Peru: Hiking to Machu Picchu

Written by Jack Hyer

Every generation seems to build a fascination with a region around the world which acts as a microcosmic symbol of travel. In the 80’s it was the Eiffel Tower and Western Europe, In the 90’s it was the Great Wall and Eastern Asia, in the 00’s it was New Zealand with its LOTR inspired landscapes. Today, it seems Peru is the new “hot spot.”

At first thought of Peru, most people jump conjure up thoughts of Machu Picchu and other jungle covered ruins. Although that is indeed one of the greatest allures, Peru has far more to offer. Although getting there can cost a pretty penny, getting around Peru is beautiful, safe, cheap and exciting. In this entry, we’ll take a look quick look at the tips and tricks to get the most out of Peru and a highlight of the itinerary I took in the summer of 2016.

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Transportation

The work put into traveling to and getting around Peru will fully depend on how extensive of an itinerary you chose to undertake. If you’re looking to see the primary highlights of Cusco, Sacsayhuaman, and Machu Picchu, then it’s quite simple. If you’re looking to expand to Lima, Huacachina, and Lake Titicaca, then you’re going to be either hopping on a series of flights, buses or trains. The trains are quite mature, but they may slow you down when snaking through the Andes. If you’re looking for a shoestring trip but have time to spare, then this is more of a fun experience than an obstacle as most overnight trips cost less than $40 and can take you across the country. Navigating the major routes are fairly simple at ad hoc and its not hard to find ticket vendors on the side of any street, but if you’re a bit more of a Type A planner I recommend https://www.seat61.com/. This site not only will outline the prices and routes of trains in Peru but all over the globe.

The most common ways to get around within at town are on foot and by taxi which are extremely affordable.

Prepping for the Hike

While prepping to Hike, your most likely going to pass a few days in Cusco. Cusco on its own is a major attraction and full of great side activites. Although I could write on and on about the activities in Cusco, I’ll  keep this brief and say that my recommendations are to see Sacsayhuaman (ancient ruins up the mountain from the town), the Chocolate Museum where you taste and can make dozens of fresh chocolate treats (Peru is one of the world top quality Chocolate producers), and the Plaza de Armas which is in the center of the town.

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Equipment Breakdown

Most people don’t arrive in Peru with a full suite of hiking equipment, but this does not pose a problem. In fact, I was glad to find hundreds of knock off North Face and Patagonia products for a fraction of the price (but equally effective) all over the town. I suggest buying high quality hiking boots prior to the trek, but you can still find fairly ok boots in the knock off stores.

Assuming you arrive with nothing more than jeans and a few shirts (like I did) here is what I you can find (and what I purchased) for the hike:

  • Knock-off North face down Jacket: $30
  • Knock-off North face sweater: $30
  • Knock-off Patagonia Hiking Pants: $10
  • Gloves: $10
  • Warm hiking socks: $10
  • Alpaca scarf: $20

All in all, for $110 I was set for the colder climes of the hike.

Altitude

Most people underestimate the side effects and issues of altitude sickness which can be a threat to some while traveling in Peru. It takes a few days in Cusco to adjust to the elevation of 10,000 feet, so I suggest you take it easy the first few days. Its recommended you see a medical professional prior to the trip and request prescription of one of the many different medicines to help your body adjust. I took Diamox a few days before and every day during my trip.

Hiking

In my opinion, the most exciting and memorable way to arrive to Machu Picchu is through a multi-day guided hike. Most of these cost between $200 and $800 dollars depending on the level of luxury, duration, and group size. There are two main routes that take you from the foothills to the town of Aguas Caliente, the tourist tows at the base of the mountains.

Inca Trail

The most common hiking route is the Inca Trail. Most people tend to take the 4 day, 3 night trek which starts by climbing from the town of Wayllabamba to “Dead Woman’s Pass” at 13,000 feet, then descends to Aguas Caliente for two days. This route is famed for the biodiversity, Indiana-Jones-esque bridges, and the final stretch of stone pathway laid by the Incans themselves. Generally, the Inca Trail has higher traffic and sells out quicker than the alternative hikes. Although I opted for another hike, I’ve heard from people that although it was an amazing experience, the number of people on the trek subtracted from the experience.

The Salkantay Trail

For those willing to push their body a bit harder and have the equipment sufficient to weather the cold, the Salkantay Trail offers a uniquely different experience than the Inca Trail. Although both treks have a similar “final stretch” when coming into Aguas Caliente, the Salkantay Trail takes you to higher elevations and feels a bit more adventurous.

This trek starts off at 10,000 feet on a grassy plateau at the base of Salkantay Mountain. You overnight in glass “igloo” domes that grant you an amazing first night under the stars. For those looking for some unique cosmic photography, you’ll rarely see an unclear night. This trek is usually 5 days and 4 nights, although I’ve heard of those who opt for a 7 day trip instead.

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The first day starts off being dropped off more or less on the side of a road on a cliff where all the equipment is loaded up and you pack up your daily essentials. From this drop off point, you hike approximately 10 miles to the base camp where you’ll find a warm and locally cooked meal and “Coca tea.” Yes, that type of Coca leaf. After dinner, the entire group is strongly advised to opt for a second, 2 hour hike before sunset up a very steep, 1000 foot mountain face to a glacial lake. Although the glacial lake offers an amazing and unique landscape, the real purpose of this is to exercise and adapt your lungs to the elevation before the second day.

The second day of the hike starts at around 4 in the morning, long before sunrise, to a cup of hot Coca tea and a light breakfast. For most, a light breakfast is sufficient since the altitude all but numbs your appetite. By 4:45, you’re off and hiking at below freezing temperatures up a narrow pathway with your group of 8-12 hikers. You’ll then hike until roughly 1:00 PM at which point you’ll reach roughly 16,000 feet on the snowy mountain pass to the north of the Salktantay Mountain. Some people may feel altitude sickness during this day, so they have mule rides available for roughly $30.

Once in the overpass, you take a short break, take some photos, and then descend for 2 hours into what I believe to be one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever seen. What starts off as a snowy over-pass becomes a rocky desert, then finally transforms into a high alpine plateau with threaded streams akin to the highlands of Scotland. Its only then that you sit down and enjoy your second meal.

After this meal, you’ll further descend another 4,000 feet from alpine fauna to a full jungle village sitting on a river.

The first 2 days of the hike are what most would consider the most arduous, but also the most rewarding. The following three days consist of following a beautiful roaring river through a canyon to the town of Aguas Caliente. Most treks will offer 1 or 2 side activities per day. In our trek these options were cross-canyon ziplining and a hot water springs, both of which we took up on.

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Arriving in Aguas Caliente and Machu Picchu

 Once in Aguas Caliente, most Treks will reserve a hotel room for you for the night. This gives you the chance to clean up, change, and get any gadgets in order for a full day of photos. Although its tempting to sleep in, you’ll need to a make a choice as to whether you want to get the “sunrise” at Machu Picchu or arrive when its already full of tourists. I STRONGLY advise waking up at 3am, getting in line for the bus pickup and being first in line. Although the buses don’t arrive and don’t pick you up until 6, the line becomes enormously long with nearly a thousand people eagerly waiting.

In the center of Aguas Caliente, there is a single bus stop location. At 6am, roughly 7 Greyhound buses arrive and take the first 300 people up to Machu Picchu. Its these 300 people that will get to see Machu Picchu at its best. Absent of tourists, quiet and with a slow sunrise over the mountains. You’ll actually be let in the park around 6:30.

You don’t necessarily have to take the bus. You also have the option to hike up the mountain, but this isn’t a “hike” like most the treks. It’s a fairly mundane, 90 minute climb up what amounts to be a staircase.

An important thing to keep in mind is that Machu Picchu is starting to deteriorate due to tourism and the UNESCO organization has decided to limit the number of daily entrants to 2500. This means being an early bird on the bus may not be enough. If you chose to do a Trek, your guide will be able to purchase and reserve your ticket in advance, but if you risk it you may end up in Aguas Caliente waiting for an opening.

I hope this post can gave you better understanding of how to visit Machu Picchu and the various ways to trek there. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for my future posts on how to travel Belize and Guatemala.

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