Machu Picchu isn’t designated a New Wonder of the World and UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothing. This 15th-century Incan citadel, set in the jungles of the Andes, tops many a bucket list, attracting 1.1 million visitors in 2014 alone.
The best way to reach the Lost City is via the Classic Inca Trail from Cusco, a four-day, three-night, and 26-mile guided trek that includes camping, meals, entrance fees — and a selfie or two with a llama for good measure. Depending on what season you plan to travel (May through September is the high — and dry — season), book up to a year in advance. Note: You must hike with a tour company; due to permitting regulations, there is no way to go it alone.
While you can definitely skip the Inca Trail and opt for the far easier (and cheaper) transit route ($140 RT train from Cusco + $24 RT bus from Aguas Calientes + $47 Machu Picchu entrance fee), unless you’re pressed for time or have mobility issues, we recommend you don’t. If ever there were a case for the expression “the journey is the destination,” it’s this one. Along the Inca Trail, you’ll see one vista more beautiful than the last; wander through ruins so massive they’ll boggle your brain; forge bonds with your fellow trekkers and guide; and learn multitudes about Incan history and Quechuan culture.
It’s the type of experience you can’t get by merely showing up at the end of it all.
We’re going to be honest, though: the Inca Trail is grueling, and the gruel doesn’t come cheap. Between the altitude sickness and the steep and crumbling passes, there will likely be times you’ll feel like you can’t muster another step. And for that feeling you’ll pay upwards of $650, not including tips or rental-equipment fees.
But rightly so.
The truth is the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are suffering because of tourists like me and you. While our tourism may be a financial boon to Peru, it’s also contributing to the degradation of an indigenous people’s most prized cultural jewel, as the Inca Trail erodes from our environmental abuses and Machu Picchu quite literally sinks under our weight. The situation is so severe that UNESCO put the Lost City on its official list of endangered sites in 2016.
At risk is not only an irreplaceable piece of Peru’s heritage, but also the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous tour guides, porters, and cooks.
So while it might be tempting to score a deal on a deeply discounted Inca Trail trek — beware. More often than not, cutting costs means cutting corners on environmental protections and fair wages. A company that promises unbeatable prices is only able to beat the competition by scrimping on everything else. Instead, choose a reputable tour group like the 100-percent Peruvian Alpaca Expeditions or Llama Path.
Still, if you’re trying to stick to a budget, there are some measures you can take while keeping sustainability in mind.
Do an alternate trek
The Classic Inca Trail is the quintessential hike, making it the busiest and usually the most expensive at $650-$850 per person. But if you’re up for a less popular tour, there are several cheaper options:
- 2-day Condensed Inca Trail, about $435
- 3-day Huchuy Qosqo Trek, about $485
- 4-day Salkantay Trek, about $575
- 4-day Lares Trek, about $575
Bring your own gear
The price of rental equipment can rack up fast, especially if your trek mates are outfitted with all the bells and whistles and you find yourself renting them as well just to keep up. A rental sleeping bag will cost you around $25, an inflatable mattress about $20, and a pair of walking poles $15. Come prepared with your own sleeping gear, and split a pair of walking poles with a partner (most hikers really only need one each).
Skip the extras
At Machu Picchu, there are two mountains you can climb to get a birds-eye view of the ruins. One is Huayna Picchu and the other is Machu Picchu Mountain, and they’ll cost you an additional $75 apiece. Once you’re finished, there is a luxury train you can take back to the Cusco area, also $75 (separate from the standard train your Inca Trail package already includes). Limit these add-ons and save some cash.
Pack your own food
On an Inca Trail trek, all meals and many snacks are included. But if you’re in need of even more fuel for the journey, make sure to stock up on fruit, granola, or energy bars from the local market beforehand, instead of buying overpriced items at resting points.