Walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a once in a lifetime exhilarating experience. This is the hike you will never forget; the one you will compare the others to for a long time afterwards.
Also known as Camino Inca, the Inca Trail hike lasts 4 full days and 3 nights. It is one of the most famous long-distance hikes in the world, and a very popular thing to do during a trip to South America. It’d be even more popular were it not that expensive (more about this later).
The trail follows one of the many roads that the Quechua, the inhabitants of the empire of the Inca (which at its peak extended well beyond Peru to include parts of southern Colombia and northern Chile and northwestern Argentina) would use walk to reach the most important place in the Incan Empire.
At the very end of the hike, you get to Machu Picchu via the Inti Punku (the Sun Gate).
Other than the “classic Inca Trail” to Machu Picchu, the focus of this post, there are many other routes that the ancient inhabitants of the Incan Empire would use to get to Machu Picchu – more about those at the end of the post.
I have walked the Inca Trail twice, so I thought I’d write a post that will help you prepare for it.
Why You Should Walk The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu
I have been to Machu Picchu three times. The first time I visited, in 2010, I got there by bus from Aguas Calientes. I then went again in 2014 and in October 2022, both times after walking the Machu Picchu hike. And I enjoyed it a million times more.
Yes: the Inca Trail hike is challenging. You will be uncomfortable. You will feel exhausted. But all of that will be forgotten the moment you get to the Inti Punku and see the sun rising over Machu Picchu. The sense of achievement every day, as you get to the camp for the night, is enormous.
During the hike, you get to experience some of the most breathtaking nature in Peru: Andean peaks vistas; gorgeous valleys; the lush vegetation of the cloud forest and the local wildlife. You will also visit a number of Incan ruins you’d never be able to access otherwise.
But there’s more to it than just that. The challenge of walking at high altitude; the companionship you establish with your group; the emotions you feel throughout are other reasons that make the Machu Picchu hike that amazing.
Besides, walking the Inca Trail is the only way to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. It’s what pushed me to hike it again, even after having done it before.
Finally, continue reading to discover everything you need to know about the Inca Trail hike.
What You Must Know Before Your Inca Trail
General information about the Inca Trail
The trail starts in Piscacucho, at km 82 – which is around 40 minutes away from Ollantaytambo, one of the prettiest cities in the Sacred Valley – and is about 45 km long (that’s almost 28 miles). Anywhere else in the world, you could easily walk that distance in just 2 days.
But in Peru the high altitude is such that you can only do so much – the starting point is at roughly 2,800 meters above sea level (9,186 feet). On some days you will be walking a steep uphill, passing over 4,200 meters above sea level (13,770 feet).
There is a short version of the classic Inca Trail that only last 2 days and that starts in Chachabamba, at km 104. You need special permits for that one too.
Know before you go
Inca Trail permits
In order to walk the Inca Trail you need to get government permits. These are usually put on sale at the beginning of the year, and only sold to approved tour companies (any company running the Inca Trail must have a license, which is renewed each year).
This means that in order to do the Machu Picchu hike you need to join a guided group tour. In other words, you can’t walk the Inca Trail independently.
Since 2002 only 500 people per day are granted access, of which only around 200 are tourists and the rest are guides and porters.
With so many people wanting to do the Inca Trail hike, and not enough permits to meet the request, these are sold in a matter of days. If you are keen on doing it, think of a suitable date, start making enquiries, and book your Inca Trail between December and January at the latest – no matter when you intend to do it in the year.
Once a permit is issued, no changes are allowed. Permits are personal and will include your name and passport number, as well as the dates, and they can’t be transferred.
As you won’t be refunded and won’t be able to transfer your permit to a different date or another person, you must be absolutely sure that you can do the Inca Trail on the set dates.
If you don’t mind walking the Inca Trail during the rainy season (more about that in a bit), there is generally more availability. However, don’t expect to be able to show up at the office of a tour company in Cuzco today, and depart for the hike tomorrow. Advanced bookings are always a good idea in this case.
Both times I walked the Inca Trail, I started making enquiries in November, and actually confirmed the tour at the very beginning of January. I did the Inca Trail hike in April and October, and on both occasions I met people who wanted to do it but had to settle for alternative trails as the Inca Trail was sold out.
When to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
There really is no straightforward answer to this question – sorry! There are two seasons in Peru – the dry season and the rain (or wet) season.
You can do the Inca Trail in either one, but the experience – which will remain incredible – may vary depending on when you decide to do it. I have done it in both the rainy and the dry season, so I can shed some light.
Rainy Season (mid October to beginning of April)
I last hiked my Inca Trail in mid October, at the very beginning of the rainy season, and not a day went by without rain. Luckily it was never that bad and it never lasted for the entire day – it was mostly just a shower that started after lunch and lasted for a couple of hours at most.
Except on the very last day, when it rained throughout the night and all the time we were in Machu Picchu.
Other months get significantly more rain.
The main perk of walking the Machu Picchu hike in the rainy season is that there are less people on the trail, and less people overall in Machu Picchu (though don’t expect to have the site to yourself).
Because of that, you may (note I stress the word “may”) also be able to find a better deal and a spot even if you don’t book months and months in advance.
Temperatures vary during the rainy season. In fact, they vary a lot during the hike, with the first day being quite warm and even hot in certain moments, and the rest being a pleasant chilly and at times simply cold (my phone froze at the Dead’s Woman Pass since it was so cold!).
Rain also means mud and slippery terrain, and hiking can be overall harder. It may also mean that you get to the Inti Punku for sunrise and find that Machu Picchu is covered by a blanket of clouds.
That’s what happened to us in October, but let me tell you it did not take away from our overall experience.
The Inca Trail is closed in February for maintenance purposes.
Dry Season (end of April to beginning of October)
The chances of rain during the dry season are less, but it may rain anyways. The first time I hiked the Inca Trail, at the end of April, we got lots of rain on the second day of the hike!
Also, while days can be nice and warm and you may feel comfortable even at an altitude when the sun is out, temperatures drop significantly at night.
The dry season brings a lot more visitors to Peru, with the peak between June and August – so you can expect more people on the trail (there are way less people in October than there are in April, for example) and on the site once you get there.
Needless to say, you must book your Machu Picchu hike well in advance (I’d say by January) if you intend to hike during the peak season.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu costs
The prices of the Inca Trail vary depending on the company that runs the trek and on what’s included in the package. The least you can expect to pay is around $700 USD – anything cheaper than that, you probably want to avoid the company.
You can expect to pay up to $2000 for a truly inclusive package.
You will have to pay a deposit to secure your Inca Trail permit.
The final price of your Inca Trail hike depends on what you decide to include in the package.
The basic one includes your Inca Trail permit; transportation to the starting point; accommodation in tents for the duration of the hike; all meals and some snacks; drinking water; a guide, porters and chefs; admission ticket to Machu Picchu as well as a guided tour of the site; and a train and bus ride back to Cuzco.
Extras that will inflate the final price are:
- Sleeping bag rental;
- Camping mattress rental;
- Walking poles;
- Extra ticket to climb Huayna Picchu;
- Accommodation before or after the actual Inca Trail;
- Additional tour of the Sacred Valley.
While the quality of tents and food during the tour varies little, what really makes the difference during the Inca Trail hike is the guide. You really want to book your trek with a company that has a reputation for having good guides.
Bonus points if you also book with a tour operator that is known to be sustainable and to give back to the local communities.
Other useful things to know
Age restrictions may be applied when signing up for the Machu Picchu hike, and they vary by company. I have seen elderlies walking it as well as children and teenagers. In general, I don’t recommend the Inca Trail hike to kids younger than 13 or 14.
You will need to have a good insurance for your Inca Trail hike. All companies running the tour require it. However, not all insurance companies will cover you for extreme adventure sports such as high altitude hikes.
Heymondo is a very affordable travel insurance that – provided you select the right options – will cover you for high altitude hikes up to 4500 meters altitude (the Inca Trail reaches a maximum altitude of 4200 meters above sea level). You can sign up for it here.
I have written a full blog post explaining why Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.
Preparing for the Inca Trail hike
Now that you are all settled and signed up to walk the Inca Trail, you are probably wondering what else is left to do to prepare for your hike. Let me take you through the various steps.
Arriving in Cuzco
In preparation for your Inca Trail, you need to arrive in Cuzco at least three days before your hike starts. This is actually vital to make sure you get accustomed to the altitude. Cusco is the typical starting point of any Machu Picchu hike and it’s where your bus transport to the beginning of the trail will depart from.
Cuzco is perched at 3,339 meters above sea level (that’s almost 11,000 feet) and one of the best tourist destinations in Peru, with plenty of beautiful sights in the city and its immediate surroundings, so it won’t be hard to fill your time with activities. Getting to Cuzco is very easy
Flights to Cuzco airport are relatively cheap – you can catch one of the many daily direct flights from Lima or Arequipa.
Cuzco is well connected to the rest of the country by bus. There are overnight buses from Arequipa (10 hours); daytime buses from Puno (around 7 hours); and even long-distance buses (24 hours) from Lima.
Packing for your Machu Picchu hike
Smart packing is key when preparing for the Inca Trail. You will need to pack the bare essentials and leave whatever you don’t need in storage in your hotel in Cuzco. However, keep in mind hotels don’t have lockers so you’ll need to have a lock and avoid leaving any valuables behind.
Here are a few more things to consider.
First of all, the long distance walk and the altitude will make carrying heavy weights a burden. Most companies will provide you a small duffel bag which you’ll leave to the porters, and where you can put whatever you don’t need for the day, while you hike, but there are strict limitations to the weight.
You are allowed a maximum of 6 kg and that includes your sleeping bag and your air mat, so you usually end up with just 2.5 spare kg to pack. All bags given to porters are weighted as they can’t carry more than 25 kg each (some companies actually stick to no more than 20 kg per porter).
Temperatures can vary a lot between day and night, when temperatures drop. Besides, if you are doing the Inca Trail hike in the rainy season, you will want appropriate rain gear: a good poncho or rain jacket, a daypack with a rain cover, and rain-proof and / or quick dry hiking pants.
You will also need good, rain proof hiking boots. If they are brand new, you definitely want to wear them before you get started, to make sure you don’t get any annoying blisters!
Finally, you won’t have a chance to shower for the duration of your hike. Freezing cold showers are only available in some camps, but in my experience only some porters use them.
As soon as you arrive to the campsite, some companies will give you a small bucket with warm water where you can wash your face, hand and feet. G Adventures does and it almost feels like luxury!
With all of this in mind, keep what you pack to the bare essentials.
Make sure to read my post What To Pack For The Inca Trail.
Some will tell you that you will need hiking poles for your hike. I rented a pair the second time I walked the Inca Trail and hardly used them, but my sister found them helpful. If you are accustomed to them or feel that you may need a little extra support, definitely bring a pair!
Other important things to know
You need to carry your own medication
There are no medical facilities along the Inca Trail, and unless someone in your group is a doctor, there won’t be anybody with medical training in sight. You absolutely need to bring with you your prescription drugs.
Once you are on the trail, there is no easy evacuation route (there is no helicopter landing) and if you require medical attention, you need to go all the way to Ollantaytambo or Aguas Calientes.
Depending on your conditions porters may have to carry you on a stretcher, which inevitably increases their work load (they’ll have to walk back up to continue working with the group).
Getting in shape for your Inca Trail
The Inca Trail hike isn’t your every day hike. It’s a challenging trek at high altitude. You really need to be in good shape. Exercise regularly – swimming and running are both excellent ways of training; go hiking as often as possible; eat healthy food and try to loose a bit of weight if needed.
During the hike
The Inca Trail route
The classic Inca Trail follows a set itinerary and all group tours will be following it. Below is a rough outline for each day of the Machu Micchu hike.
From either Cuzco or Ollantaytambo, you will travel to Piscacucho, at km 82, where the trail starts. You will be walking a total of 12 km all the way to Wayllabamba, where the campsite is located, and gain 350 meters (around 1,150 feet) in elevation.
The hike is easy for the most part, but moderate towards the end when you are about to reach the campsite. This is also the warmest day on the hike, so you may want to wear convertible pants and wear a hat.
You will be walking all the way to Warmi Wañusqa, AKA the Dead Woman’s Pass (at 4,215 meters – about 13,829 feet – above sea level) and then descend to the campsite in Pacaymayo (at 3,600 meters – 11,811 feet – above sea level), for a total of 12 km most of which are uphill.
There is a 1,115 meters – 3,658 feet – elevation gain. This is by far the toughest day of the hike, followed by the coldest night.
This is the prettiest day on the trail, during which you will be visiting many beautiful sites. You will be walking on what locals refer to as “the Inca plane” – but in fact, the trail isn’t flat at all and you will be going up and down for most of the day, with some steep ascents.
You will gain 1,000 meters in elevation (about 3,281 feet) in the course of around 16 km. The campsite is located in Winaywayna.
You will get to the checkpoint and then walk around 2 hours to get to the Inti Punku, from where – weather cooperating – you will admire the sunrise over Machu Picchu. You will be walking for a total of 6 km, and most of them will be downhill as you approach the site.
Once at the site, you will be taken on a guided tour and after that will make your way to Aguas Calientes.
The daily schedule during the Inca Trail hike
You will wake up very early every day – our guide the last time I walked the Inca Trail would have us up at 4:00 am, which seemed excessive, but this gave us plenty of time to visit sites along the way; avoid the largest groups (we literally felt like we had the trail to ourselves!) and have abundant time get to the camp in the evening.
Once you wake up, you’ll have to get dressed, pack the duffel bag you’ll leave to the porters, have breakfast, have enough time to use the toilet and leave soon after.
You will be walking most of the day, at your own pace. The guide will be at the end of the group for safety purposes (guides carry a small oxygen tank in their backpack. There will be an extra guide at the front for larger groups.
You will be instructed about meeting points along the way, for breaks and to visit sites. Depending on the day, you will be reaching your base camp by early afternoon, have lunch and take it easy for the rest of the day, or just in time for dinner.
On the very last day, you will be woken up at 3:00 am. This is done in order to give enough time to the porters to pack everything and walk to the train station in Aguas Calientes (they have to bring the gear back to Cusco for the next groups).
You will wait at the check point until it opens at 5:00 am, then hike to the Inti Punku in time for sunrise.
The main challenges of the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail hike isn’t the most difficult one in the world. The only really hard day is the second day, when you walk steadily uphill. It is physically very intense – you just have to go at your own pace and stop for breaks any time you need: the Inca Trail is not a race!
Overall, how you tackle the Inca Trail really depends on how fit you are; on whether you are an experienced hiker; on your spirits; on the weather; and even on your guides, porters and your group – and many other things!
Both times I did it, I had a good time – but the second time around, I had an incredible group (my sister and my brother in law were with me, but we made really good friends with the rest of the group) and the experience was even better.
It rained every day of the hike; it was cold at night; we were exhausted; but the group was incredible, we enjoyed each others’ company we cheered each other up.
Visiting Machu Picchu
Visiting Machu Picchu is the cherry on the cake of the Inca Trail. This stunning UNESCO World Heritage site is truly out-of-this-world. I cried the first time I saw it, from the Guardian’s House; and I cried even when the I saw it getting slowly illuminated by the sun from the Inti Punku the first time I hiked the Inca Trail. That’s how powerful a place it is.
Anyways, back to the useful bits.
You will be walking to Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate once the sun has fully risen (well, once there’s light: there was no sight of the sun the second time I walked the trail). Considering that the site opens at 6:00 am and that sunrise is between 6:00 and 7:00 am, by the time you get to the actual site there will already be some tourists.
Once you get to Machu Picchu, you will actually have to walk out of the site and then back in from the main gate. You will have time to use the toilets on the site, and grab a snack if you wish.
Your admission ticket to Machu Picchu is included in the overall package of the Inca Trail. You will also get a ticket for the bus ride back down to Aguas Calientes.
Tickets to Huayna Picchu are not included in the Inca Trail package, but you can ask the tour company to purchase them for you. Not all companies offer this though.
In fact, you can’t climb Huayna Picchu on the same day you arrive to Machu Picchu, unless you want to skip the guided tour of the site. You will have to go back for it the day after.
There are four time slots to climb Huayna Picchu – one with admission inside Machu Picchu between 7:00 am and 8:00 am; one with admission between 8:00 am and 9:00 am; one with admission between 9:00 am and 10:00 am and finally one with admission between 10:00 am and 11:00 am. Only 200 visitors per day are allowed on the Huayna Picchu trail – no more than 50 per time slot.
Make sure to also read my post How To Hike Huayna Picchu,
The amount of time you spend in Machu Picchu varies from one company to another, and the weather. A system of time slots and circuits is now in place in Macchu Picchu to limit the number of visitors on the site at the same time.
Other useful things to know
Altitude sickness and other health issues
One of the biggest challenges during the Inca Trail is altitude sickness, and you should definitely not underestimate it as it can be a bugger – not to mention dangerous.
The Inca Trail starts at roughly 2,800 meters (9,186 feet) above sea level, reaches peaks of more than 4,200 (13,779 feet) and gets down to 2,300 (7,546 feet) when in Machu Picchu. Give yourself plenty of time in Cuzco to acclimatize.
The minimum recommended is usually 3 days, during which you are advised to eat lots of carbohydrates, avoid alcohol and drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.
Mate de coca – Peru’s famous coca tea – and coca leaves which you can chew definitely help you fight the symptoms. If you need something stronger, get hold of acetazolamide tablets (250 mg). They are sold in pharmacies.
Camping during the Inca Trail
Throughout your Inca Trail you will be sleeping in tents. These are as comfortable as they can be given the circumstances. The porters will set up your tents for you every night, and drop your duffel bag with your belongings inside. They will also fold the sleeping bags in the morning.
Nights are cold during the Inca Trail, so you need appropriate gear and a good sleeping bag and thin mattress to feel at least some comfort.
The thing with good sleeping bags though is that they can weigh anything between 1 kg and even 2 kg (for the classic ones you’ll be able to rent) – so they will inevitably take up some of the weight you can give to the porters.
Facilities during the Inca Trail
Or perhaps I should say the lack thereof!
The one truly horrible thing about hiking the Inca Trail is the complete lack of decent toilets. There are usually squat toilets in all campsites, and they are filthy. You will need to bring your toilet paper and hand-sanitizer!
On the first two days of the Inca Trail, you may come across toilets which you can use for a few cents.
The only showers available during the Inca Trail are freezing cold. You really won’t want to wash during the hike. Carry a set of wet wipes to freshen up once you arrive to the camp.
The best companies will also provide you with a bucket of warm water to wash your face, hand and feet as soon as you get to the camp every day, and will have a water tap and soap to wash your hands before meals.
Meals during the Inca Trail
Meals during the Inca Trail are actually really good, given the circumstances.
Three main hot meals (usually including soup, a main course and a small dessert) are served every day – breakfast, lunch and dinner; as well as a snack – it can be popcorn, cookies, fruits – and a hot drink in the afternoon.
Dietary requirements are accommodated for so whatever your food preferences, allergies or intolerances make sure to communicate them to the tour company before the beginning of the trip.
Make sure to bring some snacks with you – things like energy or chocolate bars, raisins or peanuts. You can buy it in either Cuzco or Ollantaytambo, and you will occasionally find locals selling snacks on the first two days of the hike.
Throughout your Machu Picchu hike you will be provided with safe-to-drink water, and numerous cups of tea or coffee.
Bring a bottle that you can refill. I am a fan of this one as it keeps water at just the perfect temperature. Alternatively, you could consider investing in a bottle with a filter to remove harmful bacteria, such as Lifestraw, which will come in handy for any other trip.
To make a long story short: forget about the internet during your Inca Trail.
You absolutely need to bring cash with you, and a couple of spare envelopes! You will need it on a daily basis on the first two days to use toilets and buy drinks or snacks from local vendors, and at the end of the hike to leave a tip to the guide and the porters.
Tipping is a custom: at the end of the third day, after dinner, the group will linger along in the dining area and put together the tips.
Different companies have different guidelines on how much guides and porters should be tipped, and we don’t all come from a tipping culture – I know that, being from Italy, I don’t (to find out more, check out this post on tipping in Italy). But all in all, you will want to show your gratitude.
As a guideline: each hiker should tip up to $50 USD (or the equivalent in Peruvian Soles) for the group of porters and cooks; and up to $25 USD for each guide.
The custom is to place all the cumulative tips in separate envelopes – one for the porters, one for the cook (who also is a porter); and one for the guide.
Walking the Inca Trail is an experience you will never forget. Going prepared is key to make sure you make the most of it, and I truly hope this post – which is based on my experiences helps you doing so.
If you have any questions, concerns and doubts definitely get in touch and I will do my best to address them. If not – have fun during your hike, and let me know how it went when you get back!
The alternative hikes are meant to be great, and in certain cases very challenging. They are cheaper than the Classic Inca Trail and don’t require so much advanced bookings – that’s because you don’t need a government permit for them.
Here is a short overlook of the alternative hikes to Machu Picchu:
SALKANTAY TREK – This 5 to 8 days hike goes all the way to Mount Salkantay, one of the most sacred ones to the Inca. It’s a very challenging hike as you reach a pass that’s at more than 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) above sea level. It ends at a train station near the Urubamba River from where you can ride the train to Aguas Calientes. For more information, click here.
LARES TREK – This 3 to 5 days trek starts in the lesser known small town of Lares and gives you stunning views of Mount Veronica and a multitude of other high-altitude lakes. It ends in Ollantaytambo. For more information, click here.
JUNGLE TREK – This 4 days trek is one of the most adventurous options as it includes activities such as rafting and biking. It ends in Aguas Calientes, from where you have to take the shuttle (or walk the foothpath) all the way to the entrance of Machu Picchu. For more information, click here.
CHASKI TREK – This 3 to 5 days hike follows the route used by chaski messengers, who ran through the Inca Empire to deliver messages and goods. It stops at Perolniyoc waterfall and ruins and ends in Ollantaytambo.
VILCABAMBA TREK – This is the longest trek, as it lasts up to 14 days, during which you will walk a total of 97 km (more than 60 miles). The hike starts in Cachora and goes through the Apurimac River Canyon, from where you can access the Inca ruins of Choquequirao. It then goes through the Cordillera Vilcabamba and finishes at the train station from where you can catch a ride to Aguas Calientes.
THE LODGE TREK – This 7 to 11 days hike is the best option for those who want to walk, but would much rather sleep in a cozy, comfortable and warm bed at night. It’s the latest addition to the already available options.
Traveling to Peru? Make sure to read my other posts:
- How To Get To Machu Picchu
- The Most Impressive Ruins In Peru
- Everything You Need To Know To Hike Marcahuasi, Peru
- The Best Hikes In Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Peru
- What You Need To Know Before Visiting Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Lima
- A Short Guide To Ollantaytambo