taking the 4 day/3 night trek hike along the Inka trail to this to this historical landmark. Along the way, you’ll discover countless impressive ancient Incan ruins that lead up to the grand Machu Picchu.
Plus you’ll see amazing sights throughout the Andean Mountains and get a feel for what the Inkans encountered on a daily basis. It’s just spectacular and incredible and an experience like no other. Very highly recommended. Keep reading for details of this unbelievable place.
Before your hike, be sure to explore Cusco and take advantage of all it has to offer. From the bustling markets and colorful streets to the delicious local cuisine and cultural experiences, there’s something for everyone. Don’t forget to check out the various museums and historical landmarks.
Trekking to Machu Picchu
The most popular trek, the one that I did, is 4 days of hiking and 3 nights of camping. The hike is a total of ~28 miles from 8,923 feet with max altitude of 13,799 feet. The experience will immerse you in the Inka’s astounding history including mind-blowing ruins such as Sayacmarca, Conchamarka, Phuyupatamarka, Intipata, and Wiñaywayna as well as other spectacular views along the way.
Note that this is a challenging hike. If you are in decent shape then you can do it, and it won’t be super difficult, but it’s definitely pretty difficult and that’s due to altitude and a lot of stairs. As in a massive amount of stairs! You will be on the Inka Trail which is basically a stone staircase leading up the Andes mountains, down through valleys and over 2 mountain passes (one at ~14,000′).
I found the elliptical to be a helpful workout ahead of time, as it seems to simulate hiking with poles. Stay in Cuzco for a minimum of 2 days ahead of time to acclimate to the very high (11,152′) elevation before the hike. Your body will thank you for that.
Before you go: You must obtain a permit to hike to Machu Picchu as the Peruvian government limits the amount of tourists for ecological reasons. This can be obtained through Alpaca Expeditions which is the outfitter that I very highly recommend. Make reservations 6 months to a year ahead of time.
Alpaca Expeditions: The government of Peru requires a guide to hike to Machu Picchu. I did my research, as there are many companies out there, and made sure that the company that I used treats their employees well, as this is a problem in Peru, unfortunately.
I cannot say enough good things about Alpaca Expeditions. Our guides were very passionate about their homeland and were enthusiastic about sharing all the history along the way. Plus they were extremely professional and helpful with all the logistics of taking a group of strangers into the wild for 4 days.
Not only were our guides amazing, but our porters were SUPERHUMAN. The gentleman porters (many of whom are Peruvian farmers) carry an enormous amount of food ingredients, kitchen supplies, heavy water, our tents, large tables, chairs for each person, trekkers’ personal items (in a duffel bag that they have assigned to you), etc. They were absolutely incredible!
And the food – oh my – delicious and plentiful culinary delights and better than any dinner at a fancy restaurant. Seriously.
You might be wondering what you bring along on the trek. Your day pack (~25L). That’s it. The porters carry your tent (it’s a nice tent and they set it up for you each night before you arrive at the camp destination), your sleeping bags and sleeping air mat, water for you to fill up your water bladders and/or water bottles in the morning and at lunch, your meals, and your duffel bag with your clothes and toiletries.
Plus these amazing porters set up a warm (!) water basin, and place it at the opening of your tent, for you to wash up. Really.
What to bring from home to hike to Machu Picchu:
day pack, water bladder, layers of clothing (as you’ll be taking clothes off and on all day), fleece, hiking boots, hat, backpack rain cover, large plastic ziplock-type bags for your clothes (try Walmart), small toilet paper, sunscreen, insect repellent, Band Aids, electrolyte powder. You can rent, from Alpaca Expeditions, a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and hiking poles.
Travel: To begin this incredible experience, fly to Lima, Peru and connect to Cuzco. It’s just a one hour flight. Take a taxi from the airport to the hotel*. (Remember to get Peruvian Solas from your bank, at home, before you depart.) Also, your checked luggage must be picked up at the Lima airport and re-checked to Cuzco. This is usually seamless but make sure it happens.
Cuzco (also, Cusco), Peru “starting point” to Machu Picchu Trek
Cuzco is the former center of the Inkan empire. It is now the “launching point” for a trip to Machu Picchu. You should spend a good 2 days in Cuzco to acclimate to the altitude. No need for a car – just take a taxi from the airport and most other sites are walkable or include transportation.
Accommodations in Cusco:
*Hotel: I highly recommend the Andean Wings Hotel via Hotels.com. The outside look of this hotel is totally deceiving. The inside is divine! An oasis of fountains and Peruvian-style comfort with a beautiful restaurant in the center. And the price is right!
Plus they will store your excess luggage if you take the several day trek to Machu Picchu. Also this hotel is a 4-minute walk to the Alpaca Expeditions’ office for the pre-trip meeting and also walking distance to the Plaza de Armas town square, museums, churches and pubs.
Food and Drink in Cusco
We really enjoyed Paddy’s Irish Pub which is the highest Irish pub in the world and cozy and a good place to meet people from around the globe. Walkable from the hotel.
There are many local restaurants and and bars right around the Plaza de Armas. Walkable from hotel.
Do help yourself to the coca tea which is helpful for easing yourself into the altitude. This tea is plentiful all around Cuzco. I drank this tea frequently and had absolutely no issues with altitude at all, and I felt completely normal. However, if your career/job is one where you get drug tested then you may want to pass on the coca tea as it has a small quantity of a derivative of cocaine. (No, you don’t get high from the tea or feel any effects whatsoever, but it may show up on a blood test.)
It’s not recommended to eat any of the local delicacies prior to the big hike, just in case… This means no guinea pig, ceviche or bbq kebabs. Enjoy it after the hike!
Things to do in/near Cuzco:
(all walkable from hotel except archeological tour)
Cuzco archeological sites 1/2 day tour. Saqsayhuaman, Tambomachay, Pukapukara and Q’enqo. The hotel can book you a tour to see and tour all these interesting Inka sites in town. The tour operator will pick you up at the hotel.
San Pedro Market – An authentic, large, public market jam packed with vendors selling all kinds of local fruits, vegetables, hanging raw meats, handmade clothing (from llamas and alpacas), wooden items, gifts, etc. Plus delicious juices, pastries, bread, and prepared food including empanadas! A must do! It’s walkable from the hotel.
Plaza de Armas – Nice area to sit and people watch – lots of activity as it’s the cultural center of the city. Each day at noon there is a ceremony for the changing of the guard at the presidential palace. The plaza is surrounded by shops, restaurants and bars all authentically Peruvian.
Korikancha/Qortkancha (Sun Temple) – This was the most sacred Inka temple but was mostly destroyed by the Spaniards and the Santo Domingo church was built where it stood. It’s now a combo historical site.
Machu Picchu Hike
Alpaca Expeditions will work out all the details of each day with you in the meeting and via email. Our hike went like this:
Day 1 of Inka Trail Hike: 8.7 miles. 7.5 hour hike.
Met Alpaca Expedition van (they picked us up from our hotel) at 4:20am. We picked up some of our fellow hikers and drove the 3 hours, in a very nice shuttle bus, to “km. 82” Total of 15 trekkers in our group.
Day 2 of Inka Trail Hike: 10 miles. 9.5 hour hike.
4 hours ascending to Dead Woman’s Pass @ 13,779 feet (a huge feat!).
Then 2 hours descending through the Pacaymayu Valley with a delightful lunch (tablecloths, real plates and silverware!).
The next 2 hours ascending to the 2nd pass (Runkuracay) with amazing ruins of Runcu Raccay and Sayacmarca. Our guide was extremely knowledgable about all the history.
The last 2 hours descending to our tents, which were already set up, and dinner was waiting.
Day 3 of Inka Trail Hike: 6.5 miles. 6 hour hike.
We went through the “Peruvian flats” which means frequent ascents and descents.
Day 4 of Inka Trail Hike: (Machu Picchu arrival day!) 2 hours of hiking.
Woke at 2:50am and waited about 1/2 hour at the checkpoint to be the first hikers into Machu Picchu!
Hiked to the sun gate entrance (the traditional entrance of the Inkas) and trekked another 20 minutes to the glorious Machu Picchu!
There are so many wonders of this Inkan trail. Fortunately, our guide was willing to spend time explaining what is known about the Inkan history. Even modern engineers marvel at how precise and exact the Inkans were in their calculations and their building skills.
Our hike took us through many other Inka archeological sites and interesting ecological areas including the Peak at Phuyupatamarka, the Winay Wayna Inka site and the High Cloud Forest.
As I wrote earlier, the porters and guides for Alpaca Expeditions were extraordinary people who more than exceeded our expectations.
The porters – loading up and carrying all of our things (plus food and heavy water) up and down along the demanding Inka trail, setting up camp ahead of us including putting up our tents, making our delicious meals, and getting us ready for our next trek. Extraordinary!
The guides – taking care of all the logistical aspects of the hike with deep knowledge of the Inkan and Peruvian history and their willingness to share it.
**If you are not up for this hiking experience then you can take a train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes and then get on a bus to take you up to Machu Picchu.
Helpful links to book your travel here