Updated March 7th, 2020.
The most iconic travel image in the whole of South America, if not the world, Machu Picchu is the highlight of many people’s trips to the continent. But how should you approach the experience?
Should you plan in advance reserving your place to hike the famous Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu? Brave high snowy mountain passes on the backpacker favourite Salkantay trek? Or how about the adventure-packed Inca Jungle trail?
Or, if you’re tight on budget and time, you could just take the cheap and easy option and get the Peru Rail to the base of the site at Aguas Calientes? Phew! So many options that will affect your experience of visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World… So which one to choose? Here we break it down for you…
1. The Inca Trail – CLASSIC TREK
- Duration: 4 days
- Cost: $500 – $1000 depending on tour company
The Inca Trail was built by the Incas in the 15th century, linking the Inca capital Cusco with the spiritual city of Machu Picchu. The trail is 43km long (26 miles) and undulates through amazing mountain scenery, jungle, cloud forest, past ancient Inca ruins, paving stones and tunnels along the way.
Due to worries of erosion of the world famous trail, authorities have limited the route to 500 trekkers daily, which means about 200 trekkers and 300 guides. You should definitely book in advance if you want to trek the Inca Trail and pay your entrance fee in advance.
The waiting list is currently around 6 months and you can apply for a permit on the official government website: www.machupicchu.gob.pe. You cannot trek the Inca Trail independently and you must book with a tour agency and be accompanied by trekking guides. Due to weather, in February, the trail is closed. Find out everything you need to know about planning your Inca Trail Hike here.
2. Salkantay Trek – BACKPACKER FAVOURITE
- Duration: 5 days
- Cost: $225 USD (We got this price with Milhouse Hostel in Cusco)
Probably the most popular route for backpackers, the Salkantay trek is an awesome 5-day adventure where you’ll be walking over snowy mountain passes of 4,600 metres one day, through and through humid rainforest the next.
After four days of hard trekking, you’ll also take a dip in the hot springs at Santa Theresa where you’ll feel your body come alive again!
On the final day, you’ll wake at 4 am to trek the final path to see Machu Picchu at sunrise. If you still have any energy left you can hike up Machu Picchu Mountain or Huaynu Picchu for incredible birds-eye views of the ancient ruins.
Be warned – the trek is hard and you need to be fit and healthy as you will trek around 8 hours/day.
The price includes all meals along the trek, accommodation, (tents for three nights and backpacker hostel in Aguas Cliententes on the night before you climb Machu Picchu) your entrance fee into Machu Picchu, plus train and comb back to Cusco – all in all, this trek is excellent value for money.
3. Inca Jungle Trek – ADDED ADRENALINE
- Duration: 4 days
- Cost: $230 USD
The second most popular choice for backpackers to reach Machu Picchu is the Inca Jungle Trek which as well as trekking includes rafting, mountain biking and zip wiring if you so wish! (The activities are priced separated)
Rather than going over high mountain passes, this route takes you through misty jungle and coffee plantations where you’ll spot parrots, monkeys and all kinds of tropical fruits.
You’ll also get chance to visit the hot springs in Santa Theresa which are a delight for all trekkers! Check out this itinerary with Loki Hostel for more detailed info. The price includes the entrance fee to Machu Picchu and transport back to Cusco on the fourth day.
4. Choquequirao Trek – SCENIC ROUTE
- Duration: 9 Days
- Cost: $700 – $800
The longest and scenically most varied route to Machu Picchu taking you on less visited pathways and off the beaten track Inca trails.
During this challenging 9-day adventure, you’ll visit the ruins of Choquequirao – one of the most remote Inca ruins in the Peruvian Andes, often referred to as Machu Picchu’s sister, with large portions of the site yet to be excavated.
Whilst iconic Machu Picchu receives 2,500 visitors per day, Choquequirao (meaning ‘Cradle of Gold’) is practically deserted. (Apparently, there are rumours that there are plans to build a cable car to the ruins so it may not stay this way for long!)
For now, however, the scene is a refreshing contrast to the tourist-laden Machu Picchu. After trekking through cloud forest and snow-capped mountain scenery, eventually, your trail joins the last section of the Salkantay Trek.
You will arrive at Machu Picchu on the ninth and final day of your trek before heading back to Cusco via train. This trek is a great choice for those with more time who are interested in finding out more about Inca culture.
There’s also the option on this trek to visit Vilcabamba, the last refuge of the Incas, famed for being a magical and spiritual place.
5. Combi and Peru Rail – CHEAP DIY OPTION
- Duration: 2 days
- Cost: $70 – $165 USD
The DIY route to Machu Picchu involves combi bus journeys, travelling by train and trekking – and is very doable. This is the cheapest and quickest way to visit Machu Picchu and if you are low on budget and time may just be the best option for you.
From Cusco, you can get the train direct to Aguas Clients which is the base for starting your trek to the ruins. There is a path which goes directly from the town and will take you up to Machu Picchu in about two hours (uphill all the way of course!)
You will need to stay in a hostel overnight in Aguas Calientes (around $20 USD) as it’s a bit too much to do in one day and you don’t want to feel rushed in experiencing one of the seven wonders of the world! Here’s a breakdown of the total $165 cost:
- Train: approx. $100 USD return from Cusco to Aguas Calientes.
- Entrance fee to Machu Picchu: $45 USD (or 50% off with a valid ISIC card)
- Round trip in combi van: $20 USD.
And if you think that’s cheap check out article by our South America Ambassadors Two Monkeys Travel, explains in detail how to cut the train out of your journey, traveling the whole distance by combo van and walking and get your price down to as little as $70 USD! Guaranteed the ‘cheapest backpacker DIY route’.
6. Santa Maria Trek – NEW AND UNTESTED
- Duration: 4 days
- Cost: $470 USD
This is a new route for backpackers wanting to take a somewhat more relaxed journey to Machu Picchu than the Salkantay or Inca Jungle Trail, travelling 24km in 4 days.
On this trip, you’ll travel from Cusco to Santa Maria, then on the second-day trek from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa through jungle and past coco plantations to reach your stop for the night. Here you’ll take a dip in the wonderfully relaxing hot baths in Santa Teresa – a not to be missed experience!
From here you’ll trek from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes and the next morning rise early at 5.30am to hike to Machu Picchu (you can also go by bus to the top). You’ll head back to Cusco the next day. We have only seen a few tour companies offering this alternative so far and the price is actually quite high for what is offered.
7. Harim Bingham Express – POSH PICK
- Duration: 1 day
- Cost: $397 USD
The obvious choice for flashpackers and luxury travellers – forget dirty trekking boots and achy muscles, this is the way to get to Machu Picchu in pure style! Sit back and relax as you travel from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and the base Machu Picchu.
The Hiram Bingham Express, named after the American explorer who discovered the forgotten city back in 1911 is an exclusive train service that was voted the best train in the world by Condé Nast Traveller in 2011.
A trip on the luxury locomotive will set you back $397 USD (return from Cusco to Aguas Calientes), but for that price don’t think you won’t be made to feel like a real VIP.
On arrival at the station, you’ll be greeted with welcome aperitifs before you jump aboard… Then once inside your plush carriage, gourmet brunch, dinner and a selection of Peruvian wines will be served in utmost style.