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
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
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).
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).
Step to it: you’ll be climbing innumerable Inca staircases
Traversing snowy mountain passes and dramatic cloud forests while observing several Inca ruins en route, this mule-assisted camping trek takes a more gruelling ‘back door’ to Machu Picchu. Most tours follow the same route for the first two days of this 60km slog – beginning at the village of Mollepata (2800m), it’s a full day of mostly uphill hiking where you’ll get your first glimpse of Mt Salkantay, one of the holiest apus, or sacred peaks, in the Inca religion.
On day two you’ll reach the highest point of the trek at over 4600m, before descending to a cloud forest campsite. Hikers doing the classic five-day route will hike through the jungle towards Santa Teresa the following day.
On the fourth day the trail continues to Colpani where you’ll stop for lunch before the final 2.5-hour push to Aguas Calientes, where you get to swap your tent for a proper bed. The final day is the same as the Jungle Trek.
Duration: Four to seven days.
Best for: Fit and healthy hikers who are happy to brave the steep paths and chilly nights (it often snows) for some really spectacular views.
Do it: Aforementioned companies all offer the Salkantay Trail, but it’s also worth checking out SAS Travel Peru. For more comfort, consider The Lodge Trek (Journey Latin America). It basically follows the same route, but with guesthouse accommodation and gourmet food.
On track: catch the train back to Cusco
Just beyond the mountains surrounding Cusco’s Sacred Valley lies the little-known Lares Valley, where local life continues much as it has for centuries. This 33km trek usually begins in the village of Lares where you can take a dip in a hot spring before the first afternoon hiking.
Hovering at an altitude higher than that of the Inca Trail but a little lower than the Salkantay Trail, the hiking days on the Lares Route will test your endurance, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular mountain scenery and the rare opportunity to visit several more traditional Quechua communities on the way.
On the third day you’ll descend to the indigenous community of Patacancha, where a jeep will take you to visit the ruins at Ollantaytambo before catching the train to Aguas Calientes. Here you’ll stay in the luxury of hotel accommodation before climbing the Inca staircase with other hiking groups on the final day.
Duration: Four days.
Difficulty: Moderate to tough.
Best for: Fit hikers who really want to get off the beaten track (you may not pass a single gringo en route) and get a taste of indigenous Peruvian life.
Do it: As most operators offer varying itineraries starting at around £255, shop around to find one that suits your needs.Tucan Travel uses llamas instead of donkeys or horses to carry equipment, which ups the authenticity of the experience, while Lares Route specialists Cusco Expeditions only needs a minimum of two people for the trek – perfect for couples.
River deep, mountain high: a walk through the Andes is spectacular
The newest trek on the Inca circuit with a similar elevation to the Lares Route, the Vilcabamba Traverse is based in the region inhabited by the remnants of Inca civilisation until 1572, when the capital Vilcabamba was sacked by the Spanish and left to the jungle.
During this remote, challenging trek starting from Huancacalle (around eight hours from Cusco), you’ll cross the scenic Apurimac River canyon to the remote ruins of Choquequirao (“Cradle of Gold” in Quechua) and hike along original stone Inca highways through the sparsely populated Cordillera Vilcabamba, which looks much the same as when Bingham first explored here a century ago.
You’ll also cut through several diverse bio-zones, from dry scrub to lush cloud forest and puna, a high-altitude grassland, bedding down at Aguas Calientes the night before tackling Machu Picchu itself.
Duration: Generally five days, though some operators offer longer routes covering up to 100km.
Best for: Those looking for the most demanding and least touristy hike of them all.
Do it: Adventure travel specialists Apus Peru offers a five-day route starting at £540.
When to go: The best time to trek to Machu Picchu is between May and September when conditions are fairly dry and sunny. However, June, July and August can get cold at night, so bring a good quality sleeping bag.
Currency: £1 = PEN 4.36 (Peruvian Nuevo Sol)
Accommodation: You’ll get camping or guesthouse accommodation as part of your trek. In Cusco, the gateway town to Machu Picchu, try Wild Rover, another branch of the infamous party hostel in La Paz. Dorm beds from £5pn.
Getting there: Fly from London Heathrow to Cusco, via Miami and Lima, from £650 return with Iberia.
Photos: Sarah Reidmedia, Embassy of Peru, Apus Adventure, Facebook, Getty