Perhaps the most iconic site in all of South America, certainly the most visited and well-known destination in Peru, Machu Picchu is on many backpackers’ Bucket Lists and is, quite simply, a must-see. The ruined Inca City, set amongst the towering green peaks of the Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains, is an awe-inspiring site and a testament to the achievements of the Inca civilisation. Getting there can be something of a pilgrimage, but with so many different treks on offer, from the traditional Inca Trail to the very tough-looking Salkantay Trek, it’s hard to know which tour, trek or route is right for you.
For those who don’t feel up to a four or five day hike, who suffer from altitude sickness, or who don’t quite have the money for the Inca Trail, there is an alternative: the backpacker-budget friendly, action packed, somewhat easier and increasingly popular Inca Jungle Trek.
What Is The Inca Jungle Trek?
The Jungle Trek is the perfect option for people who want the challenge of trekking to Machu Picchu, but also who want to have fun and who maybe couldn’t trek all day, every day. It’s a four day tour from Cusco to Machu Picchu, which involves very small amounts of hiking, and has various extra activities like mountain biking and zip lining thrown in. Short of simply taking the train, it’s probably the easiest trekking option for getting to Machu Picchu.
I’m not saying it was easy; actually it’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, but the Jungle Trek is certainly easier than the Salkantay or Lares treks. It’s also much, much cheaper than the Inca trail, with the added bonus that you don’t have to book eight months in advance. In fact, you can usually find a place on a tour leaving the next day if you ask around in Cusco.
What the Inca Jungle Trek Involves
There are several companies out there running the Inca Jungle Trek, but they all follow more or less the same schedule:
The day starts bright and early, usually around an uncomfortable 6am, and most tours pick you up from your hostel in Cusco. You’ll drive to Ollantaytambo and head up into the mountains for the first activity; mountain biking downhill from a peak over 4,000m above sea level. It starts out pretty cold and usually very wet; the top of the mountain is pretty much smothered in clouds which will soak you as you cycle. Protective gear is provided, including thick waterproof trousers and jackets.
At the bottom of the descent the weather will be warm and sunny, and you’ll stop for lunch in Santa Maria before an afternoon of optional white water rafting, and a short jungle trek. The first night is spent in a jungle lodge, which is very basic but clean accommodation (expect cold showers).
This is the only full day of trekking, which is fairly easy. The route takes you from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa, following some ancient Inca trails through lush green jungle and along valleys. The actual hike is only about six hours, but takes at least eight including stops and a lunch break, and with only two ascents the walk isn’t too demanding. At Santa Teresa, you can pay to use the hot springs, before heading into town for dinner and another night in very basic accommodation. Expect hot, sunny weather.
The day starts with early morning zip lining over a canyon just outside of Santa Teresa (again, this is an optional extra but highly recommended), followed by a nice, flat afternoon hike from the hydroelectric to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. Weather is usually warm and sunny, although during the rainy season you should expect light, but warm, showers.
You’ll leave nice and early in order to reach the gates at the foot of Machu Picchu before they open at 5am, then it’s a very steep ascent up the Inca staircase of around 1,700 uneven stone steps. This usually takes about an hour, maybe less or more depending on your fitness and how much the altitude affects you. Machu Picchu itself opens at 6am, so if you get there in time you may be able to watch the sunrise over the city (weather depending). Your guide will give you a tour of the city which lasts about an hour, then you’re free to explore for as long as you like. If you want to challenge yourself further, you can also climb either Machu Picchu mountain or Huayna Picchu for some spectacular views – but you’ll need to book your tickets at least a few days in advance (you can do this through your tour company) as they sell out fast. Your tour company will provide train tickets back to Ollantaytambo, from where a bus will drive you the rest of the way to Cusco.
Inca Jungle Trek Cost
The Inca Jungle Trek is probably the most cost effective tour option besides taking the train, or doing a DIY hike. The prices vary between companies, but are usually around $200 – $250 USD.
Loki Travel, who we booked with, charge $225 USD for the four day trek, including the return train journey to Cusco after the fourth day.
The optional activities cost extra: the rafting on day one is around $38 USD and the zip line on day three costs around $30 USD. You’ll also need to pay an extra $6/$10 USD for entry to Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu Mountains if you want to climb these after you’ve visited the actual city of Machu Picchu.
ISIC card holders will receive a $22 USD discount.
Points to Note
- The optional activities cost extra, but they are well worth it! These activities are run by separate companies so they won’t be controlled by your tour company, and they can be dangerous – so make sure you’re careful and you listen to the instructors.
- On the second day, the trek involves a pretty scary “cable car” crossing, where you’re basically sat in a wooden crate and pulled across a very high valley by rope.
- The accommodation along the way is very basic – with the exception of the night in Aguas Calientes. Expect cold showers, uncomfortable beds, and noise – but you’ll be so tired every night that you’ll fall straight asleep!
- It is possible to take a bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes – but not recommended. The climb up is tough but so rewarding, and reaching the city the way the Inca’s did is the best way to see it!
- If possible, I recommend spending an extra night in Aguas Calientes after your day in Machu Picchu, and taking the train back in the morning. For one thing, the views from the train are apparently amazing, so it’s better to take the ride in daylight. For another, you’ll be so tired after your four days trekking and your super early start, that an early night in Aguas Calientes is way more preferable than a long night time journey back to Cusco!
- For information on what to pack, check out my extensive Inca Jungle Trek Packing List post.
Which Inca Jungle Trek Tour Company
I did the trip with Conde Travel, an awesome, safety conscious company with great equipment and fantastic staff. The trip itself was booked through Loki Travel, a tour company that are part of the Loki Hostel chain (popular party hostels in Peru), but it was Conde Travel who ran the tour. I found the service from Loki pretty bad, and I didn’t enjoy the hostel (luckily, we didn’t stay there), so I wouldn’t recommend them, but I really thought Conde Travel were fantastic and had a great experience with them.
Although all the companies seem to follow the same route and have similar prices, it’s important to consider the safety and responsibility of the company, and the equipment (particularly for the mountain biking), so double check reviews from real people on a site like Trip Adviser before you book. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about other companies who offer the Inca Jungle Trek, but I really do recommend Conde Travel.