What you can expect with a tour company
Amenities will of course vary a bit from company to company, but the broad strokes are the same. The 5-day trek runs $450 per person, which covers your meals, water, lodging (including your hostel in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes), duffel bag-bearing mules for the stuff you don’t want to carry while you’re hiking, train ticket in Aguas Calientes, transportation to and from your hotel in Cusco, luggage storage in Cusco while you’re hiking, entry into Machu Picchu itself, tea, snacks, and of course your excellent trail guides. There’s also a fairly overlooked museum about a half-hour walk from Aguas Calientes you can visit for around $7, and beloved thermal baths you can enter for around $3.
Make sure you have cash (in Peruvian sol) for tips -- the amount will vary depending on trek size and number of staff members, but in addition to tips for your guides your group should plan to collectively kick in on a pot for the cooks and another for the porters. Ask your guides for the preferred way of distributing them at the end.
What to pack when hiking Machu Picchu
There are really only a couple of essentials you need to make sure you’ve got sorted out before you head to Peru, the first of which would be comfy hiking boots that you’ve ideally already tested in the field. I, however, did not have hiking boots, and am very pleased to report that I made it the entire way in Timbs. I assume I was in slightly more pain than everyone else who came with boots that were actually designed for hiking, but honestly it was not bad.
Sleeping bags are not included, so if you have a nice one, bring it. Alternatively, you can rent (clean!) ones from the company for about $5 per night. Everyone else in my group rented walking poles ($20 flat rate) but I did not and here I am, still alive. Most people will bring a backpack to carry while hiking that’s separate from the more suitcase-type luggage they brought for the trip to Peru as a whole, but ever since backpacking I own no luggage and use the same single backpack for everything -- this has always served me fine. You definitely want a healthy supply of sunscreen, bug spray, your preferred product for addressing and/or preventing blisters, and -- very importantly -- lots of exercise-friendly layers. You need a big winter jacket for Days 1 and 2, where the trail is reminiscent of that pass through the Misty Mountains they try to cross in The Lord of The Rings before they turn around and go through the mines, but throughout Day 3 and Day 4 there’s a sort of collective group molting as everyone peels down to base layers, maybe short sleeves. You’re in the rainforest now.
The other thing everyone else in my group opted for that I did not was medication for altitude sickness. I did not, because I have both a high opinion of myself and poor organizational skills, and if you are wondering whether I threw up at any point the answer is that I threw up at numerous points. However, three out of the four members of our group also threw up, which we attribute partly to arriving hungover for what turned out to be a very winding, lurchy bus ride.
There are no age restrictions for hiking the Salkantay Trail. You need to be slightly physically fit, but probably not nearly as fit as you think. Personally I found Day 1 of our trek to be the most trying, because I was still adjusting to the altitude due to my steadfast commitment to being a dummy, but Day 2 covers more ground and involves the most uphill hiking. It is generally considered the hardest day.
Guides do carry supplemental oxygen should anyone become ill during the trek, and if you need to (or simply want to) you can ride one of the mules during the uphill portion for a small fee.
In January 2019, travel company Wheel the World unveiled the first wheelchair-accessible tour of Machu Picchu. Packages start at $398 for single-day tours to the Machu Picchu citadel, up to $2,900 for six-day tours around Machu Picchu and Cusco. The price includes meals, guides, accommodation, accessible transportation (including to and from the airport) and adaptive gear including specially designed wheelchairs for covering the Machu Picchu terrain.
When to go
July and August are the height of the tourist season, so none of that if you can help it -- unless, that is, you’re determined to. February, meanwhile, is the height of the rainy season, and also when the Inca Trail closes each year for maintenance, so conventional wisdom generally holds that this is a bad month to go -- but if you plan to hike Salkantay, want thinned out crowds in the citadel itself, and are not pressed about getting wet, then February may actually be to your advantage.
While the limited number of permits means those hoping to hike the Inca Trail must reserve many months in advance, with Salkantay you can book your trek probably five to eight weeks out (more if you’re planning to visit during the summer, though). Overall, your best bets are either April/May or September/October. I went in April. It was nice.