Machu Picchu is a truly ancient wonder that any traveller will recognise photographs of. The vast ruins of this ancient Incan citadel are perched on a magnificent spot atop a ridge surrounded by huge mountain peaks, high in the Andes of Peru. Built around the year 1450, at the height of Ican power, the site was abandoned by the Incas in 1572, due to the Spanish Conquest. It’s now known as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Fortunately, the Spanish never found Machu Picchu, and thanks to its World Heritage status the ruins of the citadel remain in remarkable condition to this day. The site attracts around half a million visitors every year, and although you can take a train close to the ruins, many tourists prefer to take a multi-day mountain trek through spectacular scenery to reach it. The most famous of these is the Classic Inca Trail, considered one of the best treks in the world. This isn’t the only trekking option to reach the ancient ruins though - in this article we’re going to compare some different routes for you to trek to Machu Picchu.
Some of the most popular Machu Picchu treks use the ancient Inca Trail. An important fact you need to know about the routes which use the Inca Trail is that you will need a trekking permit. Due to the human impact of vast numbers of tourists using the trail, in 2001 the Peruvian government issued a restriction on the number of people allowed on the route each day. Only 500 people per day can be on the Inca Trail at once. This is regulated through permits. Around 300 of these daily permits are used by guides and porters, so the remaining permits are in high demand.
You also must be accompanied by a guide on the Inca Trail by law - meaning that permits are only available to tour companies, who then allocate them to their staff and clients. The government stringently checks trekkers for permits, with a number of mandatory checkpoints along the popular Inca Trail routes.
Your tour operator will arrange permits for you, but it’s vital that if you are considering doing the Classic Inca Trail, or any other route which uses the Inca trail that you book far in advance. If you’re going to arrive in peak season, booking at least 6 months ahead is advised if you want to secure a permit.
Also, you need a ticket to visit Machu Picchu itself. Tour operators will usually include this in the price. Numbers are also limited, so in peak season do make sure you secure them a few days in advance.
The most popular route to reach Machu Picchu is the Classic Inca Trail , a world renowned trek. Note that there are other routes which also use the Inca Trail, which we’ll also cover later in the article.
Beginning at Km 85, The Classic route follows the Inca Trail as it climbs through valleys, woodland and cloud forest to reach Machu Picchu. You’ll also discover a number of Incan ruins along the way. The trek usually finishes on the 4th day with sunrise at the famous Sun Gate - an amazing viewpoint overlooking Machu Picchu as you (hopefully) see the sun coming up over the ancient citadel.
The Machu Picchu citadel seen from the ridge. Photo by Jon
This is a moderately challenging trek and requires decent fitness. You stay overnight at campsites and porters usually accompany you to carry camping gear and luggage. Toilets are available along the route. Another important factor to bear in mind is altitude sickness - during the course of the trek you ascend and descend sharply at high altitudes over short spaces of time. It’s important to learn about the dangers of altitude sickness, and descend or delay your ascent if you show any symptoms. If you have not already acclimatized to the region (for example by spending a few days in Cusco) then it’s even more important to take your time on the Classic route.
Some of the 5 day versions of the Classic Inca Trail allow you more time to acclimatize. However do check their itineraries, as many of the 5 day treks still arrive at Machu Picchu on day 4 (missing sunrise), giving you an extra day to explore the ruins rather than an extra day of trekking.
You will need the daily trekking permit for this route so it’s important to secure these through a trek operator a few weeks in advance outside of peak season. During the peak season of May-August you will need to book at least 6 months in advance to secure a permit. Note that in February the Inca Trail is closed due to the weather, and around this time of year it's inadvisable to do this trek because of heavy rains and poor trail conditions.
The Classic Trail is expensive thanks to its popularity, but has amazing views, Incan ruins like Wiñay Wayna along the route and the classic Sun Gate sunrise at the end. It’s also busy, so don’t expect for it to be very peaceful, and wildlife spotting opportunities will be less than on other routes.
The most popular alternative route to the Classic Inca Trail is the Salkantay Trail . It’s considered to have the most impressive views of all the treks leading to Machu Picchu. During it you trek around the impressive (and religiously significant) Mount Salkantay for the first few days. Although this is a long trail, it is a quiet trip and includes a wide variety of landscape and scenery, including valleys and cloud forest, with good wildlife spotting opportunities along the way. The standard Salkantay trek has no Incan ruins, before you reach Machu Picchu. Many versions of this route may also have you taking a train for the final leg to the ancient citadel, so you might not be hiking all the way, which is a relief if you are not used to hiking or slightly older, but a little out of character for the trail if your aim was to hike the whole way, like the ancient Incas.
Views from the gorgeous Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu. Photo credit
This is a slightly more physically challenging trek than the Classic Inca Trail - it’s longer and there are more steep sections. Like most Machu Picchu treks you camp along the way. It’s a much more rough and ready route than the Classic, with less trail maintenance and no proper toilets along the way. Usually it’s mules rather than porters who will be lugging the camping gear for you.
There are a few variations of the Salkantay trail but most trek operators use the same route. You do not need an Inca Trail permit for most Salkantay treks, unless they are joining the Inca Trail near the end. Some operators do offer treks combining the two routes, so check in advance just to be sure. One of the reasons that Salkantay is a popular alternative to the Classic Inca Trail is that if Inca Trail permits are sold out, you can do this trek instead.
Salkantay is also much cheaper than the Classic Inca Trail and because it has less traffic you don’t need to book so far in advance. Altitude sickness can be a factor on this trek though, so take necessary precautions and ideally spend a few days in Cusco to acclimatise beforehand.
As many people want to choose between these two treks to reach Machu Picchu, we’ll summarise the main differences here:
Permits and Flexibility - You need one of the 500 daily permits for the Classic Inca Trail. For most versions of the Salkantay route, you don’t, making it one of the prime factors to choose Salkantay if the Inca Trail permits are sold out. It’s easy to get treks on the Salkantay route at short notice - the Classic Trail much less so, and in peak season practically impossible. Cancellation and date changes are not allowed on the Classic Inca Trail thanks to the permit rules, but Salkantay is not bound by these restrictions.
On the trail to Machu Picchu. Mist covered scenery seen from the ridge. Photo by Vanessa
Views - Both have great views. Salkantay is considered the overall winner and includes a great view of Machu Picchu from below towards the end of the trek. The Inca Trail is still excellent and of course has the famous Sun Gate sunrise at the end. Although, it is possible to do this from Salkantay if you spend an extra night, or simply visit Machu Picchu and hike up from it in the dark before sunrise regardless of the route you chose.
Ruins - The Classic Inca Trail has many good Incan ruins and archeological sites along it. Salkantay has… none - until you reach Machu Picchu, of course. If you want to get the best of both worlds for ruins and views, do a combined Salkantay and Inca Trail trek (which are readily available).
Difficulty and Length - Salkantay is the more physically challenging of the two and takes significantly longer (5 to 7 days, compared to 4 for the Classic). However, both treks are rated “moderately difficult” by trek operator standards. Both routes have significant rises and falls at high altitude and thus both contain a risk of altitude sickness. The Classic Inca Trail is the worst for this though, especially during its climb over Dead Woman’s Pass. Acclimatizing for both routes in Cosca for a few days beforehand is advised.
Comfort - The Classic Inca Trail is the most established and well maintained of the two routes, and includes toilets and large campsites. Salkantay in comparison is much more rough, there are no proper toilets and trail conditions vary. The Salkantay trek is also colder as it goes higher.
Atmosphere - Salkantay is a much less busy route than the Classic trail, so is more peaceful and quiet. Salkantay also passes through more serene landscape so feels more isolated for most of the trek.
Cost - The Classic Inca Trail is significantly more expensive to trek on, thanks to its popularity and limited numbers. Salkantay is much cheaper.
Overall - If you have the time and the fitness, we’d recommend Salkantay over the Classic Inca Trail, although the Inca Trail is still good. If you don’t want to miss out on ruins, do a combined trek, although again this is only if you have the time. Indeed, combined treks are a great option but bear in mind that you will fall under the Inca Trail permit restrictions and regulations.
Views from the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Photo by Lisa
There is a variant of the Classic Inca Trail known as the Short Inca Trail, for those with little time to spare. This route does just the small final section of the Classic trail and usually takes just one or two days to complete. It typically begins at Km 104 of the Machu Picchu train line. You climb to the terraces and ruins of Wiñay Wayna and trek onwards to Machu Picchu from there, either reaching it in the same day, or camping overnight on the trail and trekking up to catch the Sun Gate sunrise the following day.
Note that as this route follows the Inca Trail you do need the daily permit, and so places need to be booked well in advance.
Note that the routes below do not require the Inca Trail passes, unless the specific tour you’re doing happen to link up with it - check in advance. Usually these treks involve camping along the way and you will be accompanied by porters or mules - although hotels or lodges may be used on some nights in more touristy areas.
For a more cultural route, consider the Lares trail. This moderately easy trek starts in the little settlement of Lares (which has natural hot springs), found north of the Sacred Valley. The trail continues up through local villages and terraced farmland, giving you a glimpse of mountain life, along with spectacular Andes views. Many of these people are farmers and still wear colourful traditional clothing, you’ll also see their herds of llamas and alpacas.
The Lares route offers great scenery of the mighty Mount Veronica and mountain lakes of the region. You’ll usually finish at the impressive Ollantaytambo ruins and hop on the train to Machu Picchu, although some treks do combine this route with others to the citadel. It’s a very quiet trail, good for getting to know the local culture, and it should be noted there are no Incan ruins on this route.
The Choquequirao trek, also known as the Vilcabamba Traverse Route is a challenging, mostly wilderness, mountain route. Usually starting at the town of Cachora, you cross the Apurimac River canyon to reach the ancient ruins of Choquequirao (Cradle of Gold). These Incan ruins are quite similar to Machu Picchu. The trail then continues, sometimes along paved Incan highways, through a diverse range of landscapes and smaller ruins, before finishing close to Machu Picchu which you can reach by walking or by hopping on the train.
The Choquequirao trek is difficult thanks to its length and many long uphill sections, but is extremely quiet and has fantastic landscapes of many types. You’ll cross lots of rivers and mountain passes during the trip and see local culture in the valley floors. The Choquequirao ruins are only slightly less impressive than Machu Picchu in grandeur and size, and are practically deserted compared to its famous counterpart. A good route to pick if you have plenty of time and want to get off the beaten path with a variety of landscapes and plenty of nature.
The famous rail route to Machu Picchu. Photo by David
In this article we’ve covered some of the most popular trails to reach Machu Picchu, but thanks to the Machu Picchu train and the large number of trails around the region, many other trekking routes are available. There’s plenty to explore in the area including mountain peaks, a variety of landscapes, traditional mountain villages and Incan ruins.
Because of the layout of the trails, roads and the presence of the Machu Picchu train line, trekking routes can easily be combined. It’s also entirely possible to do a trek far away from Machu Picchu, but finish it somewhere near a train station and then just hop on the train to get to the famous citadel. There are a wide variety of routes on offer, so find one that works for you!
Your own Machu Picchu trekking route choice is going to depend on the amount of time you have available, your fitness level and your budget. Fortunately, for most circumstances, the Machu Picchu region has you covered. There’s plenty of choice, from people who want a quieter, more nature focused trek that ends at Machu Picchu - or a short route to the ruins that still has amazing views.
We hope you found this article useful and we wish you the best in planning your Machu Picchu adventure!