All Your Inca Trail Questions Answered

20 May 2015

It's one of the greatest walks in the world. The Inca Trail has got the lot – stunning scenery, amazing Incan ruins, great walking. If you like hiking and haven't done it ... well, what have you been doing? You should do it, seriously. Actually, get it on your list of upcoming travel plans. It's epic.

Here's everything you need to know before you go.

(By the way, we're talking about the classic four-day Inca Trail in this article, but plenty of the info is relevant to other versions of the hike to Machu Picchu.)

Where is the Inca Trail?

The Inca Trail winds through the Sacred Valley of Peru, South America, ending at the spectacular Incan site of Machu Picchu. The start of the trail is 82 kilometres from Cuzco, which is the jumping-off point for most Inca Trail treks.


How long is the Inca Trail?

The whole trail is 42 kilometres long. It's most often walked over four days and three nights – now, 42 kilometres doesn't sound too tough for a four-day walk, but the trail is steep and the altitude is right up there.

You reach Machu Picchu on the fourth and final day. On most trips, you'll get up early on the fourth day to do the last two hours of walking before dawn. That way, you arrive at the Sun Gate to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Mind blowing. It will exceed expectations.

What is Machu Picchu?

How do you not know the answer to that one? Sigh. All right. It's only the remains of the most amazing Incan city in the whole world, perched on a mountaintop in Peru.

Do I have to trek the Inca Trail to visit Machu Picchu?

No, Machu Picchu can be visited on a day trip to Machu Picchu. The nearest town to the site is Aguas Calientes.

Picture: Getty Images

When is the best time to trek the Inca Trail?

May to September is the high season for the Inca Trail – it's the dry season. It's fine to hike for most of the year – just wetter. Although, you can get rained on at any time of year.

Do I need to book the Inca Trail?

The Inca Trail is an incredibly popular walk and trekker numbers are strictly limited and controlled by a permit system. To secure your place on the trail, you need to book your trip well in advance of when you want to travel. Like, at least six months if you want to trek in peak season.

There are some alternative trek options if the Inca Trail is booked out or if you'd prefer a shorter or longer walk.

Can I just hike the Inca Trail myself?

You cannot trek the Inca Trail independently. You must join a tour with a licensed trekking company. Trekker numbers on the Inca Trail are strictly controlled by a permit system (about 200 trekkers and 300 porters are allowed to walk the trail each day).

Picture: Getty Images

How hard is the Inca Trail?

A lot of people do the trek but that doesn't mean it's easy – it's a reasonably challenging trail with lots of ups and downs, crossing high mountain passes. You can do it, but a bit of training is a good idea. Endurance is key.

The Incan stone steps are steep – they go straight up and down the mountainsides, sometimes steep to the point of being a ladder. You'll need good knees and strong legs.

Will I be affected by altitude sickness on the Inca Trail?

The altitudes are definitely high enough to cause altitude sickness – the highest point of the walk is 4,200 metres, reached on day two of the trek. You never can tell who will be affected by altitude sickness – it doesn't target the fit or unfit. Anyone can get it.

You need to acclimatise properly to minimise your chances of being affected. Cuzco itself is at 3,400 metres, so spend a few days there acclimatising before your trek. Don't fly into Cuzco and expect to head straight out on the trail.

Do I have to carry my own pack on the Inca Trail?

You need to carry a day pack of the things you'll need while walking. Porters will carry the rest of your gear.

The usual plan is this: leave excess clothes and luggage in Cuzco, pack your daily stuff into a day pack to carry yourself, and give a bundle of clothes, sleeping bag and sleeping mat to the porters to carry.

There will be a weight restriction on what the porters can carry for each trekker. And the porters are also carrying the tents and food for the group. Thanks, porters.

What should I pack for the Inca Trail?

Without giving you a full packing list, here are a few pointers of things you'll definitely need. (Things you'll carry in your daypack are listed next, separately.)

  • Good, comfortable hiking shoes or boots
  • Clothing layers for hiking
  • Bathers – you'll want to soak in the hot springs at Aguas Calientes after your hike
  • Insect repellent
  • Thermals, warm clothes – it's freezing at night
  • Torch (and enough batteries)
  • Sleeping bag and mat (some tour companies will provide sleeping bag and mat, or you can hire one for your trek, or bring your own)

What should I carry in my day pack?

  • Passport – you need it on hand to enter the Inca Trail
  • Water bottle
  • Water purification tablets
  • Some cash to buy snacks and tip porters
  • Snacks for the trail (you'll be hungry and extra snacks won't go astray)
  • Some dry socks and blister band-aids are worthwhile
  • Camera (but note that there's no electricity anywhere on the trail for re-charging anything)
  • Warm layers
  • Rain coat or poncho – it can rain at any time of year
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses, sunhat
  • Walking stick – to provide some back-up for zee knees (no metal tips allowed to protect the ground)
  • Toilet paper and hand sanitiser are a good idea

What is the food like on the Inca Trail?

Cooks will prepare your meals and snacks and they are pretty yummy. Breakfast might be porridge, traditional bread or pancakes, lunch might be rolls, hearty soup or salad and dinner might be rice or potatoes with meat and vegetables. Plus there are plenty of snacks and hot drinks.

Picture: Getty Images

Inca Trail Day-By-Day

Day 1 – Cuzco to Wayllabamba

Walking: 11 kilometres, six hours – high point 2,980 metres.

You'll be up early and bleary-eyed in your Cuzco hotel, ready to get picked up for the drive through picturesque scenery to the start of the trail. Head off on the trail along the rolling hills of the Vilcanota River Valley. There are several small Incan sites along the way – your introduction to the amazing stone paths and ruins that lie ahead of you. The trail winds upriver to the village of Wayllabamba (2,980 metres), where you'll spend the first night.

Day 2 – Wayllabamba to Pacamayo

Walking: 10 kilometres, seven hours – high point 4,200 metres.

Today is the most difficult trekking day of the trail, so strap yourself in. Heading off from Wayllabamba, you'll climb steeply for several hours to the tree line. Then there's a further couple of hours' climb to the highest pass of the hike – Abra de Huarmihuanusca or Dead Woman's Pass at 4,200 metres.

Picture: Getty Images

Up here, you're exposed to the sun and wind, so sunscreen up (or rug up). There are stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains and waterfalls. Finally there's a steep but not difficult descent on stone steps to the Pacamayo campsite (3,660 metres).

Day 3 – Pacamayo to Winayhuayna

Walking: 15 kilometres, nine hours – high point 3,950 metres.

This is an amazing day of hiking along ancient Incan pathways and through stunning Andean cloud forest. First, climb for an hour to a small circular Incan ruin overlooking the valley. Continue up to the high pass of Abra de Runkuracay (3,950 metres). You can climb higher here for amazing views of the surrounding mountains.

Next, descend steeply on original Incan stone steps to the stunning Sayacmarca ruins – protected on three sides by cliffs. Then descend into cloud forest, walking among orchids, mosses and tree ferns. Along this section you'll pass through an Inca tunnel carved into rock.

Climb to a third high pass (3,700 metres) and the nearby impressive Inca ruins of Phuyupatamarca. Then head on from the ruins down a stone Inca stairway for more than 1,000 steps and through cloud forest to Winayhuayna. The ruins here feature terraces, stonework, Inca baths and beautiful views.

Day 4 – Winayhuayna to Machu Picchu

Walking: Six kilometres, two hours – high point 2,700 metres.

You will rise super-early and head off on the trail by 5.30am, in order to reach the Sun Gate for sunrise. The trail traverses hillsides and drops into cloud forest, before climbing on Incan steps to the high pass at Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The views here across the whole Machu Picchu site are flabbergastingly good.

Spend some quality time marvelling at a civilisation that would build an entire city perched on a remote mountaintop. Then descend on stone steps (for about 40 minutes) to explore the magnificent site in detail.

Take a look at our huge range of Inca Trail Adventures from different adventure tour providers.

Or contact us at My Adventure Travel to chat through the different options.