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The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Updated on January 31, 2011

Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail of Peru is a 50-kilometer (31 mile) section of the old stone path that once linked Cusco to Machu Picchu. It has been hailed as one of the best outdoor excursions in the world. Although the easiest way to get to the mysterious lost city of the Incas is by train, taking the very trail that the Incas once followed through the Sacred Valley is by far the more adventurous and memorable experience. The Inca Trail is a centerpiece of the National Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, a park of more than 32,000 hectares that is protected by the Peruvian government. This sanctuary has over 370 species of birds, 47 species of mammals, and more than 700 species of butterflies. Wildlife lovers on the trail have the opportunity to see such exotic species as the cock-of-the-rock, the spectacled bear, and the magnificent condor. For lovers of botany, some 300 species of orchids can be found in the trees of the cloud forest. The Inca Trail is one of many excellent hikes through the mountains, but it is special because Machu Picchu lies at the end of it.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The best time of year for taking the Inca Trail is May. The weather is usually good, the views are clear, and the valleys are lush with greenery. From June to September the trail is busy, and the campgrounds can be noisy. October to April is the rainy season. There aren’t many hikers, but conditions are pretty soggy, slippery and muddy. In February the trail is closed down for maintenance purposes. According to locals, the very best time to make the hike is during the period around a full moon. It’s more than romantic; it’s mystical.

Because of past experiences with rowdiness and litter, the Unidad de gestion Sanctuario Historico de Machu Picchu, the custodian of the trail, has set some firm rules. You must use a licensed tour operator. There are about 30 of them in Cusco. No more than 400 hikers, including guides and porters, can start off on the trail on any given day. Because of the Inca Trail’s popularity, you will have to make reservations months in advance if you are going during the peak season. Even during the slow time of year, reservations must be made weeks ahead.

Tour operators describe the Inca Trail as “moderate” on the scale of difficulty. But some parts, especially at the beginning, can be tough going. Some mountain paths are quite narrow, and they can be frightening if you have a fear of heights. It’s also a good idea to spend a few days in Cusco to acclimatize yourself to the thin air and avoid altitude sickness. You have to be reasonably fit for this hike, even if you have porters to carry your gear.

Your tour operator can advise you on how to prepare for your trip. Your pack must be no more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) you should have sturdy hiking boots, a good sleeping bag (some operators rent them out), clothing for cold, wet weather, a hat that will provide protection from sun and rain, and a towel. You’ll need a good supply of sun-block and mosquito repellant. You will also need toilet tissue. The campsites have toilets, but there are none on the trail. You cannot leave litter, so you’ll need something in which to carry your soiled toilet paper and other trash with you. The tour operator will advise you to pack as lightly as you can. If you’re going to use porters, remember that they have to carry their own necessities as well as yours. A North American style back pack might not be the best luggage for this trip. A simple duffle bag will probably work better.

KM 82

Day One

Your tour starts with a two or three hour bus ride from Cusco which takes you to Km 82, where your Inca Trail hike begins. (This is the starting point favoured by most of the operators, but a few use other jumping-off points.) The first day’s hike is a relatively easy 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). A gradual ascent takes you to the first of the fantastic ruins you will see. Patalloqta (also called Llactapata) is a village that is believed to date back to the time of the Incas. Here you will see the architectural layout common to Inca communities. The three spiritual worlds are represented: the world above (a watch tower), the world in which we live (the main part of the village), and the world below (hidden aqueducts and the river). You continue on to the village of Huayllabamba (also called Wayllamba). This is the only inhabited community on the Inca Trail, and your first overnight stop. You can hire pack animals here for the next day’s difficult ascent.



Day Two

Day two is the toughest, as far as the uphill journey is concerned. It’s another 12 kilometers, but with a gain in altitude of 1200 meters (3,940 feet). This is where that time spent acclimatizing pays off. The views are breath taking, especially when you reach Dead Woman’s Pass (also called Warmiwanuscca). It gets its name from the silhouette created by mountains that resembles the reclining body of a woman. This section of the trail is rich in Inca terracing, and you will see a few ancient buildings. A rather tricky descent takes you to Pacaymaya, where you’ll spend the night at a campsite. This is as far as the pack animals go. You can congratulate yourself for having completed the hardest part of the hike.

Day 3

Day three is downhill all the way. You descend through the subtropical cloud forest, which actually marks the divide for the Amazon Basin. Here you will see some of the most spectacular mountain scenery of the entire hike. You will pass the ruins of Runkuraqay, an Inca storage depot for trade goods; and Sayacmarca, a former way station for travellers. By mid-afternoon you will arrive at Huinay Huayna (also called Winay Wayna) where you will spend the night. Facilities here are basic, but welcome. You can have a hot shower, and buy cold drinks, including beer. You’ll have time to explore the ruins of Puyupatamarca. This place was used by the Incas as a resting and cleansing stop on their way to Machu Picchu. It has a lovely waterfall, numerous springs, and several restored ceremonial baths. From here you will catch your first glimpse of Machu Picchu, although what you see is the backside of the ruins.

Huinay Huayna


Day 4

On day four your guide will wake you very early so you can make the final ascent to Machu Picchu in pre-dawn darkness. (You’ll need a flashlight.) There are two good reasons for making such an early start. You’ll first reach Intipunku - the Sun Gate. No matter how tired you are, or how much your body aches from the rigours of the trail, this makes it all worth while. The pre-dawn start also gets you into Machu Picchu before the arrival of the morning train from Cusco, which brings the hordes of tourists who came the easy way.

Walk with me to Machu Picchu!

If you feel up to the challenge, why not take the time to find out if you have got what it takes to join the 2011 Peru Trek? The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has to be one of the most famous in the world. Trekkers will pass through stunning mountain scenery, subtropical jungle and lush cloud forest along the legendary Inca paving stones.

Once you sign up to the challenge, there are two ways to raise money: you can to pay a deposit of £399 and then raise sponsorship to a minimum of £3,095 to cover your full costs, or you can pay the £1,599 and then raise as much as you can. Please go to: to find out more.

My Father died of cancer in November 2009. The trek to Machu Picchu leaves on his birthday. I want to raise as much funding for the cancer centre as I can.

The people supported over the years by Penny Brohn Cancer Care have had harder mountains to climb and longer roads to walk down – why not do something amazing next year and get involved in this adventure of a lifetime!


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    • csgibson profile image

      Craig Gibson 

      5 years ago from Traverse City Michigan

      I have always wanted to do the Inca Trail. Now that I live in Colombia I should do it. Thank you for renewing my interest.

    • Gerg profile image


      7 years ago from California

      Very cool! I'm going to add this to my list of travel "musts"...

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      I wish I could come with you and you hub is so descriptive I felt I was following you. I have a lot os health problems and in and out of hospital.

    • kohuether profile image

      Katherine Olga Tsoukalas 

      7 years ago from New Hampshire

      This was such a fascinating hub! I am so, so sorry to hear about your father. Cancer is tough - it seems to affect all of us in some way or another during the course of our lives.

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 

      7 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Fascinating! Would love to experience this.. There is much to learn in this area.



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