Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

By Jay Moran — November 15, 2015 —

Machu Picchu is a classic “bucket list” destination.  It is a place that most people have heard about and many also truly aspire to see.

Some visitors travel by train from Aguas Calientes to see Machu Picchu for a half-day.  When the entrance gate opens, they rush in, wander around the grounds, take scores of obligatory photos, and then scurry toward the exit in order to make it back to their hotel for an early dinner.

This is NOT the way to visit Machu Picchu, however.  In fact, unless you are elderly, sick, or physically disabled, this “drop-in” approach is downright lame.  The kind of people who go to Machu Picchu for a day-visit, without hiking the Inca Trail, are usually the type who pass through Bangkok, insist on staying at a 5-star hotel, never leave the pool or spa area, and then tell everyone that they “went to Thailand.” 

Uh, no, they really didn’t.  But that’s the subject for another blog article.

In order to get the most out of Machu Picchu, you should hike the Inca Trail.  The classic route is a four-day/three-night trek that spans 45 kilometers (28 miles).  Along the way, you will learn about Incan culture and history, visit several amazing ruins, experience breathtaking vistas, sleep in a tent in near-freezing temperatures, probably hike in the rain, fight off mosquitos, shit in disgusting outhouses, bond with fellow travelers, wake up at 3 am on the last day, and then promise yourself that you MUST do it all again before you die.  Indeed, a friend of mine from California has hiked the Inca Trail three times.  Having done it once, I understand why.  In a word, the Inca Trail is awesome.

But it does require some planning.  What follows are some helpful tips to make sure that you get the most out of your trip.

Getting a Guide and Getting Settled in Cusco

The first thing to keep in mind when organizing your visit is that only 500 people per day are allowed on the trail (of these only 200 are trekkers; the remainder are guides and porters).  You must have a permit to enter.  As a result, the available slots get filled months in advance, usually about six months.  A simple web search will allow you to find a calendar that indicates how many permits are available each day during upcoming months.

In addition, you must use a licensed guide company.  You cannot hike the Inca Trail on your own.  In 2014 the going rate for a top operator was about $600 per person for the classic 4 day/3 night trek as part of a 15 person group.  This price includes guides, porters, permits, shared 2-person tent and all your meals (prepared by chefs).  You can pay extra to rent a sleeping bag and for a porter to carry your belongings (usually the charge is about $75 for 9 kilograms).  I’d recommend paying for a porter.  In our group of 15, most paid for the 9 kilograms, usually shared between two people, which adds up to two sleeping bags, two sleeping mats and perhaps a few small items.  One mother-daughter duo paid extra to have all of their belongings carried.

All of the top companies have a website and major office in Cusco.  I decided to go with SAS Travel, which is one of the best operators.  I highly recommend them.  The guides were friendly, professional and knowledgable, the equipment brand new, and the food they prepared was excellent.  It is worth paying a bit extra for a first-rate tour company.

The launching point for Inca Trail excursions is the delightful town of Cusco.  You should arrive there at least two full days before your hike begins in order to get acclimated to the high altitude.  When I visited, I had been traveling through extremely high altitudes in Bolivia and Chile for more than two weeks, so this was not an issue for me.  But I did see others who had difficulty adjusting. 

Besides, Cusco itself is quite charming.  You will enjoy your stay there.  The center of town is the Plaza de las Armas.  In the streets around the plaza there are scores of hotels, restaurants, bars, craft shops.  Accommodation options are abundant, ranging from budget hostels to luxurious hotels that are usually of the rustic variety to blend in with the old-world ambience of the town and the surrounding mountain landscapes.

The beautiful old town of Cusco, launching point for a visit to Machu Picchu. Photo by Kenneth Moore (CC by 2.0)

The beautiful old town of Cusco, launching point for a visit to Machu Picchu. Photo by Kenneth Moore (CC by 2.0)

What to Pack for the Inca Trail

Early on the first morning of your trek, representatives from the tour company will pick you up at your hotel.  It is standard procedure in Cusco for hotels to allow you to keep a suitcase locked up in their storage room while you are away for the hike.  After all, you will want to pack lightly for the four-day haul.  Your fancy shoes and laptop computer will be waiting for you when you return!

So what should you take on the Inca Trail?  Obviously, you’ll want the right clothes, including 2 pairs of hiking pants, shorts, four t-shirts, thermal underwear, rain gear, fleece, sun gear, toiletries, etc.  A headlamp, mosquito repellant, sleeping bag, and the right shoes are also critical.  For a complete list of specific items to pack, see the article The Essential Inca Trail Packing List

It will be cold at night and in the morning when you are gathered in the meal tent, and during early morning hikes.  So if you want to err on the side of caution, make sure you have enough warm clothing.  The flip side is that you will have to shed the clothes and/or carry them when not in use. 

In terms of backpack, I used the Quechua Forclaz 30 Air.  It has a special air cooling system that keeps air flowing up a small section between the bag and your back.  A 30 liter pack seemed to me to be the perfect size.

Many people take or rent trekking poles.  I wouldn’t say these are absolutely necessary, although for most people at least one pole is useful when walking up and down some of the steeper areas where the path is a bit rocky.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Enjoying the view along the Inca Trail

Enjoying the view along the Inca Trail

Hiking the trail takes three-and-a-half days.  If you are moderately fit, you will not have any serious issues from a fitness standpoint.  Altitude affects people differently, however, which is why you should be sure to spend a few days in Cusco prior to the hike, even if you are in top physical condition.

If you are wondering about the logistics of setting up tents, cooking meals, cleaning up dishes, etc., the porters take care of all that.  When you arrive at camp, your tent is set up and (if you hired a porter to carry it) your sleeping bag and mat (and other items) are waiting inside the tent.

A large dinner tent will also be erected, with long tables and chairs inside.  Because trekkers arrive at camp at varying intervals, those arriving earliest usually have time to wander around camp and/or relax in their tents. 

The guides will announce when it is time for everyone to gather for dinner.  Meals on our trek were excellent, with a variety of choices, hot tea, coffee, and juice.

In the mornings, the guides will wake you up by setting a bowl of hot water in front of your tent.  Everyone gathers for breakfast, and then the guides offer to fill your water bottles.

The hikers need to roll up their sleeping bag, mats and other items and place them inside a duffel bag for the porters.  This is left inside the tent.  Everyone in the group starts off on the trail again, while the porters stay behind to take down the tents and clean up everything at camp.  Then, within an hour or so, they pass the line of trekkers at breathtaking pace.  You will be amazed at the giant packs on their backs and at how quickly and effortlessly the porters maneuver the trail!

Here’s more information on what to expect each day:

Day 1:

From a hiking standpoint, the first day is easy.  As mentioned above, you will be picked up early in the morning at your hotel.  From there, you will travel by bus from Cusco to Piskacucho, the entry point of the trail at kilometer 82.  The journey takes about three hours and the bus usually stops at the town of Urubamba or Ollantaytambo for breakfast and a bathroom break.

Our group about to embark on the Inca Trail

Our group about to embark on the Inca Trail

The official hike starts when visitors cross the bridge over the Urubamba River and begin a short but steep ascent.  From there the path is more gradual for a few hours.  During much of the day’s hike you will get an excellent view of the snow capped peak of Veronica at 5860m.  The first campsite is somewhere near the small village of Wayllabamba (3000m), which is the last place on the trek where you can buy drinks or snacks (a candy bar and Gatorade hits the spot!).

Day 2:

The second day is the most difficult.  After about 90 minutes of hiking, you will reach a small campsite with toilet facilities.  From there, a 3-4 hour hike will take you through steepening forest and areas with amazing vistas until you reach a clearing at the tree line.  Here is where you get ready for the tough trek up to Dead Woman’s Pass.  At 4200m, it is the highest point on the trail.  The walking distance up to Dead Woman’s Pass is not what troubles people as much as the constant, steady, ascent combined with the altitude and the fact that you can literally see the path rising for kilometers ahead of you.  Add to that a full assortment of Andean elements — hot sun, then rain, sleet, cold winds — and this part of the trail is something that you will never forget.

The pay off is big, though.  Standing atop Dead Woman’s Pass, with the wind howling past your head and incredible views in every direction, you will feel triumphant.  In our group, about 2-3 hours separated the first arrivers from the last, and then we all had a quick lunch with our guides.

The twisting trek down from the Pass is steep but easy enough to manage, and you should enjoy great scenery.  The second night’s campsite is at Pacamayo  There are basic toilet facilities here, albeit not the kind you will enjoy using.  Let’s just say your headlamp, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and wet wipes will be worth their weight in gold here.

It gets cold at night -- you will appreciate the warm sleeping bag!

Early morning frost on our tent.  It gets cold at night.          You will appreciate the warm sleeping bag!

Day 3:

After breakfast, there is a short but steep hike to reach a circular shaped ruin called Runcuracay that sits perched on the edge of the valley.  After a short break here and some history from the guides, the trail continues and trekkers reach another pass at 3950 meters.  The views from here are excellent, and on a clear day you will have a sweep back at Dead Woman’s Pass — it is truly inspiring to see how far you have come.  There are more impressive ruins to see on day three, including Phuyupatamarca, also known as the City Above the Clouds, which contains several steep terraces, stone baths and exquisite panoramas of the river valley below.  From there, and near camp, is Wiñay Wayna, an extensive series of exceptionally well-preserved terraces that contain housing complexes and fountains. In all, the hike is relatively short on the third day, and mostly downhill.  There are a few, steep, rocky points that might cause a pinch for those with weak joints, but nothing too serious. Cold showers are available at camp, and most people are eager to take advantage of this amenity before dinner.


Phuyupatamarca, one of several archaeological sites along the Inca Trail

Day 4:

The guides have everyone up early — about 4 a.m. — on the final day in order to eat breakfast and reach Machu Picchu by sunrise.  Actually, the goal is to arrive at the Sun Gate — located above Machu Picchu — just as the first rays of sun emerge from behind the mountains.  Macchu Picchu sits nestled among the surrounding peaks, and the Sun Gate is the perfect vantage point from which to see the ancient ruin below.  This is a view that day-visitors to Machu Picchu never get to see. 

Up before sunrise to hike to Machu Picchu

Up before sunrise to hike to Machu Picchu

Sunrise at the Sun Gate. Waiting for the clouds to thin for our first glimpse at Machu Picchu

Sunrise at the Sun Gate. Waiting for our first glimpse of Machu Picchu









And there it is!

And there it is!

In addition, those who hike the Inca Trail arrive at Machu Picchu before the main gates open.  For the first couple of hours, the site is almost empty.  You will be able to enjoy the serenity of the place before the hoards of tour buses arrive.

After a full morning at Machu Picchu, your group will meet for lunch at Aguas Calientes, a small town about 20 minutes by train down the mountain.  The tour company then provides transportation back to Cusco.

The site is relatively empty for those who arrive from the Inca Trail

The site is relatively empty before the main gate opens

Early morning view of the ruins

Early morning view of the ruins


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