When the opportunity to visit came up last fall, the complete four-day trek along the Inca Trail wasn’t in the cards for me. Not wanting to miss the experience entirely, I opted to hop off the early-morning train at Kilometre 104 of the Cusco–Machu Picchu railroad for a spectacular 15km (9 mi) guided day hike to the Lost City of the Incas. So if you find yourself torn between a four-day trek and a train ride and one-day trek, I have five reasons for you to consider a day hike to Machu Picchu.
1. You’re short on time
Like me, you may have a limited number of days in Peru but you want to experience all the Sacred Valley has to offer, including the Inca Trail. With a one-day trek, you’ll have time to explore Cusco, Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes, and still arrive at Machu Picchu on the same route as the Incas without adding any extra days to your stay.
2. You’re new to trekking
If you’ve never been mountain trekking before, four days of hiking and camping at higher altitudes might sound a bit intimidating. Taking the one-day Inca Trail hike offers you a chance to get your feet wet on one of the world’s most famous treks and still feel the satisfaction of scrambling up the Monkey Steps to the Sun Gate to earn your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. The hike is easy to moderately difficult, depending on your fitness level, with just enough Inca stairs to get that sweat glistening on your brow and make you appreciate the rest shelters along the route.
3. You want more landscapes
Machu Picchu is breathtaking, but it’s not the only reason tens of thousands of adventure-seekers choose to follow in the Inca’s footsteps. There’s so much more to the Sacred Valley that’s not visible from the window of any train or tour bus. We visited the former religious site of Chachabamba (which is generally not visited on the classic four-day trek) before walking for the morning along the Andean mountainside overlooking the Urubamba River Valley. After stopping for lunch beside a spectacular waterfall and exploring the agricultural terraces of Winay Wayna, we descended into the cloud forest and chased rainbows in the mist to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, by late afternoon. You won’t see any of that if you opt to take the train.
4. You want more time at Machu Picchu
Day hikers arrive in the afternoon, when the crowds have often thinned out from the morning rush. You’ll have time to snap some photos and as you descend into Machu Picchu to catch your bus to Aguas Calientes. You can return the follow morning, refreshed and showered, an opt for a two-hour tour or explore the ruins on your own.
5. You’re on a point-and-shoot mission
The weather is unpredictable in the Andes, where rain and clouds can settle in in a matter of minutes and completely change the view. If you’ve dreamed of capturing that postcard-perfect Machu Picchu photo, adding the trek to your tour itinerary doesn’t guarantee that Pachamama (Incan mother of Earth and time) will cooperate with sunny skies. It does however, mean you’ll have two opportunities to see the famed relic of the Incas in all its glory. I completed my hike just as the afternoon showers cleared and the sun burned off the clouds to reveal an empty Machu Picchu, unspoiled by crowds as we were approaching closing time. The next morning we were treated to torrential rain for half of our tour but the surprisingly positive side effect was how magical and mystical this ancient Inca city feels when the clouds close in.