Hiking to Machu Picchu

Updated 3 August 2019

This past February I hiked 72+ kilometers over a period of 5 days to reach the infamous Machu Picchu, a modern wonder of the world.  I chose the Salkantay Trek, which cost $155 + S/40 sleeping bag rental + S/20 walking stick rental + S/10 entrance into the park for Humantay Lake, and was booked through Perú Travel Machu Picchu (Pro tip: Book your tours upon arrival in Cusco, rather than online from your country of origin; you’ll save boatloads of money booking in-country).

I completed the 5 day, 4 night tour with a group of 16 other hikers, as well as two guides who accompanied us until the end of the journey.  Four breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, plus daily snack-time, were included in the price, and the cooks easily catered to myself and the other vegetarian in the group.  We slept in wooden huts the first night, covered tents the second and third night, and a hostel the fourth night.  Each sleeping location had running water 24/7 and electricity for at least part of the day, although heated showers were not always an option.

Hiking to Machu Picchu was easily one of my favorite moments of my five-month trip through South America.  While you can also take a bus or train to the ancient ruins, I highly recommend hiking if you have the time.

I happened to arrive in Cusco in late January and decided it would be best for my schedule to hike to Machu Picchu in early February.  February is smack dab in the middle of the rainy season in the Sacred Valley, meaning it rains almost every day – a lot.  Besides being wet, this also means the chances of landslides are fairly high, so that’s something to consider when planning a trip.  While we certainly did see landslide aftermaths, it didn’t alter the course of our trip too badly and I never felt unsafe.  However, it’s important to note that safety is not something that should be taken for granted – during my time hiking a landslide killed several tourists in a van on the way back from Machu Picchu.

Day 1

The 5 day/4 night trek through Perú Travel Machu Picchu was fairly standard for the Salkantay.  We left Cusco early in the morning (around 5am) in a large tour bus.  We disembarked in the town of Mollepata for breakfast (the only breakfast not included in the trip cost).  At the restaurant we each weighed our bags to ensure we were giving no more than 5kg (including our roughly 1kg sleeping bags) to the horsemen and horses to carry from town to town.  While it wasn’t much of an issue if our bags were a bit more than 5kg, one fellow hiker had more than 10kg in his bag – he had to do some last minute creative maneuvering!  From Mollepata we loaded ourselves back onto the bus (this time, carrying day bags only, as the horses were carrying our larger bags) to drive to Marco Casa.  Here we disembarked and began our Salkantay hike.  After three hours of hiking we arrived at our first camp, Soraypampa, where we found our bags and a tasty lunch waiting.  Post-lunch there was an optional three hour round-trip hike to Laguna Huamantay, with breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains and small snow avalanches you could both hear and see down the mountain’s face.  After our hike there was dinner and fun to be had until the camp’s generators were turned off at 10pm, when it was then it was time to hit the hay and rest up for the second day of hiking, arguably the hardest day.

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Laguna Humantay, Photo credit: Wessel van Eeghen

Day 2

We were awoken around 5am on the second day of our journey by a knock on our door – the cooks had arrived at each of our huts with warm coca tea.  Having slept in the frigid and windy Soraypampa in insulation-less huts, it was a pleasant way to awaken.

The second day’s hike was the longest, with a six-hour hike to complete before we reached our lunch stop.  It was also the day we hiked to the Salkantay pass, a sacred snow-capped mountain location from the Inca times located at 4,600m (15,091 ft).  Here our guides led us through a beautiful coca leaf ceremony to the Pacha Mama, or Mother Nature.  After the ceremony we began our descent toward our lunch location.  It was here that the day took a bit of a negative turn.  As it was el tiempo de la lluvia, we had been rained on a bit the prior day, but nothing like the persistent rain we experienced the second day.  The day’s rain was practically constant, slowly morphing our dirt trails into small rivers in which we had no choice but to walk.  By lunchtime we were all soaked to the bone with three more hours to hike until our second day’s camp.  The hike was also especially difficult for me, as I had begun experiencing intense knee pain in my left knee once we started to descend down the mountain.  Even with the help of my walking sticks I was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group.  Luckily a few other less-experienced hikers hung back with me and one of our guides, who brought up the rear.  Slow hiking allowed me the opportunity to have deep and personal introspective moments – moments where I could be alone and come around the corner of a deep gully in which I had been hiking to face a green landscape full of fog and yell “I’m here!  I’m hiking Machu Picchu!”  Taking our time also allowed us to see wild chinchillas and admire the sun, which slowly began showing its face in between rain spells.  All in all it was an exhausting nine hour hike day, with all 16 of us rejoicing when we reached our camp in Chaullay by stripping off our wet clothes and taking cold showers.  Luckily we had begun to descend into la selva, so the ambient temperature was much warmer.

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Photo credit: Fabrice Gabert

Day 3

Our hiking group awoke on day 3 to find all of our wet hiking gear from the previous day to be…. well, still wet.  We begrudgingly put on the damp and smelly clothes and set out for our third day of hiking, where we encountered the first signs of the toll the intense rains had on the land.  A road bridge had been washed away, so we were asked to carry both our day packs and larger bags over a pedestrian bridge traversing a rushing river.  Luckily the distance was short, and we were soon able to drop off our larger bags to our horsemen.  We continued on our third day’s hike, which luckily for my knee was only about three hours.  However, before we reached our lunch spot we found one of our paths had been destroyed by a derrumbe from the rains.  Instead, we were transported across a several-hundred-foot river gorge two-at-a-time in a small wooden basket, for lack of a better description.  The transportation contraption worked on a series of rope pulleys attached to a steel cable anchored on either side of the gorge, and looked like it had been designed by a group of high-school seniors for their shop class final project.  Nevertheless, we all arrived safe and sound to the other side of the gorge.  After a short break, we were able to hop in a van (with four of us on the roof – only in South America) which crossed a waterfall created from another landslide, driving precariously close to the siderail-less edge.  I swore that if we all leaned to our left the van would have tipped over and tumbled down the gorge.

Fortunately we survived that ordeal!  Instead of careening to our untimely deaths we ate a hearty lunch, followed by a split of the group into those who had signed up for the four day/3 night option.  They would continue on in an abridged version, visiting Machu Picchu the next day.  The 12 of us who remained (fortunately we all now fit into the van) were treated to a van ride to Santa Teresa.  Here we enjoyed a visit to the local thermal baths and had the opportunity to relax and rejuvenate.  That night we had an amazing fireside dance party until the early hours of the morning.

The gorge we were forced to cross in a wooden basket; Photo credit: Fabrice Gabert

Day 4

Day four found us trekking from Santa Teresa through Hidroeléctrica to Aguas Calientes, the entrypoint into Machu Picchu.  It was in Aguas Calientes that we stayed in a low-budget hotel.  However, we were all too tired to do anything but delight at the fact that we were all sleeping on a real bed instead of a sleeping bag.  After walking a bit around town, we had our final group dinner where we each received our tickets for entry into Machu Picchu.  The next day we would be meeting our guide at the site entrance, atop a winding mountain of thousands of stairs.  Yes, there was a bus one could pay to ride, but we had all come so far that we couldn’t imagine not starting the day on foot.

Day 5

On our last and final day we awoke around 3:30am.  We were to all meet at 4:00am in the hotel lobby, and from there hike the 45 minutes to the base of Machu Picchu.  The general site entrance opens at 5:00am, at which point we then began the grueling one-hour vertical hike up thousands and thousands of stairs.  By the time we reached the top we were all out of breath and soaked in sweat, but exhilarated to be at our final destination.  Our tour guide, José, met us at the entrance to the historic site at 6:00am and skillfully guided us for the next hour around the old administrative location of the Incas.  To be honest, the actual Machu Picchu was much smaller than I imagined it, but still breathtaking to stand in front of a modern world wonder.  We had all day to explore once inside the site, but after José left it was a bit harder to interpret what we were seeing.  Additionally, we were all exhausted and looking forward to getting back to Cusco, which was still a three-hour hike and several-hour bus ride away (plus a surprise bus switch involving carrying all of our bags across a makeshift pedestrian bridge thrown up to compensate for a downed road bridge from landslides).

In regard to my choice of route, I chose the Salkantay Trek over the better-known Inca Trail for a number of reasons:

1) The Inca Trail needs to be booked several (at least 3-6) months in advance

2) The Inca Trail closes for the entire month of February for maintenance

3) The Inca Trail usually costs $400+ to hike

Photo credit: Sumukh Anand

Ever the fan of packing lists, I am more excited to share what I brought on my five-day, four-night hiking trip to Machu Picchu than about the experience generally.  Most people first arrive in Cusco, Perú, where they drop their luggage in order to hike to Machu Picchu.  I was living with a family in Cusco at the time and was able to leave my things at their apartment, but many hostels/hotels will also have a storage room for you leave your items.

Here’s what I brought with me on my Salkantay hike, keeping in mind that a February packing list will differ from a June or October packing list due to seasonal weather differences.  Items in purple are items I picked up after arriving in South America.  The majority of these items were placed into a 5 kg duffel bag, which was carted from town to town by horse and given back to us each afternoon after our hike; I only brought the items I would need during the day with me in my day bag.

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Clothes

  • 1 long-sleeved Merino wool shirt
  • 1 long-sleeved cotton shirt
  • 1 thermal shirt
  • 1 woven fabric poncho
  • 1 cotton tee
  • 1 quick-dry tee
  • 1 light pullover sweater
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 wide-brimmed sun hat
  • 1 multi-purpose scarf
  • 1 winter hat
  • 1 towel
  • 1 pair gloves
  • 1 pair hiking pants
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair athletic shorts
  • 1 swimsuit – we visited a thermal bath on day 3 and after hiking for 9 hours the previous day it was GLORIOUS.
  • 1 pair hiking boots
  • 1 pair Chaco sandals – I almost didn’t bring these, but it was a beautiful experience to have another pair of shoes after 9 hours of hiking in the rain with wet feet (while my hiking boots were waterproof, apparently those limits were tested when I trudged through paths-turned-rivers for hours on end).
  • 1 pair regular underwear
  • 2 pair ExOfficio underwear
  • 1 pair low-cut socks
  • 1 pair high hiking socks
  • 1 pair long alpaca socks
  • 1 sports bra
  • Digital watch
  • Waterproof rain poncho – I picked up a flimsy plastic rain poncho for S/5 in Huaraz, Perú.  I was repeatedly told I would want something thicker and more sturdy (which cost about S/20), but this poncho suited me just fine.  We were often putting on and taking off rain gear several times a day, and it wasn’t too thick where I felt suffocated by wearing it in the warmer weather during the rain.  One of my hiking mates had both kinds of ponchos – a flimsy kind and a sturdier kind.  After trying both out, he wound up using his cheap plastic poncho for 95% of the trip.

*I had a hiking outfit that I would put on everyday while hiking, as well as a post-hike outfit that I would put on after showering or if I just wanted clothes that were dry and didn’t smell.  Due to extremes in weather, I layered most of the above clothing items and throughout the day would be constantly pulling items on or off of me.

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush & toothbrush holder
  • Floss
  • Ear plugs
  • Deodorant
  • Bar of soap
  • Razor
  • Tweezers
  • Nail clippers
  • Comb
  • Small hair brush
  • Retainers
  • Personal medicine
  • Small medical kit
  • Lip balm

Liquids

  • Coconut oil
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Bug spray
  • Sun screen
  • Toothpaste

Electronics

  • Unlocked cell phone
  • SteriPen Ultralight
  • Cell phone/SteriPen charger
  • Headlamp w/ batteries

Miscellaneous

  • Luggage lock
  • Exercise band
  • Sleep eye mask
  • Glasses
  • CamelBak Chute water bottle
  • Foldable day bag
  • Hood inflatable pillow
  • Ankle brace
  • Dry bag
  • 2 caribiners
  • Passport – an original is required for entry into Machu Picchu
  • Reusable napkin
  • Credit card, debit card, & cash
  • Pen
  • Spork
  • Handkerchief
  • Toilet paper
  • 1.6 L water bottle
  • Snacks
  • Sleeping bag

There’s no one “right” way to hike to Machu Picchu, but I look back upon my experience with immense fondness and wouldn’t change a thing.

Footnotes:

Hiking distance measurements are provided in kilometers, rather than miles, as this was standard practice throughout Perú.
S/ = Peruvian soles, which is the country’s currency.  At the time of my trip, about 3 soles equalled 1 US dollar.  For example, S/40 = $13.

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