How to Choose, Plan, and Prepare to get the Best Trek on Peru's Inca Trail
What Is The Inca Trail, And Why Trek The Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail is one of the most-famous, and most loved, treks in the world. The trek follows an old Inca Trail across three high mountain passes, and it is the only way to arrive into Machu Picchu on foot (unless you call walking along the road arriving on foot!).
History Of The Inca Trail
The name "The Inca Trail" is a bit misleading, as although the trail connecting the Urubamba River valley and Machu Picchu was used by the Incas, and may have been built by them, it is only one small stretch of the nearly 25,000 miles of the Inca road system in South America. While some of this network of trails was built by cultures that preceded the Inca Empire, all of it was used for transportation, military transportation, and religious purposes by the Incas.
From sometime in the 13th Century until about 1438, the Incas had a state known as the Kingdom of Cusco. Starting around 1438 until their defeat at the hands of the Spanish in 1533, the Incas built a massive empire covering most of western South America. The empire had it's capital in Cusco, Peru, and trails radiated out from there in all directions. The Incas controlled their empire through a network of trails, some built by cultures that preceded the Inca Empire, all of it was used for transportation, military transportation, and religious purposes by the Incas.
During this time of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu was built, either as a family home or a retreat for Inca leaders.
The stretch of Inca road that has become famous as "The Inca Trail" connects the Urubamba River Valley, now known as The Sacred Valley of the Incas, with Machu Picchu. It was built to allow transportation of royals, and their servants, to Machu Picchu. It was also used to regularly bring food and goods to Machu Picchu, as the agricultural capacity of Machu Picchu could not have sustained even seasonal residents.
What Makes The Inca Trail So Special?
The Inca Trail is the only way to arrive into Machu Picchu on foot, arriving via Inti Punku, or the Gate of the Sun. While there are thousands of miles of Inca Trails in South America, this trail is a beautiful stretch of mountain trail that connects important Inca sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna and Machu Picchu, and it is still accessible to hikers today.
There are no permanent settlements along the trail, although there are a few settlements nearby. Trekkers will cross three high passes, descend narrow Inca stone steps, and will pass various Inca ruins along the trail.
How Long Is The Inca Trail, And Where Does It Go?
The traditional trek on the Inca Trail is 43 km, or 27 miles, and begins at KM 82 along the railway from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
How Hard Is The Inca Trail Trek and How Fit Do I Need to Be?
Who Can Trek The Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail is not an extreme trek, but it is challenging. It is only for active, fit people, who can walk 10 miles or more while climbing and descending great distances, all at high altitude.
The minimum age for most group Inca Trail treks is 16. Younger kids can do the trek, but it will have to be in a private trip so as not to impact the other adults on the trek.
There is generally no maximum age as it all depends on how fit you are. As long as you are active and fit you can trek the Inca Trail.
How Fit Do I Need To Be To Trek The Inca Trail?
Although the Inca Trail is not extremely challenging, don't think that you can just get off the couch and have an enjoyable experience, especially if you have been sedentary for many years. You should train for the trek by walking as much as possible, by going up and down hills or stairs, or at by going to a gym and working on a treadmill, stair climber, or elliptical trainer. The more you train before your trip the more fun (and the least suffering) you will do on the trek.
Before beginning the Inca Trail trekkers should spend at least three days at altitude, either in Cusco or elsewhere in Peru. Without adequate acclimatization trekkers can suffer from altitude sickness, with can vary from being very uncomfortable to very dangerous.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley are extremely interesting places to visit, and they are worth at least two or three days of your time, so this acclimatization time does not mean you will be wasting time waiting to trek. Most people visiting Peru come away saying they wished they had spent more time in Cusco!
Planning Your Trip
Permits Are Required To Trek The Inca Trail And They Sell Out Months In Advance
Permits issued by the Government of Peru are required for each person trekking the Inca Trail. 500 people can start trekking the Inca Trail each day, including trekkers, guides, cooks, porters, and other staff, meaning that about 200 trekkers can begin the trek each day. Permits are issued to actual traveler's passports, and are not exchangeable or refundable. This means that spaces cannot be held on speculation, and when a certain date is sold out, there is no chance to get a permit for that date.
Permits for popular dates, such as May and June sell out as soon as permits go on sale. April, July, and August, can sell out 6 months in advance. The permits go on sale for the entire year sometime in December (of the previous year) or in early January.
The Inca Trail is closed every year for the month of February.
You cannot just show up in Peru and expect to get a permit to trek the Inca Trail, as permits sell out months in advance. You will need to plan and confirm your trip many months before you travel to Peru in order to get an Inca Trail permit.
You Cannot Trek The Inca Trail Without Booking Through a Licensed Tour Operator
Only certain companies are issued permits to lead treks on the Inca Trail, and you must travel with one of these companies. It is not possible to trek the Inca Trail independently without a licensed tour operator and licensed guide. This policy was put in place to make sure regulations along the trail are followed to preserve the resource and to keep the experience pleasant for all, as the licensed operators are required to carry out all trash and to make sure human waste is disposed of properly among other rules.
Getting Your Inca Trail Permit
As stated previously, you can't trek the Inca Trail without a licensed Inca Trail tour operator. Likewise you can't purchase your own permit for the trek. To get the permit you will need to pay a non-refundable fee to your licensed tour operator and supply them with some personal details, including passport number and full name, and the tour operator will then buy the permit for you. The fee is non-refundable as it has to be paid to the government office that issues the permits, and because the permits are non-refundable. The fee will not be refunded if you cancel your trip.
Inca Trail permits for a given year usually go on sale in early January, and popular dates in May will sell out on that first day. You shouldn't consider your trek confirmed until the Inca Trail permits have been purchased for you.
Inca Trail Trip Options
Inca Trail treks can be 4 or 5 days long. Below is a breakdown of hiking distances and average trek times for both the 4 and 5 Day Treks, so you can decide for yourself which length is right for you.
We believe that the 5 day Inca Trail trek is a far better experience than the 4 day Inca Trail Trek for the following reasons.
- You avoid most of the other people on the Inca Trail. On the 5 Day Trek you begin the trek in the early afternoon. This is well after the hordes on the 4 Day Trek have departed early in the morning, sometimes waiting in line for up to an hour to start. Allowing them to clear out means you can hike and camp the whole trail in relative solitude away from the masses, as you’re always about half a day behind, and half a day in front of, the people on the 4 Day Trek.
- You have more time to acclimatize and settle into the trek. The first two days are much easier on the 5 Day Trek than the 4 Day Trek. On the 5 Day Trek, the hardest day is Day 3. On the 4 Day Trek, the hardest day is Day 2.
- You have more time to explore the interesting Inca ruins along the way.
- You have more time at Machu Picchu. You arrive at the Sun Gate leading to Machu Picchu in the afternoon on Day 4. You have time to admire the beautiful ruins before heading to the town of Aguas Calientes for a shower and night in a real bed. You wake up refreshed on Day 5 for your full tour of Machu Picchu Ruins.
- You get Machu Picchu (almost) all to yourself. There are fewer people late in the afternoon (Day 4), and early in the morning (Day 5).
The traditional Inca Trail trek takes 4 days. As the 4-day trek is the most popular schedule for trekking the Inca Trail it is also the most crowded option as most trekkers travel and camp together for the whole trek.
Day One: Relatively easy 7-8 miles (~13 km). On this day you begin at an elevation of 9000 ft (2750 m) and camp at about 9700 ft (~2950 m). Hiking time: 5 - 6 hours.
Day Two: This 7 mile hike (~11 km) is the most difficult day for most. The highest point is Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,766 ft (4,200 m). Camp at 12,590 ft (3850 m). Hiking time: 6 - 7 hours.
Day Three: 9.9 miles (16 km) of moderately challenging trail. You climb two passes: Runkuracay at 12,470 ft (3,800 m) and Sayacmarca at 11,887 ft (3580 m). Camp at 8,692 ft (2,650 m). Hiking Time: 9 hours
Day Four: 2.5 miles (4 km) of mostly downhill trekking on ancient steps. This is an early morning start so you have maximum time at Machu Picchu. Arrive at the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu (7474 ft / 2400 m) around 10 or 11 am. In the afternoon, you will catch the train back to Cusco. Hiking time: 2 hours on the trail; more possible at Machu Picchu if you want.
5-Day Inca Trail Trek
The five-day Inca Trail is carefully tailored to avoid the crowds. You begin the trek after the hordes have departed on the traditional 4-day trek, allowing them to clear out so you can hike and camp in relative solitude away from the masses of other trekkers. This schedule also gives you more time to explore ruins along the way and at Machu Picchu.
Day One: Easy warm up of 3 miles (~5 km). On this day you begin at Km82, which has an elevation of 9000 ft (2750 m), and camp at about 8690 ft (~2650 m), at Llactapata Campsite. Hiking time: 2.5 - 5 hours.
Day Two: This 7.5 mile hike (~12 km) is where the trail starts to get challenging. After a mellow morning, you trek part way up the first pass, and overnight about a half mile from the top. Camp at 12,590 ft (3850 m), at Llulluchapampa Campsite. Hiking time: 5 - 6 hours.
Day Three: This 9.3 miles (15 km) stretch is the most challenging day on the Inca Trail. You climb two passes: Warmiwañusca (Dead Woman's Pass) at 13,819 ft (4212 m), drop down to the Pacasmayo Valley at 11,650 ft (3550 m) for lunch, and then tackle Runcuracay Pass at 13,120 ft (4000 m). At the end of the day, you camp at 12,030 ft (3600 m) at Phuyupatamarca ("the place above the clouds"). Hiking Time: 8 hours
Day Four: 6.5 miles (11 km) of mostly downhill or flat trekking on ancient Inca steps. This is an early morning start so you have maximum time at Machu Picchu. You have lunch at Wiñay Wayna Ruins, and a bit of time to explore these amazing ruins. Arrive at the Sun Gate (9025 ft / 2750 m) in the afternoon for your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. You've made it! After soaking in the view, you'll continue down through Machu Picchu Ruins ( 7875 ft / 2400 m) take a bus to nearby Aguas Calientes where you'll overnight in a local hotel. Hiking time: 5 hours on the trail; more possible at Machu Picchu if you want.
Day Five: Return to Machu Picchu Ruins for a full guided tour. Early bird will get to witness the stunning sunrise at Machu Picchu. There's time for hiking Huayna Picchu Mountain or Machu Picchu Mountain, and wandering around the site. Afternoon bus to the Aguas Calientes train station to catch your train back to Cusco.
1-Day Short, or Royal, Inca Trail
This trek begins at KM 104 along the Vilcanota River, and is good for people who still want to arrive in Machu Picchu on foot through the Gate of the Sun, but don't have the time or energy (or aren't interested in camping) for the full Inca Trail trek. It also doesn't require as much time to acclimatize, as the altitudes are much lower (begins at 2100 meters, climbs to 2700 meters, and then descends to Machu Picchu at 2400 meters).
Although shorter and easier than the full Inca Trail, this trek is still rated at least moderate in difficulty, and should only be attempted by fit people who exercise regularly.
Day 1: Travel from Cusco or the Sacred Valley to KM 104 along the railway from Cusco to Machu Picchu, then walk around 4 miles uphill to join the Inca Trail at Wiñaywayna, then continue on the relatively flat Inca Trail for 3 more miles to Machu Picchu, arriving through the Sun Gate. You have a little time to soak in the view before taking the bus to Machu Picchu Pueblo to sleep in a hotel.
Day 2: Return to Machu Picchu in the morning for your guided tour before the crowds arrive by train, climb Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountaina, then take the train and bus back to Cusco.
Salkantay to Machu Picchu
This is a spectacular version of the trek that is not as common as the regular Inca Trail. It begins high in the mountains near Mollepata, which is the beginning of the regular Salkantay trek. The first four days are in spectacular mountain scenery, and include crossing Inca Chiriaska Pass at 5,100 Meter, 16,700 feet, and camping as high as 4100 meters, 13,451 feet. After crossing the pass trekkers descend to join the Inca Trail at Wayllabamba, and then complete the normal Inca Trail to Machu Picchu from there.
This challenging trek is rarely offered.
Comfort and Camping Styles
There is great variation in prices for for Inca Trail treks, and much of this variance has to do with the level of comfort you will have and the quality of the guide, food, and camping equipment. Another consideration is that the trip needs to cost enough that the company offering the tour can afford to treat and pay the porters fairly, and can handle waste in a responsible manner.
The cheapest Inca Trail treks are only sold by Cusco companies, as they don't have budgets to pay other companies to sell their trips. These trips can be great fun, but they are mainly geared towards young backpacker types who don't ask for a lot of comfort, quality food, or even good English language skills from their guides. Basically, these trips get you to the Inca Trail, allow you to hike and explore, and make sure you have somewhere to sleep and something to eat. If that is what you are looking for, choose one of these trips. You will have to find the trip online and correspond with the local company to book it.
Comfortable Camping Trips
These trips are generally sold by US and international tour operators, and are designed to provide a much more comfortable experience than the budget trips. Many of these trips provide trained cooks preparing multi-course meals, tables and stools to sit on in the dining tent, and high-quality comfortable tents with inflatable (Thermarest) mattresses for sleeping. The guides speak fluent English and are University trained and will enhance the experience of the trek greatly through their caring manner, their humor, and their knowledge of Inca history and the sites visited.
A note on prices: most international tour operators need to mark up the prices of the local companies rather dramatically to pay for their overhead and profit, so these trips can become fairly expensive (relative to the budget trips). It is possible to book directly with high-quality local tour operators, or a better option might be to find a transparent international company that doesn't mark the local prices up, such as Detour, The Adventure Travel Marketplace. Booking with a company like this offers the advantage of no additional markups to the price, but can add value to the booking and pre-departure process over what is offered by the local tour operator.
Glamping (Luxurious Camping Trips)
The newest class of trips on the Inca Trail are Glamping, or glamorous camping, trips. These trips offer comfortable, private transportation to the trek, gourmet food along the trail with Andean chefs and unique, creative menus, assistant guides to help along the trail, alcoholic beverages like beer and wine, portable hot water showers, and even masseuses along to provide daily massages. Because all gear has to be carried by porters, these trips require more porters than other trips, and they have more staff along on their trips. Thus, naturally, these trips cost a great deal more than other options, but they can be a great choice if you want to trek the Inca Trail but aren't excited about the prospect of camping for 3 or 4 nights.
Can A Trip Be Too Cheap?
Almost everyone appreciates saving money and getting a good deal, but there is a point when a price is too good to be true. What does that mean?
Prices for many treks, rafting trips, and other adventures and tours in Peru can become very cheap because of intense competition for tourist dollars. The downside to this is that at some point the price is so low that the tour operator has to cut more than corners in order to not lose money. The easiest ways to do this are by limiting food quality and quantity, using old, beat up, poor quality equipment and transportation, and cutting down the number of staff working on the trip. When prices get even lower, pay for the guides and porters falls to the point where some years ago some raft guides in Peru were working without pay, being forced to live off of their tips alone. Needless to say the top guides didn't work these trips so the guide quality on budget trips really suffered.
Another issue with low-budget Inca Trail trips is porter welfare. Since no pack animals are allowed on the Inca Trail, all of the camping equipment (tents, dining tent, kitchen tent, tables, chairs, stove, gas bottle and food) is carried on the backs of human porters. In addition, on many treks the porters carry the personal gear of the trekkers too. These porters have traditionally been underpaid and mal-treated. We recommend choosing a responsible company that has a clearly stated Porter Protection Plan to make sure the porters receive fair pay and decent working conditions. When porters are looked after properly, using porters becomes a strong positive, as most porters are near-subsistence farmers with limited opportunities to earn cash, and the money they make working as a porter is extremely helpful for their families.
Alternatives To The Inca Trail
Inca Trail permits sold out for your travel dates? Or, maybe you want a similar trek but one that is less crowded than the Inca Trail? You are in luck! Peru is trekkers paradise, and there are a number of great treks in the Machu Picchu. Pretty much all of these treks travel on trails used by the Incas, and they may pass remote ruins, stunning snow-capped mountains, and traditional farming villages.
Some of our favorite alternative treks follow the Salkantay route from Mollepata to Santa Teresa, very near to Machu Picchu, the Lares Valley, Choquequirao, and the Ausangate Circuit. It is also possible to stay in hotels in Cusco and the Sacred Valley and do day treks to off the beaten path Inca sites.
IF YOU’RE . . . .
Broken-hearted that Inca Trail Permits are sold out: There are lots of 4 & 5 day trek options for you: Salkantay, Lares Valley (or Weaver’s Way), Cachicata, and Choquequirao. Lots of guides and travelers consider these treks superior to the classic Inca Trail; plus, you won’t be trekking the same trail that 500 people begin every single day.
In love the idea of trekking, but hate camping: If sleeping in a tent is unappealing, then you should focus on treks with overnights in lodges or hacienda. The Salkantay Lodge-to-Lodge trek is a great bet for those seeking comfort along with a challenging hike. The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu Trekking trip is a less-demanding trip with lots of hacienda options to fit your budget. And, new for 2015 the Lares to Machu Picchu Lodge to Lodge Adventure.
Traveling with children (younger than 13): The Lares Valley Trek (Weaver’s Way) is a great option because the distances each day can be modified (vans will meet you at certain points along the trek) and you’ll run into lots of locals kids who may want to play some soccer along the way. The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu trekking trip is also a good option because you’re doing day hikes, which can be easily modified for your group, and over-nighting in a hacienda each night, instead of camping. The 4-Day Inca Trail is not a good idea because once you’re on the trail, there is nowhere to get off until Machu Picchu. But if you want to do the shorter Inca Trail, the Family Adventure Peru is a great option.
Excited to hike, but need to take it a bit easy on the knees: For those with questionable knees or an old injury, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu Trekking trip is the best bet. Each day is adjustable and you’ll have time to recuperate. You should also consider a slightly easier one-day hike, such as Maras Moray, Cusco Ruins Hiking, or Mandor Waterfalls.
Ready for a serious challenge: You’re a well-seasoned hiker ready for the best Peru can offer and the typical Inca Trail doesn’t sound up to snuff. We highly recommend the Choquequirao to Machu Picchu Trek & Ausangate Circuit;
Looking for other activities around Cusco and Machu Picchu: While Peru’s great for hiking, you shouldn’t miss out of the great mountain biking, whitewater rafting and horseback riding in the area. The Total Adventure Peru is a great way to incorporate a variety of adventures while visiting Machu Picchu. Also consider adding on one of these adventures: Apurimac Rafting, Back Roads of the Andes Bike Trip, Urubamba River Rafting, or horseback riding through the ruins outside Cusco.
Interested in Hidden Gem Hikes: The Inca Trail is such an international star that most travelers don’t realize Peru offers many other treks on par with anything you’d find in the Alps or Himalayas. The Choquequirao trek takes you to Machu Picchu’s sister city which is only accessible by foot. A trek in the Cordillera Blanca is well-worth the travel time to get there, this range boasts the most beautiful peak in the world (apparently there are official rankings for that sort of thing) among other stunners. The trek around Ausangate, either the complete circuit or shorter 6-day version, is just south of Cusco and is considered far superior to the Inca Trail. Lares Valley is surprisingly empty of other travelers, despite its incredible scenery and proximity to Machu Picchu. If you like the idea of an alternative hike to Machu Picchu, but the Salkantay trek sounds a bit too crowded, try the Salkantay-Chillca version which splits from the main trail and takes you over the pass into the lovely Sacred Valley. For those with more time, the Espiritu Pampa trek is about as off-the-beaten-path as it gets; the true “last city of the Incas” is still being excavated and you’ll be surprised to find one other hiker while en route.