Trekking In Peru

The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail
By Maureen Santucci

For the adventure-minded, there’s nothing quite like traversing a long trail over several days on foot, arriving to a new place by muscle power just like the journeymen of old.

Peru’s treks satisfy this human instinct to travel by foot for days, to earn a destination after a hearty physical challenge.

The classic Inca Trail 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 Lost City of the Incas on foot at the end of the journey. For any of the alternative treks, the route will finish at a different point, and you’ll arrive in Machu Picchu via train to Aguas Calientes.

Yet, the advantages of choosing an alternative to the Inca Trail are many. The Inca Trail’s fame gives it a populated feel, even with the strict implementation of a permit system that caps traffic at 500 people per day and sells out months in advance. If you’re willing to give up the Machu-Picchu-on-foot finale, then you can bypass the permit system. You can delve deeper into traditional Andean villages and more extreme mountain wilderness areas. And with enough budget, you can even skip the tent-camping altogether and pamper yourself in the surprisingly refined mountain lodges to be found en route.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu Peru

A llama grazing at Machu Picchu

The classic Inca Trail trek

The Inca Trail is easily the most famous of all the Machu Picchu 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.

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 at least the minimum required wage.
  • Get to know them. Despite language barriers, you can share photos and cocoa 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.
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.

How long is the Inca Trail?

It takes four days to reach Machu Picchu, covering a distance of around 28 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 4,200m (13,800 ft). On the fourth morning, depending on where you camped on the third night, you’ll have a hike of between two and five hours to reach Machu Picchu, as there are two possible campsites allocated on a first come, first served basis when the permits are purchased. The earlier you book, the more likely you are to get the preferred final campsite which, in addition to being closer to Machu Picchu, has showers and a bar/restaurant.

How difficult is the Inca Trail?

The hike is considered moderately challenging, primarily due to its altitude. Even the fittest hikers struggle with this route if they are sensitive to high elevations. It’s good to find out how your body responds to the altitude before departure and to spend several days acclimatising in Cusco or the Sacred Valley before the trek begins.

Much of the trail is along stone paths which can be slippery during the rainy season. That being said, it’s probably the best of the multi-day treks during that time of year, as the other trails can be too muddy or you may even have snow at the highest points.

Camping on the Inca Trail

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 Inca Trail must be booked through a travel agency, and permits must be purchased ahead of time.
  • 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.

  • Most operators will require a non-refundable deposit to secure your booking and permits. This is usually deducted from your final payment.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Permits are associated with your passport number and cannot be transferred.
  • The typical package includes a return to Cusco on the 4th day. If you want to spend a night in Aguas Calientes, you should let the agency know this at the time of booking.
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 booked at the same time as you book your permits.

Key considerations
  • 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). Included in this weight will be your sleeping bag.
  • Most operators do not include a sleeping bag, although they can be rented.
  • Only rubber tipped hiking poles are allowed on the trail to prevent excessive damage and erosion to the ancient stonework.
  • You’ll want to bring some extra cash with you to tip the support staff on your last night of camping.
The Inca Trail

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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