What to Expect Hiking in Peru: Modest Physical Activity, Major Scenic Payoffs
You don’t have to be a dedicated athlete to enjoy EF Ultimate Break’s Peru & Machu Picchu Adventure. Not even close. While some days will be more taxing than others, anyone can do it. Between the amazing group camaraderie you’ll forge and the epic scenery along each hike (um hi, Machu Picchu)—it’s so worth it.
by Allison Burns
EF Ultimate Break traveler
A vacation unlike any other
A few years ago, I decided that I needed a break from my cubicle life and wanted to take an trip unlike anything I’ve experienced before. My two main criteria for the destination were: 1) great for solo travelers and 2) less about partying, more about action-packed adventure. After chatting with an EF Ultimate Break consultant to find the perfect trip, I had my next vacation booked: the Peru & Machu Picchu Adventure.
I knew nothing about Peru besides Machu Picchu being a world wonder and, of course, the llamas! (Who else thinks The Emperor’s New Groove is highly underrated?) The name Peru is derived from the Quechua word to imply land of abundance. I can assure you that there was an abundance of adventure over the course of the 10 jam-packed days I spent in South America.
Now let me clarify: I am no fitness expert. I have little hiking experience and I’ll even put myself on blast here—I was that girl walking the mile in gym class. The number one question I am always asked about my Peru trip is how much physical activity there was. The Peru & Machu Picchu Adventure is certainly not a hiking trip exclusively, but rather incorporates a few walks and hikes that are completely doable by anyone and so, so worth it.
The beauty of group travel is that you’ll have this amazing set itinerary, but can still tailor the trip to your own wants and needs during the free time baked in. Our Tour Director, Sally, always recommended alternative excursions like shopping for an alpaca sweater at a wool factory, learning how silver is turned into jewelry, visiting a pottery maker’s home in the Sacred Valley, and indulging my sweet tooth during a chocolate making class in Cusco.
Ollantaytambo: The first modest “hike” in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Our first “hike” of the trip took place in the quaint city of Ollantaytambo where we stopped overnight before heading to Aguas Calientes the following day. Ollantaytambo is the typical starting point for someone completing the entire 4-day Incan Trail trek (not part of this trip’s itinerary) but is also one of the most important towns in the Sacred Valley of the Incas largely because its old archaeological remains are still inhabited. The massive ruins called the Fortress had been used during the Spanish invasion and conquest of Peru. To prepare for the steps we would be climbing at Machu Picchu the next day, we ascended a short but steep 200 steps to the Temple of the Sun.
The view of the valley behind the ruins was remarkable: snow-capped mountains looking down upon the little old village. Pinkuylluna, the iconic mountain here, stands tall with high terraces where they stored their crops. You didn’t even need to climb to the top to take in the incredible views. You could remain at the base of the ruins and search the mountain for the face of Wiracocha, “the creator of all,” carved into the rock! The rest of the visit was relaxed, strolling the cobblestoned streets through canals, and visiting a local family in their cancha, or communal dwelling, complete with live guinea pigs running around and all.
Getting to Machu Picchu—by train.
Worried about the actual hike to Machu Picchu? Don't be! In fact, getting to Machu Picchu can actually be pretty easy. It's no wonder it attracts more than a million visitors per year! We traveled by scenic rail to the town of Aguas Calientes. From there, our group hopped on a bus that took us through jungles, zigzagging up the mountain’s edge like we were in our very own Jurassic Park movie. For the entire 30-minute trip, I was fixated on these incredibly massive mountains, larger than I had ever seen before. The only thing standing between me and that iconic Machu Picchu photo was a steep climb up stairs a bit longer than those in Ollantaytambo.
This climb wasn’t easy—I was surely out of breath (mostly out of anticipation of finally visiting a place I only ever dreamed about!)—but it wasn’t overly difficult, either. And words cannot describe how impressive this citadel was in person. To this day, I cannot comprehend how man and horsepower moved these massive rocks up a mountain to build an empire while here I was only able to lug myself and camera bag in tow.
Optional: The most difficult, but most rewarding, hike to the Sun Gate.
This is an optional add-on excursion on the trip, and was the most challenging activity (though admittedly it was also the one I least prepared for). The Sun Gate, also known as Inti Punku in Quechua, was once a guardhouse that marked one of the entrances to Machu Picchu and is the first location where you can spot the ruins if completing the 4-day trek. The hike isn’t long, but about 85% is walking on an incline with the elevation gain making it a moderate trail. If you choose to partake, you’ll wake at around 3:00am, hop on a bus through the jungle, and then hike during sunrise to the Sun Gate—it’s about four hours round trip including transportation there and back.
It was foggy on the day we did it, making the rock slippery and I wished I had brought sturdy hiking shoes with ankle support and stability instead of my regular running sneakers. If it wasn’t for not getting enough sleep the night before and feeling the effects of high altitude, the trek would have been challenging, but doable. As I pushed through with each step I took, there was a far more beautiful view than the last. Completing this trek would be the most fulfilling thing I would do to date and that motivated me to keep going. However, I would not have made it to the Sun Gate without the support of the group, many of whom would soon become my lifelong friends.
I stuck with a few girls from the group for most of this hike, taking as many breaks as I needed to catch my breath and settle my stomach. Others passed us going at their own pace offering words of encouragement, estimating how far we were from the end. There is truly no better camaraderie than what you find on a hiking trail. It may even be equivalent to a women’s bathroom during a night out. The motivation from my fellow travelers was unmatched, however, I didn’t know how truly special our group was until those ruins of Inti Punku finally came into view and I heard applause.
I looked up at everyone who had already finished before me, and each continued to cheer on every other person that arrived at the Sun Gate. Maybe it was the physical and mental challenge during the last two hours or maybe it was the spiritual talk our Tour Director Sally had with us when the fog finally cleared, revealing Machu Picchu in all its glory before us, but our group shared something special that morning, bonding us for life.
The trek back down was luckily a lot easier as it was entirely downhill. Once back at the start, you could choose to hike or take the bus down the winding mountains (you can guess which option I chose!). We were back in Aguas Calientes by 10:00am, although it really felt like 4:00pm, meaning it was totally acceptable to indulge in some celebratory burgers and beer. Hey, we had just burned off a week’s worth of calories in one morning and were still basking in those post-hike endorphins.
You can read more about my experience on this specific Sun Gate hike here: Embracing Incan Culture During a Magical Sunrise Hike to Machu Picchu
“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”
To this day, any time I encounter anything semi-challenging or physically demanding in life, I think back to the times I pushed myself and tried new things over those 10 days in Peru and that Sun Gate hike. I am immediately reminded that I can get through anything I encounter as long as I’m not afraid to leave my comfort zone.
Without EF Ultimate Break, I would not have met the special people who, three years later, continue to be my personal cheerleaders and motivate me to live outside my comfort zone and be okay with being uncomfortable because in the end, it’ll be so damn worth it.
If you’re considering the Peru & Machu Picchu Adventure but are worried about the physical activity—I’m here to say you can do it! It’s mostly a leisurely trip with incredible Peruvian sightseeing. And while the Sun Gate hike was daunting, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish when 25 new BFFs are cheering you on. If you do a little pre-trip preparation (like a few weeks on the stair master or some local trails in your area), you should feel good about handling the hikes—and you’ll be better prepared than I was going in!
All photos courtesy of Allison Burns.
Peru & Machu Picchu Adventure
10 days. 4 cities. Lots of llamas.
Up the altitude and dive into jungles, cities and ancient ruins on this adventure through the heart of Peru. After living like a local in Lima, you’ll journey to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, where you'll learn about its mysterious and magical past.
by Allison Burns
Allison is a digital marketing specialist based out of Long Island, New York with a passion for photography and checking countries off her bucket list, hoping to reach 30 by age 30. When she's not browsing for her next EF Ultimate Break trip, you can find her petting the nearest dog, talking about The Vampire Diaries to anyone who will listen, or scoping out the best Trader Joe’s finds.