What better motivation to workout than preparing for a magical hike to a sacred archaeological site? As with anything involving travel, preparation is key. Given the high altitude, permit restrictions, and geographic location, you can’t just wake up one morning and decide you’re going to hike to Machu Picchu. Use this guide to prepare for the best trek of your life.
First, there’s the travel logistics:
- Booking your accommodations in Cusco – I found great hotel deals here.
- Figuring out how you want to trek to Machu Picchu – Inca Trail? Salkantay?
- Acquiring a permit in advance to gain entry to the site (and reserving the optional mountain hikes to Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain)
But there’s also the physical preparation that goes into a strenuous, multi-day hike that hits peak elevation at 13,000-15,000 feet (depending on the trek). If you’re planning on doing the four-day journey to Machu Picchu (which you definitely should), use the guide below to:
- learn how to condition your body into peak physical fitness
- know what to pack so you’re feeling prepared to handle anything
- avoid altitude sickness once you’re there
- explore and learn more about Peru’s amazing history and culture
Physical Conditioning (pre-trip):
Hiking at higher altitudes means that there’s less oxygen for your body to use. The less oxygen, the harder your lungs must work to pump out red blood cells for your muscles to move. If your body isn’t conditioned, you will likely feel breathless quickly, and possibly experience headaches, dizziness, and nausea while hiking. In addition to aerobic endurance, muscular strength, body awareness, and a strong core are essential to handle 6-7 hours of daily hiking on uneven terrain.
Remember that the more fit you are, the easier everything will be and the more you will enjoy the trek. (Let that be your persistent mantra as you follow the workout guide below). In my group there were a couple girls who had never formally worked out in their life and they were struggling the entire trek. Don’t be them.
Note: Please consult a physician before starting any exercise program for the first time.
So how do you get your body to peak physical conditioning? Use my workout guide below to prepare for your Machu Picchu trek!
1. Cardio Interval workouts (1-2x week, nonconsecutive days)
How: There are two ways I like to do this: 60:60s and 3min:1min x 3. Before I break them down, make sure you do a dynamic warmup for at least 10 minutes before to avoid any injuries. Cardio format is completely up to preference – running, rowing, cycling, or swimming.
- For the 60:60s, alternate 60 seconds of high intensity cardio with 60 seconds easy recovery. Repeat this 10 times, followed by a recovery cool down of 2-3 minutes and stretching.
- For the 3min:1min x 3, work hard for 3 minutes and recover for 1 minute, followed by a longer recovery before doing the circuit one more time.
Here’s a great beginner session using this format:
- Warm up – 10 minutes easy
- 3:1 x 3
- Recover for 5-10 minutes easy running, rowing, swimming, or riding
- 3:1 x 3
- Cool down for 10 minutes
*As you become more advanced, extend the time of work to 4 or 5 minutes, but retain the same format.
2. Resistance Training (2-3x week)
How: Hiking primarily involves your quadriceps, glutes, calves, hamstrings, hips, and abs, so building strength is key. Focus on compound lower body movements (e.g. weighted squats, lunges, deadlifts, and their different variations). Mix in upper body movements (e.g. rows, lateral raises, overhead shoulder press, curls, pushups), as strong back and shoulders help with carrying a backpack of your belongings.
3. Yoga/Pilates class (2-3x week)
Why: Not only do these exercises make great active recovery between your higher intensity cardio and resistance training days, but they help you focus on breath work, mobility, flexibility, and body awareness. A good yoga/pilates class will also include plank variations, bird dog, and single leg/balance exercises to strengthen your core and protect your back hiking all day.
*Trainer Tip: The best piece of advice I received from a fellow trainer is to consciously deepen your breath during high intensity workouts. It forces you to oxygenate your muscles more efficiently and also calms your sympathetic nervous system to avoid being in a constant state of stress. This tip is not only applicable in the gym, but also what helped me power through the steep, hour and a half long hike from Aguas Calientes to the gates of Machu Picchu. (Most people take the bus to the gate, but if you want to test yourself physically and mentally with an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience, start your morning with this hike).
What to Pack:
- Liquid Chlorophyll. This natural remedy helps your red blood cells use oxygen more efficiently and boost energy levels. Chlorophyll is my secret weapon for altitude hiking and high intensity, anaerobic workouts. I prefer liquid over capsule form because it’s easier to digest, but pick whatever works for you. Mix one dropper into a half-full water bottle, shake, and drink first thing in the morning a couple days before and during your time in Peru.
- Sturdy hiking boots. If you don’t already have hiking boots, now is the time to invest in them. This is not a hike to do in your gym trainers, especially if you’re doing the Inca Trail or hiking one of the mountains at Machu Picchu. The terrain is uneven, rocky, and sometimes slippery, so you will need traction to keep you from falling. I bought these waterproof Merril hiking boots and was not disappointed.
- Hat or visor. If you’re planning on hiking during the summer, bring something that shades your face to avoid overheating.
- Comfortable activewear. Ladies, those sexy, mesh leggings might be fashionable for an hour workout at the gym, but unless you can comfortably wear them for ten hours, leave them at home. (I almost wore mine, but last minute decided against them and was glad I did). Pick the most comfortable activewear you have and bring several different pairs.
- Bathing suit. Only if you’re doing an adventure trek that involves white-water rafting, kayaking, or visiting the hot springs. (I’ll break down the different treks more below.)
- Headlamp. This is the best investment for travel and always comes in handy. If you’re staying at a hostel, this allows you to pack in a pitch-black room while everyone is sleeping, navigate to the bathrooms at night when your eco-lodge turns off the lights, or see what’s in front of you during dark cave adventures. I love this waterproof headlamp from Amazon and have found it helpful on multiple trips.
- Healthy Snacks. Because being hangry in the Peruvian jungle is not fun. There aren’t many healthy snacks to buy while in Peru, so I recommend bringing your own arsenal of nut butters, clean protein bars, goji berries, and nuts to provide healthy fuel. I recently discovered RX bar nut butters and am hooked.
- Sleep Mask/Ear Plugs. If you’re staying in hostels or taking a red eye flight, investing in a good pair can make or break a good night’s sleep. I’ve linked to a really good pair in my products page, but you can also find what I use here.
- Headphones. If you’re doing the early morning hike from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu gate entrance, bring headphones. It’s dark, everyone is too breathless to talk, and I wish I had motivating music or a podcast to distract me while I was ascending up a steep hill for an hour and a half straight.
At higher elevations, the air is thinner/less pressure, so with each breath there is less oxygen than what your body is used to. In order to adapt, your body will breathe faster and pump blood more rapidly to get you the same amount of oxygen. This sudden shock to the body can manifest as “altitude sickness” with symptoms including dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and elevated heart rate. Scared by the stories I’ve heard, I did a ton of research on acclimation and summed up exactly what I did to avoid getting sick below:
- Arrive in Cusco beforehand. I recommend at least 2 days before starting your trek to acclimate. The altitude is technically higher at Cusco (11,152 feet) than at Machu Picchu (7,972 feet), but if you’re doing the Inca Trail, you will hit your highest altitude at 13,828 feet.
- Take it easy. Walk leisurely around the city to get your body used to moving in high altitude. There’s plenty of activities to do that I’ve listed in the next section.
- Hydrate. I recommend buying 1-2 giant water bottles from a local market and drinking them throughout the day, on top of drinking coca tea (below).
- Drink Coca Tea. You will see this everywhere in Cusco, including hostels, hotels, restaurants, etc and it actually helps. While coca is the plant that cocaine is chemically produced with, the leaves are not potent enough to have any effect on you. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, like I am, limit it to the morning and don’t drink more than several cups as it is a stimulant that can make your heart race and inhibit sleeping at night.
- Eat light. Digestion is already impeded with travel and adding higher altitudes into the mix doesn’t help either. I was told to avoid red meat since it takes longer to digest and eat light the first two days. Since I was drowning myself in water, I didn’t have much of an appetite and discovered this amazing vegan restaurant with the most delicious food. While I typically love my protein, my body responded very well to the vegan diet. Check out Shaman Restaurant Vegan Raw – I highly recommend it.
- Avoid alcohol. It can be tempting to try the famous Pisco Sour, but avoid it if you can for your first days while acclimating. I celebrated my trek with a Pisco Sour after at a cooking class and it tasted amazing. Warning: you will likely get drunker faster in higher altitude, so please drink responsibly.
What to Do in Cusco:
As you’re spending your first days in Cusco acclimating to the altitude, there are plenty of things to do. You can also partake in the following activities post-trek:
- Yoga – I recommend Evergreen Yoga or Healing House. Great to stretch out before and/or after your trek, especially with tight hamstrings and hips.
- Shopping – There are markets that are open day and night around the main square. For cheaper prices, venture out of the tourist area and don’t be afraid to haggle. I stocked up on layers for my trek and came home with beautiful souvenirs.
- San Pedro Market – Outdoor market open daily with fresh, local foods to try. There’s also great shopping here.
- Cooking Class – A great way to learn about culture and try Peruvian food. The class begins by visiting the San Pedro Market above, making a Pisco Sour, an appetizer, main course, and dessert. Highly recommend doing this!
- Chocolate Museum – Learn about the history of Peruvian chocolate, how it’s made, enjoy samples throughout the store, and buy chocolate souvenirs ranging from chocolate tea, chocolate shampoo, chocolate incense, and even chocolate condoms, yes condoms. They also offer chocolate workshops and classes too.
- Salsa Dancing – While I didn’t have time to go salsa dancing, the store clerk at the chocolate museum persistently suggested salsa dancing in Cusco. With a 5am wake-up the next morning (and no other shoes besides my Merril hiking boots and shower sandals) I had to decline, but I noted the names of the clubs he recommended – Mama Africa and Mythology. Had I known that Cusco had a big salsa dancing scene, I would’ve extended my stay longer! Hope you can check it out for me and let me know how it is.
- Visit Coricancha – This was another thing I wish I had time for. My tour guide recommended visiting Coricancha, the most important temple in the Inca Empire and where the Incans paid homage to the Sun God. Entrance fee is reasonable and a great cultural activity without traveling out of the city.
How to Take Care of Your Body While Trekking:
Treat hiking as you would a workout at the gym. Have a series of dynamic movements to do each morning before trekking to warm up the muscles and joints before hiking (e.g. bodyweight squats, lunges, twists, chest-opening stretches, leg swings).
Also, be generous with stretching throughout the hike during water breaks and in the evenings – my top recommendations are the figure four stretch, wide squat with a torso twist, chest openers, neck rolls, hamstring stretches (kicking leg up a wall or tree and stretching the back leg muscles). You might warrant a couple looks at first, but hiking for hours can lead to tight hip flexors, calves, and hamstrings so expect your group to join in the stretching and follow your lead.
Sometimes you don’t really have much of a say in what food is prepared, but my general rule of them is avoiding breads and dessert, and unapologetically asking for seconds of protein and veggies. This allows you to fill up on the nutrients your body needs after intensive, active days. When deciding what to eat at mealtime, I found it most helpful to approach my choices with the mentality of “what will fuel my body most efficiently, keep my digestion healthy, and allow me to sleep soundly tonight.” This mindset helped me eat healthy without feeling deprived and enjoy the local food.
What You Need to Know About Machu Picchu:
Best Time to Go:
Dry Season: May-October, with June-August being the most crowded/popular
Rainy Season: November to March, with February being so wet that the Inca Trail is closed. Less crowded, but expect anything from drizzle to heavy showers.
Shoulder Season: April-May; the hybrid of both offering less crowds, but cooler temperatures
I personally went in early June – right before the big summer crowds, but still was able to enjoy the pleasant weather. Even though I was in the dry season, our guide reminded us that the weather at Machu Picchu is always unpredictable and you never know what to expect until you’re up there.
No Jumping. They’re serious about this both at the sacred site and at the top of the mountains. According to studies commissioned by the Peruvian government, Machu Picchu sinks about 2-3cm every year from the tourist foot traffic. In order to reduce this alarming damage, the park now forbids anyone from trying to get a jumping photo. At the top of Machu Picchu mountain, they also have a ranger there who strictly enforces no jumping either (past visitors have fallen to their death). Morbid, but gets the point across.
Half-day permits. When I went in June 2016, that was the last month the Peruvian government offered full-day permits. Now the permits are divided into two shifts – a morning (6am-12pm) and afternoon (12pm-5:30pm). You have to enter with a guide for your first visit, but you can make a second visit (after purchasing one). In an effort to preserve the site, there are more restrictions on time and re-entry. I recommend buying a ticket to hike one of the mountains (Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu) because a) hiking them is a once-in-a-lifetime experience b) you get another entry/more time to explore. Note: Huayna Picchu tends to sell out quicker, but I really enjoyed hiking Machu Picchu Mountain because the path was safer and the ascent was higher.
What Trek to Take (and who to take it with):
Inca Trail – the most popular, iconic, traditional route. It’s about 26 miles total, reaching the highest altitude around 13,000 feet. Not recommended if you have knee problems because I heard there’s a lot of big steps going downhill. If you can’t decide between the different options below, go for the classic experience of hiking the Inca Trail and visiting the Sacred Valley. You can’t go wrong with this trek and the level of service with the tour company linked above. Book this in advance because it requires a special permit to go on the Inca Trail.
Salkantay – breathtaking mountain scenery, less crowded, and more flexibility. This is the most challenging option because it clocks in about 51 miles total and ascends to over 15,000 feet. It’s generally colder too, so pack layers. If you’re planning on doing this trek, I highly recommend going with this tour. Go with experienced guides who know what they’re doing and can take care of all of the logistical planning. If I ever go back, I would try this route.
Multi-sport, Inca Hike – For those seeking adventure and variety, the multi-sport trek is the route for you. In addition to hiking the Inca Trail, you will kayak on Lake Titicaca – which if you haven’t seen what it looks like, Google it. It’s absolutely stunning. Plus, you can expect to mountain bike through the Sacred Valley and experience the culture firsthand. Adrenaline junkies and active aficionados apply here.
Any questions or advice you would like to share about hiking Machu Picchu? Comment below!