You may have seen the wonder of Machu Picchu hundreds of times among the millions of images circulating on the internet, but when you arrive at the Sun Gate walking in from the Inca Trail and feel the energy of Machu Picchu – not only in your imagination but throughout your body – it’s incredibly special, and it won’t just be the altitude that leaves you breathless!
This is one of the most popular journeys to do in South America and one of the world’s most famous hikes. The hike itself, that brings you along narrow ancient paths deep into the Peruvian countryside and high into the Andes mountains, is dotted with gorgeous excellent Incan ruins, cloud forest and majestic natural views all along the way, concluding with perhaps the best finish of any multi-day hike on earth, the ever-enduring Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail that you can hike is actually part of a huge network of trails. The Incan Empire, which at its largest joined Peru, large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south-central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile and a small part of southwest Colombia, created thousands of kilometers of trails to link its important settlements and centers of civilization.
The good news is that it’s a lot shorter than you may expect. The bad news? A significant chunk of it is up steep, narrow Andean mountain paths at fairly altitude.
The traditional Inca Trail is established as 4 days and 3 nights hiking which leads travelers from Km 82 – Piskacuchu (the starting point 2.5 hours away from Cusco) all the way to Machu Picchu via its exclusive Inti Punko (Sun Gate).
This version of the Inca trail involves staying overnight in a hotel with no camping, appropriate for those who are concerned about altitude sickness.
Hiking to Machu Picchu via the Short Inca Trail through Sun Gate consists, one-day hike and next day Machu Picchu guided tour.
The Traditional Inca Trail of Peru is not as difficult or challenging as you may think, but every person’s own hike experience will be very subjective based on their fitness level. Day Two of the hike, which leads you from your campsite all the way up to the Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200 meters/13,776 ft is widely regarded as the most difficult day of hiking but once you’re passed that, you’ll be laughing (or maybe crying)!
The Inca Trail Hike is not about finishing each day as quickly as possible. Enjoy the route, rather than trying to set a new record – which would be very difficult to do by the way – the current record is 3 hours 45 minutes by a porter, from the starting point all the way to Machu Picchu!
Everyone has their own challenges, circumstances, and reasons for being on the Trail, and friendship and positive experiences are more likely to blossom out of supporting someone through their struggle. For example, if you are one of the quicker ones in the group, you can be a motivator and encourage those slower than you and improve everyone’s experience.
Starting point: KM 82 Piskacuchu 2,750m/9,022ft
Highest point: Dead womans pass (warmi wañusca) 4,200m/13,779ft
Total distance: 45k/27miles
From Km 104, the hike will bring you into the Andean Mountains and take you up, down, and around this mind-blowing mountain chain. It is an intermediate difficulty hike that can take anywhere from 5 to 8 hours all the way to Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, arriving in the afternoon. There are many steep climbs and tight curves, however they’re all definitely worth the gorgeous views from so high up that you can only find in Peru!
Starting point: KM 104 Chachabamba 2,150m/7,053ft
Highest altitude point: Sun Gate (inti punku) 2,700m/8,858ft
End of the hike: Machu Picchu 2400m/7,874ft
Total distance: 12k/7.5miles
To enter the Inca Trail, you need a permit which Tour Operators secure for you – but these permits are extremely limited and sell out very quickly. So, getting your reservation in early is a great idea. Once the permits are on sale, many dates will sell out within the first few hours with the rest of the permits to the Inca trail selling out six months ahead.
Only 200 hikers are allowed to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail per day, out of a total of 500, since the other 300 people make up the support teams of chefs, porters and guides.
The entrance to the Inca Trail includes entrance to Machu Picchu. If you want to additionally hike Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu; ask for it at the moment of your booking.
February is the rainiest month in the Cusco region and in Machu Picchu. The institutions in charge dictate that you cannot enter Machu Picchu via Inca Trail in February.
The objective of this closure isn’t solely for your safety as it is also an opportunity to preserve the old Inca path. Throughout February, conservation and maintenance works are carried out and deteriorated parts of the paths, terraces and camp sites are repaired.
The entrance to the legendary Inca highway is strictly controlled. This seeks to protect the Inca Trail that’s more than 500 years old and the wonderful natural environment that surrounds it.
You are only allowed on the Inca Trail in the company of a tour guide using an authorized tour operator. They will arrange to book the entrance ticket for you and everything you need to do the Inca Trail.
Tickets must be reserved 6 months in advance. Permits are limited to 500 people per day, including chefs, porters and guides.
All companies operating the Inca Trail must be registered and have a special operator’s license, which is renewed annually. A large number of these companies are only established to provide specific private tours in high season, with the rest offering year-round expeditions.
Short Inca Trail KM 104 tours cost from $390 / $450 / $615.
Classic Inca Trail tours cost from $700 / $799 /$850 per person up to $ 1,500 / $1,900 / $1,670; if you see a price any cheaper than the bottom-end of this range then be very skeptical. If you are seeing a higher price than this, then you will either be on a very luxury tour or likely booking through a travel agent.
Note that, aside from the mark-up on price, Inca Trail tours booked via agencies will often simply place you on an available tour with one of several operators, so you have very little control on the quality of the ultimate provider and group composition.
You will need to present your passport at the check point before the hike and also to enter Machu Picchu. Be aware that permits are strictly issued with a traveler’s name and passport number and, once booked, they are non-changeable and non-transferable.
If you happen to get a new passport, you will have to bring your old passport with you to just enter the trail but use your new one to enter the country. If you no longer have it you could bring a copy of your old passport, or of your driver’s license. We understand it’s a bit tedious, but the authorities will only let you enter with these copies.
The Inca Trail weather is difficult to fully understand due to its peculiar sub-tropical nature. Even if you choose the season well, the beautiful scenery can be obscured by rain, wind, fog, and clouds. Checking the weather in Cusco will not suffice either, 100 kilometers between the two locations makes a huge difference to their climates. The location of Inca Trail trek in the mountains makes it prone to receiving cold winds and its surrounding humid tropical jungle adds another unpredictable element. In general, the weather here can be broken into 2 seasons; wet season and dry season. Even within these 2 seasons, it is not uncommon for drastic and quick changes to take place on the same day – our motto is “Be prepared for everything”.
In the summer months from December to March, the weather can be very pleasant and warm but with intermittent rain. Despite this rain, we are well prepared for it and you will still have a great time. Our wettest month is February when it rains basically every single day. During these months, rainfall occurs every day, accounting for about 80% of our annual rainfall the humidity level gets to 91% which is absolutely huge! Even with the high levels of rain, the typical temperature on the Inca Trail continues to be around 21ºC. It’s very different from Cusco.
The level of rain drops by half once March turns to April, before finally halting once the dry season comes around.
The Inca Trail weather from May to September is considered the best time of the year if dry weather is what you’re after, but you pay a price since this is the time of year that every other traveler will most likely go, so expect it to be crowded. During the dry months, the hours of sunlight are double that of during the rainy season due to minimal cloud cover, making an early rise to see the sunrise over the mountains a better prospect. The average temperature during the dry season ranges from about 18 – 20ºC. However, after sunset and during the night, the temperature will drop very low, sometimes even below freezing, due to the cloudless skies letting the heat escape.
October is still a dry month, although not to the same extent as the other dry months. November sees the same level of rainfall as April and can be considered the transition month back into the rainy season. When it does rain, it is never for more than an hour max and then it will stop. The humidity levels between these months are less than the rainy months, making a visit to Machu Picchu in the morning with high visibility more likely.
Cusco, in the south-east of Peru, thankfully doubles up as one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations due to its history and position as an access point to Machu Picchu, so every Peru itinerary is guaranteed to include at least a few days in Cusco.
For everyone planning to go on the Inca Trail, we recommend arriving into Cusco at least two days before your tour starts so that you can acclimatize to the altitude (it’s at 3,400 meters/11,154ft above sea level) and enjoy the city which has several historical sites to visit.
Cusco is exceptionally easy to reach from various parts of Peru, but there are no direct flights to Cusco from the US, Canada or Europe. Fly into Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru’s capital city, and connect onto one of the frequent flights to Velasco Astete Airport in Cusco, and it only takes an hour.
There is a bus that runs from the capital Lima to Cuzco, however it takes twenty-four hours and currently isn’t worth taking as flights are so frequent throughout the day and reasonably priced.
Once in Cusco, all your transport to the Inca Trail and the return trip to Cusco from Machu Picchu will be arranged by your tour company and included in the overall tour price. This will include a private bus to Ollantaytambo town and Km 82, or train to Km 104 from Ollantaytambo and either a train or minibus back to Cusco.
If you are going to hike the classic Inca Trail the main thing you should focus your training on is climbing stairs up and down with an inclination up to 60 degrees. For many people, climbing up stairs is easy but harder to descend, remember that the classic Inca Trail’s longest climb uphill has 900m/2,953ft altitude gain over about 8 km/4.9miles and the longest descent has -1000 m / -3,280ft altitude gain, over approximately 6 km/3.7miles.
This varies a lot depending on what the weather will be like; if the stairs are wet, they will be a little difficult to go down and all the Inca path stairs are not uniform – some large, some small and some very small.
Do stair training every day! Maybe you work on the top floor of a tall building, and the parking garage is below ground. Take the stairs up and do a little more every day, maybe it will be hard at first but after a month you’ll find it much easier!
This will help you to not have many problems with the stone stairs on the Inca Trail and at the end of the trail you’ll be laughing!