A traveler’s ticket to the great Lost City of the Incas, the winding tracks of the Inca Trail now represent one of the most iconic hikes on the planet. Thousands of people every year come to wax up the walking boots and hit the ancient paths that were first laid by the mighty pre-Colombian empires of South America all those centuries ago.
They come to wonder at the crumbling remnants of mysterious altarpieces in the clouds, at ancient grain silos and stepped agricultural terraces. They come to see the majestic beauty of the Peruvian Andes and the sweeping panoramas of Urubamba Province. They come to check off a real high-flier on that bucket list!
LBW offer travelers on our Wonders of Peru and Best of South America trips the chance to see the great UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Incas. Other visitors to the Sacred Valley will need to organise the trek themselves, getting permits and transport to the trailheads, sourcing the right equipment and guides.
In this article, we’ll take a look at all the ins and outs of hitting the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We’ll see the various options on the route, take a look at the lengthy multi-day hikes and short single-day hikes. We’ll see what travelers need to bring with them and what restrictions there are along the way. Enjoy…
The different ways to do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Confusing, we know, but there are actually several different options open to travelers looking to hit the Inca Trail to the awesome Lost City of the Peruvian cloud forests. These range from a lengthy seven-day trek that includes a trip to the chiselled peaks and summits of ice-topped Salkantay, to short and nippy one-day excursions that make use of trains and transport to the top. Here’s the lowdown on the lot:
Salkantay and the Inca Trail (One week)
A top choice for the most intrepid travelers amoung us, this lengthy seven-day hike through the heart of the Cusco region not only offers all the historical wonders of the Inca Trail, but also a glimpse at the rugged beauty of the high Peruvian Andes.
The trailhead starts at the rustic town of Cruzpata, a whopping 3,200 meters above sea level. From there, the walk takes travelers to the very edge of the Cordillera Vilcabamba, which rises to peaks like Tucarhuay and Humantay before dropping down to the glacial pass of Incachiriaska (an oxygen-defeating 4,900 meters up!). After that, walkers descend down into the high-altitude pastures, where alpacas and llamas laze on the grasses, and old mountaineering camps offer shelter. Day three serves up the first taster of history, with the ruins of Paucarcancha coming into view. And then day four marks the point where the itinerary joins the Inca Trail proper, moving into the wooded valley bottoms of Llulluchayoq. Climbers now take some time to get used to the thin air, before heading to cross the famous Dead Woman Pass and enter the cloud forests. Original Incan staircases lead the way up to the ruins of Runkuracay, before day six means entering the Gate of the Sun and Machu Picchu itself.
Classic Inca Trail (4/5 days)
Unquestionably the most popular mode of walking the Inca Trail, this classic four or five-day option follows the ancient stone paths that were laid by the pre-Colombians themselves. It passes cloud forests and several archaeological sites before coming to Machu Picchu and the Lost City.
The route starts at so-called kilometer 82, deep in the Sacred Valley and past towns like Urubamba and Chinchero from Cusco. The misty hills soon give way to the earthy village of Wayllabamba and the grass plains where walkers often set camp for the first evening under the glinting Peruvian stars. Day two means the most challenging section of the hike, with the high-altitude reaches of Dead Woman Pass combining icy gusts of wind with sultry humidity (it’s great for seeing the variety of climactic zones here). Next, it’s on to Pacamayo and the ruined so-called Egg Hut of Runkuracay, from where the old Incan roadways take over and weave up to almost 4,000 meters to the stepped houses of Sayacmarca (another awesome Incan relic). The final night is spent at the Incan Hostal; an earthy little stop-off that’s crowded with campers and fellow travelers (grab a beer here and a hot shower – tomorrow you’ll be hitting Machu Picchu!). The final section of the walk is a relatively easy one hour, allowing for plenty of time exploring the ruins of the city itself.
The short Inca Trail (1 day)
LBW’s excursion of choice gets visitors in and out of the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu without the need to traverse the strenuous trails that weave into the mountains. It’s an easy and well-planned day that gives all the history and culture without breaking the bank!
The day starts with a pick-up right outside your accommodation in Cusco. The journey deep into the Sacred Valley is a beautiful one, passing rustic towns and roaring rivers like the Vilcanota. A train ride then takes groups to the closest point to Machu Picchu on the trail possible, with just a short hike left to the iconic Sun Gate and the ruins of the city. The walk follows the ancient staircases that the Incans themselves would have trodden in the 1400s, before opening up to offer breathtaking views of the Urubamba peaks and the mist-topped Andes.
(An optional stayover in the town of Aguas Calientes is possible for other travelers on the trail, while LBW groups will return to gorgeous colonial Cusco to talk about the Incan mysteries over a cold one on the Spanish-style plaza!)
Inca Trail Permits
Booking with LBW means you won’t have to deal with all the stress of bagging Inca Trail permits before you arrive. Those who go solo to the mountains will need to do this - it’s compulsory! Be sure to get in early, as there are only 500 permits on offer each day, which quickly reduces to around just 200 for international visitors after allocations to porter staff and support workers on the trail.
When to hit the Incan Trail
Thanks to the onset of the major rains across the South American tropics in January, the longer sections of the Incan Trail are closed for repair from then until the end of Feb. They reopen in early March, but walkers during this time should prepare to get wet! To avoid the booming crowds of the high-season (and the high demand for trekking permits), it’s best to go during the shoulder seasons, which come with the drier months of May and October. The best conditions (particularly if you want to do the longer treks up into the Cordillera Vilcabamba) are between June and September, with warm weather and hardly any precipitation.
What to take on the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail passes some pretty hefty mountains and altitudes. It takes travelers past everything from lush rainforests to wind-blown, ice-topped peaks. That means thick sleeping bags and thermal clothing is a must, while waterproof bags to cover electronics are also sensible (cloud forests aren’t the driest places on the planet!). Staying hydrated is also uber-important, so a good refillable water bottle is sensible. Insect repellents to keep the biters away at low altitudes should be packed, along with any AMS meds and other necessaries. Passports are a must too. (And if you’re going to hit the thermal ponds of Aguas Calientes, remember the bikinis and board shorts!)
Are you interested in hitting the Inca Trail with LBW? Or, have you got anything to add to this guide for would-be travelers eager to see the wonders of Machu Picchu? Be sure to leave a comment below or check out our itineraries for Peru…
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"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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