Hiking to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail or on one of the alternative trails is a memorable experience, not to be missed. A typical trek (which includes a visit to Machu Picchu) starts and ends in Cusco and is 3 nights/4 days. If you are in good physical shape, you will enjoy the treks: the food is prepared for you and is fresh and delicious, tents are waiting for you at the end of the day (or you can stay in luxury lodges along the way). Porters and horses are available to carry your belongings, so you can dedicate yourself to absorbing the nature and history of the place. Peru is safe and you can bring you teenage children on the trek, which will prove to be a memorable experience for them.
Immerse yourself in the history and cultural life of Cusco, a UNESCO Heritage site. We have written an extensive guide to the best hotels and restaurants in the city (see Mapplr Guide to Cusco).
Now it is time to go to Machu Picchu, so which trek do you go on? Here are your alternatives:
Classic Inca Trail
Pros: it is the “classic trail” and you have the satisfaction of seeing Machu Picchu from the sun gate (Inti Punku). In the last two days, you actually walk on the ancient Inca stones which connect you to the past.
Cons: You need to book months in advance because only 200 spots per day available. The classic Inca Trail is very busy, and you will never be alone. Groups need to sleep in designated places.
Pros: Easy to book, amazing views of Mount Salkantay, luxury lodges recently built, less crowded.
Cons: Highest elevation of all treks, so altitude sickness and cold nights may bother a few people, trek does not reach Machu Picchu, so a train ride to Aguas Calientes is needed.
Pros: A more “cultural trek” where one sees villages, fields and animals and well as the natural landscape. Easier trail and lower elevation than Salkantay. A good trek to take even your teenage children.
Cons: Not as dramatic as Salkantay scenery wise, but the villages compensate for that. You will also need to take the train to Machu Picchu at the end of the hike.
When to go
Summer in the Northern hemisphere is the best time (June-September). While it may be a little colder, it is the dry season, so you are almost guaranteed clear skies and an excellent view of the mountains.
SAS Travel is one of the largest agencies in Cusco, and they even have their own hotel in Cusco. On a different trek, I used Elizabeth Yupaiccana Juarez from Peru Andean Experience a smaller travel agency. Hilbert Sumire was my guide and he can arrange customized trips. Please use the local agencies. You end up paying a large premium if you use foreign (US or European) companies who outsource the trip planning and organization anyway to the local agencies.
Local agency guides speak good English and are very responsive. By using local agencies, your money stays in Peru and benefits the Peruvian community.
The Luxury Option
For those who prefer not to sleep in tents, four luxury lodges were built on the Salkantay trek, and it is now possible to hike with luxury of your own room and hot showers at the end of every day. For more information, see Mountain Lodges of Peru.