Hiking to Machu Picchu: KM104 VS the Stairs?

Hiking to Machu Picchu: KM104 VS the Stairs? - Orange Nation

Hiking into Machu Picchu is an iconic pilgrimage that many adventurers wish to take on as they visit Peru. There are countless of hikes to choose from, divided into short trails or multi-day treks. The two most popular short treks is the the Inca Trail (also known as KM104) into the ruins, or hiking the stairs from Aguas Calientes to the entrance.

Naturally, hiking from KM 104 and following in the footsteps of the Incas. Later, you are privy to the most exclusive and unique vintage point of the Historical UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. Its a 12km/7.5 mile hike that´s mostly gradual with a few inclines to challenge you. Its a fantastic mix of adventure, history, nature and discovery. You pass through many different Inca sites and nature and landscape is breathtaking.

In contrast to this, hiking the stairs from Aguas Calientes in a free activity. However, it is extremely challenging. The fact that you only have a just under 2km is not a true representation of the challenge ahead. The stairs from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu are extremely steep and your knees and legs will feel every step you take. Steps at high altitudes are always challenging. As usual, the views are absolutely stunning. The mountains are this lush, vibrant green color because you are so close to the Amazon Jungle.

On both hikes you get to pass through cloud forest before arriving in the humid temperatures of the jungle. KM104 has more to offer in terms of things to see and experience, including Inca Ruins like Wiñay Wayna, Sun Gate and Chachabamba. Whereas, the stairs are way more challenging despite the significantly shorter walk. The hike is clearly marked and easy to follow.

Read on to compare these two different hikes into Machu Picchu, and decide which is the best choice for you.

Short Inca Trail hike from KM 104 to Machu Picchu

  • Start of the hike: The KM 104 hike starts on the banks of the Urubamba River, close to the Inca ruins of Chachabamba. The only way to get to KM104 is by walking or taking the train. The train drops you off at the foot of the start of the trail. Crossing the footbridge over the river, your hike begins.

Typically, the short Inca Trial is only a day of hiking. Thereafter, you spend the night in Aguas Calientes, before returning the next day by bus for a sunrise view of the Citadel. The best part is definitely the fact that you get to see the Citadel twice. First time in the afternoon when most of the crowds have dispersed. You return the next day, well rested and looking sharp for those amazing Machu Picchu selfies. Finally you return at a very reasonable hour to Cusco, to have dinner or enjoy a night stroll in the popular Plaza De Armas.

  • Distance: 12.4km (7.7 miles)
  • Difficulty: If you are properly acclimatized to the altitude the hike is moderate. However, if you are not as well acclimatized the hike will be more challenging. It can be more difficult during the rainy season as well (November to March). The route is closed during the month of February due to heavy rains.
  • Elevation Change: 1,101m elevation gain.
  • Is it busy?: It’s the final part of the Inca Trail, so yes. This section of the trail is trodden by those who have taken on the first 3 days of the hike- around 500 people. It is also walked by those who have purchased the KM104 pass. This ticket exclusively covers the final day of the hike.
  • Do I need a ticket?: Yes. There are 500 tickets available per day for the KM104 Inca Trail into Machu Picchu (not including those who have the full Inca Trail permit).
Short Inca Trail hike from KM 104 to Machu Picchu - Orange Nation

Hiking the Stairs into Machu Picchu

  • Start of the hike: The hike to Machu Picchu using the stairs starts from Aguas Calientes. You will follow the road that the buses take, but as you reach the climb, you will take the stairs (instead of the road that zig zags up the mountainside) until you reach the entrance of Machu Picchu. This will be obvious as it is where the stairs end. The walk from Aguas Calientes to the start of the trail is about 30 to 40 minutes. Along the way, you will pass three intersections and you have to cross the road the busses are using. Please be careful, the buses are not always pedestrian friendly.

  • Distance: 1.78km (1 miles) from trailhead
  • Difficulty: Hard. The majority of the trek is up a steep set of stairs.
  • Elevation: 496m elevation gain
  • Is it busy?: Rarely, but you may encounter traffic in the form of the buses that take travelers up to the entrance.
  • Do I need a ticket?: No, just your Machu Picchu entrance ticket.

Can I add short Inca Trail on other alternative treks?

Yes. The KM 104 Inca Trail is possible to add onto all treks to Machu Picchu. It is automatically included in the price of your Inca Trail permit, but can also be added onto treks such as the Lares, the Salkantay, and Inca Jungle, on the condition that there are still permits available on your day of travel.

If you are interested in adding the KM104 Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu onto your hike be sure to discuss this with your tour operator like Orange Nation. Some may include it as standard, but others will not. Be sure to confirm before booking.

It’s important to remember that these permits do sell out, so booking your trip last minute may see you miss out on the opportunity to experience this incredible and historic hike. If you are sure that you want to hike into Machu Picchu with the KM104 hike, we recommend booking in advance. There are 500 tickets available and tickets do sell out, specially in high season. Also, we recommend carefully selected a tried and trusted tour operator, so you have the best experience possible.

Can I add KM104 onto my Lares Trek?

Yes, depending on the company that you travel with it may already be included. The Lares Trek is known for its culturally rich treks into the indigenous communities of Peru. You get to experience Peruvian culture in its most authentic and undiluted form. You have the pleasure of sharing mind-altering moments with the indigenous people of Peru. A 4 to 5 day Lares Hike usually includes the hike of KM104. This trek incorporates both culture and history. Its definitely one of our favorites.

Can I add KM104 onto my Salkantay Trek?

Yes, after you finish the traditional Salkantay Route, you can drive to the beginning of the KM104 trek for the final day of hiking. It’s important to remember that the Salkantay Trek traditionally involves driving between certain points.

Salkantay is a stunning picturesque quote that passes many snow capped and striking glacial lakes. This is a nature lovers dream route. Km104 fully compliments this tour. After spending days hiking in the frigid cold, you finish your trail in the humid sub tropical weather of the Amazonia.

Can I add KM104 to my Inca Jungle Trek?

Yes, but as with the other treks, you will need to check with your tour operator if they include this. The Inca Jungle trail is packed with heart pumping, adrenalin packed adventure. It includes things like rafting and mountain biking through the vibrant jungle vegetation. The traditional trail hikes part of the Inca Trail from Hydro Electric. But if you speak to your travel agent, I am certain any route can be added or adjusted when ever possible. We think doing the trail in its original form is completely worth it. You get to hike part of the Inca Trail and enjoy adrenaline pumping sports.

Please remember that with all the above treks (excluding the Inca Trail), adding the KM104 onto the package is likely to incur an additional cost. Be sure to check with your tour operator that KM104 is included in your trekking package.

Can I add the Stairs Hike onto my trek?

Yes and no, you can do this trek without the need to book in advance, so having it as an additional feature is unnecessary. Some of the cheaper tour operators may not include the bus ticket up to Machu Picchu in their prices, so check with them in advance whether your bus ticket (to and from) Machu Picchu is included in the price they are offering you. It´s also important to note that there are strictly enforced entrance schedules into the Citadel. You could risk missing your entrance time, which would in the end defeat the whole purpose of going.

Can I add the Stairs Hike onto my Lares Trek?

Yes, but you won’t have to book this activity, just communicate with your guide the day before so that they are aware you don’t plan on taking the bus. You can express beforehand that you wish to climb the stairs, but we advise waiting to see how you feel on the day as a multi-day hike at altitude can be more taxing than you may originally think- regardless of how physically fit you are.

Can I add the Stairs Hike onto my Salkantay Trek?

Yes, you can. It is however advisable for you to choose an operator who includes the bus tickets. The Salkantay Trek is long and in some parts difficult, so it’s highly likely that by the time you arrive in Aguas Calientes, you won’t want to do the hike anymore.

Can I add the Stairs Hike onto my Inca Trail Trek?

No, as the Inca Trail trek leads you directly into Machu Picchu. If you plan on spending two days in Machu Picchu, then you may want to hike the stairs on your second day, but your first day will see you entering the citadel through the Sun Gate.

Can I add the Stairs Hike onto my Inca Jungle Trek?

Yes. As with the other treks that don’t lead you directly into the citadel, it is possible to complete the stairs hike on your hike to Machu Picchu. The Inca Jungle Trek involves less hiking than other choices, so it is more likely that you will want to take on the stairs trek.

Can I do both the KM104 and the Stairs Hike?

Only if you wish to spend two days exploring Machu Picchu. The KM104 hike includes the entrance to Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. You don´t actually enter the citadel on Day 1. After a spending a night in Aguas Calientes, you can wake up at the crack of dawn for the hike up to the Citadel. Again, people are usually exhausted after the hike and not in mood for another hike. Its certainly a possibility, you can either grab the bus or challenge yourself one more time on Day 2 before exploring Machu Picchu.

Is it Better to do the KM104 or the Stairs Hike?

No contest. Most definitely KM104. The stairs is not really a hike for enjoyment, more for a people on a tight budget. Whereas, KM104 is a truly memorable experience you don´t want to miss. Also, during dry season, buses will blow dust into your face and clothes, which is really unpleasant. The Short Inca Trail has unique flora and fauna, Inca Archeological sites, waterfalls and breath taking views of the mountainous landscape.

Whichever way you choose to arrive in Machu Picchu, it’s almost guaranteed that you will have an unforgettable experience while exploring the hidden citadel that the world has fallen in love with. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so be sure to treat it as such.

Check out our adventures to Machu Picchu, covering activities from cultural experiences to endlessly active adventures, or get in touch with us to create a bespoke experience specifically for you.


Step by Step to camping on the Inca Trail

Hiking into Machu Picchu is an iconic pilgrimage that many adventurers wish to take on as they visit Peru. There are countless of hikes to choose from, divided into short trails or multi-day treks. The two most popular short treks is the the Inca Tra...

by Orange Nation

April 15, 2023

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