In November, during Peru’s rainy spring season, I hiked the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu with my sister Holly. We did the “classic” 4-day, 3-night version of the trek. By hiking the trail, you enter the park from the “Sun Gate” at dawn and are able to see Machu Picchu from a high vantage point. If you’re lucky, there will be just enough clouds to get some travel magazine-worthy photos of the ruins and llamas. There are also other smaller archaeological ruins you can explore along the way as well as llama photo ops, without the crush of tourists you’ll find at Machu Picchu.
As a non-athletic person, I found the trip extremely challenging (read: I wanted fling myself into a picturesque llama-strewn valley halfway through).
Inca Trail Trek Haphazard Rating: 5 of 5. Potential altitude sickness; uneven and steep trail paths; heights and passes up to 4200m
To See: Lesser known Inca ruins; llamas; beautiful valleys and mountains; the limits of human endurance
To Eat: Cuy (guinea pig); llama steak; quinoa; surprisingly good trek fare
When to Go: May – September is the busy dry season; the rainy season beginning in October will have greener scenery
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Booking Your Inca Trail Trek
In order to hike the Inca Trail, you must book through a tour company. Independent hikers are not permitted without guides. Only 500 hikers, guides and porters are allowed on the trail each day (about 200 hikers and 300 guides and porters). The porters carry the tents, food, and related equipment. Additionally, our porters carried a bag for each traveler – with a maximum weight of 6kg. Our group had two cooks, three guides and about 20 porters for our 15 travelers.
We booked our trip through Intrepid Travel on their Inca Trail Express tour. I knew their reputation first-hand since I had done trips with them before in other countries. Plus I wanted to ensure our porters and staff were paid a fair wage and not expected to carry excessive weights. Overall, we were really happy with the tour. The guides were knowledgeable and supportive. The porters were nearly super-human in their ability to scale the trail terrain with heavy packs. And finally, the food was excellent. For example, for dinner we usually had tea and a snack when we arrived at camp, then soup, salad, main course and dessert. Holly and several other travelers were vegetarian and there was no issue with options for them, although most decided to eat fish for extra energy on the trip.
Along the trail we met groups from G Adventures, another well-known small group tour company I’ve traveled with, as well as others. I recommend doing your research if you have the same concerns we did, or choosing one of these two companies. Keep in mind that the trail is typically closed in February for upkeep and maintenance. You’ll need to book well in advance to get trail passes.
Most Inca Trail Treks begin in Cusco. We stayed overnight in Lima then caught an early flight to join up with our group there for an early dinner (llama steak!), quick city tour and an evening orientation. There are ATMs available in the square and souvenir shopping as well as restaurants. At that meeting we got an overview of the trek days and altitudes, discussed equipment and packing, and were divided up into routes. Some in our group were hiking alternate routes such as the Quarry Trail and taking the train to get to Machu Picchu.
My sister, who had been busy with her medical residency and hadn’t had much free time to read about the trek, perked up at that part. She eyed me quizzically and whispered, “What do you mean there’s a train?” I frowned and replied in disbelief, “There’s a train. You’re kidding, right?” Only she wasn’t. “I thought the only way to get to Machu Picchu was by hiking there!” she hissed. Somehow we managed to keep it together until the end of the meeting. We reserved rental equipment (some people hired sleeping bags; we rented hiking poles) and booked a post-trek massage in Aguas Calientes. Then we tried to get a good night’s rest to help with adjusting to the altitude.
The next day we packed our day packs and porter bags and left our main luggage at the hotel to depart for Ollantaytambo. We visited a local village and had lunch there before heading on to the hotel in Ollantaytambo, where we spent the night before our trek started. We bought a few snacks and souvenirs in the square there. A few of our group went on a short hike, but we opted to rest before the trek.
The Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu
Day 1: Piscacucho to Ayapata (14km or 6.25 miles). Estimated time: 5 hours.
The day of the trek we woke up early and headed to Piscacucho or km 82, the start of the Inca Trail trek. Our guide Tommy declared this day to be our “training day,” to get us ready for the longer days ahead. Our group posed for the iconic photo at the entrance. Then we headed to show our trail reservations and enter the park.
I was pretty excited. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, but I attributed it to my anticipation. Later I found out that it’s relatively common for people to experience insomnia on the trek. It’s a symptom of altitude sickness that I hadn’t read about! Luckily this was my only symptom.
We passed a cemetery (which any guides worth their salt will tell you is full of fallen hikers) and the first ruin site, Llacapata. The hiking was a little slow going but not too difficult, since we weren’t at a high altitude yet. We eventually got to our campsite. After passing us on the trail hours before, our porters had already set everything up. Our camp included 2-person tents, the dining tent and kitchen, and pop-up toilet. We had dinner and settled in for the night at around 3100m. Day 1 was only about 5 hours of hiking.
Day 2: Ayapata to Warmiwanusca to Chaquicocha (16km or 7.25 miles.) Estimated time: 8-11 hours.
Each day on the trail, we were awakened by porters outside our tents. They dropped off a bowl of hot water for each person to wash, and coca tea to help with the altitude effects. On day 2 I still hadn’t slept but was cautiously optimistic.
Day 2 was the hardest of the trek and on my itinerary, included the two highest passes. The morning consisted of about 2 hours hiking before a morning stop with a snack. Then another 3 grueling hours up to the highest point of the trek – Dead Woman’s Pass at 4370m. I made it through the first segment but was starting to worry, because Holly and I both had to stop frequently and catch our breath. After the break, we slowly started up the steep path to Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s named that because it might kill you, or possibly because it looks like a reclining woman.
This part of the Inca Trail was BRUTAL and Holly and I had to stop about every 15 feet to just breathe. At this point the trail is mostly dirt punctuated by stone steps. We could see a line of hikers slowly plodding up the path, and a beautiful valley with llamas gamboling below. I considered throwing myself over the edge, but I didn’t have the energy to get a running start.
We made it to the top in bad shape and rested for a moment before starting down the other side to try and catch up to our group. Tommy, our head guide, had stayed back with us. Unfortunately, going down was almost harder than up since the trail was stone steps rather than dirt. I was glad I had hiking poles. It got a little dramatic – at one point I sat down on a step and declared I couldn’t possibly go on. But somehow we did.
By the time we got to the lunch point, the rest of our group had left, and a few of the crew were waiting. I asked Tommy how I could get out of there. I was expecting to hear a price quote for a helicopter with a drop basket. Instead, he said that the porters would have to carry me out. I looked at him for a minute. Then I declared that unless I was unconscious or broke a leg, no other human being was going to carry me. So we ate lunch and started hiking – up again, in the rain. This time we were headed for the 2nd high pass of the trail, Runkuracay.
I remember Tommy asking me about what cartoons I watched as a kid and us possibly singing some TV themes. I realized he was only doing it to distract me. Eventually we headed down again and it grew dark. After about the 10-hour mark, I stopped feeling pain and my legs started moving automatically. The porters came out about an hour from camp to meet us. I wondered if Tommy had warned them via radio that they might have to carry us. But at last – at very, long, long last – we made it to the camp and joined our group in the dining tent.
Our fellow trekkers were kind enough to tell us that they hadn’t been there more than an hour. It was a quiet dinner and an early night for most of us. This was the highest and subsequently coldest night of the trip at Chaquicoca.
Inca Trail trek itineraries vary depending on which campsites are booked for your group. All afternoon I remembered seeing the G Adventures group stop for the night at our lunch point, and I hated them a lot.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: I did a deep dive on Inca Trail itineraries, and with the exception of one, all of them (including Intrepid) now overnight before Runkuracay. This means that you will have a shorter second and longer third day than my hike. It’s a more balanced itinerary but it still makes for two days of moderately tough hiking (instead of one killer day then a day of shambling regret).
Day 3: Chachicocha to Wiñay Wayna (10km or 4.5 miles). Estimated time: 5 hours.
On Day 3 I STILL hadn’t slept and was starting to panic. Luckily there were llamas roaming around. Plus we had a view of Pacaymayo Valley that we’d missed by getting into camp after dark. And I got to wear the cute hat I’d bought in Ollantaytambo.
Day 3 was a shorter day for us. We saw ruins at Sayamarca and made friends with a llama there. Then we ascended to the third pass of the trek – to Phuyipatamara at 3850m. By the time we got to the campsite at Wiñay Wayna, my legs were barely working. But I loved getting to see the ruins. We had them mostly to ourselves. The entire hillside was terraced and green and beautiful. I felt a twinge of being glad I was there, but also the feeling that my legs might break off at the knee.
At camp, on the suggestion of our guides, we pooled any remaining snacks we had in our bags (mostly power and candy bars). We prepared an appetizer course for the porters complete with gourmet plating using swirls of energy gel. Over dinner, we discussed the next day’s plan. We would get up well before dawn to start hiking at 4:30, so that the porters could tear down the campsite and catch the train back to Aguas Calientes. With the help of our guides, we prepared and read a thank you in Spanish to our porters and cooks for the amazing job they had done. Then we settled in for our short and final night on the trail.
This is where I mention that there are no shower facilities on the trail. Also any rumors you read about a cash bar at Wiñay Wayna are a big fat lie.
Day 4: Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu (5km or 2.25 miles). Estimated time: 2 hours.
On Day 4 I still hadn’t slept and I was possibly starting to hallucinate. We got up super early and, using our headlamps, packed everything and started hiking. In about a half hour we reached the checkpoint to enter Machu Picchu. We waited in our groups along the path and ate bagged breakfasts our cooks had prepared for us.
Then after about 1.5 more hours of hiking and one final scramble up a very steep, wide stairway, we arrived at Intipunku, the Sun Gate. This is what we saw:
Slowly, slowly the clouds burned away and we were able to see llamas in the mist. And then, finally, Machu Picchu below.