Machu Picchu, Part 1: Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu via Salkantay

A few months ago, my brother and I decided to go on a trip Machu Picchu. For those interested in a similar trip, I’m documenting what we learned here. This is broken into three parts:

  1. Planning & Research (this post)
  2. Preparation & Packing List
  3. The Trip

Earlier this year, my brother and I decided to go on a “last hoorah” trip a few months before my wife was due. Initially we were thinking of going to Cuba, trying to seize the opportunity presented when their doors opened to Americans, but I’ve always wanted to see Machu Picchu, and we figured it was the perfect destination. We were both pretty busy when we decided to go for it, so planning was somewhat burdensome.

For people in a similar situation, here’s a summary of what we did, what we learned, and what we’d do differently if given the chance.


We decided that, unlike past trips we’d taken, we weren’t going to rough it quite so much. We found plenty of guided tours leaving from Cusco of varying degrees of difficulty, price, and timing, and also learned it was difficult to trek parts of Peru on your own, due to permits and other such hassles.

Once we got a bit more in the weeds, we were pleased to learn that even the fancy trips were reasonably priced. A friend of ours went a few years ago on a super luxurious trip for something like $5,000, but we found several for less than $2,000 that appeared reliable and comfortable.

Most of the tours we found were remarkably similar – along similar routes, similar benefits (food, lodging, and porters) – and varied mostly by the hotels they put you in on the first and last days, and the length of the trip. There were a few we found that were suspiciously cheap, as well as others that were far more expensive than seemed necessary.


Given my brother’s work constraints, and that I didn’t want to be away from my pregnant wife long, time was the biggest dictator of our plans. Specifically, we whittled out eight days for our trip, including travel, so he could get back to work and I could get back to helping out. We were both concerned that we’d regret limiting ourselves for what would likely be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to such a short time, but those were the cards dealt.

Eight Days

I asked around to see if anyone had thoughts about such a short trip, especially given that simply getting to Cusco takes about 24 hours. I soon discovered Machu Picchu was far more popular a trip than I’d realized – a handful of my friends had done a similar trip within the last few years – and, like any traveling advice, the response varied from “eight days is better than nothing” to “it’d be better if you could go for two months.”

The time constraints did, however, limit our options:

  • The voyage from Chicago to Cusco takes about 24 hours due to limited flights and poorly timed layovers
  • Cusco is at roughly 12,000 feet, and altitude sickness is very real. Most advice we received was to hang out in Cusco for as long as we could, ideally more than 3 days.
  • Hiking the Inca Trail takes at least four days, and most of the guided tours we found to six or seven


Because of the time contraints we had, we decided to hike the Salkantay Trail rather than the Inca trail. Put simply, the Salkantay Trail – which goes over the Salkantay Pass before meeting up with the latter part of the Inca Trail – is a bit more strenuous, but shorter, than the Inca Trail.

We found tours of Salkantay that were four, five, and six days, and decided the four day trip would be ideal for us: arrive Saturday morning, rapidly acclimate for a day (ha!), the hike from Sunday at dawn until Wednesday, when we’d arrive at Augus Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu. We’d then have a day to explore before taking the train back, and leave the next day.

The timing was tight, but felt like something we could pull off.


Once we knew what level of comfort we wanted, the time we had available, and the trail we wanted to hike, we set out to find specific tours. We wound up reaching out to Peru for Less, a budget-sounding but very helpful travel agency. Because we were so busy with work, we were both happy to delegate some of the planning to someone who knew the ins and outs of the trip.

Anna, our contact at Peru For Less, was incredibly helpful, and understanding of our time constraints and the type of trip we were looking for. (She’s the one who suggested we hike the Salkantay.) With her help, we narrowed our options down to Xtreme Tourbulencia, whom Anna had worked with, and Alpaca Expeditions, whom she’d never worked with but heard good things.

Both had good reviews on Trip Advisor, and both offered similar packages, but we opted for the Alpaca Expeditions because it was quite a bit cheaper. (We amounted the price difference to Alpaca being much younger a company.) Amazingly, it was only about $550/person, not including hotels or transport getting to Cusco.

Because of our scheduling constraints, there were no group tours available (for either company), so we paid about $180 extra per person to make it a private tour, something we wound up extremely grateful for. (More on that in part 3.)

Tying it All Together

At this point, we had our hotel arrangements taken care of, thanks to Peru For Less, and were were setup for our private guided tour over the Salkantay Pass and up to Machu Picchu.

We bought our airfare (which, yikes!, is expensive and tricky depending on your origin city), and were set to start preparing for our trip.

Continue to part 2: Preparing for a week long hiking trip in Peru →

#travel #peru #backpacking

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