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How to choose a Machu Picchu tour: Trails, trains, and trips in Peru and beyond

Posted February 19, 2019

The image is disarmingly familiar. You've seen it a hundred times-on posters, in travel brochures, across the Internet. So when you find yourself actually looking upon the distinctive green peak of Huayna Picchu while standing over the ruins of the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, you experience one of those thrilling jolts you immediately know will stay with you. Simply put, this is one of the great travel must-dos.

But when you're thinking about a tour to Machu Picchu, the real question is how to do it. Trail or train? A week in the Sacred Valley or a shorter stop on a multi-country trip? To help you plan the perfect Machu Picchu experience, we've put together the complete guide to choosing the right tour for you.

Covering the basics: Machu Picchu essentials

Though Machu Picchu belongs to a select group of sites that can legitimately be called wonders of the world, what sets it apart from, say, the Taj Mahal, is the number of different ways you can experience it. And the best way to start is by getting a few essential details.

How to get to Machu Picchu

The journey to Machu Picchu Machu Picchu is less a question of logistics than of personal preference. Book a luxury tour of Peru and you don't need to worry about making arrangements to get yourself there-everything will be taken care of. So it's really about how you want to experience the place and the journey there. Is it all about hiking the Inca Trail, or are you set on the classic train ride?

If you're thinking of hiking the entire Inca Trail, your main consideration-aside from the strenuousness of the climb-will be time. It usually takes four to five days to hike the whole classic trail, from its start point 82 km (50 miles) outside Cusco to the dramatic entry to Machu Picchu on foot.

If you're not interested in hiking, most multi-destination tours include the classic train ride from Cusco, changing at Poroy and taking either the Vistadome train or the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham.

Passengers boarding the Belmond Hiram Bingham train in Peru

When to go

The traditional 'best time' to visit Machu Picchu is based on weather. May to September is the dry season, but you can also expect more crowds during this time. Expect consistently dry weather and cooler temperatures, particularly at night, when temperatures can get down to freezing. You can still find good conditions in October.

November through April is the rainy season. Warmer temperatures (around 70F) come with much wetter weather. But don't let this put you off-with the rain come perfect conditions for some spectacular flora, making this the best time to hike the Inca Trail, as it is fringed by wildflowers like the famous Andean orchids.

Private tour or small group?

Your next decision is the company you're going to keep on your Machu Picchu tour. While many travelers choose a private tour as a couple or group of friends, joining a small group tour is a great option for solo travelers or those on a limited budget. There's usually still some flexibility if you'd like to tailor a small group tour - for example, including a morning hike to Huayna Picchu while the rest of your group explores the ancient city below. However, if you have your own ideas about what you want to include-and particularly if you are thinking of hiking-a bespoke private tour is your best option.

trekkers on the Inca Trail

Getting active: Hiking the Inca Trail

The classic Inca Trail of four to five days is the most popular hike, and one of the most exhilarating things to do in Peru. If you're expecting a rough and ready journey, though, you might be surprised at the level of luxury that's possible. Expect private porters for your luggage, a gourmet cook, and comfortable lodges along the route. That said, this is still a physically demanding trek, especially when you factor in the high altitudes. But, if you're up for it, you'll be rewarded with exceptional views.

The best times to visit Machu Picchu for hikers

If you want to hike the Inca Trail, there are some logistics to keep in mind. First, permits: the Peruvian government issues a fixed number of permits for hiking the Inca Trail each year to safeguard the site and prevent damage caused by excessive visitors. Permits sell out fast, so you need to reserve well in advance-around a year before your trip.

However, there are around a dozen alternatives to the Inca Trail, the most popular including the Salkantay trek and the Lares trek, with routes ranging from a couple days to almost two weeks. If you'd like detailed advice on all the different treks and trails, get in touch with a Cox & Kings travel expert for personalized recommendations.

Second, there are scheduling limitations: each year the trail is closed for the whole month of February to allow for restoration and repairs-it's intentionally scheduled for the rainy season, when there would be few hikers anyway. Beyond avoiding February, it's a case of picking a month where the weather fits your needs.

passengers in the Vistadome train

Machu Picchu by train: The rail experience

Taking the train to Aguas Calientes, the little town on the Urubamba River that serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu, is the classic experience. You'll depart Cusco, with a change en route, arriving at Aguas Calientes after taking in spectacular Andean scenery as you wind through the Sacred Valley and alongside the Urubamba.

The big decision here is whether to take the standard Vistadome train (so-called for the glass panels in its roof, which provide views overhead) or the luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham train. The latter is the archetypal luxury rail experience, with elegant carriages that recall the 1920s heyday of rail travel, an observation car, and outstanding dining. Either train makes for a truly spectacular journey-the Hiram Bingham provides a real gilded edge, with some significant extra luxury touches. The difference between the two is a whole story on its own, so if you'd like to get a fuller picture, just get in touch with us for personal advice from a Peru travel expert.

Beyond Peru: Combining Machu Picchu with the country's near neighbors

Machu Picchu is almost always the focal point of any tour to Peru, and plenty of popular itineraries center on it, with a week around Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, and a couple days on either side for Cusco and Lima. However, it's very possible to pair a trip here with a wider South American tour; take a look at our luxury tour of Peru and Bolivia for an idea of how you could turn a tour to Machu Picchu into an even bigger South American adventure that gives a wider insight into the contrasting cultures and landscapes in the region.

Lake Titicaca, Peru

Peru beyond Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is spectacular-there are no two ways about it. But to reduce an entire country to its one big-name destination would be doing the rest of Peru a pretty big disservice. Whether Machu Picchu is on your bucket list or not, there are many reasons to plan a trip to Peru.

Among the other big-name places to visit in Peru are, of course, Lake Titicaca with its gateway town of Puno, dramatic Colca Canyon, and beautiful colonial Arequipa. Browse our full range of luxury Peru tours for inspiration for your own bespoke tour.

Now that you're armed with the essential background on planning a Machu Picchu tour, you may have a few specific questions that can only be answered personally. That's where our travel experts come in. For personalized recommendations, contact Cox & Kings and speak to a travel expert who can give you everything you need to create your perfect tour of Peru.