The Complete Guide to the Inca Trail
Legendary around the world, the Inca Trail leads you through breathtaking landscapes across several days, following in the footsteps of ancient Inca messengers.
Widely considered to be the ultimate Peruvian experience, the Inca Trail rewards daring hikers with jaw-dropping scenery and a deep sense of culture and history. The trek can be demanding, and you’ll need to spend time acclimatizing, but this iconic journey through the heart of Peru’s wild mountain and valley terrain is a once-in-a-lifetime memory to keep forever.
This ancient hiking trail is the path the ancient Incas would have used to reach the citadel of Machu Picchu several centuries 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, tracing the path of the Incas is guaranteed to be a highlight on any Peru itinerary.
Where Does the Inca Trail Start?
When you’re planning the details of your hike, one of your first questions is likely to be: where is the Inca Trail?
Everyone setting out to tackle the Inca Trail will head to Cusco initially, as it’s the closest city to the trail. There are no direct flights from the US 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 traveling to Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley, we recommend setting aside some extra days to explore Cusco and see why it’s one of the most popular places to visit in Peru. Spending time in Cusco before you do the hike can also help you acclimatize to the altitude in the region and help you avoid altitude sickness during your hike.
The Inca Trail itself has two starting points: Piscacucho or Quillabamba. 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 astonishing panoramas are impressive from the first day of your trek to the last.
Trekking 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 that only involves part of the trail.
You’ve likely heard about how altitude affects how much you can exert yourself, and may be asking: how high is the Inca Trail? Elevation varies at different points along the trail and ranges from about 8,500 feet to over 13,700 feet, meaning it’s crucial to acclimatize in Cusco (about 11,150 feet) before you go.
How long does it take to hike?
Hiking 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?
The Inca Trail is a moderately difficult hike, and we recommend being fully prepared for it in advance, especially if you’ve never done a long trek before or exercised at higher elevations. There are more difficult sections across the trail that are particularly mountainous or high, such as the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass, which may test you physically.
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?
The Inca Trail follows different routes with a variety of camping locations and pit stops along the way. While there’s one main trail, the hiking itinerary may vary from group to group, especially when it comes to campsites.
We’ve put together an example of what the four-day route might look like:
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.
After reaching a point on 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.
This 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 (close to 13,700 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 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 favorite 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.
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.
If you want to spend more time in the area, our travel specialist Julie Norton shares her top accommodation recommendation:
“Sanctuary Lodge (Belmond Property) is a great place to stay in Machu Picchu as it is the only hotel near the entrance to the park. Aside from Belmond properties being absolutely beautiful, they have great restaurants, yoga and meditation space, and an area for outdoor massages. Since they are at the top, guests also have the option to be some of the first people in the park for the day, enjoying a quiet sunrise. They also have a room option where you can see Huayna Picchu from your window.”
What to Pack for the Inca Trail
Figuring out what to bring to the Inca Trail requires some thought and preparation – things like warm clothing for cool nights and a battery pack for your phone.
Think of packing for the Inca Trail like this:
- Things you need for your Peru vacation
- Things you need during the hike
- Things you need at camp
Your regular vacation luggage can be left in storage at your hotel. You’ll then be able to take a small day bag with you on the hike itself, plus a bag weighing up to 6 kilos (just over 13 lbs) 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.
Due to 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/athletic 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 or flip-flops for camp
- A rain poncho to keep you and your pack dry
- 5-6 pairs of socks (plus spares if you’re traveling 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 microfiber towel/washcloth
Luckily, most travel companys will provide key supplies like a sleeping bag and trekking poles, but it’s important to check.
Alongside your basic toiletries, there are a few things we recommend bringing along during your hike:
- Body/face wipes
- Antibacterial wipes
- Any medication
- Altitude-sickness tablets
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.
Finally, here are some last bits to go in your day bag:
- Phone and battery pack
- Passport (you’ll need it to enter the park)
- Sandwich bags to keep everything dry and organized
Book Your Peru Trip with Scott Dunn
Excited to tackle the Inca Trail?
At Scott Dunn, our travel specialists are on hand to help you craft the perfect Peruvian vacation. From securing your Machu Picchu permit to planning many other exciting things to do in 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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