Hiking in Peru: Beginner to Advanced Treks to Machu Picchu & Beyond

Hiking in Peru-Featured photo-Machu Picchu-Rainbow Mountain

From easy treks through Colca Canyon to advanced climbs in Choquequirao, hiking in Peru is a backpacker’s delight. Peru packs a punch in all things adventure, including ancient structures, eye-catching scenery and tasty food. Explore some of the world’s most mysterious landmarks at Machu Picchu, or plan an off-the-beaten-path excursion to the Peruvian Amazon in Iquitos. Advanced hikes are plentiful, and hikes for beginners in Peru can be found at most of these top attractions, making a trip to South America’s western wonder a must-do!

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1. Hiking in Peru | Machu Picchu

Some archaeologists believe it was a resort for wealthy Incas and others aren’t quite sure, but all agree that Machu Picchu is one of the most spectacular places on earth to visit. The ancient ruins, built in classic Inca style with stone walls on a terraced landscape, weren’t discovered officially until 1911, probably because the entire village sits on a hilltop above Urubamba River.

The site is so well hidden that it was one of the few places left intact following the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire in the late 1500s. Machu Picchu is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered a sacred place by locals.

Best time to visit Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is open all year, but hikes are more difficult during rainy season from October to April. Peak season is from July to August, and crowds are abundant during this time. Crowds may be lighter during the week, but Sundays are busy as locals from nearby Cusco are allowed into Machu Picchu for free.

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Top Things to See in Machu Picchu

  • Sun Gate (Inti Punku): recommended as the first stop on Machu Picchu because of the strenuous hike it takes to get there, Sun Gate offers panoramic views over the Peruvian mountain ranges and is loved for its breathtaking sunsets. The hike to Sun Gate from the Machu Picchu entrance takes about an hour and a half.
  • Intihuatana: this unique structure is thought to have been used as a sundial, and it sits in the perfect position at the top of a hill to capture the suns rays.
  • Temple of the Sun: one of the most impressive architectural structures at Machu Picchu, the Temple of the Sun is constructed of smooth stones fit closely together. The grand monument differs from , the rest of the complex, which is made typically from smaller stones fit together with mud.
  • Temple of the Three Windows: located in the center of the site in the main citadel, the Temple of the Three Windows features a framed view of the region.
  • Temple of the Condor: one of the most intriguing structures on the site, the Temple of the Condor is a rock complex that resembles the shape of a condor. A prison complex sits directly behind the temple, and experts believe the Temple of the Condor was used as a place where prisoners where tried and also as a sacrificial altar.

Tickets to Machu Picchu

Tickets to Machu Picchu must be ordered through the official website or from official agencies in Cusco and Aguas Calientes. Visitors cannot buy tickets upon arrival. Tickets designate time slots for each visitor and are non-refundable.

Several packages are available for visitors to Machu Picchu. Guests can choose a basic tour or combine tours with scenic hikes. Prices for adults range from about $40 to $50. Discounts are available for children and students. Guests also should budget for a guide, which is required to visit Machu Picchu. Guides can be found outside the entryway to Machu Picchu and cost another $40 to $50, depending on the length of the tour.

Getting to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 and hosts millions of visitors each year. Because of its popularity, planning tours and booking tickets in advance is a must – and often isn’t cheap. However, budget travelers up for an adventure shouldn’t shy away from a trip to Machu Picchu.

Advanced hikers normally sign up for a two- to four-day trek to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail, which requires a permit. Only 500 permits are issued each day, and sometimes permits sell out months in advance. The trail is closed in February for maintenance. Other advanced trails include treks from Lares and Salcantay (Salkantay), the highest peak in the Vilcabamba mountain range. All treks in these regions require guides, which can be hired in Cusco, where the Inca Trail begins, or in Lares or Salcantay for the alternative hikes.

Beginner hikers, or sightseers who just want to get to Machu Picchu the easiest and fastest way possible, can take a train from Cusco, Urubamba or Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. From there, the hike to Machu Picchu takes about an hour and a half.

For non-hikers, buses run regularly to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The trip takes 20 minutes.

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2. Hiking in Peru | Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca)

Perhaps one of the few fortunate products of global warming, Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) near Cusco is one of Peru’s newest and most beautiful attractions. The mountain has been covered in snow and ice for centuries, but around 2015, the snow melted, revealing peaks covered in unbelievable striped colors.

Geologists have identified 14 minerals, including irons and chlorites, responsible for the mountain’s rich color scheme. One of the most frequently asked questions about the colors of the mountain is, “Do they look as brilliant in real life as in photos?” The answer is YES!

Best time to see Rainbow Mountain

The visiting period for Rainbow Mountain is wide open. The mountain sees decent weather from March to November, and the clearest skies tend to take place between June to August. January and February are rainy months, but trekking during this time is possible with some weather-watching and a good guide.

Travel tips for trekking Rainbow Mountain

  • Wear layers. As temperatures can go from sunny to snowing in a matter of minutes (seriously), wearing layers of clothing allows trekkers to strip when they’re hot and bundle up when they are cold.
  • Good hiking shoes are a must. Trekking Rainbow Mountain isn’t the toughest hike on earth, but it certainly warrants a good pair of shoes. Keep your feet happy!
  • Take water, sunscreen and a hat. Mountain hiking is different than trail hiking. Sunburn comes on fast, as does dehydration. Take precautions before hitting the trail.
  • Prepare for altitude sickness. Rainbow Mountain sits at an elevation of a whopping 17,000 feet. That’s half the height of Mount Everest! Professional tours include oxygen masks into package deals to help combat dizziness and nausea that often accompany mountain expeditions.

Getting to Rainbow Mountain

Advanced hikers will want to book a guided tour from Cusco. Tours vary by agency, but most begin around 5 a.m., and some of the more advanced tours take off at 3 a.m. Some of these tours go through Cusipata, about two hours away from Cusco.

Beginner hikers can rent a taxi, go by minivan or join a group bus tour. The trip from Cusco takes about three hours.

Renting a car or driving your own vehicle also is an option. The last hour of the trip goes down a narrow dirt road, but the road does not require an off-road vehicle.

Regardless of how travelers arrive at Rainbow Mountain, the journey to the top is the same: guests must walk the remainder of the way, which takes about an hour and a half. Visitors also have the option of renting a horse from a local anywhere along the trail.

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3. Hiking in Peru | Inca Trail

Most trekkers who visit Machu Picchu like to combine the adventure with a hike down Inca Trail, one of the top treks in the world. The trail starts at Chillca and follows 26 miles of mountain scenery that passes through ancient Inca ruins, tunnels and mysterious stones. Machu Picchu is the final stop and the reward at the end of this incredible hike.

Guests can choose a few different hikes that range from easy to advanced. All tours require advanced booking, a guide and government-issued permits.

Inca Trail Permits

A permit is required to hike Inca Trail, and the government only issues 500 each day. Permits are issued each January and sell out quickly, so visitors must plan well in advance to hike Inca Trail. Permits are available online from the government’s official site or from registered tour agencies in Cusco.

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Hiking Inca Trail

High season is from June to August, so weather is best but crowds are guaranteed. January through April are the wettest months, and the trail is closed during February for annual maintenance.

Advanced hikers can opt for 4- to 7-day hikes. All cover the “classic” trail, and some take trekkers on adventures through Llactapata ruins, while others follow the railroad from Cusco to Winay Wayna. Trekking over the mountains of Salcantay is the most advanced tour. It lasts for seven days and requires cold-weather gear and an additional trekking permit.

For Beginner hikers, the biggest deterrent to hiking Inca Trail is the distance. With daily hikes lasting eight to nine hours, beginner hikers can go to advanced status while backpacking in Peru!

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4. Hiking in Peru | Choquequirao

One of Peru’s lesser-known attractions, Choquequirao is a complex of Inca ruins nestled in the Vilcabamba mountain range near Cachora. The architecture at Choquequirao resembles that of Machu Picchu, and the landmark is believed to be the ruins of a political stronghold.

The site contains several structures and temples, including the Sector Llamas, which features a series of stone steps and walkways, and the Plaza Principal, one of the main buildings of the ruins.

Getting to Choquequirao

Advanced hikers can sign up for a two-day hike from Cusco. The actual hike, however, begins in Cachora, about four hours from Cusco. A shorter trail starts at Huanipaca. Longer treks that last seven to 10 days also are available as are treks from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu.

Beginner hikers will need to wait for the cable car to be built. Construction has been approved, but no official launch date has been announced. Visiting the ruins of Machu Picchu is a good alternative to missing out on Choquequirao.

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5. Hiking in Peru | Paracas National Reserve

Created to protect the Peruvian coastline, marine life and a portion of the tropical desert, Paracas National Reserve is a perfect destination for hiking in Peru, particularly for eco-friendly backpackers. The park was the first marine reserve in Peru and features easy tours to Ballestas Islands, teeming with natural wildlife and native coastal birds.

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Things to do at Paracas National Reserve

  • Ballestas Islands: take a boat tour to view unique rock formations and loads of marine life, like seals, sea lions and penguins.
  • Museo de Sitio Julio C. Tello de Paracas: stop by this museum to get a cultural lesson about Paracas culture. The Paracas region is believed to have been occupied since 6500 BC.
  • Beaches: the coast of Paracas is lined with beaches – and beach resorts! While the waters aren’t ideal for swimming, the atmosphere is completely chill. Playa La Mina is a popular public beach area situated away from the main center of Paracas. Visitors who want to stay near the action, however, can look for beachfront hotels near Playa Chaco or Playa Palmilla.
  • Rock formations: hold on to your hat in Paracas! The wind blows quite swiftly in this historical region, and over the years, it has molded and shaped several archaeological wonders. Visitors will want to take a camera to the bay at sunset to capture the beauty of these natural formations.

Getting to Paracas National Reserve

Buses run daily to Paracas National Reserve. Visitors can catch a bus in Lima, Paracas, Ica or Nazca.

Both advanced and beginner hikers will enjoy exploring Paracas National Reserve.

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6. Hiking in Peru | Peruvian Amazon Jungle in Iquitos

Plan on flying into Iquitos because it’s the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road! This charming community is located right smack in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon jungle – on the Amazon River! – and offers some of the world’s most amazing hikes. It also offers plenty of places to rest, relax and mingle between jungle expeditions.

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Visitors to Iquitos can book guided tours through the Amazon, where they are guaranteed to spot tons of monkeys and wild animals as well as native birds, fish and the occasional pink dolphin. The Bosque de las Leyendas and Bosque de Huayo botanical gardens also are must-see attractions. Visitors can find Parque Ecologico Mundo Amazonico along the Amazon River, downstream from Iquitos, near Amacayacu Natural National Park in Colombia.

How to get to Iquitos

A flight from Lima is a traveler’s best option. Flights take off at least eight times each day, and the trip takes less than two hours.

Advanced hikers can take their pick of guided tours. Most hotels can put guests in touch with agencies, and tours vary from short treks to week-long excursions.

Beginner hikers are in luck in Iquitos. The area is known for its exceptional boat tours, as well as its quaint cafes, outstanding restaurants and charming jungle lodges.

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7. Hiking in Peru | Huacachina

Ica is a charming city near Paracas and the Peru coastline, about four hours south of Lima. It is best known for the “hidden lagoon” of Huacachina, a small lake community nestled in the middle of Peru’s southern sand dunes. Visitors to Huacachina can spend the days paddle boating on the lake or “sandboarding” on the surrounding dunes.

In addition to enjoying the adventure sports in the area, guests also travel to Huacachina resort to cover themselves in the healing mud of the region. The waters and mud from the lake are thought to contain healing elements that relieve symptoms of arthritis, rheumatism, asthma and bronchitis.

How to get to Huacachina

Peru Hop is the only bus company that travels to Huacachina. Buses run regularly from Ica and will pick guests up at their hotels. The trip takes less than an hour.

Advanced and beginner hikers will enjoy a day trip to Huacachina.

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8. Hiking in Peru | Colca Canyon

For an all-encompassing adventure trip in Peru, backpackers should plan on spending a few days in Colca Canyon near Chivay. The archaeological wonder is Peru’s third most visited destination and offers endless views of the Andean Condor, a threatened species. Less than 7,000 Andean Condors are known to exist, and most of them live in Colca Canyon. The remainder stay in Argentina. The giant hummingbird, the Adean goose, Chilean flamingo and caracara also have been spotted in the area.

The Colca Canyon region also is renowned for its hot springs, most of which can be found in Chivay, but some are scattered along the canyon trails.

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Notable archaeological sites in Colca Canyon

  • Mollepunko Caves in Callalli District
  • Paraqra Archeological Site – Sibayo (Mummy of Paraqra)
  • Chimpa Fort (Fortaleza de Chimpa) over Madrigal
  • Ruins of pre-Hispanic settlements

Getting to Colca Canyon

Booking a tour bus in Arequipa is the most convenient way to get to Colca Canyon. Visitors coming from Lima can fly directly into Arequipa. Hiring a mini bus driver is another option. While mini bus drivers do cost more than group tours, a mini bus allows tourists to travel at their own leisure and make stops along the way.

Advanced hikers can opt for “mini hikes” between Arequipa and Colca Canyon. One of the most popular places to spend a few hours watching condors is in Cabanaconde District.

Beginner hikers can take a bus directly to Colca Canyon and spend one or two days exploring the area.

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9. Hiking in Peru | Moray

Agriculture buffs will have a grand time in Moray, just outside the community of Urubamba, near Cusco. The site consists of several layers of rounded terraces, and it is believe to have been a agricultural lab of the Incas.

Visitors can walk up and down the terraces to feel the climate change from the top layer to the bottom. The architecture was used to test the best growing conditions for native crops. Studies indicate that soils from surrounding regions were imported to the district, and evidence of water channels can be seen by visiting tourists.

How to get to Moray from Cusco

Booking a day tour through a travel agent in Cusco is the easiest way to go to Moray. The trip takes about an hour and a half. Taxis also are an option, as a permit is not required to enter Moray, but a taxi will cost considerably more than booking a bus tour.

Advanced and beginner hikers will both enjoy this trek. Moray is a simple hike that easily can turn into a two-day adventure!

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