Hiker looking at Machu Picchu

A beginner’s guide to hiking to Machu Picchu

There are tons of reasons to travel to Peru – the quinoa, the lush green scenery, the llamas, not to mention the Andes. A small group tour is a great way to see it all, especially if you’re going to hike Machu Picchu. Are you ready to explore one of the Seven Wonders of the World?

Getting to Machu Picchu

You’ve got options when it comes to your hike. There are a few ways you can reach Machu Picchu, and two of them are the famous Inca Trail or the lesser-known Salkantay trek:

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail, a 43-km trek that takes you through high-altitude jungles, is a bucket-list classic. Hikers who choose this route can expect to climb rugged stairs, walk on sacred pathways and pass through a stone tunnel, usually over four epic days.

The hike: Though generally considered moderate, some parts of the hike can be challenging, especially as you gain elevation to reach the highest point of nearly 4200m. On the last day of your hike, plan to wake up before dawn to reach the Sun Gate before sunrise. You’ll forget all about the morning cold and tired feet as you watch the sun stretch over the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

Where you can sleep: There’s nothing quite like sleeping under the stars on the Inca Trail. With small group tours, you’ll have a team of porters and cooks to carry your gear, prep delicious meals and help with tent set-up and tear-town.

Salkantay Trek

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The Salkantay Trek, considered the back road to Machu Picchu, is almost twice as long as the Inca Trail, with most tours lasting five to six days. Since it brings hikers to a higher altitude, it’s more physically demanding – but many people say the scenery is even more impressive than what you see on the Inca Trail, and your chances of spotting wildlife, like foxes and deer, are higher too.

Hikers doing the Salkantay trek in Peru

The hike: The trek begins with gentle rolling hills, but you’ll face a steep climb towards the peak, where the landscape changes from a village to a full-blown lunar landscape. It’s here that you’ll also get a view of the snow-capped Salkantay and Umantay mountains. From the top, the trek continues (mostly) downhill through thick, lush forests.

Hiker on the Salkantay trek with lush forest and a waterfall

Where you can sleep: Something that makes the Salkantay a neat experience are the mountain lodges along the trail. Hikers who are looking for a bit more comfort on a multi-day trip can hike from lodge to lodge as part of this journey.

Salkantay lodge with mountain backdrop

The Salkantay mountain lodge comes with a huge mountain backdrop by day…

Salktantay lodge with hikers soaking in hottub

… and a place to soak hiking muscles in the evening.

Colpa lodge on the Salkantay trek

The Colpa Lodge on the Salkantay trek comes with deep green surroundings.

Wayra lodge in Peru at night

The Wayra Lodge cozied up next to the mountain at night.

When to go

April, May, September and October are the best times to hike to Machu Picchu. These months tend to have more moderate temperatures during the day and there will be fewer people wandering the trails and camps.

June, July and August boast the best (read: clear days and hardly any rain) weather, but bring the busiest crowds. The rainy season stretches from November to March, and the Inca Trail is shut down every February for recovery and maintenance; the Salkantay Trek stays open year-round.

What to know before you go

Preparing for the climb

You don’t need to be a world-class athlete to hike Machu Picchu, but both treks require a moderate level of physical fitness. Start training a few months before leaving for Peru, and remember to add strength and conditioning to your cardio workouts to prep for the elevation gain.

Preventing altitude sickness

Many doctors will prescribe Acetazolamide (also known as Diamox) to help you keep altitude sickness under control, but the Peruvian locals swear by coca tea and candy – always check with your doctor before you go to see what they recommend for you to hike at high altitudes.

Staying hydrated

Altitude and dry mountain air will dehydrate you quickly if you’re not drinking enough water. Water bladders are the best option for hiking, but they can freeze if temperatures drop below zero. For demanding, multi-day treks like these ones, I use a bladder for plain water and a bottle for an electrolyte mix.

Maintaining an appetite

Since altitude can slow down your digestive system, you might not be very hungry on the trek, so you need to be extra mindful of maintaining your energy. Honey Stingers are my personal favourite snack. They’re high in carbohydrates, electrolytes and caffeine – plus they taste great!

Packing tips for hiking in Peru

A well-packed bag sets you up for a good trip. Here are some pointers:

For your feet

Since your feet are your main mode of transportation on a multi-day trek, you’ll want to make sure they’re well-taken care of. Bring:

For your body

Mountain weather is notoriously temperamental. Dress in layers so that you can quickly adapt to whatever mother nature throws at you. Bring:

For your head

Apart from your hands, your head and face will be most exposed to the elements. Bring:

  • A toque for cold days and nights
  • Wrap-around sunglasses and sunscreen to protect yourself at altitude
  • A neck gaiter – wear it over your ears or around your neck for protection against the sun, over your mouth on particularly dusty days, or around your wrist to easily wipe away sweat

For your well-being

The basics you need to stay well-fed and well-hydrated as the altitude increases:

Joanie Gaudreau

Writer and fitness enthusiast always chasing her next mountain peak. Also coffee. She chases coffee, too.