Machu Picchu is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest landmarks. It’s also a place you can’t drive to. You have to take the train or hike to reach the Lost Citadel of the Incas, which inevitably leads to a question: which route is better?
Suffice to say, there are several exciting ways to get to Machu Picchu. Either you take the train to Aguas Calientes, the small town located at the foot of the mountain, and ride the bus up the winding road to the entrance, or you hike along the ancient stones of the Inca Trail through the Sun Gate to reach the ruins. But your options go further than this binary question. There are several hiking options and two different trains to ride. So which is best for you?
What are the hiking options to Machu Picchu?
Traditional Inca Trail
The traditional Inca trail takes four or five days of hiking to reach Machu Picchu. The starting point is the town of Ollantaytambo, site of the old Inca fortress and the train that takes visitors to Aguas Calientas. The hike passes over mountains, alongside old ruins, and includes the most beautiful views of the Urubamba Valley. It’s strenuous at points, and reaches an elevation of 4,200 m / 13,800 ft at its highest pass, so hikers need to be acclimated to the altitude, which usually comes with a few prep days in Cusco. You don’t have to worry about planning or carrying all their equipment: all hikers have guides and porters that go with them. In fact, you’re not allowed to hike the Inca Trail alone. This is the most iconic way to experience the ruins.
Baby Inca Trail
The Baby Inca Trail is a condensed version of the hike, which allows you to experience the trail and the unforgettable views from the Sun Gate without committing the several days to the full hike. Travellers ride the train to KM 104 along the trail and then get off near the ruins of Chachabamba and hike the remaining 16 km / 10 mi to Machu Picchu. You reach the ruins in the afternoon and then rise before dawn the following day to experience sunrise on the ruins.
The Salkantay trek is the “back door” to Machu Picchu, which has become more popular in recent years for travellers who want to experience something a bit off the usual tourist trail. It’s the same length as the traditional Inca Trail and a bit easier, but includes different views, ruins, and some of the best sights of the Andes Mountains. Instead of camping, you can stay in 4-star mountain lodges, which allows an extra degree of comfort. If you want to do something unique, and have a bit more luxury while hiking, the Salkantay trek is a great option.
What are the train options to Machu Picchu?
All the trains from Machu Picchu come from Ollantaytambo. You connect from Cusco by car and then board the train at Ollantaytambo. However, there are some differences between the two trains.
This is the classic train to Machu picchu. It provides a comfortable rail experience with nice seats, enough room for a day pack or small luggage for overnighting in Aguas Calientes, and sells some snacks and drinks onboard. The train is best known for the massive glass windows and ceiling, which allows spectacular views of the Urubamba river valley while you ride.
The Hiram Bingham, named for the American explorer who introduced Machu Picchu to the Anglosphere, is a luxury upgrade on the Vistadome. It offers more space, a bar car, light meals onboard, and has a higher price point. The train is operated by Belmond and tries to capture some of the allure of the Golden Age of Travel, harkening back to the days of Bingham himself.
What are other great hikes in South America?
If you’ve already hiked the Inca Trail or are interested in exploring destinations outside the Sacred Valley, these are some great options for you on a trip to South America.
Rainbow Mountain of Peru
This magnificent, multicoloured mountain is accessible from Cusco. Get up very early and drive east to reach the high-altitude mountain range where you hike up to the viewpoints over this rainbow landmark.
W Trek of Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia
This 100 km / 60 mi trek through Torres del Paine National Park showcases the most popular landmarks in the entirety of Patagonia: the Towers. It’s also the best way to explore the windswept landscapes of Chilean Patagonia. If you go in the summer from December to March, you’ll enjoy 18 hours of daylight, which gives you a lot of time to hike!
Day Hikes from El Calafate in Argentine Patagonia
Hop on over the Argentine border in Patagonia to El Calafate and you can spend several days heading on day hikes to glaciers and mountain bases. In particular, you can hike 10 km up to the face of Perito Moreno Glacier, arguably the most iconic landmark in Argentine Patagonia, and one of the only glaciers in the world that is growing at the same rate that it’s shrinking.
Colombia’s Lost City
There’s an ancient lost city in Colombia that predates Machu Picchu. Hike through the jungle for several days to reach Ciudad Perdida and explore the ruins that are 650 years older than Machu Picchu.
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