Hike Machu Picchu Peru

Active Travel in Peru: Hiking the Inca Trail

Hike Machu Picchu Peru

Ever wonder what its like to hike one of the seven wonders of the world?

It’s possible to visit Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites, without hiking one of the many ancient trails used by the Inca. But when you stop and think about it, wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to have an active travel adventure?

Though Machu Picchu is undoubtedly worth the price of admission alone, the way you get there can be every bit as jaw-dropping and memorable as the ancient Peruvian site itself.

Peru is abounding with natural beauty, from the cloud-piercing Andes mountains and rugged coastlines to the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon. The country also has a rich cultural history that is still cobbled into its colonial villages, which were built majestically amidst the peaks, and remain alive and well in its indigenous markets. Then, of course, there’s also Machu Picchu.

In other words, this is not the sort of place that can be summed up by visiting one site alone. Peru is the kind of country visitors need to explore in-depth in order to truly relish the experience.

With its new Lodge to Lodge on an Inca Trail adventure and classic Inca Trail Trek, International Expeditions now offers travellers two exciting opportunities to get to Machu Picchu the long way ‘round.

Hike Machu Picchu Peru

HIKING THE INCA TRAIL

The Urubamba Valley, also known as the “Sacred Valley of the Incas,” cuts through immense mountains. It was once the hub of the ancient Inca civilization, and today it remains very much a part of the living one. The valley is largely cultivated with Peru’s beloved gift to the world, the potato, and is resplendent with stunning scenic vistas.

Nearby, the Lares Valley (or “Inca Weaver’s Trail”) is its own sort of magnificent, which is why IE's new Lodge to Lodge adventure uses this trail. Here, the Quechua people continue a lifestyle dominated by ancient traditions, including farming alpaca and llama and weaving their wool into beautiful textiles.

Both the men and women of these communities wear colorful garments that harken back to the past and demonstrate the skilled craftsmanship of Quechua weavers today.

Aguas Calientes is often referred to as Machupicchu Pueblo, or the gateway to Machu Picchu. It’s the closest access point to the historic site. It sits along the Vilcanota River, about a 90-minute walk from the famous archaeological attraction. Taking its name from the natural hot baths you’ll find there, the site was a workers’ camp in the early 1900s.

Hike Machu Picchu Peru

ATTRACTIONS ALONG THE TRAIL

The Urubamba Valley includes a treasure trove of both natural and man-made attractions.

On the front end of the hike, Pisaq has a vibrant morning market where you’ll find a wide selection of fresh produce and locally constructed handicrafts. The Pisac National Archeological Park provides your first glimpse of Incan ruins, including palaces, plazas, pools, and irrigation systems that are around1000 years old.

Moving into the Lares Valley, you’ll find many traditional indigenous villages along the Inca Trail. There’s also another archaeological site, an ancient Incan citadel called Ancasmarca. It’s possible to visit a weaver’s village there, or simply breathe in the thin mountain air while striding alongside pristine lakes and heaven-tickling peaks.

On the high pass from the Lares Valley back to Urubamba, the full-day hike takes travellers to the ancient village of Ollantaytambo, a premier example of how Incan cities once worked. Ollantaytambo still has a pulse, with bubbling irrigation channels and intact stone structures. During the Spanish conquest of Peru, this was a stronghold for the Inca resistance.

From Ollantaytambo, the trip takes to the rails, with a wicked train ride to Aguas Calientes (from which hikers will ultimately access Machu Picchu). Machu Picchu is, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the prime example of Inca life in Peru. It’s both naturally stunning in terms of the surrounding mountains and an archaeological testament to mankind’s ingenuity.

Hike Machu Picchu Peru

ACTIVE ADVENTURES ALONG THE INCA TRAIL

Even an epic hike is incomplete without a multitude of other activities to make it more memorable. Scattered along the trail are traditional activities that allow visitors to delve even deeper into the local lore and culture. 

Viacha village is a learning center for traditional potato cultivation and food preparation. Potatoes originate from Peru, and come in about 4,000 different varieties. Here, visitors will get the lowdown on how potatoes are grown the Peruvian way and sample a “pachamanca” lunch cooked the customary way– on hot stones in an earthen pit.

Periodically along the hiking route, there are options to take an easy day, resting muscles while visiting culturally rich destinations. There is an option to visit a weaver’s village, where the craft is still practiced in the old ways. On another day, weary hikers can catch a ride to the ethnographic museum on their way back to the Urubamba Valley.

Travellers are given an entire day to explore Machu Picchu, with a well-informed guide on hand to explain the site’s relevance to the Inca, its discovery by Hiram Bingham, and the history of the city. There is even an option to hike to Huayna Picchu, the peak that overlooks Machu Picchu, for the jaw-dropping view from above.

On the final day of the trip, there’s a walking tour of the colonial town of Cusco. Visitors will see the main square, cathedral, plaza, and artisan quarter, as well as the Convent of Santo Domingo, a masterwork of Spanish Baroque architecture.

Hiking trails in Peru

HISTORY & CULTURE OF THE INCAS

The Inca Trail was used by the Incas as a pilgrimage to reach the revered city. Along the route, ancient travellers passed many Inca cities, with ups and downs that vary by some 3000 feet in altitude. The trail is already notably high– typically above the 10,000-foot range– with the highest spot being “Dead Woman’s Pass” at 13,700 feet.

Machu Picchu was rediscovered (or at least highly publicized outside Peru) in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, who also discovered the ruins of the ancient Inca trail leading to the site. Bingham was an explorer from the United States who was led to Machu Picchu by a local farmer, Melchor Arteaga. The ruins were largely forgotten for centuries, save for a few locals who lived in the Sacred Valley.

Nowadays, the Inca Trail has become the most popular hike in all of South America. As a result of mass tourism issues, the Peruvian government has limited the number of hikers along the trail to just 500 a day. Most of them have booked their trek months in advance in order to secure a spot. Still, the 27-mile trek is not for the faint of heart: It’s doable, but far from a walk in the park.

Luckily, International Expeditions offers this experience with a little more care and tenderness than other tour operators. Guides can customize the experience to fit travellers’ specific wants and needs.  It’s an unforgettable active travel adventure, but with space left for a little relaxation and luxury along the way.

Jonathon Engels is a traveller, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.