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The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru

Updated on November 27, 2014

Inca Entertainment - The Inca Trail in Peru

Machu Picchu in Peru is one of those views that you just have to see once in your life. Everyone has seen the classic photo, always apparently taken from exactly the same place on the descent down a mountain towards the ancient site. My trip there, however, was rather eventful and almost a disaster, but I have very fond memories despite something going wrong at almost every stage.

This article is about my trip and some travel advice and recommendations for Peru and the Inca Trail from Cusco (or Cuzco) to Machu Picchu.

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Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I set off with two school friends, now all grown-up and sensible, with our rucksacks on our backs, with the intention of walking the Inca Trail. The "classic" student way to see Machu Picchu is a four-day journey, three days of walking over undulating mountains and camping at high altitude, finishing on the morning of the fourth day descending into Machu Picchu at sunrise. The alternative route is a fairly short train journey which can all be done in one day or with an over-night stay to allow getting to the site early in the morning, or a helicopter flight in a matter of hours. Looking back at it, we must have been mad, and I was certainly deluded about my own level of fitness, and had apparently completely forgotten that I am scared of heights.

Getting To Peru

In order to walk the Inca Trail, you need to start from the city of Cusco. We booked flights from London to Lima with the Venezuelan Viassa Airline (the cheapest option at the time) There appeared to be a problem with the plane on take-off and we were surprised to find ourselves being ushered off the plane in Paris, where we sat for hours watching fluid gush out of the plane while "engineers" wandered around the plane scratching their heads. We then all got back on the plane for the onward journey. We landed in Caracas about a day after setting out on our journey, where we waited for two more days for a working plane to take us on the Lima. We were ferried backwards and forwards, for no apparent reason, between the airport and a luxurious hotel that the airline had put us up in for two nights. A guided tour of Caracas, food and entertainment was provided, but we wanted to be up a mountain in Peru. We fortunately hadn't booked any accommodation, nor onward flights, so when we finally did arrive at Lima airport, we just bought tickets and caught the next plane to Cusco, without even venturing into Lima itself.

Map of the Inca Trail - Map of Cusco in Peru

show route and directions
A markerMachu Picchu, Peru -
Machu Picchu, Peru
get directions

B markerCusco, Peru -
Cusco, Peru
get directions

Some Essential Reading: Peru and the Inca Trail

Cusco (or Cuzco) Peru

Capital of the Inca Empire, Centre of the Inca Cult of the Sun

Cusco (or Cuzco) was the capital of the Inca Empire and the centre of the Inca Cult of the Sun. It is a fascinating place to spend several days with a wide variety of things to do and see, while acclimatizing to the altitude, ready for the Inca Trail. It is usefully at an altitude of 3,300m, lower than many of the higher parts of the trail, yet high enough to allow your body to get used to the reduced air pressure. It really is essential to acclimatize before attempting the journey. We didn't. The delay in Caracas had cut short our time and we wanted to get started. Cusco really deserves a separate review, so I won't go into too much detail here. But one thing really worth doing is The Natural History Museum (just 50p when I was there and worth every penny. I haven't laughed so much in a long time. All of the exhibits had no hair and were stuffed badly and had teddy bear style eyes sewn on. The boa constrictor was stuffed so full that it was completely straight and looked like a draft-excluder.

Natural History Museum, Cusco, Peru


Food in Cusco was mostly not great, as with so much of South America, but the night before the Inca Trail we decided to have a slap-up meal and a few beverages. The local delicacy of guinea pig seemed like a good idea as the main course, but that proved to be a mistake, first of all looking like my childhood pet, but also, was almost certainly road-kill. We foolishly ate it washed down with much sub-standard booze. I was very ill and didn't sleep at all.

The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is actually now a selection of several trails of varying lengths all arriving at Machu Picchu in dramatic fashion on the final day, although when I did it, I think there really was just one trail, but huge volumes of tourists have caused the requirement of spreading out the hoards a little. The classic trail takes a full four days, starting with a mini-bus journey to some distance outside Cusco, about six hours a day of walking, camping each night, with the final day spent exploring Machu Picchu, then taking the train back to Cusco. It is probably worth making sure exactly what route is being taken and what you will see en route. Some companies are now offering a short trail with just one day of walking, starting close to Machu Picchu, while others extend the journey to five days. The scenery is stunning and the destination unique, so I imagine even a short trail would be extremely good.

We booked the trail on arrival in Cusco with the least expensive guide we could find and haggled hard, getting a guide and "chef", but no porters, for the four days, shared with another 10 or so tourists for just $65 each. There is no way you will get it for this price now. We met many people on the trail, who even then, had paid several times as much. In exchange for the low price we agreed to carry some of the food and tents etc. along with our rucksacks, which was extremely foolish. A llama joined us on the journey, but she was purely for company and didn't help out at all with the carrying. One group we met on the trail had a team of porters and a pig trotting along for the first half of the journey, although he disappeared at some stage and they did have rather better protein rich food than we did. We had chicken early on, but mostly vegetarian later in the journey, and only edible because we were so hungry and tired.

The Peruvian Andes

The most striking thing about the trail is the incredible sheer vertical drops next to the paths we were walking on. I am not good with heights (in a cautious logical kind of way, I am scared when it's dangerous, but not if I am safe, and I would say this was quite dangerous) The surreal sight of tiny helicopters flying almost a mile below us in the valleys, and at one point even watching a thunder-storm from above, which we had to walk down through, made the whole experience even more memorable. The views looking down through the wispy clouds and haze into the valleys and of the Inca agricultural terraces and occasional ruin along the twisting path are spectacular.

On the first day I started getting symptoms of altitude sickness. I was out of breath, and had a terrible headache, but mostly just lacked energy and could hardly lift my camera let alone my body. It could have been exhaustion, or related to the dodgy guinea pig, alcohol and lack of sleep, but heading back down the mountain helped. I was given Coca Cola and high-energy chocolate and almost instantly improved, and the kind guide took my rucksack and my friends shared the burden of my photographic equipment. I was holding everyone up, most of whom had been acclimatized for a month or more, so I had to keep going, fortunately heading down-hill at that stage. Later in the journey I hired a mule to carry my bag for a significant, but worthwhile, fee (probably less than $10). Most tour operators now seem to provide porters to carry your luggage, which I would say is essential to really enjoy the walk. The first day was reckoned to be the easiest walk, with just 13km to cover, but I found it the hardest. The subsequent days involved similar distances, but more steep ascents. The camping facilities were very basic mostly without washing or toilet facilities, although I suspect this was partly due to the extreme budget nature of the tour taken in our case, and things may have improved with the increased popularity of this route.

Some Photographic Equipment

If you don't already have an SLR camera and a long lens, it would be a good idea to get one, before going on a trip like this. A compact camera will not get such good results in the challenging conditions in the jungle although they are more convenient.

I have written a more detailed recommendation of cameras here:

Nikon DSLR Cameras

I have also written an article about how to choose a digital compact camera:

digital compact cameras

but here is some good kit:

Flora and Fauna

The Inca Trail has a wide variety or climates as you progress up and down the mountains, some areas approaching zero while others are tropical. Humming birds hovering around us some of the time with snow and cacti in other areas. We camped at such high altitude one night, that we were actually inside a cloud with temperatures below zero. I had packed a lightweight sleeping bag, rather than the three or four-season variety recommended (well it was the equator after-all) and I started to get the first symptoms of hypothermia during the night. I tried wrapping myself in a tarpaulin, but ended up being covered in condensation which only made things worse. Fortunately the sun came up and thawed me out ready for another scary walk with no energy and little sleep.

The History of the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail was the great communication technology of the day, like the internet now. Relay runners would run between stations along the route passing messages back to Cusco. The route was also used for transferring fresh fish and other supplies rapidly from the coast up to Machu Picchu, taking a tiny fraction of the time taken by us. Along the route there are various interesting Inca constructions, although the more intact buildings were relatively few and far between. Some of them make wonderful photo opportunities and the scenery is stunning. Ruins of small inns, or "tambos" are located at regular intervals along the trails. These were occupied by the relay runners and provided shelter and food. Some Germans in our party regularly ordered beer, whenever we had a break, from various local people along the route and it appeared in no time. I would like to think these modern day relay-runners ran back to Cusco to purchase it, but I suspect they had a fridge tucked behind a hedge somewhere. Under normal circumstances I too would have imbibed with my Teutonic colleagues, but my stamina was impaired and couldn't manage any ethanol until celebrating our arrival on the last night. The last night was actually under cover inside a brick building. We were intending to camp and cook food round the fire, but we were stuck inside a thunder-storm and it would have been dangerous, so someone pulled strings and we were allowed inside with a huge number of other tourists caught in the storm. We ate low quality food, which tasted wonderful under the circumstances and even managed a beer, or five, to make up for my unnatural abstinence along The Trail.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is stunning, whether you go on the train or walk, but that sight as I walked down the mountain on the last day of the trail is one memory I hope will never leave me. A mixture of emotion, achievement and relief. It is at a height of just 2,400 metres above sea-level, relatively low compared to most of The Trail, which adds to the feeling of euphoria when you arrive. It was built in about 1460 and only occupied for a hundred years or so, abandoned when the Spanish arrived on the continent, although they never actually reached Machu Picchu. It was only "rediscovered" in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. It is only about 50 miles from Cusco and has similar architecture to many of the sites in and around Cusco, using clever earth-quake resistant interlocking dry-stone walls in its construction, but it's relatively impenetrable location has left it surprisingly intact. The sturdy foundations and many of the walls remain. Although, a tall stone column erected by the Incas still stood majestically in the midst of the ruins until it was removed to allow helicopter access. The majority of the buildings look quite modern and very regular in structure, but the setting is amazing, especially when you try to work out how the Incas actually got the building materials to the site. The terraced fields running down the side of the mountain are also remarkable, because the inhospitable location would normally have made agriculture almost impossible. The main buildings at the site are the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. The exact purpose of the site is not known but guides at the site will provide much speculative theory on the subject. The most important thing is to enjoy the remarkable location, marvel in the beauty and the unbelievable construction of the site and try to imagine it decorated with gold and occupied by the Incas instead of hoards of tourists.

Since I went to Machu Picchu it has become a very popular destination, to the extent that measures have been taken to try to reduce the number of visitors, both to the site and also to the Inca Trail. It has become far more expensive to do the trail, and I imagine the stunning sight of the destination will be a little impaired by all of the extra tourists, but still a wonderful place to visit. It is located in a magical location and the neighbouring city of Cusco with all of it's attractions and history also makes a fascinating destination.

Conclusion. Should you walk the Inca Trail?

Yes, but get someone to carry your luggage, acclimatize for several days beforehand, don't get food-poisoning, and definitely don't get drunk the night before. Next time I am taking the train (or helicopter), which would still be a wonderful experience and allow me more time to explore Cusco and its surroundings.

Advantages: Stunning location views and history, friendly llamas

Disadvantages: Altitude sickness, hypothermia, food poisoning, exhaustion, terrible food

Summary: Do it if you are fit, not scared of heights and have sufficient time

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Please Leave Me Some Feedback

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Nice site! Yes, the Incas still have many secrets for us: Peru is a country, where fairy-tails still happen! Machu Picchu is truly beautiful, and it is 1 of many very special places.

      It would be beautiful to have Man´s connection to Nature reborn! One way is, to visit this kind of places, feel, and truly discover what lies in the stones of the ruins: a whole culture of dedication, morals & interconnectedness.

      This is one of the things that we do. If you like, you could see our web, www.sweettravelperu.com, and visit magical Peru.

    • Niagara Ghosts profile image

      Niagara Ghosts 4 years ago

      My 77 yr. old uncle just did the trek and loved it...he was sore for days, though!

    • Millionairemomma profile image

      Millionairemomma 5 years ago

      Great pictures! I loved reading about The Inca Trail.

    • Millionairemomma profile image

      Millionairemomma 5 years ago

      Great pictures! I loved reading about The Inca Trail.

    • profile image

      kendrafowler 5 years ago

      Wow!! I have always wanted to visit this Inca land. ever since I read Herge's Tintin( The Prisoners of the Sun). Inca trail - Sounds exciting!! Will make it there someday!! Awesome pics!

    • globedancer profile image

      globedancer 5 years ago

      What a fabulous site! This is one of the great archaeological sites in the world.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      It is the best!!!! Anyone should do it!!!!!

    • charlb profile image

      charlb 5 years ago

      I have always wanted to go on the Inca Trail. Maybe 2012 will be the year to do it!

    • profile image

      lazydude 5 years ago

      That iconic Machu Picchu photo led me to travel to Peru...which led me to learn Spanish...which led me to get a degree in Spanish...which led me to live in Nicaragua...which led me to love their hammocks...which led me to create my first website: http://www.lazybandido.com/about-us/

      Thanks for the lens and pics!

    • Brandi Bush profile image

      Brandi 5 years ago from Maryland

      My son will love this...he's very interested in ancient ruins, especially Machu Picchu. :)

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      Enjoyed your trip report! Sounds like it was quite an adventure.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great Lens! And a great way to explore The Andes!

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 5 years ago

      What a journey and a fabulous account of it. Blessed and featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2012. Hugs

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Stunning photos. Need to add this to my hope to visit places one day list.

    • Zut Moon profile image

      Zut Moon 5 years ago

      Very nice lens ... great info and photos ... Thanks

    • CHalloran LM profile image

      CHalloran LM 5 years ago

      Machu Pichu is one of the places I hope I get to see before I die. I have read and watched so much about Peru and it would be a dream come true if I could walk the Inca trail. Great lens! Thank you!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great lens! I sooo want to go there someday. Right now, however, I am living in Brazil, in Florianópolis, on the Island of Santa Catarina and beginning to write about my family's experiences here on Squidoo. Thanks for an awesome lens!

    • profile image

      MobileAppMan 5 years ago

      Hi. I featured your Lens to mine in my new Ceviche recipe Lens. I 'liked' your lens too. Maybe you could return the favor? Thanks!

    • SayGuddaycom profile image

      SayGuddaycom 5 years ago

      Amazing!

    • profile image

      VillaDejaBlue 5 years ago

      Nice lens

    • Andy-Po profile image
      Author

      Andy 5 years ago from London, England

      @Yourpersonalcon: I walked the Inca Trail at least ten years ago now. It has apparently got a lot busier in recent years.

    • Yourpersonalcon profile image

      Yourpersonalcon 5 years ago

      Andy you made me laugh with your descriptions. I made that trip about 35 years ago. My husband and I stayed at the tiny government 'inn' that allowed 6 people to overnight at Machu Picchu - so we climbed Huayna Picchu late in the evening (in a thunder storm) after the tourist train had left, only to learn the 'inn' turned off the electricity as soon as the tourists left - but they did issue us one candle each, and a bucket of water for washing. When did you go?

    • traveller27 profile image

      traveller27 6 years ago

      Beautiful lens. I've yet to venture to South America but I'm considering it.

    • KellydeBorda profile image

      KellydeBorda 6 years ago

      Absolutely wonderful lens! I plan on reading more of your lenses today, so don't be surprised if I pop up some more. ;) I do hope that you eventually took the time to visit Lima properly!

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 6 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      amazing! I plan to go this year if it goes right. Blessed by a squid angel today.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Thank you for this very informative lens!

    • profile image

      WeirdStuff 6 years ago

      one day I will go there!

    • profile image

      grannysage 7 years ago

      What an incredible story. Even though you had so many difficulties (I am quite sure it would have killed me) you have the experience of walking the path the Incas walked. I had to laugh at the part about the beer that was bought along the trail. Entrepreneurship at its best.

      I would love to visit but I think the altitude would get to me. I had problems walking the paths at Yellowstone!

      Great lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      This lens is awesome. I love it. I am going to tell my editors on my Thai News website to write something about this lens and probably feature it.

      I will comment here again once we do.

      Great Work

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 7 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      This is one of those great walks on my bucket list. It looks and sounds like the trip of a lifetime.

    • Andy-Po profile image
      Author

      Andy 7 years ago from London, England

      [in reply to Jewelsofawe] Yes. I'm on the Giant Squid Challenge Ning Thing too. That's where I saw your latest lens. I posted a few of my newest ones there a couple of days ago. I shall check out some of your other ones too, I haven't read many of your recently and I know you are very prolific and an excellent lens maker. I'm sure you will do very well in the 100 Club challenge. Tell me if there are any I have missed or that you would like me to read.

    • ZenandChic profile image

      Patricia 7 years ago

      I am also going for the 100 club right now. Are you at the giant squid challenge blog? I haven't see you there.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 8 years ago

      Did you know that this popped up not so long ago as a twittyquestions question?

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I tell you I read every word--couldn't miss anything here! You forgot you were afraid of heights?! First of all, if I ever go there, it would be good to fast if guinea pig is being served for sure, though I have eaten an array of wild game. Home is definitely the place to be when sick.

      I initially paged through to see the photographs and hoped you would address the atrocious taxidermy skills, I'm glad you had fun with it.

      Sleeping inside a cloud sounds very inviting, unless you factor in the freezing temperatures and getting wet to boot.

      What an adventure! I would definitely opt for the train or helicopter. Given you're very inviting description of "hoards of tourists", perhaps another destination would be more appropriate for me.

      What really amazes me was that, all along the way, you mention points of interest that leads one to believe this would be a great destination if one were to accomodate for a few inconveniences.

      I loved it from start to finish!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I tell you I read every word--couldn't miss anything here! You forgot you were afraid of heights?! First of all, if I ever go there, it would be good to fast if guinea pig is being served for sure, though I have eaten an array of wild game. Home is definitely the place to be when sick.

      I initially paged through to see the photographs and hoped you would address the atrocious taxidermy skills, I'm glad you had fun with it.

      Sleeping inside a cloud sounds very inviting, unless you factor in the freezing temperatures and getting wet to boot.

      What an adventure! I would definitely opt for the train or helicopter. Given you're very inviting description of "hoards of tourists", perhaps another destination would be more appropriate for me.

      What really amazes me was that, all along the way, you mention points of interest that leads one to believe this would be a great destination if one were to accomodate for a few inconveniences.

      I loved it from start to finish!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 8 years ago

      Ah, Tony! I have heard so much from my mom about Machu Picchu -- she seems to be quite an authority on it. Haven't had the pleasure of a visit yet.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Excellent lens! :D

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 8 years ago

      Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)

    • AnimalGuy profile image

      AnimalGuy 8 years ago

      I have wanted to see Machu Picchu ever since I was a kid. If I ever get into the right situation Peru is on my list of places I want to go. Beautiful pictures and an interesting lens. I love lenses like this that have more info than ads. Great job!

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 8 years ago from Massachusetts

      This place looks incredible. I've always wanted to see these ruins.

    • Terry Boroff profile image

      Terry Boroff (flipflopnana) 8 years ago from FL

      Thanks for sharing this great journey with us! I enjoy traveling via your lenses.

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 8 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Another great lens. You have been to some amazing places.

    • profile image

      Bella21 8 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this journey. Interesting lens and well put together.

    • Liam Tohms profile image

      Liam Tohms 8 years ago

      We went to Machu Picchu a few years ago. Stopping in Cusco on the way. I too ate some local food and was violently ill that night with incredible stomach cramps. Our guide put it down to altitude sickness.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I would love to travel as you do, but I don't know how I'd find the time. Another wonderful lens Andy. - Peru looks like a great place to go see. Thanks again. ;)

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Cool. Excellent photos

    • profile image

      KesiaLynn 8 years ago

      An amazing journey to be sure. Thank you so much for sharing this look back in time and for letting us tag along.

    • profile image

      KesiaLynn 8 years ago

      An amazing journey to be sure. Thank you so much for sharing this look back in time and for letting us tag along.

    • cineteq profile image

      John Parr 8 years ago from Montreal

      Actually one of the most interesting places in Machu Pichu is the mountain next to it, Huayna Pichu. Hike it, and you see what I mean.

    • sudokunut profile image

      Mark Falco 8 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Peru is top of my list of places to visit. Thanks for sharing you experiences.

    • Valery504 LM profile image

      Valery504 LM 8 years ago

      Exciting story and exciting lens! Thank you for sharing your experience!

      :)

      Lensrolled to my Interesting Places to Visit lens!

      Best Regards!

      Val

    • Valery504 LM profile image

      Valery504 LM 8 years ago

      Exciting story and exciting lens! Thank you for sharing your experience!

      :)

      Lensrolled to my Interesting Places to Visit lens!

      Best Regards!

      Val

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 8 years ago

      Hi - enjoyable lens - I'm hoping to make it to Peru in this lifetime too!!! Great photos. Five stars.

    • anthropos lm profile image

      Lamar Ross 8 years ago from Florida

      While studying anthropology in Graduate School, I studied and read a lot about the Andes, especially Cuzco. The Andes are still on my unvisited list. I am looking forward to that visit.

      Thanks for joining ”Anything and Everything Travel” Group. We look forward to seeing your other travel related lenses in our group. Keep up the good work.

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 8 years ago from Royalton

      I haven't made it to Peru yet so thank you for giving me a glimpse.

    • profile image

      babyknittingpatterns 8 years ago

      gorgeous pictures and travel viewpoints. Beautiful lens.

    • dahlia369 profile image

      dahlia369 8 years ago

      I've been attracted to everything Inca, Maya and Aztec since I first learned about these great cultures as a child - and walking the trial would always be my preference... Beautiful lens!

    • K Linda profile image

      K Linda 8 years ago

      My husband grew up in Peru and I can't wait to visit with him. I would have walked the Inca trail when I was younger, but now I will gladly take the train. Very interesting lens! 5*'s.

    • ZenandChic profile image

      Patricia 8 years ago

      I would love to be able to travel to alot of the places you have been too. Cool lens!

    • ZenandChic profile image

      Patricia 8 years ago

      I would love to be able to travel to alot of the places you have been too. Cool lens!

    • profile image

      hesika 8 years ago

      Thank you. Now I know a lot more about a travel to Peru. 5* and kind regards

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 8 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Really nice lens Andy, this is one of the places on my list. Better be soon because I'm getting older and I want to be able to walk it! Hard to breath up there in the Andes! I love the photos. 5*****

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 8 years ago

      Very nice job on this lens. I enjoy learning about your travel experiences. Welcome to All Things Travel.

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

      MargoPArrowsmith 8 years ago

      This is on my bucket list, and this is a beautiful lens 5*