A Perfect Guide to Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Hiking to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail is the most traditional way how to get closer to one of the world's most iconic sites. Here's our guide where we share everything you need to know about trekking the classic Inca Trail and also about traveling with Alpaca Expeditions.
The mysterious path leading from kilometer 82 to the most iconic Inca site belongs among one of the most well-known treks not only in Peru, or South America but in the entire world. But what are the reasons making the Inca Trail so unique that it is on every traveler's bucket list and the trek itself is booked out several months in advance? There are several reasons, but in our opinion, it is the unusual combination of stunning nature, high mountains, the original stony path with many stairs Inca people used centuries ago, several beautiful ruins along the way and then the spectacular archeological site, Machu Picchu, standing peacefully at the end of this once in a lifetime pilgrimage.
The world-renown reputations and a touch of exclusivity are the reasons why even inexperienced hikers and campers desire to undergo four (or five) days of trekking and three (or four) nights sleeping in the tents. So far, we've done several multi-day hikes, including the Salkantay Trek, so we believe we can tell the difference between an average and an excellent hike - and the Inca Trail leading through stunning panoramas towards the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu unquestionably belongs to the latter category.
The Inca Trail, because of its popularity and also many regulations from the Peruvian government side, doesn't belong among the cheapest hikes in the world. Only authorized and reputable travel companies with outstanding service and equipment can walk their customers through the path unmatched by any other. No wonder we decided to hike the Inca Trail with the same tour operator we already had a perfect experience with from the Salkantay Trek, Alpaca Expeditions, who has the best reviews from thousands of customers, offers topnotch service and still guarantees a reasonable price.
THE INCA TRAIL FACTS
The Inca Trail is 43 kilometers long and requires at least a moderate level of fitness. The hike starts at Piscacucho, a place also known as kilometer 82 and ends at the Sun Gate in the Machu Picchu archeological site. The classic Inca Trail is four days three nights long but for those, who are not that fit, travel with kids or elderly or only want to spend more time on the path where the Inca himself, the nobility and his servants walked to Machu Picchu, there is also the five-day option. The highest point of the trek is the Dead Woman's Pass at 4215 meters, the rest of the trek is situated at the lower altitude. Every day, be prepared to walk 6 to 9 hours, the most challenging day is 16 kilometers long.
The Inca Trail is special in many ways, but what makes it so different from other hikes is the path itself. The trail is made from stones and an uncountable number of stairs, so whether you have problems with your knees or not, we strongly recommend to rent walking sticks. Especially the third and the fourth day are challenging as the trail is 95% original from Inca's times, so some sections are rugged and slippery, but this is what makes the trek so unique, right?
Alpaca Expeditions always organize a briefing one day before the trek start to ensure all hikers arrived in Cusco safely and all are feeling well. During the briefing, you will also meet your fellow travelers for the next couple of days, your guides who explain the itinerary in detail and will give you duffel bags where you should pack your stuff and which will be carried by porters later.
In case you can't make it to the office that day, you can stop by anytime before the trek during the office's opening hours. Also, you don't need to stay in Cusco the day before departure as the bus can pick you up in either Urubamba or Ollantaytambo, so you can plan your time efficiently.
THE INCA TRAIL ITINERARY
We experienced the standard four-day Inca Trail itinerary with Alpaca Expeditions. In case you choose to hike with a different company (although we don't see a reason why), you will follow the same path, only stops and camping spots can differ as there is only one way and no side trips. Apart from the first day when we hiked through a few villages, you won't meet any people going the opposite direction (only when they decide to give up). We were worried the Inca Trail might be crowded, but apart from the first checkpoint and then the last day when we were waiting for an entrance to the Sun Gate to be open, we were able to walk in our own pace (sometimes our group together, sometimes only two of us) and did not hike with the crowd.
DAY 1: CUSCO - KILOMETER 82 - AYAPATA
The first day of the Inca Trail started very early in the morning. Our guides picked us up at 4:15 AM at our hostel. We were the first ones on their schedule, so then we drove around the Cusco to pick up other hikers from our group who stayed in different hotels. We got a blanket and slept until we stopped for a short time in Ollantaytambo where we could use the bathroom or buy water. Then we arrived at kilometer 82 where we had breakfast, gave our duffel bags to porters and after a short stop in an interpretation center focused on flora, fauna, and architecture along the trail we started our hike. Not far away was a checkpoint, where we had to show our passport and the permit to hike the Inca Trail (you will receive it from your guides on the spot). Then we crossed a bridge and finally started to believe we are going to hike the famous Inca Trail.
The first part of the trek was easy, relatively flat, and the first uphill climb waited for us after two hours when we reached the Patallacta ruin. From here the path was up and down (so-called Inca flat) to our lunch spot. On the way, we could see beautiful mountains around and also local people from nearby villages who work mostly in agriculture. This section is also the only one where it is allowed to use horses for transport (only for locals or in case of emergency) otherwise everything needs to be carried by men.
After lunch, we hiked uphill to our first campsite Ayapata. A place with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains which were soon hidden behind clouds rolling from the valley.
DAY 2: AYAPATA - DEAD WOMAN'S PASS - RUNCURACCAY PASS - CHAQUICOCHA
The second day was the longest and hardest one as we had to conquer two passes. We woke up before 5 AM and about 6:30 AM we started our four hours hike to the highest point of the trek, the Dead Woman's Pass. In the beginning, we walked in the rain, but the path led through the thick forest. Trees covered with moss reminded us of our travels and beautiful hikes in New Zealand. The uphill climb is moderate except for the last section which is steep.
Despite the morning rain, we had an astonishing view from the pass, where we spent about a half an hour. Then we descended to our lunch spot and later, after about a half an hour break we started to ascend to another pass Runcuraccay, which fortunately lies lower than Dead Woman's Pass (around 4000m).
Along the way, we also visited another Inca site Runcu Raccay. When we made it to the top, we were unfortunately in the clouds, so we started another long descend to our campsite Chaquicocha alias Dry Lake, but along the way, we stopped at another ruin Sayacmarca. We came to our campsite just before sunset, and couldn't wait to have some hot drinks, popcorn, and dinner.
DAY 3: CHAQUICOCHA - WINAYWAYNA
The last full hiking day is the shortest but still requires some walking. Alpaca Expeditions made a great decision to camp at Chaquicocha the day before, so it means we arrived at the last campsite Winaywayna at lunchtime and we could rest in the afternoon for a while before the most anticipated day.
But we also had to get up quite early, about 5 AM. When we woke up, we could have seen several snowcapped mountains around but were not lucky enough to have those views for the whole day as the thick cloud started rolling from the valley and hid everything under its blanket. From that moment, we had only sporadical views, but it was pretty exciting to wait for the cloud to cease and show us the beauty around.
The last day hike is the easiest as the path is flat or goes downhill. Also, on that day, we could have walked the most original and the best-preserved section of the whole Inca Trail. Along the way to our campsite, we stopped at two notable Inca sites - Phuyupatamarka and Intipata.
When we arrived at our campsite, we had lunch, short rest and in the afternoon we went to visit the last archeological site before Machu Picchu, Winay Wayna which is also nicknamed as a small Machu Picchu. After, we had the last dinner, said goodbye to our whole team - to 21 porters and one chef who did everything they could to make us feel comfortable - and then went to the tent early.
DAY 4: WINAYWAYNA - SUN GATE - MACHU PICCHU - AGUAS CALIENTES - CUSCO
There was a reason to go to bed early the night before. Our alarm clock rang at 3:15 AM, and we had only twenty minutes to get ready. Why the rush? Only five minutes from the campsite is the last checkpoint on the Inca Trail. There is a small shelter with wooden benches, and only a few (probably four or five) first groups fit in, the rest must stay outside and wait for the checkpoint to open. We had a boxed breakfast with us to pass the time, and on top of that our porters brought us hot tea, so the waiting wasn't unpleasant at all.
Exactly at 5:30 the gate opened and all groups one by one could enter the last part of the Inca Trail, the path to the Sun Gate. We were a bit surprised by how our group was pacing. Until that moment, all our fellow hikers were not particularly fast, but it seemed that they saved the last bit of energy for the last hour of hike and their motivation to be the first at the Sun Gate was incredible. We walked fast with them (because we did not want to be overtaken by groups behind us), but honestly, it did not make any sense for us, as it was cloudy and it rained all night.
The path to the Sun Gate is almost flat, except for the last steep section with several steps. After about an hour, we arrived at Sun Gate, where we waited for a bit for the cloud to disappear and although we couldn't see the first sun rays on Machu Picchu, we actually got a nice view.
Later we finally descended to Machu Picchu. Here, we can guarantee you one thing. No matter how many times you've seen pictures of Machu Picchu before, you will be utterly amazed by the size and the scenic settings of this archeological site. When we took enough pictures from the most famous viewing platform, we had a two-hours long tour. During this time our guides explained to us the history and pointed out all the important facts about Machu Picchu.
When our time was up, we had to leave the grounds and waited for a bus which took us to Aguas Calientes where we had lunch and then waited for a train which took us to Poroy, a small village, 30 minutes drive from Cusco. Here Alpaca Expeditions' bus waited for us and brought us to our hotel. We arrived at 7:30 PM, so it was a long and busy day, but a day we will never forget.
RUINS ON THE INCA TRAIL
Although the highlight of the Inca Trail is Machu Picchu, a site which is very hard to compete with, there are several ruins along the way which are worth pointing out. We knew that we would see several ruins along the trek, but honestly, we didn't do any research. It happened to us too often while traveling that so-called ruins turned out to be only a couple of stones piled up. That's why we can't even describe how surprised we were by ruins along the Inca Trail. They are large, well-preserved and surrounded by a stunning landscape. Let's say Inca people knew where to find the best views! Here's a brief introduction of sites you can visit along the Inca Trail.
A stunning site only two hours hike from the trailhead Kilometer 82. This site was discovered in 1912 when Hiram Bingham (an explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu) stumbled upon it when he hiked the trail in the opposite direction - from Machu Picchu to Kilometer 82. Patallacta is an ancient Inca checkpoint overlooking the valley and Cusicancha River. From the Inca Trail, you will be able to fully appreciate the site's massive terraces and beauty.
You will come across those ruins on the second day when ascending to Runcuraccay Pass. This site is a bit different by its structure and shape, and it probably served as a resting and refueling place for people (and animals) on their pilgrimage to Machu Picchu or for messengers running across the Inca empire to deliver messages.
Only 20 minutes from the second campsite lies another impressive ruin Sayacmarca. After the long day, we had to force ourselves to climb another 98 vertical stone steps carved into the side of the mountain, but we are glad we did. Sayacmarca is also known as an Inaccessible Town, but until today, the main purpose of this site is still cloaked in mysteries.
Another site along the Inca Trail, Phuyupatamarka lived up to the expectations as in the Quechua language it exactly means Town in the Clouds. For us, the views of the Urubamba Valley remained hidden, but we could admire the site's structure, and our knees will surely remember the descent for a long time.
In translation, Intipata means Terraces of the Sun, and again we could see where the name came from. The site is immense and contains many terraces but no plaza or religious structures. Inca people were masters in agriculture, and this place probably served as a place for plants domestication and cultivation. Because Inca's did not leave any writing records, we can only guess the real purpose, but one thing is undeniable. This ruin is truly beautiful.
Winay Wayna is the most spectacular site after Machu Picchu and is also the most popular as it lies only about five minutes walk from the last campground. That's why people who finished the Inca Trail like to spend there the afternoon leisurely walking around or just sitting on terraces while relaxing and enjoying splendid views. The name Winay Wayna means Forever Young. Because of the extensive complex and baths, it is believed that this place was the last point on the way to Machu Picchu where people might have cleaned themselves before entering the Sacred City.
If this name doesn't ring a bell to you, what about Sun Gate? One of the most popular structures on the way to Machu Picchu is by no means that impressive as other ruins we've seen on the Inca Trail, but it is the place from where travelers hiking the Inca Trail can get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu (when it is not foggy). Sun Gate was once the main entrance and exit to and from Machu Picchu. People who were guarding the gate controlled all people as not everyone could have entered the sacred sanctuary.
At the end of the Inca Trail, one of the world's seven wonders is waiting for you in all its splendor. Machu Picchu was constructed in the 15th century but was abandoned in a rush only a century later when Spanish conquerors arrived in Peru. The site was not unknown to local people (two families were living, and farming there before the 'official' discovery), but Machu Picchu's glory remained hidden to the entire world until 1911 when an American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered it and brought it to international attention. In the whole site is about 200 structures and one of the most important building is the circular Temple of the Sun.
When looking at the Machu Picchu (and we leave all speculations about its purpose aside), it is incredible to imagine that people were able to build the site only with their bare hands. The surrounding mountains and hills are stunning, and if you ask us why Inca people chose to build their sacred city here, we would reply: because of those views.
CAN I HIKE THE INCA TRAIL WITHOUT A GUIDE?
If you are an experienced hiker, you are probably looking for information if it is possible to hike the Inca Trail independently. But unfortunately, the answer is no. Since 2001 Peruvian government set strict regulations and it is not possible to trek the original Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu without a guide or tour operator. But in this case, we believe it was a wise decision. Why? The answer is simple. At the end of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st century, when the Inca Trail was already recognized among the most beautiful treks in the world, the path from the 15th century started to become a victim of its popularity. Injuries, altitude sickness of unaware tourists, crowded narrow paths and trash along the way. Those are factors why the Peruvian government decided to step in.
Nowadays, only 500 permits are issued daily. But it doesn't mean you will meet another 499 hikers along the way. All staff including guides, porters and chefs must have the permit as well. It is estimated that out of 500 spots, only 220 take actual hikers, the rest go to the staff. You might ask why there are so many porters needed. In contrast with other alternative treks to Machu Picchu or in the Sacred Valley tour operators cannot use horses to carry all the equipment.
HOW LONG IN ADVANCE IS IT NECESSARY TO BOOK THE INCA TRAIL
Hiking the Inca Trail is on almost every travelers' bucket list. Now when we explained that the '500 permits' limit doesn't apply only to trekkers but also to all support staff required, no wonder that permits sell out fast!
In the case of booking the Inca Trail, sooner always means better. Travelers who consider hiking in the main season (from June to September) should book their spot nine months up to one year in advance! But even in the shoulder season or rainy season, you should not count on your luck as everyone should book at least four months in advance to get the spot.
You can obtain your permit by contacting a licensed Inca Trail Tour Operator who will get the permits and arrange everything necessary for the hike on your behalf. You probably noticed that when it comes to the Inca Trail, demand exceeds supply multiple times. That's why it is necessary to choose a tour operator with extensive experience with securing tickets. Alpaca Expeditions has 95% efficiency in securing clients' first date preferences and overall 99% efficiency as they always require another two alternative dates their clients can start the trek.
WEATHER: WHEN TO HIKE THE INCA TRAIL
You can trek the Inca Trail any time of the year but February. The rains are heaviest in February, and that's why the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance. But if your main reason to hike the Inca Trail is to see Machu Picchu, do not despair, this iconic archeological site is open all year round.
Peru has two distinct seasons - dry and rainy. In the Cusco area, the dry season is from May to October when you have a high chance to enjoy the sunshine and clear skies but be prepared to share all the beauty with a large number of visitors. The rainy season starts in November and ends in April, but no worries, it doesn't rain every day or all day long all the time, you still have a chance to have nice sunny days. November and April can usually turn either way, but you should not experience day-long downpours as in February. In the shoulder or low season, you can enjoy pleasant temperatures and also many photogenic opportunities.
WHY HIKE THE INCA TRAIL WITH ALPACA EXPEDITIONS
Thanks to its position near the mysterious Sacred Valley, the iconic Machu Picchu, beautiful mountains and incredible hikes (including one of the world's most famous trek the Inca trail), Cusco became Peruvian center of tourism. With a good conscience, we are not afraid to say that you would have a hard time to search a traveler who doesn't have Cusco on his or her bucket list.
The competition is immense and finding a good travel operator can be a daunting task, especially when you plan on hiking the Inca Trail. We believe that for you just like for us it is important to make once in a lifetime experience perfect. That was a reason why we teamed up with Alpaca Expeditions, the number one tour operator in Cusco and also 100% Peruvian company. Not only because of the perfect service, excellent food, great equipment or knowledgeable guides (although it is a huge factor why to hike with this company, and we don't take it for granted) but also because this company goes much further to make their business sustainable and to differentiate themselves from other tour operators on the market.
Social projects | Alpaca Expeditions runs several social projects to help Andean communities. We must mention that the founder of Alpaca Expeditions, Raul, grew up in one of those communities and worked as a porter, so he knows very well what is needed and what are the biggest struggles of people living in those remote areas. That's why he also focus on porters' welfare. It is always important to take care of future generations, that's why many projects work with kids - they get school supplies or dental care, something so normal for us, but so needed in those communities.
Also, did you know that the large percentage of people living in Cusco, Andean communities or even porters who help hikers along the Inca Trail never visit Machu Picchu in their lives? In February, when the trek is closed for maintenance, Alpaca Expedition takes employees and their families to Machu Picchu. Something they can afford to do because of us, clients.
Satellite phones | When hiking in the mountains, one of the best things is to be disconnected from the entire world. But it is not that great when something happens, and you need to contact your doctor, family or boss at work. Alpaca Expeditions, as the only tour operator in Cusco, provides satellite phones to all their guides, so every group in the mountain can use it in case of emergency (or even in case you only feel the need to get in touch with someone).
Women Empowering | It is not easy to find a job and feel welcomed in an industry where the collective is strictly formed by men community. For companies, it is much easier to hire male guides or male porters because when you employ a woman, you need to use a different approach and we don't talk about investments you must teach your staff how to interact with ladies in the team. Alpaca Expeditions decided to break this tabu and since last year employs women not only in the offices but also outside, in the mountains as guides or porters. Women usually grew up in the communities near Cusco and never thought that they would interact with tourists from all around the world on a daily basis. This opportunity gives them self-confidence, new impulses to self-educate and help them to increase income - which goes back to their kids who can only benefit from it.
Porters Welfare | For most of the hikers the Inca Trail would be very hard to finish without porters who carry not only the personal stuff for clients but also tents, matrasses, sleeping bags, food or cooking equipment. Although hiking the Inca Trail without porters would be almost impossible (imagine that the group of 16 hikers has 22 porters who take care of them), it is not a rule that companies treat their employees well. Alpaca Expeditions is aware that the welfare of their porters is necessary for the success of the whole company. Every single porter gets hiking boots and all hiking equipment, health, and social insurance, they carry five kilograms less than is the limit (20 kg instead of 25 kg), eat the same food as travelers and on top of that they receive an above-average wage for their job. Alpaca Expeditions also support communities where the porters come from - being a porter is a good job for people coming from the Andean communities, and it is great that there is a company who appreciate their hard work and effort to do as much as they can to make their clients happy.
EQUIPMENT & FACILITIES
When hiking with Alpaca Expeditions, you don't need to worry about equipment as all tents, sleeping bags, air matrasses or hiking poles are in premium quality. Tents are included in the price (you will get a four men tent only for two people, so there is enough space for you and all your stuff), and you can rent other equipment for a small additional fee.
Facilities along the Inca Trail are pretty simple. There are several public bathrooms, but the capacity is not enough for such a large number of hikers, porters, and guides. Alpaca Expeditions is aware of this problem and provide to their customers along the Inca Trail own portable toilet (one for ladies and one for gentlemen) which is available only for hikers in the group at lunchtime and then in the campsite. We can't even say how jealousy other hikers were (some even unsuccessfully tried to sneak out into our toilet).
There is no shower along the Inca Trail except for the last camping place Winaywayna where is a possibility to take a cold shower in one of the newly built facilities. Although there is no shower the first and the second night, our porters always brought us a small bucket with hot water to our tent so we could wash ourselves a bit.
To enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we had our private dining tent so we could have enjoyed all our meals in.
The maximum size of the open group can be 16 people. In case you have a bunch of people you would like to hike with without strangers, or you plan on hiking the Inca Trail for a special occasion, Alpaca Expeditions can arrange a private service for you and your friends or family.
FOOD & DRINKS
As we mentioned before, we already hiked the Salkantay Trek with Alpaca Expeditions, so this time we knew what to expect in terms of food, and we looked forward to it.
All meals, breakfasts, snacks, lunches, popcorn during happy hours and dinner, were delicious. There are always several options you can choose from, and we couldn't believe that all the food was carried by our porters along the whole Inca Trail plus that the chef was able to cook such tasty food in rather challenging conditions.
The biggest surprise was that he even baked a cake for honeymooners in our group!
In case you have any food allergy or you don't eat meat, milk products or any other types of food, do not forget to mention it at the Alpaca Expeditions' office - reservations coordinators will ensure the chef will cook meal according to your requirements.
Drinkable water is provided from the first lunch until the last dinner. Apart from that, we were every day woken up by our porters who brought us hot coca tea. During all the meals we could have enjoyed tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
GUIDES & STAFF
Every company is only that good as its worst employee. What we understood from all guides and porters, they are proud to work for Alpaca Expeditions, and we could feel their enthusiasm to do their best every single day.
Porters and chefs were quick, efficient while guides were knowledgeable and entertaining for all four days. From our own experience, we can tell how hard it sometimes can be to work in hospitality, but they were always professional and helpful. We give a thumbs up!
WHAT TO PACK
Because of changes of the altitude and climates, you will need a bit of everything. Take a warm jacket, long-sleeved t-shirt and trousers to have something warm to wear in the camp. Otherwise, pack lots of layers. T-shirts, shorts, leggings, broken hiking boots, flip-flops, underwear, socks, headlamp, toiletries, rain poncho, rain jacket, a bottle of water and day pack (30 liters should be enough).
Don't forget your passport - there are several checkpoints along the way plus you must show your passport at the entrance to Machu Picchu (and you can also get a Machu Picchu stamp in your passport if you wish). We also recommend renting walking sticks. I have bad knees and to be honest, don't know how I would have finished the trek without it.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO BEFORE THE INCA TRAIL
Cusco offers a large network of reasonably priced hotels in the historical part of the city, and you don't need to stay anywhere on the outskirt to save money when traveling on a budget.
Budget: Cusco Bed and Breakfast - Spacious and clean rooms, comfortable beds, very quiet at night, excellent location.
Mid-range: Tierra Viva Cusco Centro - Providing a tranquil environment, beautiful rooms and also has one of the top-rated locations in Cusco.
Luxury: JW Marriott El Convento Cusco - The hotel features impressive interiors, has a charming colonial courtyard, luxury rooms and Cusco’s cathedral or main square are only 3 blocks away.
To check other accommodation in Cusco, click here.