The Road Less Traveled to Machu Picchu
Deciding how to get thereAs I researched, I discovered that there are many different paths to Machu Picchu’s spectacular Incan ruins. Picking one depends on your vacation time, budget and fitness level.
No roads go directly to Machu Picchu, so the easiest and quickest option is by rail. Peru Rail and Inca Rail both go to the town of Agua Calientes, and from there you can catch a 20-minute shuttle bus to the Machu Picchu site.
Since we weren’t pressed for time, we ruled out the train and instead looked into the more active alternative: trekking. The most famous route to Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail, which is actually three overlapping routes that take two to five days. The trail ends dramatically at the Sun Gate on top of Machu Picchu mountain, overlooking the Machu Picchu ruins. Along the way, trekkers pass Incan ruins, cloud forests and tundra. However, the trail’s popularity also means you’ll bump into a fair amount of other tourists (and people trying to profit off tourists). It also requires a permit, which I soon discovered the hard way must be reserved many months in advance—they were already sold out for our travel dates.
Back to square one, I began exploring alternate routes to Machu Picchu, many of which don’t require permits. National Geographic lists their top six picks, which range from 1-13 days. While all sounded spectacular, the four-day Lares Route held my interest. This route promised to be the most remote and uncrowded, passing small Incan farms where the locals raise llamas and plant potatoes by hand the same as they have for centuries. I booked our spots on a trek led by Alpaca Expeditions and began to prepare.
Tips for trekking
You don’t have to be in triathlete shape to trek. Anyone who’s moderately fit and comfortable walking for long periods can complete a trek, though you’ll have a more enjoyable time if you prepare. Getting out for some day hikes is a good start. Or if you live in a big city like me, you may have to get more creative -- I’ve been known to wear a weighted backpack on the stair-climber at the gym.
During our trek, we walked up to eight hours a day at elevations of up to 15,000 feet. The altitude makes itself known—some members of our group suffered from headaches, dizziness and sleeping problems, but fortunately nothing too debilitating. You may consider taking medication such as Diamox to prevent the symptoms (prescription required), and you should absolutely schedule a few days of rest in Cusco or nearby before the trek to help your body acclimate.
The Lares Route lived up to the claims. The whole time, we only saw half a dozen other trekkers. For most of the way, our group’s only company was expansive views of mountain peaks and turquoise alpine lakes, plus the occasional llama, alpaca or wild chinchilla. We even got to tour an authentic Incan home.
At night we slept in tents, where mummy sleeping bags and hot water bottles were a necessity against the freezing temperatures. Trekkers should pack lots of layers if they visit during the Peruvian winter (summer months in the U.S.), because the temperatures vary widely from warm afternoons to freezing nights. Regardless of the season, you should bring comfortable, broken-in hiking boots, trekking poles and waterproof (not just water resistant) rain layers, which we fortunately didn’t end up needing.
The main event: Machu Picchu
At the end of the trek, we stayed overnight in Agua Calientes, and then awoke at 5 a.m. to take the shuttle bus to the ruins. The early wakeup call served two purposes: It gave us plenty of time to take photos before the tourist trains arrived, and it allowed us to see the sunrise peek through the mountaintop Sun Gate and illuminate the ruins.
I’d recommend touring Machu Picchu with a guide, as ours explained the site’s history and areas of significance that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Afterward, my boyfriend and I hiked an hour up steep staircases to the top of the adjacent Huayna Picchu mountain to get a bird’s eye vantage point. Huayna Picchu requires a separate $25 permit, but the views overlooking Machu Picchu are worth the extra money and exertion.
We ended the trek feeling elated at having experienced a part of Peru and the authentic Incan way of life that few tourists get to see. But whichever way you get there, Machu Picchu earns its place among the world’s most renowned destinations.
Travelzoo Tip: A Machu Picchu trip is not a last-minute undertaking. Trekking permits, train tickets, and Machu Picchu admission can all sell out many months in advance. Be sure to book everything far ahead of time.