Few hikes have the same allure as the Inca Trail, the famous trek through the mountains of the Sacred Valley of the Incas on route to Machu Picchu, South America’s most famous ruins. Even if you have no idea who the Incas are, you’ve probably heard of the trail. And if you have an appetite for adventure or love to hike, you’ll want to head to Peru to hike the Inca Trail at some point in your life.
Where is the Inca Trail?
The Road to Machu Picchu in Peru
During the height of the Inca Empire in the 14th century, there was no such thing as one “Inca Trail,” but a vast network of trails crisscrossing the whole of the empire, from the southwestern corners of Colombia all the way to the northern flanks of Chile and Argentina. Even within the Sacred Valley, there were hundreds of different trails that connected the major centres of the Incan Empire in Peru. However, once the Spanish invaded South America, the Incas began destroying their trails and others fell into disrepair. Much of this network was lost.
Today, the Inca Trail refers to one main trail leading through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to the ruins of Machu Picchu. The four-day version of the hike begins either 82km or 88km from Cusco and heads northwest through the mountains to the famous lost citadel. The hike allows you to walk in the footsteps of former Incan trade routes and hiking trails that would lead between various centres like Machu Picchu and the Inca town of Ollantaytambo. Essentially, it lets you experience the Sacred Valley in miniature.
When is the best time to hike the Inca Trail?
The Dry Season
The dry season between May and October is the busiest time to visit Peru, especially the Sacred Valley of the Incas, because it’s when the weather is mildest. If you’re worried about being rained on while hiking through the Andes, visit during the dry season, because the chances of rain are slim. Temperatures are also mild, meaning that you won’t fight the heat in addition to the altitude while hiking.
All that being said, the mild weather and lack of rain also bring with it high capacity on the Inca Trail. Since there are a limited number of hikers allowed each day on the trail, the dry season sees it at full capacity, so you need to book ahead to ensure permits. Most people book around six months in advance, on average. Also, you’ll be sharing the trail with a fair number of people, so be ready to pass or be passed by fellow hikers, since not everyone will be moving at the same pace. This is a guarantee on any hike of the Inca Trail but will be more common in the dry season.
The Wet Season
The dry season is the popular answer to the best time to hike the Inca Trail, but the wet season does have its own appeal. In Peru, the wet season runs from November to April (although the Inca Trail is closed for the entirety of February to allow the rangers to maintain it and for the natural sites to reset without the presence of humans). Although days can be very rainy, and you’ll assuredly get wet while hiking, you will have far fewer travellers to contend with and prices will be cheaper. As well, the temperature will be warmer. Many of the locals swear by the beauty of the valley during the wet season—I remember one guide arguing passionately that I should come back during the wet season sometime to hike the valley—so know that if you do visit during the summer, you’ll experience the valley at its greenest and most lush. However, the wet is certainly not for everyone.
How to hike the Inca Trail?
You need a guide
There’s no way around it. No matter how much you may want to explore on your own, you’re not allowed to hike the Inca Trail without a guide. And take it from me, personally: a guide will be a welcome presence while hiking the Inca Trail. I hiked with a guide named Carlos, and I can’t recommend him enough. Not only was he super knowledgeable and friendly, but he had the constitution of an ox; I swear he could’ve carried my wife and I in addition to his massive pack if he needed to. If you’re lucky enough to have a guide like Carlos, this incredible hike will end up being that much more memorable.
Getting a guide with a tour company is not only essential to actually hiking the trial, but it’ll also take care of all the paperwork that’s required to get the permit and arrange all the stops along the way. There are only 500 people allowed on the Inca Trail per day, and this includes the guides and tourists, so I again emphasize that you need to book ahead.
Pack light and beware the altitude
You need to pack light while hiking the Inca Trail. If you’re doing the four or five-day version of the hike, you’ll have porters who will carry the main camping and cooking equipment, but you still need to have a small daypack that fits your clothes, sunscreen, snacks, and anything else you need like a camera and medication. You cannot take your main luggage with you to Machu Picchu. It’s not allowed on the trail, so you’ll need to leave your luggage back at a hotel in Cusco or the Sacred Valley to pick up after the trip. Since you’ll be booking through a tour company that provides the guide, the same company will handle securing your luggage and transferring it to whatever hotel you end up at, so you don’t need to worry about arrangements.
Other things that are necessary for a comfortable hike are outdoor clothes and good boots. Don’t buy your boots right before heading on your Peru vacation. You should have them worked in beforehand to make sure that you don’t end up with blisters during the hike. Like most millennials, I sported a pair of Blundstones on the trail and they worked like a charm. Bring a windbreaker with you, as well, but be aware that even in the winter, the trail can get pretty warm as the valley accumulates a lot of humidity. Plus, the atmosphere is thin, meaning that the sunlight will seem extra bright. Liberally apply sunscreen and be sure to drink water throughout your trip. Oh, and make sure you’ve acclimated to the high altitude before hiking. Spend at least a couple days in Cusco to make sure your lungs are up to the challenge, or else you may find yourself struggling to maintain a necessary pace. Always consider taking altitude pills during your time in the Sacred Valley. They’re very helpful.
What do you see on the Inca Trail?
Classic 4-Day Inca Trail with Goway Travel
With Goway travel, the 4-day Inca Trail takes you from Cusco to the ruins of Machu Picchu. You start in Cusco, where you connect by car to the beginning of the trail at Kilometre 82 and begin the journey on foot through the Andes towards the lost citadel of the Incas.
On your first day on the trail, you head around 12km towards the village of Huayllabamba. It takes around six hours of hiking to complete this trek, with plenty of stops along the way. The highest altitude is around 3,000m, so not quite as high as Cusco, but higher than Machu Picchu. You’ll stop by the ruins of Llaqtapata, which was a roadside shrine and rest stop during the heights of the Inca Empire. After lunch inside an Incan outpost, you continue to Huayllabamba, which has a great view of the stars at nighttime.
On day two, you hike around 11km up to a maximum altitude of 4,200m, the highest point during the hike. This is the most difficult day of hiking, even if it’s not the longest. It takes around seven hours to get from Huayllabamba to Pacaymayo and includes an ascent of the Dead Woman’s Pass, Warmiwanusca, the hardest stretch of hiking along the trail. However, the views from the pass are incredible as you reach the cloud forest and survey the peaks shrouded in cloud. After reaching the pass, you immediately descend towards the campsite at Pacaymayo.
Day three is the longest day of hiking, even if it isn’t quite as difficult as day two. You reach an altitude of 3,900m and spend around eight hours hiking. The first notable stop is Runcuracay, where you’ll see a small Tambo building that’s notable for its curved shape. Continue to the archaeological site of Sayacmarca, a larger set of ruins high on the mountainside. You’ll continue along a well-maintained stone path through the semi-tropical cloud forest and through the pass near Phuyupatamarca, where you’ll find more ruins and be able to see distant snowy peaks if it’s not too cloudy. The final stop is Winaywayna, on the final mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu and an impressive ruin formation in its own right. If you look down from Winaywayna, you’ll be able to see the train track winding along the Urubamba River leading to Aguas Calientes.
On the final day of your hike, you head from Winaywayna to the Sun Gate Intipunku, which is only 4km away, and reach a maximum of 2,700m. It’s the easiest day of the hike and you’ll reach Machu Picchu with plenty of time to spend exploring the ruins before the day trippers arrive on the train from Cusco and Ollantaytambo. After a couple hours uphill and up the aptly-named “Monkey Stairs,” which require you to climb up on all fours, you reach the Sun Gate, where you’ll enjoy your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. When I was there, it was rainy and cloudy until I reached the Sun Gate, and true to its name, the clouds parted and I got to enjoy some golden rays light up the nearby citadel. It’s then a short walk along the hillside to reach the lookout over Machu Picchu and the ruins themselves.
4-Day Traditional Inca Trail
What else do you need to know about hiking the Inca Trail?
There is a 2-Day Baby Inca Trail
There is a two day version of the hike, known as the Baby Inca Trail, which takes you from the ruins of Chachabamba at Kilometre 104 of the Inca Trail. You ride the train in the early morning from Ollantaytambo and reach the stop, get off the train, and then start your hike up to Winaywayna and eventually Machu Picchu via Intipunku. The hike is a bit more strenuous than the day three portion of the 4-Day Inca Trail, since it requires you to ascend quite quickly, but it’s also a great way to explore a nice portion of the Inca Trail without the camping or time commitment.
On the Baby Inca Trail, after reaching Machu Picchu, you descend to the town of Aguas Calientes to spend the night. The next morning, rise before dawn and head back up the mountain to Machu Picchu to spend the day exploring and perhaps even climbing nearby Huayna Picchu for a spectacular vantage point.
2-Day Baby Inca Trail
The Exhilarating Thrill of Climbing Huayna Picchu on Peru Travel
Other things to remember when hiking the Inca Trail
I’ve said it before, but it’s necessary to remind you that you’ll need a guide on the Inca Trail and that the altitude is nothing to scoff at. The hike is physically taxing and you should spend some time making sure you’re physically fit before heading on the hike. However, you don’t need to be a star athlete to complete it (I hiked it while suffering from a bad cold), so don’t be discouraged from pursuing it if you’re not the most active person in your day-to-day life.
Also, I’d recommend that you book a private tour, as you’ll appreciate moving at your own pace and not as part of a larger group. It can be a little frustrating if you’ve gotten into a specific groove on the trail, but then have to adjust your pace because other people are too slow or fast. As well, you can consider getting some hiking poles to make it a bit easier on your joints, but they’re by no means necessary; I didn’t have any when I hiked.
Hiking the Inca Trail is among the most beautiful outdoor experiences ever. Not only does it take you through fascinating historical sites, but it’s visually spectacular. It’s hard to do it justice in a write-up, no matter how detailed. If you like the outdoors and want to see Machu Picchu, you should take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and hike the Inca Trail. It’s an experience like no other.
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