Your Complete Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Guide (Updated 2019)

Apr 16, 2019 | Inca Trail

What is the Inca Trail?

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a bucket-list item and rite of passage for countless people across the world. The Classic Inca Trail is a 4-day, 3-night trek through the Andes that starts near Ollantaytambo and ends at the Sun Gate (Inti Punku), which is an exclusive entrance to Machu Picchu only available to those trekking the Inca Trail. At 40 kilometers (25 miles), one would think that this trek is easy pickings over the course of four days. What’s 6 miles of hiking per day? Well, you’ll be eating your words if you have that mindset.

The Inca People built a number of roads throughout their Empire which spanned from Columbia through Peru into Bolivia and all the way to mid-Chile/Argentina. It is said that they had built anywhere from 23,000 to 45,000 km of pathway. Their trails were mainly stone varied in size from 1-8 meters wide.

The classic Inca Trail was a spiritual or religious path that was used to trek to the famous Machu Picchu citadel. The Inca Trail was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1913, famed explorer who is credited with discovering Machu Picchu. And as the Inca Trail currently stands, it is still the original construction by the Incas, which a testament to their engineering abilities.

Where does the Classic Inca Trail hike start and end?

Many people believe that your hike to Machu Picchu starts in Cusco. Rather, the hiking the Inca Trail begins a small town called Kilometer 82. This city is named for no other reason other than that is located 82 kilometers on the railroad away from Cusco. For those who are counting, this means that it is halfway between Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley and Aguas Calientes, the base of Machu Picchu.

The trek ends on the 4th day (or at the end of the 1st day for those doing the Short Inca Trail) at the Machu Picchu Sun Gate. Most groups wake up VERY early in the morning to be able to arrive at the Sun Gate before the sun rises over Machu Picchu. Man standing on Inca Trail stone path overlooking valley

How long is the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu?

As stated above the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu begins at a small town called Kilometer 82 and commences at Inti Punku or the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is approximately 26 miles. Thus the reason there is a yearly Inca Trail marathon along the path. Additionally, there are over 13,000 feet (almost 4,000 meters) in total elevation change up and down, capping out at 4,215m (13,828 ft) above sea level at Dead Woman’s Pass.

Pro Tip: We recommend carrying trekking poles to take some of the weight off your knees over the elevation gain.

Do you need a guide to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu?

This is a big YES! You NEED a guide to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. In order to preserve the fragile condition of the Inca Trail, beginning in 2002 the Peruvian government has significantly limited the number of people allowed to enter the Inca Trail per day. There are 500 permits allowed for entrance per day. This breaks down to 200 travelers per day and 300 guides/porters allowed on the trail per day.

As a result, this is a highly coveted permit and the Inca Trail sells out MANY months before the entrance. During high season, it can sell out as many as 8 months prior to the date. Additionally, the Peruvian government has stipulated that you MUST do the Inca Trail with a guide.

When should I book my Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek?

YOU NEED TO BOOK YOUR INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU TREK AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!!! Many people think that they can go hiking the Inca Trail whenever they want. Many people email tour operators a month before their trip and become disappointed that they are not able to do the Inca Trail as it is sold out.

Permits are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. And they go QUICK! Inca Trail permits go on sale for the following year every year starting in October. Many of the dates in the high season (May, June, July, August, September – the dry season) sell out within days. You can have more luck with the low season booking much closer to your scheduled trek date, but we still recommend booking 6 months ahead of time. Don’t miss out on a chance to hike one of the most iconic treks in the world.

With that said, the Inca Trail is closed every February for maintenance and upkeep. You wouldn’t want to hike the Inca Trail during this time anyway. It is the rainiest month in Peru and most of the trail becomes very muddy and difficult to pass.

Additionally, make sure you have a passport. This is required for your tour company to purchase your permit. Because of the tight regulation, the government doesn’t allow cancellation of the trail or transfer of the permit to an individual to take one’s place on the trek. Download our recommended Inca Trail packing list.

 

Pro Tip: Make sure your passport is valid 6 months prior to Peru entry, otherwise you won’t get in.

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How do I train for the Inca Trail?

We recommend the best way to train for the Inca Trail hike is to just strap on a pack with some weight in it and go hike. However, for a little more detail, we recommend that you are training for at least three months in advance. This is a difficult trek. You should combine both aerobic training whether hiking, running, rowing, or biking.

Additionally, you should incorporate some weight training into your fitness routine. You’re going to be carrying a heavy pack over 13,000 feet in elevation. You’re gonna want to be strong to make sure you can carry that weight up to 8 hours per day, multiple days. It’s a very good idea to climb a lot of stairs or hike up hills as a part of your training. There is a lot of elevation change up and down while on the trek and you will want to be well prepared.

Llama standing on grass overlooking valley with river at the bottom with mountains in the background on the Inca Trail

Should I hire an extra porter for the Inca Trail trek?

YES! Without a doubt. This is a HARD hike. Therefore, we recommend hiring an extra porter. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is only 26 miles (42 kilometers). But you are already at elevation and there are over 13,000 feet (almost 4,000 meters) in total elevation change up and down. That is a lot of weight being carried on your knees.

Without a doubt hire the porter ahead of time. It’s going to save you money. Many people end of hiring a porter starting the second day which ends up being much more costly. Additionally, hiring a porter helps support the local economy. We here at Cachi Life include the porter as a part of your trek for everyone, no questions asked.

Protip: if your company includes a person porter or half-porter, make sure that they are actually hired. If the cost is too good to be true, many companies just throw your pack onto the weight of an already hired group porter. Porter welfare is key!

What are the accommodations on the Inca Trail?

Tents! Luxury Tents! There are absolutely no cabins on the Inca Trail. Most companies will provide two people with a four-person tent for plenty of space. While you hike your guides team will be setting up your tent, unfolding your sleeping pad, and sleeping bag inside your tent. You don’t have to do any work!

What are the bathrooms like on the Inca Trail?

Can you say ew? Haha. But no really…… they aren’t great. Some companies have portable toilets that are cleaner and smell much better than the ones on the trail. Make sure you are using a company that has sanitary and provide safety for the porters responsible for maintenance of the portable pop-up toilet tents.

What will I eat while hiking the Inca Trail?

Some of the best food that you will have in all of Peru. No joke! The chefs that work for some of the companies are masters of their trade. You will have anything from an owl carved out of zucchini or a birthday cake baked right out on the trail. It’s absolutely mindblowing. Just take a look at the pictures and you’ll understand.

Owl made out of zucchini on Inca Trail Birthday Cake on Inca Trail

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What does the Inca Trail itinerary look like?

 

Inca Trail Day 1:

Most people start their trek in Cusco which begins with a 12 km or 3-hour drive from Cusco to the starting point called Kilometer 82, which is between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. This is where the trek begins, with a nice flat warm-up for the first day. Most operators will hike 6-7 hours for the first day.

The trek passes the first ruins called Patallaqta, which means “town on a hillside” in the Incan language of Quechua. Patallaqta is thought to have been an agricultural settlement that was used to grow and supply food for the inhabitants of Machu Picchu. You will then reach your first campsite called Wayllabamba, which means ‘grassy plain’ in Quechua and is sometimes spelled Wayllapampa. It is the only inhabited village on the trek. Hope you’re ready for the difficulty of day two!!! Check out our Inca Trail map!!

Inca Trail Day 2:

Day two is a full day hike of elevation gain and altitude and is considerably more difficult than day one. This is the hardest day of the trek with over 1,200 meters in elevation gain with over 8-9 hours of hiking. After hiking for approximately 3 hours you will reach a small village called Llulluchapampa. Most groups take a snack break here.

Then from here it is another 2 hours to the top of Warmiwanusca Pass also called Dead Woman’s Pass, which is the highest point on the trek. The group’s feeling of accomplishment is great as it is mostly downhill from here. It’s called Dead Woman’s Pass because as you get further along the trail and look back on the pass, it appears as though a woman is lying down face up. You’ll then hike down another 2 kilometers to your campsite called Pacamayo for some relaxing coca tea and dinner.

Inca Trail Group on Dead Woman's Pass

Inca Trail Day 3:

Day two was all about climbing, while day three is all about descending. However, that doesn’t make it any easier. Your legs are going to feel somewhat wrecked after all the climbing we did yesterday. You’re looking at 10 hours of hiking today. This day is also possibly the most memorable portion of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

It starts with an hour trek to the site of Runkuracay, which was a watchtower over the Pacamayo Valley. After another hour we will reach the Runkuracay pass which begins an extensive series of stone steps leading down the path. You will then reach Sayacmarca, which means Inaccessible Town.

After another portion of hiking, you then reach the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, which means City Above the Clouds, which is fitting as it is situated above the cloud forest. This begins a series of over 1,000 stone steps down to the ruins of Winay Wayna, which is also where you will be camping for the last night.

Inca Trail Day 4:

This is the big day! Machu Picchu! Because of this, it’s also going to be your earliest morning if as you want to be to Machu Picchu for sunrise. We’re talking between 3:30 and 4:30 am wakeup call! After hiking you will reach a climb of over 50 very steep stone steps. They are so tall and steep that most need their hands to go up the steps.

And then you are there! Inti Punku or the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu! The pictures you have seen does NOT do it justice. It’s then another hour hike down from the Sun Gate to the Machu Picchu citadel. Most companies give a two-hour tour of Machu Picchu, but if they don’t it’s definitely worth paying for. You’ll then have time to visit Machu Picchu, climb Huayna Picchu, explore Aguas Calientes on your own, or sit in the Aguas Calientes hot springs as recovery. You’ll then be transported back to your hotel in Cusco.

Tips and facts for hiking the Inca Trail

  • Most of the Inca trail is still original with 85% of the trail intact with the original stone that was placed by the Incas. Little restoration has been done on the trail.
  • Make sure to bring a headlamp. Each day is started trekking very early in the morning.
  • Arrive in Cusco at least two days before your trek due to the high altitude. Your body will thank you! Chewing coca leaves on the trail helps to avoid altitude sickness.
  • Bring soles for the bathroom. Most of the bathrooms on the trek require 1 sole to use.
  • If you can’t get permits for your desired trekking date, consider doing the Salkantay Trek. It’s less popular, does not require permits, and is equally or more beautiful than the Inca Trail!
  • Each day you can get your passport stamped for a different portion of the trail at the checkpoints for 1 sole.

Got something to say? Post comment or send us an email below.

2 Comments

  1. Ryan K Biddulph

    Sensational guide here. I look forward to doing this hike.

    Ryan

    Reply
    • Kevin Groh

      Thanks so much Ryan! When are you going?

      Reply

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