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Inca Trail Travel Guide

Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, one of the top treks in the world. This adventurous trail follows ancient stone paths through Andean valleys, past enigmatic ruins, and into the cloud forests that surround the mysterious Lost City of the Incas.

Overview

What is now called the Inca Trail is actually a small section of a greater network of trails that once connected the great Inca Empire. Known as the Qhapaq Nan, these trails spanned out from the Incan capital of Cusco 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. In fact, the road system in its entirety has been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO.

A modern-day journey on the Inca Trail takes you 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.

 

Climate & Weather

The land that the Inca Trail traverses has a rainy season and dry season with gradual weather and temperature changes in between. The mountainous geography of the Andes has a wide variety of microclimates that range between warm and humid valleys to frosty high altitude plains. Generally, as elevations climb higher, temperatures drop.

Dry Season

June, July, and August mark the heart of the dry season in the Andean region of Peru. During these months, sunshine is regular with a minimal chance of rainfall. Daytime temperatures usually range from 68 to 73°F (20 to 23°C), but night temperatures drop to a chilly 30 to 45°F (-1 to 7°C) at high altitude campsites.

Geography

The Inca Trail hike crosses four ecozones with distinct microclimates.

  1. The trail begins at the Quechua zone (7,546-11,483 ft; 2300-3500 m) where the microclimate is dry and temperate, which is ideal for agriculture.
  2. The next ecozone is Suni or Jalca, located at 11,483-13,123 ft (3500-4000 m) above sea level. Some agriculture is still possible at this altitude.
  3. 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 consumed by grazing Andean camelids.
  4. 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.

Wet Season

November to March is the wet season in Peu’s Andean region. Daytime temperatures average between 68 to 70°F (20 to 21°C). Nights are warmer compared to the dry season with an average temperature of about 45°F (7°C).

The Inca Trail hike crosses four ecozones with distinct microclimates.

  1. The trail begins at the Quechua zone (7,546-11,483 ft; 2300-3500 m) where the microclimate is dry and temperate, which is ideal for agriculture.
  2. The next ecozone is Suni or Jalca, located at 11,483-13,123 ft (3500-4000 m) above sea level. Some agriculture is still possible at this altitude.
  3. 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 consumed by grazing Andean camelids.
  4. 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.

For more detailed information about the route the Inca Trail takes to Machu Picchu, check out our blog Step by Step to Machu Picchu: Inca Trail Map

Best Time to Visit

The best time to hike the Inca Trail is during the dry season, from May-October. This provides mostly dry and sunny weather, with nice crisp air in the mountains. Keep in mind, though, that this would be the busiest time to do the trail.

If you don’t mind some more mixed weather, the shoulder months of April and November offer fewer crowds with still some beautiful days with perhaps a few more rain showers here and there (which can prove quite refreshing while hiking). In April, be sure to avoid traveling in Peru during Semana Santa (Holy Week, leading up to Easter), as this is a very busy travel time for locals and services can be limited and more pricey.

Note that the Inca Trail is completely closed the entire month of February.


Highlights

Natural Diversity

The Inca Trail, or Camino del Inca, 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 hundreds of species of orchids, and the Andean spectacled bear is known to make rare appearances!


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.

Torre Mirador is 12.5 mi (20 km) to the north of Nazca city along the Panamerican Highway.


Runkurakay

Runkurakay are ancient Inca lodges of unique circular structures and precise stone masonry have withstood the feats of time.


Patallacta

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.


Wiñayhuayna

This is quite an astounding stop on your journey, as well as the site of your last campsite of the trek. Not only are the views of the valley and the soaring peaks breathtaking, the archaeological complex itself is extensive and steeply terraced into the mountainside. Wiñayhuayna means “forever young” in Quechua, and the abundance of orchids dotting the landscape certainly gives the site a mystical feel.


Sun Gate

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.


Daily Breakdown

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 this Machu Picchu trek.
  • 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)
Gradient: Moderate

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)
Gradient: Challenging

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.
  • 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)
Gradient: Moderate

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 Machu Picchu or Huayna 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: 6 km (3.7 mi)
Hike Time: 3 to 5 hrs
Maximum Altitude: 2,650 m (8,694 ft)
Gradient: Moderate

Note: There is also a shorter 2-day Inca Trail option. The 2-day Inca Trail is ideal for travelers who have limited time or may desire a less physically demanding option than the classic 4-day Inca Trail itinerary. It is also a great option if 4-Day Permits have sold out.

Our 2-day Inca Trail hiking package includes a day of hiking surrounded by the beauty of the Andes, walk past Chachabamba, an archaeological complex believed to have served as a guardhouse 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 at a comfortable hotel in Aguas Calientes and then wake up the next day for a guided tour of Machu Picchu.


Inca Trail Regulations

Inca Trail Permits Are Limited

Each day only 500 permits for the Inca Trail are issued by the Peruvian government. This total includes all the trekkers on the 2-day and 4-day routes as well as the guides, porters and cooks that accompany organized trekking groups. Available permits for the Inca Trail sell out quickly due to high demand, sometimes 5 months in advance for dates during the dry season from May to September, so booking far in advance is a must.

The Trail Closes Every February

The Peruvian government closes the trail in February for annual maintenance, conservation and clean-up. It’s open every other month of the year.

Required Items

Aside from packing list items you will need, here are important items that you must have:

  • Documentation. Permission to enter the Inca Trail must be documented and you have to have it paid in full before entry. Only documents given by the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary Management Unit (UGM) are accepted.
  • Passport. You need your passport to enter the trek and the ruins. Passport must match the name on your Inca Trail tickets and documentation. Tickets are 100% non-transferable.
  • Reusable water bottle. Plastic is not permitted on the trail, so be sure to have a refillable water bottle to stay hydrated.

Prohibited Items

Prohibited items include:

  • Radios, speakers or other noise makers – you may not alter the natural sounds of the environment
  • Fossil fuels such as kerosene, diesel oil, gasoline
  • Firearms or compressed air weapons, bows and arrows, hunting and fishing instruments, knives, spikes, shovels, axes, machetes and other tools.
  • Wildlife traps
  • Stimulants, psychotropic substances, narcotics or illegal drugs that are not allowed by national legislation.
  • Domestic animals or exotic species.
  • Walking sticks with metal tips – must have rubber protectors.
  • Plastic waste like bottles, plastic containers and disposable cups.

Prohibited Activities

Respect this historic trail by adhering to the following:

  • You may not hike the Inca Trail between 7 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.
  • You may not take or destroy any flora and fauna in the area.
  • Do not litter
  • Do not disturb the animals.
  • No campfires allowed
  • No damage to trees.
  • No destroying the rocks of the ruins or the path.
  • No camping within areas of Inca remains. Camping is only permitted in authorized areas.

Travel Tips

Advanced Booking Is a Must

It’s very important to buy your tickets for the Inca Trail trek in advance. Early planning does always not guarantee a spot, but greatly increases your chance of securing the trekking dates you want. During high season, from April through October, permits can sell out 6 months beforehand.

Before the Trek, Adjust to the Altitude

We recommend spending a few days in Cusco before your trek begins to give your body plenty of time to adjust to the high altitude region. Cusco is a city that resides at 11,120 ft (2,400 m) above sea level. The highest mountain pass along the Inca Trail is at a soaring 13,830 ft (4,214 m).

Packing List

  • Documentation.
    Bring your original passport. You will need it both to start the Inca Trail and to enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate.

  • Day Pack
    Bring a comfortable daypack with snug straps to wear while you hike. Unless you hire a private Inca Trail porter, you’re expected to carry both pads and sleeping bags along the trek.

  • Reusable water bottle.
    Carry a reusable water bottle in your daypack. Another option is a hydration pack, like a CamelBak, which is a super convenient way to stay hydrated.

  • Clothing.
    Layers, layers, layers. 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 jacket, 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.

  • Footwear.
    Comfortable hiking boots or walking shoes are a must. Also pack shower sandals.

  • Rain gear.
    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.

  • Sun protection.
    Pack a hat, strong sunblock, and glasses for protection against the sun.

  • Flashlight.
    Headlamp (with extra batteries) or small flashlight to use at night while camping.

  • Comfort.
    Light-weight travel towel to shower with and a small travel pillow for your sleeping comfort. Some trekkers may prefer to bring walking sticks, they are especially helpful in downhill sections.

  • Toiletries.
    Toothbrush, toothpaste, travel shampoo, tissues, toilet paper, wet wipes, insect repellent with deet, and any personal medications.

  • Snacks.
    You may want to bring extra (or diet specific) high energy snacks, such as some cookies, protein bars, chocolates, or nuts.

  • Money.
    Bring local Peruvian currency (Soles) in your wallet so that you can tip your trekking team.

  • Camera.
    Of course, don’t forget your camera, with extra battery packs and memory cards.

Tipping

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 $40 to $60 USD per hiker.

What to Do If Inca Trail Permits Are Sold Out

If permits for the Inca Trail are already sold out for the dates you want, fortunately, there are great alternative treks to Machu Picchu you can also do. The Salkantay, Lares, and Choquequirao are great alternative treks – and just like the iconic 4-day Inca Trail – they are all ancient Inca footpaths that belong to a vast network of roads that once connected the entirety of the Inca Empire whose capital was in Cusco. Talk with your travel advisor about which trek option is best for you.


Tour Packages

#2 Explore the Path of the Inca

Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Cusco
9 Days / from $1979

Trekkers walking along the stone trail from the Sun Gate to the Machu Picchu ruins.
Inca Trail - 2 Days

Short Route to Machu Picchu
2 Days / from $689

Travelers walking along the trail from the Sun Gate to the Machu Picchu Citadel
Inca Trail - 4 Days

Classic Route to Machu Picchu
4 Days / from $959

See All Trekking Tours


FAQ

If hiking to Machu Picchu, you should be in good physical health and have a taste for adventure. The level of enjoyment that you get out of this trek 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. Before you start your trek, we recommend you arrive to Cusco at least two to three days in advance to help your body acclimate to the high altitude.

The classic Inca Trail takes roughly 4 days. There is a 2-day version that begins closer to the ruins, as well. The 2-day consists of 1 full day of hiking, a night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes (the town next to Machu Picchu), and the a tour of Machu Picchu the following morning.

The classic 4-day trekking route of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is 31 miles (50 kilometers) from start to finish.

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.

Inca Trail regulations are designed to protect the route, limit the number of trekkers to 500 per day, including guides, porters, and cooks. As such, the trail usually gets fully booked far in advance.

You’ll need to present your original passport and permit/ticket at both the start of the trek and the entrance of Machu Picchu.

It is not possible to hike the trail independently. Access to the Inca Trail is strictly controlled and your trek must be organized through a tour operator. Only specific licensed companies are permitted to lead groups on the 4-day Inca Trail and 2-day Inca Trail routes.

If there are no slots left for the Inca Trail tour, 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. Ask your travel advisor about the alternative treks to Machu Picchu, including Salkantay and Lares.

Transport, guide and entrance tickets are included in an Inca Trail trekking package. All the camping equipment, daily meals and water is provided by your trekking team. You can either bring your own sleeping bag, or rent one for an additional fee.

Almost all of our travelers choose to hire a porter to carry their personal belongings instead of carrying it themselves. Inca Trail porters can carry anything in a duffle bag that’s provided the day before the trek: the weight is what matters and not the volume of the items. 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.

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 $20 to $40 USD per hiker.

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.

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.

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.

Your guide will be fluent in English, have several years of experience as a trekking professional, and is trained in first aid and rescue. They will meet you in Cusco and accompany you step by step along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

The trekking team will supply you with as much water as you’ll need to fill and refill your water bottle. Water for communal purposes like cooking will also be provided. All the water is boiled and safe for drinking. If you want, you can bring water purifier pills or a SteriPEN (UV Water Purifier). We recommend you bring a reusable water bottle or hydration pack to help cut down on plastic bottle consumption.

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.

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.

There is not an ATM 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 (Peruvian soles or US dollars) after your trek. We recommend that you bring money with you from Cusco.

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.

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.


 
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