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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is among the most incredible travel experiences I’ve had to date. Never have I felt so happy and at peace with the world after spending four days hiking through the Andes Mountains. While hiking the classic Inca Trail does require some preparation in advance, a trek to Machu Picchu is an experience you’ll never forget.
This post will go over what you need to know for prepare for having an epic adventure hiking the Inca trail!
Preparing to hike the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Avoiding Altitude Sickness
It is possible to experience altitude sickness on the Inca trail as the incline goes from 2400m to 4200m. Altitude sickness is the negative health effect of high altitude, caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. Symptoms may include headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping, and dizziness. I was lucky enough to experience minimal symptoms, but many of the group members on my trek did. Here are some tips to avoid altitude sickness on the Inca trail:
- Take altitude sickness tablets. A doctor or travel clinic can prescribe altitude sickness tablets if you tell them that you plan to hike in high-altitude areas. Alternatively, the medication can be bought in Cusco without a prescription. I took tablets during the trek and while I can’t say this is 100% why I didn’t get sick, I do think that they helped.
- Acclimatize. I started my trip in Lima, and then traveled to Arequipa (2300m) and Cusco (3,400) by bus before starting the Inca Trail. By acclimatizing slowly it gives your body some time to adjust. Even if you need to fly direct from Lima to Cusco, spend a few days in Cusco acclimatizing before the trek. There are many interesting things to do in Cusco to keep occupied while acclimating!
- Eat & Drink Coco everything. Coco is a native planet to Peru and regarded as a preventative solution to altitude sickness. Yes, this is the same plant that Cocaine is made from, but it is safe to eat. In Cusco shops sell coco leaves, coca tea, coco candy, just about coco everything! Our guides brought a cup of coco tea to the tents every morning which really helped (and was so nice to wake up with)!
Don’t forget Travel Insurance!
While hiking the Inca Trail is generally a safe activity if anything happens to you on the trail you could end up with costly medical bills. Put your mind at peace and get travel insurance. For the Inca Trail, I recommend buying Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com. It’s designed for adventurous travelers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.
Book the Inca Trail Trek in Advance
You need to book the Inca Trail trek months in advance. No showing up last minute. It is among the most popular treks in the world and the government of Peru only allows a certain amount of permits for the trail per day. I am not one to plan trips in advance but I booked my Inca trail trek five months before.
Who to Book the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu with
It is not possible to hike the Inca Trail without a guide per government regulations. I booked my trek with Peru Treks, which I recommend. The trek ran smoothly, the food they prepared was delicious, and the guides were knowledgeable.
Most importantly for me, Peru Treks are a locally owned business that pays their porters 20% more than required by the government. Porters are the local people that carry all of the equipment through the trail. It is incredible what they do on a daily basis. They are not paid much at all so please consider booking with a company that cares about porter welfare.
Physical Capability for the Inca Trail
While the Inca Trail can be a challenge at parts, you do not need to be in amazing physical shape to complete it. I was in average shape for a 27 year old and had no problem completing the trail. I’ve always been a slow hiker, and I was the slowest person in my group. Actually the slowest person on the entire trail. At one point I was the only person on the trail because everyone else was at camp (I also stopped to take many photos).
It was nice to be on the trail by myself. Going slow allowed me to enjoy the Inca Trail Trek and soak up the amazing scenery. At the end of the day I still got to the same place as everyone else. All that said, training for the Inca trail through regular exercise will make it a much more enjoyable experience.
You have the option to either carry your own bags through the Inca trail or pay extra for a porter. Carrying your own equipment will make the trek more challenging, as you will feel the weight of the bag on your back increase as you go up in altitude. I hired a porter as did all the other guests on my hike, which made the experience more enjoyable.
Best time to hike the Inca Trail
The best months of the year to hike the Inca Trail are late March, April, May and September, October, November. During these months, the Inca Trail tends to have less crowds and relatively good weather conditions. I hiked the trail during November and the weather was pleasant, we only had one day where it was cloudy. December and January are the most popular times to hike the trail, and you can expect big crowds. During the month of February, the trail gets closed for maintenance.
Costs to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The cost to hike the Inca Trail varies depending on the tour operator you book with. For Peru Treks, the cost of the Inca Trail trek was $650 USD (November 2016). This included pickup from Cusco to the start of the trail, trek permits, two guides, porter services, food, camping equipment, entry to Machu Picchu, and a train ticket back to Cusco. While the cost is high, the Inca trail trek is worth every penny.
Equipment to hike the Classic Inca Trail
Layers are your best friend on the Inca trail. During the day it can be hot as you are much closer to the sun due to the elevation. At night it becomes cold so you need warm clothes for camping. If you are on a long trip and don’t want to carry around bulky clothes then you can buy warm clothes in Cusco instead. The town is full of handcrafted alpaca and sheep sweaters, hats, etc. that will keep you warm.
All of the camping equipment (tents, sleeping bags, etc.) gets provided and carried by the tour company/porters. Peru Treks brought and prepared all of our the food, as well as water to replenish the group each day. I only brought a few extra snacks with me to munch on during the trail that I didn’t even finish.
Itinerary for the Classic Inca Trail Trek
The Inca trail is 42 km in length and broken up over four days of hiking:
Day One – The beginning: Cusco to Wayllabamba (12km)
The bus collects guests from their accommodation early in the morning (5:30 – 6:00am). On the way, the bus stops at the town of Urubamba in the Sacred Valley for about an hour to give people the opportunity to have breakfast before staring the hike. On arrival at the start of the trail you need to sign in with your passport. This is where hikes get the official Machu Picchu stamp in your passport.
The first day of the trek is relatively easy and serves as training for the days to follow. The start of the Inca Trail is at KM 82. From there, you cross the Vilcanota River and follow the trail to the right as it climbs steeply up from the river. On the way, you can see extensive Inca ruins of Llactapata, which was an agricultural station that supplied Machu Picchu with maize, the staple crop of the Incas. The path follows the left bank of the river up to the small village of Wayllabamba (3,000m) where hikers camp for the night.
Day Two – Dead Woman’s path: Wayllabamba to Pacamayo (12km)
The second day has the reputation for being the hardest. It is a steep climb up to the highest pass of the Inca trail, Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4200m. During this part of the trail you get exposed to the Andean elements: first scorching sun and then, closer to the pass, freezing winds. Once you reach the top it is such a rewarding feeling having completed the most difficult section of the trail. Everyone will cheer you on as you make your way to the top! Afterwards, you make a steep decent from the pass to the campsite at Pacamayo (3,600m).
Day Three – Through the mist: Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna (15km)
The third day is mainly a decent, which sounds better then going uphill but I found it challenging because my legs were so sore from the day before. This part of the Inca trail is through beautiful stone staircases, which are mostly original of what the Incas built.
This was the worst day we had in terms of weather because it was cloudy and rainy, but every so often the clouds would pass and you could see the mountains beneath them. Watching the clouds pass over the mountains was one of my favourite moments of the entire trek. At the end, you arrive at Wiñay Wayna, the last official campsite before Machu Picchu.
Day Four – Arrival at Sun Gate
The trail from the last campsite to Machu Picchu takes about 1.5 hours. The guides will wake the group up early at 4.30am to have breakfast and set off on the trail again by 5.30am to get to Machu Picchu before sunrise.
The trail contours a mountainside and drops into a cloud forest before coming to a flight of 50 steps leading up to the final pass at Intipunku (Sun Gate). There, the whole of Machu Picchu is spread out before you in all its glory. This was the best moment of the entire trek for me; it was such an incredible feeling to finally see the ancient city below me.
Once at Machu Picchu the guides will take you on a tour to explore the ancient city. Machu Picchu is an incredible site to witness and walk through, but I actually enjoyed the Inca Trail trek more than Machu Picchu itself. The solitude and beauty of the Inca trail is like nothing else I’ve experienced. Once you reach Machu Picchu there will be thousands of other tourists who took the bus/train there and it felt overwhelming after the peacefulness of the trail.
After hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Relax in the Agus Calientes Hot Springs
After the tour of Machu Picchu, a bus brings the group down to the town of Aguas Calientes for lunch. There you can visit the famous thermal springs, which feels great after having completed the Inca trail. Entrance to the spring’s costs US$7; allow 2 hours to enjoy them. After a dip in the hot springs, you will take the train back to Cusco.
Rest and Relax in Cusco
The next day, treat yourself to a well-deserved massage in Cusco. Massage parlors are all throughout Cusco, but I recommend not going for the cheapest one. I made this mistake. The woman just rubbed oil all over my friend and me at the same time (we were on separate beds, so she used a hand on each of us) with no pressure. We actually left halfway through because it was so awful. The next day we went to an actual spa and the massage was excellent. Sometimes it’s worth it to pay more for quality!
The best neighborhoods to stay in Cusco are in the historical center, near to the Plaza de las Armas, which is the heart of the city. Another good neighborhood to stay in Cusco is San Blas, which is known as Cusco’s Artisan Districts, full of unique artisan workshops and shops.
Alternative Treks to Machu Picchu
If you are not able to plan in advance to hike the classic Inca trail there are still other hiking options for getting to Machu Picchu.
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
This is the main alternative to the classic Inca Trail. The Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu will take you through one of the highest mountain ranges in Peru, through local communities, and lush jungle. Unlike the Inca Trail, the Salkantay trek can be booked just a few days in advance. Prices are also significantly cheaper, ranging from $200-300USD with everything included.
Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu
Even though it has trek in the name, the Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu is nothing like a normal trek. This adventure-filled option combines cycling downhill, river rafting, jungle trekking, and zip-lining to get you to Machu Picchu. It’s also the cheapest of the treks, ranging from $150-300USD.
How to Visit Machu Picchu from Cusco By Train
Not everyone wants to hike to Machu Picchu or has the time. The train is the quickest option to visit Machu Picchu from Cusco. There are two trains that get you most of the way to the ancient city, Peru Rail and Inca Rail. The journey takes about 3 1/2 hours and provides stunning scenery along the way. All trains stop at Aguas Calientes, and busses finish the ride to Machu Picchu. Alternatively, you can hike the rest. To help budget your trip, these are some of the approximate costs to Machu Picchu.
Hiking the classic Inca trail is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Although it does require some amount of planning and money, the experience is worth it. The Inca Trail should be on every traveler’s bucket list!
If you have the time and energy after the Inca Trail, another amazing hike to do near Cusco is Rainbow Mountain, or check out some of the best adventures and treks in Peru to get inspiration for your trip.