There are two main ways to get to Machu Picchu, but it’s best done by foot.
Machu Picchu, the famed Inca city, sits in ruin on top of the Andes in southern Peru. It’s a magical and increasingly popular destination for travelers. It’s also a tightly regulated Peruvian Historical Sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage site. It requires advanced planning and the first decision a traveler has to make is how to get there: by train or by foot.
Here are five reasons why hiking the Inca Trail is the best way to get to Machu Picchu.
1. Machu Picchu was intended to be accessed by foot. The Inca created thousands of miles of stone walking paths and staircases linking their impressive mountaintop cities. Our guide Jhon joked that instead of all roads leading to Rome, they actually lead to Cusco (the ancient Inca capital). Only a fraction of these trails have been rediscovered and cleared of the cloud forest’s quick growing flora and fauna. Whichever Inca trail trek you take to get to Machu Picchu (there are a few to choose from), you will in some small way be getting a glimpse of the city as a traveling Inca would have more than 500 years ago.
2.Walking to Machu Picchu offers a more immersive experience. The classic Inca Trail trek is about 26 miles and takes between 4 or 5 days to complete. It also must be hiked with a licensed company and guide. Together, the guide and the time on the trail give you an in-depth look into the ancient Inca civilization.
We learned a ton about Inca and Peruvian culture from our guide Jhon, and made a real connection with him, too. This was especially the case because we chose a company that only does very small groups. My friend and I were the only two travelers on our trek, which means we spent the majority of our time just hanging out with our guide and porters — all locals.
3. The Inca sites on the trail are in some ways better than Machu Picchu itself. Because the Inca sites along the trail are so remote and the numbers of hikers on the trails capped, we often had entire sites all to ourselves. It made us feel like explorers. And even though Machu Picchu wins for size, location, and complexity, the ease of access via the train also makes it as crowded as Disneyland. As a result, my favorite experiences were actually on the trail itself.
4. The natural beauty of the trail is unparalleled. Machu Picchu is incredible gorgeous, but so is the hike to get there. The hike takes you through four separate climates and ecosystems from not-quite-Alpine vistas to subtropical forests. Taking the train to Machu Picchu, you really only experience one: Machu Picchu itself. On the hike we saw cacti and burros, flock of parakeets, spiders that create trumpet-shaped webs, thousands of orchids, and moss that was three feet thick. We went through tunnels, and crossed rivers and three mountain passes. It was incredible.
5. You still get to experience the train. Thanks to regulations, the trails are one-way only — even those who hike the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu must take the train back. The train is a scenic 1.5 hours ride following the curves of Urubamba river from Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo) at the base of Machu Pichu to Ollantaytambo. Book train tickets several days in advance because they regularly sell out.
Traveler tip: Stay one night in Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo) before taking the train back. It will give you more time to explore the Machu Picchu site, as well as give you a night’s rest and hot bath before sharing a train car with a bunch of people, most of whom did not spend the previous four days backpacking across the Andes.
— Laura Rowley