An Insider’s Guide To Hiking The Inca Trail
Believe it or not, the classic inca trail the world has come to know is actually only a tiny fragment of a 30,000 Kilometre trail system making up the Tahuantinsuyo Empire. This empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian history and spans across southern Columbia, western Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and northern Argentina. Unlike the early European roads that were designed for packhorses and wheels, the Incan people and their llamas were adapted to the high altitudes and demanding terrain of the Andes mountains. As a result, their roads were built over mountain passes with stone steps cut or built directly into the bedrock as opposed to the flattened switchbacks we have all come to love on those steep accents. This design, along with an ancient network of Incan settlements nestled in a diverse and lush landscape makes for an incredibly unique hiking experience.
The Classic 4-Day Inca Trail
- Duration: 4-5 Days
- Distance: 45 km (27.9 miles)
- Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
- Max Altitude: 4,200 m
- Cost: Starting at + $600 USD
One of the most famous multi-day treks in South America and an incredible look into an ancient civilization. This trek takes you along the original footpaths of the Incan people with direct passage into Machu Picchu. This trail may also be completed as a 2-day or 5-day trek.
Important Note: Depending on the time of year you wish to go, you should be prepared to book your trek AT LEAST 6 months to a year in advance. There are only 500 permits available each day for the Inca Trail, and approximately 300 of those permits will be allocated to the porters, cooks and guides that will be accompanying you and every other group on their treks. We booked in January for our trek in October.
When to Go:
|Rainy Season (November – March)||About 80% of the annual volume of rain, anything from a light drizzle to heavy downpour. This is also the time where the weather is at its warmest.|
|Best Months (May-October)||Blue skies, warm sun, beautifully magical misty mornings. This time coincides with the dry season.|
|Busiest Months (June-August)||Long lines at the entrance and large crowds can make it difficult to move around. People doing DIY day tours may want to give themselves some extra time to explore. This is also the busiest time on the Inca Trail.|
*Itineraries may vary slightly depending on the tour operator, but the majority will follow the same route and make the same stops
Cusco – Ollantaytambo: Early morning pick-up on the day of your hike from your hotel in Cusco, approximately 2 hours in bus to first stop in Ollantaytambo where you can pick-up last-minute hiking essentials and some breakfast.
Ollantaytambo – Kilometre 82: Continue another hour or so in bus with your guide to the trail head at Kilometre 82 (so named because it is 82km along the railroad from Cusco)
Day 1: Kilometre 82 – Wayllabamba
- Starting Altitude: 2750m
- Maximum Altitude: 2950-3000m
- Distance: 14km
- Time: 5-7hours
After your bus ride from Cusco to the trailhead, and a brief stop at the control station to show your passport and permits, you can finally begin your hike. Day 1 was fairly pleasant by our standards, only about 200m of elevation gain, and way more rest stops than we would have ever taken on our own. Granted, there are still a few factors here that can make it challenging; firstly, altitude, if you haven’t had a ton of time to acclimatize you might have some issues here (check out “Hiking at Altitude: South America Edition” for more info on how to prepare for this). Second, heat, depending on the time of year, this part of the trail can be sweltering, bring lots of water, and as with all long distance hikes, we always recommend electrolyte tabs. There are also some small merchants along this section of the trail in case you need to buy additional snacks and fluids. Lastly, distance, 14km in a day is still a long way, and you should prepare accordingly. Our personal opinions aside, this is still the easiest day of your trek compared to the days that are to follow.
Willkarakay & Patallaqta Qentimarka
Day 2: Wayllabamba – Dead Woman’s Pass – Chaquiccocha
- Starting altitude: 2950-3000m
- Maximum altitude: 4215m
- Distance: 17km
- Time: 7+ hours
We’re looking at over 1200m of elevation gain on this part of your trek, making it considerably more difficult than the previous day. Altitude sickness along this section of the trail is much more apparent, and can zap your energy levels quickly. Key here is to keep a slow and steady pace, avoid over-exerting yourself (particularly in the early stages of your hike), drink plenty of fluids and eat high calorie snacks. As you approach Dead Woman’s pass (the highest point of your hike), you’ll also notice a significant temperature drop (emphasis on SIGNIFICANT), be sure to keep your warm layers in your day pack and not with your porters who will likely be far ahead or slightly behind you. This section can really make it or break it for some travellers, and demonstrates the importance of trail preparation. Be ambitious, especially for something as amazing as the Inca trail, but for the sake your health and safety, and the money it costs to do this, do your research and prepare for the journey.
Dead Woman’s Pass & Chaquiccocha Campground
Day 3: Chaquiccocha – Winaywayna
- Starting altitude: 3600m
- Maximum altitude: 3600m
- Distance: 10km
- Time: 6 hours
Personally, this was the worst part of the trek. All downhill for what seemed like an eternity, and with the Inca trail designed the way it is, it’s a lot of steep downhill steps that gets really hard on the knees really quickly. On the plus side, you get to see quite a few Incan archeological sites on this day, and is also the densest part of subtropical rainforest, perfect for spotting all kinds of beautiful wild flowers and birds. Temperatures start to come back up a little as you approach your next campsite.
Runkuraqay, Sayaqmarka, Puyupatamarka, Intipata, Winaywayna
Day 4: Winaywayna – Sungate – Macchu Picchu
- Starting altitude: 2550m
- Maximum altitude: 2700m
- Distance: 4km
- Time: 2 hours
Wake-up call at 4-4:30 am. You’ll scarf down your breakfast and get in line for the last control station before it opens at 5:30. Once we were through control, it was pedal to the medal to get the Sungate for that first glimpse of Machu Picchu down below. Started out a bit misty, but quickly cleared to reveal the citadel with its early morning glow. From the Sungate it was another half-hour of intense speed-walking and giddy smiles to the bottom.
For more information on Machu Picchu and alternative treks and day tours check out “Everything You Need to Know About Machu Picchu”
Booking Information: There are quite a few reputable tour operators you can book with, some based locally in Peru, some internationally, ranging from $600-$1500+ USD (these tours can get quite luxurious if you’ve got the budget). There are many great guides out there that can help you choose a tour operator, our advice would be to decide on a budget, then go from there. Key features to look for in a tour operator:
- Equipment: Does the company offer all the equipment you need? Tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, pillows are some of the basic necessities
- Food: What kind of meals will be provided? A reliable mid-range operator (between $650-$800 USD usually provide a full breakfast, lunch and dinner), don’t settle for much less.
- Fees: Make sure you inquire about what fees are included in the price of your trek. As a start, you’ll want to make sure the cost includes your transportation to the trailhead, all trail fees (there will be a few control stations along the trail), your Machu Picchu entrance fees, your train tickets out of Aguas Calientes, and transportation back to Cusco.
- Group Size: This may matter more to some than to others. For us, and for many others, your pace may significantly differ from that of the other members in your group. We would usually arrive at our campsites in the early afternoon, and still see large groups coming in after dark. Why does this matter? Despite the time you arrive at camp, you are still waking up at the crack of dawn to get moving again, and this can make an already difficult hike that much harder. Smaller group sizes usually mean more flexibility to hike at your own pace.
We booked with Guiding Peru (Cost: $695 USD ) – a newer tour operator founded in 2015 with an office in the United States and in Peru. Here’s what we liked:
- The company boasted small group sizes, but we were SHOCKED when we got picked up the morning of our trek and it was only the two of us. We were slightly bummed about this at first, thinking it would have been nice to have some fellow tourist companions, but it turned out to be awesome. We have done a lot of multi-day treks at home, and had been doing other hikes in Peru for about a month by the time we hit the Inca trail, so with just the two of us and our guide, we were able to really gun it up those mountains and spend a little extra time at the archeological sites
- Start dates were flexible. At the time of booking, we could literally choose any day of the week to begin our trek.
- The food was AWESOME. Best we had eaten our entire time in Peru, being on a backpacker budget and all, we were usually eating a simple breakfast, skipping lunch, then having a big dinner. On the Inca trail, however, we were eating three full meals a day, more food than I even wanted to eat, and it was all absolutely delicious, perfect fuel for a long day on the trail.
- No hidden fees. Everything was taken care of in its entirety, all we had to do was show up, hike, and enjoy.
What to Bring: Keep in mind, you should be leaving most your things at your accommodation in Cusco. This shouldn’t mean that you’re paying for accommodation in Cusco while on the Inca trail, many hotels, hostels, and Air BnBs offer luggage drop-off (be sure to check this in advance). If your accommodation doesn’t offer luggage drop-off, some tour operators will offer storage for your belongings at the company office (this is what we did). One other thing to note, your porters will usually only carry a certain amount of baggage per person (measured by weight), double check your tour details, but either way, be nice to your porters and pack light.
- Day-Pack with waterproof pack cover
- Water reservoir or large water bottle: (water purification shouldn’t be necessary, ask your guide or cook to boil some water the night before, you’ll have clean cold water for when you hit the trail in the mornings)
- Electrolyte tablets and some high calorie snacks (always a good idea on any hike)
- Headlamp (if getting to camp late at night or for early mornings)
- Poles (optional). We managed to survive all our hikes in Peru without them, but would still be put to good use on the Inca trail. There are lots of options to rent hiking poles on arrival to Peru
- Sleeping bag liner (optional). Not all tour operators will provide extra blankets with your sleeping bag, and the second night at camp was SUPER cold. A sleeping bag liner will increase the thermal performance of your sleeping bag, if you opt to not bring one, sleep in your warm layers and you’ll be fine.
- Camera/phone and accessories. Bring extra batteries or a power source for your phone, there are no options to charge anything on the trail.
- Sunscreen and bug spray. Those nasty little buggers don’t look like much, but they’ll make your life miserable anyways
- Cash (in soles). There are small local merchants along the Inca trail if you need additional fluids or snacks. You’ll also need some cash to tip your guides, porters and cooks
- Passport. Mandatory. You’ll need to show your passport at a couple control stations along the way, as well as when you reach Machu Picchu.
- Trail permit. Your guide should have all your necessary paperwork on them for the duration of your trek, or should give it directly to you (you will also need to present these documents at the control stations)
- Clothes. Keep it simple, you only need one outfit for when it’s cold, and one for when it’s not. We were sweaty messes on the first day, then again down in the Machu Picchu citadel, but everywhere in between was cold and wet, so pack for variable weather conditions. Absolutely musts include a rain jacket, down jacket or vest, fleece sweater, toque, sunglasses, gloves, quick dry pants, and extra socks.
- Hiking boots. Be sure to buy a pair of waterproof ones, the worst thing on multi-day trek is wet feet
- Basic toiletries. You may have the opportunity (depending on your tour operator) to take a “shower” with a portable shower system (it’s pretty much a water bag with a foot pump and a small handheld nozzle), good enough to rid yourself of any sweat, sunscreen or bug spray, but I’d leave all the bulky toiletries behind.
- Basic first aid supplies. Band-aids and any important travel or personal medications,
- Toilet paper/hand sanitizer. I mean, can you really go anywhere in South America without it?