THE MOST IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT THE INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU
Hiking the Inca Trail is an experience which should inspire excitement, invoke a little bit of fear, stoke jealousy amongst your friends, and stir a sense of wander in your soul.
One of the most popular things to do in South America – and one of the world’s most famous hikes – the Inca Trail is the sort of singular adventures for which we all travel. The hike itself, which brings you along ancient narrow paths deep into the Peruvian countryside and high into the Andean mountains, is gorgeous; perfect Incan ruins, cloud forest, and majestic valley views laid out like breadcrumbs along the way to perhaps the greatest end-point of any multi-day hike on earth, the iconic Machu Picchu.
After our own hike, we wanted to share our hard-earned insights, advice, and tips to help you plan and prepare for your own successful Trail experience – all neatly whittled down into this comprehensive guide.
So, whether you’re heading there in high or low season and want to understand the camping and accommodation situation better, have no idea what to pack or how to get a permit, are worrying about whether you’re fit enough, will get altitude sickness or if it’s too late to book a spot on a tour, then this post will provide you with all the necessary information answers from experienced fellow travellers.
Ready? Here’s everything you need to know before doing the Inca Trail hike. Let’s go!
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE INCA TRAIL?
The Inca Trail is a well-established and iconic 4-day, 3-night hike which leads travellers from km.82 (the start point 40 minutes outside the town of Ollantaytambo) all the way to Machu Picchu via its exclusive Sun Gate (also called Inti Punku).
The good news is that it’s a lot shorter than you may expect at only 40 kms (25 miles). The bad news? A significant chunk of that 40 kms is up steep, narrow Andean mountain paths at altitude.
The Incan Empire (which at its largest joined Peru, large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile and a small part of southwest Colombia) created thousands of kilometres of trails to link its important settlements and centres of civilisation, but it is this specific 4 day route which is known as the one and only ‘classic Inca Trail’.
Do note that if you see a tour with fewer days offered, then you are only going to be hiking a small section of the route.
WHY IS IT SO POPULAR?
The Trail is Peru in a microcosm; lush green cloud forest alive with birds, Andean peaks and steep mountain passes, a landscape dotted with centuries old ruins, accessible only to those that follow this most famous pathway.
However, as truly beautiful as the hike may be, the real reason for its popularity lies at the very end of this four day adventure; passing through the Sun Gate for that first magical sighting of Machu Picchu in the distance. Only Inca Trail hikers can access the Gate at sunrise, and it is this crescendo, at one of the new seven wonders of the world which makes this hike a feature on so many ‘South America bucket lists’.
The Inca Trail hike marked our second time visiting Machu Picchu, and arriving via the Sun Gate with sweaty brows and tired feet rather than taking the morning bus from Aguas Caliente with thousands of others clearly underlined to us that it is the best way to arrive at one of the world’s most iconic attractions.
BOOKING THE INCA TRAIL HIKE
WHAT ARE INCA TRAIL PERMITS AND DO YOU NEED A GUIDE?
Since 2002, access to the Inca Trail has been limited to 500 people per day (roughly split between 200 tourists and 300 accompanying guides and porters), no matter the time of year. This means it is necessary for everyone to obtain permits in advance to do the hike.
Securing a permit is only possible with an approved tour provider, who buy these daily permits in advance. This means that – although many of Peru’s best hikes, like the Colca Canyon, are possible to do independently – you can only do the Inca Trail with an approved tour company and spaces are capped.
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO HIKE THE INCA TRAIL?
Peru has two seasons – dry and wet – and it is possible to do the Inca Trail in either. Each however, come with their own pros and cons.
Dry Season (May – October)
Pros | The chance of rain, as the name would suggest, is significantly reduced and you can expect hot, dry mornings and afternoons.
Cons | Dry season also coincides with high tourism season in Peru (June – August), so the Inca Trail will be at full capacity each day. This means fuller camp sites and more traffic along the Trail (although the tours do try and stagger this out). Demand for tours also increases in dry season, so you really need to book your own tour further in advance (a rule of thumb is six to seven months, but we have people who booked a year in advance to assure themselves of a place). Lastly, our guide told us that the nighttime temperatures in dry season drop significantly, so expect cold nights in the tent.
Wet Season (November – April)
The wather in this season is very changeable for example you will have some rainy days. And some days the climate conditions are great.
Pros | A less popular time to hike, so the number of people you’re sharing the Trail with is notably reduced, as are the crowds at Machu Picchu. Temperatures at night are also less chilly.
Cons | Hiking and camping in the rain for four days is never fun, so you are increasing the chances of that. If there is notable rainfall, then hiking conditions become slippier and more difficult.
Note that the Inca Trail is closed in February for everyone in order to allow it to replenish.
DO YOU NEED TO BOOK AN INCA TRAIL TOUR IN ADVANCE?
In short, yes.
If you’re hiking in the dry (high) season, then you should be making a reservation sooner rather than later (i.e. right now). If you’ll be taking an Inca Trail tour in rainy season, a little more spontaneity is possible, unless you have very specific dates in mind where it makes sense to get your booking in sooner rather than later.
Reading this and hoping for a last minute spot? It’s is certainly inpossible to find one available spot.
ARE THERE AGE RESTRICTIONS?
There is no minimum or maximum age limit for hikers on the Inca Trail, but tour companies will operate according to their own guidelines and policies.
If you are a little older in years and need some inspiration, then Alan Goldin is the oldest recorded hiker of the Trail at the age of 84. But for the security and safety of the hikers our company doesn’t take the reservations for persons of 50 years in ahaead.
HOW MUCH DOES THE INCA TRAIL COST?
All companies operating the Inca Trail must be registered and have a special operators license, which is renewed annually. A large number of these companies are only established to provide specific private tours in high season, with the rest offering year-round expeditions. New operators are added to the list each year so, as you can imagine, quality, experience, and equipment offered will vary quite a lot.
Inca Trail tours cost from £490 / $ 590 / € 530 per person up to £1,500 / $1,900 / €1,670; if you see a price any cheaper than the bottom-end of this range, then be very sceptical. If you are seeing a higher price than this, then you will either be on a very very luxury tour or likely booking through a tour agent. Note that, aside from the mark-up on price, Inca Trail tours booked via agencies will often simply place you on an available tour with one of several local operators, so you have very little control on the quality of the ultimate provider and group composition.
Note that it’s necessary to pay a deposit in advance to secure your Inca Trail permit.
Please also be aware that permits are only issued with a tourist’s name and passport number and, once booked, they are non-changeable and non-transferable. If you happen to change your passport between booking and arriving at the entry checkpoint at Km.82 (where they check your passport), then contact your tour company for advice.
PREPARING FOR THE INCA TRAIL
Once you’ve booked a tour and committed to the hike, there are some key milestones to hit before you get anywhere near South America. Preparing for the Inca Trail isn’t just a case of throwing some unworn hiking boots in your backpack and hoping for the best, but rather doing the necessary to ensure you have a successful and unforgettable adventure in the Peruvian mountains for all the right reasons.
HOW FIT DO YOU NEED TO BE?
As mentioned, the Inca Trail isn’t just a walk in the park.
Although it wasn’t by any stretch the most physically challenging hike we’ve done in South America, its ascents and conditions provided enough of a task to make us both feel it. You do not need to be a vastly experienced hiker, but acquiring a good level of physical fitness prior to arriving in Peru will make everything easier and more enjoyable. If you’re reading this and don’t fit the description of someone who does a lot of exercise or could do with losing a few lbs – then don’t be too despondent. Instead, view the Inca Trail as your challenge, your motivation, and your deadline to start walking more, to lose some weight, and to make some positive changes before you fly to Peru.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO PACK FOR THE INCA TRAIL?
Pack light, pack smart, and pack for two very different temperatures – that’s the key advice for every Inca Trail experience. However, there are a few key things to know about how luggage and kit is transported on the hike before you even think about whether you really need that extra pair of pants.
Firstly, you are going to leave the bulk of your luggage securely in a luggage storage room back at the hotel in Cusco; don’t leave valuables here though as that’s just silly.
WHEN + WHERE DO YOU NEED TO BE IN PERU
It is possible to book a longer organised Peru tour which includes the Inca Trail within it, or to simply include it on your own independent Peru + South American adventure. Regardless of which option you go for, all roads will lead to Cusco – the start point for the vast majority of all Inca Trail tours.
Cusco, in the south-east of Peru, thankfully doubles up as one of the country’s most popular destinations due to its history and position as an access point to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, so every Peru itinerary is guaranteed to include at least a few nights here. If you haven’t planned your visit yet, then read our guide to the best things to do in Cusco.
Cusco is exceptionally easy to reach from various parts of Peru, but there are no direct flights to Cusco from the US, Canada or Europe. Instead, these are your best options:
Flights | Fly into Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru’s capital city, and connect onto one of the frequent flights from Lima – Cusco run by several airlines. These are consistently cheap (starting from £45 / $60 / €50 per person), reliable, and only take 90 minutes.
If you’re already in Peru or elsewhere in South America, then taking a flight from Lima – Cusco is the quickest and most sensible option.
Bus | If you’re travelling from Arequipa, then an overnight bus to Cusco is your best option. Overnight buses in Peru range from basic to an incredibly high standard – we recommend you take a look at the options and book online via RedBus.
There is a bus which runs from Lima to Cusco, but it takes 24 hours and these days isn’t worth taking as flights are so ubiquitous and affordable (trust us)
Train | There is a train which runs from Puno to Cusco, is a very luxury train, and the reservation must be done in advance.
DO YOU NEED SPECIAL INCA TRAIL INSURANCE?
We would never travel without taking out insurance (if you’re not convinced, read this post), and having the necessary insurance arrangements in place in advance is a requirement for every Inca Trail tour; you are responsible for buying and purchasing this.
It’s worth nothing that not all standard off-the-shelf travel insurance policies will cover you for activities at altitude (including the Inca Trail), so you need to ensure that this is covered when buying your single or multi-trip policy. True Traveller and World Nomads are two respected travel insurers which you can use on South America trips, who cover high altitude treks (just make double sure that you’ve selected the right option).
INCA TRAIL ROUTE
We’ve outlined our own route on the Inca Trail below and, in broad terms, this is the sort of the itinerary you can expect (note that this relates solely to the days spent on the hike, not the days of travelling to/from Cusco and Ollantaytambo):
Day One: Travel from Ollantaytambo to km.82 in the morning and hike to campsite
- Distance | Approx. 6.8 miles/ 11 km
- Elevation Gain | 350 metres
- Difficulty | Moderate, with a steep tiring section towards the end.
Day Two: Early rise to hike through cloud forest and up to Dead Woman’s Pass and the descent to campsite
- Distance | Approx. 7.5 miles/ 12km
- Elevation Gain | 1,115 metres
- Difficulty | High, this is the hardest day of walking but after you reach the Pass (Dead Woman Pass), it’s mostly downhill.
Day Three: Early rise to hike the most photogenic section of the Trail
- Distance | Approx. 9.6 miles/ 15.5km
- Elevation Gain | Minus 1,000 metres
- Difficulty | Moderate to a little difficult as there are several steep sections.
Day Four: Very early rise (4 a.m.) to reach the entry check-point and hike 1-2 hours to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu.
- Distance | Approx. 3.1 miles/ 5 km
- Difficulty | You’re almost at the end and Machu Picchu, you should be hopping, skipping, and jumping all the way there.
HOW DIFFICULT IS THE INCA TRAIL HIKE?
As the above has hopefully made clear, the Inca Trail is not as difficult or challenging as you may think, but every person’s own hike experience will be very subjective based on your fitness, hiking experience, your group’s approach, attitude, the weather conditions on the route, and a bunch of other factors. Day Two of the hike, which leads you from your campsite all the way up to the Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200 metres (13,776 ft) is widely regarded as the most difficult day of hiking – once you’re passed that, you’ll be laughing (or crying).
DO YOU NEED HIKING POLES?
We had always think that hiking poles are only for old people
In short, hiking poles are not essential for the Inca Trail; it is 100% possible to do it without them. However, using them is guaranteed make the hike easier for a number of people and result in fewer aches and pains during and post-Trail. It’s also possible to buy poles in Cusco or to rent them from your tour provider. Just make sure that if yours have exposed spikes, you buy some rubber stoppers in order to use them for the Trail.
WHEN WILL YOU ARRIVE AT MACHU PICCHU?
A common misconception about the Inca Trail is that it will allow you to be amongst the first people into Machu Picchu – this simply isn’t true as it’s much easier to get through its gates just after opening if you stay in Aguas Calientes the night before and hike or take the bus up. Instead, you’re treated to an entry at the Sun Gate just after sunrise (expect about 6-7 a.m.) and then a wonderful descent down to an uncrowded Machu Picchu with special views of it all the way.
DOES THE INCA TRAIL TOUR INCLUDE YOUR MACHU PICCHU ENTRANCE TICKET?
Yes, the cost of entry is included in the tour price and it’s the responsibility of the tour company to take care of all that and provide you with the ticket on the day you’re entering the site.
HOW MUCH TIME WILL YOU HAVE AT MACHU PICCHU?
This will vary from tour to tour, and also may evolve as Machu Picchu continues to change its own rules and restrictions to abate UNESCO’s concerns. Since 2016 the visisting schedules changed, the first ones are from 6 am. In our case we enter at 8:30 am, into the citadel the tour guiding takes 2 hours, then you have to leave, and go down to Aguas Calientes. In summary into the ruins you will be 2 to 3 hours only.
ACCOMMODATION ON THE INCA TRAIL
If you’ve never camped before, than that is all about to change. There are no hotels on the Inca Trail and your only available accommodation comes in the form of a tent and a sleeping bag in the middle of nature.
The tents are all two-person, meaning you will either be sharing with a friend/other half, or a randomly assigned member of the same sex. For those that would prefer more privacy, you can also pay extra for your own one-man tent.
DO YOU NEED TO SET UP CAMP EACH DAY?
On the Inca Trail the porters are responsible for setting up the tents each afternoon before you get near camp, and for taking them down and packing up in the morning.
WHAT CAMPING EQUIPMENT DO YOU NEED TO BRING?
As mentioned, the tour company will provide the tents and porters will carry the majority of the camping equipment. You are however responsible for bringing your own sleeping bag. Whatever equipment you bring, you may not always get the best night’s sleep – and it may be quite chilly in the evening – but it’s all part of the experience. Just remember to keep your boots, bags, and hiking poles inside incase it rains overnight or a curious dog starts sniffing around.
WHAT’S THE TOILET SITUATION?
Each campsite has toilet facilities available, but these are often rudimentary squat toilets and with campsites being so remote and over-subscribed, cleanliness understandably isn’t the highest.
Make sure to bring your own toilet paper and hand-sanitiser, and just hold your nose (and maybe close your eyes too) when you need to go. On the first two days of the Trail, there are also local people who have set up toilets for trekkers (charging S/. 1)…and there’s also the bush. Just remember that the 2 soles you’ll pay to enter the modern squeaky clean toilets at the Machu Picchu site will be money very very well spent.
IS THERE INTERNET ON THE INCA TRAIL?
In fact there are few places where you can have access to the internet. For example, the first day you can still enjoy internet services, since this year they have inaugurated a WI-FI service center. In the first place of camping called Huayllabamba, the cost is 1 dollar. On day 2, you will not have access to internet service. You can now access the data service the third day after lunch on the mountain of Phuyupatamarka, where there is better signal collection. For this reason we recommend having a mobile line with which your device works, in the best case you should purchase a temporary chip from the Internet operators in Cusco.
WHAT ARE THE MEALS LIKE ON THE INCA TRAIL?
All food, apart from snacks along the way is included in the up-front tour price – and you won’t have to lift a finger to prepare it or wash up. Instead, around a table in a make-shift tent dining room, you will treated to three-course lunches and dinners and a decent breakfast.
A typical dinner included fresh hot soup, a hearty main course, and then something sweet to round it off – all washed down at the end with cups of tea.
IS THERE DRINKING WATER ON THE INCA TRAIL?
Water is one of the most important points that you should keep in mind, since it will depend a lot on the amount of water you consume per day, or when exercising. We normally recommend buying a 3-liter water bottle in Cusco or Ollantaytambo which you can use on the first day. On day 2 you can also buy another bottle of water in many of the stores that exist on the route. The last point where you can buy water is the resting place of Llulluchapampa. Afterwards, the crew will provide boiled and cooled water for consumption. For health reasons we do not recommend drinking the water from the streams, which are on the road, because as a result of having taken these waters many of the hikers abandoned the Inca trail trek, due to stomach upset. If you have an excellent water filter, this can be very valuable on the route. And above all we are responsible for the environment that is why since 2018, those responsible for the care of the archaeological park of Machu Picchu have banned the use of plastic bottles. That’s why we advise you to bring a camel back, or a canteen.
HOW MUCH MONEY SHOULD YOU BRING ON THE INCA TRAIL?
The vast majority of costs will be covered in the up-front price of your tour, but there are a few costs along the way for which you’ll need to bring cash:
- Snacks and drinks from stallholders
- Toilet entry fees (usually 1 sol, 2 soles at Machu Picchu)
- Tips for porters and guides .
- Lunch at Aguas Calientes.
- It’s sensible to take this money in the form of smaller notes and coins.
So, whatever you do, don’t underestimate how much cash you will need – we’d say at least S/. 400 per person.
TIPPING ON THE INCA TRAIL
Whichever tour company you do the Inca Trail with, you will be expected to tip your support staff of porters and guides.
After your time on the Trail you will be left in no doubt that those porters deserve an extra bit of cash to recognise their sterling work and to support their own endeavours in life.
The process and guideline amounts will vary from tour company to tour company, but usually circulates an envelope amongst you, so that everyone could confidentially put in what they were happy with, and then presented that to the porters on your last evening at camp.
Amongst various tour companies’ advice online, the tipping recommendations average out at S./ 100 – 150 ( $30-50 ) per hiker, to the group of porters and cooks (who will take care of splitting it amongst themselves). Fort he guides will be of course on your own, the amount you like to tip.
Tipping is not mandatory, and you are entitled to put in more, less, or nothing at all.
WILL I GET ALTITUDE SICKNESS ON THE INCA TRAIL?
Many of the most popular places in Peru, such as Cusco and Arequipa, are at high altitude; this means that for anyone planning a trip to Peru understanding altitude sickness (and how to avoid it) is incredibly important. In fact, not approaching altitude correctly is one of the biggest mistakes of travellers in South America.
The best way to minimise the likelihood and / or impact of altitude sickness is factoring in enough time into your Peru itinerary to acclimatise to the conditions. This means that it is incredibly foolish to arrive in Cusco, which is at 3,339m (11,151 feet) above sea-level, and leave the next day to do a strenuous hike or even start the Inca Trail. Your body needs the time to adjust.
A good rule of thumb is to give yourself and your body two easy days at altitude to acclimatise to the change, and to keep yourself well hydrated throughout.
WHAT DO I DO WITH MY VALUABLES?
Your main luggage will be left in a secure hotel luggage storage room in Cusco, however we do not advise leaving any important or valuable items there – instead, it’s better to take them with you and keep them in your own daypack. If hotels and tour companies offered lockers in Cusco which travellers could secure with their own padlock, then this would have allowed you to leave various cards, cash, and tech with confidence.
Remember to pack smart and pack light for the Inca Trail – find out exactly what you need to bring.
WHAT ABOUT MEDICATION?
Obviously, medical attention and facilities along the Inca Trail are pretty much non-existent so you need to bring any of your own required medication with you and keep it on your own person or in the daypack. If you do have any pre-existing medical requirements, inform your tour company when booking and also remind the CEO before setting out.