Trekking in Peru


The Inca Trail Trek: An Expert Guide

The world famous Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu

Heather Jasper Maureen Santucci
By Heather Jasper & Maureen Santucci

The classic Inca Trail, one of the world's most iconic treks, is so famously popular because its final destination is the most spectacular of all: Machu Picchu.

Only on this classic route can you actually arrive at the famous ruins on foot. For any of the so-called alternative treks, the route will finish at a different point, and you’ll arrive in Machu Picchu via train to Aguas Calientes.

Here's our essential guide to planning a trek on the legendary Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail trek

Difficulty: Difficult

Duration: Four days

Max elevation: 4,215 metres (13,828 ft)

Accommodation: Camping

Start/end point: KM82 to Machu Picchu

Inca trail trek

Onwards and upwards: hiking the Inca Trail

The classic Inca Trail trek

The Inca Trail is easily the most famous of all the Peru treks. Since it first opened, it’s been included in every roundup of the world’s best trekking routes, and for good reason. There’s something profoundly magical about making this pilgrimage, as the Inca once did from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

What you'll see

Although you’ll certainly see your share of stunning landscapes as you head from the mountains to the high jungle, this trek is particularly known for its stop-offs at numerous Inca sites along the way. While you’ll be sharing the path with a great number of other tourists, porters, cooks, and guides, you can still snatch some private moments to take in the scenery, not to mention the history, of the trail.

Meet your porters

Some hikers may be disconcerted to see local porters doing all the heavy lifting. Indeed, porter welfare on the Inca Trail has a thorny past, and there is still room for improvement. Many porters come from rural areas, supplementing agricultural income with tourism work. Here are a few tips for good porter treatment:

  • Book responsibly with an outfitter that respects the weight-carrying limit and pays over the minimum required wage.

  • Get to know them. Despite language barriers, you can share photos and coca leaves, and ask your guide to help communicate.

  • Say thanks. Extend a message of gratitude directly to the porters, and be sure to bring cash for a tip at the end.

How long is the Inca Trail?

It takes four days to reach Machu Picchu, covering a distance of around 43 kilometres (26 miles). The first day starts out fairly gradually. The second morning is the hike’s toughest, as you climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which peaks at an altitude of 4,215m (13,828 ft).

The third day is relatively short and mostly downhill. On the fourth morning, departing from the Wiñay Wayna campground, you’ll hike two hours in the early morning to reach Machu Picchu.

How difficult is the Inca Trail?

The hike is considered moderately challenging, primarily due to its altitude and the mountain passes on the second day. Even the fittest hikers struggle with this route if they are not properly acclimatised. It’s good to find out how your body responds to the altitude before departure and to spend several days acclimatising in Cusco or another high altitude city before the trek begins.

Much of the trail is along stone paths which can be slippery during the rainy season. The dry season from April through September is the most popular for trekking. However, Machu Picchu is the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, where it rains all year. The closer you get to Machu Picchu on the third day, the more likely you are to encounter light rain showers at any time of year.


There are no lodges available on this trek, so you will be camping for three nights. Camping is in designated camping areas with minimal facilities (think squat toilets and cold showers). The quality of food and camping equipment will depend on your outfitter–at the highest end, a “glamping” option provides spacious tents with cots, pop-up toilets, and even a pop-up hot shower.

How to book Inca Trail permits

The trek must be booked through a travel agency that is licensed for the Inca Trail. Before you book, be sure to ask if you are booking through an associate agency or an Inca Trail operator. If you book directly with an operator, they will be more likely to answer all your questions about the services they provide and the guide who will accompany you.

Just 500 people per day are allowed on the trail, including support staff such as cooks, porters, and guides. Therefore, the actual number of permits available for tourists is limited to around 200.

The Inca Trail trail sells out several months ahead of time, so it’s important to book well in advance–especially if you’ve got limited flexibility in your schedule or want to travel over the peak months of July or August. Trek operators will require a deposit to buy non-refundable permits from the government. This is deducted from your final payment. Permits are associated with your passport number and cannot be transferred. If you expect to get a new passport after booking but before travel, notify the agency when you book.

Note that the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance and cleaning during the entire month of February. If you’re travelling over this period you’ll need to consider one of the many excellent alternatives.

The typical package includes a return to Cusco on the fourth day. If you want to spend a night in Aguas Calientes, you should let the agency know this at the time of booking so they can buy the proper return train tickets.

Support staff

You will be supported on your trek by a licensed guide, porters to carry the equipment, a cook, and at least one assistant cook. You may also hire a personal porter to carry your belongings so that you only need a daypack for essentials such as water. Porters must be hired at the same time as you book your permits. Some agencies include a personal porter in the package price.

Need to know

After many years of substandard porter welfare, porter loads are now strictly regulated for their safety. You can typically hire either “half” a porter to carry 7kg (15.4 lb) or a “full” porter to carry 14kg (30.8 lb), which is the maximum weight allowed by law. Included in this weight will be your sleeping bag.

Most operators do not include a sleeping bag in the price, although they can be rented.

Only rubber tipped hiking poles are allowed on the trail to prevent excessive damage to the ancient stonework. There are always vendors at the KM82 trailhead selling last minute items like rubber hiking pole tips and plastic ponchos.

You’ll want to bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of camping.

Day by day route

Day one

Distance: 12 km (7.5mi)

Start: KM 82

Finish: Huayllabamba

Maximum elevation: 2,950 m (9,679ft)

The first day of the Inca Trail trek is a relatively easy hike that starts at KM 82, the official starting point of the trek, and ends in the small village of Huayllabamba at 2,950 m. The two Inca ruins you’ll visit are Piscacucho and Patallacta. This section of the trail has a few small family farms and you will see horses and llamas on the trail. Some families in Huayllabamba also have small trout ponds and most trail chefs serve fresh trout for dinner the first night.

Day two

Distance: 11 km (6.8mi)

Start: Huayllabamba

End: Pacaymayo

Maximum elevation: 4,215 metres (13,828 ft)

The second day of the Inca Trail trek is the most challenging of the four days. The trail climbs steeply to the highest point of the trek, the Dead Woman's Pass at 4,215m. The name refers to the skyline, which looks like a woman laying down and it’s also simply called the first pass. The trail is steep and strenuous, but the views from the top are well worth the effort. After reaching the pass, hikers will descend to the Pacaymayo campsite at 3,350m (10,990ft). This is the coldest night because of the altitude.

Pacaymayo is the first campsite, but there is another called Runkurakay that is before the second pass, also called Runkurakay at 3,850m (12,631ft). The park administration assigns campgrounds based on group size and order of booking. If you book early, you are more likely to get one of these two campgrounds. Otherwise, you may have to cross the second pass and camp at Sayacmarca or Chaquicocha.

Day three

Distance: 16 km (10mi)

Start: Pacaymayo

End: Wiñay Wayna

Maximum elevation: 2,700 m (8,858ft)

The third day of the Inca Trail trek is a long but relatively easy hike because it’s mostly downhill. The trail passes through a series of Inca ruins, including the impressive sites of Runkurakay, Sayacmarca and Phuyupatamarca. The trail also passes through the cloud forest, where hikers will see a wide variety of plant and animal life. The trail in the cloud forest can be slippery and hiking poles are advised. The trail ends at the Wiñay Wayna campsite, which is located near a beautiful Inca ruin of the same name.

Day four

Distance: 6 km (3.7mi)

Start: Wiñay Wayna

End: Machu Picchu

Maximum elevation: 2,400 m (7,874ft)

The final day of the Inca Trail trek is the shortest but most exhilarating. The trail passes through the Intipunku, or Sun Gate, which offers the first breathtaking views of Machu Picchu. This is a very early morning and many groups start hiking at 5am to get to the Sun Gate for sunrise at 6am. The trail then descends to the ancient citadel, where you will have the opportunity to explore the ruins and learn about the history of the Incas. After visiting Machu Picchu, you will take a bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes to have lunch and catch a train back to Cusco. Most agencies include a train to Ollantaytambo and shuttle from Ollantaytambo to Cusco.

About the authors

The Inca Trail Trek: An Expert Guide

Heather Jasper

Based in Cusco, Peru, Heather is an expert on travel to Peru and South America. Heather writes on tourism, trekking, and social issues in Peru for publications including BBC Travel, Fodor’s Travel, Matador Network, Thrifty Nomads, World Nomads, Frommer's, Flashpack, and more. Heather co-founded the Covid Relief Project with Henry Quintano Loaiza to assist vulnerable families in the Cusco region.

The Inca Trail Trek: An Expert Guide

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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