A rite of passage for all travllers in Latin America, Machu Picchu spans several peaks at 2,400m above sea level overlooking the Sacred Valley, in Peru’s Cusco region. The 15th century Inca ruins were lost to the world when the Incas abandoned it during the Spanish Conquest but were ‘re-discovered’ in 1911 when Hiram Bingham cast the majestic ruins back into the limelight.
Getting to Machu Picchu
For those not wishing to tackle the famous Inca Trail – or those not organised enough to book it 4 months in advance – you are left with two alternative treks; the Jungle Trek or the Salkantay Trek.
Although the Salkantay offers the closest experience to the actual Inca trail we decided to take the rather more varied and relaxed 4 day Jungle Trek.
The trek offers a lot more that just walking (zip lining, cycling and rafting) but still takes you on some scenic trails which are almost as breathtaking as the altitude, including a short section of original Inca trail. You can choose from a huge number of tour agencies in Cusco, but the majority cost around the same price ($200 plus around $60 for the rafting and zip lining) and offer very similar itineraries.
Accomodation, meals and entrance into the ruins are all included but tickets to climb Machu Picchu mountain or Waynapicchu/Huana Picchu mountain are not included – don’t mix up climbing MP mountain with entering the ruins, the are different and require different tickets. The walk to the top of Waynapicchu mountain takes around 45 minutes and is the more popular of the two mountains, but for that reason you need to book them in weeks in advance.
We didn’t do this, so while in Cusco we bought tickets for the MP mountain walk. The views of the ruins and the surrounding mountains are immense from the top of MP mountain, but the walk takes around 4 hours in total and is not easy. The stairs are steep and the path is narrow… you have been warned!
4 Day / 3 Night Jungle Trek Itinerary
Day 1 – Cycling & Rafting
Most tour operators will pick you up from your hostel/hotel (if they don’t arrange a transfer that’s a bad sign) at around 7:30am to begin the ascent to the top of Abra Malaga. The ride up is bumpy, twisting around mountain roads and skirting the cliffs edge, but the views of the valleys below are spectacular.
At 4,200 MASL you’ll begin to strap on your protective cycling gear – remember to layer up as the air is cool and the wind quite fierce at this altitude. The snow-capped peaks across the valley offer a majestic reminder of the temperature.
After a quick (arguably too quick) safety briefing the group begins a white-knuckled 2000 meter descent, beneath waterfalls and past some of the best vistas in Peru. The road is all paved and the guide cycles in front most of the time, but none-the-less 2000 meters of picking up speed will test your nerves if you’re not an experienced cyclist.
Once at the bottom the first thing you notice, other than trying to peel your stiffened fingers and sweaty palms from the handlebars, is the drastic change in temperature. Back at a mere 2200 MASL (most likely about 2km higher than where you’re sitting now) the air is much more humid and the mosquitos are ravenous.
After a few minutes of stripping off layers and painting on insect repellent it’s back into the minibus and onwards to a lunch spot and to the accomodation for the night. Most agencies arrange lodging in a ‘local family home’ (#bullshit). You’ll probably end up in a basic hostel like everybody else I’ve spoken to.
Once at the hostel, there is the option of going white-water rafting (circa $35, cheaper if you pay while booking the tour). We didn’t go for the rafting as we’ll be going in New Zealand but by all accounts it was good fun and “reasonably safe”.
Day 2 – Santa Maria to Santa Teresa
Depending on where your hostel is you may need to walk for a couple of hours to reach the edge of the jungle, a town called Santa Maria. We opted to hitch a ride with a local lorry driver to avoid the boring couple of hours walking down a dusty track with nothing to see. Our guide arranged this for us, taking a commision for himself, obviously.
From Santa Maria the first 30 minutes of the trek are pretty intense; the hill is extremely steep and the humidity is oppressive. fortunately it’s only a short walk to an old Inca ruin where the guide talks us through the basics of the Inca civilisation.
After the firey baptism of jungle hill climbing the path levels out and becomes much easier, but no less mentally challenging. The walk passes over narrow hillside paths (pretty trecherous, in hindsight) and down steep declining tracks until you reach Quellomayo, where lunch is served and hammocks are gratefully occupied by fat Americans (I’m not generalising, these Americans were obese).
Re-vitalised by food and the promise of hot springs in Santa Teresa the walk continues through the basin of the valley, alongside the Urubamba river.
There are plenty of impressive views of the river, but none so immersive as that from a rusty metal pulley which trekkers use the cross the river. 2 Nuevo soles (US$1) well spent.
After around 15km of trekking the group arrives at the hotsprings just outside of Santa Teresa. At this point, sweaty and tired, 38 degree natural springs are an absolute godsend (they cost a couple of dollars, not included in the tour).
The baths are pretty busy, being enjoyed by travelers and locals alike, but there’s plenty of room for everyone to have a good soak. We were bathing in the mountains during a thunder storm, which was an experience I won’t soon forget.
After the baths some guides will offer two choices, walk to Santa Teresa or arrange private transport which isn’t included in the tour (not forgetting his comission). If there is a group of you, your best bet is to grab a taxi from outside the baths, it only costs a couple of dollars each.
The accomodation is slightly more comfortable on the sencond night with hot food and, if you’re very lucky, hot showers. You can even sample the local nightlife, but be careful to stick to the designated gringo bars as the others can apparently be a little dangerous for travelers.
Day 3 – Ziplining & Santa Teresa To Aguas Calientes
Day 3 brings another optional adventure sport, canopy ziplinging. This costs around US$30 (cheaper if you pay while booking your tour) and transfers are included. A few of us made the decision to miss the ziplining (New Zealand awaits) and stay in town for breakfast and card games.
We then made our own way to Hydroelectrica to meet up with the rest of the group (the taxi is pretty cheap and takes about 30 minutes on terrifying roads). Lunch, hammocks and travellers reciting tails of their ziplining bravery.
A ten minute steep incline takes you to a viewing platform. From this point, we could actually see the silhouette of Machu Picchu on the mountainous horizon. Awe inspiring.
The next leg of the journey is a walk along the train tracks. The tracks are still in use, so be careful and keep an ear out. The trains passing by are the famous Machu Picchu bound PeruRail trains.
After 3 hours of walking along the tracks (not the most spectacular part of the tour, but with some great views of MP mountain) the group arrives at Aguas Calientes, the touristy town at the foot of MP mountain. Although the town exists solely for tourism, there is an electric atmosphere as the town is alive with a communal excitement for the days to come, which is distinctly palpable.
After lunch and a walk around the town, most choose to hit the hay early in preparation for the early rise (and rise, and rise) for the climb to Machu Picchu the next morning.
Day 4 – Machu Picchu
Before the sun is up (circa 4:30am), most travellers make their way to the main bridge across to the MP mountains which opens at 5:00am sharp. At this point you must show your entry pass (provided by your guide, who will meet you at the top) and your passport to gain entry.
Feet shuffle faster, voices hush and excitement builds as you reach the steps.
Even with adreniline fueled legs this walk is tough; approximately one hour climbing large, steep, stone Inca steps. There is also an option to take a bus to the top for US$19.50 return – I think I saw some large Americans take that option.
At the top of the steps you reach the main gate where there is a short wait while passes are checked and queing systems are botched in typical Peruvian fashion.
And then, all of a sudden, you’re in.
Memories of a thousand pictures of Machu Picchu immediately melt away and are replaced with the magical experience of actually being there. Most tour agencies provide a two hour guided tour at this point, which is interesting, but doesn’t come close to the experience of walking around and touching the stone, taking in the views and enjoying just being there.
If you have pre-booked a ticket for Machu Picchu Mountain or Waynapicchu Mountain then these hikes take around 45 minutes and 90 minutes respectively, each way. Following the 3 days of trekking along with the walk that morning, these walks can be tough but are entirely worth it:
The method of returning to Cusco from Aguas Calientes varies by operator, but most include the train between 6 and 9pm.
Pictures don’t do it justice, if you ever get the chance you should experience Machu Picchu for yourself.
More Information about the Machu Picchu Jungle Trek
- Transfers from/to Cusco
- Entrance to Machu Picchu
- Accomodation, 3 Nights
- Meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 3
- MP AND Waynapicchu Mountain ticket- 140 Soles / $56
- MP AND MP Mountain ticket- 103 Soles / $35
- Rafting – 103 Soles / $35
- Ziplining – 88 Soles / $30
- Pulley river crossing – 2 Soles / $1
- Hot springs – 5 Soles / $1.70
- Food & drink at Machu Picchu
- Snacks / water during treks
- Private transport as per our tour – less that 20 soles / $10
How Long Is The Walk From Aguas Calientes To Machu Picchu?
The hike up to Machu Picchu takes around an hour up and 45 minutes to go down.
How Hard Is The Hike From Aguas Calientes To Machu Picchu?
The trail is comprised of stairs and is fairly steep, but taken slowly should not be a problem for most people.
How Long Is The Hike From Machu Picchu Up To Huayna Picchu?
The trail takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour to climb up and about 30 minutes to get down.
How Hard Is The Hike To Huayna Picchu?
The trail is very steep and can be crowded. People who have trouble with vertigo may not enjoy this trek.
What Is The Best Time To Hike Huayna Picchu?
We recommend the 10:00 – 11:00am entry time as it is more flexible with tours and allows travelers a more relaxed experience at the ruins.
When Does Machu Picchu Open/Close?
The ruins open at 6:00am and closes at 5:00pm.
How Long Do Most People Spend On MP?
The majority of people will spend about 6 to 7 hrs in Machu Picchu.