The Ultimate Guide to Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

For the past 5 years, I have had the goal of visiting each of the 7 Wonders of the world. Traveling to Peru and seeing Machu Picchu was one of them.

It’s also the place I first met my wife in person for the first time. Sounds creepy, but it really isn’t.

Machu Picchu Team

A few team members early on (everyone was smiling)

Before leaving, I had heard horror stories about the difficulty of the hike. I made sure to mentally prepare our small team of six for the adventure and kept up a weekly progress report of how the team was training.

Before leaving, I had heard horror stories about the difficulty of the hike. I made sure to mentally prepare our small team of six for the adventure and kept a weekly progress report of how everyone was training.

It wasn’t all fun and games. I’m here to give you the low down on the good and the bad and how to make sure your next trip to Machu Picchu is a success.

Here you will get all the inside information on the hike from someone who has spent a lot of time researching it and completed it firsthand.

I’ve hiked some of the best national parks in the U.S. and this Inca Trail hike is still my favorite in terms of scenery and complete awesomeness. Alright, let’s get to the details.

Hiking the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Nothing really quite like it.

The Classic 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is arguably the most famous trail in all of South America.

It’s a 26 mile (42 kilometers) stretch that connects several Incan archeological sites: Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyuptamarca, Wiñaywayna, and of course none other than the magnificent Machu Picchu ruins.

Maybe I would remember the other historic sites better if they didn’t have such ridiculously long and obscure names. 🙂

You will ascend over 13,000 feet so if you have altitude problems make sure to think twice before committing.

If it wasn’t for an adventurous Yale scholar in 1913, Hiram Bingham, we might not have known of the existence of this modern-day gem. When the Incans were conquered by the Spanish in the 1500’s they fled the jungle and Machu Picchu went hidden for hundreds of years.

The legendary hike culminates at the Puerta de Sol (Sun Gate) where you overlook the magnificent ruins below and the iconic Huayna Picchu mountain to the side.

Along the hike, at the center of the Incan Empire, you will experience majestic mountains, cloud forests, a subtropical jungle, and a little bit of wildlife.

To help you prepare to go on one of the best backpacking trips in the world, we have summarized everything you need to know with a day-by-day itinerary, picking a tour operator, and what to bring with you.

Day-by-Day Itinerary (4 Days/3 Nights)

Inca Trail

Credit: Adventure Life

The exact itinerary may vary between tour operators, but almost all groups follow a similar itinerary and have set times to leave to avoid overcrowding. Even with daily tourism limits, there are still many, many tour groups and you will constantly be surrounded by other hikers, guides, and porters throughout the 4 days.

If you are looking for a more personal, private outdoor experience, I recommend you pick a less prevalent adventure as there are many to choose from around the Cusco area.

Alright, now for the daily itinerary.

Day 1: 13 km (8 miles), 5-7 hours from the start of the trail (kilometer 82) to Huayllabamba

Hiking Machu Picchu

Day one eases you into the action. It’s a nice starter to a much more difficult day ahead.

After taking transport from nearby Cusco, you meet your team and porters.  The first day is a relatively easy hike and goes past the ruins of Patallaqta, which means “town on a hillside” in the Incan language of Quechua.

You will spend the night at Huayllabamba, the only inhabited town on the trek.

Day 1 is relatively easy as there isn’t much elevation gain and your legs are fresh and you feel like you can take on anything.

Then, day 2 comes.

Day 2: 11 km (7 miles), 7-10 hours from Huayllabamba to Pacaymayu

Inca Trail Hiking

Hiking tunnels are fun.

Day 2 is considerably more difficult due to the severe elevation gain and altitude. If you’re fit enough to handle the constant incline, there is a good chance the high altitude will zap your energy and perhaps give you dizziness.

It’s the hardest day of the trek, with an ascent of 1,200 meters and a challenging descent to the bottom campsite. This day offers a great feeling of achievement when you get to Dead Woman’s Pass which is named after the resemblance of the mountain’s shadow of a woman’s head.

It provides a fantastic perspective of the gorgeous Peruvian countryside, but is also very cold due to the high altitude. When you get to the top, you can take pictures in the snow to display your fortitude.

If you aren’t in tip top shape, this day will either make you or break you. This is the day that things went south for a couple members of our team.

If you aren’t in tip top shape, this day will either make you or break you. Unfortunately, this is the day that things went south for a couple members of our team.

One of the girls on our team got a busted knee on the way down (after Dead Woman’s Pass). Not good.

 

Mini Machu Picchu

We were literally in the middle of the Peruvian jungle with no easy way of evacuating my friend. Despite her eagerness to carry on, she could barely hobble her way forward without needing assistance.

Thankfully, the Peruvians are a resourceful people and will go leaps and bounds to make sure their touring party is in good hands. A few of the porters and our guide took turns carrying our friend throughout the remaining two and a half days of the hike.

I can hardly carry my petite wife for more than 20 seconds and that’s walking on a level surface, not going up and down a mountainside. But somehow our porters and guide managed for hours on end.

She did walk sparingly, but for the most part, was carried for a good portion of the time.

In addition to all the equipment, pots and pans, food, and trash that they had to carry, they also now had a grown adult on their backs.

It was nothing short of remarkable.

Day 3: 16 km (10 Miles), 10 hours from Pacaymayu to Wiñaywayna

Machu Picchu Hike

This was a nice build up to the big one on day 4.

Day 3 is no slouch and for most, it’s the day that the nagging soreness reminds you that you are human. It consists of a 1,500-meter descent into a subtropical cloud forest and through the Amazon basin.

The soreness really gets at you as you make your way down the mountainside.

You will pass several unforgettable Incan sites like two Incan tunnels that are carved right out of the mountainside.

Throughout day 3 you see several mini-Machu Picchu ruins spread throughout the trail. It’s a nice build up to the granddaddy of them all that follows on day 4.

Rest easy once you get to the campsite because the next day is likely to be the most unforgettable experience of your hiking existence (it was for me).

Day 4: 5 km (3 Miles), 2-3 hours from Wiñaywayna to Machu Picchu and return to Cusco

Sun Gate Overlook

Everyone was thrilled when we finally got to the Sun Gate!

On the last day, you will wake up before dawn at an absurdly early hour (our wake up call was 3 am) in order to reach the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu just in time for sunrise.

It probably would have been glorious to see. However, as mentioned earlier, a couple of our team members were really hurting by day 4 so it made getting to the Sun Gate longer than anticipated and we certainly didn’t see the sun come up.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the last group to make it into the historic site. Once you arrive, you will then have half a day to explore the ruins of Machu Picchu before heading back. Personally, I could have spent the whole day there just in awe of the site.

Once you arrive, you will then have half a day to explore the ruins of Machu Picchu before going back to Cusco by train. Personally, I could have spent the whole day there just in awe of the ruins.

Unlike most archaeological wonders, Peru allows visitors to actually go in and around the beautiful ruins and see firsthand the inside of the structures and the once magnificent buildings.

Llamas in Machu Picchu

hang with the llamas…

I think doing the grueling 4-day hike really gave us a greater appreciation for the ruins once we got there.

I’m sure you hear this often, but to be honest, it really is nothing like being there in person and seeing it up close and personal. Pictures don’t do it justice.

You can easily spend hours on end walking up and around the magnificent ruins. Take a picture with a wandering llama if that your thing.

Once the day has come to an end, you’ll take a bus down to Aguas Calientes where you will take a train back to Ollantaytambo before arriving back in Cusco by bus or car.

If you have the time to take a dip in the hot springs I recommend you do so before grabbing the train out.

Picking An Inca Trail Tour Operator

Machu Picchu Overlook

If you are looking to avoid the crowds, don’t go to Machu Picchu.

Alright, let’s talk logistics.

First, make sure to book your trip well in advance as the tours sell out quickly and you can only go with a tour group or private certified guide.

The most visitors the park allows is 500 a day and that includes guides and porters which make up over half that number. This may not sound like a lot, but it really is when you think about the fact that everyone follows the same narrow trails.

We had to book the tour about 6 months in advance to reserve a spot. Keep that in mind as you will need good long range planning to make sure your spot is reserved.

Tour operators normally arrange groups of eight to sixteen people, and you will hike with people from all around the world. You can arrange a private tour, but this can be considerably more expensive with a smaller group.

We managed with a group of six (not including the guide, porters, and cook). From what I have seen, the price is around $500-$700 USD per person. We paid at the lower end as my wife is Colombian and we found a tour operator that catered more to the Spanish speaking South American clientele.

Inca Trail Food

The food was delicious!

If the tour operator charges much less, they are probably not paying their porters fair wages. It is best to book directly through a local tour operator instead of a foreign travel agency since the travel agencies may charge you double the price.

Included in the price is transport to the start of the trail, a bilingual guide, entrance fees to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, tents, all meals and a cook, porters, emergency first aid and oxygen, and return transport back to Cusco.

The food was fantastic throughout the trip. I really have no idea how they made such incredible meals when they were literally in the middle of the jungle.

Trust me, once you see all that is included and all the work that the porters and tour guide do, you will realize it is well worth every penny paid.

If you need to pay for an additional porter to lighten your load and carry some of your things you can do that for around $50-$100 USD.

Each porter should be tipped around 30-40 soles (about $10-$15) for the entire group. Keep in mind, regardless of how much or how little you pay for your tour, the vast majority of that money does not go to the guys that do the heavy lifting.

So make sure to tip your team well as they deserve it and likely live off of those tips.

Finally, when booking your tour, make sure that the tour operator is selling you the right trek and not misleading you with a similar sounding hike.

Best Time to Visit Machu Picchu

guys hiking

“The journey is the reward.” Steve Jobs

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be hiked all year round, except for February when the trail is closed for maintenance.

The best time to go is May through September when there is less rain and temperatures are slightly cooler. We went in July and the temperatures were great with a bit of rain on the mountainous day 2. It was cool enough in the evening to get a good night’s sleep without freezing.

It was cool enough in the evening to get a good night’s sleep without freezing.

The high season is June to August, but again make sure to book at least five to seven months in advance regardless of when you decide to travel.

Rain is likely during April and October and almost guaranteed between November and March.

What to Bring on the Inca Trail

Scenic overlook Machu Picchu

So much beauty throughout the entire hike.

First, make sure to bring layers of clothing. It can be hot during the day and chilly at night. Dead Woman’s Pass was very cold as we were over 13,000 feet in elevation.

I was fine with a sleeping bag, but others might need to put on extra layers at night.

If you are going during the rainy season, you should also bring rainproof clothes and equipment. It helped to have a waterproof backpack cover to protect my clothes and belongings on one particularly raining day.

It’s helpful to have walking sticks for the monotonous downward portions of the hike. Your knees will thank you later.

Hiking boots, lightweight hiking clothes, water purification tablets, and a sleeping bag (you can rent in Cusco) should also be on your list. Your porters and support team can likely boil water for your next day’s journey so the tablets aren’t a must have.

Don’t forget the toilet paper! While there are toilets and sinks at campsites, you will need to provide your own TP.

Finally, before you go overboard stuffing your bag with everything you think you might need, please think twice. You will have to carry your pack for 4 days so make sure to only keep the lightweight essentials as every extra pound matters.

Ready to Hike the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu Mountain

One of many pictures taken.

The 4-Day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is one of the magnificent hikes I have ever done.

We have summarized everything you need to know before embarking on this incredible journey. If you do decide to go to Peru for the hike or just to see Machu Picchu I recommend you brush up on some basic Spanish travel phrases.

It’s a somewhat strenuous 4 days so it’s important to consider what you are getting yourself into before leaving for the trip. If you are injury-prone or have had issues in the past think twice before committing to the full hike.

Remember, you can always pay for an extra porter ahead of time if you need help carrying your things.

Get used to walking long distances before embarking. The trek is over 3,000 meters in altitude. Altitude pills can be the difference between a great trip and a terrible one.

Plan to spend two to three days in Cusco acclimatizing before beginning the trek. You can spend those days sightseeing in and around Cusco as there are plenty of archaeological sites like Nazca.

You would be greatly remiss if you do not visit Machu Picchu at some point in your life. The intricate detail that the Incans put into each and every stone structure is mesmerizing.

Now it’s your turn, what has been your favorite backpacking experience?

    12 Comments

    • Avatar Leanne says:

      I also heard there was a train. That sounds nice, I think I’ll take that option.

    • This is one of the most detailed and exceptional guides for hiking the Inca trail, Nate! I love your day by day itinerary which will definitely come in handy. Well done!

    • Avatar Robert says:

      Thanks for your post Nate.T he Inca Trail is an unforgettable experience that I did last year. It is not only the trek and the landscapes that surround the Inca Trail, but the spectacular arrival to Machu Picchu. It is an emotional mixture between having fulfilled the objective of concluding the walk and the spiritual recharge offered by the place.
      Machu Picchu is a magical place definitely, the tiredness, the pain of muscles and bones disappear when you walk between its streets and historical places.
      In addition to doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu for 4 days, I stayed two more days in the town of Machu Picchu, the next day I was able to visit Machu Picchu again and go up to Huaynapicchu, a completely different view of Machu Picchu but from the heaven.
      It is important to visit during the dry season, they told me that the views are different when there is rain and sometimes it is not so spectacular.

      I recommend to Elvis from Kenko: https://www.kenkoadventures.com/inca-trail-machu-picchu
      Regards!
      Robert

    • Avatar Sweety says:

      I am hiking up to Machu Picchu next month and I can’t wait. I am spending a few days in Cusco before. Any tips or ideas for other fun things to do around there?

    • Avatar Sophia says:

      This place is very beautiful and such a great piece of art. Machu picchu can amaze every traveler. This place is look like a puzzle game where one can enjoy hide and seek game like I did .:)

    • Avatar George says:

      This photo is amazing! Well from the photograph it pretty clean that you are very good photographer. Thanks for sharing this lovely travel experience with us
      I went to Peru in spring of 2012 and the crown jewel of any Peruvian getaway is Machu Picchu. We also were able to snap a few pics with limited people since we waited out a rain storm. But we were treated to the clouds climbing up Machu Picchu which was beautiful! ?

    • Avatar Nate Alger says:

      Tons of great things to do around Cuzco. I’d check out Nazca if you get a chance.

    • Avatar Lovely says:

      Very detailed and helpful review of your trip to Peru! Enjoyed reading without getting bored in a bit. Simple, straight and full of useful info. Great job guys! Carry on travelling and sharing! ?

    • Avatar Mark Towle says:

      Awesome guide very informative keeps writing.
      Thanks for sharing!!

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