In this Complete Guide to Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, you will find everything you need to know to help you prepare for this world-famous trek. This comprehensive guide includes historical and contextual information, route descriptions, logistics for the trek, and many other helpful tips to help you plan your truly epic Inca Trail experience.
This guide is especially useful if you’re one of the audacious explorers who will join us on our Machu Picchu adventure, which you can find out more about at this page on The Explorer’s Passage website. The guide is comprised of the following sections:
The Explorer’s Passage is the premier adventure travel company on the planet and the best operator on the Inca Trail. Our guides have pioneered trekking on the Inca Trail and have over 40 years of experience there. We encourage you to read our five star Inca Trail tour reviews on TripAdvisor by clicking HERE!
Additionally, Jeff Bonaldi (the founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage) has traveled extensively on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. As a frequent traveler who has been to over 50 countries, it is easily one of his favorite adventure destinations in the world!
Is the Inca Trail worth it?
Taking the time to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is worth every penny. The trek is considered to be one of the greatest adventure experiences on the planet. There are very few places where you have an opportunity to walk through awe inspiring terrain while passing 500 year old archeological treasures. And at the end of your adventure you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail, or the Camino del Inca, is one of the most important features of South America’s past and present, and the trek to Machu Picchu is unlike any other adventure in the world. There are very few trails where you can actually walk through history like this. On an Inca Trail tour, you will continuously encounter 600-year-old Incan archaeological sites, and at the end of the trek, you receive a great reward as you ascend the Sun Gate and reach the legendary Machu Picchu site.
Another factor that makes the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek one of the best adventure experiences on the planet is the diversity of the terrain that you will encounter along the way. Whether you are climbing stone staircases, crossing wooden bridges over rivers, weaving through tropical jungles, or navigating through cloud forests surrounded by mountain peaks, the Inca Trail tour is a truly once-in-a-lifetime journey. Along the way, you may even spot curious llamas, alpacas, spectacled bears, enormous condors, and various other fascinating Peruvian fauna!
The high-altitude ruins of Machu Picchu are located on a mountain ridge 7,972 feet above sea level at the end of the Classic Inca Trail Route, in the Urubamba Province of Southern Peru. When looking at a map or satellite imagery of Machu Picchu, you can see that it is hidden within deep forestation, 50 miles northwest of Cusco (the former Inca capital).
Known as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ and officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are plenty of excellent reasons to visit Machu Picchu at least once! As the most widely recognized surviving symbol of the Inca Empire and one of the most important archeological sites discovered on Earth, this Andean landmark is guaranteed to excite even the most experienced adventurer. Striking in both its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, thousands of people come from all over the world to explore the site each year, and the ancient site has in turn inspired countless musicians, artists, and photographers. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek is for any adventurer who is ready to travel back through history and follow in the footsteps of our Inca predecessors.
The Inca Trail has an extraordinary history. The Inca Empire extended into parts of what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, and the original Inca Trail stretched approximately 25,000 miles throughout these areas. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Inca Trail was used as a key trade route as well as for transportation. However, parts of it were also used for ceremonial purposes and as a pilgrimage route.
Therefore, there are many fascinating theories about the purpose of the connection of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which was built at the height of the Inca Empire. Some researchers believe it served as an annual pilgrimage route to honor Inti, the Incan God of the Sun, who was thought to have been born on the Island of the Sun at Lake Titicaca. It is said that the Inca Trail follows the path of the Sun’s rays during certain times of the year, from Lake Titicaca to Machu Picchu.
The construction of the city of Machu Picchu spanned the reigns of two Inca rulers: Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). However, a little over a hundred years later, the city lay mysteriously uninhabited. Historians have disputed the reasons for this, with some arguing that invaders killed the city’s population during the Spanish Conquest, and others arguing that the city’s population succumbed to a smallpox epidemic, years before the Spanish arrived.
During and after the Spanish Conquest, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu became targets for plundering and theft. It has been reported that Germans Augusto Berns and J.M. von Hassel initially found Machu Picchu during the 1800s and early 1900s, respectively. However, due to the dense forestation that had started to amass around the abandoned city, Machu Picchu became far less targeted by looters than other easier-to-access sites along the Inca Trail in Peru and in the surrounding areas. The locals may also have kept quiet to save their secret city from the aggressive looting campaigns, so by the 19th century only a few locals and academics were even aware of Machu Picchu’s existence.
In 1911, the American academic and explorer Hiram Bingham re-discovered Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail in Peru and conducted the first official archeological research there. As a seasoned adventurer (due to childhood expeditions with his father) and a keen Latin American history scholar, Bingham spent time traveling the Spanish trade routes throughout South America. As a Yale University history professor, he organized a group of scholars to set out and find the ‘lost city.’
Then, on July 24, 1911, a local guide directed Bingham to the ruins of Machu Picchu. Once there, he and his team started to explore and excavate the area, with return trips in 1912, 1914, and 1915 to continue their work. Through the Yale Archeological Society, the area of Machu Picchu and several surrounding sites were excavated and further academic research was conducted. To this day, the area is still a historical treasure trove, adding much to the Inca Trail experience.
With international flights, efficient trains, and frequent buses, traveling to Machu Picchu is much easier now than when Hiram Bingham first visited in 1911! Depending on your preferred method of transportation to Peru, there are a few different options. A majority of visitors make their way via Lima, Peru’s capital city. After arriving in Lima, you can take a short connecting flight or a longer bus ride to Cusco.
Although the journey can be longer, many adventurers seeking to visit Machu Picchu hike up the Inca Trail to this extraordinary city and are rewarded with its magnificent beauty, structural feats, and the vast natural backdrop that envelops it.
How long does it take to hike to Machu Picchu?
There are a number of trekking routes along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. However, the Classic Inca Trail route is a 3 to 5 day hike, and on average, it takes 4 days and 3 nights to reach Machu Picchu. For those short on time, there is a shorter route to Machu Picchu. This trek starts at Kilometer 104 on the Inca Trail and only takes one day to hike to Machu Picchu.
Other Inca Trail hiking tours, such as the Salkantay Trek, will be discussed later in this guide.
However, if you would like to visit Machu Picchu but do not wish to do an Inca Trail hike, you can take a train from near Cusco to Aguas Calientes, a town at the base of Machu Picchu, in just under four hours. For the most luxurious option, the truly peerless Hiram Bingham train takes you down through the Urubamba gorge, amongst spectacular mountainous vegetation and cloud covered forests. The train itself is almost a time capsule, beautifully appointed with rich, polished woods, fine fabrics, and historic furniture. Large windows allow for excellent views on either side of (and above!) the train. You will find it hard to get off the train at the end of this ride! Additionally, there are two other PeruRail train options to Machu Picchu: the iconic and modern Vistadome, and the affordable Expedition trains.
From Aguas Calientes to the citadel’s entrance area, you can take a 15-minute bus ride, or you could walk up the hill (approximately 45 minutes). Don’t forget to book Inca Trail permits for your visit well in advance of your trip! You can find out more about the Machu Picchu permitting process near the end of this guide.
Next, we’ll explain a bit more about each of the parts of the journey, to get the most out of your trip.
Your first stop will most likely be Lima, the capital of Peru and one of the largest cities in South America. Many Inca Trail hikers typically spend a few days in Lima before continuing on to Cusco. If you have the time, it is definitely worth the stop! Lima is known as the City of Kings, and is found on the Pacific coast of the country.
Inhabited for millennia by Pre-Columbian people, Lima’s history as a major city began when the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro officially founded it in 1553. The Capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, the city would witness many significant historical moments as it grew over subsequent decades. One of the most important of these moments was the proclamation of Peru’s independence from Spain by General José de San Martín in 1821.
Today, Lima possesses a unique character, which is sometimes described as similar to California with a distinct South American twist. The city offers a wealth of historic and contemporary attractions for tourists and hikers visiting the region, and is essential to learning about the role of the Inca Trail in Peru. One of our favorite areas is the Miraflores district, which is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and has some of Lima’s best restaurants, museums, and shopping opportunities.
Two hotels in Lima that our guests have really enjoyed in the past are:
For unmatched Peruvian food, two popular Lima restaurants include Nanka, a contemporary fine dining restaurant with a seasonal menu and a focus on organic and sustainable local cuisine – and one of the top-rated restaurants in the city! The other is Embarcadero 41, an excellent seafood restaurant just a minute or two from the Plaza de Armas city center.
After you visit Lima, the next step on your journey is Cusco, a city where travelers commonly gather before either starting their Inca Trail trek or going directly to Machu Picchu. Depending on your budget, you have several options when traveling from Lima to Cusco. You can take a connecting flight, or you can take a bus. Flights from Lima to Cusco are reasonably cheap and take approximately 50 minutes. The alternative is to travel by bus through the mountains. While the bus is the more affordable option and you are able to experience beautiful mountain scenery, be advised that it can take over 20 hours to make the trip by bus.
Located high in the Southeastern Peruvian Andes, Cusco is the former capital of the Inca Empire and the beginning of your Inca Trail experience. Often called the cradle of Inca civilization, Cusco offers much to entice visitors and is well-deserving of an extended stay. It is not hyperbole to say that it is one of our favorite cities in the world!
The history of Cusco as the center of the Incan Empire began in approximately 1,200 AD, when Manco Cápac – whom many believed to be the founder of the Inca Empire – officially founded the city. However, it was not until 1,400 AD, under the rule of the great Inca leader Pachacutec that the city expanded to become an administrative and military hub, with a complex architectural and societal structure.
With the arrival of Spaniards in 1543, the great power of the Inca rulers came to an abrupt and brutal end. Spanish soldiers and colonists killed and enslaved the Inca people, ransacking palaces and temples and plundering Inca riches. The Spanish settled in Cusco, building on top of Inca structures. In some cases, they removed all traces of Inca life, and in others, they retained certain features that can still be seen today.
Cusco’s popularity as a tourist destination did not begin until the early 1900s when the archaeological remains of Machu Picchu were re-discovered. Today, the city offers a unique ambiance that has been shaped by the diverse cultures that have made it their home over the years, with layers of history visible in every corner. It is the perfect beginning for Inca Trail tours.
Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport (CUZ) is the main airport in Cusco, serving both domestic and international travelers. The airport is located approximately 3.5 miles from Cusco’s city center, Plaza de Armas. With no traffic, it takes 15 to 20 minutes via taxi from Plaza de Armas to get to and from the airport. For domestic flights to and from Lima, we encourage all Inca Trail adventurers to arrive at the airport a minimum of 1.5 hours before the departure time.
Two Cusco hotels that our guests have enjoyed in the past are:
Cusco has several attractions that are worth exploring before you hike the Inca Trail and/or visit Machu Picchu. A Cusco city tour when you arrive is a great way to start, to help get a sense of the sites that you might want to explore further. The Plaza de Armas, which also happens to be a central meeting point and gathering place, is a great place to start. This picturesque square is where you will find a tourist information office as well as bars and shops, and it is within walking distance of many of the attractions that you’ll want to see during your stay. In the center of the square is a fountain with a statue of an Inca man pointing towards the ancient citadel of Sacsayhuamán (also known as Saqsaywaman). To the northeast stands one of the most iconic buildings of Cusco – its cathedral.
Cusco Cathedral was built by the Spanish over the course of a century, starting in 1559, and is imposing in the Gothic-Renaissance style. Made from stones removed from Sacsayhuamán, the cathedral is home to several significant pieces of colonial art, notably Marcos Zapata’s Last Supper, which features a guinea pig as part of the meal. The cathedral is framed on the left by the Jesus Maria Church, and on the right by El Triunfo, which was the first church established in Cusco.
A short walk away from the Plaza de Armas is the San Blas neighborhood. Reserved for artists and craftspeople for centuries, strolling through the narrow (and sometimes very steep) streets is like taking a step back in time. This area has artists’ workshops, galleries, cafés, restaurants, and also boasts the small San Blas Church with its intricately carved wooden pulpit.
Moving onto historical sites, one must see is Coricancha, the Temple of the Sun. A short walk from the Plaza de Armas, this was an important location for Inca worshippers of sun and moon deities. At the time, it would have been majestic, covered with sheets of gold and filled with silver and gold statues. Shortly after the Spanish colonization, all the valuable metals from Corincancha were removed and melted down – irreplaceable treasures lost forever. Slightly further, around 1 1/2 miles north of Cusco, lies Sacsayhuamán. The Incas established this site as a fortress and temple, using large stones to construct impressive walls that still stand proudly to this day. Explorers wanting to learn more about the area’s history before their Inca Trail tour will not be disappointed by these sites.
When it comes to dining out, Cusco has numerous options for the adventurous eater looking for authentic Peruvian flavors. Many local eateries provide a reasonably priced set menu, which may feature the famous cuy (guinea pig), choclo con queso (corn with cheese), or lomo saltado (steak with pepper and onions) amongst its offerings. For those who prefer more familiar cuisine, the city also has an array of non-Peruvian options, including hamburger restaurants, vegetarian takeaways, and kebab shops.
For excellent Peruvian food, two popular Cusco restaurants that guests have enjoyed include Inti Raymi restaurant, which is part of the 5-star Palacio del Inka hotel. It specializes in both Peruvian and world cuisine in a luxurious and romantic fine dining setting. The second is the INKAGRILL at the central Plaza de Armas, which offers Peruvian cuisine fused with international influences.
Before you leave Cusco, don’t miss the opportunity to try some coca tea or a customary pisco sour!
Keen shoppers will enjoy the San Pedro market. The market has become slightly more tourist-oriented over recent years, with a growing number of stalls offering clothing, jewelry, and other souvenirs. However, the market is where city residents also come to buy fresh foods and is ideal for anyone who wants to try local ingredients.
As night falls, the atmosphere in Cusco shifts to a more upbeat party mode, with tourists of all ages letting their hair down and having fun. Those who want to dance the night away will find discos playing a wide variety of contemporary music and clubs hosting live music. An unforgettable option is to take in a folkloric dance and music show at the Qosqo Native Art Center. The nightly show is a vibrant and captivating way to discover Cusco’s heritage.
After you have experienced some of what Cusco offers, it’s time to turn our attention to the Inca Trail tour. To hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, you are required by the government of Peru to hire a licensed guide service or tour company with the required permits to take trekkers on the Inca Trail. Don’t worry, we will discuss permitting in detail later in this guide!
The company you choose will often arrange road transportation from Cusco to the start of the Inca Trail tour, with pickups that generally occur early in the day (around 6:00 AM local time). The most popular place to start the Inca Trail hike is known as KM 82, which is the start of the Classic Inca Trail route (discussed below). Once you reach this location, you will generally conduct a gear check, fill up your water containers, and make sure everyone is fully prepared to start the journey.
How long does it take to hike the Inca Trail?
There are several routes to take, making it possible to choose your preferred Inca Trail experience. Depending on which trekking permits you are able to obtain before your trip, it is good to know that there are several different route options when trekking to Machu Picchu and its surrounding sites. Below are three of these Inca Trail hiking tours choices, followed by the Classic Inca Trail hike. Varying from one to fourteen days in duration, each of these routes caters to different audiences based on their length, popularity, and availability of accommodations en route. All four of them are one-way treks. Depending on the tour operator that you make your Inca Trail reservations with, you will typically use a mixture of public and private transportation to return to Cusco from Aguas Calientes.
If you are short on time, you can do an Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu in one day (with an early start, of course!). To achieve this, you will take the train from Cusco to Kilometer 104 as marked on your Inca Trail map. From there, you will hike ~15 km (9 miles) through the Sun Gate to the Machu Picchu sanctuary. This is a great choice if you want to view Machu Picchu and experience a portion of the Inca Trail trek, all in the same day.
At 65 miles long, this is considered to be one of the most challenging ways to hike the Inca Trail. The trail starts at the village of Cachora and then follows a mile-deep canyon to the ruins of Choquequirao, or ‘Cradle of Gold.’ Continuing across the original Inca Trail route and then through a series of remote villages, the Vilcabamba Trail emulates the same trek that Hiram Bingham himself took when he re-discovered Machu Picchu in 1911.
This is the only trek with a comfortable bed and showers at the end of each day’s hike! Though it still requires reasonably fit participants, this Inca Trail tour (sometimes known as The Lodge Trek) runs along the Salkantay Trail through the Cordillera Vilcabamba mountain range, but allows for nightly rests at fully serviced lodges spaced along the route. The trail reaches 15,000 feet in elevation before arriving in Machu Picchu.
The Classic Inca Trail Hike is the most popular Inca Trail experience. It begins at Kilometer 82 on an Inca Trail map, at the village of Piscacucho. During the hike, adventurers travel 26 miles in total and reach a maximum altitude of 13,776 feet above sea level.
How long does it take to walk the Inca Trail?
The Classic Inca Trail Hike is the most popular route to Machu Picchu. Depending on your preference and the trekking itinerary, hiking the Classic Inca Trail route can take between three and five days. The trek covers 26 miles and begins at the village of Piscacucho.
The Explorer’s Passage itinerary for the Classic Inca Trail hike is for four days, which we have found to be the optimal length of time. On this journey, trekkers cross the Urubamba River and pass through many small villages and incredible landscapes. On the final day, you enter Machu Picchu the same way the Incas did, through Inti Punku (the Sun Gate).
Next, we provide more detail on what to expect each day of the 4-Day Classic Inca Trail Hike.
Note: as mentioned earlier, this section is from The Explorer’s Passage itinerary for the “Path of the Sun” adventure trip. Contact us to find out more or get a copy of the complete detailed itinerary.
It is wise to spend a few days in Cusco before your Inca Trail tour begins in order to acclimate to the higher altitude. This extra time will increase your chances of success on your adventure. In Cusco, you will have an opportunity to take walking tours and visit UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Sites in this historic capital of the Inca Empire. In the evening, enjoy some of the best food in the world, sample the local fare of this agricultural region, and perhaps taste one of the 3,000 varieties of potato cultivated here!
Day 1 of the Classic Inca Trail trek begins at a location called KM 82, which is approximately 2 to 2 1/2 hours from Cusco. The hike starts relatively flat, and is a great way to warm up your body for the adventure. You will break for lunch at Q’oriwayrachina and prepare to cross the Urubamba River at Q’ente, with an option to visit the Wayna Q’ente archaeological site (which roughly translates to “old hummingbird village”). You will camp near the Inca ruins of Llaqtapata, overlooking a spectacular backdrop of terraces and mystical mountains. Keep your eyes open for the smooth flight patterns of Andean Condors soaring overhead.
The trek continues up the Cusichaca Valley, eventually reaching the small village of Huayllabamba, which means “grassy plain.” You will then follow a tributary of the Kusichaka River on a steady climb up this narrow valley. It eventually opens to a cloud forest of Polylepis trees and, ultimately, a large Pampa plain. Here, you will rest for the evening at the idyllic campsite of Llulluchapampa, nestled at 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level.
On the third day of the Inca Trail tour, you will wake up and head into the heart of the Andean mountains. Upon reaching Warmiwanusqua Pass (or “Dead Woman”) at 13,692 feet above sea level, you’re awarded a magnificent panorama. Take a minute to capture some photos before descending to the Pacaymayo River before beginning another climb to the ruins of Runkuraqay. From here, the trail passes through a high cloud forest while the scenery grows more and more dramatic.
Reach the site of Sayacmarca (aptly named “steep-place town”) at 12,551 feet, and sit back to enjoy views of the Aobamba Valley. You can also take a leisurely walk through the grand structures before continuing along the ridge under the watchful summits of Mt. Salkantay to the west and Mt. Pumasillo to the north. Follow the rolling stone trail, eventually arriving at Phuyupatamarka, your campsite for the evening, and spend the remainder of the day exploring the five fountains and an altar that might have been used by the Inca for ritual purposes.
This morning, you will descend nearly 3,000 feet on a combination of trail and irregular staircase composed of 1,500 steps carved into the granite. The Willkanota River comes into view, and the lush jungle grows back around you as the songs of birds and butterfly wings fill the air, eventually joined by the sound of the river and train as you near the railroad tracks below (which lead to Aguas Calientes). Take a spur trail leading to the ruins of Winay Wayna to gain some energy from this ancient site, which translates to mean “forever young,” before we press on for the final push of the Inca Trail tour to our ultimate destination. Finally, you will reach a series of steep stairs that ascend to the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku. As you pass through the Sun Gate, the mighty citadel of Machu Picchu comes into view.
Typically, after hikers finish this Inca Trail trek, they are tired and hungry and wish to head to their hotel in Aguas Calientes for a fresh shower and meal. Most hikers elect to do their full tour of the citadel the next day. If you opt for this, you will walk through the outskirts of the Machu Picchu citadel, getting a glimpse of the ruins as you head down the mountain to the entrance area. Here, you will take a short ten-minute bus ride to the downtown area of Aguas Calientes, where you can then walk to your hotel and relax for the evening.
When you finally complete the four-day Inca Trail hike, the real adventure begins! At the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes is a picturesque but busy hikers’ hub that features a main train station and a bustling tourist industry with an array of restaurants and shops. It’s a great town in which to spend a restful post-trek night, before setting out to experience a full tour of Machu Picchu.
On the morning after trekkers complete their Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu, many people elect to climb either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. We go into more depth about each hike in the “Additional Hiking Near Machu Picchu” section below. However, some visitors elect to skip the hikes at Machu Picchu altogether and instead spend all their time exploring the ruins of the Machu Picchu citadel. If this is what you prefer, you can skip the next section (“Additional Hiking Near Machu Picchu”) and go straight to “Key Sites at Machu Picchu” later.
Check out The Explorer’s Passage blog post here to see a fantastic mini-documentary video about the journey, created by filmmaker Devin Graham. This video highlights many of the most striking highlights of the Inca Trail tour and Machu Picchu, and it is truly one of the best visual summaries of this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Two hotels in Aguas Calientes that guests have enjoyed in the past are:
For memorable dining experiences in Aguas Calientes, guests on previous trips have enjoyed the restaurant at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, featuring traditional Peruvian cuisine with contemporary twists, and unmatched views of the Vilcanota River. There is also the Indio Feliz, a Franco-Peruvian fusion place full of character that is also vegetarian-friendly. These two options offer two very different but equally enjoyable culinary experiences in Aguas Calientes!
For adventure lovers, Inca Trail tours are just the beginning. If you are looking to do more hiking once you reach Machu Picchu, there are two popular short (but stunningly beautiful) hike options: Huayna Picchu and Cerro Machu Picchu (Machu Picchu Mountain). Both require permits and early morning wake-ups to ascend, so make sure you work with your tour operator in securing those before your arrival in Peru. Huayna Picchu is the more popular trek, but if permits are all sold out, Machu Picchu Mountain is also a great option. We go into further detail on each hike below.
Known as Wayna Picchu or Huayna Picchu, this is the mountain that surrounds the Urubamba River and rises prominently over the Machu Picchu citadel and provides the backdrop against which the rest of the mysterious city is set. The name means “Young Peak” in the local Quechua language. The Incas built an original trail up the side of Huayna Picchu, and built temples and terraces at its peak – which is about 8,920 feet above sea level. The hike here takes approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours round trip.
Owing to its beauty, it is believed that this mountain historically hosted the high priests’ daily offerings and prayers to the Inca gods, and many ancient temples were nestled along its ridges. Every morning before sunrise, it is said that a high priest would walk to Machu Picchu with a small group to signal the coming of the new day.
The Temple of the Moon, one of the three major temples in the Machu Picchu area, is nestled on the mountainside and is situated lower in elevation than Machu Picchu. Adjacent to the Temple of the Moon is the Great Cavern, another sacred temple with fine masonry.
Machu Picchu Mountain is the highest mountain behind the Inca citadel, which means “Old Mountain” in the Quechua language. This incredible excursion takes approximately 4 hours round trip, starting at the Machu Picchu citadel, hiking through the Inca Trail hidden under the forest, and arriving at the top of this striking mountain. Along the trail, you will find yourself surrounded by a wide variety of flowers and wildlife, including orchids, begonias, ferns, and beautiful hummingbirds, while enjoying the outstanding view of the Machu Picchu citadel, the Urubamba River that runs below, and all the sacred mountains that surround Machu Picchu.
This area is very interesting because it is located in the high-cloud forest, where the highland joins the rainforest, thus creating many micro-ecosystems within the area. Machu Picchu Mountain has a special meaning for the Incas. Below this mountain, two rivers from the two most sacred Inca mountains join together into one confluence. From the south runs the Urubamba River that originates in the Ausangate area, and from the west comes the Aobamba River that originates from Salkantay Mountain. For this reason, Machu Picchu Mountain becomes a monument of worship to the sacred waters.
At the top, hikers will be welcomed by the Tawantinsuyo flag and a little shelter, providing respite from the sun and the wind. From there, you can take in a full 360° panoramic view of the Machu Picchu citadel and surrounding area.
Reaching the top of this mountain requires a moderate ability to climb, as there are parts where it is very steep, but not considered to be dangerous. The hiking trail is well maintained; it is a paved road with many steps, though it does zigzag in places. Experiencing this trek for yourself offers an insight into why the Incas selected this mountain as the place to build the Machu Picchu citadel.
At Machu Picchu, it usually takes about 2 ½ to 3 hours to have a complete visit to the sanctuary and see the main sites. It can get fairly crowded, as 2,500 people per day are permitted to visit the citadel. However, there are several sites that you can not access, as the Peruvian government has restricted them for conservation purposes.
The Machu Picchu Sanctuary is nestled between Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu and is considered to be one of the most beautiful and scenic sites from the Inca Empire. Walking amongst the ancient walls, doorways, paths, and stairs imparts a unique feel to this archeological site – one that transports you many centuries back in time. Below, we’ll cover several of the highlights within this Sanctuary to look out for. Your guide may have a particular order in which you will visit these sites. Because of this, they are not presented in any particular order of preference below – though they’re all definitely ones you won’t want to miss!
Intipunku: or ‘sun door’ was once integral to the city’s defenses, preventing attacks from penetrating Machu Picchu. Watching the sunrise from Intipunku is one of the most spectacular views you will experience on your trip, and it serves as the first point during your approach on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu from which you will be able to view the whole sanctuary.
Intihuatana: or the ‘place where the sun is tied’ is one of the more well known Inca sites. A polished and carved monolith, this stone is situated in one of the three windows of the temple in Machu Picchu. Its importance is apparent both due to its location and its four carved vertices, which indicate the site’s four cardinal points. Many who have visited the Intihuatana have reported experiencing a strange aura or energy when in the presence of the stone.
Phuyupatamarka: located at over 9,000 ft above sea level, this Inca site’s name literally translates to ‘the place of the clouds’. Cloaked in thick atmospheric mist and cloud during the rainy season, this site is a must-see when you visit Machu Picchu due to its breathtaking views over the rest of the mountains. This beautiful area contains terraces, baths, and fountains with circulating fresh water.
Sacred Plaza: arguably the most famous landmark in Machu Picchu. With breathtaking views built into the mountain, the Sacred Plaza contains three important Inca buildings: the Main Temple, the Three-Windowed Temple, and the Priest’s House. The Sacred Plaza also clearly illustrates the skillful and magnificent engineering and architectural feats undertaken by the Inca.
Sacristy: otherwise translated as ‘the house of ornaments,’ this room was used by Inca to store their ornaments. The building is also the most beautiful man-made site in Machu Picchu. With vast amounts of stone used to create the three magnificent walls, the Inca also engraved the internal space and entrance stones with intricate carvings.
Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballón: as is the case with Machu Picchu’s smaller and more deftly stored artifacts, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu boasts a huge variety of different Inca treasures and smaller sculptures. Located by the train station of ‘Puente Ruinas,’ this museum and research building is laid out in seven different sections, chronologically telling the story of the different inhabitants within the sites around Machu Picchu.
Principal Temple: this is the main temple to see in Machu Picchu, located at the highest point and position in the city. Centered in the Sacred Plaza, the location of this temple holds great historical significance to the Inca, as the plaza square also includes two of the great temples in the city. The temple itself has a magnificent structural design, in keeping with the architectural styles of the time.
Ceremonial Baths: often located at the front of a temple site, there are several clear areas reserved for the ceremonial baths located throughout the city. Using the mountainous terrain to channel fresh water over walls and into the bathing areas, these baths were and continue to be an area of socializing and community.
Royal Tomb and the Temple of Three Windows: the Royal Tomb and the three windows located within are a symbolic reference to the Inca emperors who ruled the city. Though there are many competing theories and research papers that have tried to shed light on the reasoning behind the three windows located in the tomb, many scholars cannot agree as to the reason for their significance.
Prison Group: otherwise known as the Central Plaza, this flat, verdant plain of grass contrasts beautifully with the stone walls around it, appearing to take on the look of an island amidst the slate grey stone ‘sea.’ It is a wonderful spot to visit if you are an animal lover, as llamas and other grazing animals can frequently be spotted meandering throughout these beautiful pastures. On a darker note, at the lowest point of the plaza resides the Prison Group, a series of passages and cells burrowing under the stone and upwards into different areas of the city. With the long corridors and tiny stone rooms, the feel is that of claustrophobia and cramped discomfort – hence the ominous name.
Temple of the Condor: this is one of the most beautiful examples of the stunning stonework that the Incas are famous for. The name of the Temple of the Condor is inspired by the natural formation of the rock it is situated on, which is reminiscent of a condor in flight. Weathered over centuries, this stone was seen as an important symbol to the Inca people, representing ‘spirit and higher levels of consciousness.’
Temple of the Sun: located behind a gated urbanized section of Machu Picchu, this temple is a truly impressive feat of Inca design and structural engineering. Chosen for its high altitude, the temple is situated here to show its heavenly attributes – the higher the structure, the closer its connection with the Sun. This location was also considered important when carrying out astrological experiments and religious proceedings. With its circle of sacred stones and dramatic design, this temple is a stunning example of how man-made Inca structures were perfectly complimented by their breathtaking natural backdrops.
Are you already eager to book a world-class journey to Machu Picchu to see some of these sites for yourself? Find out more about a trip with The Explorer’s Passage by clicking here.
Our answer to the question, “How difficult is the Inca Trail?” is simple: the more you prepare, the easier it is. If you have committed to hiking the Inca Trail, the planning process most likely started six or more months in advance. There are two critical areas of preparation that one needs to take into consideration if they wish to successfully trek the Inca Trail: these are Gear and Fitness.
Let’s start with Gear! Hikers will need to add the proper gear and equipment to their Inca Trail packing list to complete the journey to Machu Picchu. This includes appropriate footwear, lower body clothing, upper body clothing, face and head protection, and outerwear to protect yourself from the elements. You will need a daypack to carry any gear or clothing that you will use for each day’s hike, as well as a duffle bag that will hold your personal belongings, extra clothing, sleeping bag, etc. You can learn more about some recommended essential items to pack in a standard day pack in this blog post by Jeff Bonaldi, the Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage.
It is also important to note that the evening before your Inca Trail hike begins, you will most likely meet with your guide and he/she will outline the things you need to know for the journey ahead. You will also review your packed loads. It is common practice for each hiker to have a specially sized duffle bag, which porters will carry throughout each day on the trail. Depending on the number of trekkers, Peru’s government requires a specific number of porters, guides, and other staff (the ratios are there to help support the trekkers and to prevent the workers from being taken advantage of). Your guide(s) will weigh the duffle bag at your hotel in Cusco to ensure it is under the maximum weight limits, which are typically around 17 pounds. The rest of your gear will go in your daypack. You want to keep your daypack below 15 pounds if you can, and you should only carry the core essentials. If you have extra clothing beyond what is needed for your Inca Trail tour in your daypack and duffle bags, most hotels will typically let you leave it locked up there for when you finish the hike and return to the hotel.
Finally, one additional gear item which we at The Explorer’s Passage highly recommend is a pair of trekking poles. Some people love trekking poles, and some people do not use them at all. There are countless sections along the Inca Trail tour that feature stairs that can be arduous for the knees. Trekking poles provide an enormous amount of support in these and other challenging sections, and using them can sometimes make your Inca Trail hike much easier and therefore much more enjoyable.
For purposes of brevity, we do not enumerate a complete Inca Trail packing list in this guide. If you are interested in acquiring a copy of our itinerary and packing list for the “Path of the Sun” Inca Trail to Machu Picchu adventure trip with The Explorer’s Passage, please contact us and we will be happy to send you a copy by email!
Is the Inca Trail difficult?
Hiking the Inca Trail is moderately difficult, and it is important that hikers take adequate physical preparation. Some sections of the trek are more difficult than others, and involve steep ascents, high altitude, and long days on the trail. Though some may find the distance covered on the Inca Trail each day to be challenging, proper physical preparation will allow travelers to enjoy the trek to the fullest.
When trekking along the Inca trail, elevation is something to keep in mind. It is important to note that hiking the Classic Inca Trail tour is not easy, and certainly not a trek you can take on without adequate physical preparation. You will be hiking up to 14,000 feet in elevation, and on one of the hiking days you could be on the trail for up to 12 hours.
How fit do you need to be to trek the Inca Trail? Altitude (discussed later in this guide) and its effects can cause challenges for even the fittest traveler, so we strongly recommend you complete a detailed three- to five-month training plan before you arrive in Peru. This training plan should include but is not limited to day hikes of at least 8 to 10 miles, cardio training, familiarization with multi-day treks and camping, and uphill training on stairs or hills. If you have the opportunity to train at higher altitudes we highly recommend this preparation as well, though this may not be an option depending on where you live.
For context, The Explorer’s Passage rates our “Path of the Sun” 4-day trek on the Classic Inca Trail route as a “Moderate”-level adventure. Our “moderate” trips are defined as more active and require a bit more endurance than the typical trip. Participants can usually expect to hike between 4 and 8 miles per day, with occasional steep inclines and altitudes of up to 15,000 feet above sea level. The Inca Trail is well-marked and defined, but the material underfoot can be variable. Much of it is stone, gravel, and dirt, with not too much grass.
Let’s talk a little more about elevation. Cusco, Machu Picchu, and its surrounding cities vary in how far they are situated above sea level. To start, Cusco sits at 11,152 feet in elevation. Because most visitors must travel through this city to get to all Inca Trail tours and Machu Picchu, many trekkers spend 1 ½ to 2 days there beforehand, in order to acclimatize and mitigate the chances of experiencing altitude sickness. If you are doing the standard 4 Day Classic Trek, the maximum elevation that you will most likely reach is 13,776 feet. Altitude sickness can affect every adventurer no matter how physically fit you are, and if you don’t take the time to get used to the change, it can potentially have a very detrimental impact on your entire trip. If you would like more essential tips on hiking at high altitude, click here to read our blog post on the subject at The Explorer’s Passage.
Machu Picchu is located at 7,972 ft in elevation, so most people who have been hiking the Inca Trail for several days do not feel the altitude when they get there as long as they have had plenty of rest and stayed hydrated during their journey. From Machu Picchu’s citadel, the two peaks that you may opt to climb are Huayna Picchu, at 8,920 feet elevation, and Machu Picchu Mountain, at 10,007 feet in elevation.
Some trekkers do find it helpful to take medication for dealing with the altitude and potential headaches. We encourage you to speak to your doctor beforehand to see if this may be the course of action which you may want to take.
Peruvian food is one of our favorite cuisines in the world. You can get extraordinary meals in Lima and Cusco, but what surprises many trekkers on Inca Trail tours is the quality of the food provided by your guides. Most Peruvian guides are incredibly talented chefs and utilize organic ingredients, resulting in fantastic and hearty meals.
Evening meals are typically eaten in a group dining tent, which has a cover to protect you from the elements. In addition to most meals, many tour operators will also provide snacks each day to take with you on the trail. You will likely get coca leaves to chew on, which can help lessen the effects of altitude sickness.
There are multiple water sources along the Inca Trail, such as streams or rivers. Most tour companies utilize either a pump filtration system, boil water, or combine both methods in order to purify water during the trek. Typically, you will be provided with potable water three times per day: at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is essential that you fill up your water containers each time you have the opportunity because the Inca Trail hike can be strenuous, and temperatures can get hot during the day. In our experience on Inca Trail hiking tours with The Explorer’s Passage travelers, we have seen many other trekkers run out of water prematurely because they underestimate how much water they will require. We recommend that you have a minimum of 2 liters of water for both the morning and afternoon treks. Depending on your personal preferences, you can either use 32 fluid ounce (1 liter) Nalgene bottles or reservoir-type water systems (such as Camelbak). It is also wise to have salt tablets or electrolytes to add to your water. Additionally, if you are the type of person who likes to be extra prepared, the below items are popular options as a personal backup:
Most tour operators and guide companies that you employ on an Inca Trail trek will provide tents. Typically, three-person tents are utilized for either one or two people. We recommend that you check with the company beforehand, as being comfortable every night on the trail can make a big difference in your overall trip experience. Depending on your service level, the porters may also set up and take down your tents each day. It is a very nice touch when companies provide this, and it allows you to focus on the trekking experience and getting to know the other travelers.
In addition to tents, many tour providers will include a ground cushion for sleeping (such as a Thermarest pad). The pad will provide you with extra cushion under your sleeping bag and a softer barrier between you and the ground. We recommend you bring an extra sleeping pad, as two can provide more optimal cushion than just one.
The Inca Trail is similar to other mountainous areas at higher altitudes around the globe. During the day, temperatures can exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit; however at night, they can drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. You need to be prepared for the full temperature range and bring layers of clothing to help manage the changes.
On an Inca Trail trek, you will be out on the trail between 7 and 12 hours per day. Most of the trail is very exposed to the sun, and it can get warm during the day. We recommend that you prepare yourself for the sun exposure. As a start, you must wear sunscreen each day and pack a bottle of it in your daypack to reapply periodically throughout the day. We also recommend a hat – preferably one that covers the neck, which can be very susceptible to burns. Also, many of our trekkers wear buffs to protect their faces and necks. It is also advisable to consider wearing hiking pants/trousers and long sleeve shirts to protect your skin, especially if you burn easily. You do not want sunburns to ruin your trek, and heat exposure can affect your stamina and health.
In our contemporary world of seemingly permanent connectivity, it is important to note that the Classic Inca Trail Route is in remote locations and there will not be opportunities to charge your phone or devices during the trek. As you may wish to utilize your phone to take pictures or listen to music, it would be helpful to bring a portable battery backup and/or charger. It is unlikely that you will get any mobile phone signal during the Inca Trail trek, so be prepared to be without contact during the journey and notify your family/friends of this beforehand. Some trekkers still want to keep in touch during emergencies and so they bring devices such as the Garmin InReach, or a satellite phone. Lastly, as an energy-saving tip, keeping your phone (or other device) in airplane or flight mode during the trek can save a lot of battery life.
You may be thinking, “how does one go to the bathroom on the Inca Trail?” Well, it is a very good question. First, there are several locations along the Inca Trail tour that have outhouse-style toilets. While these are serviced by trail maintenance personnel, trekkers often prefer the portable toilets that most tour operators bring on the trek. The portable toilets are set up during breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also stay accessible throughout the evening.
During the daily trekking segments, there are also places in nature that you w
ill be able to relieve yourself. Female participants can use urine funnels or similar products that facilitate “on-the-go” relief, though it is essential that you practice using them before the trek so that you are comfortable with them and have gotten past the ‘learning curve’ associated with pee funnels! It is also important to keep in mind that you are required to carry all solid waste out, because human waste is not permitted to be left along the Inca Trail or its surroundings. So, using the toilets in camp for regular bowel movements is highly recommended!
There are no showers along the Inca Trail hike. However, there are a few options to consider if you want to wash yourself each day. Many tour operators do provide bowls of warm water with soap that you can use to wash with in the mornings and after each day’s trek in the evenings. Some operators do bring a small shower tent on the trek as well. If this is something you are interested in, you may be able to pay an extra fee to have this included in your Inca Trail trek. The guides fill up buckets of water that are then heated. The heated water is connected to the shower and is pumped through the showerhead to mimic a regular shower. Biodegradable ‘camp’ soaps are recommended if you plan to shower.
Depending on the time of the year, there can be bugs on the Inca Trail, and we advise you to bring bug spray or repellent. Sections of the trail that pass through rainforest often see an increase in bugs. Like a sunburn, too many bug bites can really degrade your experience, so please plan and pack accordingly!
One of the most frequent questions we hear from potential Inca Trail hikers is, “Do you need a permit to visit Machu Picchu?” On the list of necessities every traveler needs to remember when making travel arrangements, one of the most important – but also one of the most unexciting and often overlooked – is obtaining permits to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!
Because the Peruvian government protects the historic landmark for its natural and historical significance, only 500 individuals are allowed on the Classic Inca Trail tour each day from KM 82. Around 300 of these will be porters, guides and other staff, which leaves room for 200 trekkers that can join the trail per day.
Due to the worldwide popularity of the Inca Trail trek, permits must be purchased before you leave for Peru – sometimes many months before a trip commences! These permits for Inca Trail reservations used to go on sale in January of each year. However, for the 2020 season, permits went on sale in October 2019. At The Explorer’s Passage, we anticipate Inca Trail permits for 2021 will go on sale in October 2020, but this is not a certainty given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at the time of this writing. In past years, permits for April and May have sold out entirely in just a few days, and in some years permits for June, July, and August have sold out as early as mid-February. So, it pays to plan and choose your dates at least six to nine months in advance. Once you decide on the times that you would like to go (which are discussed in the final section of this guide), your tour operator can help you secure your permits to hike the Inca Trail.
If traveling in a group, it is essential that your group or party reserves Inca Trail permits in a contiguous ‘block’ at the same time. In our experience at The Explorer’s Passage, we have seen several instances of a group or a family unit not doing this despite warnings. As a result, some of these parties have not been able to hike the Inca Trail together as a group. Even a few minutes or hours can make a difference!
Please also note that the permitting system is carefully structured to prevent people and organizations from abusing it. Travel companies and tour operators cannot buy Inca Trail permits in bulk to resell at a later date. In order to obtain a permit for Inca Trail reservations, you will need to provide a full name, date of birth, passport details (passport number, country of issue, date of issue, and expiration date) and the dates you want to trek the Inca Trail. Once the application for an Inca Trail permit is submitted, it typically takes anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to get a response from the Peruvian permit authority (through the Peruvian Ministry of Culture). This means that until a successful confirmation is received, you should not book flights to or hotels in Peru. Also, be aware that you will be required to pay a security deposit when initially booking the permit. If the Inca Trail permit is not secured for any reason, this deposit can be refunded. When a permit is successfully secured and paid, the deposit is no longer refundable.
Another critical thing to know is that after an Inca Trail permit is secured, you cannot change travel dates. If you can no longer go on the trek as scheduled for whatever reason, you will forfeit your deposit and the permit will go unused. Unfortunately, you can not transfer your Inca Trail permit to a friend or family member.
If you get a new passport after securing a permit, you must contact your tour operator to resubmit the new identification information to the Peruvian permitting authority. Please ensure that the passport you bring with you to Peru matches the permit’s details – otherwise, you will not be allowed on any Inca Trail tours! If you changed your passport, it would be wise to bring both the old and new passports to Peru. There are multiple permit checks performed along the way, and the agents are thorough!
When planning your dream trip to hike the Inca Trail, it is critical that you ensure your passport is valid through the duration of the planned trip dates, as well as for six months after the trip dates. Do not assume that it is current, only to find out closer to departure that it needs to be renewed! Many countries now require this additional six months validity, including Peru.
Depending on your country of origin, you may also be required to obtain a visa to enter Peru. To learn more, contact the responsible government office to see if you need one in advance. Visitors arriving from the U.S. currently do not need to obtain a visa in advance.
We covered the process of obtaining your Inca Trail permit, but it may also be helpful to understand the best times of each year to hike the Inca Trail. The most popular time to hike the Inca Trail is between April and September. With the rainy season in Peru over, most tourists and travelers will have planned to take their trip during these months. The trail itself is open for 11 months of the year, but all Inca Trail tours are closed in February for environmental and archeological maintenance. The mountains Huayna Picchu and Cerro Machu Picchu, which are both part of the Machu Picchu sanctuary, are temporarily closed each year for maintenance (in recent years, they have been closed at different times in April, though this may not always be the case and the timing of closures can be variable going forward. Check with your tour operator beforehand to find out!).
During these months Inca Trail tours are relatively uncrowded, wet, and certainly fun if you enjoy a bit of a challenge. Fewer tourists and fewer queues when you arrive in the city can mean that traveling to and around Machu Picchu in the winter season has its advantages. Because Machu Picchu is considered to be a shrine to the Inca Emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472), hiking the Inca Trail at this time of year can highlight the quiet beauty that this site was created to be appreciated in.
Lovely and temperate, April is an excellent time for an Inca Trail Machu Picchu tour due to the firmer ground and clearer weather. Photography can also be quite fortuitous in April if you want to capture some high-quality pictures of Machu Picchu and the surrounding forests.
Gorgeous weather for hiking the Inca Trail and reasonably dry, May is a great time to visit Machu Picchu as well. Be aware of booking and travel costs, though, as May is the start of peak traveling season for university/college students. Flights and accommodations can get somewhat expensive if you don’t plan well.
Weather-wise, these are the most popular months to go hiking on the Inca Trail and/or to visit Machu Picchu. With dry weather, very little rain, and cooler nights, hiking during these months is generally more comfortable than at other times of the year. The downsides can include the challenge of securing accommodations and Inca Trail reservations, as they will be scarce.
With fresher, cool temperatures, this is great weather to hike the Inca Trail. Although it is colder than many of the other months, October is reasonably dry and falls outside of holiday periods, making it a great time to go hiking in Peru in general. The off-peak season provides choice hotels and quieter experiences when traveling and dining, as well.
November and December feature surprisingly good weather for hiking the Inca Trail, with minimal rain. Just before the winter break, the queues and attractions in Machu Picchu and surrounding areas are busy but not overcrowded. Also, the hotels near Machu Picchu and transport are still reasonably quiet.
There you have it, an introduction to the need-to-know essentials for hiking the Inca Trail and visiting Machu Picchu! We hope this guide has given you an informative and helpful idea of what to expect as you plan your one-of-a-kind adventure to Peru. If you have any additional questions on hiking the Inca Trail or visiting the iconic Machu Picchu citadel, please do not hesitate to contact us. Finally, if you would like to learn more about our Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hiking adventure, click here.
Jeff & The Explorer’s Passage Team
P.S. If you have ever been on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and want to share stories with us, or have some favorite sites within the citadel, we would love to hear about it – just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: this information is current as of July 2020, and is for informational purposes only. Factors such as conditions, Peruvian government regulations, trail accessibility, etc. can be variable over time and will also be influenced by your choice of tour operator or guide company. As such, the Explorer’s Passage cannot guarantee that this information will remain constant in the future.
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