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Hiking the Inca Trail trek is undoubtedly at the top of many bucket lists. And for very good reason. An ancient pilgrimage that evokes a sense of mystery, probably incites a little fear and, will inspire jealousy among friends. But, most of all, it calls to the wanderlust and intrepid spirit.
Machu Picchu is one of the most iconic sights in South America and the world. And the Inca Trail is almost as famous as the site itself, with hundreds of people starting the 4-day / 3-night trek each day. The hike brings you along the ancient path created by the Incas through the Peruvian countryside and into the Andean Mountains, past Incan ruins, cloud forests and stunning views across valleys. But with all these pictures that the trail evokes, it also comes with questions. What to expect? What to bring? How hard is it? Do I need to train?
I hiked the Inca Trail trek in April 2023 as part of this G Adventures tour and was very proud of achieving it. But I also had a lot of these questions ahead of embarking on this bucket list tick. So I wanted to put together this post to hopefully answer any questions you might have about the trail if you are considering booking. And if I have missed anything, please let me know (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via socials – Twitter / Instagram)!
What is the Inca Trail trek?
Why is it so popular?
Firstly, prestige. Of following the footsteps of the very people who created not only the trail but also the end destination – Machu Picchu. Nothing can beat the feeling of actually being on the Inca Trail, and it is so iconic. There is something very rewarding about walking around Machu Picchu, knowing how much you have earned being there.
But the main reason it is so popular is the Sungate. This offers a fantastic first view of Machu Picchu from an elevated position. And is only accessible via the Inca Trail. On the final day of the trek, you leave the final checkpoint at 5.30 am to get to the Sungate as early as possible. Depending on the time of year, you might get to see the sunrise from the Sungate.
As well as the above, the views along the way, the changing terrains and the solidarity of doing the hike in a group all make this one of the best travel experiences you can do.
Is the Inca Trail trek the only hike to Machu Picchu?
The Inca Trail is the most popular trek to Machu Picchu, but it is not the only option available to you. Other treks you can partake in are:
- Lares Trek – this is a great option if you want to experience local life in the Andes. While the Inca Trail limits the number of people on the trail each day, there is still the feeling of being with others at all times. The Lares trek is much quieter, and you can often feel you are alone in the Andes. It reaches a higher altitude than the Inca Trail but does not end at Machu Picchu.
- Salkantay Trek – One of the most popular alternatives to the Inca Trail trek. This is a 5-day trek and reaches 5000m in altitude. There is also the opportunity to do extra activities along the way. This also finishes in Aguas Caliente.
Are there benefits to choosing another trail?
The main benefit of choosing another trail, rather than the Inca Trail, is isolation. While the Peruvian government does limit the number of people on the trail each day, it is a well-walked route. Whereas people who have hiked the other trails say they often didn’t see any other groups for days.
The other benefit is flexibility, as they are less popular you will likely have more chance of booking last minute.
Do I have to do the Inca Trail trek to see Machu Picchu?
Not at all. As mentioned above, there are other hikes you can choose to do if you want to experience hiking through the Andes. However, if hiking just isn’t for you. You can visit Machu Picchu using transport options. Pick up the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente, and then from there, you can get a shuttle bus to the site. Aguas Caliente is also known as Machu Picchu town, so if you want to be one of the first at the site, stay there the night before.
Booking the Inca Trail
Do I have to book to do the Inca Trail trek?
100% yes. Without question. And often up to 6 months in advance. As mentioned, the Peruvian government limits the number of people who can start the trek daily. This number is 500, and this includes all porters and guides. So it is very important to ensure you have your permit secured.
Can I hike the Inca Trail without a guide?
No. You must book through a registered tour company with a special operator’s license, which is renewed annually and cannot hike the trail unaccompanied. Many regulations have to be followed on the trail. For example, all rubbish has to be collected in branded bags so that if any is left behind, it can be identified. For this reason, to ensure all regulations are met, you have to choose from one of the tour companies.
How much does the Inca Trail cost?
Generally, the Inca Trail will cost somewhere between $600 and $750.
I hiked the Inca Trail as part of a two-week tour with G Adventures through Peru, and the hike was included in the overall price for the tour.
However, you can choose to book with G for just the hike, and they offer different price points for different experiences. Their cheapest option is the 4-day / 3-night Inca Trail trek which starts and ends in Cusco.
How do I choose a tour company?
Do your research! The Inca Trail isn’t something that should be booked because it is cheaper. Consider things that the company might have to cut to enable more competitive prices. Things such as not providing their porters with appropriate equipment and footwear.
If you find a company showing prices cheaper than the above, then be very sceptical.
As mentioned, I travelled with G Adventures and cannot recommend them enough. They are a global company focused on sustainable small-group adventures. And have also been awarded ‘Best Inca Trail Tour Operator’ by the Regional Direction of Foreign Trade and Tourism of Cusco in Peru. So don’t just take my word for it; the team is amazing.
From the pre-hike meeting in Cusco to the porters and chefs on the trail, everyone was so kind and welcoming and made the experience what it was. The chef even baked a cake on day 3. Made from equipment and ingredients carried over three days along the trail. Incredible.
If you want more detail on what hiking with G Adventures was like, I have written this post: G Adventures Inca Trail Review
Take a look at all the options they offer for the Inca trail here.
When is the best time to do the Inca Trail trek?
Peru, and the Andes, have two seasons – dry and wet. You can hike the Inca Trail at any time of the year, so it is best to consider the pros and cons of each season to work out when is best for you.
Dry season – May to October – The pros, as the name suggests, is that there is less chance of rain. However, this is high season, so the chance of reaching maximum capacity on the Inca Trail is high. The campsites are more likely to be full, and there will be more traffic on the trail. Although, guides do tend to space the groups out. Depending on fitness, tours start out earlier, and some tours trek longer or shorter than others each day to stagger where everyone stays. Best to book well in advance for this season. It also gets cold at night.
Wet season – November to April – I hiked the Inca Trail at the beginning of April and was lucky only to have half a day of real rain, an overcast day and two days of sunshine. But you can’t guarantee it. The pros of this time of year are that it is likely to be quieter and there is more chance of being able to book last minute. The nights also aren’t as cold. However, the chance of rain is much higher and hiking and camping on wet rainy days is never a joyous experience. Plus, the rain means the trail can be slippery.
It is also worth noting that the Inca Trail is closed every February to allow it to replenish.
Typically, the “best” months are known to be April, May, September and October, as the temperatures are higher and the chance of rain is lower. However, weather changes quickly in the mountains, and whenever you choose to hike, ensure you are prepared for all eventualities.
Preparing for the Inca Trail Trek
Do I need to acclimatise before my trek?
Yes, ideally, you do. It will help on the trail if your body is somewhat used to the altitude before you embark on the trail. As part of the two-week G Adventures tour I was on, we spent at least a week before the tour at various altitudes. Arequipa at 2,335 m, Chivay in Colca Canyon at 3,635 m, the highest point on the pass at 4,950m and then 2 days in Cusco and a homestay before going to Ollantaytambo. It is recommended to have at least two days in Cusco before you start.
If you are looking for some things to do in Cusco, make sure to check out this post: One day in Cusco, Peru
When and where must you be in Peru before the Inca Trail?
As mentioned above, aim to get to Cusco at least two days before the hike starts to acclimatise if you haven’t been at altitude during your travels immediately before. It is 3,339 m above sea level, so the perfect city to explore before the hiking begins. It is also where most of the tours start with a private transfer taking you to Ollantaytambo.
What do you need to pack for the Inca Trail?
This is quite an in-depth topic and the part I found most hard to work out before embarking on the trek. I have put together a complete guide to packing for a trip to Peru, and this includes sections for the Inca Trail. What to pack in your daypack, your overnight bag and what to wear.
Essentially pack light, and pack for every eventuality. You don’t need a new outfit for each day, but you absolutely do need layers.
What equipment do I need for the Inca Trail?
Your tour company will provide you with tents, thin mattresses and everything needed for camp. They basically bring the essentials for you, so you just need to focus on personal possessions. There is also the option to hire additional equipment. I hired an air mattress and sleeping bag. And you can also hire hiking poles.
If there is anything you have forgotten, both Cusco and Ollantaytambo are packed full of places where you can buy everything you need.
Do I need my passport for the Inca Trail?
Do not embark on the Inca Trail without it!
It is checked as you join the trail at Km.82 and at checkpoints along the way. So make sure to keep it on you, not in your overnight bag, and do not lose it as you hike!
Please also be aware that permits are only issued with a tourist’s name and passport number; once booked, they are non-changeable and non-transferable. If you happen to change your passport between booking and arriving at the entry checkpoint at Km.82, then contact your tour company for advice.
What happens to my belongings I don’t want to take on the hike?
No matter how long you have been travelling, whether you are just visiting Peru or have been travelling through South America for months, you will have clothes and personal belongings that you don’t need to take on the Inca Trail. Plus, they will just be too heavy! Anything you don’t need for the four days will be left behind in either Cusco or Ollantaytambo (depending on your tour operator) in a secure location. Just don’t leave any valuables in it, because that is just silly!
Do I need a special duffel bag for the Inca Trail trek?
Your tour operator will supply you with a small duffel bag for you to pack your overnight bits and pieces in for the four days. This must weigh no more than 6kg, including your air mattress and sleeping bag.
Hiking the Inca Trail
Inca Trail – day by day
Broadly each day will look like the below. This might vary slightly from tour group to tour group, but this is how G Adventures breaks down each day.
- Travel by bus from Ollantaytambo to Km.82, setting off from Km.82 at 9 am.
- Distance: approx 11km
- Elevation gain: 350m
- Moderate, ‘training’ day with only 15 minutes of steep uphill
- A few ruins along the way
- Set off from camp at 6.45 am
- Hike through the cloud forest to the highest point – Dead Woman’s Pass
- Distance: approx 12km
- Elevation gain: 1,115m
- The most difficult day of the hike, take it slow and steady, downhill after the summit. Arrive at camp for lunch.
- Set off from camp at 6.45 am
- The most interesting day of the hike, with lots of ruins to see along the way
- Distance: approx 16km
- Elevation gain: 450m, then minus 1000m
- A steep section to start, and then downhill, which can be tricky on the knees and slippery
- Set off from camp at 3.30 am, a 5-minute walk to the checkpoint. Walk through the checkpoint at 5.30 am.
- Hike 1.5 hours to the Sungate
- Distance: 5km
- The fastest you will walk along the Inca Trail – the excitement to see Machu Picchu is real now!
How hard is the Inca Trail? Do I need to be fit?
The big one, and most likely the most asked question. Do you need to be fit to hike the Inca Trail? This was one of my main concerns before embarking on the Inca Trail, and seeing the graph for day two didn’t exactly make me feel any more confident. How ‘hard’ is the Inca Trail depends on individual circumstances. Factoring in things like your fitness, hiking experience, your group’s approach, attitude, the weather conditions on the route, and many other factors.
In general, 44km stretched over four days is achievable for able-bodied, healthy adults. Personally, I found it easier than I thought I would. There were points, particularly on the second day, where I was really short of breath, but I believe if I can do it, anyone can!
The Inca Trail is not about time; take it at your own pace. There were points on the second day where we were stopping almost every 5 minutes and two-stepping each of the steps. But despite this, we still reached camp an hour ahead of the ‘usual’ time each day.
In summary, if you acclimatise before, take your time and are generally able-bodied, then the Inca Trail is a challenge but absolutely achievable.
Do I need to train before hiking the Inca Trail?
I didn’t do any specific training before I travelled to Peru. But I think some things helped me. I have been (sporadically) running for about three years. Although by no means long distances or fast. I ski every year, so I have spent some time at altitude. Although, again, nowhere as near as high as Dead Woman’s Pass. And I have been on the odd hiking holiday, but again not frequently.
I also live in Norfolk, notorious for being one of the flattest parts of the UK. Which definitely doesn’t help with the altitude. However, despite the above, I actually did no formal training before the Inca Trail.
You will know your own circumstance and situation better than I do. But if you believe yourself to have a general fitness level, then you will be fine!
Do I need to carry my belongings?
Generally no. The porters will carry all of your camping equipment – tent, sleeping bag, air mattress etc. They also carry your duffel bag, which can contain up to 6kg of items. But this does include your sleeping bag and mattress. You pack up your overnight stuff each morning, leave the duffel bag in the tent, and the porters will then carry this to the next campsite.
You will need to carry your daypack with you. This must contain all the items you might need during the day, as you cannot access your duffel bag until you reach camp. So ensure you have valuables, water, a first aid kit, layers, a camera etc, in your daypack.
What facilities are available on the trek?
You can only camp and stop at official rest stops, and there are plenty of these along the trek. These all contain an element of basic facilities. Each had a form of toilet, and some were definitely better than others. I was actually pleasantly surprised by most of the facilities. Let’s not get carried away, they weren’t the most pleasant, but I have used worse! Given that it was still the quieter season, I think when more people are on the trail, they could get much worse in the high season.
But in general, there are toilets. Some are squat; some are not. None have loo roll, so bring your own and hand sanitiser.
Two of the campsites also had a cold shower block. Again, perhaps not the cleanest and absolutely no hot water. But if you did want to rinse off, the option is there. You are also given a bowl of warm water at the end of each day by the porters. For me, it was much preferable to use a bit of soap and wet wipes to clean than the showers.
Are there any rules on the trek?
Aside from the obvious, you must have a permit, be with a group, only camp in designated spots etc. There are some ‘rules’ of the road.
Firstly, the porters are THE most important people on the Inca Trail. They are the heroes that carry everything, make sure every need is catered for as well as completing the trail in much faster times than you will—all the while carrying 25kg on their back. In short, you could not do the Inca Trail trek without them. As such, you make way from them on the trail. When a porter comes past, shout out so others know and step aside to let them pass. ‘Haku’ also means ‘let’s go’ in Quechuan, so we would call out this for support. The porters are all local farmers who do this for extra work and speak Quechuan.
Stick to the trail. Clearly, don’t be that person; only walk on the designated routes and respect the ruins.
And the old adage goes, ‘Take only memories, leave only footprints’. It is fairly obvious, but make sure you clear up after yourself and take all your rubbish – even organic waste such as banana skins. They are rubbish bags in each campsite, and we had poo bags with us to put any rubbish in during the day.
Do you need to set up camp each day?
I have previously travelled through Africa with G Adventures, and on this trip, you are responsible for setting up and breaking down camp each day. However, this is not the case on the Inca Trial. When you arrive at camp, the porters have already set up your tent. And then, after you leave in the morning, they break it down and pack everything up for you. What luxury! If you have hired a sleeping bag from G Adventures, they even pack this up for you.
As I said before, They are absolute heroes.
Is there internet on the hike?
No. And this is the beauty of it. Four whole days of being completely disconnected from the world, and it really feels disconnected. Take the time to enjoy the experience and the surroundings. Plus, not being connected to the internet means flight mode, which means your phone battery lasts longer for even more photos. Even if you have a local sim, there is no phone signal—complete and utter peace.
How do I get my belongings back at the end?
On the last day, you leave camp early so the porters can make it to Aguas Caliente to get the first train back to Ollantaytambo, and with it, they take your duffel bag. This bag will then be left in Aguas Caliente at the restaurant you have your final lunch at. Ready for you to collect before taking it back with you to Ollantaytambo on the train.
Money and food on the hike
What is the food like?
The food blew me away; this was one of the biggest surprises for me. As mentioned, I travelled with G Adventures, so I cannot talk to the food of other tour operators. But with G, the food was just exceptional. The amount, the quality and the variety. Our group and one chef (for larger groups, you would have two), and he performed nothing short of miracles.
Each meal generally included some sort of soup, followed by a main course and then something sweet. With tea afterwards. For the last lunch, we even had a buffet, so much food. The variety was astounding; I think I had been expecting a lot of rice daily. But we had everything from guacamole, fried chicken, and beef to pizza.
There were also surprises such as afternoon tea and even a cake! A cake. Made on the Inca Trail, with ingredients carried up there. Incredible.
All dietaries are also considered, I don’t eat fish, and we also had a vegetarian. You also don’t need to lift a finger. A dining tent is set up, and all food is brought to you.
Where do I get drinking water from?
You can fill up your water bottles at lunch and at the campsite. The porters boil water for drinking water each day. So ensure you have a large enough bottle to get you through each morning and afternoon.
Can I buy snacks on the Inca Trail?
On days 1 and 2, you will find shacks along the way selling snacks and drinks. The last one of these is just before the final push to the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass. This is a good opportunity to buy more water if you are running low – you will need it.
My tour also did give us a snack bag on day 1, which was for the entire four days. I finished this by the end of day 2. So it does make sense to pick up some snacks from Cusco or Ollantaytambo before you set off.
How much money should I bring on the Inca Trail?
It might surprise you that you need money on the Inca Trail trek; after all, you are in the middle of nowhere! But there are occasions along the way that do require you to have a little money on you. Nearly everything is covered in the upfront cost of the tour, but there are some occasions where you will need some cash:
- Buying any additional snacks along the route
- Toilet fees, not all, but some charge 1 or 2 soles
- Lunch at Aguas Caliente
- Tips for porters and guides, see more below
Do I need to tip?
Whichever tour group you are with, you will be expected to tip your guide and porters. Tipping is always optional, as well as the amount, but considering what the team have done for you, they will absolutely deserve something extra to recognise their outstanding work and care.
The process will vary from operator to operator, but with G, we had an envelope for the porters and one for the guide, and we collectively added cash to it. We then had a little goodbye moment with the porters, where we gave this to them.
G’s recommendations per person are $10-$25 for the head guide, $5-$12 for the assistant guide and $40 for the team.
Health and Safety on the Inca Trail
Will I get altitude sickness on the Inca Trail?
Many of the popular destinations in Peru are at an altitude – Cusco, Arequipa, and Colca Valley. So if you are visiting the country, you must factor this in.
The best way to minimise the likelihood of altitude sickness is to allow your body time to adjust. This means it is not advisable to arrive in Cusco at 3,339m and then, straight away the next day, embark on a very strenuous hike.
A good rule of thumb is to allow yourself two easy days at altitude before starting the hike. Make sure to stay hydrated, and coca leaves and coca tea helps! You are woken up with a cup of this every morning on a hike with G Adventures, and coca leaves are available at every meal.
What happens if I need help?
Despite the best will in the world, sometimes you might be struggling either from altitude sickness or anything else! The absolute first thing to do is let your guide know you are struggling. Don’t try and carry on, and hope it gets better. This will only make things worse.
The best tour companies each come with a main guide and an assistant guide – one will lead at the front of your group whilst another will stay at the back. They are experienced in supporting members of a group who may be struggling or slower than the others and ensuring that everyone’s experience is the best possible in the circumstances. If you are struggling, it’s their job to control the situation, help you get to camp, and also to manage the overall group schedule.
The guides will also carry oxygen if you are really struggling. If you need support, the porters will come from the camp to help you with the final push.
What do I do with my valuables?
The best advice is to take everything valuable with you. Your main luggage will be stored securely in Cusco or Ollantaytambo. However, it is still best not to leave anything valuable in them. Make sure anything of value is in your daypack rather than your overnight bag.
What first aid should I take with me?
There are no facilities along the way, so do take any medication you might need with you. Also, ensure you have a good supply of painkillers, antiseptic cream and blister plasters. Rehydration sachets are also a good idea, especially if the weather is warm.
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail
What is Machu Pichhu?
So, you have completed the Inca Trail hike. But what are you actually reaching at the end of the trail?
Machu Picchu is the 15th-century Inca Citadel, built deep into the Andean mountains. It was reintroduced to the world by Hiram Bingham in 1911. The locals knew of its existence, and families were living there when it was found by Bingham. A local boy actually showed him around for one sole.
It is believed to have been a royal residence and sacred site for the Incas before the Spanish invasion wiped out the civilisation. The city has accommodations, temples, public meeting spaces, schools and terraces.
Will you see other ruins along the way?
Machu Picchu is not the only Inca Ruin you will see along the way. Another of the main perks of doing the Inca Trail trek rather than just making a day trip. These ruins really help build a picture of what it was like making the pilgrimage for the Incas.
On day one, you will see ruins almost as soon as you set off across the other side of the river. These are traveller rest stops. But the most impressive ruins of day one are Patallaqta Qentimarka. This was a village with houses, terraces for agriculture and also a rest stop for travellers. It also served as house soldiers who manned the nearby fort of Willkaraqay. You also get to explore this ruin up close!
Day two has no ruins, but day three is the day for ruin spotting! Not long after leaving camp, you arrive at Runkuraqay, which is believed to be a resting place and administrative point. After the highest point, you have the option of climbing the 100 steps to Sayaqmarka, which is definitely worth it. This is a temple; if you are lucky with the weather, you have a good view of the valley. And the next ruins – Qonchamarka.
Immediately after lunch, you walk through the interesting ruin of Phuyupatamarka, known as the ‘place above the clouds’, and was both housing and religious. The final ruin of the day is just before the camp; Intipata. The terraces were created for agriculture and also served as a surveillance point. If you have made good time on the trek, you will spend some time here, which is a really spiritual moment as you near the end of the hike and reflect on what you have achieved.
When will you arrive at Machu Picchu?
It is a common misconception that if you hike the Inca Trail, you will be among the first to arrive at Machu Picchu. This is just not the case. It is much easier to be one of the first through the gate if you stay at Aguas Caliente the night before.
Instead, you’re among the lucky ones to arrive via the Sun Gate just after sunrise (expect this to be around 6-7 am) and then an excitement-filled descent down to an uncrowded Machu Picchu with special views of it all the way. If you hike the trail, there is also an area for you to get the best views of the city that you cannot access with a day ticket.
The ticket for the $12 shuttle bus (30 minutes) down to Aguas Calientes will be included in your tour price and the ticket provided on the day by your guide.
Does the cost of the Inca Trail include entry to Machu Picchu?
Yes, the cost of the Inca Trail does include entry to the site. It is the responsibility of the tour company to collect these and make sure you have it. You also need your passport to gain entry to the Machu Picchu site. Once you have hiked down from the Sungate and taken photos, you then enter the site.
Can I get a passport stamp for Machu Picchu?
Yes, you can! I chose not to, but you can get it stamped either on-site or in town. The passport-stamping station is located just to the left of the entrance to Machu Picchu. There is usually a small line of people waiting. You have until 5:00 pm to get the Machu Picchu stamp. The least busy time is in the afternoon between 2:00 – 5:00 pm. Alternatively, you can get it at the Centro Cultural Machu Picchu next to Iglesia Virgen del Carmen in the Aguas Calientes town centre.
You might want to check this, as there have been reports of people being denied entry to other countries because of novelty stamps.
You have made it to the end; well done! I hope this has answered all and any questions you might have about embarking on the Inca Trail. Please do reach out if there is anything you feel I have missed.
If you have yet to book a tour, I highly recommend hiking the Inca Trail with G Adventures, and their 7-day trip is the perfect length.
And most importantly, enjoy the entire experience!
Visiting Peru? Make sure to check out my other posts on the country by clicking here: PERU
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