How to do Machu Picchu

Tara in Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of those places, I’ve realized, that many people aren’t sure how to get to. Before I went, I had no idea either as all I’d ever heard about was people hiking and sleeping at camps for days just to get there. Though that’s exactly what gets some people excited, it was exactly what made me think I might never go to Machu Picchu (camping isn’t really my thing, though I’ve done it under duress).

However, now that I’ve been there, I understand that there are ways for every type of traveler to see this world wonder. Here’s a little of what I learned from experience and a little of what I learned from research for those who’d rather do it differently than I did.

How to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

OK, this is the way to get to Machu Picchu that most people talk about and that makes most who haven’t been there freak out. To be clear, I did not do this. But since I posted a pic on Instagram that drew comments like: “Hard to get to right?” and “Is the hike to get there hard?” I figured it would be a good time to shed some light on the experience.

Here’s what I learned: Hiking the Inca Trail can be hard if you’re not a hiker (or into something else that would make you equally equipped for a four-day hike). But it has been rated among the top five hikes in the world and many have thought it well worth the effort.

The Inca Trail is 26 miles long and the classic trek usually takes people four days and three nights with a tour group (because there’s no going there independently…you can be solo, as in without travel companions, but your solo self will still have to tag along with a tour guide/group). Along the way, expect to see mountain scenery, the famous cloud-forest, and Inca ruins and tunnels and stones. You’ll sleep at campsites, likely with trekkers from other groups too. You can tote your own sleeping bag or rent one in Cusco. Inca Trail Peru is one of the more popular guides to go with, and joining a guided group can run you between $560 and $660, depending on the size of the group. There are route options ranging from two days to seven and trek levels ranging from easy to difficult.

If you’re worried about altitude sickness, it happens. And it affects everyone differently. I was fine when I went but we had altitude sickness tablets ahead of our arrival in Cusco and then promptly started drinking mate de coca (tea made from coca leaves). Yes, those are the same ones used to make cocaine, but it is legal and common in Peru. One tea bag is equal to about 4.2 milligrams of the stuff that serves as cocaine’s base, whereas a line of cocaine cocaine has between 20 and 30 milligrams, according to Harvard University Press, though they say the tea is still a mild stimulant. (I drank a good amount of it and didn’t feel anything except freedom from altitude sickness).

Whatever you choose for your hike route, you should be booking well in advance of when you plan to go because spots are limited and do sell out.

How not to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

So if you’re not the hiking/camping type, there’s a way to get to Machu Picchu without doing any of that. And this was the route I opted for. I had flown into Lima, so when it was time for Machu Picchu, we took a one hour-ish flight to Cusco. Cusco is absolutely beautiful and old and it’s worth spending some time perusing the stone city (it’s also great for shopping!). It used to be the capital of the Inca Empire and it’s considered the archaeological capital of the Americas. While there, we stayed at Casa Andina, which was pretty, not pricey, well located and well stocked with coca tea.

From Cusco, we took a taxi from the hotel to where the trains to Machu Picchu depart. There are options for which train to take, but we treated ourselves to the Hiram Bingham train, the kind of fancy one. The train ticket does come with perks though—a three course meal in the dining car (very old world explorer-like) plus beverages (alcoholic and not), and a tour guide that will show you around Machu Picchu and tell you of its lore. That means you won’t have to purchase a separate guided tour when you get there. And it is the kind of place you’ll want a guide, even if you don’t normally want a guide, because they will point things out to you about the site that I promise you won’t see or notice on your own.

We bought our train tickets at Peru Rail. You can choose the times you want to depart on the train, and you can select your return train ride for the next day if you want to spend a night at Machu Picchu. I didn’t do that, though I think I think I should have, since seeing the ruins in a matter of hours didn’t feel like enough. There’s a Belmond Sanctuary Lodge on top of Machu Picchu to stay in.

When you get off the train in Aguas Calientes, there’s a bus that takes you up to Machu Picchu, a 20-minute or so ride, and that was all part of the train ticket price too. You could opt to hike from here instead of boarding the bus and that’s a two-hour hike up a 1,000-foot incline. It. Is. Steep. If you don’t already have monster glutes, be warned.

Where to get your Machu Picchu passport stamp

Unfortunately, I missed the boat on getting what I think would have been the coolest passport stamp ever because I knew nothing about it and didn’t see it happening anywhere around me. However, I’m going to try my best to help you avoid making the same mistake I made based on some research. From what I understand, there’s a passport stamping station just to the left of the entrance to Machu Picchu. There’s usually a small line of people waiting and sometimes there’s an official there stamping, and other times it’s self-service stamping. The hours for stamping seem to be between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. If you don’t see it, ask. Someone will know. My tour guide gets a big fail for not giving us this very vital heads up.