Machu Picchu Treks

How Difficult Is The Inca Trail Trek?

How Difficult Is The Inca Trail Trek?
By Maureen Santucci

Peru’s trails and trekking options put it on the map for hikers from all over the globe.

In and around Machu Picchu, possibilities abound for first-time or hesitant hikers all the way to confident and experienced trekkers. Stretch your legs with one of these scenic strolls.

Ancient inca bridge in Machu Piccchu lost city Peru

Ancient Inca bridge in Machu Piccch

Easy: hike to the Sun Gate from inside Machu Picchu

The Sun Gate, also known as “Inti Punku” is a high point where the Inca Trail reaches the entrance to the Machu Picchu citadel. Even if you are not hiking the Inca Trail and don’t have a permit, you can walk to this dramatic juncture from inside Machu Picchu.

From the Caretaker’s Hut, follow the “Inti Punku” signage. Expect to spend 30-45 minutes on the gradual incline along a stone pathway, and half that time to walk back down. This is a popular spot to try to catch the “sunrise”.

Easy: hike to the Inca Drawbridge

Another short and free option from within the Machu Picchu citadel, also doable for any age group or fitness level. Follow the well-marked path from the Caretaker’s Hut, where you sign in with your passport number. From there, the 20-30 minute walk on a dirt and stone pathway leads to an ancient drawbridge (no longer in use).

Moderate: ascent to Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu is the peak that towers above Machu Picchu in the classic photos. Hiking to the top of it is steep but rewarding — you’ll reach a panoramic bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu. This hike is so in-demand that a permit system limits volume to 400 hikers split between two waves each day (7-8am and 10-11am). Reach a lofty 8,835 feet of altitude at the summit.

Steep switchback-style stairs lead to a new level of terraces, tunnels, and altars. Due to the steepness, this hike is demanding. It requires a good level of fitness and possibly the use of both hands and feet at some points. Allow at least two hours for the full hike to the top and back.

Moderate: ascent of Machu Picchu Mountain

This hike gets overshadowed by the more popular Huayna Picchu ascent, but offers similar challenges and rewards. The ascent to Machu Picchu Mountain is around twice that of Huayna Picchu, reaching a staggering altitude of 10,111 feet. The trail covers more distance than Huayna Picchu and the grade starts out gently but becomes similarly steep toward the end.

Like Huayna Picchu, this trail’s growing popularity has mandated a permit system that limits volume to 400 hikers per day. However, this under-the-radar hike is less likely to be sold out than its rival. Well worth the additional time and effort to reach the top!

The Inca ruins of Winay Wayna peru

The Inca ruins of Winay Wayna

Moderate: full-day Km 104 Hike to Machu Picchu (Royal Inca Trail

For those who are up for a challenge, but prefer day hikes over multi-day trekking, the Km 104 hike is a great one-day sample of the Inca Trail. For this hike, you’ll take the train stop called “Km 104”, then proceed on foot to Machu Picchu. This 10 km uphill walk usually takes hikers between five and eight hours to complete.

Highlights of the hike are a visit to the steeply terraced ruins of Winay Wayna, and arrival to the Sun Gate, where you’ll see the ruins of Machu Picchu cresting below you. After Winay Wayna, the trail merges with the last 3km of the classic four-day Inca Trail, so you will need to secure Inca Trail permits for this hike. Plan early — Inca Trail permits tend to sell out months in advance! Beginning 2016, permits for this trail are scheduled to become separate from the Inca Trail, making permits easier to come by.

Difficult: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

For diehard hiking enthusiasts, a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu is the ultimate way to reach the famous ruins site. The classic Inca Trail involves four days of trekking and three nights of tent camping, supported by a team of guides and porters. Not for the faint of heart, this trail covers three high-mountain passes reaching altitudes of nearly 14,000 feet.

As permits sell out far in advance, a number of worthy alternative trekking routes have been developed. Although they may not lead directly to Machu Picchu’s doorstep as only the Inca Trail does, the treks are satisfying and likely to be less crowded. Operators organize alternates like the Salkantay and Lares trek with tent camping, and there are also lodge-to-lodge trekking options.

Machu Picchu for Older Travellers

While it’s true that Machu Picchu isn’t the easiest destination in the world for senior travellers, plenty of visitors with as many as 80 years on the planet successfully tour this ancient Inca site each year. Even well into retirement, lifelong travellers are making their Machu Picchu dream trip happen.

As Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, now over 70 years old, said: “I don’t think I shall ever stop traveling. It keeps me up to the mark both mentally and physically and the interaction with the rest of the world and the people I meet makes me feel that there is much more that unites us all, than divides us.”

Lifestyle writer Suzanne Gerber describes her visit to Machu Picchu as a 60-something. “Four decades I had dreamed of this day. Eleven-year-old me, 32-year-old me, 45-year-old me, as well as my present self stood together on the citadel and surveyed the magnificence of this ghostly place. It was more beautiful, more evocative, more humbling than I could have imagined. For maybe the third time in my life, I was speechless.”

Although older travelers need not fear visiting Machu Picchu, there are some considerations should be kept in mind to ensure that you have the best experience possible.

Keep in mind

Avoiding altitude sickness
It’s important to realize that altitude sickness can affect anyone, no matter what their age or health. Cusco, the Inca empire’s capital city, is located at 11,152 feet above sea level, and you will have to pass through this city to get to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is actually lower than Cusco but still 7,292 feet high, so you can get sick even if you go straight there. Typical symptoms include headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and nausea.

Most importantly, take your time and don’t try to do this trip in just a couple of days. Before spending a night in Cusco, either go straight to Machu Picchu or stop off in the Sacred Valley and spend a night or two there on your way. At 9,524 feet and with an inviting climate, the Sacred Valley’s Urubamba is a great place to acclimate and catch your breath. Also, help yourself to plenty of the local coca tea, served everywhere. Eat small, light meals, and take the first day easy.

Medical Issues
While older travelers are taking advantage of their relatively good health in order to travel, those who have already been affected by lung or heart disease should be especially careful.

Travelers aged 60+ should get a doctor’s approval before visiting the Andes region. Also, be sure that your travel agency is aware of any health conditions so that your guide can be on the lookout.

Inca Trail Peru Parth

Cobbled path near Ollantaytambo

Mobility and Accessibility
This is one area where even Machu Picchu (in addition to the greater Cusco region falls) a bit short of the mark. In most cases, the areas within the site are only accessible by ancient stone steps, some of which are quite steep and uneven. Guardrails, by and large, do not exist.

Build in plenty of time into your schedule so that you never have the feeling that you need to rush. Crowds are thinner in the mornings and afternoons. Consider spending two days at the site so you aren’t trying to do it all in one day. Bring walking sticks, making sure that they are rubber tipped.

It’s particularly wise for seniors to purchase travel insurance before making their trip. Illness or accidents can happen to anyone, but having to worry about the financial impact of them will further mar your vacation. Also, be sure that your travel agency has any necessary emergency contact information.

How Difficult Is The Inca Trail Trek?

Maureen Santucci

Maureen is based in the ancient Peruvian capital of Cusco, where she works as a travel advisor and journalist covering Peru for Fodors Travel Guides and a variety of other publications.

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