Hiking to Machu Picchu
Everything you need to know about hiking Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Answer: The Classic Inca Trail retraces the footsteps of one of the greatest archeological discoveries in modern times.
Photo: Hiram Bingham's Memorial plaque
Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 while he was exploring the Cuzco region of the Purvian Andes. Along the way he journeyed through the Sacred Valley and along the Urubamba River, discovering dozens of ancient Inca ruins along the way. As he journeyed deeper into the Sacred Valley he eventually met an old farmer that spoke of a ruin sitting high on a nearby mountain, a mountain that he named ‘Machu Picchu’ – which in the local language of Quechua means ‘Old Mountain’.
Bingham was lead to the overgrown, yet perfectly preserved ruins by an 11 year old boy from the nearby village. The enormity of his discovery soon settled in as he was struck by the awe of the surrounding granite peaks, peaks that are home to over 200 species of wild orchid, overlooking the Urubamba River as it flows through the Sacred Valley.
Photo: View from camp on day 3 of the Classic Inca Trail - you can imagine how wild Hiram Bingham's adventure was
It didn’t take long for the word of Bingham’s discovery to spread, and in 1948 he published a book about it called ‘Lost City of the Incas: The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders’. Since then, tens of thousands of hikers have followed in Bingham’s footsteps each year, retracing his journey to discover the ancient ruins… on a path that’s known today as the Classic Inca Trail.
So most people today that are thinking about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, are most likely thinking of hiking this Classic Inca Trail. But what few people realize is that there are dozens of Inca Trails in Peru, spanning thousands of kilometers. The Inca Empire was one of the largest empires in the world before it was conquered by the Spanish in 1572 – so for hundreds of years the Peruvian Incas constructed these trails throughout the Andean mountains where they peacefully called home. Luckily for avid hikers, many of these Inca Trails have been preserved today.
As the popularity of the Classic Inca Trail grew, along came the crowds and with them came the trash and trail damage. So in order to preserve the trail, Peru’s Ministry of Culture placed a limit of 500 hikers on the Classic Inca Trail per day (approximately 200 hikers and 300 guides/porters), but this is nowhere near the daily demand and hundreds of hikers miss out on pre-booking their hiking permits. Another down side to the crowds of tourists on the Classic Inca Trail is that there tends to be a missing link between hikers and the local Peruvian culture, not to mention the hike can be a little bit too physically demanding. This is where the Lares Inca Trail comes into its own.
Where does the Lares Inca Trail begin?
The Lares Inca Trail begins in the town of Lares and takes you to Ollantaytambo on the 3rd day. From Ollantaytambo you’ll take a train to Aguas Calientes where you’ll enjoy a hot shower and cozy night's sleep before the final stretch to Machu Picchu on the 4th day. You can choose to take this final stage of your journey by bus, or on foot.
How physically demanding is the Lares Inca Trail, compared to the Classic Inca Trail?
The Lares Inca trail is a shorter option at 33 kilometers, opposed to the 43 kilometer Classic Inca Trail. And while the highest pass on the Lares will take you to a slightly higher elevation than the Classic Inca Trail (the elevation of the Lares Inca Trail is 4,809 meters compared to an elevation of 4,226 meters on the Classic Inca Trail) the trail is in fact a less technical and physically demanding hike. The path is smoother and doesn’t have the thousands of stone steps of the Classic Inca Trail.
What’s the greatest highlight of the Lares Inca Trail? Answer: The culture.
The greatest highlight of the Lares Inca Trail, as many of our Active travellers explain, is the cultural immersion along the way. You’ll only be sharing the Lares Inca Trail with a handful of hikers each day so you’ll be welcomed into a number of small villages. You'll notice the traditional bright colored clothing worn by villagers, with their distinctive patterns and intricate detail. Many of the people who live in the villages along the Lares Trail are direct descendants of the Inca - they’ll welcome you into their home and share a tea with you as you try your hand at weaving, or enjoy a meal.
Photo: Local farmer's wife and daughter on the Lares Inca Trail
How do I plan my hike to Machu Picchu on the Classic or Lares Inca Trails?
The easiest way to get to Machu Picchu while hiking the Lares Inca Trail, is to join an organized tour. Most tours will pick you up from Cuzco International Airport, and they will take care of all your food, accommodation, transport, guides, hiking passes and Machu Picchu entry tickets. Guides are bilingual too, so you’ll have a direct connection to the local Peruvians and their culture – they’ll make you feel like a local when you’re travelling through Peru.
How long does it take to hike to Machu Picchu?
4 days/3 nights.
What distance is the hike to Machu Picchu?
The Classic Inca Trail is 43 kilometers (26.7 miles)
The Lares Inca Trail is 33 kilometers (20.5 miles)
Can I hike to Machu Picchu solo?
Classic Inca Trail: No, you cannot hike solo to Machu Picchu on the Classic Inca Trail. All hikers must be accompanied by a guide.
Lares Inca Trail: Yes. But it’s not recommended. The Lares Inca Trail isn’t exactly one single path taking you from A to B, it’s an entire network of trails that follow a valley. Along the way it’s easy to get lost or miss a camping spot. Hiking solo means you’ll have to carry all of your own camping gear, food, boil your own drinking water, and you’re very vulnerable to the elements if you get struck by altitude sickness or you twist an ankle. There’s also the logistical issues of organizing transport from Cuzco to the town of Lares, then the connection from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu (including accommodations at Aguas Calientes and entry tickets to Machu Picchu).
What’s the best time to hike to Machu Picchu?
You can hike the Classic Inca Trail all year round, except for February when the trail is closed for maintenance.
You can hike the Lares Inca Trail all year round.
Although the altitude on the Lares Inca Trail is slightly more than the Classic Inca trail, it’s important to remember that both trails are still fairly similar (4,809m on the Lares compared to 4,226m on the Classic).
How to prepare for the altitude of the Inca Trail: Your journey to Machu Picchu will start at the city of Cuzco, which sits at 4,000 meters. So the biggest mistake you can make is to start hiking the moment you arrive! If you take a couple of days to explore the city, and take a gentle bike ride in the Sacred Valley you’ll be in great shape to start hiking on the third day.
If you’re an avid hiker and you’re happy to hike a slightly more difficult trail (technically and physically) then the Classic Inca Trail is the one you should choose. The Lares Inca Trail is less physically demanding than the Classic Inca Trail.
If you’d like a little bit more luxury on your journey, then the Lares Inca Trail is the one you should choose. On the Lares Inca Trail there are only 2 nights of camping, then the third night is spent in the comfort of a local hotel at Aguas Calientes – where you’ll enjoy a hot shower and delicious meal before a good night’s sleep and then you'll rise in the morning to journey to Machu Picchu.
The Classic Inca Trail has 3 nights of camping (compared to 2 nights on the Lares) and your first chance to grab a shower will be back in Cuzco, when you return at the end of the 4th day.
You can hike the Classic or Lares Inca Trails to Machu Picchu on our 7, 10 or 14 day 'Jaguar' trip in Peru:
Jaguar Ultimate Peru Adventure
- 14 Days
The 'Jaguar' is our most action-packed multi-activity trip in Peru. Start your trip in the heart of the Inca empire where you'll explore fortresses and surrounding valleys. Hike over stunning mountain passes to Machu Picchu, cycle into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, view Amazon wildlife up close and sea kayak across Lake Titicaca to stay with an indigenous family.
The variety of activities and landscapes on this trip will give you a Peruvian adventure like no other – and an experience you’ll never forget! It captures everything this beautiful country has to offer, from the towering peaks of the Andes down to the steamy depths of the Amazon rainforest. You’ll have a blast in this land of geographical and cultural extremes!
Like an Inca in Peru
See our other Peru Guided Adventure Tours:
Iguana Peru and Galapagos Explorer
- 13 Days
- From US$6,999
Our 13-day ‘Iguana’ trip has been a long time in the making. Inside two weeks, you’ll experience the absolute best that Peru and the Galapagos Islands have to offer. You’ll travel in comfort and style, get off the beaten track, stay in fantastic locally owned accommodations, meet the locals & experience some of the world’s most iconic landscapes and monuments - all in typical Active Adventures style of course.
You’ll cycle into the Sacred valley of the Incas, hike the Huchuy Qosqo Trail, experience Machu Picchu and explore the wonders of Cuzco. And that’s just Peru! After a short flight to Quito, you’ll head to the Galapagos Islands where you’ll snorkel with seals, hike around one of the world’s largest volcanic craters, sea kayak near Isabela Island, get up close to all manner of wild creatures and relax on isolated beaches. If you’re only likely to visit this part of South America once in your life, we’ll make sure it’s a trip that you never forget.
Capybara Peru Family Adventure
- 11 Days
- Adult: US$4,299, Child (15 & under): US$3,799
Bring the whole family to explore Peru, see amazing sights and embark on a kid-friendly adventure of a lifetime (travellers without kids are welcome too). Peru is a vibrant, family-friendly destination and you’ll find children of all ages – yes, even teenagers – will love exploring everything this country has to offer. On the ‘Capybara’, you’ll venture deep into the Amazon rainforest, see an awesome array of wildlife, visit the lost city of Machu Picchu and sea kayak across Lake Titicaca to stay with a local family on Amantani Island. Not only will everyone enjoy this adventure, it’s also a chance for your children and teenagers to immerse themselves in a different culture and way of life. We’ve chosen locally-run, comfortable accommodations for this trip and we take care of all the logistics behind planning your trip, including meals, so all you have to do is show up, have fun and start building memories!