Article Updated April 2016
For many people that come to South America, a must-see attraction in Peru, is Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, hiking to discover the long-hidden ruins of a citadel of the Inca empire. Since the coming of the conquistadors, many ancient Inca sites have been altered or even destroyed. Machu Picchu’s isolated location amid the mountains was an important factor in its survival. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and voted one of the 7 Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is a place of incredible beauty – respecting and honouring of Peruvian cultures, both past and present.
Most people visit Machu Picchu either – by train, or on foot, both departing from Cuzco. The train is clearly the physically friendlier option; while the Inca trail is difficult, trying and painful, however it is also rewarding, stunningly beautiful and an experience to be proud of throughout your lifetime.
Cuzco (also written as Cusco) was the main city in the Sacred Valley region, and still is today. It is the centre for trade, shopping, travel, tourism and general city life. A lot of the “original” buildings are actually the colonial houses, built by the Spanish (though they are beautiful nonetheless). There are examples of original Incan stonework throughout Cuzco – look out for the smooth, perfectly fitted stone constructions, like on the street Hatun Rumiyuq. Like many older cities, the old town area boasts the best restaurants and nightlife, and is the cleanest. Venture outwards and you’ll uncover the modern additions. Although it’s relatively safe, be careful with your belonging, especially if walking around at night, particularly near the train station.
History of Cuzco
For several hundred years, Cuzco was the capital of the Inca empire. The Quechuan people (by the millions) were a combined population of future Ecuadorian and Peruvian people. They lived in the Cuzco/Sacred Valley region and worshipped the gods of nature – Father Sun and Mother Earth; their livelihoods were peaceably governed by their religious beliefs as well as the solstices and equinoxes. Human sacrifices were made and those chosen were greatly honoured; their religious belief in reincarnation and three realms (Pachas), reassured them that their future selves would be safe and happy.
With the explorations of the Spanish in the mid-1500s came the now-called Conquistadors. In a frustratingly easy show of domination, less than 200 Spanish soldiers demolished the long-standing, peaceful Quechuan establishment, killing the Inca (their king), and ingratiating themselves into the population and land.
Quechua (the original language) is still spoken among (mainly rural) Peruvians today. However, modern ventures, including tourism, are resulting in Spanish becoming the predominant language.
As always, check the reviews carefully. My hotel in Cuzco was one of the worst cases I’ve had of what you see is not what you get… I found it on Expedia, and unfortunately the ratings were definitely generous and the photographs were drastically different to what we found on arrival. Cuzco is a great town to find cheap lodging, but if you’re used to comfort, be prepared to pay more. Booking.com usually has pretty accurate reviews from our experiences.
It’s really not difficult to find things to look at in Cuzco. Grab a map, and head for the plazas and churches, to begin with. Ask for advice at your accommodation, and/or get yourself on a tour (see below).
One popular sight is Sacsayhuaman: sounds like “sexy woman”, does not look like a sexy woman. It is instead an incredible display of handcrafted stone architecture, a short distance outside Cuzco.
Places to eat
We asked for and received decent recommendations from our hotel staff. The town is largely organised around tourism and is therefore visitor-friendly – just ask.
Main tours on offer in the region include:
- Cuzco city tour (usually includes seeing Sacsayhuaman).
- Sacred Valley tour.
- Visiting Machu Picchu (no trek) – usually includes taking a bus (approximately 4 hours) or train (approximately 2-3 hours) to Aguas Calientes, and then a short bus ride up to Machu Picchu. The main rail provider is PeruRail.
- Inca Trail – usually 4 days and 3 nights, although there are several shorter variations.
- Salkantay Trek – an alternative to the Inca Trail, taking in view of Salkantay mountain
Check these companies out to see what’s on offer, and when, for how much. See some trekking options here. If you want to hike the Inca Trail, you’ll usually need to book months ahead, as permits for the trail are limited and sell out well in advance. If you cannot plan in advance, consider hiking an alternative trail – contact the tour company above for more information.
Ask also at your hotel or tour company about storing luggage. Most should offer you somewhere secure to keep your excess belongings while you are away on a trek.
The final campsite of the trek has a bar, and access to a hot shower, Apus, details it on their website. So make sure to bring a little extra money to indulge yourself after your hard work.
Some tour companies may also offer the option of climbing Huayna Picchu (see map below), the iconic peak in the background all those photographs of Machu Picchu you’ve seen. This permit has to be arranged separately – talk to your company if this appeals to you.
Choose your company wisely and you’ll be so grateful – I went with Peru Treks and they were excellent. The tour was delivered with professionalism, no complications and lots of information. The guides were exceptional – passionate, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. The porters are incredibly nimble, well-practised and polite, and as far as I could ascertain, well-treated (this should be an important factor when deciding who to book with – look out for proof of good porter welfare).
If you’re not sure, ask the company for prior customers to contact to confirm their reputation – any good company will be happy to get you in touch with one or more of them. Beth went with Apus Peru several years ago and also had a great experience.
The porters carry unbelievable amounts of weight, running ahead to set camp up ahead of time for us. They also assist the cook in providing delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners, as well as drinks to keep you hydrated. I didn’t know what to expect but I was so relieved to find tents, sleeping mats and cozy big sleeping bags.
Some companies may give the option to pay extra to have a porter carry some of your extra stuff, including sleeping bag/mat. Whatever you do… do this! A few extra kilos starts feeling like a lot of extra kilos after a few hours up and down really steep hills. I wish I’d done it.
Inca Trail (Camino del Inca)
Completing the Inca Trail is an ancient tradition among the Inca people. On our first day we were told that there is actually a “short cut” route to Machu Picchu – but that that route was only used when absolutely necessary. Culture and beliefs demand that the difficult trail be completed as part of the sacrifice and worshipping owed to the gods, and that to arrive in Machu Picchu after the trek was to arrive with a clean soul.
I can tell you that I most certainly felt all wrung out when I arrived. My knees, calves, thighs, ankles and feet ached. My arms, too. We all smelled bad, hair a mess and exhausted… But what an experience. I can’t recommend it enough – it was beautiful, stunning, rewarding, peaceful and a great insight into the history of the place.
What to Take
Pack lightly – strategically plan your layers, definitely take a rain/outer shell layer, maybe buy a poncho (they’ll be selling these everywhere before the trek). You’ll need thermals, gloves and warm socks in winter, especially for the nights. Take both a sun hat and a warm hat. Wear proper boots, and take any knee/ankle supports you might need. Suncream and insect repellent are also a great idea. Take whatever camera you want, just remember that you’ll have to carry it.
You can buy water and snacks for a day or so along the trail. Ask your company where these will be available.
It’s also a good idea to take cash in small bills, to tip your guides, chef and all the porters. You will need to do this before returning to Cuzco, so you’ll have to take it on the trek with you. Be sure to bring extra just in case you end up with extra porters as there’s no access to ATM’s and most of the porters and many of the guides do not live in Cuzco so you cannot tip them later. Ask your company to advise you (before you leave your home country) as to what currency and an appropriate amount to tip for each, so you can organise yourself with small bills in good condition. Make sure you discuss this with your fellow travelers before leaving home, or Cuzco if you’re hiking with a group set up by your company.
You need to be healthy to complete the trail. The Inca Trail consists of a lot of uneven rock staircases, so if you have trouble going up and down steps, or if you have weak knees or ankles, take precautions. Most people had at least one walking stick. You can buy these on the morning of the trek, or possibly rent one from your tour company; there are cheap wooden poles and slightly more expensive metal adjustable poles.
The altitude can also be problematic – you get pretty high up at times (the highest point is 4215m above sea level), and it can literally take your breath away. Some people choose to carry altitude sickness medication – talk with your doctor at home before you travel for more information. If you think the trek is going to be too much for you, make alternative plans – you’ll get to see Machu Picchu all the same.
If you do go to Machu Picchu just for the day and forego hiking the trail, it’s recommended that you spend the night before in Aguas Calientes – that way you can enter Machu Picchu early in the morning, as soon as it opens to the public and before all the buses from Cuzco arrive. If you are going with a larger party, most tour operators will be able to arrange this option for any members of your party who don’t want to hike the trail.
Depending on where you’re from, you may be required to have specific vaccinations before travelling to Peru. I know that Australians are often recommended to have the Yellow Fever vaccination and may need to show proof of this when re-entering Australia. Malaria prophylaxis is another common recommendation. To be sure, visit your doctor to find out what you should have before you go. They should have up-to-date information and be able to advise you. You can also check your government’s foreign travel section.
Despite all the difficulties, reaching the final goal is so unbelievably awesome that you won’t even feel the pain in your legs or the filth in your hair. Seeing Machu Picchu is worth it.
When to Go
Treks booked over the Christmas months can experience a higher rate of cancellations, due to rain washing out the track/s. This is also summer in Peru, and may be a factor in choosing when to go – hiking in the heat and sun can get pretty uncomfortable, additionally the trail is closed every February due to rain and for annual repair/cleaning.
How to Get There
LAN flies to Cuzco from Santiago. Usually you’ll have to stop in Lima. You may also be able to fly internally or from neighbouring countries, but research well and allow time (e.g. before your trek’s start date) for unexpected travel delays.
You can combine side trips to other places in Peru, including but certainly not limited to, visiting Puno, Lake Titicaca and the floating islands of the Uros; the Nazca Lines; and the Amazon River basin.
Note: This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question before planning your trip.