Machu Picchu is dramatically perched on a mountain top that towers above the Urabamba River. It commands majestic views of the surrounding area, taking your breath away as you marvel at the beauty of nature and survey the magnificence of the lost city of the Incas.
Nowadays adventurous souls retrace Incan steps on the world renowned inca trail on their way to the magical Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is the original paved route through the Peruvian Andes used by Incas as they trekked to the citadel of Machu Picchu, the most amazing creation of the Inca Empire. Remarkable workmanship has allowed the paved trail to endure the passing of centuries.
Inca Trail Overview – Classic
Rated by many as the most amazing trek in the world, this four day trail passes through several different ecosystems, and takes in numerous archeological sites and ancient ruins, each a breathtaking discovery in its own right.
Duration: 4 days
Distance covered: 25 miles
Maximum Elevation: 4200 metres (Dead womans pass)
Machu Picchu Elevation: 2430 metres
Maximum Visitors: 500 entrants to the trail per day (including porters)
Trail Closures: Closed in February for maintenance
Day 1: ‘Kilometre 82′ to Huayllabamba
Show your pass at the checkpoint and cross a narrow rope-bridge to the start of the Inca Trail. From here it’s 13 km / approx 7 hours to the first campsite in Huayllabamba.
Early on in the day you’ll view the terraces of Llactapacta from a distance. An ancient town and a tantalising glimpse of the wonders to come.
Day 2 : Huayllabamba to Pacomayo
A tough day, covering 16km and two high passes including the highest point of the trail, Warmi Wañusca, also known as ‘Dead womans pass’. At 4200m above sea level your muscles will be burning and you’ll be out of breath, but rest assured you’ll have conquered the most challenging part of the trail.
During the day you will stop off at ruins at Runkurakay, an ancient couriers post and Sayacmarca, an ancient ruin reachable only by a narrow staircase.
Day 3 : Pacomayo to Wiñaywayna
Eleven kilometres along mostly flat and descending terrain. During the day you will visit ruins at Phuyupatamarca; Translated as village above the clouds, you can only guess at the breathtaking panoramas until you see them with your own eyes; Intipata – an agricultural settlement and Wiñaywayna, the final camping spot and one of the highlights of the trail.
Wiñaywayna is the Quechua name inspired by the vibrant orchids found in the area. Be sure to spend a few hours visiting the temple, the waterfalls and negotiating the impressive terracing. Historians speculate that this area was home to the Inca Royalty.
Day 4 : Wiñaywayna to Machu Picchu
Rise early and set off by 5.30am to arrive at the Inti Punku / Sun Gate as the sun rises over Machu Picchu. You will be entranced as you watch the suns rays break over the mountains and slowly spread across the city. Another magical moment you will cherish every time you think of Peru.
Machu Picchu itself lies half an hour from the sun gate. Arriving from the Inca Trail gives you time to enjoy the spectacular citadel of Machu Picchu and feel like you’re the only one there. A few hours later the solemnity will dissipate as the day tours arrive on the road from Aguas Calientes.
How Difficult Is The Inca Trail Trek
Well, it’s not a walk in the park… four days trekking of between 3 and 7 hours per day at altitudes between 2200m and 4200m is enough to tire anyone out. But, if you are in good health and reasonably fit you will be able to complete the trail.
To give you an idea, when I did the trail there was a contingent of Scots doing the trek for charity. They ranged in age from fit twenty five year olds to sprightly grandmothers with determination and good preparation on their side.
Prepare At Home: Fitness And Exercise Plan
How much you should prepare depends upon your age and general fitness. Good preparation will be the difference between you stopping at every turn to gasp for oxygen, or stopping to admire another remarkable view.
I would recommend drawing up a routine of cardiovascular exercise that will leave you feeling strong and confident in your ability. Mix it up so you don’t get bored and make sure you stick to your plan.
Prepare In Peru: Acclimatise To The Andean Altitude
Another factor that will make a massive difference to how arduous you find the trek is acclimatisation to the high altitudes. The highest point of the inca trail is at 4200m, this is enough to induce altitude sickness if you’ve arrived from sea level.
You should spend a minimum of three days at altitude prior to starting the trek.
Most people arrive in the town of Cuzco a few days before their trek is booked to start. Cuzco is at an altitude of 3310m and with it’s hilly steep streets is a good place to let your body adjust. Take it easy on your first day and drink lots of fluids (not just beer).
If you want longer to acclimatise consider adding Arequipa (2380m) or Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca (3811m) to your itinerary. Both offer great experiences and beautiful scenery.
Do You Want To Guarantee Your Place, Before Leaving Home?
If you don’t speak Spanish or you’re a first time visitor to South America you may be nervous about flying half way around the world and having to figure everything out.
You would be well advised to organise things through a reputable tour operator well in advance. They can reserve your space on the trail and arrange porters, camping gear and supplies for the pre-booked date of your trip. All you need to do is turn up ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
Booking Your Place On The Inca Trail
Book with your chosen tour operator well in advance to be sure of getting your place on the Inca Trail. Strict visitor limits mean only 500 people a day are permitted to enter the park. Porters and guides are included in this, which leaves space for about 200 trekkers strung out between the camps.
If you’re undecided about when to go get in touch with an operator to see what potential dates are available. Permits have been known to sell out 6 months in advance so availability could be the deciding factor on when you go.
Independent Travellers With Time To Spare
If you’re travelling independently and have time to burn you could consider tracking down some spare permits for the inca trail upon arrival in Cusco. I would only consider this outside of peak season and even then you may have to wait several weeks for a free spot.
When people cancel their trip the permits are sometimes used for other people. An Irish traveller I met used a fake ID that identified him as a French art student called Francine to corroborate the name on a permit!
Group Tours, The Good, The Bad & Beautiful
A group tour is a great opportunity to meet like minded people. Spending four days hiking through cloud forests isn’t everyones idea of fun. But it is yours! so take advantage of meeting new friends with a similar mindset
Every time I’ve been on group tours in adventurous situations I’ve always met great individuals with fascinating stories to tell. Exchanging stories and making new friends from across the world is half the fun.
If you have limited time an organised tour is the perfect way to tap into local knowledge and ensure that everything goes smoothly.
An alternative approach is to hire your own guide and carry your own gear, but since most guides are contracted to tour companies this option is difficult to arrange.
Questions To Ask Your Tour Operator
Before coughing up your hard earned cash find out some specifics:
- Establish the maximum group size.
- Check whether the trek departure is guaranteed, if there is a minimum number required you run the risk of your tour being cancelled at short notice.
- Does the guide speak English?
- What is the food like?
- What train service (if at all) is included?
Armed with answers to these questions you should have confidence to go ahead and reserve your trip.
Inca Trail Customs & Regulations
Be polite; Peruvians are a very courteous people and good manners will be appreciated.
Stick to footpath; erosion is an ongoing concern so be aware of any signposting and stay on the obvious routes.
Use biodegradeable soaps and shampoos when on the trail though not directly in water as this prevents decomposition.
Heed shouts of ‘Portero’ by moving to the side of the trail. You are about to witness a fully laden porter moving at high speed.
Respect your surroundings. Cuzco, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail are all national treasures and revered by the entire country. A recent incident where some famous stonework was vandalised resulted in a jail sentence and a diplomatic incident between Peru and the country of the offending party.
No entry without permit Permit costs $50 or $25 with ISIC card and should be arranged as part of your tour.
Do not climb walls of any ancient monuments or buildings.
Do not light a camp fire or cook over an open flame.
Do not gather plants, flowers, insects or animals along the route.
Customs in Cuzco
Ask when taking photos of people. Put yourself in their shoes and don’t just treat them as part of the landscape. Some locals dress in traditional clothing to make money from having their photo taken. In this case agree a price before taking the photo.
Opt for glass bottles over plastic in towns because these are re-used. If you buy a soft drink some places expect you to finish your drink before leaving so that it can be re-used. So don’t be shocked if you start walking out and are called back.
Enjoy haggling but don’t be over zealous. Haggling is part of the fun of buying things but don’t fall into the trap of assuming everyone is out to rip you off. That extra final dollar you’re forcing off the price could be the difference between the breadwinner going home to feed his family or stomachs staying empty.
Porters Redefine The Word Endurance!
Your porters on the trek are direct descendants of the Incas, so bear in mind that their ancestors constructed the marvels that have drawn you to Peru.
Porters on the Inca Trail are a resilient bunch, day after day they haul back-breaking loads up arduous inclines and down perilous routes. Listen out for shouts of “Portero” on the trail, you will be amazed as a sprightly 40 year old practically sprints past weighed down with supplies and gear.
Show that you appreciate them and have a chat, you may be rewarded with a handful of coca leaves, or perhaps share the ones you bought in Cuzco, you did buy some didn’t you?
Be bold and make the first move because they may be shy. Who knows they may end up regaling you with local legends or singing songs that have been passed down the ages.
How Much Should You Tip Porters?
Each porter should be tipped about 30 soles. As a group club together and then split the money between the porters. Bring lots of smallish notes so that you can give the tips directly to each porter. This ensures that it’s split fairly.
If the chef’s food and your guide are disappointing then reduce your tip accordingly. But don’t let it affect the tip your give the porters, regardless of other aspects of the trek they will have laboured long and hard carrying all the gear, making and breaking camp.
Boost Your Stamina With The Coca Leaf
Almost all of the porters carry a pouch brimming with coca leaves which they chew throughout the day. It is revered by all Andean people for it’s medicinal properties. It improves stamina, relieve aches and pains, suppresses hunger and fights the symptoms of altitude sickness.
I can personally vouch for it’s effectiveness having had a thumping altitude induced headache quickly cured by a cup of coca leaf tea.
So buy some leaves, chew away and imagine yourself in the shoes of an Incan adventurer making the trek centuries ago. In case you’re wondering, although it’s the source of cocaine the leaves are entirely legal and are not dangerous or addictive like cocaine.
Inca trail Alternative treks
If the classic Inca Trail is fully booked and you’re looking for an alternative there are two well established options, called the Lares trek and the Salkantay trek. These have different starting points but both have Machu Picchu as their final destination.
Salkantay Inca Trail
The 5 day Salkantay trek is known as the alternative inca trail. It has become popular in the last few years as prices have risen and regulations have restricted spaces on the classic trek. It is particularly popular with Latin American visitors.
Trek permits aren’t required for the Salkantay trek and you should be able to find space with tours/guide parties at short notice. Though the companies with better reputations will fill up further in advance.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can do the trek without the services of a guide or tour company. Though obviously make sure you have reliable maps and information prior to leaving Cusco.
Inca Trail Lares
The Lares trek is not actually one route rather a series of pathways in a beautiful valley that runs parallel to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. On this trek you can gain a real insight into the lives of Andean farmers and pick up beautiful hand made textiles from locals.
The final part of the route involves taking the train from Ollantaytanbo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
This is a less strenuous route and starts at kilometre 104 along the railroad from Cusco. The trail climbs up to Wiñay Wayna where you join the final stages of the Classic 4 day hike. From Wiñay Wayna the trek then descends to Machu Picchu. This is a good option for visitors with limited time or who are not fit enough to complete the 4 day version.
The trek has the advantage of allowing you to visit the beautiful ruins at Winay Wayna and also to experience at least part of the Inca trail. Unlike the 4 day trek you do not need to be acclimatised to undertake the 2 day trek since the trail is at a lower altitude.
Essential Equipment You Should Take On The Trail
Check out this list of essentials, or pick what you need from the items below:
- Good sleeping bag. Stay nice and toasty with this light and compact sleeping bag.
- Zip off trousers, a godsend when things heat up.
- Torch and Batteries. This pocket sized LED torch puts Maglite to shame. Bright, lightweight and durable.
- Lightweight fleece, wear this over a base layer and under an outer layer when things get chilly.
- Outer shell, a simple jacket from Berghaus that will keep you dry and protect you from the wind.
- Water bottle, who knew they could look this funky…
- Water purification tablets,very important.
- Kendal Mint Cake, this is where all the great explorers get their energy, fancy name for a minty sugar bar!
- Sun cream. This Riemans is great, apply once and forget about it. 100mls can get through customs no questions asked.
- Good hiking shoes, I’ve got a pair of Berghaus boots, they look good and my feet have never got wet. Enough said.
- Rucksack cover, simple design keeps your bag dry when it starts pouring.
- Mosi-Guard insect repellent.
- Hat, to keep heatstroke at bay.
- 2 pairs of clothes ( packed together in a plastic bag).
- A nice llama wool hat for the cold nights, pick this up cheaply in Cuzco.
This pretty much covers everything you need to know about the Inca Trail. Anything else you should be able to sort out upon arrival. Now stop planning and get trekking!