Face Off #3: Machu Picchu

High atop our list of must-see sites in South America is Machu Picchu, “the lost city of the Incas.” This architectural and cultural wonder evokes awe from even the most jaded travelers. The remains of this lost city are remarkably well preserved. This isn’t one of those sites where you’re supposed to look at a tiny pile of stones and conjure up an image of grandeur. No, sirree. This is more like wandering into an abandoned (but ancient) town, where you expect a local to pop his head out of the window at any moment. Additionally, the location of Machu Picchu is stunning, tucked away in a valley high in the Andes Mountains, snow-capped peaks providing a photo-perfect background. If you go to Peru and don’t visit Machu Picchu, well, you’re just plain silly.

As for visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site, there are two options. One, you can take the train. Two, you can hike. We’ve already decided that we’ll hike. Machu Picchu seems like the kind of place that needs to be earned. But the decision-making doesn’t end there. Whereas once nearly every person who hiked to Machu Picchu took the “Inca Trail” (a bit of a generalized name, since there are literally dozens if not hundreds of “Inca trails” throughout South America), now there are multiple routes one can take to reach the famed city. And that’s where we need your help: Which route should we take—the famed Inca Trail or one of the “new” alternatives? Here’s a little bit of info to help you with your decision.

The classic Inca Trail: This 45-km hike typically lasts four days and starts on the Urubamba River at kilometer marker 82. (The actual trailhead is 82 km away at the village of Ollantaytambo, but no one starts from there.) The trail climbs through three major passes, the highest at 4,215 meters named Dead Woman’s Pass. It passes through jungle and cloud forest, and it also passes Inca ruins. Parts of the trail are thought to be the original stone path created by the Incas. The trail ends at the “Sun Gate” entrance to Machu Picchu, with most groups arriving there around sunrise. The trail is one-way and trekkers return to Cusco via train.

In the past decades the popularity of the trail surged so much that it was pretty much being loved to death. As a result, Peru established rules in the past year to regulate the trail. A maximum of 500 people (including guides and porters) are allowed to begin the trail each day. (But think, that’s still 2,000 people on the trail on any given day!) You are no longer allowed to trek independently but must either go with a group or hire a registered guide. You also are not longer able to simply show up in Cusco and be out on the trail in a day or two. All hikers must be registered with the authorities a month in advance, so you must book in advance. In high season, spots are booked months, if not a full year, in advance. Additionally, specific areas have been designated for camping, and the trail is closed for the entire month of February for clean-up. At this point, the cost of this hike with a reputable agency is about $400-$500 (depending on the state of the dollar…eek).

Alternatives to the Inca Trail: There are two primary alternative routes to the classic Inca Trail. The first, the Salkantay Mountain Trek, lasts five days and is a bit more difficult than the Inca Trail. It leads around Mount Salkantay, which means “Savage Mountain” in the local quechua language, passing through spectacular scenery and traditional Andean villages. The landscape varies from mountain peaks, rivers, and lakes to jungles with waterfalls. The trek actually ends near the Santa Teresa Valley, from where you take a train to Aguas Calientes, and then rise early the next morning to hike (or take a bus) to Machu Picchu. Though this hike does not have the Incan ruins along it that the classic trail has, it has awesome vistas, natural beauty, and a chance to see some authentic Andean villages, and offers a more strenuous trek. It is also not as strictly regulated as the classic trail, and thus you can still arrange a hike upon arrival in Cusco rather than months in advance. Price-wise, this trek is about equivalent to the classic trail, although it is a day longer. In the November 2007 edition of National Geographic Adventure, the Salkantay Trek was named one of the “25 best new trips in the world.” It was the featured trip for South America in an article titled “Machu Picchu the Cool Way.”

The other alternative is the four-day Lares Trek, which tours the Sacred Valley at a difficulty approximate to that of the Inca Trail. This trail leads past gorgeous mountain lakes and through very traditional Andean villages where weaving is still a common practice and the herding of sheep and alpaca is a means of making a life. As with the Salkantay Trek, the actual trek ends short of Machu Picchu, and you end by taking a train to Aguas Calientes, where you overnight before ascending to the famed city. Also, as with the Salkantay Trek, the trail focuses more on beautiful scenery and village life than Incan ruins. My friends Joyce and Jack did this trip last October and thoroughly enjoyed it. This trail can be organized at the last minute, and it costs about $75 less than the classic trail.

Things to Consider:

1. All options end with you in Machu Picchu.

2. Hiking the classic Inca Trail requires advance planning, often of several months, especially in the high season. The other two options can be arranged upon arrival in Machu Picchu.

3. We will be visiting Machu Picchu in late December or early January, which is definitely not the high season. We have to keep in mind Christmas break travelers, but we have more flexibility and shouldn’t have to plan ridiculously far in advance regardless of what we want to do.

3. The classic Inca trail is a very popular route. Even with the limits it can sometimes feel crowded. (For instance, at the designated campsites at night.) I haven’t been able to track any data done yet, however, on how often the limit is reached in December/January or whether the trail is below capacity at that time. I’m not sure how many people like to hike in the rain. (Hey, I think it gives it atmosphere. And contrary to what you all may believe, I’m not made of sugar, so I won’t melt.)

4. The alternative trails, often referred to as the off-the-beaten-track alternative, are becoming more and more beaten track by the day. Backpackers who don’t like to plan in advance and budget travelers looking to bargain have made the numbers of these trails swell, and since there are no regulations they can get very crowded. I haven’t been able to dig up any concrete numbers, however.

5. If you book in advance, the price difference between the various hikes isn’t that great. You may, however, be able to bargain for a good rate with the alternative trails since you can wait until you’re in Cusco to book. There’s the possibility of getting in on an already organized trip at a bargain rate.

6. The “new” rules for the Inca Trail can seem annoying. Gone is that cherished backpacker freedom of showing up somewhere and making something happen. Gone is the ability to try the trail yourself or to pitch camp where you please. And prices have gone up as the trail has become more regulated and agencies have had to meet certain requirements. But, at the same time, these rules and regulations have helped protect the trail from too much wear and tear, it’s eliminated some of the more shady agencies, and it’s provided a better life for porters and guides. Isn’t that possibly worth the money and hassle? On the flip side, what is the status of the less regulated trails? Are the agencies being good stewards of the earth and responsible employers? Some are, but I’m sure some aren’t. A little more research will be required, but there are resources that make that easy enough.

7. Classics become classics for a reason, don’t they? On the other hand, aren’t classics sometimes overrated? And are all classics instant or do some become that way with age? Are the alternatives just classics-in-waiting?

What do you think? Cast your vote below and then leave your thoughts in the comments.

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7 Replies to “Face Off #3: Machu Picchu”

  1. This decision seems like it is too hinged to personal preference (well, aren’t they all), so I did not vote. I do have some comments though.

    I watched some show on Travel, not about Machu Picchu, that involved one of those porter-required official hikes with designated campsites. (I actually think the show was about Mt. Kilimanjaro). Seemed like the porters did alot of the work, and the activity always hinged on the next camping location.

    I’m not for advance planning, so I’d stay away from the classic Inca option. Obviously, you guys love advanced planning, so, like I said, it’s all about personal preference.

  2. Since I hope to meet up with you and Jeff for this leg of the trip, I’m going to voice my opinion for the “classic” Inca Trail. Quite honestly though, I doubt you can go wrong hiking to this wonder of the built world. However, I think what sets the “classic” trail apart from the alternatives is the fact you reach the pinnacle of your hike at the Sun Gate.

    I’m not as worried (thats not the right word, but you know what I mean) about the regulated hiking/camping as you guys may be. I’m much more concerned about a reliable guide. One of my favorite “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” episodes was when a group of guys hikes in South America and they get a guide at the last minute and he was just in it for the money and knew nothing about the hike. You guessed it, two of the four people died.

    Anyway, keep me up to date on your thought process and decision for this. Again, I’m game for any of the options and realize that setting up the classic hike may not be worth it or impossible to do. And as this will be my only stop along the way, I am not worried about $75-100.

  3. We didn’t get to hike the “Classic” trail since it is closed in February for maintenance. The train with the glass ceiling was nice though (and much cheaper).

    My vote: the alternative route. Just go with a reputable guide/company in Cusco. Be warned the altitude alone can be pretty tough so hang around Cusco for a few days to adjust before you hike anywhere. This also gives you the option to take the train if the altitude is to much and you decide not to hike (not the case if you booked out months in advance for the classic route).

  4. I’d suggest the Classic Route without having walked Salkantay. Entering Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate at dawn is a special experience (even if shared with mobs of others) and beats the hell out of arriving via a train mid-morning. with all the one-day package tours from Cusco. Secondly, you get into Machu Picchu before it is open to the public entering from Agua Caliente and those couple of hours of far more peaceful wandering around the ruins is worth it. If you still have the energy, the walk up Wayna Picchu (the mountain behind Machu Picchu), the view from the top is superb though the path is steep.

    A number of the other ruins on the trek are worth the view as well and add to the whole experience.

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