2021 Peru Travel Guide: Hiking Machu Picchu (Inca Trail)
Quintessentially bucolic, Peru attracts foodies, hikers, history-buffs, and nature-lovers alike. If you are going to Peru for the first time and are getting overwhelmed by the amount of information out there - welcome to the club!
Planning my first trip to this fascinating South American gem took time and patience, but in the end, I was able to organize an amazing and budget-friendly trip of a lifetime. We can organize a tailored trip for you as well.
Traveling through enchanting Peru will amaze you with its great diversity and rich history: The Machu Picchu ruins, the astonishing city of Cusco, the enigmatic Nazca Lines, the encounter with lake Titicaca’s inhabitants, the hikers’ paradise found in Huaraz, the sensational spectacle set by Condors in the Colca Canyon, the adventures that await onboard the Amazon river cruises and the economical heart of the country, Lima.
Lima vs. Cusco & Machu Picchu
This may not be what is right for you based on your needs and wants but I would recommend skipping Lima IF you only have 8-10 days to spend in the country.
Peru has a lot to offer and as a first-time visitor, your time, energy, and money will be better spent on those uniquely-Peru type of excursions and adventures! Additionally, if you are planning on doing the Inca Trail – the trek will consume half of your time abroad already!
My recommendation for a 8-10 day itinerary in Peru (including the trek) is to head straight to Cusco, acclimate to the altitude and explore the city for 2 days, then start the 4-day trek towards Machu Picchu, spend one extra day in Aguas Calientes (village at the bottom of the Machu Picchu mountain), head back to Cusco for the final 2-3 days and explore the greater area including the Sacred Valley.
Should you have more time to spare or if you opted to skip the Inca Trail, here are additional potential legs you can add to your trip from Cusco:
Head to the East and hop aboard an Amazon River Cruise
Go South and explore Lake Titicaca & Bolivia
Go on a Food Tour in Lima and its newly found cuisine scene
How to Plan a Trip to Peru
Planning for Peru is primordial. Here are some of the most important things to think about:
1. Altitude Sickness in Cusco
If like me, your home-base is close to sea level, you may experience some discomfort in Cusco (11,152 feet above sea level). Some people don’t feel a thing, others experience some minor headaches and shortness of breath. If you are subject to altitude sickness or want to prevent anything from happening, make sure to visit a travel clinic near you to get some helpful medication.
Some hotels will provide oxygen tanks when needed to their customers and locals believe in the power of coca tea leaves to reduce the lack of sufficient oxygen effects.
2. When to book the Inca Trail?
Go straight to ‘hiking Machu Picchu: Inca Trail’ to see the full content about the Inca Trail. But in the context of planning, the Inca Trail must be planned well in advance because of the limited numbers of hikers allowed on the trail each day, which means longer wait-times to get a spot, hence planning ahead of time (I’d recommend nothing less than 4-6 months prior to coming to Peru). Having more available spots also means having more choices in terms of Trek companies, so you can select the one that is best suited for you, check ‘The 5 best tour operators to hike the Inca Trail’ to see my recommendations at the end of this article.
3. How to book a ticket for Machu Picchu?
The entrance fee and entrance to Machu Picchu is processed by your Trek operator, but if you do not end up hiking the Inca Trail or if you decide to go back a second time, the ticket must be reserved in advance using TicketMachuPicchu.com. Two to three months in advance should give you plenty of time but you can book up to a year in advance. Please note that there is a limited number of tickets delivered for each day, so book early!
4. Is it worth climbing Huayna Picchu?
After 4 days roughing it in nature and reaching the marvelous ancient city, you may be willing to add one more hiking day to your itinerary and climb Huayna Picchu. To do so, you will have to stay the night in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu village down the mountain and accessible by bus) and get back to the site early morning but it is worth it!
There are 2 options for start time of the climb, either start between 7am and 8am or start between 10:30am and 11:30am. The ticket grants you access to Machu Picchu from 6am (best time to wander around the site while making your way to the bottom of Huayna Picchu) and the climb up and back is estimated to take 2h and 30 minutes. Beware that the climb is steep and can be somewhat dangerous!
Tickets for Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu mountain are very limited, you must take the decision to climb it at least 3 to 4 months ahead of time to ensure you will have a spot and the preferred time! Use TicketHuaynaPicchu to check availability.
5. The early bird gets the worm!
As usual, the earlier you plan, the more chances to score lower fares for flights and hotels! For my latest trip to Cusco, the flights were purchased 11 months in advance, the trek reserved 9 months in advance and the hotels 7 months in advance.
What to do in and Around Cusco?
Here are the top spots you need to hit during your first trip to Cusco & the Sacred Valley, including day trips:
1. What to do in Cusco?
The Plaza de Armas
Main square in the center of the historic downtown of Cusco which is a great starting point for any walk around the city. The square is a lively urban gathering place offering colonial arcades, fountains and gardens. There is also a quaint little Starbucks cafe on the second floor of a building near the Cathedral.
Check out the View from San Cristobal (Don Bosco 192, Cusco)
Found out about this view point randomly while walking towards Saqsaywaman and it did not disappoint! Perfect spot for either sunset or sunrise with a pristine and clear view of the historic downtown and Plaza de Armas.
Shopping & sightseeing in the San Blas neighborhood:
Picturesque neighborhood dedicated to the artists and craftsmen. Known as the bohemian neighborhood, you will be able to find great quality pieces at fair prices.
Grab a freshly squeezed juice and some alpaca garments from the San Pedro Market, which will offer you a unique experience!
Scenic walk to Saqsaywaman
Fortified complex citadel located on a hill that overlooks the city of Cusco, you will find many people trying to drive you to or to offer you a guided tour of the complex but you can easily save some money and walk from the center of Cusco to the complex (20-25min) with a stop of San Cristobal for the views! Once there, the complex is also a great opportunity to see some llamas and alpacas in the wild.
If you visit only one Cusco historical site, head to the Inca ruins forming the base of the colonial church and convent of Santo Domingo. Once the richest temple in the Inca empire, all that remains today is the masterful stonework. Today’s site is a bizarre combination of Inca and colonial architecture. In Inca times, Qorikancha (Quechua for ‘Golden Courtyard’) was literally covered in gold.
The Choco Museo (Chocolate Museum) is a great way to quickly get acquainted with the roots of the chocolate we buy in bars and understand the process it takes to transform cacao into the sweet craving we all deserve after a few days hiking in and around Cusco! The Museum is in the historic center of Cusco and you can take a free tour (20-30min) that comes with a tasting of different sorts of cacao and derived products. Great gift idea for the people back home and it provides good insights and knowledge you can use at your next dinner party.
Prior to starting the hike to Machu Picchu and/or exploring the region, I highly recommend spending 1h or so at the Inca Museum to understand the basics about the Inca culture, their arts, cooking habits and their social & work lives. The exhibits will provide high-level insights but a great overview of a civilization that will never cease to amaze.
2. Day trips from Cusco
The region has a lot to offer and while you are in Cusco, I’d recommend taking advantage of all the marvels hidden in the Andes. You can choose to book a tour or (my preference) rent a car and go on an adventure on your own terms.
Renting a Car in Peru
The Sacred Valley of the Incas has many villages and natural wonders; Urubamba, Chinchero, Ollantaytambo for instance, which make great stops for some sightseeing and shopping. The Salinas de Maras (Salt Mines) in Urubamba is another great stop as you’ll have the opportunity to walk through the salt mines that have been operating since the time of the Incas. You’ll be able to buy Pink Salt from the source, one of only four places in the world where that is possible!
So, how do you get to do all this without the inconvenience of a group tour with the mandatory stops in tourist-trap gift shops and itineraries out of your control? Renting a car is your best bet and not that complex!
Book your car in advance, there is a Hertz car rental location in the historic downtown in Cusco that you can go to by foot in the morning to rent the car and give it back same day before closing (a full day with the car including taxes and gas should not cost you more than $40).
Tip 1: The smaller the car the better! You may end up driving in very tight and hilly streets alongside horses and other animals and the large SUV you may be used to just won’t do it.
Tip 2: Most cars will be manual (vs. automatic), so make sure that you have at least 1 driver capable of driving a manual, although you can request an automatic car – you may have to pick it up from the airport location instead since they have a larger selection of vehicles.
Tip 3: If you are planning to pick your car up at 8:00am (opening hour), do not worry if the gate is closed until 8:15am and see the unapologetic Hertz employee drive in late and start working on your paperwork. Relationship to time is different in every country and you need to be mindful of this.
Below is the itinerary for a full day (can be broken down in 2 days) road-tripping through the Sacred Valley.
The road trip as shown on the itinerary above has you stop in 4 main areas:
The furthest village from Cusco, set on the Urubamba river and mostly known for its ruins and large terraces on the hillside, making it a great hike to prep your leg muscles for what is to come during the Machu Picchu part of your trip.
Moray agricultural terraces:
Explore and appreciate the ingenuity of the Inca empire’s agricultural laboratories, which allowed them to test and figure out best practices when it comes to growing crops. Also offering gorgeous backdrops towards the Andes and snowy caps.
Salinas de Maras:
Gift your friends and family with bags of pink salt bought directly from the source at the Maras Salt Mines.
Pisac & its artisanal market:
Pisac has two major sightseeing stops, the first one is the downtown market (open most days of the week, year-round) where you can shop for beautifully crafted clothing articles, paintings and sculptures (which is where I did most of my shopping last time I was in Peru).
The second spot is the hike that departs downtown and goes up the hill through the terraces. You may come across a couple llamas and locals on the way up and enjoy an unobstructed view of the entire lush valley.
3. Where to Stay in Cusco
Cusco has literally room for everybody’s tastes and budgets, from high-end luxurious brands to budget-friendly hostels and the in-betweens. To me, location is everything, especially when I plan on staying in a new place for more than 2 nights.
Tip for knowing where to stay in Cusco: This tip is valid for any city; first get an overview of all the hotels and their prices (can be done on Expedia, Google and any other trip aggregators), this way you can visually measure 2 things! The first being the clusters of hotels (sign that it is a sought-after area) and second is the price per night of those hotels. In the example above, if you want to stay in Cusco and within the Centro Historico district (highly recommended) you will have to choose in the district you would like to settle.
Based on the clusters of hotels, the Northern part seems like a better bet. Judging by the prices, the North-Eastern part is the winning combination. These locations are indeed very close to the Plaza de Armas of the Historic Cusco and offer the most convenience to anything you’ll be doing. This section of the district is fairly flat, which will be a much-appreciated perk!
4. Where to eat in Cusco
Peru is known for the culinary geniuses in Lima but the authenticity of the food in Cusco will transport you into a new world of textures, tastes and spices. Writing this makes me crave for a meal on a little blue balcony over-looking the main plaza, a hot cup of coca tea followed by an elegantly prepared alpaca-meat dish before splurging with a quinoa crème brulée. If you are feeling adventurous, you can also try to eat ‘cuy’ (Hamster or Guinea Pig) roasted whole in a large open-flame oven – it probably won’t be your new go-to protein option but one must immerse in local cultures and cuy is a delicacy and has been since their ancestors.
There are numerous restaurants in Cusco and here are my favorite ones:
Chicha, By Gaston Acurio (great food and atmosphere)
Limo (best view of Plaza de Armas while dining - great lunch option!)
Pachapapa (Amazing atmosphere for dinner, don’t miss out on their cuy “guinea pig” if your stomach is up for it.)
Greens Organic (best alpaca meat in town, also recommend their quinoa crème brûlée)
Hiking the Machu Picchu: Inca Trail
How difficult is the Inca Trail?
There is a misconception out there that you must be in excellent shape to do the Inca Trail. The short answer is, yes, the Inca Trail is not a sunset walk on the beach, but it is not unattainable to people that are not necessarily athletes. A big component of how easy or difficult it will be for you is altitude sickness, if you take care of that issue ahead of time (medication), you should be fine. In my case, I have bad asthma and only work out once a week (sometimes less), I am not necessarily in great shape, yet, I completed the trail without any issues and did not have any trouble throughout the 4 days.
That being said, the difficulty level varies depending on the day. The first and fourth (last) day of the hike are easy-breezy (almost flat terrains). The second day is by far the most challenging day as you will go up and up and up… until you reach the highest peak of the trek, named the ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ and then you will go down for almost as long as you went up, making every muscle in your legs ache by the end of the day!
You will also experience several weather conditions throughout the hike with Mediterranean-like weather at the start, followed by tropical rainforests and finally freezing winds at the top. Layering will be your best bet that day in terms of clothing! Day 3 is the ‘steps down’ day, with mostly downhill paths until you reach camp for the night in Wiñay Wayna.
Tips for a good time on the trail:
Take care of altitude sickness ahead of time
Do not overpack (the less you have to carry, the better the experience)
Have layers of clothing that are easily removed or added
Bring dry snacks from home (nut bars and such) for when you need a boost in between meals
What to pack for the Inca Trail?
There is a plethora of blogs out there giving you crazy lists of packing requirements for the Inca Trail. Keep in mind that it is only 3 nights and that you are not climbing Mount Everest. You will need to pack lightly in terms of:
Clothes: Bare necessities and breathing materials are preferred but honestly, we all have our preferences, wear something that will not show sweat and that you are comfortable in!
Accessories: So that’s where it is complex and can get out of hand. The ONLY accessories you truly need are:
A headlamp - for the early morning hike towards Machu Picchu (in the dark)
2 rolls of toilet paper or a pack of wet wipes per person in your bag
A couple of energy bars (dry ones preferred)
Wipes for cleaning your hands/face/body
Your airplane pillow and anything to make you sleep comfortably
And that’s all! Of course, you may need to bring other items based on common sense such as medication, bandages etc.
Most, if not all, Trek companies will have as a requirement that you must arrive in Cusco at least 48 hours prior to the start of the trek. This is important because it will ensure your body has enough time to get acclimated to the altitude and change of climate. You will be required to visit the tour operator’s office during that time-frame and pay the remaining dues.
Spending 1 night in Aguas Calientes
If you are on the lookout for another setting and different pace of life, spending a night in Aguas Calientes (or “Machu Picchu village”) is a good idea. Don’t get me wrong though, it is still a busy little town but has more of an adventurous vibe that I loved, and it literally sits at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. You may have decided to either spend the night there (lively streets filled with music and delicious food) for a next day hike or to get the morning train back to Cusco.
My Itinerary Tips
Why stay in Aguas Calientes?
After 4 days roughing it through the Andes, you may be in need of a little calm and R&R and the picturesque town of Aguas Calientes will give you just that for the afternoon/evening you have there. Jumping back into a lengthy train journey may not be the most desirable transition.
Taking the bus to and from Machu Picchu?
So the infamous bus back and forth between the ancient site and Aguas Calientes… Yes, it is as scary as you’ve been told! And especially the way down! But no worries, the drivers are experts and no incidents reported (so far). But back to the tip - buy your ticket in advance for the drive back up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes!
Your Inca Trail operator will have arranged your tickets already for the way down but if you are climbing Huayna Picchu the next day, you will need to hop in the bus early morning and do not be fooled by the sleepy town; hundreds of people will be in line as early as 1h prior to the first bus going up.
Buying your ticket in advance (the previous afternoon is good) from the kiosks on the bus route (alongside the river) will save you a lot of stress and time the following morning. You will still need to queue but you will not be surprised like I was the first time that you need a pre-paid ticket and not pay once you get in the bus (which will propels you back to the end of the line after you queue in the ticket line as well).
When is the Best Time to Visit Peru?
Peru has just two seasons: wet and dry. May through October is the dry season, while November through April is the rainy season. The wettest months are from January to the end of April. This isn’t a great time to visit Peru – at least, not in the mountain areas, where roads and hiking trails may become blocked or closed. Travel off-season – For a low-cost trip, the best times to visit Peru are the fringe months of April and May or September and October.
The 5 best tour operators to hike the Inca Trail
With close to 200 licensed tour operators, it can be overwhelming to select the perfect one for you. Ultimately, it will depend on your budget (although they all run similar fees), timeline (some finish in 4 days and others in 5) and finally your preferences in terms of amenities and food options.
I have personally only used 1 tour operator which I will place in first position, but it is also the operator with the most and best reviews alongside a true dedication to their porters’ wellbeing! Which was very important for us.
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