The Inca Trail isn’t the easiest way to reach the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu—getting to the civilization’s most monumental relic shouldn’t be after all. But it is the best.
The Inca Trail isn’t just a hike, it’s the story of an entire civilization.
Winding from tundra to cloud forests and amid remnants of centuries-old pilgrimages, every step takes you deeper into the history of this lost empire; your foot patter echoing off dirt paths marked in blood, sweat, and tears.
As this review will show you, the Inca Trail, or Capac Ñan in Quechua, is a difficult hike to Machu Picchu. But once you finally break through the mist and lay your eyes on Machupijchu, you’ll see why this monument built at the height of the empire was fit for royalty—or even the gods. And why it’s one of the greatest marvels of South America today.
Pros and Cons of hiking the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail: Highway to the Sun
What we now refer to as the Inca Trail is a 26-mile (40km) former royal road that was constructed about 500 years ago. It was but a small slice of the extensive network the Inca’s devised, which covered about 18,641 miles (30,000km) throughout the country running from the snow-capped Andes to the coast, and everything in between. It was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2014, and perhaps the greatest testament to the brilliance of the Incas is that many of these paths are still used today in nearly their original form!
Regarding the Inca Trail, archaeologists believe this section was conceived by the elite, possibly used for their pilgrimage from Cusco, the capital of the empire, to the Sun Gates and the city of Machu Picchu.
From the trailhead of the empire
Like the legend of the Incan civilization, the story of the Inca Trail starts in the Sacred Valley.
Located in southeastern Peru, the Sacred Valley of the Incas follows the Urubamba River over a 60-mile (100km) stretch of the Andean highlands, encompassing Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the legendary trail connecting the two. Once the administrative, cultural, and religious center of the Inca empire, the valley is still Peru’s hottest tourist attraction, drawing over a million foreign visitors a year.
The elevations in the valley range wildly, from below 6,500 feet (2,000m) around the river basin to 9,500+ (2,900+m) for the higher settlements. The lower elevation areas were probably what drew the Incas there, as the warmer temperatures made it possible to grow maize, their most valued crop. After subjugating the natives and taking the city of Cusco, the Incas used the Sacred Valley as the hub for their further expansion efforts and the rest is history.
A trail (almost) lost to time
This review of the Inca Trail may never have been written since the path was nearly lost. Following the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Peru, both the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu were completely abandoned, either deliberately or due to the spread of smallpox. Then, as the vicious jungles overgrew the sites, the Inca Trail almost became a footnote in history, a fate that was avoided by a chance encounter between an American explorer and a local farmer in 1911.
Thanks to the elevation changes and Peru’s inherently diverse climate, the Inca Trail is a universe in itself. On this hiking tour, you’ll witness the seasons changing right before your eyes from hour to hour.
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.
All roads lead to Machu Picchu—Including From My Hometown
The Inca Trail isn’t the only hike leading to the Lost City.
The 37-mile (60km) Salkantay Trek is the most popular alternative trail to Machu Picchu. While the Inca Trail is a series of ups and downs, Salkantay takes you high among the mountaintops of the Cordillera de Vilcabamba. You get bird’s-eye views of the orchid valleys and alpine lakes below, as well as a close-up look at the granite walls and snow-capped peaks looming above.
A hike for the anthropologically inclined, the Lares Trek winds through parts of Peru where traditions of the Incas are still alive and well. Along the way you’ll meet Indigenous weavers and farmers, learn the meaning of Quechuan hospitality, and taste their local delicacies. At 21 miles (33km), this is considered the easiest of the routes (though still quite challenging), crossing one high pass, Ipsaycocha, at an altitude of 14,600 ft (4,450m) and typically being done in four days.
I’ll say that I’m partial to Lares because I grew up in a village in the Sacred Valley with about 30 other families. We tended vegetable gardens and raised 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. Although both of these hikes have their strong suits, the Inca Trail still tops them in my book. It is the most well-rounded trail to Machu Picchu with the right balance of historic landmarks and untamed landscapes and Andean wilderness.
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.
Quick hiking tips to get you thinkin’ like an Incan
The thing I get the most questions about from people wanting to hike the Inca Trail is the difficulty. As I’ve mentioned, the Inca Trail is an unrelenting 26-mile series of ascents and descents—if you’re not fit enough, it can kick your butt. With that said, you can certainly prepare for a longer trip like this; Tyler gives a lot of great advice for how to do so and other hiking tips for beginners.
Test the trail—and yourself—first
If you have any doubts about your fitness level, it’s always a good idea to do some test hikes in preparation for your expedition. This will give you an idea of where you currently stand in comparison of what you can expect on the trail. You’ll want to figure out a training plan from there if there’s a big gap.
Note that added weight in your backpack can make a big difference at high elevation. Part of your preparation process should be about dialing in your systems so that you can limit your day-to-day carry to the bare necessities on the trip. You’re not hiking the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail, so keep your load lighter and your feet happier.
Acclimatizing to the altitude and weather
Altitude sickness is the second biggest hurdle. Aim to arrive in Cusco at least 2 days before your hike, as this will give you time to acclimatize to the elevation. Also, try to avoid heavy food the day before your trip, and drink 6-8 glasses of water a day for the duration of your stay.
Like hiking New Zealand’s North Island, the weather in the Andes is very unpredictable, and it often goes from clear and sunny to chilly and stormy at a moment’s notice. Thankfully, your guide knows this too, and they’re always ready to adapt your schedule accordingly. The only thing you need to do is bring quality outer layers—wind and waterproof—as well as plenty of clothes for layering.
Finally, we need to talk about mosquitoes. There are a lot of them, especially at lower altitudes. Make sure to pack plenty of bug spray, as well as some long-sleeved shirts and long pants, to fend off the swarms. Thankfully, they don’t like the cold, so you should stop seeing them above 8,000 feet (2,400m).
Why you have to hike the Inca Trail with a guide (literally)
Due to strict government regulations, a guide has to be present on every hiking expedition. Even if it wasn’t mandatory, you’d definitely want a local guide by your side, as they’ll keep you on the route, teach you about the history of the area, and help you manage the perilous weather.
Guided Machu Picchu hiking tours via the Inca Trail include hotel accommodations in Cusco, campsite fees, three meals a day cooked by a private chef, as well as all transportation for the duration of the trek. Your guides will also save you the hassle of dealing with the permits and regulations, as well as organize porter services to transfer your belongings from camp to camp.
This trip wouldn’t be possible without the help of porters, which is why I kindly ask all of our clients to treat them with respect and dignity. To learn more about the struggles porters face in the adventure industry, check out this article about workforce equity in adventure tourism.
Inca Trail Review: Hike Through History on your way to Machu Picchu
It’s true that the Inca Trail doesn’t boast the soaring glacial landscapes of the southern Andes, such as Patagonia’s Fitz Roy trek or the breathtaking turquoise lakes scattered along the Torres del Paine 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—and one of the most popular hikes in the world.
Below, I’ll go into more depth about what each day entails, highlight a few of the most important sites that go unnoticed in pretty much every other tour review, 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
Your first day 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 the Machu Picchu train tour. A good night’s sleep is a must as you’ll be walking for 12 hours and taking on the two tallest mountains of the trip.
The highest point of the day’s hike, Warmiwañusca or “Dead Woman’s Pass”, stands 13,779 ft (4,200m) above sea level, and the rocky pathway, reminiscent of the hikes in El Chaltén, should take you four hours to climb. While the pass is infamous for its altitude and exposure, it actually got its name by less grim means; the mountain resembles the profile of a woman lying down, looking up at the sky.
Along the way, 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, 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”. 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 settlement 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 (3,670m), 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 those found while climbing Cotopaxi.
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 rainy season!
Wiñay Wayna, a scenic alternative
Many hikers I’ve guided have called Wiñay Wayna, “forever young”, even more beautiful than Machu Picchu. When he first stumbled upon it, an archeologist discovered that the site was overtaken by vegetation but as 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 (remember, southern hemisphere). The solstice marked the beginning of the rainy season for the Incas, a crucial period for agriculture, and by extension their survival.
After taking a photo at the most popular selfie spot this side of the Trolltunga hike, 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.
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.
Alternative adventures in South America
Keep in mind that other than the Inca Trail, there are other amazing hikes that can take you to Machu Picchu.
Looking for more must-try trips in South America? Also located in Peru, the Rainbow Mountain hike defies the laws of nature. Just southeast, Bolivia’s El Choro trek provides the perfect blend of alpine and tropical terrain, as well as its own fair share of ancient Incan trails. A bit further south, climbing Aconcagua in Argentina is the perfect first foray into the world of advanced mountaineering. And in the far south of the continent, you’ll find the awe-inspiring Torres del Paine W Trek in Chile.
Other world-renowned hiking trails
Looking to cross names as big as the Inca Trail from your bucket list? Start with hiking the Laugavegur Trail, the most famous trail in Iceland, before moving on to the Tour du Mont Blanc, a trek that spans 110 miles and three different countries. Or you can test yourself on Sicily’s GR20 hike, the toughest trail in Europe. If you’ve still got some hiking left in you, it might be time to move onto another continent and the complete the Annapurna Circuit Trek.
They say each step is its own journey, but maybe that’s because they didn’t make it to the city above the clouds. Reach the Lost City on the most epic guided 4-day thru-hike or a women’s Machu Picchu hiking tour.