An Expert Guide To Hiking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has long ranked at the top of the bucket list for adventurous travelers. The legendary four-day trek climbs through the Andes to the great citadel built by the Inca Pachacutec in the 15th century, and encompasses historic ruins, mountain views, and an outdoor experience unmatched elsewhere in the hemisphere.

From booking your trip and securing your permits to packing for your hike, acclimatizing to the altitude, and appreciating the surrounding landscapes, here’s everything you need to know about trekking the Inca Trail to the Andes’ most famous ruin.

Introducing the Inca Trail

It was in 1911 that American archaeologist and explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered the mountaintop citadel of Machu Picchu, set high in the Andes just outside of Cusco, Peru. Today, it’s one of the most-visited attractions in South America, as well as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, with some 1.5 million visitors in 2019.

There are three ways to visit Machu Picchu: by bus, by train, and by hiking. Modern transport is fast and convenient, but traversing the so-called Inca Trail is by far the most popular option for outdoorsmen and -women. The challenging hike follows a 26-mile (42-kilometer) route through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, reaching an altitude of 4,215 meters (13,828 feet).

Sunrise at Machu Picchu, Peru

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

Why Hike the Inca Trail?

It’s easy to see why the Inca Trail has attained near-mythic status among trekkers. First, there’s the physical challenge: the steep high-altitude climb through the Peruvian Andes takes four days of effort and considerable endurance to accomplish. Then there’s the region’s historical significance: you’ll follow a series of ancient roads used by the Incas in the 15th century and explore eight different Inca ruins along the way.

Finally, there are the views: mist-shrouded mountains, lush jungle, and sweeping Andean valleys where alpacas graze on the hillsides. All culminating in a spectacular pay-off: watching the sunrise from the Sun Gate over the mountaintop stronghold of Machu Picchu.

Organizing Your Trip

When is the best time to hike the Inca trail? Do you need a permit, and how far in advance do you need to book? Here’s what you need to know about organizing your Inca Trail trip.

Do You Need to Take a Tour to Hike the Inca Trail?

The short answer is yes. Due to the enormous popularity of the Inca Trail, Peru’s Ministry of Tourism has put strict regulations in place to preserve the area. There are daily limits of 500 people (typically 200 hikers, along with 300 guides and porters), and permits must be purchased for each hiker. Hiking the Inca Trail is only possible with an officially registered tour guide.

When is the Best Time to Hike the Inca Trail?

It’s possible to hike the Inca Trail year-round, except for February when the paths are closed for maintenance. The most popular time to hike is during the dry season, from April through October.

Hiking during the wet season (November-January and March) is also possible, but rainy days are expected, and the trails can get slippery after heavy rain. On the plus side, with fewer travelers choosing this season, there’s less risk of being unable to obtain a permit.

Whenever you choose to go, expect average daytime temperatures to be around 68-73°F (20-23°C). Temperatures drop considerably at night in the mountains, especially during the dry season, although they rarely drop below freezing.

Winaywayna Ruins, Inca Trail

Winaywayna Ruins, Inca Trail

Choosing a Tour

There are a huge variety of Inca Trail tours available, so here are some factors to consider when choosing the most suitable option for you.

  1. What is the typical group size? Most scheduled group tours take up to 16 hikers, although small-group or private tours are also available. SA Vacations group tours operate daily and include a maximum of 16 hikers. We also offer small-group or private tours.
  2. What’s included in the price? Most tours include hotel pickups and transfers to and from Cusco, permits for the trail, entrance fees for Machu Picchu, and meals and snacks throughout the hike. However, you should check whether other entrance fees and transfers or overnight stays are included. SA Vacations tours include a private transfer from your hotel in Cusco to the start of the Inca Trail, permits, English speaking guides, all meals and snacks on the trail, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and return train ticket to Cusco on the Vistadome train after the hike.
  3. Is a porter included? SA Vacations tours include a personal porter for each hiker. However, many budget tours do not include this, and you will need to factor in the additional fee.
  4. What kind of equipment is provided? Ensure your tour provides wind- and waterproof tents and three-season sleeping bags at a minimum (unless you are bringing your own). SA Vacations tours include tents, sleeping bags and extras such as campsite mats, kitchenware, dining and bathroom tents, plus tables and chairs. However, some budget tours may charge extra for sleeping bags and only provide thin sleeping mats.
  5. What’s the hike duration and distance? The classic Inca Trail experience lasts four days and three nights, and the information in this guide reflects this. However, some tours offer different routes, a shorter three-day variation, or a five-day, slower-paced option.
  6. How much does it cost? When considering the cost of a tour, it’s important to carefully consider everything that’s included (or, more importantly, everything that’s not included), as well as the level of comfort. The Inca Trail is a challenging hike at high altitude with few amenities on route, so while a budget tour might sound like a good idea, you might end up thankful for the extra luxuries that a slightly more expensive tour affords.

Do You Need a Porter?

There is no vehicle access to the Inca Trail, which means all equipment used during your hike must be carried with you. Thankfully, tour companies employ porters to carry the tents, camping equipment, and food. It’s also possible to hire a personal porter to carry your sleeping bag, extra clothing, and other items.

If you’re unaccustomed to hiking long distances with a heavy pack, a porter is highly recommended. In fact, due to the demands of the high altitude, even experienced hikers often opt for this convenience. All Inca Trail tours booked with SA Vacations include a personal porter who carries a maximum of 14 kg. (31 lbs.), leaving you free to carry only your day pack.

Booking Your Inca Trail Tour

When booking your Inca Trail tour, you’ll need to provide a copy of your passport and pay a deposit in order to secure your permit. (Be sure to check your passport’s expiration date, as permits are issued based on your passport number and are non-transferable.) If you plan to hike in the high season, you should book your trip six months in advance (or a minimum of three months), especially if you have specific dates in mind.

Booking Your Flights to Peru

The Inca Trail sets out from Chilca, just outside of Cusco. Most tours will not include domestic flights to and from Cusco, nearly all of which depart from Lima.

Another important item to factor into your trip is the time needed to acclimatize to the high altitude. This varies considerably from person to person, but you should aim to arrive in Cusco at least two days (and ideally three) before your trek to give your body time to adjust to the altitude. With this in mind, it’s good to choose a tour that includes additional low-energy activities or excursions in Cusco before your Inca Trail hike.

Inca Trail, Peru

Inca Trail, Peru

Preparing to Hike the Inca Trail

Once you’ve chosen your tour and secured your Inca Trail permit, it’s time to start preparing for your trip. Here’s what you need to know about fitness, altitude, and what to pack.

How Fit Do You Need to Be to Hike the Inca Trail?

Covering 26 miles (42 kilometers) over four days might not sound like a lot, but it’s important not to underestimate the difficulty of hiking the trail. While the distance is short and the hike is non-technical, the vast majority of it is uphill or downhill, over steep mountain terrain, and the entire hike occurs at a high altitude.

While you don’t need mountaineering experience, it’s recommended to have a good general fitness level and at least some hiking under your belt before attempting the Inca Trail.

How Old Do You Need to Be to Hike the Inca Trail?

There is no official age limit or minimum for hiking the Inca Trail. However, most tour companies require trekkers to be 12 or 14 years old, and the trail is certainly inappropriate for young children. The oldest recorded hiker to date tackled the trail at the age of 84, so age isn’t necessarily a limiting factor. However, if you’re unsure about your fitness level or have health issues that may limit you, it’s best to seek the advice of your doctor before signing up.

Altitude Sickness and Acclimatization

Perhaps the most significant challenge of the Inca Trail is its high altitude. The entire trek takes place at an elevation of more than 2,400 meters (7,874 feet), and parts of the trail reach more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). The decreased oxygen available at higher altitudes can have a substantial effect on hikers, making the perceived effort required much greater.

Some people are more affected by high elevations than others, and there is always a risk of altitude sickness, which can lead to headaches, nausea, and other, more severe symptoms. There’s no way to predict beforehand if you will be affected by these issues, since susceptibility is not related to your general health or fitness level.

The best way to protect against altitude sickness and reduce the effects of high elevations is to give your body time to acclimatize before undergoing any strenuous activity. Many travelers will experience mild symptoms, such as a slight headache or difficulty breathing, during this period, but generally these aren’t a reason for concern. Symptoms can be alleviated by drinking coca tea or taking a prescribed medication called Diamox.

What to Pack for the Inca Trail

Your tour company should provide you with a list of all the items you will need for your trek, so be sure to follow its recommendations carefully. The tips and packing list below are a good place to start.

Inca Trail Packing Tips

  1. During the hike, you should arrange to store your main luggage at your hotel in Cusco (many hotels have safes for storing valuables).
  2. If you hire a porter to carry your extra gear, know that each tour company specifies a maximum portage weight (for example, 11 pounds or 5 kilograms), and it’s important to obey these restrictions. There are strict regulations preventing porters from carrying more than a set weight, so don’t expect special dispensations. Your tour should provide you with bags for these carried items; you don’t need to supply the porter with a second pack.
  3. With all this in mind, opt for lightweight items wherever possible and avoid overpacking.
  4. Choose a durable, waterproof day pack that is big enough to hold everything you need but comfortable enough to carry throughout the four-day hike.
  5. Pack for two very different temperatures: daytime temperatures are warm and sometimes humid, while night temperatures in the mountains are cold.
  6. Proper hiking shoes or boots are a must, and it’s a good idea to break them in with a day hike or two before your trek.
  7. If you opt to bring your own sleeping bag, choose a three-season bag with a 10-35°F temperature rating.
Daypack

Daypack (Photo credit: North Face website)

Sample Inca Trail Packing List

Clothes and Personal Items

  • Hiking shoes
  • One pair of long pants (zip-off)
  • One pair of shorts
  • Two short-sleeved T-shirts
  • One long-sleeved T-shirt
  • Underwear and socks
  • Thermal shirt and underpants
  • Gloves
  • Fleece and warm jacket
  • Sun hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Swimsuit (for after your arrival at Aguas Calientes)
  • Raincoat or plastic poncho (depending on the season)
  • Toiletries and personal items (opt for biodegradable toiletries where possible and bring only the essentials)
  • Flip-flops (optional, for the shower)

Day Pack

  • Passport
  • Money belt (bring around $100 USD and 100 Peruvian soles, in small bills)
  • Flashlight (with spare bulbs and batteries)
  • Camera (spare batteries or portable charge pack if needed)
  • Minimum 30-SPF sunscreen and lip balm
  • Small first-aid kit (including aspirin, antihistamines, calamine lotion, hand wipes, Imodium, and Band-Aids)
  • DEET insect repellent
  • Refillable water bottle (at least 1.5 liters)
  • Water-purification tablets (such as Micropur)
  • Swiss army knife
  • Snacks (such as chocolate, dried fruit, or energy bars)
  • Toilet paper
Porters at Warmiwañusca, Inca Trail

Porters at Warmiwañusca (Dead Woman’s Pass), Inca Trail

Hiking the Inca Trail: What to Expect

Whether you’ve arranged your trip to Peru independently or are undertaking the Inca Trail as part of a multi-day tour, you should have arranged to arrive in Cusco at least two days before your trek. Use this time to rest, acclimatize, or enjoy sightseeing in and around the city. Your tour company will be in touch before the hike to organize luggage, pickups, and other details.

The Inca Trail starts from Chilca (Km. 82 on the local railway), about a 2.5-hour drive from Cusco. Most tour companies will include transfers to the start of the trail, and you will typically be picked up early on the first day of your trek.

Four-Day Inca Trail Itinerary

The classic Inca Trail includes four days of hiking, with three nights of camping. All tours take the following route, but may entail slight variations and different campsites.

Day One: Chilca (Km. 82) to Huayllabamba

Hiking distance: About 7.5 miles (12 kilometers)
Hiking time: 5-6 hours
Maximum altitude: 3,000 meters (9,843 feet)
The first day’s hike starts out relatively flat, following the Urubamba River, with views of Mount Veronica. You’ll stop at the ruins of Llactapata, then take a steep climb up to the Inca citadel of Huayllabamba, where you’ll camp in the mountain valleys. This is the easiest day of the trek.

Day Two: Huayllabamba to Pacaymayu

Hiking distance: About 6.8 miles (11 kilometers)
Hiking time: 6-7 hours
Maximum altitude: 4,205 meters (13,795 feet)
On the second day, you’ll climb up through the cloud forest to the highest point of the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass, before descending to the campsite at Pacaymayu. Spectacular views are guaranteed, but this is notoriously the most challenging day of the hike, so be prepared.

Intipunku, Machu Picchu, Peru

Intipunku, Machu Picchu (Photo Credit: Ronak Patel)

Day Three: Pacaymayu to Winaywayna

Hiking distance: About 10 miles (16 kilometers)
Hiking time: 8 hours
Maximum altitude: 3,860 meters (12,664 feet)
Day three includes several steep sections, but overall it’s easier going than the second day. This is also the most scenic stretch of the trail, so keep your camera handy as you pass through the mountain ranges of Vilcabamba and Pumasillo, and stop to admire the ruins of Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, and Winaywayna.

Day Four: Winaywayna to Machu Picchu

Hiking distance: About 2.5 miles (4 kilometers)
Hiking time: 2 hours
Maximum altitude: 2,720 meters (8,923 feet)
The final day of your hike is the moment you’ve been waiting for: the grand arrival at Machu Picchu. Expect an early start (probably around 3:00am) in order to arrive at the Sun Gate in time to watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.

Afterward, you’ll hike down into the ruins and have time to explore before heading to nearby Aguas Calientes. Some tours allow for a night in Aguas Calientes (recommended if you want to explore the ruins further), or you can catch the train back to Cusco.

What Else to Expect During Your Trip

A few extra tips and pointers to prepare you for your Inca Trail hike.

Prepare for Crowds

Despite the limited number of hikers allowed in and the timed departures, the Inca Trail is still hugely popular, especially in high season. Don’t expect to have the views to yourself along the trail, and prepare for big crowds once you arrive at Machu Picchu itself.

Expect Facilities to Be Basic

Hiking the Inca Trail means rough camping in the mountains, and while larger campsites do have squat toilets and running water, the standards are unlikely to be on par with those of your hotel. Along the trail, toilet stops mean going outdoors, and while cold showers are available on day three (for a small fee), most hikers choose to wait until arriving in Aguas Calientes. Higher-end tours will do everything they can to ensure your comfort while camping, but don’t expect a glamping experience!

Bring Water-Purification Tablets

Bottled water can be bought in Cusco and at Chilca, but the best advice is to bring water-purification tablets and refill your water bottle from the mountain springs. Most tours also provide boiled or treated water throughout the hike.

Tipping Your Guide and Porter

You should factor in tips for your guides, porters, and cook, as well as your personal porter, if you hire one. We recommend gratuities of $100 per person for guides, porters, and cooks.

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