Top 7 ways to reach Machu Picchu

Whether you have a day or a fortnight, want the classic trail or something more offbeat, here are the best ways of reaching Machu Picchu

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1. Classic Inca Trail

Route: Km88 to Machu Picchu

Distance: 43km

Time: 3-4 days

Why? The iconic route

The starting point for the classic trek is the Km88 train station on the rail line from Cuzco (the regional capital) to Aguas Calientes (the pueblo at the foot of Machu Picchu). Take the train to Km88, cross a footbridge over the Urubamba River and you're off.

The first day takes you to either the small campsite at Hatunchaca or the settlement of Huayllabamba, which has more pitches. Serious hikers can continue to the camper-friendly meadow at Llulluchapampa.

On the second day there's a tough hike up Dead Woman’s Pass – at 4,200m, the first of three passes and the highest point on the classic trail. For the second night there are campsites early on at Pacamayo (large site) and just past the Runcu Raccay ruins (smaller), though most walkers prefer to tackle a second, 3,950m pass and then sleep at either of the excellent campsites at Chaquicocha and Phuyupatamarca.

Day three takes in a third, 3,650m pass and an Inca tunnel; almost all hikers bed down at the (sometimes congested) campsite of Huinay Huayna. There are cloud forests on the last day, but it's the iconic Sun Gate, or Intipunku, that everyone’s heading for – to get that first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

Note: it’s also possible to extend this walk by starting at the Km82 or Km77 train stops.

Getting started: Numerous UK operators offer this route, including Gap Adventures, Select Latin America and Tucan Travel. Andean Adventures and Condor Travel are respected Cuzco-based agencies.

2. High Inca Trail (aka Salcantay Trail)

Route: Mollepata to Machu Picchu

Distance: 69km

Time: 6-7 days

Why? High altitude crowd evasion

This walk, for fit hikers only, gives you four days on a lonely trek with few fellow hikers, including a tough climb to the top of the near-5,000m Inca Chiriasq’ua Pass (‘The Pass Where the Inca Got Cold’) before joining the classic trail at Huayllabamba – so you get to summit Dead Woman’s Pass too. The early stages take in some outstanding views, including a close-up encounter with the mighty Salcantay (6,270m), a campsite beside an Inca canal and a small but impressive Inca site at Paucarchanca.

Note: the Inca Chiriasq’ua Pass occasionally gets blocked by snow.

Getting started: Chris Moss travelled on the High Inca Trail with Exodus. The 16-day trip also includes a stay in Cuzco and Sacred Valley excursions. From £2,509pp incl. flights.

3. Camino Real Trail (aka Santa Teresa Trek)

Route: Soraypampa to La Hidroeléctrica train station

Distance: 62km

Time: 3-6 days

Why? Tough walk crossing a 4,638m pass, but with fewer tourists than the classic trail – and soft mattresses at the end of the day;

Austro-Peruvian company Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) has built four large, well-appointed faux-rustic hotels along a trail from Soraypampa, at the base of Salcantay, to Lucmabamba, close to the hydroelectric railway station (which has a frequent service to Aguas Calientes for Machu Picchu). The first lodge can be reached by car/minibus so it’s a quick way into the heart of the mountains, from which there’s a tough initial climb up to a collar beneath Salcantay and then a hard but relatively slow-paced walk through a range of montain landscapes.

It is possible to walk this trail without using the MLP lodges and some tour groups do tackle it using tents and mules. As there is no government regulation of the route, it’s also theoretically possible to walk it independently, though securing mules (at Mollepata) can be tricky in high season. Weather conditions are unpredictable and the high altitude can cause problems – if tackling the Santa Teresa Trek without a registered guide, prepare very carefully indeed.

Getting started: Mountain Lodges of Peru runs regular fixed departures year round, from US$2,560 (£1,626) including guides, accommodation and entry to Machu Picchu.

4. Choquequirao to Machu Picchu

Route: Cachora to La Hidroeléctrica train station

Distance: 100km

Time: 8-10 days

Why? See another great, tourist-free citadel en route

This up-and-down hike allows you to tick off two major Inca sites in one go. Starting at the village of Cachora, 60km south-east of Machu Picchu, the first few days involve steep descents and ascents to the beautiful, quiet Inca site of Choquequirao (meaning ‘Cradle of Gold’, in probable reference to the effect of dawn and dusk light striking the mountain saddle). The trail then runs north-east towards Machu Picchu, along rarely-used trails traversing dry savannah, cloud forest and llama-grazed high pasture.

It winds up to the San Juan Pass (4,400m), then climbs even further alongside the Rio Yanama (views of Machu Picchu, weather permitting), before descending into the Santa Teresa Valley for the final leg along the Camino Real (left). Note: it’s also possible to visit Choquequirao on a four-day return trek from Cachora, or a nine-day walk from Huancacalle.

Getting started: Various UK operators run trips including Choquequirao – try Audley, KE Adventure, Mountain Kingdoms and Wilderness Journeys.

5. Riverside Trail

Route: Km88 to Machu Picchu

Distance: 20km

Time: 2-3 days

Why? Mainly low-level, scenic trek, that’s crowd – and, generally, slope – free

From Km88 you can follow a trail beside the Urubamba River all the way to Km104, where you join the Mini Inca Trail. You miss some ruins but avoid steep climbs, and have only the ascent to Huinay Huayna to negotiate. You can camp along the way at the warden’s post by the Pacamayo River and at the ruins at Chachabamba.

Getting started: For further details of the trail, see the new edition of the Trailblazer guide to The Inca Trail (out January 2011).

6. Mini Inca Trail & Purification or Royal Trail

Route: Km104 to Machu Picchu

Distance: 10km

Time: 1-2 days

Why? Short and relatively painless way to get an Inca Trail experience and spy Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate; also, it’s open in February

If you want to arrive at Machu Picchu on foot but can’t spare a week, there are a couple of short options. The easiest option is to get off the train from Cuzco at Km104 (Chachabamba) and walk for three hours to join the classic route, close to the campsite at Huinay Huayna.

An alternative short trail, known as the Royal or Purification Trail – high-caste Incas used the route for ceremonial purposes – follows a riverside path to Choquesuysuy before making a tougher ascent to Huinay Huayna. As well as ruins at Chachabamba, both trails take in the Intipata terraces and the Sun Gate.

Getting started: Journey Latin America offers this route as a two-day option, spending the night at a hotel, from £412. Also try Llama Travel.

7. Machu Picchu only

Route: Train to Aguas Calientes, minibus to Machu Picchu, walking tour of site

Distance: Up to 10km

Time: 1 day

Why? Less hiking, more history

Don’t think the Machu Picchu site is a stroll. If you walk all the way up to the Sun Gate, then visit the whole site, and lunch inside before doing further walks in the afternoon, you’ll easily notch up 10km. If you’re feeling exceptionally fit, go early and sign up for the hike to the top of verdant, vertiginous Huayna Picchu – only 400 people a day are allowed to climb the steep peak; you are recommended to be at the site by 7am to join the queue. Note: you can walk up and down from Aguas Calientes – lots of backpackers do this to save the return bus fare of US$14 – but the walk is boring, steep and potentially dangerous, as the path crosses the main road, full of switchbacks and tricky corners, many times.

Getting started: For train information see Perurail. Entrance to Machu Picchu costs S/128.00 (£29).

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