Beginners Guide: Backpacking to Machu Picchu
Updated: Aug 14, 2018
One cold blizzard, two reckless van rides, a walk along a railroad, and a strenuous hike climbing up steep stairs... and we finally arrived at the gate of Machu Picchu.
At times, it felt like we would never arrive at the World Wonder.
The weather shifted from a hot and humid 80 degrees during the day to a frigid 34 degrees at night.
Our two-day backpacking trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu was comprised of moments that made us shut our eyes and hope for safety-- to moments of awe as we witnessed the expanse of stunningly high and lush landscape of the Andes Mountains.
Before you can see sights like this....
...you have to to prepare for the journey to get up there! Keep reading to learn about the things we wish we knew before we arrived to Machu Picchu and why it will be the most fun and gorgeous view you will witness.
Imagine beginning your descent of a mountain on a snowy morning in a van filled with 15 others.
By the time you’ve reached the downhill, you realize you are bumper-to-bumper and none of the cars are moving.
If they are, it’s because passengers are physically pushing the cars through the six inches of slush on the road.
There are no guardrails on this road, and the only way to escape the path is to make it down the twist and turns of the mountain.
This was how we spent our first day of our journey towards Machu Picchu.
What was supposed to be a five hour drive and a few hours riding a bicycle, turned into a 13-hour drive sliding down the mountain and picking up passerby's along the way!
After we finally made it down the mountain, we later learned there were 100 cars stuck on this mountain top overnight and there were 25 car accidents.
The police were unprepared for this blizzard as snow like this is a rare occurrence.
Although this isn’t the norm, I highly recommend you pay close attention to the weather and play it safe during your trip to Machu Picchu!
After the blizzard, we made it to Santa Teresa to eat the traditional lomo saltado (a stir fry dish).
Then, we began another van ride towards Santa Maria where we would spend the night.
Just when we thought we could rest easy for the evening, we braced ourselves for another race alongside the mountains.
I could see the rushing waters of the river down below and the immediate edge of the road as I peered out of the window.
In the States, we are accustomed to driving precautiously on the twists and turns of a mountain and driving on one side of the road.
In Peru, it seems the traffic lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule and passing can be done at any moment.
It calmed me to think that nobody knows the roads better than the locals, and that we would get there soon!
Soon enough, we arrived safely at our hotel and rested up after the long day of traveling.
The next day began with breakfast accompanied by about 20 others from various tour companies.
We piled into vans that took us along the mountain and to our first activity of the day: ziplining.
After getting our harnesses, our van climbed the mountain to drop us at our first of five lines we would ride for the day.
My thoughts shifted from the thrill of the views, to me rationalizing the safety of it all.
Ready or not-- it was my turn to buckle up.
Obviously, I had to test out the lines in the normal position as we flew down the steep mountain.
Then, we all got a little more comfortable as we flew across the rushing river beneath us.
We finished the morning off with a walk across a suspension bridge that was four stories tall.
Oddly enough, I felt more at peace zipping down the mountain than I did with each wobbly step across the rope bridge.
Either way-- it was the best twenty bucks we ever spent!
Next, we rode to a town called Hidroelectrica for some lunch where a traditional "manu" was served (a soup followed by an entrée).
Then, we began our four hour hike along a railroad towards Aguas Calientes.
This was an easy and flat hike along the railroad, in which we bonded with fellow hikers and watched as two passenger trains blew past us.
Finally, we approached Aguas Calientes. We enjoyed a traditional dinner in the town situated up on a mountaintop.
New clean hotels stood alongside family-owned restaurants with tin roofs, which all added to the character of the mountain village.
We spent the night at a hostel that was definitely only meant for those passing through.
The town had more luxurious options available, but we didn’t mind since we would hardly be spending much time there anyways.
There was only one morning standing between us and this:
Before we could view this incredible lot of history, I'll walk you through our morning's journey.
Our tour guide stated there were two ways to get to Machu Picchu: 1) by bus, or 2) to hike.
He claimed they would both take the same time-- so we opted to begin hiking at 4:00AM.
We slept on the layers of our clothes and prepared our backpacks for the hike.
We left the hostel first thing in the morning and walked 30 minutes to the gate of Machu Picchu.
We waited in line for about an hour as we fought the tiredness in our eyes in the brisk chill of the morning.
Finally, the gate opened and we rushed inside the entrance with all the others.
It was pitch black outside and we didn’t quite realize that the entire hike up would be climbing steep stairs.
Luckily, we were coming from Cusco that has an altitude of about 11,000 feet and the altitude in Machu Picchu is about 8,000 feet.
Still, the strenuous physical activity really took a toll on our breathing!
If you are wondering why we didn’t just take the bus--- you are wondering the right question.
Obviously, it hit us that we would not reach the gate in the same time by hiking if we had taken the bus.
By the time we reached the gate, an hour and a half had elapsed.
We came to figure out that the bus ride would have only taken 20 minutes!
Although, witnessing the cotton candy sunrise over the Andes mountains was a sight I wouldn’t trade for a comfy bus seat.
With each piercing step, the view up top somehow balanced the challenge we felt down low.
Therefore, you have two options to reach the gate of Machu Picchu: take a comfy 20-minute bus ride or hike an hour and a half upstairs while witnessing an incredible view.
If you choose to hike up, here’s what I recommend you do/bring:
1. Layer your clothes. We were happy we began our hike at 4:00AM, despite the cold morning. Throughout the hike, we started shredding clothing as the sun was rising and our hearts were pumping. By the time we reached the gate, we were comfortable in our pants, sweatshirts, and light jackets. By the time we headed down the mountain, the sun was beating down on our backs and it felt like summertime.
2. Cocoa Leaves. The locals are always carrying a bag of cocoa leaves to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness. Put some in your tea, or even just suck on some for a few minutes. It really helps with headaches and nausea.
3. Headlamp. If you are hiking in the morning, it’s going to be pitch black. I used my cell phone lamp, but it would have been nice to use a headlamp to free my hand to climb and save some battery on my phone for photos.
4. Snacks. It’s going to be a long and strenuous hike up the mountain. Don’t forget to fuel your body with carbs and sugar to give you energy!
5. Light Backpack. You do not want/need to be carrying too much stuff up the mountain. If you can, leave your stuff at your hostel/hotel room. The extra weight will make the hike even harder.
No matter how hard the hike up may seem, the view from the top is beyond worthwhile.
Machu Picchu is easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
The history and ingenuity of the Incan people to build a city on top of a mountain and farm the land since 1450 is an incredible sight to witness.
Is Machu Picchu on your bucketlist?
What excites you or concerns you the most? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Also, please subscribe to my email list if you would like to hear more stories and advice.