From Salkantay to Machu Picchu
The iconic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is the most sought out hike in South America. This centuries-old trail is rooted in Inca heritage and gives hikers the chance to walk in the footsteps of Inca nobles and through a landscape of that crosses ravines, glacial-fed waterways, and ancient archaeological ruins. The grand finale is reaching the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu, a World Heritage Site, which surpasses all imagination.
At a Glance
What is now called the Inca Trail (also known as Camino Inca or Camino Inka) is actually a small section of a greater network of trails that once connected the great Inca Empire. These trails spanned out from Cusco, the Inca capital, to the far corners of their vast empire into present-day Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This complex trail system enabled swift and reliable travel, communication, and easy transportation of food, and was also used by Inca soldiers.
A modern-day journey on the Inca Trail takes travelers along the most special section of the network, believed to have once reserved for highest-ranking members of the Inca aristocracy, through the Sun Gate and into Machu Picchu. Read Mark Adam's article on why Peru's Inca Trail is one of the world's greatest hikes.
The trail is accompanied by stunning vistas, unique flora and fauna, and several ancient Inca architectural remains. Walking throught the Sun Gate into Machu Picchu is your final reward.
Dead Woman’s Pass: Climb out of the Sacred Valley towards Warmiwanusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass, on the second day of the classic Inca Trail 4-day. This highest point of the trek at 4,215 m (3,828 ft) with stunning views at the summit.
Natural Diversity: The Inca Trail passes through several landscapes, from high-altitude Andean peaks to lush cloud-forest and subtropical jungle. Unique ecosystems prosper in each of these environments. Spot various Andean hummingbirds, among hundred of species of orchids, and the Andean spectacled bear is known to make rare appearances!
There are many impressive archaeological sites, including Inca ruins, stone steps, and tunnels, along the trail en route to Machu Picchu. Among the highlights;
- Runkurakay are ancient Inca lodges of unique circular structures and precise stone masonry have withstood the feats of time.
- Situated at the confluence of the rivers Kusichaca and Willkanuta, the highland terraces of Patallacta were likely used for crop production for Tambos, or resting places for travelers, that accommodated people on pilgrimage to Machu Picchu during Incan times. It’s only accessible from a single narrow stone staircase.
The challenging, yet incredibly rewarding multi-day trek builds up to the Machu Picchu arrival on the last day. Walk through Inti Punku, or the Sun Gate, into the lost city of the Incas at sunrise.
The Inca Trail cross four ecozones with distinct microclimates. The trail begins at the Quechua zone (2300-3500 m; 7,546-11,483 ft) whose microclimate is dry and temperate, which is ideal for the agriculture.
The next ecozone is Suni or Jalca, located at 3500-4000 m; 11,483 -13,123 ft above sea level. Some agriculture is still possible at this altitude. Above the Suni/Jalca zone is the Puna (4000 - 4800 m; 13,000 - 15, 750 ft). The Puna comprises mostly grassland since the weather is cold and frosty. The Ichu (grass) is consumer by grazing Andean camelids.
The descent from the Puno into the Suni zone traverses Fluvial Yungas (transitional zones between Andean highlands and eastern slope forests at 1000 - 2300 m (7,500 -3,300 ft), which are characterized by a neotropic climate: rainy, humid and warm. The word “yunga” means warm valley in Quechua.
The weather in the Andes and the Sacred Valley is characterized by warm sunny days and very cold nights. Cloudy conditions can cause daytime temperatures to drop and it’s best to dress in layers that you can easily add or remove as necessary.
The wet season runs from November to March. Drizzle is likely, the nights are warmer, and the trail can get muddy. However, the rainy season is the perfect time to appreciate breathtaking views of mist-covered mountains and enjoy the region’s diverse flora in full bloom.
The dry season between June and August sees much less cloud cover and the panoramic views of surrounding snow- and glacier-capped mountains are simply spectacular. Vegetation is much less abundant but the trail is drier and easier to hike. During this season, nights are significantly colder and dressing in multiple layers is essential.
Acclimatize: Altitude sickness is unpredictable. We recommend spending 2-3 days in Cusco before your trek begins to give your body plenty of time to adjust.
Tipping: Tipping is at your discretion, but always highly recommended and a great way to show your appreciation to your guide, cooks, and camp team. Your trekking group should agree and gather a tip for the guide. A suggested $5-9 per day, per camp assistant is a good rule of thumb.
What to do in Machu Picchu: The magic of Machu Picchu is most enjoyable at a leisurely pace. After entering the Sun Gate on the last day of the Inca Trail, you can take a tour. Then spend the night in Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu for a second day to really soak in the local beauty. Hiking Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain are great add-ons for your second day exploring Machu Picchu. Both hikes provide stunning views over Machu Picchu and down into the valley below. Only a certain number of people can hike these trails each day and tickets should be bought far in advance along with your Machu Picchu entrance ticket.
Inca Trail Rules & Regulations
At a glance:
- Only 500 daily Inca Trail permits
- Booking Inca Trail tickets in advance is a must
- Inca Trail is closed for the month of February
- Pack animals are not allowed, so porters carry all the equipment
To protect this historic trail, only 500 people are permitted to hike on it each day. This total includes hikers on the 2-day, 4-day, 5-day, and 6-day routes as well as the trekking guides, porters and cooks. Available permits for the Inca Trail sell out quickly, sometimes 5 months in advance for dates during the dry season (May-September). Booking far in advance is a must.
Permits to hike the Inca Trail are available March through January. The Peruvian government closes the trail in February for annual maintenance, conservation and clean-up.
Access to the Inca Trail is strictly controlled and your trek must be organized through a tour operator. It is not possible to hike the trail independently. Only specific licensed companies are permitted to lead groups on the Inca Trail.
Pack animals, including mules, horses, and llamas are banned from the trail. Porters are instead responsible for carrying the tents, cooking supplies, food and additional camping equipment along the trail. Many trekkers also choose to hire a porter to carry their personal backpacks.
For private porters hired, we know that they can either carry 8 or 15 kg. One thing to keep in mind is that a weight of 2.5 kg has to be taken out from this total weight as it’s meant for the weight of both pad and sleeping bag.
Classic Inca Trail
Classic 4-day Inca Trail Inside
The Classic Inca Trail 4-day is a 45 km (28 mi) journey that begins in the Sacred Valley and meanders stone roads and up to terrific Andean heights to the Sun Gate into Machu Picchu. The 4-day Inca Trail route is ranked moderate and can be completed by anyone in decent physical condition. Because it’s a high-altitude trek, we recommend arriving in Cusco a few days earlier to acclimate before doing the trek.
Day 1: Cusco - Ollantaytambo - Wayllabamba
From your hotel in Cusco, you’ll be driven to the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. Meet your trek team and then continue by bus to Piscacucho located at Km 82 of the railway where a checkpoint marks the beginning of the trail. Officials will cross-check passports against trail permits and then allow you and your group to cross a bridge that spans the Urubamba River. Everything carried by porters needs to be weighed at the control checkpoint. This process usually takes between 30-45 minutes, during which time your guide will provide additional information about the trail.
The trail continues along nearly flat terrain until the town of Miskay. After a quick rest, climb up on steeper terrain to Patallacta, the first of many impressive archaeological sites along the trail. After replenishing your energy over a warm lunch, it’s a 2 hour hike to the first campsite at Wayllabamba. The day culminates with a spectacular view of the Vilnacota Ridge and its paramount peak, Mt. Veronica.
Hike Distance: 12 km (7.5 mi)
Hike Time: 4 to 6 hrs
Maximum Altitude: 3,000 m (9,842 ft)
Day 2: Inca Trail - Wayllabamba to Pacaymayo
Day two of the trek is the most challenging. You’ll make the rigorous ascent to Warmiwañusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass, located at an amazing height of 4,215 m (3,828 ft). The challenging ascent requires focus. Also be observant of the surroundings because impressive wildlife call this mountainous cloud forest home
Right before the pass, a campsite called Llulluchapampa sits on a small plain bordered by two streams of crystal clear water. There is a public bathroom here, and this is also a great resting place before the last stretch over the pass. Soak up the great view at the top after the long steep climb!
Continue to the summit and then descend on an undulating path to your campsite for dinner and well deserved sleep.
Hike Distance: 16 km (10 mi)
Hike Time: 7 to 8 hrs
Maximum Altitude: 4,215 m (13,828 ft)
Day 3: Inca Trail - Pacaymayo to Wiñayhuayna
After breakfast, the hike continues along a path rich with archaeological treasures. Don’t underestimate the steep descent into the valley whose path is laid out by seemingly endless Inca stone stairs. The Runkurakay pass 3,900 m (12,467 ft) constitutes over 1,000 m (~3,300 ft) of descent. Halfway along the trail, you will encounter the ruins of Runkurakay, an Incatambo, or lodge, of semi-circular design with a view of the Valley of Pacaymayo, or “Hidden River” Valley below. Another steep climb up Incan steps leads to the next pass, which offers spectacular views of the mountain ranges of Vilcabamba and Pumasillo.
Along the trail, there will be breathtaking views of the Vilcabamba range and Nevado Pumasillo (Pumasillo peak). You’ll also encounter the ruins of Sayacmarca which resemble a lithic labyrinthine hanging garden. You’ll continue to the Conchamarca archeological complex and then descend the stone staircase leading to the final mountain pass of Phuyupatamarca.
As the day ends, you will head toward the ruins of Wiñay Wayna or "Forever Young," where you will camp for your final night. The ruins consist of Inca agricultural terraces and are believed to have been a sacred place to pay homage to water. The campsite has hot showers and a simple restaurant where you’ll say goodbye to your trekking team. Keep in mind that it is the norm to create a tip-pool for the guide, cooks and porters that have assisted the hike.
Hike Distance: 16 km (10 mi)
Hike Time: 8 to 10 hrs
Maximum Altitude: 3,900 m (12,467 ft)
Day 4: Wiñayhuayna - Machu Picchu
Rise before the sun, eat breakfast and begin the final leg of the trail by 5 a.m. to Machu Picchu. Follow a wide, flat path for about three hours to reach Inti Punku, the Sun Gate entrance to the famous Inca ruins for sunrise. From here, descend to the citadel for a guided tour of Machu Picchu through the 3 zones of this once grand city: the urban, agricultural, and adjacent zones. After the guided tour visitors are free to explore the archeological park on their own.
If your trek left you craving for even more, you have the option of climbing to the peak of Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, and view Machu Picchu from another angle. Tickets for each of these hikes must be purchased in advance.
In the afternoon, you will take a comfortable train back to Cusco. If you would like to spend more time at Machu Picchu, this package can be customized to include an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, allowing for a second visit to the ruins on the following day.
Hike Distance (to Machu Picchu): 5 km (3 mi)
Hike Time: 1-2.5 hrs
Maximum Altitude: 2,650 m (8,694 ft)
Alternative Inca Trail Routes
The classic 4-day trek to Machu Picchu is by far the most popular. But other itineraries are also available to meet different travel preferences.
Inca Trail 2-day is ideal for travelers who have limited time or may not be in the best shape. This less strenuous hike starts along the train tracks from Cusco at km 104. Surrounded by the beauty of the Andes, walk past Chachabamba, an archaeological complex believed to have once been the guard house to Machu Picchu, and past Wiñay Wayna. Enter the Sun Gate for a first encounter with the “Lost City of the Incas.” Spend the night in Aguas Calientes and then wake up on day two for a Machu Picchu Tour.
Longer 5-day and 6-day Inca Trail routes to Machu Picchu are also available for travelers with a bit more time. Ask your travel advisor for more details.
How To Book
How to book your Inca Trail
It is very important to buy tickets for the Inca Trail early. Early planning does not guarantee a spot, but greatly increases securing the dates you want. Daily Inca Trail permits are limited and can be booked up to 6 months in advance!
High season (April-October) - Book at least 2 to 6 months in advance
Low season (November-March) - Book at least 1 to 3 months in advance
To book the Inca Trail you must have a valid passport.
What to Pack
All the camping equipment, daily meals and water will be provided by your trekking team. You can either bring your own sleeping bag, or rent one for an additional fee.
Our essential packing list for the Inca Trail:
Bring your original passport. It’s required to enter Machu Picchu when you enter through the Sun Gate.
Bring a comfortable daypack with snug straps to wear while you hike. Unless you hire a private porter, you're expected to carry both pads and sleeping bags along the trek. Learn more about porter welfare on the Inca Trail.
Carry a reusable water bottle in your daypack.
You’ll pass through many different climates along the trail and dressing in layers is important. Pack lightweight pants, short- and long-sleeve shirts, a warm fleece jackets, underwear, and socks.
Temperatures really drop at altitude when the sun goes down. To stay warm, thermal undergarments, a warm hat, and gloves are recommended.
Comfortable hiking boots or walking shoes are a must. Also pack shower sandals.
Be prepared with a rain jacket and pants or poncho. Rainy conditions aren’t to be expected during the dry season, but it’s better to be prepared.
Pack a hat, strong sunblock, and glasses for protection against the sun.
Headlamp (with extra batteries) or small flashlight to use at night while camping.
Light-weight travel towel to shower with and small travel pillow for your sleeping comfort.
Tissues pack, toilet paper and wet wipes
You may want to bring extra (or diet specific) high energy snacks, such as some cookies, protein bars, chocolates, or nuts.
Some trekkers may prefer to bring walking sticks.
Don’t forget toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.) and any personal medications.
Insect repellant (with Deet) for protection against mosquitos and other blood-sucking critters. Malaria and yellow fever are not a risk in this area.
Bring local Peruvian currency (Soles) in your wallet so that you can tip your trekking team.
Of course, don’t forget your camera, with extra battery packs and memory cards.
Our Inca Trail packages include:
Transportation and tickets
- Transport from your Cusco hotel to the start of the Inca Trail
- Round-trip bus tickets from Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu (20-minute ride each way)
- Entrance ticket to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu (Huayna Picchu and/or Machu Picchu Mountain tickets are Not Included)
- Transfer from Cusco train station (Poroy) back to your Cusco hotel
- Spacious, waterproof igloo tents for high mountain use. Each tent has a 3-person capacity, but it’s shared by only 2 people on the trek.)
- Foam mattresses, tables, and seat for each tent
- Food and drink utensils
- Dinner tent and kitchen tent for the group
- Bathroom tent
- First aid kit and emergency oxygen bottle
- Professional, knowledgeable bilingual guide
- A cook to prepare your meals
- Porters to carry provided equipment and food (Additional porters can be hired to carry your personal belongings)
Professional guides possess an excellent knowledge of the Inca Trail, including the archaeological sites along the way, historical details, and know-how about ancient Andean traditions. Guides are highly qualified in tour group management and in first aid.
- Three hearty daily meals to fuel your trekking adventure. Vegetarian options are also available, upon request.
- Snacks are also provided while hiking between meals.
- Bottled or filtered water to fill your reusable bottle. Hot tea and coffee is also served.
- Hotels in Cusco or Aguas Calientes
- Train ticket from Aguas Calientes to Cusco
- Meals after arrival to Machu Picchu
How difficult is the Inca Trail? Trekkers of all ages complete the trek every day, but we recommend that trekkers have good physical health and a taste for adventure. The level of enjoyment that clients get out of these treks depends on numerous factors, such as the amount of time you have had to properly acclimatize to high altitude before departing, your age, your general fitness level, and your previous trekking experience. Make sure you take some time to acclimatize to the altitude before you start your trek. Most people choose to arrive to Cusco two to three days in advance to prepare their body to the high altitude.
How far in advance should we reserve our space on the Inca Trail? We recommend that you make a reservation for the Inca Trail as far in advance as possible. For trips from November to March, we suggest booking 1 to 3 months in advance. In the high season from May to October tickets should be bought 2 to 6 months in advance. Government restrictions, designed to protect the route, limit the number of trekkers to 500 per day, including guides, porters, and cooks. Therefore, the trail usually gets fully booked far in advance. If there are no slots left for the Inca Trail, there are many alternative Inca trails that follow other Inca roads systems, which can also include an optional visit to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes.
What documentation do we need? You will need to carry with you the documents you used to book your Inca Trail trek, including personal IDs, such as passports and drivers’ licenses.
How will I get drinking water during the Inca Trail? Your drinking water for the trek is collected from local streams as needed and boiled. This water is safe to drink. You can buy mineral water in Cusco and bring it with you (but that will make your pack significantly heavier), or buy mineral water at stops along the Inca Trail. Water purchased along the trail will be more expensive than water in Cusco. Although not necessary, you may bring water purification tablets.
Is there a tent for the bathroom and washing up? There is a toilet tent. Some campsites have public toilets you can use. All campsites also have cold showers for public use; only the last campsite at Wiñaywayna has warm showers that can be used for an additional cost. During the day hikes, you will pass a number of sites where you will find toilet facilities available.
How much luggage can I bring on the Inca Trail? For the Inca Trail you should take only the items you are willing to carry during the hike. Other belongings can be left in storage in your hotel in Cusco. The porters will carry provided equipment, such as the tent, while you are responsible for your sleeping bag, clothing, and other personal items. If desired, you can hire a personal porter to carry your personal belongings. Personal porters on the Inca Trail may carry a maximum of 33 pounds (15 kg), with 11 pounds (5 kg) allotted for their personal items. Specialty luxury services are also available for those who like a slower pace on the trail (inquire to your Travel Advisor). For the train between Cusco, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu, 11 pounds (5 kg) of luggage is permitted with dimensions of 62 inches total of length x height x width (157cm). If your luggage exceeds this allowance, the train company might collect a surcharge.
How many other people will travel on the trial with us? The maximum number of people in a group on the Inca Trail is 16. As you hike along the trail, you are likely to meet other groups of trekkers, depending on your pace. There is one guide and one cook for every 8 people. Each person can have a personal porter. The majority of people on the Inca Trail are support staff, consisting of guides, porters, and cooks.
Is it customary to tip the guides and porters? On the last night of your trek, there is a tipping custom: all the hikers put their tips together and give them to the guide. The guide will then distribute that money between all the Inca Trail personnel. We advise anything from $10 to $40 USD per hiker.
How much does it cost to rent equipment? There are two types of sleeping bags for rent (a feathered or a synthetic type) for the whole trek. You can also hire a personal porter to carry your bag for the whole trip. Your bag cannot weigh more than 33 pounds (15 kg). Rental and porters can be arranged by your travel advisor. Other equipment such as boots, flashlights, and coats can also be rented in Cusco.
Is it possible to walk from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes instead of taking the bus? Yes it is possible. You can follow the same road as the bus. Expect the journey to take about 40 minutes from Machu Picchu down to the town of Aguas Calientes.
What are the restrictions on access to Huayna Picchu? Huayna Picchu is the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu, offering spectacular views of the ruins. At the time of purchase, you will have to decide if you want to hike the Huayna Picchu trail at 7:00 a.m. or 10:00 a.m. Two hundred people are allowed to enter during each time slot, for a total of 400 visitors per day.
Are there any ATMs? There are no ATMS along the Inca Trail. There are, however, ATMs in Aguas Calientes, the town next to Machu Picchu where you will be able to get cash after your trek. We recommend that you bring money with you from Cusco.
What sort of food can I expect on the trail? Each tour is accompanied by a chef who will prepare all your meals for you. The food is hearty, plentiful, and filling to keep you energized for the journey. Please notify us if you have any special requirements or diet restrictions, such as requiring vegetarian meals. You will enjoy breakfast, as well as a hot lunch and dinner every day. You will also be served snacks in the morning and afternoon, including hot drinks in the afternoon.