This long-term Bucket List favourite is as popular as ever. Here is a quick guide to the when, where and hows of getting to Machu Picchu.
When to go
The weather in the Andes can be very unpredictable and can vary from day to day (or even hour to hour!) at any time of year. However, in simplistic terms, April to October is colder and drier and November to March is warmer but with light to heavy rains; February is the wettest month when the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance. June, July and August are the peak months, making April, May, September and October the optimal months for smaller crowds and less chance of rain. If travelling during peak season be sure to book well in advance and, whatever time of year, be prepared for all weather with a rain jacket or poncho AND sunscreen - you never know.
Consider all options: the Classic Inca Trail, the original route used by the Incas to reach Machu Picchu, is incredibly well-known, but so are its busy paths, hectic campsites and over-used loos! There are some awesome alternatives out there such as the Lares, Salcantay or Wild Andes Trek that offer the same Andean hiking experience with the added bonus of peaceful trails, quiet camping and primitive-but-clean toilets. Research all treks thoroughly though - remember that the Inca Trail is the only trek that leads directly to the Machu Picchu site, and with all the other hikes you will need to take the shuttle bus or walk up from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. A supposed highlight of the Classic Trail is setting off at 4am in order to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. However, this is more of a sun-ruse than a sun-rise since, more often than not, the surrounding high mountains and low-lying clouds block the sun and the view of Machu Picchu at that time in the morning. The best time of day to visit the Sun Gate is pretty much any other time of the day, once the sun has burnt the clouds! Whichever hike you choose, ensure your tour operator practises Responsible Tourism and has adequate policies for employment of local porters and minimal impact on the environment.
The train to Machu Picchu departs either from the town of Poroy, close to Cuzco, or from the mystical town of Ollantaytambo. You may want to consider a route or tour that includes visits to Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and it is definitely worth visiting these places before Machu Picchu. They are both fascinating and awe-inspiring sites but their splendour will pale into comparison once you’ve seen the majesty of Machu Picchu! The train ride ends at the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, from here you will need to take a shuttle bus (or you can choose to walk 1hr 30 mins) up to the entrance. Buses are frequent and comfortable though there may be a queue for the return journey; make sure you leave plenty of time to get back down. There are different options for the type of train including the most economical Expedition Train, the Vistadome Train (with panoramic windows in the sides and roof) and the Hiram Bingham Luxury Train. All styles are modern and comfortable with air-conditioning/heating, snacks and beverages and toilet facilities.
Altitude sickness is the main worry for many visitors to the region. Machu Picchu itself stands at a fairly modest altitude of 2430m so visiting the site shouldn’t be too much of a problem, though you may feel a little short of breath. Issues usually arise for those who fly into Cuzco - at 3400m, anyone not accustomed to living at this height may feel short of breath, a little dizzy and suffer mild headaches. Ideally, arriving into Cuzco by land, on a bus or train, will give your body more time to adapt naturally to the altitude, but if this isn’t possible then do try and plan a day or two in Cuzco before heading off on a hike. Drink plenty of water, get plenty of rest and take it easy for the first day or two. Locals swear by ‘Coca Tea’ - for centuries the notorious coca leaf has been chewed and brewed by Andean residents who advocate its health benefits in warding off altitude sickness. It may have tenuous links to the potent white powder targeted by the CIA, but the innocent coca leaf is perfectly legal in South America and, rest assured, a nice hot brew is less harmful than a mild cup of coffee.
At 4215m, Dead Woman’s Pass is the highest point on the Classic Inca Trail. Named for the shape of the pass (like a woman lying down) rather than the scores of female tourists summiting the pass everyday, it is not as scary as it sounds, especially if you are well acclimatised. Again, drink plenty of water, eat well and slow down your pace: at this altitude you need to walk far slower than you normally would, take baby steps and keep going rather than rushing ahead and having to stop to catch your breath every 5 minutes. Think Tortoise and the Hare, slow but sure definitely wins the race!
Arranging a self-guided trip to Machu Picchu can be a logistical nightmare; with train tickets, the shuttle bus, Inca Trail permits and guides, entrance tickets and a guide for the site… not to mention when and how to visit all the other incredible sites around the area. It’s no wonder the majority of tourists, even the most budget-conscious backpacker, will book a package tour to Machu Picchu. It really is the easiest and most stress-free way to explore the area, leaving you relaxed and fully able to enjoy the experience. Research, research, research is the key if you are choosy about which sites you want to see and when, or you can sit back and trust the experts…