Treks to Machu Picchu: Which One To Choose?

Treks to Machu Picchu: Which One To Choose?

The ancient citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru is one of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures. Visiting Machu Picchu is on many travelers’ bucket lists – and for a good reason. This former royal retreat is a stunning architectural masterpiece and an important part of the Inca civilization.

There are many different routes that lead to the New Wonder of the World. From one-day trips from Cusco to multi-day camping treks to Machu Picchu, there’s truly something for everyone.

Treks to Machu Picchu:

inca trail salkantay trek and lares trek

3 incredible treks to Machu Picchu: Inca Trail, Salkantay Trek & Lares Trek.


Hiking Machu Picchu: Trails and Route Options

The most picturesque way to reach the royal citadel of Machu Picchu is by hiking in the awe-inspiring Andes mountains. The most popular pathway, however, is along the ancient Inca Trail. While the hike is undoubtedly a great experience, there are other alternative treks to Machu Picchu that are definitely worth exploring.

The Salkantay Trail and the Lares Trail are two alternative trails filled with historic sites, cloud forests, and breathtaking views. No matter which route you choose to take, hiking to Machu Picchu is an unforgettable adventure.


1. Hiking Along the Inca Trail

Regardless of the season, the Inca Trail allows you to hike along ancient paths high into the Andes – all while enjoying a magnificent landscape dotted with centuries-old Incan ruins.

Constructed by the Incas over 500 years ago, the trail connects several important Incan sites: Sayacmarca, Runcuracay, Phuyupatamarca, Winayawayna, and (of course) the Machu Picchu ruins.

As one of the most popular hikes in South America, there are serious concerns over the impact of tourism. This is why the Peruvian government has limited the number of people allowed on the trail per day to 500 (200 hikers and 300 guides/porters).

To ensure a spot on the trail, you’ll need to book your hike well in advance. When planning your trip to Machu Picchu, note that the Inca Trail is closed during the month of February.

stoney way on inca trail

Spectacular views on the Inca Trail.


Inca Trail Tours

During our 4-day classic Inca Trail tour, you’ll walk along the sacred path of the Incas, meet local communities, and discover natural monuments such as the Wayllabamba Valley, Warmiwañuska Pass, Pacaymayu Gorge, and the Wiñaywaya Citadels. Along this trail, you will also be accompanied by expert guides (trained in first-aid and rescue) as well as professional chefs.

The culmination of the 4-day Inca Trail adventure ends at the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) where you’ll overlook the Machu Picchu ruins and take in the iconic Huayna Picchu at sunrise.

If you’re short on time – or traveling with young children – the 2-day Inca Trail tour is a perfect alternative to the 4-day trek. The journey begins with a scenic train ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. From there, you’ll hike up to the stunning archaeological site of Wiñay Wayna and the Sun Gate. You’ll spend the night at a cozy hostel in Aguas Calientes before heading to Machu Picchu in the morning.

No matter how you choose to hike the Inca Trail, there’s something for every level and experience.

inca trail ruins

During the Inca Trail, you’ll see many ancient ruins with mind-blowing stories.


How Long is the Inca Trail?

The walking distance of the Inca Trail is about 26 miles (or 42 km) and takes 4 days to complete. The walking distance of the 2-day Inca Trail is 6.3 miles/10 km.


Is Hiking the Inca Trail Difficult?

The classic Inca Trail is considered moderately difficult, though this depends on your personal fitness, hiking experience, and your group’s pace.


When Is the Best Time to Hike the Inca Trail?

It’s best to hike the Inca Trail during the dry season which goes from April to September. The weather is cold (particularly between June and August) on the elevated sections, however, it warms up as you approach the Machu Picchu region. Check our post about the best time to do the Inca Trail if you’d like to have more info on this.

bridge over river on inca trail

The mix of nature is what makes all these treks so incredible.


Inca Trail Packing List

On the Inca Trail, camping equipment and personal belongings are carried by porters. You can place your belongings in a duffle bag (included in the 4-day tour). Your duffle bag should not exceed 5 kg/11 lbs.

While trekking, you may experience rain during the day and cold temperatures during the night. Pack lightly, but don’t forget to bring the following:

  • Clothes that you can layer (daytime and nighttime temperatures can vary greatly)
  • Good hiking shoes
  • Hat
  • 2.5L water bottle
  • Headlamp and/or torch


2. Salkantay Trek

Out of the treks to Machu Picchu, the Salkantay Trek is the most popular Inca Trail alternative. This is a 5-day hiking challenge filled with breathtaking scenery of glaciated mountains and alpine settings.

One of the highlights along this route is Mount Salkantay (also called Nevada Salkantay), located just 60km from Cusco. Clocking in at 6,271 meters, Mount Salkantay is one of the most impressive mountains in the region – and also the highest in the Willkapampa (Vilcabamba) range.

couple at humantay lake

The Humantay Lake is the first of many stunning sites that you will visit when hiking the Salkantay trek.


Salkantay Trek Tours

Exploor Peru’s Salkantay Trek 5-day tour is an excellent way to experience the ever-changing terrains and enjoy mountains, thermal baths, and ancient Incan sites. Apart from the snow-capped Salkantay mountain, you’ll also get to see the beautiful Humantay lake, the Amazon jungle, and – of course – the majestic Machu Picchu!

During this 5-day tour, you’ll be hiking in a small group of like-minded adventurers, led by an experienced guide who will share exciting information about your surroundings.

Unlike the Inca Trail, no permits are required for hiking along the Salkantay trail (though travelers are advised to book a tour at least a week in advance).

salkantay sky dome with stars

One of the highlights of the Salkantay Trek is sleeping under the stars in the Sky domes.


How Long Is the Salkantay Trek?

The walking distance of the Salkantay Trek is 37 miles (60km) and will take you 5 days to complete. While the duration of the trek may vary, the itinerary typically takes 5 days/4 nights.


Is the Salkantay Trek Difficult?

The Salkantay Trek is a route that requires between 6-10 hours of hiking each day. Because these terrains are moderate to challenging, being in good shape is recommended.

Because you’ll experience high altitudes during the trek, give your body enough time to adapt to Peru’s high altitudes by spending a few days acclimatizing in Cusco or the Sacred Valley.


When Is the Best Time to Hike the Salkantay?

The dry season is the best time to do this trek. It goes from April to September. Throughout this period the weather is sunny during the day, but cold during the night.

travelers on salkantay trek

What many travelers love about this trek is the rapidly changing flora and fauna. One day you’re in the mountains, the next day you’ll be in the jungle.


Salkantay Packing List

On the Salkantay Trek, gear is carried by mules. As part of our tour, you will get a special bag for your personal belongings (including a sleeping bag). The bag should not be heavier than 15 lbs/7 kg.

When packing for the Salkantay Trek, make sure you include:

  • Good-quality hiking shoes
  • Trekking clothes
  • Hat and gloves
  • Water bottle
  • Coca leaves
  • Bug repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Swimsuit and a towel (for the thermal baths on Day 3 of the trekking tour)


3. Lares Trek to Machu Picchu

The Lares Trek is a fairly quiet, off-the-beaten trail. The trek starts at the town of Lares (about 40 miles from Cusco). During this hike, travelers can meet and interact with a number of traditional Andean communities living in the Lares Valley.

Though the route can vary, it most commonly ends at Ollantaytambo. From there, travelers can take a train to Aguas Calientes to visit Machu Picchu.

village on lares trek

A small village located in the mountains on the Lares Trek.


Trip Length and Distance

The shortest (and most popular hike) is via the Patacancha route. It’s approximately 33km long and takes 4 days to complete, including an extra day to visit Machu Picchu. The route also passes through weaving communities at Patacancha and Huacahuasi.


Is the Lares Trek Difficult?

There are a number of Lares Trek routes to choose from, each varying in distance and difficulty. It is generally advised that you are in good physical shape and fully acclimatized to Peru’s high altitudes before attempting any of them.


Best Season for the Lares Trek

It is recommendable to do the Lares Trek during the dry season. It is also known as high season, because the absence of rain keeps the dry the paths dry and the sky is clear, revealing the beauty of Andean chain and jungle border.


Lares Packing List

When preparing for your Lares Trek to Machu Picchu, pack lightly and include:

  • Rain gear
  • Tent and sleeping bag
  • Appropriate trekking shoes and clothing
  • Water bottle and snacks
  • Headlamp
man and woman at machu picchu

The highlight of all 3 treks is undoubtedly the visit of Machu Picchu.


At a Glance: Treks to Machu Picchu

Inca TrailSalkantay TrekLares Trek
Difficulty LevelModerate (classic Inca Trail) to easy (short Trail)Between moderate and challengingModerate
Walking Distance (on average)42km (classic Inca Trail) and 10km (short Trail)60km30km (may vary depending on your route)
Trek Duration4 days/3 nights (classic Inca Trail) and 2 days/1 night (short Trail)5 days/4 nights4 days/ 3 nights
Highest Point Reached4,200m (classic Inca Trail) and 2,700m (short Trail)4,600mApproximately 4,450m
Popularity/Number of TouristsVery popular (500 hikers per day)PopularLess touristy; off-the-beaten trail
Time to BookAt least 6 months in advanceCan be days before (except for high season)Can be days before (except for high season)
Arrival at Machu PicchuYes, you enter through the sun gate.No, you arrive in Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu the next day.No, you arrive in Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu the next day.
Highlights (apart from Machu Picchu)Wiñay Wayna Citadels and the Sun Gate (Inti Punku)Mount Salkantay, Humantay lake, jungle landscapeMeet traditional Andean weaving communities


Ready for Your Machu Picchu Hiking Adventure?

Full of wild nature and ancient Incan culture, hiking Machu Picchu is a real adventure! No matter which of the treks to Machu Picchu you end up choosing, our tours will bring you face to face with some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes.

Curious to learn more? Have a look at our Machu Picchu blog section to discover valuable insights and expert tips.

  • 13 September, 2023 at 8:10 am

    Hallo liebes Exploor Peru team, vielen Dank für diesen tollen Vergleich. Mein Sohn (17) und ich sind derzeit sind derzeit am recherchieren, welche Wanderung wir für April 2024 machen. Wir spielen beide Tennis und machen regelmäßig Konditionstraining, aber haben keine große Wandererfahrung.

    Als ich gelesen habe, dass die Wanderung 60km ist, haben wir uns etwas erschrocken. Schaffen wir das denn? Danke und viele Grüße, Joachim

    • 15 September, 2023 at 12:04 pm

      Hallo lieber Joachim, vielen Dank für deinen Kommentar!

      Der Salkantay Trek sollte für euch zwei kein Problem sein. Der zweite Tag ist der einzige, der etwas schwerer ist, aber das ist alles machbar, keine Sorge! Unser Team hat dir soeben eine Mail mit mehr Info zum Trek geschickt. Bei Fragen stehen wir gerne zur Verfügung.

      Beste Grüße aus Peru,

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