The Inca Trail: A hiking guide to one of the world's most sought after destinations

What to pack, how to get there and what to expect from the bucket list trek
How to plan your Inca Trail adventure

As far as world famous treks go, you’d be hard pressed to find anything with the sort of relentless pull that the Inca Trail has. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a traveller desperate to tick it off the bucket list, it has an allure that very few parts of the world can match.

Despite the costs, the long waiting lists, the crowds and erosion caused by the constant trampling of hiking boots, Machu Picchu still holds strong as one of the most impressive hikes that exists anywhere across the globe.

This approach to the citadel of Machu Picchu, probably one of the most well-known vistas that you can visit today, is believed to have been the main pilgrimage route of Inca rulers during the 15th century. Although there are many alternative treks to Machu Picchu, no other is quite so steeped in legend as well as passing so many Inca ruins along the way.

As hikes go, it’s far from the easiest you’re going to find, but as is often the case, the toughest routes tend to be the ones with the biggest rewards. As the path weaves and winds its way around the mountains and up into the clouds, the views open up into some of the most dramatic scenery accessible on any continent. In our guide we run through the best way to head into the Andes Mountains.

Overview

Hiker’s Guide: The Inca Trail

The Inca, the dominant civilization in pre-Columbian Peru, held the Andes mountains a holy place, so the long trek that leads to the royal residence of Machu Picchu visits a host of mountainside ceremonial sites on its way.

As long distance hikes go, it firmly sits at the difficult end, but the ancient towns, temples and terraces that cling to the surrounding cliffs, with their backdrop of snow-capped mountains and rivers, make the effort seem considerably less of a struggle.

The full route of the Inca trail is only 26 miles but on average takes it four days due to the elevation varying between between 8,530 feet (2,600m) and 13,280 feet (4,200m) – so not only is there a fair amount of climbing, but the oxygen will be a lot thinner for a large amount of the walk. A small price to pay for the final view of Machu Picchu.

Getting there

Hiker’s Guide: The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu lie in the Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrado in Spanish), a valley dotted in Inca ruins and carved out by the Urubamba river. From the moment you touch down in Peru, almost every tour guide or brochure you come across will be pointing you towards this, so finding transport to the trail is relatively easy.

International flights arrive in Lima, from where you can take a flight (most common) or long bus ride to Cusco. Cusco, one-time HQ of the Inca Empire, is around nine miles (15km) from the start of the Sacred Valley in the middle of the Peruvian Andes.

Hikers aren’t allowed to take on the route unguided, so you’ll need to enlist an agency to transport you from Cusco to the trailhead of Piscacucho, better known as Km 82, on the railway between Cusco and Aguas Calientes. After completing the hike, your agency will return you to Cusco by either road or rail from Aguas Calientes, the town closest to the ruins.

Trail summary/Route description

Hiker’s Guide: The Inca Trail

From Km 82 you cross to the south bank of the Urubamba river (elevation 8,530 feet or 2,600m), where your guide will take care of trail registration at the checkpoint.

The trail then follows the river on a slight incline to Llactapata, the first of the Inca ruins en route, then switches south, roughly following the course of the Cusichaca river to the small village of Wayllabamba (9,840 feet or 3,000m). The first night is typically spent camped here or in the emerald-green Andean meadows close by.

It is then a long, steep ascent northwest alongside the Llullucha river and through woods to emerge in Llulluchupampa (12,300 feet or 3,750m), another mountain village and common overnight stop for the first or second nights of the hike.

The next ascent up to Warniwañusca (a pass at 13,780 feet, 4,200m, and the high point of the trek) is the trail’s toughest, with superb views both of the way you came and of the Pacamayo river in the valley below and, beyond, the ruins of Runkurakay.

A gruelling 1,970-foot (600m) descent to the river and a 490-foot (150m) ascent to Runkurakay are next up, followed by another short climb to the top of the second of the trail’s three passes, Abra de Runkurakay (at around 1,3000 feet, or 3,960m).

Hiker’s Guide: The Inca Trail

The following section of the trek is one of the most breathtaking, studded with original Inca paving and skirting along some vertiginous drops. Along here is the Inca township of Sayaqmarka, clustered dramatically around a mountain spur.

The final pass, at almost 3,700m (12,140 feet), offers great views of the snow-capped peaks or nevados of Salkantay and Veronica and is accessed via an Inca tunnel carved straight from the rock. There are campgrounds either side of the pass used for overnighting on the final night of the trek; on the far side of the pass are the mesmeric ruins of Phuyupatamarka (11,770 feet or 3,570m), with ceremonial stone baths and striking terraces.

The trail then swoops down into tropical forest via some well-preserved Inca steps to Wiñay Wayna, a set of steep Inca terraces flanked by forest on a lush hillside overlooking the Urubamba. Here is the most popular campground on night three.

A one- to two-hour pre-dawn walk through cloud forest from Wiñay Wayna, invariably the itinerary for the fourth day, brings you out at Intipunku, the legendary ‘sun gate’ in time for sunrise over Machu Picchu, visible for the first time below.

Another hour’s walk brings you to the Machu Picchu citadel, well in advance of when the trains and tour buses arrive.

What are the options for hiking?

Hiker’s Guide: The Inca Trail

Care should be taken when differentiating between the Inca Trail, which this article is primarily about, and other Inca trails. All are perfectly legitimate ways of arriving at Machu Picchu through an exciting adventure (as opposed to the trains or tour buses).

The Inca Trail is four days, including transportation to the trailhead and back and looking around Machu Picchu citadel. Many adventurers opt for a less-crowded alternative, such as the two-day Inca Trail, which begins at Km 104 on the Cusco-Aguas Calientes railway, the Salkantay Trek, a more arduous five to seven-day hike starting from Sayllapata, and various adventures generally described as an Inca Jungle Trail which approach Machu Picchu through jungle via a combination of hiking, biking and even rafting.

Really, in all cases a guide is necessary. The Inca Trail must be reserved with an agency several months in advance, with the waiting list often stretching to six months (meaning you must book before your trip). Inca Trail alternatives usually have availability if booked a few days in advance (meaning you could book once you've arrived in Cusco).

Weather and terrain

There are higher hikes and there are longer hikes; the Inca Trail is demanding because it throws a lot at you in a short space of time. Elevation alternates between the stickily humid at 8,200 feet/2,500m and the breath-sappingly icy at over 13,120 feet/4,000m.

Other than the difficult ascents and descents is the fact that this trail goes above the height at which altitude sickness commonly sets in. Paths are always well-defined but can be hair-raising and very slippery. Chilling winds and rain are commonplace on the trail, particularly around the high point at Warniwañusca.

What to know in advance

Hiker’s Guide: The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is very popular to hike. If you decide to walk the trail, walk it responsibly. This means, firstly, taking time to research and book with an agency who are environmentally and socially responsible.

You can’t do this hike independently. Nor will you have the trail to yourself. Several hundred other hikers, guides and porters will also be walking it on any given day.

The trail closes for annual maintenance in February, and April through October are the best months for hiking it, when drier, brighter weather comes to the region. June, July and August are the most popular times to do the trek. Ask well in advance about any dietary or other special requirements you may have.

What to bring

Agencies provide tents and sometimes bedding, although your own sleeping mat and sleeping bag are likely to be more comfortable than what's provided.

Most guides will boil water for the groups, but always take a good water bottle and purification tablets. Sunscreen is a necessity as well a a basic medical kit to have with you at all times – make sure to include acetazolamide (good for altitude sickness). Diarrhoea and dehydration can occur frequently on the hike, so pack to cover for these eventualities.

The Inca Trail: A hiking guide to one of the world's most sought after destinations

What to wear

There are two distinct weather seasons that affect the Inca Trail: the summer season goes from October through to March and the winter season from April to September. Although the summer season is likely to be the time with the most rain, the climate in the area generally means that you need to prepare for it all year round. Temperatures don't tend to fluctuate a great deal across the year, with summer and winter both seeing highs around 20 degrees and lows, normally at night, moving towards the low single digits.

As a result you need to prepare for most eventualities. The key here is layering, starting with a good base layer that will wick away sweat whilst keeping you warm, follow up with an insulating mid layer, either a fleece or an insulated jacket, and top it off with a good reliable waterproof.

Based on the average temperatures it's unlikely that you'll need this to be insulated. Some of the climbs are quite tough, so expect to get hot and sweaty whilst still needing light protection from a rain shower or two.

The terrain of the hike is not particularly technical, so you won't need to bring a weighty pair of mountaineering boots, however it's a long multi-day route, so having a balance between something comfortable, breathable and supportive is a must.

The best bet is to opt for a mid-level hiking boot that offers good cushioning and support over long distances, but still retains comfort and stops your feet from getting too sweaty in the heat. One of our favourite options would be the Danner Mountain 600s or similar.

Danner Men's Mountain 600 Hiking Boot
Danner Men's Mountain 600 Hiking Boot
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Danner Men's Mountain 600 Hiking Boot
Danner Men's Mountain 600 Hiking Boot
Buy now £132.20

Who can do it?

Hiker’s Guide: The Inca Trail

Anyone can do the Inca Trail, and all sorts of tourists attempt it. Because it is perceived less as a hard-core hike and more as an essential rite-of-passage whilst in Peru, the trail is, however, often under-estimated.

This should ideally not be the first multi-day hike you do, and you should have acclimatised to the 13,120 feet/4,000m level in advance. That said, with a guide and porters on hand, anyone who does day hikes regularly should be able to (and invariably does) complete the trek.

Who to book with

Due to the large numbers of people who head to the Inca Trail every year, there are an enormous range of travel and trek companies to choose from as your guides.

The cost of a trek will normally be between $650 at the cheaper end of the spectrum to well over $1,000, dependent upon the level of comfort and service you want.

There are also a number of significantly cheaper options available, but opting for these may be dangerous as they may not be licensed and you could be putting yourself at risk. Expect higher prices if you're booking through an international tour operator as well.

Companies that have consistently received good reviews for Inca trail group tours (usually taking four days with three nights' sleep) include the following:

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