Inca Trail, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru, Inca trail.

Inca Trail Pictures: the first sighting of Machu Picchu from the trail at Inti Punku. Photo by Martin St-Amant.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Beside the train track with a group at the start of the Camino Inka, the Inca Trail, Peru.

Beside the train track with a young group at the start of Jim’s three days and two nights on the Camino Inka.

The Inca Trail (aka Camino de Inka/Inca) is bugbog’s favourite hike. Ever. Which is why we did it twice, the first time before guides/porters were mandatory, so we carried all our provisions, camping gear, bags of rice and so on. It was mostly raining and Dead Woman’s Pass nearly killed us so we failed to fully appreciate the beautiful, luscious and endlessly changing environment of this magical garden path wandering through the mountains and valleys.

The second time, again from KM88, with porters who not only carried the loads but also went on ahead to pitch tents and start cooking while we strolled with just water and camera along the simple paved path wandering from semi-tropical valleys to snowy 4, 200m passes and back again. It was a totally stunning but still exhausting 3 days/2 nights.

There are varied ways to trek the Inca Trail/Camino des Incas. The most popular treks take 4 days/3 nights from Km 82,  or 2 days/1 night.

The minimum cost at present for a full hike plus mandatory guides/ tents/ food/ train fare /blah is $600+ per person!

See Permits and Hiking regulations and best time to do the trek.

Is the Inca Trail worth the expense?

The Inca Trail is an incredible experience but really expensive at $600++ per person for an official package and generally a booking 3 months in advance is needed, though late deals are almost certainly possible to find in Cusco.

Alternatively consider hiking to the ‘new’ ancient site of Choquequirao instead though you should still try to see Machu Picchu via train, perhaps with an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes and a brisk walk along the trail from the MP end, just to see what the fuss is about. Actually a half day walk from MP’s Inti Punku will offer a good feel of the ambience.

Machu Picchu has become so overrun with tourists recently that authorities, with financial assistance from France, are working hard to excavate and improve access to an alternative and even more isolated site.

Inca Trail distance chart with altitude, Peru

Excellent Inca Trail distance and altitude graphic sign including forts and camping places en route, spotted at Wayllabamba checkpoint by Steve Pastor.

Acclimatising to the altitude

Due to the vast costs of this trek these days young backpackers are a rare species, mostly replaced by underfit and overweight (and affluent) older folks laden with walking sticks, big cameras and bigger hats, many of them turning back within hours of setting off. Jim passed at least 20 heading for home on the first day. The biggest problem is not levels of fitness, it’s altitude, particularly if you fly into Cusco and hit the trail within a few days before acclimatising properly.

Acclimatising is the key to managing the the Inka Trail. This is not your average long, steepish trek. It’s at 4, 000 metres! Get real, that’s high! Hang out a bit in Arequipa, hike Colca Canyon, walk around the Altiplano near Puno, then spend a few days in Cusco, maybe take a walk around Ollaytaytambo, then head for Km 88/82.

Inca Trail pictures:  © Julian Loader and Jim Stevenson

An early part of the Inca Trail, Peru.

An early part of the Trail.

A charming, low altitude sub-tropical section of the Inca Trail, Peru

A charming garden-path, low altitude, sub-tropical section of the trail.

The top of the first, highest and worst pass of the Inca Trail, Dead Woman's Pass, Peru.

And the top of the first, highest and hardest pass of the Inca Trail, Dead Woman’s Pass at 4, 200m. This is the killer. Get past it and you’re coasting.

The Peruvian guide's kitchen tent on the Inca Trail, Peru.

The Peruvian guide’s kitchen tent with space for hiker’s tents all around.

There is also a simple but useful Dining Tent erected daily by the porters.
Jim: “Food was first class considering the location, they even carried a gas stove, large. We were served popcorn before dinner, lots of mint tea, they even had beer. . tents for two, new and comfortable.
I ran a lot of the way with the porters as if you leave with them pretty soon you’re alone. When you stay with the group you spend most of the time waiting for the snails. ”

Walking the Inca Trail, Camino de los Incas, on the way to Machu Picchu, Peru

Tambo Runkuraqay, a fortified Inca way station on the trail. Pacamayu camping place is visible on the distant right.

A terraced village on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru

No, not Machu Picchu but Winay Wayna, near the last night’s resting place before Machu Picchu.

Jim: “The guides say this is their favourite of all the Inca ruins, it’s about 20 minutes hike from the last camp area of the second night, but nobody goes because they are too knackered after Dead Woman’s Pass. I went, it’s really awesome, still working original water system for drinking and washing clothes and for watering the fields. The guides don’t take you here but it’s not hard to find. “

A group of hikers arrive on tjhe inca Trail at Inti Punku, the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu, Peru

Success! Just past the upper entry, Inti Punku, the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu.

Jim: “The whole walk is great but on the last day all the groups must walk in single file from 5 for sunrise at the gate, but as you cannot overtake you get held up and sun was already up, not that you can see sunrise as its nearly always covered in cloud”.

Best season for walking the Inca Trail

The dry season is a much better bet for this great walk as regular rain will not only spoil views, wet tents and make paths slippery but streams may become impassable.
The best season for hiking the Inca Trail is May-October, the dry season with warm, sunny days, highs around 20-25C/68F but chilly, near zero nights (it is winter after all! ).
November-March is the wet season, with especially heavy rain December-February, daily highs also around 20C but warmer nights around 6C/42F.

Note also that the Trail is closed in February for cleaning and maintenance.

Inca Trail Permits and Regulations

In 2005 the Peruvian government made many changes to the management of the Inca Trail to protect its fragile eco-structure from over-use.
Most of these changes were aimed at reducing the number of trekkers on the trail, improving the quality of the tour operators and managing a reservation system forcing hikers to make their reservations at least 4 months in advance.

The number of hikers (including porters and guides) allowed on the Inka Trail is strictly regulated and limited to 500 per day.

Permits are issued for each individual trekker by full name, nationality, passport number, birthday, age and must be obtained 5-4 months before the day trek commences, a nightmare for casual arrivals/gap year travellers etc! But unsurprisingly if you show up in Cusco with a few spare dollars in one hand someone may well find you a permit!
Alternative? See Choquequirao.

According the new regulations it is mandatory to join a group through a tour operator and they will organize the trekking date. The tour operator is responsible for organizing a guide, cooks, registered porters, entrance fees, camping equipment and the campsite.

Choquequirao Trail

Choquequirao ancient Inca site, Peru

Choquequirao (this is only one district), an ancient Inca site in a great location but not close to Machu Picchu in terms of workmanship. And the crowds? If ‘hell is other people’ then this is heaven! Photo by Martin St-Amant.

Choquequirao – ‘Cradle of Gold’ in the Quechua language, Choquequirao is 80kms (50miles) from Machu Picchu, hanging on to a mountain ridge 1, 800m (6, 000ft) above the Apurimac river and 3, 000m above sea level, near the small village of Cachora.

70% of the site is still embedded in jungle and getting there involves a tough but spectacular 2 day walk, so this may be a good alternative to hikers who can’t walk to MP due to new regulations, or prefer a more mysterious and evocative, less busy destination.
In 2004 100, 000 walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and another 365, 000 went by train, but Choquequirao only got 5, 400 visitors!