The Inca Trail: What to Know Before You Go

Once a pilgrimage route for Incan nobility, the revered Inca Trail is now one of the most celebrated treks in the world.

Inca Trail

The Inca Trail remains the quintessential Peruvian experience thanks to its spectacular scenery and archaeological significance. Whilst treks are demanding and acclimatisation is essential, walking through the heart of the Peruvian countryside is an unforgettable experience. 

This ancient hiking trail is the path the ancient Incas would have used to reach the citadel of Machu Picchu thousands of years ago. Passing through the spectacular Andean landscapes, the route winds its way through the dramatic scenery of the Sacred Valley towards the celebrated ‘Lost City’. 

Whether you choose the 4-day trek or join the trail on its final leg as it approaches Machu Picchu, following in the footsteps of the Incas is guaranteed to be a highlight on any Peru itinerary.

Where Does the Inca Trail Start?

 Aerial view of cathedral in square in Cusco

Before you begin your trek, you’re probably wondering where the Inca Trail is and how you can get to it.  

The closest city is Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, and anyone planning to tackle the Inca Trail starts their journey here. There are no direct flights from the UK to Cusco, but once you get to South America, it’s only an hour and a half away from Lima by plane. 

While many people just use it as a base for travelling to Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley, we’d recommend setting aside some extra days at the start or end of your trip to explore everything Cusco has to offer. Spending time in Cusco before you do the hike can also help you acclimatise to the altitude in the region and minimise your sensitivity to altitude sickness during your hike. 

The trail itself has two starting points: Piscacucho or Quillabamba, also known as ‘km 82’ and ‘km 88’ respectively (named after how far outside the city they are). From here, you’ll travel through lush cloud forests, mountain valleys and isolated Incan ruins, all showcasing the natural beauty and fascinating history of the region. From snow-capped peaks to stunning glacial lakes, the jaw-dropping panoramas are impressive from the first day of your trek to the last. 

Hiking the Inca Trail

Hiker on the Inca Trail

Before you set off on your adventure, here is everything you need to know before you go:

Please note that due to government regulations, you must hike the Inca Trail with a guide. Luckily, our travel specialists can help with all the admin, helping you find a licensed operator and secure the necessary permit. 

How long is the Inca Trail? 

The 4-day Inca Trail is about 25 miles long, but many tours will also offer a shorter route which only involves part of the trail. 

How long does it take to hike?

The 4-day Inca Trail (25-mile) route takes four days and three nights altogether, while shorter routes can take two days and one night. How many hours you spend walking each day will depend on your fitness and the speed of the group. 

How hard is the Inca Trail?

This is a moderately difficult hike, and we’d recommend doing some preparation beforehand, especially if you’ve never done a long trek before. The difficulty does vary across the trail, with mountainous or particularly high sections, such as Dead Woman’s Pass, being the toughest points. 

While people of all ages tackle the trail, it’s important to be mindful that this trip also involves camping, and there are limited toilet facilities along the route, so the hike may not be suitable for young children or older family members. 

What route does the trail take?

Hiker looking at the mountains

If you’ve ever looked at a map of the Inca Trail, you might notice that different routes feature different destinations and pit stops. While there’s one main trail, the hiking itinerary may vary from group to group, especially when it comes to campsites.

Here’s what a typical breakdown of the four-day route might look like: 

Day 1 - Cusco to Wayllabamba

On day one, you’ll be collected from your hotel in Cusco and whisked to the Sacred Valley to start your trek. The journey is around three hours and takes you through scenic towns like Ollantaytambo, where you may stop to pick up equipment and stock up on some last-minute supplies.

Once you reach km82/88 along the Urubamba River, your assent begins. Along the way, you’ll visit Llactapata, an archaeological agricultural site, with some time to explore the ruins (and have lunch). After, you’ll keep going until you reach the first campsite, typically at Wayllabamba, where your porters will have set everything up and prepared an evening meal.

Day 2 - Wayllabamba to Pacaymayu

Day two is the most challenging day of the trail and involves crossing Warmiwañusca Pass, otherwise known as Dead Woman’s Pass. The path is steep and difficult as you make your way through the cloud forests to the trail's highest point (over 13,000 feet). After taking in the view, you’ll descend to the next campsite at Pacaymayu. Many tours arrive at camp in the afternoon, giving you plenty of time to rest and relax.

Day 3 - Pacaymayu to Wiñaywayna

Day three is also demanding, with plenty of ups and downs and a lot of distance to cover until the next campsite. However, this day is our favourite as it includes plenty of breathtaking views and time at several archaeological sites, including the stone staircases of Runkurakay and the impressively preserved ruins at Puyupatamarca. 

The day ends at Wiñaywayna, where you’ll enjoy a final night together with your group before you reach Machu Picchu.

Day 4 - Wiñaywayna to Machu Picchu and back to Cusco

The final day often starts before sunrise, reaching Machu Picchu’s iconic Sun Gate just as the first rays come up over the horizon. Once you reach the top, take a breath as you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu and the verdant valleys that lie below, stretching far into the distance. 

When you’re ready, head down into the citadel itself to explore the ruins with your group before you all head back to Cusco. 

What to Pack for the Inca Trail

From making sure you’ve got your camera to bringing enough layers for the cooler nights, working out what to bring to the Inca Trail requires a bit of consideration.  

There are three main ways to think about packing for the Inca Trail:  

  • Things you need for your Peru holiday
  • Things you need during the hike 
  • Things you need at camp 

Any general luggage for your holiday can be left in storage wherever you’re staying before the trek. You’ll then be able to take a small day bag with you on the hike itself, plus a bag weighing up to 6kg with all your camp essentials like your sleeping bag and clothes.  

Porters will carry this second bag for you during the day, but that does mean you’ll only have access to this bag when you arrive at camp for the night. So, you’ll need to think carefully about how you split up your belongings.  

Clothes 

Given Peru’s equatorial climate, you’re probably wondering what to wear on the Inca Trail. Depending on when you travel, you’ll experience different conditions. If you visit between November and January, you’ll need more waterproof gear to tackle Peru’s rainy season, but if you travel in June or July, breathable clothing will keep you cool as you hike.   

No matter what time of year you visit, your clothes should keep you warm, dry, and protect you from the sun.  

Here’s what we recommend packing:   

  • 2-3 pairs of hiking/sports trousers
  • 3-4 short-sleeve tops 
  • 1-2 long-sleeve tops 
  • 1 thin fleece 
  • A warm hat 
  • A cap or lightweight hat 
  • A good pair of hiking boots
  • A pair of slip-on shoes for camp
  • A rain poncho to keep you and your pack dry
  • 5-6 pairs of socks (plus spares if you’re travelling in the rainy season) 

Most of this will go in your porter bag, but it’s a good idea to pack a warm layer, your hat, and poncho, plus a spare pair of socks in your day bag in case the weather changes.  

Hiking equipment and gear

Trekking the Inca Trail does require a fair bit of equipment, but again, most of this can go in your porter bag, so you don’t have to carry it around the whole time.   

Here are some essentials we recommend for hiking the Inca Trail:  

  • A sturdy day bag 
  • A water bladder and lightweight water bottle 
  • A sleeping bag and sleeping mat
  • An inflatable pillow 
  • Trekking poles 
  • A headlamp 
  • A microfibre towel/washcloth 

Luckily, most tour operators will provide key supplies like a sleeping bag and trekking poles, but it’s important to check.  

Toiletries

Alongside your basic toiletries, there are a few things we recommend bringing along during your hike:  

  • Body/face wipes
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Suncream
  • Any medication 
  • Altitude-sickness tablets
  • Plasters 
  • Tissues 

It’s worth noting that there are no showers and limited toilet facilities along the route, so we recommend packing your toiletries in your day bag so you can refresh on the go.   

Other essentials 

Finally, here are some last bits to go in your day bag:

  • Sunglasses 
  • Phone and battery pack 
  • Camera
  • Snacks 
  • Passport (you’ll need it to enter the park) 
  • Sandwich bags to keep everything dry and organised 

Book Your Peru Trip with Scott Dunn

Ready to take on the Inca Trail?   

At Scott Dunn, our travel specialists are on hand to help you craft the perfect Peruvian holiday. From securing your Machu Picchu permit to planning a route for exploring the rest of Peru before or after your trek, we’ll handle everything and create a trip that’s truly bespoke to you.   

Take a look at our suggested tours, or get in touch with a travel specialist today to start planning your adventure. 

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