Inca Trail Trek
Inca Trail trek is by far the most famous trek in South America and is rated by many to be in the top 5 treks in the world. It’s easy to get confused when talking about the Inca Trail trek. The Incas built a highly advanced network of nearly 40,000 thousand kilometers of trails to connect the distant corners of their vast empire that stretched from Quito in Ecuador down to Santiago in Chile and east to Mendoza in Argentina. Cusco was at the heart of this great empire. Almost all of the principal trails in the mountains surrounding Cusco were built or improved upon by the Incas. However, a particularly beautiful 43km section of mountain trail connecting the important Inca archaeological sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna and Machu Picchu has become popular with hikers in the last 30 years and has become known as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Access to this section of Inca Trail is strictly controlled and only authorized trekking companies are allowed to sell this trek. All guides on the Inca Trail must be licensed and only a limited number of trekking permits are issued and must be purchased several months in advance (Inca Trail Permit Availability). When booking an Inca Trail tour always book with a reputable trekking company and check the day-by-day trek itinerary. If the trek doesn’t include a visit to ALL of the archaeological sites listed above then it may be possible that you are looking at a different trek completely!! There are many unscrupulous travel agencies in Peru who make a good living out of misleading visitors about the route of their Inca Trail. Some visitors only find out that they have made a mistake once they have started the trek! This guide will ensure that you are not one of them.
Inca Trail Options
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the ten most popular trekking trails in the world. It encompasses archeological sites of the ancient Inca Civilization and various ecological and biodiverse areas in the tropical Andean forest. Private tour operators have tailored personal packages to suit different demands. They offer itineraries varying from 2, 4, 5 or 6 days that vary from easy to moderate and difficult. Choose a tour operator that best suits your interests and budget. The most economical way to hike the Inca Trail trek is to hire group service, this is when the operator advertises a day of departure selling to different clients who will be trekking with you.
Short Inca Trail – 2 days
This is a less strenuous route and starts at kilometre 104 along the railroad from Cusco. The trail climbs up to Wiñay Wayna where you join the final stages of the 4 day inca trail hike. From Wiñay Wayna the trek then descends to Machu Picchu. This is a good option for visitors with limited time or who are not fit enough to complete the 4 day version. The trek has the advantage of allowing you to visit the beautiful ruins at Wiñay Wayna and also to experience at least part of the Inca trail. Unlike the 4 day trek you do not need to be acclimatised to undertake the 2 day trek since the trail is at a lower altitude. Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
Classic Inca Trail – 4 days
This is the most popular route trekked by hundreds of visitors each day. This beautiful trail starts at kilometre 82 (so called because it is 82 km along the railroad from Cusco) and takes in many of the Inca ruins including Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna and of course Machu Picchu. Because this route is the most popular you can easily find a tour operator with groups leaving everyday that you can join. A group service is when a trekking company advertises a fixed departure date and pools all of their clients together. This means that you will be trekking with other people from different parts of the world which can be great fun. The maximum group size is limited to 8 persons. This offers the most economical way to do the Inca Trail. The price for a private service depends on how many people there are in your group. Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
Classic Inca Trail – 5 days
This itinerary follows the same route as 4 day trek. However you have the opportunity to visit the ruins of Llactapata where you will probably camp on the first night. You’ll also camp at different less crowded campsites during your trek. Although you will probably arrive at Machu Picchu in the afternoon of the fourth day of the trek you will usually camp down in the Urubamba valley (or possibly stay at a hotel in Aguas Calientes) before returning to Machu Picchu for sunrise on the fifth day. You’ll still be walking 12-15 km per day on days 2, 3 & 4 of the trail so it is not to be regarded as an easy option. This itinerary is not as popular as the 4 day version so you will probably have to take a private trek which is fine if you have a group of friends but can be expensive if there are just the 2 of you. Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
Salkantay Trek Plus Inca Trail – 6 days
A spectacular 6 day trek that passes beneath the sacred snow-capped mountain of Salkantay. This mountain God (or Apu) was worshipped by the Incas and is still honoured by existing Quechua farmers. The trail starts in the warm citrus valley near Mollabamba and eventually joins the Classic Inca trail route at Wayllabamba on the three day. The route involves some high passes which can be bitterly cold during the months of June and July. However the trek combines the best of mountain scenery with the Inca ruins of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna before arriving at the citadel of Machu Picchu for sunrise on the final day of the trek. You need to acclimatise in Cusco for a couple of days prior to starting this trek. Some tour operators have fixed departure dates for this trek. Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
Inca Trail regulations
Since 2002, access to the Inca Trail has been limited to 500 people per day (roughly split between 200 tourists and 300 accompanying guides and porters), no matter the time of year. This means it is necessary for everyone to obtain permits in advance to do the hike.
Securing a permit is only possible with an approved tour provider, who buy these daily permits in advance. This means that – although many of Peru’s best hikes, like the Colca Canyon, are possible to do independently – you can only do the Inca Trail with an approved tour company and spaces are capped.
When to go
The dry season is from May to September when the average monthly rain is two days, average high temperature is 21C or 70F and low temperature 1C or 34F at night. Days are usually sunny and fairly dry and because of the high altitude sun rays are very strong so it is recommended to wear sun block. The trail is closed on February every year for maintenance.
How to prepare
Being in good health and physical condition is a must. The highest point in the trail is 4,215 meters so altitude sickness can be a letdown, be prepared to rest before you embark on your trek. Usually two days in Cusco is enough, you can visit the nearby ruins and many artisan markets. At high elevations the pressure of oxygen diminishes so the quantity of oxygen molecules per breath is lower than at sea level. The respiratory, circulatory, nervous and renal systems are affected by the inadequate amount of oxygen. Now, it is different with every person, about 30% of travelers never feel any sickness. As long as you follow the basic rules you will acclimatize in no time.
What to bring
The key to packing for a trip to Peru is to pack for a variety of conditions while keeping the weight to a minimum. Easier said than done when you have to deal with the intense heat of the equatorial sun and the cold mountain nights spent camping on the Inca Trail. The best way to deal with these extremes is to dress using several layers rather than one thick jumper. If you forget something, don’t despair since most things can be bought in most Peruvian cities frequently visited by tourists including excellent and cheap alpaca jumpers.
- A good day pack: such as Eagle Creek Afar Backpack (Appropriate pack to carry your personal belongings.)
- Original passport
- Travel insurance (strongly recommended but not required
- Lighter trekking boots (with good ankle support)
- 3 pairs of trekking pants (not jeans), 1 hiking, 1 cotton–which is just enough. Please spray both pairs with an insect repellent spray before the trip.
- Layers for variable temperatures especially at night
- 1 rain jacket: The first night the temperature can be as low as – 5 degrees Celsius/23 degrees Fahrenheit. A rain jacket can be helpful, because there are rainy days even in the dry season!
- 1 warm/winter jacket (Thermals: wool socks/gloves, scarf and woolen hat for cold nights).
- 4 pairs of underwear, 6 pairs of socks (Bamboo or cotton/nylon-blend socks dry faster than 100 percent cotton, which lose their softness when air-dried.) It is nice to have a couple of extra pairs of socks to change into at night when you’re not hiking. Also, we recommend bringing both really heavy hiking socks and lighter socks as well as the weather is variable, so you want to make sure you’re not too cold or too hot.
- 4 shirts, 2 long sleeve shirts
- 1 good sleeping bag liner which is super lightweight and easy to pack. This definitely does its job!
- Travel-size tissues and wet wipes–The air is cold and damp, so your nose is going to run a lot. Everyone seems to run out of tissues by the end of the trek. Also, most bathrooms do not have toilet paper (if you even get a bathroom), so wet wipes are key.
- Iron tablets and pills for altitude sickness. Several people on the hike have varying degrees of altitude sickness and both of these remedies (in addition to the coca tea) are very helpful in alleviating the symptoms.
- Sun protection cream (SPF 45 or higher recommended).
- Bug spray with 30% DEET in it–which you need, but it doesn’t work very well. The issue with Cusco outdoor is that most of the bugs are not mosquitoes. They are these small flies you can’t even see that leave weird bites that first look like you pricked your finger and then blow up into itchy red bumps. Unfortunately, these bugs seem to bite you no matter what kind of spray you put on, so bringing some anti-itch ointment could be helpful.
- Re-usable plastic or metal water container or a hydration pack such as Camel-back
- Water (Only for first day of the hike, as we will provide you with water throughout the rest of the hike).
- Camera and film
- A headlamp to navigate camp in the evenings and pre-dawn mornings with spare batteries
- Bandages or moleskin
- Flip flops to change into at night. Your toes will thank you!
- Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste/floss, shampoo/conditioner, brush/comb, Vaseline (great for potential blisters on the feet), feminine hygiene products, deodorant, nail clippers/file/tweezers, spare glasses and/or prescription, mini-eyeglass repair kit, contact lenses and supplies, hand sanitizer etc. Pack what you need, but pack light.
- Medication (Imodium AD or something for your stomach) because some people get an upset stomach on the trek. Also, Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen can be helpful to help with aches and pains after 8-10 hours of hiking each day.
- Plastic bags for dirty and wet clothes
- Something to read in the evenings
- Extra money for drinks
- Emergency money at least 300-450 extra soles (USD$ 220)