The Inca Trail isn’t the easiest hike to reach the sacred city of Machu Picchu, but it is the best. Walk among the clouds and shake hands with the gods on a spiritual journey 500 years in the making.
The Inca Trail isn’t just a hike, it’s the story of an entire civilization.
Winding through tundra and cloud forests, through the remnants of centuries-old pilgrimages, the trail is bathed in religious import—the Incas believed it was where they came closest to their gods. In a modern context, every step immerses you deeper into history. The air is thick with sanctity, the roads echo with footsteps, the path is marked in blood, sweat and tears.
It’s a difficult trail. The gods wanted it so. Once you finally break through the mist and lay your eyes on the Sacred City, you’ll see why.
Pros and Cons of hiking the Inca Trail
The Incredible Ingenuity of the Incas
The Incan trail system is one of the greatest engineering marvels in Latin American history. The nearly 15,000-mile (24,000 km) network consists of four trails, each leading into what was once the four regions of the Inca Empire: Antisuyo, Contisuyo, Chinchaysuyo, and Collasuyo, coalescing on the main square of Cusco, the then-capital. Together, the regions formed the Incan Tahuantinsuyo empire, a name derived from the Quechua words tawa, meaning four, and suyo, meaning region.
The four regions and trails span across a massive section of Latin America, stretching well across Columbia and deep into the heart of Argentina. The Incas carefully paved the trails gathering local materials and taking advantage of the natural landscape, constantly battling with the weather and the challenging geography.
The entirety of the Andean road network is called Qhapaq Ñan and it was granted the UNESCO World Heritage status in 2014. The greatest testament to the brilliance of the Incas is that many of these paths are still used today in nearly their original form!
The Inca Trail
What we now refer to as the Inca Trail is a royal road built about 500 years ago. It was conceived by the Incan elite, to be used for their pilgrimage from Cusco to the Sun Gates and the sacred city of Machu Picchu.
The difficulty of the path reflects its ceremonial nature. There were much easier ways to reach Machu Picchu, pathways used for commercial purposes. However, in the 15th century, the ancient Incas believed the trip itself purified and prepared them for the religious ceremonies to come. The towering mountains were thought to be where mortals came closest to their gods.
It’s easy to see why the Incas felt this road had magical properties—the Inca Trail is a universe in itself. Within an hour’s worth of hiking, you’ll witness the seasons changing right before your eyes. One moment, you’ll be wiping the sweat from your brow surrounded by tropical scarlet orchids, and the next, you’ll see your breath escape while traversing mile-high peaks. And when the weather is just right, there’s no doubt that the Inca Trail is one of the best hiking trails in the world.
A Born-And-Raised Andean Local
My entire life is in the Andes. I grew up in a village in the Sacred Valley with about 30 other families, growing vegetables and farming traditional animals, such as guinea pigs, llamas, and alpacas. My parents speak Quechua, the language of the native people here in Andean Peru, and the language I spoke pretty much until I graduated high school. I started working as a porter when I was 18, and worked my way into guiding shortly after.
Today, you’ll find me in Cusco City, where I live and manage Alpaca Expeditions, a company specializing in leading hiking expeditions in the area. As a guide, I’ve hiked the stone-paved path to Machu Picchu more than 300 times over the last 17 years. And I’m proud to say that I’m not bored of it yet.
Hike Through History on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
It’s true, the Inca Trail doesn’t boast the soaring glacial landscapes of the Fitz Roy trek, or the breathtaking turquoise lakes scattered along the Torres del Paine W trek. However, the rich history embodied in these archaeological sites and the way it interplays with the pristine natural landscapes makes the Inca Trail my absolute favorite hike in the area.
Below, I’ll go into more depth about what each day entails, highlighting a few of the most important sites and show you how to hike the legendary Inca Trail like those that lived here centuries ago.
Day 1: Hike past Dead Woman’s Pass before visiting Chachabamba and Llactapata
The first day of the tour also happens to be the most challenging one. Your four-day Inca Trail adventure begins at Kilometer 82, a train station and legendary kick-off point for many Machu Picchu expeditions. A good night’s sleep is a must, as you’ll be walking for 12 hours and taking on the two tallest mountains on the Trail.
The highest point of the day’s hike, Warmiwañusca or “Dead Woman’s Pass”, stands 2.6 miles (4200 m) above sea level. The rocky pathway, reminiscent of the hikes in El Chaltén, should take you four hours to climb, but since there’s no trees to shelter you, you’ll be at the mercy of the weather. The pass is infamous for its altitude, but it got its name by less grim means. The mountain resembles the profile of a woman lying down, looking up at the sky.
The first ancient site you’ll encounter is Chachabamba, a house-like stone structure in the lush valley of the Urubamba river. Though it probably served as a gatehouse guarding the sacred city, the traditional altar carved in natural rock suggests it was also used as a religious site. The Incas were known for their connection with nature, and they ventured to Chachabamba to worship water, the element their agricultural-based society valued most.
The second site—also the biggest one you’ll see on this trail—is Llactapata, the “Hummingbird Village”. The original names of these sites were lost, so archaeologists who have been studying the area came up with new ones. Stopping by this small village where the Incas used to farm corn and potatoes, complete with some traditional multi-level terraces, wraps up your first day of sightseeing.
Day 2: Runkuracay and the ancient village of Sayacmarca
On the second day of your Inca Trail thru-hike, you’ll stop by Runkuracay, colloquially known as the “Egg Hut”. This peculiar basket-shaped structure was a common rest stop for chasquis, the agile and highly-trained messengers of the Incan empire. The hut offers a stunning view of Dead Woman’s Pass.
Follow the pathway overlooking a subtropical forest with a rainbow of orchids and you’ll find Sayacmarca, “the Unaccessible Village”. The name hails from the fact that you can only access it via the Inca Trail, which is why it was used as a control base for incomers. The settlement was actually originally built by the Colla, the Inca’s adversaries. Upon conquering them, the Inca improved upon the existing architecture by adding a farm.
A small city of 200 residents thrived where these ruins lay today. From there, the trail winds along roaring rivers into the jungle.
Day 3: Phuyupatamarca, the orchid paradise above the clouds
Ready to meet the gods? From your campsite, a two-hour trudge through the jungle and some dense mists will lead you to Phuyupatamarca, “the Village Above the Clouds.”
Located at a staggering 12,040 feet (3,670 m), the Incas built this sacred city to be close to the gods who lived just above the clouds. Enveloped by ever-present mists intensifying the mystical atmosphere, Phuyupatamarca’s primary function in the Incan Empire’s time was to house religious ceremonies. The village was built complete with 6 ritual baths for the priests, two minor squares, and two viewpoints with views of the Andes that rival the Cotopaxi hike.
Famously, it’s also believed that the Incas studied the stars here. They used astronomy to predict the future, like whether they could anticipate a good harvest season, but also for mining, construction, and warfare. The two calendars displayed intricate charts tracking the sun and moon’s phases, and it’s also believed that they determined when important ceremonies took place.
Discover the lesser-known terrace city of Intipata
From Phuyupatamarca, you can see the terrace city of Intipata, a lesser-known archaeological site. Also known as “the place of the sun,” the ruins consist of around 150 to 200 terraces perched on a steep hillside. To this day, the terraces are overgrown with over 150 types of aromatic herbs and edible plants. The five stone baths still standing among the ruins are fully functional, filling with fresh water every rain season!
Wiñay Wayna, a scenic alternative
Many hikers I’ve guided have called Wiñay Wayna even more beautiful than Machu Picchu. The name of the site translates to “forever young” in native Quechua. When he first stumbled upon it, an archeologist discovered that the site was overtaken by vegetation. However, when he started cutting through the ferns and the bushes, what he found was a cavalcade of flowers, with striking red orchids as far as the eye can see.
These orchids adorn the terraces of Wiñay Wayna to this day. On top of the spectacular flora, the site is filled with fountains celebrating water, the most important element in Inca culture. The settlement is truly an unbelievable place.
Day 4: Arrive at Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas
The big finale of the Inca Trail has to be the hike up to the Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu. The ancient people built the Sun Gate to watch the sunrise during the summer solstice on December 21st. The summer solstice marked the beginning of the rainy season for the Incas, a crucial period for agriculture, and by extension the Incas’ survival.
From there, you’ll make your trek down to the Lost City of the Incas. When the first rays shine from the neighboring Huayna Picchu mountain, filtering through the gate exactly at the Temple of the Sun, it’s the closest you’ll be to touching the sun outside of climbing Chimborazo.
Tips from a Local Turned Machu Picchu Hiking Guide
Before you venture into this epic four-day Inca Trail thru-hike, you’ll want to review my insider tips to help you prepare.
How difficult is the Inca Trail hike?
There is no age limit for hiking the Inca trail. I’ve seen kids piggybacked by porters and people from 18 to 60 years old having the time of their life. Of course, the trail is not easy. The difficulty of the Machu Picchu hike comes from the fact that, by design, there are no flat sections. The Incas chose to build it this way: it’s either uphill or down. However, you don’t have to have too much hiking experience.
It’s no good though to try to jump from your couch to the trail. While roughly 90 percent of our guests are beginners to thru-hiking, being in shape is a must. If you consider yourself to be in moderate fitness, you’re good to go. If not, I highly recommend that you ramp up your volume of hiking (for both distance and difficulty) before coming.
Even though the Inca Trail isn’t particularly dangerous, there are still risks involved. In the past 20 years, six people have died, whether that’s due to landslides, falls, or lightning strikes. Going with a knowledgeable guide helps you alleviate some of the risk.
What’s the best time to hike the Inca Trail?
In much of the world, you have four seasons. In Peru, we have two: rainy season and dry.
The best time to go to Machu Picchu is during the dry season, between April and October. The days are long from spring to fall, complete with the bluest of skies, and for obvious reasons, this is when you’ll get the most out of your visit. This applies to other hikes in the area too, such as the Santa Cruz trek.
The shoulder seasons are doable, but the weather is more unpredictable, especially in early April.
The rainy season begins in November and ends in March. I don’t recommend you trek in January and February, because the clouds completely obstruct the otherwise beautiful views along the trail.
That said, while hiking the Inca Trail, you’ll likely experience all four seasons in less than two days. Mountain peaks and nights are cold, requiring layers of thermal clothing. One moment, you’ll be in the tropics with mosquitoes nipping at you. The next, you’ll be freezing thousands of feet above sea level.
Plan a couple of days of sightseeing to prepare for your Inca Trail hike
My advice: stay at Cusco for at least two days before your hike. Walk around and sightsee, enjoy the views, but don’t do anything too challenging—you want to give yourself time to adjust to the elevation.
Stay away from fast food and local specialties like guinea pig for now (try and avoid upsetting your stomach). Also, because you’ll still be adjusting to the altitude, drink plenty of water.
As for altitude sickness, some people have it even before they get here. It’s mostly psychological. Calm your nerves, take pictures, and just enjoy your vacation.
What is the length of the Inca Trail hike?
The Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is around 26 miles (45 km) long. The trail takes four stunning, but strenuous days to complete. You start hiking at 5 a.m., trekking for three full days, and spend three nights camping. On your final morning, you’ll hike for a few more hours before reaching the sacred city. If you’re short on time, the two-day trek to Machu Picchu is a quicker option.
Groups typically consist of at least two people, and 16 is our maximum. However, we’ve had to adjust for COVID-19, so you’re more likely to be joined by eight or fewer fellow adventurers. Here, you can view our Inca Trail hike map and trekking checklist.
Do I need a guide to hike to Machu Picchu?
Short answer: yes. Before 2000, you were allowed to go wherever and stay for as long as you wanted. Today, you can’t enter the trail if you show up without a licensed guide and porter crew. The permit you need to get for your hiking tour of the Inca Trail serves both for your protection and the preservation of the national park. There are many regulations to follow, and the guides are well-versed in them.
Some people opt for alternative treks and choose to do them on their own. From my personal viewpoint, after decades of hiking in the area, it’s a little dangerous to trek alone in the Andes, especially if you aren’t familiar with the area.
Inca Trail porters will support you along the way
Many travelers want to know how we hike the Inca Trail with all that equipment. The key to a good Inca Trail hike is the porters here are experienced. Due to the altitude, the air is thin and dizzying until you get used to it. You’ll be properly exhausted even without having to carry your sleeping bag and other essentials. This is why we organize a team of porters.
Do I need a hiking permit for the Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail is under strict government regulation, and a permit is needed for your hike. Available permits are limited, and it’s a literal race against time for companies to secure them. If you opt for a guiding service, the procedure is easy, as they’ll take care of the permits for you.
Before you even start walking the Inca Trail, two organizations will check your documents. One group is in charge of protecting the historic Inca sites. The other organization preserves the pristine nature of the Andes. Along the trail, you’ll also run into checkpoints where you’ll need to show your passport. Make sure to bring it with you.
How much does it cost to hike the Inca trail? When should I book?
On average, it costs between $500 to $800 to thru-hike the Inca Trail in 4 days. In most cases, the cost includes tickets, permits, porters, and meals. There’s also the opportunity for luxury upgrades and additional climbs like the nearby mountain Huayna Picchu, located behind Machu Picchu.
Additional routes will cost a little more. If you’re looking to hike Huayna Picchu, it’s also vital you mention this in the booking process, since only 400 people a day are allowed to climb it. Extra costs include renting a foam sleeping pad, a sleeping bag, or a set of trekking poles.
Booking as far in advance as possible is a good idea. The Inca Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the world, and the supply is limited to 500 visitors a day. The tickets are usually put on sale in mid-to-late fall, but they sell out months before. This is why it’s crucial to book your ticket at least 8-9 months prior. If you’ve got your mind set on this adventure, don’t leave everything up to chance!
Eating on the Inca Trail
What our chefs do on the Inca Trail is amazing. Before the trip starts, our chefs shop for fresh ingredients at the market, and then cook all of our meals as we go.
Every lunch is served with appetizers and even dessert. Expect some culinary classics like potatoes, rice, fish, and local specialties such as stuffed pepper and banana flambe. We also offer vegetarian and vegan options for travelers with dietary restrictions.
What do I need to bring on my Inca Trail hike? What are the campsites like?
Since the weather is so unpredictable, layering up is important. You should take at least 2-3 dry wicking t-shirts and pairs of hiking pants, as well as plenty of spare clothes. You’ll be sweating a lot, so bring a fresh set of socks and underwear for each day.
Your outer layers should be warm and waterproof, and your hiking boots should have durable soles. Finally, hiking poles are recommended, especially if you’re not a seasoned hiker.
All necessary camping equipment, both group and personal, will be provided by your guide. You’ll be staying in spacious four-man tents, but only sharing them with one other trekker for some extra comfort. Comfy foam mats and mummy-style sleeping bags will keep you cozy through the night. Food and water will be provided at the designated campsites, as well as clean and eco-friendly private “Toilet Tents”.
Alternative Hikes to Machu Picchu
The main difference between the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu and its alternatives is that the other hikes aren’t regulated by the government. Hiking outside of the permit system allows for greater flexibility on the trail. Each guiding company has the freedom to design the entire trip, including the distances and the locations of the campsites. We can’t move a single rock on the Inca Trail.
These scenic alternative hikes aren’t a part of the national park, meaning that they were built by the farmers. For that reason, these trails host fewer people, while still offering sites to rival those along the Inca Trail. As you pass through the small communities along the way, you get to immerse yourself in the culture. We also find beautiful camping spots under the stars.
Salkantay Trek: Spend more time on the trail
Due to the extra day of hiking (five days and five nights on the trail), the Salkantay Trek is a more challenging journey than the Inca Trail. As a bonus, you can ride horses on days with downtime. We also always have a horse available for those who feel tired or succumb to altitude sickness.
On this hike, it will be just you and nature. Expect rivers, cloud forests, and glacier mountains that make the landscape look almost alpine. From the first day of your guided Salkantay Trek and Inca Trail adventure, you’ll have the open sky over your head with the Milky Way twinkling above you.
Slow down and connect with locals on the Lares Trek
The Lares Trek puts more of a focus on culture. It takes four days in total to complete this alternative Machu Picchu hike. You’ll only spend 2.5 days on the trail, with the rest of your time in the mountains dedicated to sightseeing and learning about our culture.
On your hike, you’ll pass through small villages where the ancient traditions of the Incas are still alive and practiced regularly. The locals dress up in red-colored clothes, and although it’s not completely authentic, they do still speak the native language of the Incan civilization. It’s a great option for families, not only because the kids get introduced to life in the Andes, but also because the Lares Trek is a bit less challenging since it moves slower than other treks.
The Choquequirao Trek: Bigger thrills and fewer crowds
If you’re a serious hiker who hates crowds and doesn’t feel like booking their trip months in advance, the Choquequirao Trek is made for you. This four-day hike takes you deep into the plunging Apurimac Valley, where you’ll traverse dense vegetation and several different microclimates, only to ascend to the majestic ruins of the Choquequirao settlement.
This trip isn’t for the faint of heart, as both the descent and the climb are quite steep. However, thanks to the valley’s stunning biodiversity, it’s a phenomenal option for anyone interested in the local flora and fauna. If you’re lucky, you might even see a sacred Andean condor!
Ready for a Trek Through Time?
Without exception, the hiking trails across the Andes are a challenge. Day after day, you’ll reach the campsites tired and sore, but the things you’ll see will make the cramps and the blisters worth it.
The spiritual significance of the iconic Inca Trail hike is felt in every carefully paved stone, diligently crafted monument, and thoughtful viewpoint. Once you walk these ancient paths and take it all in, you’ll know why the gods chose to call these hills home.