Imagine a journey back in time, walking the same paths as the ancient Incas amidst Andean peaks, cloud forests, and centuries-old archaeological sites. I recently completed the Inca Trail in June 2023. Now, it's the one thing I recommend to all my adventurous friends who want to embark on an incredible experience abroad.
But is the Inca Trail hike worth it? And how prepared should one be for the Machu Picchu hike? Adventurous travelers, lace up your hiking boots, and let's uncover the secrets of the famed Inca Trail! This guide will teach you everything you need to know about hiking the Inca Trail safely.
How Long is the Inca Trail? A Day-by-Day Breakdown
The Inca Trail, often dubbed the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, is a trail that's rich with history, culture, and breathtaking views. Approximately 42 kilometers long, it's traditionally tackled over 4 days, each presenting unique challenges and wonders.
Here's a more detailed breakdown of the trail to give you a clearer idea of the journey that awaits:
Day 1: Starting Easy
The first day is often considered a 'warm-up' to the rest of the trek. Covering about 12.5 kilometers, hikers begin at the trailhead known as Kilometer 82. The initial part of the hike is relatively flat, meandering alongside the Urubamba River.
As you proceed, you'll ascend into farmlands and get your first glimpse of an Inca site, the Llactapata ruins. The day usually concludes at Wayllabamba, where you'll camp in the tranquility of the Andes.
Day 2: Testing Your Limits
The second day is arguably the most challenging part of the trek. You'll cover roughly 9.5 kilometers, including a steep ascent to the trail's highest point: Dead Woman's Pass or Warmiwañusca in the Quechua language. It stands tall at 4,215 meters.
As you climb, the landscape changes from the cloud forest to the puna, a high-altitude ecosystem characterized by grassy plains and spiky vegetation. Reaching the summit offers a sense of profound accomplishment and panoramic views of the surrounding valleys.
Day 3: A Journey Through History
This day is more extended in distance, spanning about 16 kilometers. Still, it's filled with cultural treasures and downhill paths. As you descend from the second pass, you'll come across the ruins of Runkurakay, an old Inca tambo or rest stop.
Further along the trail, you'll encounter the Inca sites of Sayacmarca and Phuyupatamarca, both offering spectacular views. The day wraps up at the Wiñay Wayna campsite, close to the same name's ruins.
Day 4: Arrival at Machu Picchu
The final day is the shortest, typically covering about 5 kilometers, but it's the climax of the trek. Hikers usually start early, aiming to reach Inti Punku, or the Sun Gate, by sunrise.
This spot provides the first view of Machu Picchu, with the sun shining a golden hue over the ruins. From here, it's a gentle descent to Machu Picchu itself. After exploring the iconic site, most trekkers head down to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town, concluding the Inca Trail journey.
Is the Inca Trail Worth it?
Absolutely! This is not just any trail. It's a journey through history, culture, and nature.
While there are other routes to Machu Picchu, none combines the rich tapestry of the Incan ruins, the diverse flora and fauna, and the sweeping vistas quite like the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu does. Imagine the sense of achievement and the stories you'll have to share!
How Hard is the Inca Trail Hike?
This is a question many adventurers ponder. The Inca Trail, while rewarding, can be challenging. Like much hiking in Peru, the trail involves steep ascents, descents, and several high-altitude passes. But don't be deterred! With proper preparation, acclimatization, and a good level of physical fitness, it's very manageable.
It's not something you need an athlete's regime to be able to complete. But training beforehand is essential, focusing on cardio and leg strength exercises. There were 60-year-olds in my group doing it smoothly, and my boyfriend and I, who exercise regularly but not to an extreme, also completed it just fine.
Remember, it's not a race. Taking it slow, staying hydrated, and giving your body time to acclimatize are critical to a successful and enjoyable journey.
When to Do the Inca Trail?
The best time for hiking the Inca Trail is during the dry season, which runs from May to September. During these months, you'll experience clearer skies and less rain. This is also the busiest time, so book well in advance.
The trail is closed in February for maintenance. The shoulder months, like April and October, offer a middle ground with fewer crowds but a slightly higher chance of rain.
What Do Tour Companies Provide on the Inca Trail?
You need to book your hike with a tour company to be able to enter the trail since you need special permits and professional guidance to be able to hike the path. Here's a closer look at what most Inca Trail tour companies typically offer:
A knowledgeable guide on the Inca Trail is indispensable. They provide insightful Inca Trail history and cultural narratives of the sites and are well-versed in the trail's nuances.
Tour companies provide quality tents designed for mountainous conditions. These tents usually accommodate two people, ensuring relative comfort. In addition to sleeping tents, there are communal dining tents where travelers can eat, socialize, and relax.
Meals and Water
From breakfast to dinner, tour companies provide well-prepared, nutritious meals catering to various dietary requirements, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and more.
Meals are often a blend of Peruvian cuisine and familiar international dishes. It's also crucial to stay hydrated. Some companies provide boiled water for trekkers to refill their bottles or hydration bladders.
Porters and Luggage
The Porters are the unsung heroes of the Inca Trail. They carry the bulk of the equipment, from tents to food. Some tour companies also offer personal porter services for an additional fee, allowing trekkers to offload a certain amount of their belongings to the porters.
Permits and Tickets
The Peruvian government limits the number of daily hikers on the Inca Trail. Tour companies handle the necessary permits, ensuring you have legal access to the trail. Your ticket to Machu Picchu is also typically included in the tour package.
What to Pack for the Inca Trail
While porters often carry the bulk of the weight, you'll still need a daypack with hiking essentials. Ensure it's not too heavy, as you'll need to carry the entire weight during the day. When packing for the trail, I ended up taking a lot more than I needed, so here's my edited packing list, which includes only what I actually used:
Inca Trail Packing List
- 4 shirts (one for each walking day)
- 1 thermal shirt I wore it at night and earlier in the day on the hike
- 2 jogger pants, which are loose and comfortable to walk in. For men, there are trail pants that turn into shorts, which are well worth bringing
- 1 pair of sweatpants and 1 sweatshirt to sleep in
- 2 jackets, 1 comfier and the other more robust
- 1 pair of hiking shoes and 1 pair of flip-flops
- Socks and underwear for 4 days
- 1 thermal pair of socks to keep your feet warm at night
- Water bottle
- Protein bars, nuts, and chocolate (Remember there are 5-7 hours between breakfast and lunch)
- Portable cell phone charger
- Toiletry bag with only the basics (soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturizer)
- Wet wipes and toilet paper
- Sunscreen and a hat
- Swimwear (not for the trail, but for the hot springs in Aguas Calientes afterward)
- A small book or deck of cards for entertainment
A 30L backpack is enough to carry everything you need; many people go even smaller than that. Remember that you'll take it for 45km, so weight and size make a difference.
On the trail, you experience intense cold at night and in the morning, between 0-5ºC. During the day, things heat up considerably under the sun. That's why it's vital to take layers of clothing with you and take them off little by little.
There was only a shower on the 3rd day, and the water was freezing, so many people took the hike without showering. Since the climate was dry and cold, I hardly sweated, and the body odors were non-existent. But a shampoo bar is a good option for those who want to brave the glacial water.
Get Ready to Hike the Inca Trail!
Peru is known for its beautiful hiking, and the Inca Trail is no exception. It's an experience that resonates deeply, connecting travelers with the Incas' legacy and Mother Nature's beauty.
Now that you're an expert on the Inca Trail, you can start to craft your ideal travel experience for you, your family, and your friends.