The Inca Trail isn’t the easiest way to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco, but it is the best way — beautiful views, centuries of culture, and just about as close to the gods as you can get.
The Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu is a life-changing trek. This multi-day adventure stands out for many reasons. First, the 26-mile hike through the Andes Mountains is breathtaking. More importantly, though, the trail is also the birthplace of the Inca civilization boasting a rich history written across every carefully paved stone.
The Inca Trail was built about 900 years ago when Incan elite used it to pilgrimage from Cusco to the sun gates of the sacred city Machu Picchu. The ancient Incas believed the trip itself purified and prepared the Peruvian people for religious ceremonies in the 15th century. The towering mountains are where mortals come closest to their gods. The Inca Trail is a universe in itself. In just a couple of hours, you’ll witness the seasons changing 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 2.5-mile-high peaks. There’s no doubt about it, the Inca Trail is one of the best hiking trails in the world.
Pros and Cons of Hiking the Inca Trail
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 are Quechua speakers, the language of the native people here in Andean Peru. I spoke Quechua pretty much until I graduated high school. When I was 18, I started working as a porter 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 various hiking tours in this area. As a guide, I’ve made the Machu Picchu hike, along the stone-paved path, more than 300 times over the last 17 years. Here are my tips for making the most out of hiking the Inca Trail.
How long does hiking the Inca Trail take?
Once used by the Incas to link Cusco City and Machu Picchu, hiking the Inca Trail is 26 miles (45 kilometers) long. The trail takes four stunning and challenging days to complete. You start hiking at 5 a.m., trekking for three full days and spending three nights camping. On your final morning, you’ll hike for a few more hours before reaching the sacred city. Groups typically consist of at least two people, and 16 is our maximum. After COVID-19, we’ve adjusted, so you’re more likely to be joined by eight or fewer fellow adventurers. Here, you can view Alpaca Expeditions Inca Trail map and trekking checklist.
Best time to hike the Inca Trail
In many places, you have four seasons. In Peru, we have two: rainy season and dry season. You’ll want to book your Inca Trail hike tour during the latter, between April to October. For perhaps obvious reasons, the dry season is when you’ll get the most out of your visit. The days are long from spring to fall, complete with the bluest of skies ideal for stargazing. The rainy season begins in November and ends in March. I don’t recommend you trek in January and February when clouds completely obstruct the otherwise beautiful views along the trail.
That said, while hiking the Inca Trail, you’ll experience all four seasons in less than two days. Mountain peaks and nights are cold, requiring layers of thermal clothing. One hour you’ll be in the tropics with mosquitoes nipping at you. The next hour, you could be freezing miles above sea level. Part of the excitement of the hike to Machu Picchu is the unpredictability along the way.
Tips from a Local Turned Machu Picchu Hiking Guide
All trails across the Andes are a challenge. You’ll be reaching the campsites feeling tired and sore. The views you’ll see, however, will make it worth every cramp and blister. Every few hours, you’ll encounter an archaeological site where time seems to have stopped, motivating you to keep going. Before you venture into this epic four-day thru-hike, browse through my insider tips to discover untouched nature, and perhaps yourself, along the way.
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 challenging just yet. Give yourself time to adjust to the elevation. There’s plenty to see, eat, and explore. Stay away from fast food and local specialties like guinea pig for now. You’ll want to 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.
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 — and everyone in between. Of course, the trail is not easy. What’s interesting is that there are no flat areas. Incas chose to build it this way — it’s either uphill or downhill. However, you don’t have to be an experienced hiker.
About 90 percent of our hikers are beginners to thru-hiking, but you need to be in shape. If you consider yourself to be at a moderate fitness level, you’re good to go. It’s no good though to try to jump from your couch to the trail. There are no cars out there, not even horses. You just keep hiking until you get there.
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. Permitted Inca Trail hike tours are both for your protection and the preservation of the national park. There are many regulations to follow, such as leaving any trash behind is forbidden.
Some people opt for alternative treks and do them on their own. From my personal viewpoint and decades of experience, it’s a little dangerous to trek alone in a place you don’t know. It’s safer with a guide who knows this area well.
Inca Trail porters will support you along the way
For many travelers, the Inca Trail is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip. My team of porters are experienced on the trail and know every turn. The porters are not only guides, but bring the supplies needed along the way. 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, trekkers who carry your bags and belongings, so you can enjoy the landscape and history around you, unbothered.
Inca Trail permits protect historic sites and nature in the Andes
The Inca Trail is under strict government regulation. 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 take care of the permits for you.
Before you even enter the Inca Trail, two organizations will check your documents. One group is in charge of protecting the historic Inca sites. The other organization is charged with preserving 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?
On average, it costs between $500 to $800 to hike the Inca Trail (our company is right in the middle, cost-wise). 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 you a little more. It’s also vital you mention this in the booking process if you want to hike Huayna Picchu, 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.
As an added service and to avoid dealing with any headaches, we pick up our clients directly from their hotels. The taxi drivers in South American countries tend to overcharge tourists.
Eating on the Inca Trail is a family affair
What the chefs do on the Inca Trail is amazing. Firstly, all of our meals are cooked on the trail by our team. Meals are proper family-style affairs. Before the trip starts, our chefs shop for fresh ingredients at the market to bring. We prepare the meals as we go. Every lunch is served with appetizers and even desert. 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 four days hiking in the Andes looks like
Each day and each step on the Inca Trail will reveal new scenery and historical sights. Each night will have sleeping under the stars, camping at designated campsites along the trail. The first day of hiking is only moderately difficult. You’re going to spend about 5-6 hours on the trail. The elevation will change from around 1.7 to 2 miles (2720m to 3300m) above sea level. The weather is still considerably warm. Temperature-wise, you’ll be comfortable in shorts. If you don’t pack bug spray, the mosquitos will eat you alive.
From there, you’ll descend and later ascend to the second pass, which is about 2.5 miles (4000 meters) to its peak. At this elevation, you’ll get to experience how the temperature can change drastically — all of a sudden, it might feel like winter. You’ll experience all four seasons in one day.
The next day consists of a five-hour hike and lots of sightseeing. After reaching the Inca flat (which is not flat at all), you’ll be in a tropical forest complete with picturesque, straight-out-of-a-postcard views. Your final day is reserved for exploring Machu Picchu and the mountains surrounding it, which you’ll do after a 3-mile (5km) hike. Congratulations, you’ve completed your epic adventure, and a train awaits to take you to the Sacred Valley and a bus back to Cusco.
Hike Through History on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The Incan Trail network is connected through four trails that start at the Main Square of Cusco. The network leads into what was once the four regions of the Inca Empire: Antisuyo, Contisuyo, Chinchaysuyo and Collasuyo. Together, the regions combined the Tahuantinsuyo Empire, a name derived from the Quechua words tawa meaning four, and suyo, meaning region. The four regions and trails stretch from what is today Columbia and well into Argentina. The Incas built the trails gathering local materials and taking advantage of the natural landscape and considering the geography’s unexpected and variable pattern.
The rich history embodied in archaeological sites is what makes the Inca Trail my absolute favorite. Next, I’ll go into more depth about what each day entails, highlighting a few of the most important trail sites along the way.
Day 1: Hike past Dead Woman’s Pass before visiting Chachabamba and Llactapata
The most challenging day is ahead of you. Your Inca Trail journey begins at Kilometer 82. After a night’s sleep, you’ll trek for almost 12 hours. You’ll hike almost 10 miles and traverse the two highest mountains of the Inca Trail. The highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass, stands 2.6 miles (4200m) above sea level and takes four hours to climb. The pass is infamous for its altitude but got its name by less grim means. The mountain resembles the profile of a woman lying down, looking up at the sky.
The first historical site is Chachabamba, a little spot that the Incas used as a checkpoint. The architecture suggests it was also used as a place of worship. Incas are known for their connection with nature, and they ventured to Chachabamba for water worship, the most important element for this agricultural-based community.
The second one — probably the biggest site you’ll see on this trail — is Llactapata. The original names of these sites were lost, so archaeologists who have been studying this area came up with new ones, in Quechua. A small village where the Incas used to farm corn and potatoes, complete with traditional multi-level terraces, wraps it up for the first day of sightseeing.
Day 2: Encounter an ancient ruin, overlook point and a small city
On your second day, you’ll trek by Runkuracay, a peculiar egg-shaped site. The Egg Hut offers a stunning view of Warmiwañusca, our first pass. Next up is Sayacmarca, the Unaccessible Village. The name hails from the fact that you can only access it by the Inca Trail, which is why the Inca used it as a control base for incomers. Originally, it was built by the Colla, 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. Sayacmarca overlooks a subtropical forest filled with a rainbow of orchids, and from there, the trail follows roaring rivers into the jungle.
Day 3: Hike to Phuyupatamarca, the orchid paradise above the clouds
Get excited for the third day! Just a two-hour hike from the campsite is a fantastic site called Phuyupatamarca, which translates to “the village above the clouds.” Always cloud-clad, Phuyupatamarca’s primary function in the Incan Empire’s time was to house religious ceremonies. Located at a staggering 12,040 feet (3670m) above the sea level, the Incas built this sacred city in the mountains to be close to the gods who lived just above the ever-present clouds.
Famously, this site is also believed to be where the Incas studied the stars. They used the stars to predict and plan, like whether they could anticipate a good harvest season, but also in relation to mining, warfare, and construction. The two calendars displayed intricate charts tracking the sun and moon’s phases. It’s also believed the calendars determined when important ceremonies took place.
Discover the lesser-known terrace city of Intipata
From Phuyupatamarca, you can view the terrace city Intipata, a lesser-known site. Also called “the place of the sun,” it consists of around 150 to 200 terraces perched on the hill. To this day, the terraces are overgrown with fragrant herbs and plants the ancient Inca used. During the rain season, the five stone baths still standing among the ruins contain fresh running water and are fully functional!
Wiñay Wayna is even more scenic than Machu Picchu
My clients have called Wiñay Wayna even more beautiful than Machu Picchu. Wiñay Wayna means “forever young” in native Quechua. Upon first finding it, an archeologist discovered that the site was overtaken by vegetation. When he started cutting through the ferns and bushes, a rainbow of flowers came to sight with red orchids standing out. These orchids bloom on 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 is hiking up to the Sun Gate, originally known as Inti Punku, and the entrance to Machu Picchu. The ancient people built the Sun Gate to watch the sunrise during the summer solstice on December 21. The summer solstice marked the beginning of the rainy season for the Incas, a crucial resource for agriculture. From there, you’ll make our trek down to the Lost City of the Incas. The first rays shine from the neighboring mountain Huaynapicchu, filtering through the gate exactly at the Temple of the Sun inside of Machu Picchu. It’s a glorious sight.
Alternative Hikes to Machu Picchu
The main difference between the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu and the following alternative treks is that the alternatives 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 distances hiked and where campsites are located. We can’t move a single rock on the Inca Trail. These scenic alternative hikes aren’t a part of the national park, meaning farmers developed them. For that reason, these trails host fewer people but offer sites as magnificent as those along the Inca. As you pass through small communities along the way, it offers the opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture more, too. We also find beautiful camping spots under the stars.
Salkantay Trek allows you to spend more time on the trail
Salkantay Trek is a more challenging trek than the Inca Trail due to one extra day of hiking. More time on the trail means more to see, and the views alone make it worth your while. Salkantay is five days and five nights on the trail. As an added 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 us and nature alone. Expect rivers, cloud forests and glacier mountains that make the landscape look alpine. This alternative Inca Trail hike also offers variety. On your first day on the Salkantay Trek, you’ll have the open sky over your head with the Milky Way twinkling above you. The next day, we sleep in tents, and on the third day, we stay at these Hobbit-like houses. We also provide one of the most amazing campsites just in front of Machu Picchu to end the adventure. Your muscles are sure to be pretty tired. Thankfully, hot tubs are available to relax.
Slow down on the Lares Trek to learning about the local culture
Lares is far more cultural. It takes four days in total to complete this alternative Machu Picchu hike. You’ll be on the trail for 2.5 days, and then you’ll get to sightsee and get to know our culture for the rest of your time in the mountains. On our route, we pass through small villages along the way where people still practice the traditions of the Incas. One example of such things you’ll experience is clothing. The locals dress up in red-colored clothes, and although tt’s not completely authentic, they do still speak the native language of the Incas. Not only is it great for families because the kids get introduced to life in the Andes, but Lares is a bit less challenging since it moves slower than other treks.