A Guide to the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is one of the most popular hikes in South America and one that is on many people’s bucket lists. The classic Inca trail is a 4 day/3 night trek that takes you from the sacred valley to one of the seven modern wonders of the world: Machu Picchu.
It is an amazing experience and one we would highly recommend. You’ll follow in the footsteps of the Incas, wondering along ancient rocky mountains paths and discovering ruins perched on the mountainside that only Inca Trail hikers can see.
Along the route you’ll pass through cloud forests and across the Andean mountains with views of the snowy peaks in the distance. And of course, the highlight of it all, passing through the Sungate on the morning of the fourth day for a first glimpse of the majestic Machu Picchu.
In this guide we’ve included a few of the things we learnt from our own Inca Trail trip which will hopefully help you plan and be prepared when it comes to your own hike.
When to book the Inca Trail?
To be able to hike the Inca Trail you have to get a permit as they only allow a certain amount of people to access the trails each day. These permits are only available through tour companies.
When it comes to the Inca Trail, the advice is always book in advance. We were quite lucky when we travelled in Peru as tourism had not yet picked up again after the pandemic. This meant we booked our tour roughly two-months in advance with no issue. Now that things are returning to normal, it’s a good idea to book 6 to 7 months ahead. If you’re keen to go during the months with better weather, booking a year in advance isn’t unheard of.
To start your Inca Trail trip, you’ll need to be in the city of Cusco which was previously the capital of the Incan Empire. Most tour companies will arrange a pick-up from you hotel/accomodation early morning on the first day of your trek and will transport you to the start of you hike.
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Best time of year?
You can hike the Inca Trail pretty much all year round, apart from February, where they usually close the trail due to the rain and for maintenance.
The best time to hike the Inca Trail is during Peru’s dry season which runs from May to October. Within these months you can expect clear skies and consistent crowds. Peak tourist months tend to be between June and August and usually see busier camp sites and more people along the trails.
We hiked in June and whilst there were a fair number of people hiking, most tour groups are staggered so we never felt like there was too much traffic. We did find that once we got into Machu Picchu it got crowded very quickly due to day tours coming from Aguas Calientes.
Preparing for the Inca Trail Hike
Although the Inca Trail isn’t classed as a difficult hike, the altitude and uphill ascents make certain sections hard work. Having a good level of physical fitness will make the hike a lot easier for you as you will be hiking for around 6-8 hours each day.
You’ll be met with some steeper inclines and descents and lots and lots of steps. For us, like most people, day 2 was the hardest. You hike uphill to 4,200 metres to the ‘Dead Women’s Pass’. We are both relatively fit but the final 100 metres of altitude was a STRUGGLE! We’re talking 30 second bursts of hiking before resting.
Saying this, you definitely don’t have to be an experienced hiker and we saw people of all fitness levels finish the trail, just take it at your own pace.
What to bring?
If we could only recommend one thing it would be to pack light! We packed way too much and the less you have the easier the hike will be for you.
You’ll only need a bag with things specifically for the hike (e.g. water, snacks and change of clothes), leave the rest of your luggage in storage.
The temperature can change a lot throughout the hike and get chilly even in the summer months due to the altitude. It’s a good idea to bring layers and have a jacket with you that is waterproof and windproof.
You’ll be camping each night and the tour companies will provide the camping equipment you need for the hike and you can hire a sleeping bag and matt from them as well. Each tour will have an amazing team of porters who will carry all of this equipment plus food and kitchen equipment for you. These guys are incredible and, even with 25kg worth of equipment on their backs, can speed off into the distance and have everything set up at camp for you when you arrive. They also take down the tents the following morning and pack it all up for you.
Given the amount these porters carry and do for you to make the hike easier, make sure you bring a respectable amount of money to give as a tip. These porters are typically locals from the surrounding area and their time and effort is solely paid for by tourist tips.
You will also be provided with 3 meals each day throughout the hike as well as clean water but it is worth bringing some extra snacks with you in your day sack to keep you going between meals. On days one and two you’ll also find locals selling small snacks and drinks at stalls.
Before embarking on your Inca Trail Trek, make sure to lower your toilet standards. On the first day there are small toilets along the way which are set up by locals who charge S/1 – these are luxurious compared to what awaits you. After this the campsites have shower and toilet facilities which consist of a nice hole in the ground, complete with no toilet paper and a mess from the 10 previous people before you – yep, it’s dreamy. Once you get to Machu Picchu you’ll be thankful for the toilet facilities which cost S/2.
The showers weren’t much better so we decided that it was more hygienic not to risk it and just wipes ourselves down with a bowl of water and a towel in our tent.
Your body needs time to adjust to the higher altitude prior to hiking the Inca Trail. The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to arrive in Cusco at least 2-3 days before your hike to allow your body to acclimatise. Keeping yourself hydrated with water will help and we found the coca tea they offer or chewing on coca leaves helpful throughout our trip.
It’s an early start on the 4th day of your hike. A 4am wake-up call will start the final part of your journey to Machu Picchu. After a last bit of hiking and final ascent up some steep steps, you’ll reach the sun-gate around sunrise.
Your entry ticket for Machu Picchu will be included with the tour company and will generally include a guided tour. It will vary how long you get to spend there, but we spent the morning exploring the ruins.
When you arrive early morning there will be very few people wondering around but we found it got busy pretty quickly with day trippers from Aguas Calientes. It wasn’t a surprise due to it’s popularity, but by mid-morning it starts to get quite packed. Luckily, having been awake from the early hours and arriving early to Machu Picchu, as the crowds keep coming you’ll be ready to head to Aguas Calientes with your tour group for some much needed lunch.
Hopefully this guide has given you a bit of an insight into what to expect before you embark on your Inca Trail trek and helps you prepare. Happy Hiking!