While there are plenty of fascinating cultural sites in the world, Machu Picchu is one everyone should visit. Not only is it an astounding site, but its path, the Inca trail in Peru, is an extraordinary experience. Getting to Machu Picchu involves exhausting and painful days of hiking, but still a truly amazing experience and the majestic sight is more than rewarding! Here is my Inca Trail Travel Guide – The Ultimate Guide to Hiking Inca Trail to Machu Picchu! Read about my Inca Trail experience in my Travel Story Post!
Located in the Andean mountain range, the Inca trail is the ancient path towards Machu Picchu. Throughout centuries of Spanish colonization, the west never knew about this massive mountain city – that’s how hidden it is!
Machu Picchu was re-discovered in the early 20th century, and the Peruvian government has been its zealous guardian ever since. Concerns over erosion make entry difficult: only 500 people are allowed in the Inca trail to Machu Picchu each day. You must get a permit to use the path, and permits are handed in a first-come-first-served basis. This is why it’s particularly difficult to book on high season, between May and August. Ideally, book about 6 months in advance and keep in mind the trail closes in February.
Preparations – Guide to Hiking Inca Trail
Here are some important things to keep in mind when planning the best Inca trail tour!
Booking – Inca Trail Tour
Because Machu Picchu is such a regulated and popular site, it’s vital to plan your hike with time. Book your trip through a trusted company, and find the itinerary and comforts that best fit you. My Inca trail travel guide is based on HRG’s four-day schedule, although we did it in 3!
I would advise to book an experience as comfortable as possible and add the following three extra add ons:
- Sleeping bags and extra cozy mattresses: You will need a good nights sleep to enjoy this trek
- A Porter – meaning a person carrying your stuff: We added this last minute but did not regret it for a second. The trek is long and arduous, and you’ll need to feel rested ahead of the long hours of hiking
- Walking Sticks: Also something we did not order from the start but that turned out to be a great support for your legs during tough times
I would also recommend to book the tour with a smaller group. We were four people and that was perfect. Then you do not have to have long stops waiting for people, given that you are on the same level physically and also get great attention from the guide!
The best Inca trail tour is the one you can really enjoy – but keep in mind that agencies differ! We booked through HRG and Diners Travel and can really recommend them!
Weather & Clothes – Guide to Hiking Inca Trail
The Inca trail to Machu Picchu will take you on a days-long hike over 2,000 meters above sea level. You’ll be in the Andes, the largest continental mountain range in the world. Here, oxygen is scarce and temperatures are chilly, so it’s very important to take care of your body.
Along the trail, a sunny day can be between 15 and 20°C, and 5-10°C when cloudy. The temperature obviously drops at night, ranging between 0 and 5°C in the first two camps.
So what to pack? You will for sure get information from your agency but I have also listed 10 things below that are great to include!
- Hiking clothes including both warmer and lighter versions: The weather changes a lot and as mentioned above the temperature differences can be big. Water proof hiking pants & jackets, long and short sleeved sweaters and a fleece are highly recommended. Also add some extra socks and T-shirts. We were very lucky with the weather but if it starts to rain, things dries very slowly up here.
- Comfortable and water proof hiking shoes: The shoes will be your best friend during the trek but can also be your worst enemy. Make sure you have walked some miles in them before starting this journey.
- Light rain gear: Like ponchos and rain pants if the rain comes
- Warm pajamas, thermal clothes & warm socks : For nighttime camping as the nights get really chilly
- Sun screen, Sun Glasses & Cap/Hat: A must for sunny days and so are mosquito spray
- Light Toilet Bag: Get ready for four days without shower and toilets that are more a hole in the ground. You will get fresh water to clean your face etc but girls you can leave your make up bag at home. Tooth brush & tooth paste, soap bar or cleanser, deo and face cream will be all you need.
- Emergency kit: Hopefully you will not have any problems but get prepared for blisters on your feet, headache etc as there are no pharmacies in the Andes:)
- Disinfectant: A very good thing to bring given the basic cleaning facilities
- Flash light: It gets dark quickly, and when it gets dark it truly gets dark so a flash light is a must!
- Snacks & Water Bottles: You will get food & water but great to have some bars and extra water for energy along the trek!
A good backpack is also a must and make sure to keep the one you are carrying light. There are many steps and hills to be passed and the less extra weight you have the more pleasant the trip will be! Stick to the tips in this Guide to Hiking Inca Trail and you’ll be extra prepared.
The Start: How to Get There
Cusco is the nearest Peruvian city to Machu Picchu, and where your voyage to ancient South America will begin. The Cusco airport receives flights from many Peruvian cities and a few South American capitals La Paz and Bogota. We arrived directly from Lima.
I highly recommend staying in Cusco for a couple of days before starting the Inca trail. This will give your body time to get used to the altitude. Take lots of coca tea to help you cope and enjoy lovely Cusco! You can also read my Cusco travel story.
Inca Trail Travel Guide: One with Mother Nature
Pachamama, Mother Nature on ancient South American languages, can be felt throughout the Inca trail hike. The trek towards ancient Machu Picchu is hard but rewarding, and this is how we spent it!
Day 1: Cusco to Wayllabamba
Our travel company picked us up at our Cusco hotel, taking us to Piscacucho, where the Inca trail hike began. A small and Alps-like community by a railroad, you can already get into these mountains’ simple life. Despite the hundreds of tourists passing through, this Andean village remains traditional. Here, we saw our first geographic landmark: the Urubamba River, 2,600 miles above sea.
It was early in the morning when we began hiking. Even athletic people have trouble getting their bodies to kickstart. Still, the human body is remarkable, and quickly adapts to an extreme situation. Almost automatically, we walked up and down the mountains for hours on end.
On the first day of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, nature and human history begin to open up. As you head deeper into the Sacred Valley, you can almost hear this path’s centuries. From the tallest point from the first day, Llactapata is visible.
Also called Patallacta, this settlement on a platform is the first contact with the Inca forefathers. Once a human settlement, it was destroyed by the Incas when the Spaniards were approaching. Like the rest of the Inca trail in Peru, it was never found by conquistadors!
After that first contact with the Inca empire, there’s still lots of climbing ahead. This is a region of mountain people, and the best voyages include gorgeous scenery and lots of hard work. Once our bodies couldn’t handle more hiking, we arrived at our first campsite: Wayllabamba.
The first day was just a setup for the tough times ahead. It was for sure the easiest one both in terms of length and climbs. A good start of a magic trek!
Day 2: Wayllabamba to Pacaymayo
You read it on the very first Machu Picchu travel guide you find: day 2 of the Inca trail is rough. Still, nothing can prepare you for the brutal effort your body will make! In our case, to make matters worse, we were racing time. There was danger the trail would close, so we had to pick up the pace and cover the 2nd & 3rd day in one – this is however not something that is normal, so stay calm!
After waking up at 5 am, thee early hike was our toughest yet. We climbed up to 4,200 meters in a steep ascent that’s also quite long. For 9 km, we trailed up to the mountains, seeing the landscape slowly change before our eyes. Here, the sierra becomes desertic with little flora and fauna.
The sights become unique, almost fairytale-like. At one point, you’re so far up it’s like you’re literally walking on clouds. This is an area of bird sounds, as you can barely see them in the mist. Still, majestic mountain dwellers like the hummingbird and the sparrow live up here!
When it’s time to go back down on the other side, that same day, it’s equally difficult. To be honest I found the way down harder than the way up. Even though tough, it is so worth it and after a while you get into a slow and steady rhythm, up and down, step by step, and all the time the magic mother nature helping you continue and enjoy this lifetime experience!
This is the day to stock up on candies and keep those sugar levels high. It’s the time to have coca leaves handy. Help your body through this difficult path. Altitude sickness is common here, and it’s a long, tiring day but also a very beautiful one!
After a 7 hours hike (the normal route), tired legs and endless natural wonders you will camp Pacaymayo a beautiful place with a magic view. Unfortunately for us we only did a quick stop here for lunch and then the trek continued for another 4 hours….
Day 3: Pacaymayo to Wiñaywayna
By this point, we’ve already reached the ancient path, originally used by the Incas and untouched by the Spaniards. This pathway, much easier to cross than the first part of the Inca trail hike as it was built by the Incas, not repaired by the Peruvian authorietes, offers absolutely breathtaking views. Accompanied by the bright sun, we walked alongside the mountain.
Another Inca site stands before your eyes on Day 3: Abra Runkurakay. Located 3,700 m above sea, this archeological complex is probably an ancient watchtower.
After this stop, it’s time to return to the cloud forest, where we see Sayacmarca. Another Inca site, this one includes enclosures at different levels, with patios and irrigation canals. It’s basically a centuries-old Machu Picchu suburb!
In the normal route, this is the longest day in the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, but also the most culturally impressive. The highest points allow an incredible view of the Sacred Valley and the Inca craftsmanship. It’s easy to forget that there were such majestic civilizations in America during the European Middle Ages.
The third pass of Day 3 is Abra Phuyupatamarca, one of the best-preserved sites on the Inca trail in Peru. Called “town over the clouds” in Quechua, it’s a sophisticated sacred complex with beautiful water fountains. The view of the valley here is also mesmerizing.
Finally, it’s time to reach Wiñaywayna, another impressive site, very focused on agriculture. Here, we spend our last night of this Inca trail travel guide.
Day 4: Wiñaywayna to Machu Picchu
This is where all the efforts really pays off. The day begins extra early, getting up at 4am. It’s a one-hour climb on the highland jungle to get to the Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu.
This is where the first sight of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre appears, as the sun rises. If you are a bit afraid of heights like me, this is the worst part. To reach the Sun Gate you have to climb 50 stairs of what seems like a wall straight up to heaven but… when you come this far, there is no turning back. Just keep your focus high up and slowly start the climb, one step at a time!
The Inca trail hike is nearly over at this point, and the rush of reaching our destination is too high. 40 minutes later, we’ve descended into Machu Picchu. There’s a registry here and a backpack check-in. And this is where the actual Machu Picchu travel guide begins!
Machu Picchu: The Magic Finale
Peru’s most famous place and arguably South America’s biggest attraction, Machu Picchu is a sight to behold. This is especially true when taking the ancient route there, as reaching it is so satisfying after the effort. The best Inca trail tour is a tiring but unforgettable experience.
Every Machu Picchu travel guide will include a guided tour around the well-preserved ruins. Seeing the actual citadel will take about 2 hours with your guide, and then visitors are free to wander. You can climb up the Huayna Picchu Mountain and take incredible pictures, or visit the famous buildings. The most iconic constructions are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These form a complex known as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu.
It’s unclear what Machu Picchu actually was, but current historians believe it was a retreat for the powerful. Even though we had to do this journey in 3 instead of 4 days we got rewarded. As it was a strike, Machu Picchu was empty, only us there. I have heard that it usually is very crowded so it is probably worth starting the last day as early as possible!
After four magical days, you will embark the train back to Cusco with a smile on your face. You can also stay a night in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, just 6 km away. This is a small town but with hotels, restaurants and natural hot baths so if you want to stay in the mountains a bit longer this is a good place. However, we were very happy to get back to Cusco!
After the harsh climb, treat yourself to a few days of rest. Spend a weekend in Cusco or Lima to unwind and unpack all the wonderful memories! Find more about the exciting things to do in my Lima Travel Guide and why not indulge during your trip – check out my Lima Restaurant Review too!
Inca trail is for sure a once in a life time experience, a magic journey that will stay with you forever! I hope this Inca Trail Travel Guide will inspire you to book this adventure and to make the best out of it!