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Travel Guide: Big trip to Machu Picchu: The 5 best trekking routes through the Andes

24th Aug 2013 2:33pm | By Sarah Reid

There’s more than one way to earn a look at Machu Picchu.

Watching the sunrise over Machu Picchu is the ultimate bucket list experience. But with so many Andean treks available these days, it’s more confusing than ever trying to nail down which one to do. From the action-packed Jungle Trek to the little known Vilcabamba Traverse, TNT has got the lowdown on the most rewarding routes to the world’s most famous Inca site.

Keep in mind that no matter which tour you opt for, only 400 daily visitors are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu – the ruins on the small green peak that overlooks Machu Picchu in most photos – so you’ll need to book your ticket in advance, or start queuing at the ruins by around 6am for last-minute tickets. 

Crafty: traditional dress in the Chinchero district

Inca Trail

Combining beautiful mountain scenery with a stunning mix of Inca paving stones, ruins and tunnels, the classic Inca Trail is the best known route to Machu Picchu, but it’s hardly a walk in the park. The 42km camping trek begins at the terraced ruins of Ollantaytambo (2792m), from where you’ll visit archaeological sites Llactapata, Qoriwayrachina and Wallabamba before reaching the highest point of the trek at Dead Woman’s Pass (4125m).

On the last day of heavy trekking you’ll visit Phuyupatamarca, probably the most impressive ruin en route, and a magnificent cloud forest full of orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and flowers, before reaching the final campsite. Then on the last morning it’s only a 1.5hr hike to the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu, where you’ll spend the day before taking an Inca staircase down to the village of Aguas Calientes for the train back to Cusco.

Duration: Four to five days.

Difficulty: Moderate to tough.

Best for: Those who don’t mind battling the crowds along this well-worn but challenging trail for the classic Machu Picchu experience.

Do it: As only 500 hikers are permitted on the Inca Trail each day, it’s generally necessary to book the trek at least three months in advance. Dozens of local operators (try Llama Path) and international companies (such as Geckos Adventures) offer the trek starting from around £330 with a maximum group size of 16. 


Zip it: writer Sarahon the Jungle Trail

Jungle Trek

A backpacker favourite, this route costs around a third of the classic Inca Trail and combines around 20km of jungle trekking with adventure sports. On day one you’ll drive through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to the start point at the snow-capped peak of Abra Malaga (4200m).

First, you’ll descend to 2000m by downhill bike, followed by an optional afternoon of white water rafting before bunking down in a hostel in the village of Santa Maria.

On day two you’ll hike a 16km section of an Inca pathway (of which there are thousands – stretching all the way north to Ecuador and south to Chile) ending at the Santa Theresa hot springs, then wake on the third day for a spot of zip lining and a relatively flat hike to Aguas Calinetes. Here, you’ll have an early night before rising at 4am to follow American explorer Hiram Bingham’s 1911 scramble up the 1726 stairs leading to Machu Picchu (or opting to take a bus) before catching the train back to Cusco.

Duration: Four days (though it can be done in three, starting from Santa Maria). 

Difficulty: Moderate.

Best for: Budget travellers with a sense of adventure, and without the flexibility to book the classic Inca Trail in advance.

Do it: This trek can generally be booked at the last minute through travel agents in Cusco’s Centro Historico and many city hostels, including Loki. Expect to pay around £130 for the whole tour, not including white water rafting (£25) and zip lining (£20).