Every year, countless travelers dream of a special Peru vacation: hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Because space is limited on this very popular trek, securing a spot requires months of advance planning. Wait too long and you’re out of luck, especially in the high season (May to September).
*At the time of this writing, the month of May is almost entirely sold out, and the same will soon happen with June, July, and August. (Keep reading for more information about Inca Trail availability.)
The Inca Trail trek is attractive not just as a physical challenge, but also because of the historical significance of the trail. And of course, there is also the big prize at the end, getting to Machu Picchu on foot via the Sun Gate, like the Incas did in centuries past.
The Andes provide the historic and natural setting for the trek. Cusco was the Inca’s imperial city, the heart of the empire from which political and religious power emanated. Sitting at an altitude of 11,150 feet (3,400 m), Cusco is where travelers arriving for the Inca Trail are advised to spend a minimum of 2 to 3 days in order to acclimate.
It is true that much of the Inca Trail is a lower elevation, but there are two high passes that trekkers must surmount. The first is at Warmiwañusca, meaning Dead Woman’s Pass and situated at a breathtaking 4,200 meters above sea level. There is a second pass at Runkurakay that reaches 4,000 meters. By the end of the trek, trekkers will have gained and lost a vertical mile of elevation. Some sections of the trail are steeper than others, and the steepest sections, at the passes for example, are comprised of a seemingly endless series of stone steps carved from the granite bedrock.
The diverse landscapes encountered along the trek are simply incredible. Starting in the verdant Sacred Valley at an altitude of 2,750 m or 9000 feet, the trail ascends upward past the tree line to the sparsely vegetated highlands. On the third day, the trail descends again into the beginnings of the Andean cloud forest. By the trail’s end at Machu Picchu, trekkers will have entered the microclimate is known as ceja de la selva (brow of the jungle), the meeting point of the Andes and the Amazon. Andean orchids in splendid reds, purples, and yellows add color to the trail, and the Andean spectacled bear is known to make rare appearances.
As soon as you’ve narrowed down your Peru vacation dates, the most important thing is to contact a tour operator to book your Inca Trail permits. This applies especially to the high season months of June, July, and August, when permits for certain dates can sell out 5 or 6 months in advance.
Aside from the month of February when the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance (Machu Picchu remains open and can be visited by train), there are 500 permits available to start the trek on every day of the year. (Note that the total number of permits includes both trekkers and support staff including guides, porters, and cooks. The breakdown is approximately 200 trekkers and 300 staff.) In accordance with Inca Trail regulations, only licensed tour operators may purchase Inca Trail permits. Once bought, permits are not transferrable or refundable, so you must be certain of your dates before you book
Contact a tour operator or travel agency to inquire about availability. You can also go to the official Ministry of Culture website:http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/. Click on the tab “Consultas,” select a “Camino Inka” from the Centro Arqueologico drop down menu, and then the year (“Año”) and month (“Mes”). You’ll see up to the minute information about how many permits are available on specific dates.