When I first started telling my friends that I planned on visiting Machu Picchu they were excited and slightly jealous. When I told them I planned on hiking the Inca trail to get there… they thought I was crazy.
Sure it would be my first time camping and the longest, most strenuous hike I’d ever attempted, but 4 days and 26 miles on the Inca trail seemed like the trip of a lifetime. While taking the train in just a few hours is a popular and totally acceptable option, I wanted to experience the “Lost City of the Incas” in the most authentic way possible. Plus, I never turn down a great workout.
Located in southern Peru, Machu Picchu lies on top of a mountain that’s only accessible by train or 4-day trek. It was an important cultural site to the ancient Inca civilizations that was abandoned during the Spanish inquisition. Machu Picchu was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
And it happened to be at the top of my list of places I wanted to visit. I’m making an effort every day to start doing more of what I want to do and less of what I think I have to do. Part of that also means taking trips I’ve always said I wanted to take, and this was one of them. Spending money on experiences has always been much more worthy in my eyes than spending money on possessions. I’ve yet to regret a single trip, but I can definitely remember some things I wish I said YES to.
So, here’s to saying yes to life’s adventures. Read on to learn about my trip details, costs and tips for planning your own visit to this magnificent, ancient city. And if you aren’t interested by all the trip planning details, skip ahead to the bottom section for pictures and stories from my personal experience at Machu Picchu.
Booking a trip to Machu Picchu
After a little bit of research I realized that a trip to Peru and a visit to Machu Picchu was best booked well in advance. Concerns over growing numbers of tourists visiting the famous ruins have led to limitations on how many people can visit the site each day. This means tours book up fast and so do the permits for the Inca trail. Only 500 are issued per day, and that includes support staff (about 200 permits for tourists and 300 for cooks, porters and guides each day).
Check out this site for availability over your desired trip dates before you book a tour and flights.
I consider myself to be a savvy traveler but I’m still a novice travel hacker so I won’t pretend to know all the tips and tricks for finding cheap airfare, but here are some things I learned:
- Check out popular travel hacking blogs for special deals (everything from flight discounts to credit card bonus miles deals). I like Chis Guillebeau’s site with tons of travel hacking resources.
- Search for flights well in advance and set up price alerts. Make sure to look at International airlines (LAN Airline for Peru) as well as major carriers. Some good search engines are Kayak or fancy new sites like Momondo and HipMunk (my personal favorite).
- Popular opinion is that flights are cheapest on Tuesdays so try pulling the trigger midweek.
Here’s what I did for my flight purchase- My flight search found that LAN Airline was the cheapest and quickest option for my dates- about $1200 roundtrip (LAX-Lima-Cusco-Lima-LAX). Cusco is the city you have to fly into to begin your Machu Picchu trek and there are no direct flights from LA. On the way back through Lima I included a 3 day layover so I got to check out the sites before heading back to LAX.
There happened to be a LANPass Visa deal at the time that offered $0 Registration fee, gave 40,000 miles just for making a purchase in the first three months (which I planned to purchase the flight on the card), a $500 statement credit for buying a LAN flight AND free checked bag vouchers and a first class upgrade voucher. I only have one credit card so it actually helped my credit to open a new one and by doing so I saved over $500, got enough miles to book a free roundtrip flight on any partner airline and saved money on luggage fees.
I obviously don’t recommend opening a credit card for every airline you purchase flights on, but for big ticket flights (and if it won’t hurt your credit) this is a great option to save lots of money.
Machu Picchu Tour
On most of my past trips, I tend to seek out adventure and off-the-beaten path experiences and only sign up for tours if an activity absolutely requires it. Hiking to Machu Picchu is one of those activities.
Tourists are actually not allowed to complete the trek on their own (partly due to safety reasons and mainly to control the impact tourism has on the ancient trail). There are strict rules on how many people can be on the trail at a time, and every visitor must be part of a tour group that usually consists of a guide, porters (they carry the camping equipment) and cooks. All this was for good reason, I quickly realized upon arrival, and am very happy with the tour group experience.
I booked my tour through the Clymb (think Groupon for active and adventurous people) they have great deals on trips and gear, usually up to 70% off. They regularly have Machu Picchu trips listed so I suggest signing up and keeping an eye out for the right deal.
I purchased a 7 day trip with Valencia Travel. It included airport transfers, 2 nights in a hotel in Cusco before the hike, 4 days hiking the Inca trail (including permit fee, all meals, tour guide etc), train back to Cusco and 1 night in a hotel after the hike. All of this usually cost $900 to $1500 depending on the tour company, and I got it for $500!! After a quick trip advisor search on the tour company revealed good reviews (highly recommend doing this anytime you book tour or excursions) I quickly confirmed it.
The best thing about booking a tour is you don’t have to worry about anything else. They handle securing your permit for the Inca trail and all other details. You just need to pack!
What to Bring
The most important part of preparing for a trip is figuring out what and how to pack for it- especially on a backpacking trip. Instead of going through the entire list of what I packed, here are some essential things I learned and advice I have:
- Backpack- You can pay an extra $75 for a porter to carry your bag (while you just hike with a day pack of water and snacks), but assuming you want the authentic backpacker’s experience like I did and carry your own pack (you badass, you) having a good pack is essential. I purchased an Osprey pack from REI for around $300 and it was the best money I spent. Having proper support, comfort and ease of accessing my contents was a lifesaver. If you plan to carry your pack (around 20-30 Lbs) get a good backpack.
- Clothes- Minimal is key. I wore the same hiking pants and boots every day and just changed my top, and had a comfy outfit to change into each night and one outfit that is ‘picture worthy’ for the final day when you arrive to Machu Picchu. Also, you will definitely need a light jacket for rain and hat and a beanie. Its sunny, chilly, rainy and warm up in those mountains so you need to be prepared. Oh, and bring a plastic bag for dirty clothes.
- Toiletries- Only the essentials for this part of the trip (a piece of luggage can be left behind at hotel of items you don’t need for the hike). Toothbrush, baby wipes (ahem..thats your shower during the trek), sunscreen, bug spray, extra plastic bags for trash as you pack out what you pack in. There are toilets, actually holes in the ground, at each campsite so just BYO TP.
- Poncho. Bring a cheap plastic poncho regardless of how against ponchos you are (I strongly resisted) but was glad when it started raining that I could shield myself and more importantly my bag with all my clothes and essentials inside.
- Snacks. You will be well fed for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the occasional protein bar or granola or dark chocolate were welcome treats. You are burning major calories so bring some snacks that you can enjoy along the way.
- Water bottle and bladder for your bag. The lovely cooks will boil water every day to keep your bottle and bags full throughout the day.
- External battery pack. Although you won’t be using your phone and I don’t recommend bringing a laptop etc, your camera, GoPro or phone will need to be charged at some point since you will likely be snapping pics all day. I purchased a small portable battery w/USB for less than $100 and it was more than enough.
- Sleeping Bag.
- Trekking poles. This is the one thing I wish I had during my hike. I didn’t bring them because, well I didn’t think I would need them. I am very active and have healthy knees. However, after 3 hours of navigating straight downhill, uneven stairs even the strongest legs will get shakey-bring at least one pole to help you get through it.
Llama selfies, Baby Wipe showers and an Ancient City:
My Machu Picchu Experience
Disclaimer: This is the coolest thing I have ever done. So I am going to write about the experience for those who want to know about it. If you don’t want to keep reading, you can check out this video to follow along on 4 days hiking to Machu Picchu:
You arrive into the city of Cusco two days before your hike begins to allow time to adjust to the altitude (Cusco is at 11,152 feet and Machu Picchu is at 7,972 feet) as hiking in these mountains can be challenging and most people get altitude sickness around 8,000 ft.
Thanks to 36 hours of flight delays and reroutes however, I woke up at 4AM the morning of the hike with fingers crossed that I wouldn’t get altitude sickness since I had exactly 6 hours to acclimate. Definitely not ideal, but hey, I signed up for an adventure right?
12 nervous and half asleep hikers quietly pack into a shuttle that will take us on a two hour drive to the start of the hike in Ollantaytambo. Despite the awkward silence on the ride, I can sense that these strangers are about to become quick friends that I will share a once in a lifetime experience with. The van pulls up to a house where we are served a final meal before embarking on the trek. The coffee is enticing but the only thing you can think about is when the next bathroom opportunity will be, so I politely declined.
The start of the hike is unimpressive at best, we pull into a normal enough looking parking lot, put on our backpacks and start walking down the side of a road. I kept having to remind myself what I was doing because it hadn’t sunk in yet. Walking up to a small bridge a lady in a little office stamps your passport and collects your permit. A few minutes later we were headed into the mountains and reality sunk in. No turning back now!
Day 1 was the easiest part of the hike (I later learned) and I enjoyed the beautiful landscape and getting to see our first ruins. I was expecting to spend four days waiting to see the famous ruins of Machu Picchu but what I didn’t expect was all of smaller ruins you see leading up to the ancient city. These were special because your group was usually the only people there and you got to revel in it without the crowds.
As we arrived at the first campsite of the trip, I quickly learned that the porters were my heroes. These locals do this hike ONCE A WEEK for work and carry bags twice their size on their backs. They also make it to each checkpoint before you, set up camp and have a 4 course hot meal ready for you, wait until you leave to break down the camp site and then pass you en route to set up the next one. They are magical. And super sweet, joyful human beings that taught me a lot about hard work and finding joy in the difficult stuff.
We clambered into the campsite eager to get off our heavy packs and I took my first baby wipe shower. No one said hiking was glamorous but after 7 hours and 9 miles trekking through the mountains, a baby wipe shower was fine by me. The sun went down shortly after dinner and without electricity or anything to entertain ourselves, we fell quickly asleep around 7:30PM.
One word…SORE. I woke up to a tapping on my tent and one of the porters greeted me with a hot cup of coca tea (made with the local coca leaves that they claim help prevent altitude sickness and give you energy). My whole body was stiff from the previous day’s exercise and I had a moment of freak out when the guide gave us his “Day 2 is the hardest day” speech at breakfast.
We packed up our bags and left the campsite ready to tackle what was described as: 3 hours straight uphill to reach the summit, followed by 2 hours of a downhill scramble, then lunch. Then its another 2 hour climb, immediately followed by 1.5 hours downhill to reach our next campsite.
The entire climb I just kept looking around at the beauty of it all and kept reminding myself to soak it all in. Its a strangely sad thing to be doing something so awesome all while knowing you will never be there again, you will most likely never do this again.
About 45 minutes from the top of the first climb, I spotted my first wild alpacas up a grassy hill next to the trail. I took off running like a kid at Disneyland and quickly realized that they were much farther then they appeared. Adding a 1/2 mile hill sprint onto my climb was a painful idea, but hey- I did it for the selfie…
When I finally made it to the top of the peak, the view was spectacular and I could see all the way to where we started earlier that morning. By the end of the day we would cross two mountain ranges and it is so incredible to see how much terrain you covered.
Spoiler alert-Going downhill for 2 hours is WAY harder than going uphill. My legs were so shaky navigating the large and uneven stone steps that traverse the face of the mountain. If you look closely you can see the stairs all the way to the top of the photo below.
By the end of Day 2, reality begins to set in – with the hardest days behind you, Machu Picchu is almost within reach.
This was the last full day of hiking and my muscles were beyond sore, but at least it was to the point that I didn’t really feel it. Exhaustion was masked by adrenaline and excitement as day 3 was filled with some incredible ruins (they got bigger and more impressive the closer we got to Machu Picchu) and new friendships made the trek go by so fast.
We hiked another 7 miles today and spent time exploring ruins as we went. This day is best described in photos so here we go…
Sometimes it felt like the stairs would never end…
The ruins were constructed on the sides of the steepest mountains.
One of my favorite things about being surrounded by some much nature and history is feeling small. Like you are in the middle of something that is much larger than your own existence.
Day 4: Arrival to Machu Picchu
The final day of the hike is the shortest, but definitely not the easiest. There is a final checkpoint you must go through before continuing on to the lost city, and groups start lining up early in the morning to wait until it opens at 5AM.
Luckily for me, my group was just as eager and competitive as I was and we woke up at 3AM to be the first in line at the gate in hopes that we can make it to Machu Picchu to watch the sun rise over the city.
This was my first time hiking in the dark with headlamps and the guide’s warnings of hikers falling over the narrow cliffs in the past was enough to make me wide awake. We lucked out and were through the gate just after 5AM and you could feel the excitement. After four days working towards one single goal, talking about it all day, thinking only about reaching Machu Picchu, it was about to become a reality. It was a surreal experience and I’ve never felt anything like it, being so cut off from the world to focus on this one journey.
When we reached the lookout point I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Seeing Machu Picchu for the first time, I expected it to be bigger, closer. But we were still a mile or so away, and waiting for the sun to rise to light up the city seemed to take forever.
Here I’m thinking, “This isn’t what it looked like in the photos I’ve seen”. But I was excited to get closer, and closer I got.
At this point in the trek, you start to notice two kinds of people: 1) Those that had just hiked a marathon in 3.5 days and were exhausted but high on life, they had huge packs and needed a shower. and 2) Those that had just stepped off a train in cute outfits, clean hair and makeup and were excited to be immersed in history for the first time.
We couldn’t help but smile to ourselves and be proud that our photos might not look as good, and we might be a little tired, but we had earned this moment and wouldn’t have done it any other way.
As you descend the path to Machu Picchu, there is a spot known as the postcard spot, where tourists can get photos like the one below. It’s the most famous view of Machu Picchu and probably the one you’ve seen before.
With every picture I took, I just kept thinking, ‘this could be the only time I see this place in my life’, I made a conscious effort to be very present. I had to soak it all in.
We were given 2 hours to explore the ruins. We walked the entire city, took pictures and videos, fell in love with the only current residents (eh hem, more llamas and alpacas!) and marveled at the ancient architecture. Literally getting to touch and be in Machu Picchu made me appreciate why they limit how many people visit everyday and I hope this site is around for generations to come.
But if I urge you to take one trip in your life, I would definitely recommend hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. There is talk of the Inca trail closing one day and only being able to see Machu Picchu from a viewing area so if you’re planning a visit, go sooner rather than later.
This was the most memorable and life changing trip I have ever taken. Thank you for taking the time to read about my adventures and I hope you are inspired to get out and do something that gets you excited.