Machu Picchu is on many people’s bucket list. For some it is just a desire to visit the archaeological site, for others it is the desire to actually follow in the footsteps of the Incas, and walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or follow “Caminos Del Inca” as it is known in Spanish.
As keen hikers, we wanted to hike this 26 mile, 4 day trail for a long time. Finally we did! Just us and 500 others; 200 fellow hikers and 300 porters to look after the hikers begin the hike together.
Walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Many superlatives spring to mind when trying to describe both the hike and the experience. Being at the Sun Gate, the end of the hike, at sunrise on the 4th day is often said to be the highlight, but this sells the whole experience short. When you arrive at the sun gate you have a whole new appreciation about a lot of things; the ingenuity of the Incas, the beauty of the mountains, your own mental and physical abilities and camaraderie with your fellow hikers. It has everything a great hike should have and more. Flora, fauna, ancient ruins, mystery, great scenery and a finale that makes it all worthwhile! Amazing what a difference 4 days hiking the Inca Trail can can make.
In our small group we started with 7 hikers, the two of us and five young adults in their mid-twenties from Puerto Rico. We hike a lot and have lived at high altitude so have some idea what to expect on the hike and think we are prepared for the altitude on the Inca Trail. We own proper hiking gear and were outfitted accordingly. Several of our fellow hikers were not. They were unprepared in all regards- physically, mentally and a couple of them without proper hiking gear.
And Then There Were Two
After breakfast the first morning they turned back. One person in their group was ill, the others were struggling and not sure they would make it. This means our support team or porters also split, as some will need to continue with us, and some will take the excess gear back with the other hikers. One guide goes with them, he will meet us again at Machu Picchu, and one stays with us. So suddenly we have a private tour! As they walked back the way we had come on day one, we headed onward on the Inca Trail.
Day 1 Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Day one was relatively easy walking compared to what the difficult on the Inca Trail to come. The first day of the hike passes through a couple of villages where you can purchase water (which is convenient as then you don’t have to carry as much). Many of the locals pass with their donkeys carrying provisions both for their own use and to sell to the hikers. Our first glimpse of the first set of ruins from the trail reveals a large complex. It is quite some distance away and we do not walk any closer to it. It is very exciting to see these first ruins!
Somewhat surprisingly the food while on the trail is excellent. A tent complete with table and chairs is set up for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and a chair is much appreciated with tired legs!) Our support crew cooks for us, makes camp and carries all of the general gear. A porter carries 5 kilos (11 pounds) for each of us. This is our sleeping bag, a change of shoes, and our toiletries. We each carry a day pack with our personal items; camera, rain gear, warm weather gear, a flash light (worn on your head to keep your hands free), first aid kit and water. You can find our packing list of essential hiking gear here.
Day 2 Hiking the Inca Trail: Reaching Dead Woman’s Pass
So in a much smaller group of just us, we set out on day two for the big climb. In today’s walk we reach the point of highest altitude on the Inca Trail – Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,214 meters (13,825 feet). We are starting from camp from night one at about 3000 meters. The weather is spectacular and it looks like a great day for a hike.
Off we go and almost immediately the hike is much more strenuous than the previous day. The grade is steeper and we quickly reach the “paved” portion of the path. On the first day the hike was primarily a dirt path, today almost of all of it will be on the stone paving of the original Camino Del Incas or Inca Trail. Some of the trail is stairs and after a few hours, it also dawns on us we will be climbing down much of this again today on the other side of the pass! (Yes we catch on quick!)
As we walk, there are many other people on the trail. We left early so in the morning there were not as many people, but the porters pass us in a steady stream, despite the fact they are carrying much more weight than us. and the trail is steep.
After several hours walking, we come around a corner, and there is our team, with our mid morning snack. What a pleasure to see them! They greet us with soap and warm water to wash up. (This is how we are always greeted and it is much appreciated.) We have a cooked snack and a seat to rest and prepare for the really steep climb ahead. This will be our last food until lunch, which is still several hours (and on the other side of the pass) away. During this break several other hikers reach the same general area where they too stop for a break with their groups.
The climb to the pass is steep and the going is quite slow. There isn’t a lot of talking, just a few brief exchanges. Lots of “where are you from?” and other general chatter is heard between the hikers. Most people are moving slowly and struggling to breathe. There are lots of stops to admire the scenery (catch your breath) and words of encouragement received or offered to others.
We arrive at the pass, stop to rest and take a few pictures, then begin the climb down. There are still lots of people headed up the trail, and we still have several hours of downhill walking to get to camp. I am hoping we have completed the most difficult section of the Inca Trail.
There are many smaller ruins along the trail, at many of these we stop to explore. This is an unexpected dimension on the hike. Walking along it is easy to imagine the Inca’s living here. The stone path we walk is the “road” they used in everyday life. This is how they would have reached nearby villages or gone to Machu Picchu itself. The complex of roads and buildings is quite extensive. The Inca’s used a series of checkpoints or guardhouses along the trail. It is surmised this is how they kept track of movements and perhaps collected taxes or kept the roads safer, their exact purpose is not known.
These checkpoints are still in use on the Inca Trail. Each morning the numbers of hikers are counted, at some points identity is rechecked and the porters all must check-in and have their gear weighed. It is regulated how much weight they can carry, it cannot exceed 25 kilos 55 pounds). Garbage must also be weighed and packed out. The Inca Trail takes an incredible amount of traffic each year and these regulations help maintain and preserve the trail, as well as look after the health and well being of the porters. The Inca Trail is closed each year in February for maintenance.
As we arrive at camp, which is at 3600 meters (11,800 feet) tonight, we are exhausted. It has been a great day but we are glad to arrive. We are some of the early arrivals. As we talk to our other fellow hikers in other camps, many people in their group still have not arrived. Some people still trickle in after dark. There has been heavy rain in the afternoon and the rocky path has become quite slippery, making it slower for those still on the trail. But everyone makes it safely and that’s all that matters.
Day 3 On the Inca Trail: Reaching Wiñayhuyna Camp
Day 3 is also a long day of hiking. We cover about 15 kilometers (9 miles) with much of it at high altitude and several passes before finally reaching the last campsite of Wiñayhuyna (2,650 meters or 8,700 feet). This is the closest camp on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The highlight of day 3 is climbing through the steep terraces. You can see the terraces off in the distance earlier in the hike. It takes most of the afternoon to actually reach them. These terraces were used for agriculture and are incredibly steep. The complex itself is huge and it takes some time to climb through the terraces to rejoin the trail to Machu Picchu.
When we finally arrive at camp today our support team is all there waiting with smiles and a warm meal. Our support team turn out to be one of the highlights of our trek. They are all very considerate and it feels like you have your own cheer leading team. As we leave each morning they stay and break camp. We see them again as they catch-up and pass us, always with a smile. And they are always at camp, set-up and welcoming us when we arrive. Frank, our guide walking with us, provides details of the ruins and the trail as we go. He is a very soft spoken local who has walked this trail many times and dare I say, he makes it look easy.
This is our final night camping! Our cook goes all out and makes us the most magnificent strawberry cake for dessert! Using a pressure cooker so it rises at altitude, it has icing and real strawberries! Better than fine dining at a restaurant any day! We couldn’t believe it!
Day 4 Hiking the Inca Trail: Sunrise at the Sun Gate
We turn into bed early as we are getting up in the middle of the night, 4 am, for breakfast and the hike to reach the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise. As mentioned at the beginning, this is often billed as the highlight. In our case when we arrive at the Sun Gate, the fog was so thick in our pictures it looks like we are standing in front of a white wall. There was no spectacular picture postcard view of Machu Picchu; in fact there was no view of Machu Picchu at all!
As we continue walking down to the actual village of Machu Picchu, the fog begins to lift slightly. However the fog adds to the atmosphere, and the mysticism of the place. The real advantage of arriving early at the site is many of the tour buses are not there yet so the site is not too busy.
We meet our guide again from day two, (he had to return with the hikers that turned back) Juvie, and have a wonderful tour of Machu Picchu. The site itself is extensive and well preserved (and restored). Having a guide will help you get the most from your visit, as they explain what things are and how they would have been used by the Incas. (The site is not signed.)
Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century and abandoned about 100 years later. It is believed to have been used by Inca royalty and their caretakers, probably supporting a population of about 500-1000 people at its peak. The site includes ceremonial, residential and agricultural areas. It was “discovered” by the western world in 1911, by Hiram Bingham, a professor from Yale University. You can read National Geographic Magazine’s original coverage “Rediscovering Machu Picchu” from 1913 online.
As part of our tour, we organized to stay an extra day, so we were returning to Machu Picchu again the next day, and because we hadn’t had enough walking, we were climbing Machu Picchu Mountain, one of the two mountains at the site to get the classic postcard view.(The photo at the top of this post.)
So being tired, dirty and looking forward to a shower we head down to Agua Calientes for lunch with our guide. Agua Calientes is the closet town to Machu Picchu. If you come via the train from Ollytaytambo (in the Sacred Valley) or Cusco, the train ends in Agua Calientes and you transfer to a bus to transit to Machu Picchu. It is primarily restaurants, tourist shops, and hotels to support visitors to Machu Picchu. There are some hot springs here (the name translates to Hot Waters).
And as you can see in the picture below, the train tracks run right through the center of town!
Knowing we would be looking forward to a comfortable bed and a hot meal, we splurged and stayed in a great hotel which included dinner and breakfast. This saved us having to search for a restaurant for dinner. A couple of Pisco Sours later, a great, sit-down dinner and a long, hot soak in the large bathtub in our room before bed, and we felt as good as new.
Our Return to Machu Picchu
Early the next morning, at breakfast, we had a very special treat. We were sitting near a window overlooking the Urubamba River, when we saw a bear! We had been making jokes about spotting a bear on the trail; apparently it is very rare to see one. While we were eating, a young bear came down to the river for a drink! The staff at the restaurant confirmed it is very rare to see one at the river.
So we were off to a good start! In addition the weather gods were smiling on us and the day was beautiful. Blue sky and not a cloud to be seen! Perfect opportunity for the iconic postcard shot of Machu Picchu!
We did get wonderful pictures this day, had a slower wander around the site, and climbed up Machu Picchu Mountain where we were rewarded with some spectacular views. Our day, and our adventure, ended with the train ride back to Ollytaytambo and a taxi ride back to Cusco. But our memories will last a long, long time!
Planning Your Trip to Machu Picchu
Planning ahead is essential. Machu Picchu is the most popular tourist attraction in Peru. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled and at peak times sell out months in advance. If you plan to go during peak season May to September it is recommended to book a year in advance. Inca Trail bookings are extremely popular and the further ahead you make your reservations the better.
Hikers on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu are limited to 500 permits daily, only about 200 of which are guests (the other 300 are guides and porters carrying gear). You cannot hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu without a guide and porters. Visitors numbers to the site of Machu Picchu are limited to 2,500 per day. If you want to climb either of the mountains at the site, Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain this requires an additional permit and numbers are limited to 400 and 800 people respectively. The official government website has more information and sells tickets.
You can walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or reach the site hiking one of several other trails. If you do not want to hike you can travel via the train from Cusco or Ollytaytambo. You cannot drive to Machu Picchu. It is highly recommended to organize your transport, Machu Picchu entry tickets and your Inca Trail hiking permits at the same time.
You will definitely need to allow several days to acclimate to the altitude before you begin the hike. These first days can be spent exploring The Secrets of the Sacred Valley which is at slightly lower altitude than Cusco, and then a couple of days exploring Cusco itself. For more information about traveling around Peru including how to acclimate to the altitude look for our post later this month about travel tips in Peru. This post also has an itinerary for 2 weeks in Peru and suggestions for extensions if you have 3 weeks in Peru.
You will be booking this well in advance, and if you are hiking at high altitude some travel insurance policies consider this a risky activity. Check for more information and find out What you Need to Know About Travel Insurance. Always read the terms and conditions so you know what is covered.
Using a Local Company
We booked with a local trekking company, IncaTrekkers, and highly recommend them. Everything was top notch:
- The guides were friendly and knowledgeable (and passionate about their heritage).
- The food and service were excellent.
- A packing list is provided so you know what to bring.
- Tents and other equipment were clean and in good condition.
- The porters were well looked after and properly attired including hiking boots and clothing for cooler weather.
- Everything was professional and ran to schedule.
- It was all inclusive, including a pre-trip briefing in Cusco, pick-up and return transportation to Cusco, permits, train tickets and they also organized our tickets for our extra day at Machu Picchu and permits to climb Machu Picchu Mountain on that day.
- It was much less expensive than some of the large international outfitters.
The owner Juvenal (Juvie) Iturriaga is personally involved in every trek. He met us for the pre-trip briefing, started the hike with us and guided us through Machu Picchu. He runs an excellent company and looks after his employees and it shows. This was a great trip and we have some great memories of him and his team.
We were happy to use a local guide. The benefits of using a local company are many including the fact more of the money stays in the local community and it provides local jobs. If you are at all interested in promoting responsible and sustainable tourism we encourage you to use local guides whenever possible.
You can also use IncaTrekkers services for touring Machu Picchu without doing the hike to get there. They also provide guide services for other trails in the area. You can see their excellent reviews on Trip Advisor or find them on Facebook.
How Difficult is the Inca Trail?
Update January 2018: One of the questions we get asked most often is how difficult is it to hike the Inca Trail? I realize I don’t specifically answer this question in the post, so I will now.
We are regular hikers and have a good level of fitness. We are not ultra fit and we are middle aged (okay some might say old). We have lived at altitude for several years and although we now reside at sea level, we still hike regularly at high altitudes. We do not typically backpack or camp when we hike, preferring a warm shower and a real bed at the end of the day. I include this so you know whose opinion you are getting for an answer to the question: how difficult is the Inca Trail?
You will recall at the beginning of the post I told you the young people that started the hike with us returned to Cusco and did not complete the Inca Trail, they went to visit Machu Picchu via the train.
We have hiked all over the world and you will find many of our hiking adventures here on Compass & Fork. And yes we both thought the Inca Trail was a difficult hike.
Why is the Inca Trail difficult?
1) It is steep.
2) It is rocky- most of the Inca Trail is along the original stone path. You will spend many days walking on stones including climbing up and down long stair cases made of stone. These are the original stairs and the interval and height of the stairs is often quite high and/or uneven.
3) It is at high altitude- the highest pass is Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,214 meters (13,825 feet) and it is a steep climb to get there and then a steep climb down the other side of the pass (all in one day).
4) You are camping at high altitude. The lowest camp is at 3000 meters. Don’t under estimate the fact you may find it difficult to sleep at altitude.
5) You are camping! And depending on your gear and location of the tent, this may not be the most comfortable nights sleep.
Could you hike the Inca Trail?
If you are wondering if you could and/or should hike the Inca Trail, I think with a reasonable level of fitness and the right mental preparation you will be fine. Invest in hiking gear and use it before you get there. Train with your pack on, break your hiking boots in, and learn to use hiking poles.
If you are worried about your fitness or altitude sickness speak to your doctor. People of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels successfully complete this hike each day. You might also explore the option to hike the Inca Trail in five days.
On a personal note, one year prior to this hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu I severely injured my right knee. I was on crutches and then rehab to regain full movement of my knee. I completed rehab in January, five months after the injury. During that time my right knee leg had lost much of its muscle strength and stability. I was able to start hiking again in the summer (July/August). Machu Picchu was the first big hike I undertook.
You will notice in the picture at Dead Woman’s Pass I have on a knee brace. This was a big day of climbing and with the brace I was fine. From Machu Picchu we continued our travels through Peru and onto Patagonia where we again went hiking.
Alternatives to the Inca Trail
The Salkantay Trail is suggested as an alternative to the Inca Trail when permits are not available for the Inca Trail. Be aware the highest point on the trail is the Salkantay Pass reaching 4,600m (15,200 ft) and it is five days of hiking It typically takes four days to hike the Inca Trail. This does not seem to be an easier alternative to the Inca Trail.
Hiking the Inca Trail is one of the best hikes we have ever done and we have considered doing it again with our adult children.
If you want to try another long distance hike prior to hiking the Inca Trail, hiking in Patagonia has some excellent long distance hikes that will challenge you. Hiking the W Trek in Torres Del Paine National Park or hiking in Argentina near Bariloche or in El Chatlen are all good options. In the USA, hiking in the Grand Tetons, Colorado or in the mountains on the east coast provide opportunities to hike at altitude and in the mountains.
Let us know if you decide to go, and we hope you have a fantastic hike!
Have you walked the Inca Trail or visited Machu Picchu? Do you have any other advice? If you have any questions we didn’t cover, please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you and we answer all comments.