The citadel that has launched a million selfies—Machu Picchu—is one of the wonders of the world and South America’s best-known tourist attraction. Part of the appeal is its isolation. When you can just drive up to a place, snap a photo, and drive away, it doesn’t seem as special. Or when it’s surrounded by the modern world (Great Pyramids, the Coliseum of Rome), it’s hard to conjure up a feeling of magic.
Getting to Machu Picchu is an adventure. You have to make an effort to reach it and at some point you’re going to use a train or your feet.
For the train, you book tickets well in advance. You can ride in a glass-topped Vistadome one or take the luxury Hiram Bingham train run by the Belmond group (formerly Orient-Express). Or Inca Rail has a private luxury train car called the Inca Princess that you can hire out for your own group. Going and coming back to Cusco the same day is far from ideal, however. It’s best to spend the night at one of the fine hotels at the base of the mountain or in the Sacred Valley.
Of course you’ll feel like more of an intrepid explorer if you arrive at the Sun Gate on foot at sunrise after trekking through the mountains for days. You can set this all up on your own and hike solo to Machu Picchu if you plan well in advance and get your permits set up with an local tour company. If you want to do this in relative comfort, hire an operator like Voyagers that can explain all the options and get you on the right kind of tour.
The classic route is four days, which means three nights of sleeping in a tent, but the scenery is fantastic and there are ruins along the Inca Trails that you can only get to on foot. If your body is not up for this though, there’s a shorter version that’s just two days of hiking and one night of camping.
You can avoid that whole sleeping on the ground thing altogether though if you go on a lodge-to-lodge trek to Machu Picchu on the Salkantay route. There’s a bit of a cheat to this one in the sense that you hop on a train for the last stretch instead of approaching the citadel at dawn on foot, but the compensation is that you get to sleep in a real bed at night, with heat if you need it, plus nice bathrooms and a hot shower. There is only one set of ruins along this trail, but you’re closer to the snow-covered mountains and you pass a dramatic glacier lake.
If you go:
See Peru Rail or Inca Rail for train options, or our story on the Hiram Bingham luxury train ride. For the lodge to lodge trek to Machu Picchu, click that link for our detailed feature story and info on booking. For upscale Inca trail treks and custom Peru tours, see the Voyagers Machu Picchu Tours site.
For where to stay, see our detailed reviews of the best luxury hotels in Peru.