Trekking Machu Picchu

Ancient ruins perched on impossibly steep mountainsides, shrouded in dense forest and cloud.  Machu Picchu is an enigma that captures our imaginations perhaps more than any other historical site in the world.  At the heart of the Incan empire, this ‘Lost City’ was mysteriously abandoned for centuries until the discovery of its remarkably preserved ruins in 1911.  Thousands are drawn to visit Machu Picchu every year, and I was lucky enough to help many do just that during my time as a tour leader in Peru.

There are only two ways to visit Machu Picchu, by train or by trekking the famed Inca Trail. For me there was no choice, it was the Classic Inca Trail trek, a four day, 42km walk I was to get to know and love.  A trek for the more adventurous soul, it’s not a technical hike as such, but the altitude (up to 3,500m above sea level) can be challenging for some.

I always recommend a few days in either Cuzco or the beautiful Sacred Valley prior to your trek to acclimatise.  For camping based treks, good worn-in trekking shoes, appropriate clothing and a sleeping bag are pretty much all you need!  If the spirit of adventure is still strong but comforts are required, you can upgrade to a Luxury Inca Trail where you have camp stretchers, a massage tent and gourmet meals!  And if it helps seal the deal, other trail routes offer lodge accommodation.

Trekking beings at Kilometre 82 in the Sacred Valley, a short drive from Cuzco. Walking alongside the Vilcanota River, you take in glorious mountainous views as you gradually head uphill, passing through small mountain villages complete with adobe houses, cute kids and free-ranging chickens.  Magically, at the end of the six-hour walk, you arrive into camp to find your tent fully set-up, and a hot meal on offer!  Porters carry all the gear ahead, and a chef is on hand to whip up three course meals with minimal equipment.  The first camp is in the small village of Wayllabamba (3,000m) and if the sky is clear you’ll enjoy amazing views of mountain peaks and starry skies.

Day two is spectacular but challenging – mentally and physically! You can see where you need to get to, but the seven kilometres of relentless uphill can play tricks on your mind. Your trusty porters pack-down camp after you leave, then put trekkers to shame by overtaking them on the steep mountain passes.  The aim today is the mountain pass of Warmiwanuska, affectionately known as Dead Woman´s Pass, at 4,200m.  Your reward?  Spectacular views of the peaks of Huayanay to the east, and the rugged Vilcabamba range to the west. Then it’s all downhill to your campsite at Pacaymayu – at 3,600m, the highest campsite of the Inca Trail.

Day three’s walk follows a well-preserved Inca trail to the archaeological site of Sayacmarka, through cloud forest and high jungle, home to bromeliads, orchids and hummingbirds. Camp tonight is at Wiñaywayna (2,650m), a beautiful ceremonial site fashioned from finely-carved stones fitted together with famed Incan precision.

The final day dawns early as you head out towards your ultimate destination.  A beautifully scenic walk, the Urubamba River is a constant presence far below as you continue to Intipunku (The Sun Gate) to catch that breath-taking first glimpse of Machu Picchu.  From here, it is only a short walk on the final stretch of the Royal Trail to at last enter the citadel of Machu Picchu.  Expert guides share their knowledge of this fascinating site with visitors, but with a lot of details open to conjecture, I’m happy that Machu Picchu’s compelling air of mystery endures.

Machu Picchu is one of South America’s greatest treasures, and the hike to the citadel is just as special. If you’re interested in going, talk to us about your visit and download our complete guide here.