Spectacular views, rich regional history, the lingering mystery around the “lost” city of the Incas*, who could resist a visit to Machu Picchu?
But planning such a trip? Almost as daunting as carving a city out of the top of a mountain in the middle of the Andes, right?
Step 1: To hike or not to hike… and how much hiking are we talking about?
You’ve got all kinds of options; it’s just a question of how much time you want to spend hoofing it on the trail. To get from Cusco to Machu Picchu, there’s everything from a 2-day to a 10-day trek. Every tour company offers different variations for different prices with different styles (for example some include biking).
The hike is no picnic (though there may be some picnicking on the hike); you will change elevation by several thousand feet. You will arrive at a peak soaked with sweat, your lungs burning, your thighs refusing to climb one more stair. You will turn a corner and what will be awaiting you? More stairs. When you are done ascending a mountain, a brutal descent down bone-crunchingly uneven Inca steps will immediately follow. Of course, your struggle will be accompanied by National Geographic-worthy views of the Andes, jaunts through ruins buried in cloud forest vegetation, and the satisfaction of knowing that, like Hiram Bingham in 1911, you walked to lost city.
Does that sound miserable? A train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes followed by a cushy bus up the mountain will get you there in a jiffy. No stairs for you.
Step 2: Despite that description, I want to hike. What’s next?
If you plan on hiking the traditional Inca Trail (usually four days and between $400 and $600, all included), register five months in advance. The Peruvian government limits the number of boots on the ground to preserve the trail, and your tour company will secure your permit once you’ve paid your deposit.
Note: Other “alternative”, but equally beautiful treks like the Salcantay Trail can be reserved with less advance planning.
Picking a trek company is up to you. Every travel site, like Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor, will recommend a few companies. Look for companies whose websites are a) comprehensive and clear about what is included in your fee and b) lay out a clear itinerary for the trip. My recommendation is Wayki Trek, an indigenously-owned Cusco company, but there are many excellent options.
Step 3: Holy sh**, I’m hiking the Inca Trail, what do I wear?
Depends how stinky you want to be, and what you’re willing to carry! For most groups, porters will carry tents, food, and camping supplies, and you will carry your personal items. Sleeping bags and mats depend on the company, so check what’s included in your porter’s haul.
Bare minimum, you need one pair of hiking shorts/pants, two hiking tops, and a set of dry clothes you’ll sleep in every night (long underwear, a fleece, a hat, and gloves). You’ll trade out the tops as you sweat through them (dry the wet one in the sun at lunch) and look forward to your dry clothes each night like you’ve never looked forward to anything before. Bring at least two pairs of sock-liners (purchasable at any outdoor store) and two pairs of hiking socks.
If you’re willing to increase the weight of your pack, add two more tops (pro tip: yoga tops with built-in sports bras!) and an extra pair of hiking pants.
Your trek company will provide you a packing list of other items in advance, most of which you can buy for cheap in Cusco (i.e. sunblock, bug spray, poncho, etc).
Step 4: Prepare
Read up on the Incas (Recommended reading: The Last Days of the Incas, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, and 1491).
Practice your Spanish. You will want to say encouraging things to your porters when they trot by you carrying your tent. Key word: “gracias.”
Save your dollars. Planned at least six months in advance, a ten-day trip to Peru can cost you less than $2000 if you get a good deal on flights to Lima (the most cost-effective airport into which you can fly). Once you arrive, eat at the market or from street stalls, stay at hostels for $15 per night, don’t buy anything at the airport, and negotiate with cab drivers. You’ll be amazed how little you spend.
Lastly, and this is important, don’t forget to look up. Those Inca stairs can be treacherous, but you’ll regret it if you get all the way to the Andes and spend your time staring at your feet.
*Let’s be clear, it was never really “lost.” When Hiram Bingham arrived there in 1911, several local families were living there. Lost to American and Europe doesn’t mean lost to everyone.