Hiking the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is perhaps the best hike in the entire world. While there are certainly other and definitely far easier ways to visit Machu Picchu, this route is without a doubt the most rewarding and unforgettable. This detailed travel guide covers everything you need to know about planning, booking and hiking the Classic Inca Trail in Peru — an experience that you will likely remember and treasure for years to come.
What is the Classic Inca Trail?
The Incan Empire built an extensive network of roads that was at least 25,000-miles long and today the most famous stretch of this centuries old road system is the tiny portion known as the “Classic Inca Trail”. Starting at 82-km, this 4-day, 3-night, 26-mile trek along an ancient Incan roadway takes you to several spectacular ruins, through lush cloud forests and over sky-high mountain passes. At dawn of the final day you arrive at the mysterious “The Lost City of the Incas” — Machu Picchu.
Tips for Hiking the Classic Inca Trail
How Difficult is it?
This is a strenuous hike over rough and uneven terrain at very high altitudes. You should be reasonably physically fit and have no medical issues which would prevent you from undertaking a trek such as this. While there is no government restrictions on the minimum or maximum age of trekkers, some tour operators do so check before booking.
Inca Trail Permits
Because of the popularity of the Classic Inca Trail a permit is required and advanced booking of at least 6-months is recommended for the best chance of securing one. To help preserve this historical road the Peruvian government strictly limits the number of individuals allowed on the trial each day to just 500 people (which includes 200 hikers and 300 porters/guides). Permits for the entire year are released on October 1st and are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis — there is no waiting or cancellation list. Your tour operator will reserve the permits for you making the registration process a breeze. If you’re lucky enough to obtain a coveted permit, make sure that the name on it matches the name on your passport exactly or they might not let you in. Once the permit has been issued it cannot be changed and is not transferable.
Those unable to obtain a permit for their desired dates or anyone booking last minute might want to consider one of the alternative routes to Machu Picchu such as the Salkantay or Lares treks. Because these other routes are not popular as the Classic Inca Trail means they’re not as crowded, not regulated by the government and do not require a permit. These treks normally end with the final night being spent at a hotel in nearby the town of Aguas Calientes and by taking a bus up to Machu Picchu on the final day.
Hiking the trail yourself is not allowed as all trekkers must be accompanied by a government registered tour operator. Picking the right company to go with can make or break your Inca Trail experience, so do your research. Most tour operators offer both group and private tours with all-inclusive pricing that usually includes English-speaking professional guides, porters, transportation, drinking water, meals, permits, Machu Picchu entry tickets and some gear/equipment. If necessary they can work with you to customize your trip if you have special needs or requirements.
We signed up for a group tour with Alpaca Expeditions which is based in Cusco, Peru — this was an absolutely fabulous operator from being to end and I cannot recommend them more! Prior to booking, they answered all our emails fast and had very competitive pricing considering everything that is included. The company was founded by Raul Ccolque a former Inca Trail porter who was born in one of the highland Andean villages and was the guide for our trek. He was incredibly friendly, very knowledgeable and was a major reason why we had such a fantastic time. Click here to visit their website and learn more about Alpaca Expeditions.
Alpaca Expeditions took care of everything for us, from securing our permits as soon as we booked to arranging the transportation to our hotel on the final day. The evening before our trek began our guide met us at our hotel for detailed orientation of what to expect on the trail and answered all our questions.
Perhaps the best part of our experience was the food — much to our surprise and delight, the food we had on the trail was unbelievable tasty and even better than the meals we had in Cusco. Each meal was gourmet quality and there was plenty to go around. Somehow they even managed to bake a cake on the final night. Expect to drink a lot of coca tea as with everywhere in Peru.
The hardest working people on the trail are without a doubt the porters and at Alpaca Expeditions they are dubbed “the green Machine” because they’re decked out from head to toe in bright green. They carry all the heavy bags, setup/breakdown the campsites, cook the meals and so much more — basically you hike while they do everything else. Expect to see them rushing past you as they race ahead to setup the next meal or campsite so everything is ready by the time you arrive. As you can imagine it is their hard-work and dedication that helped make our trip so amazing.
Since Alpaca Expeditions was founded by an ex-porter, they made sure all their porters were equipped with good gear, appropriate shoes and are provided with healthcare — we were surprised how many of the other tour operators were using porters with extremely poor gear and some even wearing sandals. The company was also one of the first to employ women as porters and has a big emphasis on giving back with lots of social programs that benefit the local Andean communities.
For all these reasons I can strongly recommend Alpaca Expeditions for hiking to Machu Picchu.
Best Time of Year to Hike The Inca Trail
Peru has two seasons; the dry season which runs from May to October and the wet season which runs from November to April. The fall and spring months offer the best mix of crowds, temperatures and weather.
- March, April & May (Fall in Peru): Fewer crowds, moderate temperatures and generally good weather conditions. The rainy season ends in early-May so everything should be lush and green.
- June, July & August (Winter in Peru): The most crowds, the coldest temperatures and the height of the dry season.
- September, October & November (Spring in Peru): Fewer crowds, moderate temperatures and generally good weather conditions. The rainy season begins in late-October.
- December, January & February (Summer in Peru): Fewer crowds but this is also the height of the rainy season so expect to get wet. For the entire month of February the Classic Inca Trail is closed for cleaning, maintenance and restoration so no permits are issued (although Machu Picchu itself remains open).
To avoid altitude sickness while on the Inca Trail try to arrive at least 3-days or more before your trek begins so your can acclimatize to the high-altitudes of the Andes Mountains. Spend this time exploring Cusco, the historic capital of the Incan Empire, and the nearby Sacred Valley while your body adjusts to the higher elevation. You will find plenty of fascinating sites, ancient ruins, museums, activities, hikes, markets, nightlife and amazing food to keep you more than entertained. The city of Cusco has an elevation of about 11,200-feet, which is significantly higher than that of Machu Picchu (which is around 8,000-ft).
Pack Light & Smart
Your tour operator will likely give you small duffel-bag and weight limit for everything that you will bring with you on the Inca Trail — so packing light is a must. This personal duffel-bag will be carried by the porters between the campsites so it won’t be available to you during the day; so make sure you have your own day-pack for essential items such as a camera, extra batteries, medications, hand-sanitizer, jackets and of course drinking water. Your hotel in Cusco can hold your luggage and other nonessential items that you won’t need while on the trail for safe keeping (usually for free). Regardless of when you go, you will likely need to pack and prepare for all seasons, temperatures and weather conditions which can be unpredictable and change rapidly at high altitudes. Perhaps most importantly, invest in a good pair of hiking shoes and break them in well before embarking on your adventure.
Campsites & Facilities
There are multiple campsites for each day on the trail with some being more desirable than others (especially on the final night); check with your tour operator when booking to know which campsites you will be staying at. While there are showers at the various campsites expect the water to be exceedingly cold. Bathroom facilities are very primitive with squat toilets that are rarely, if ever cleaned. Make sure to carry your own toilet paper with you at all times. Once you arrive at Machu Picchu there is a paid toilet just outside of the gates that is well worth the price of admission after 3-long-days on the trail.
Don’t forget to bring cash with you so you can tip your guide, cook and porters at the end of your trek. When you see how hard they work to make your trip so easy and memorable they definitely would have earned it. Also, if bringing foreign currency with you to Peru with you make sure the paper-bills themselves are in good condition as many places won’t accept cash if it is damaged, ripped or heavily worn.
Day by Day Summary
Inca Trail: Day 1
The Classic Inca Trail trek begins at 82-km along the Urubamba River at an altitude of 8,923-feet above sea level. Snap a photo of the entrance sign then present your permit and passport at the government checkpoint to begin your adventure!
After first crossing, then hiking along the Urubamba River during the morning, the trail turns into the mountains as you come across the first significant stop on the trail — the hilltop ruins of Willkaraqay (an ancient pre-Inca site) which overlooks the ruins of Patallaqta in the valley below. The Incan ruins of Patallaqta were used for religious and ceremonial functions, crop production, and housing for soldiers from Willkaraqay. Patallaqta is also believed by some to be the original Incan name of Machu Picchu although we will likely never know for sure.
Continuing down the road you will pass through several small villages before the trail turns west and becomes much steeper. Soon you will arrive at the campsite where you will spend your first night.
Inca Trail: Day 2
The second day begins by ascending through a cloud forest towards Warmi Wañusqa, more commonly known as “Dead Woman’s Pass” (so named because of nearby rock formation) — this is the highest point on the Classic Inca Trail at 13,779-feet. Until now you have been trekking on the restored Inca Trail but for this point on you will be walking on the original ancient stone roadway used by Incan emperors centuries ago.
After crossing “Dead Woman’s Pass”, the trail drops steeply down into the valley before you begin another steeply ascent on other side of the valley. Along this climb is where you will encounter the ruins of Runkuraqay, an Inca tambo (or “post house”). As the trail continues to ascend you will pass a small lake before reaching the second pass at an altitude of 13,123-feet.
Descending from this second pass you will come across the impressive Incan ruins of Sayaqmarka (“inaccessible town”) which is perched along a mountain ridge and only accessible via a steep and narrow path which must be carefully navigated. After exploring this site you will continue along the trail, passing yet another tambo before you reach the second nights campsite. This completes the most strenuous day on the Inca Trail so expect a good nights sleep.
Inca Trail: Day 3
The day begins with an easy hike to the third and final pass of the trail at an elevation of 12,073-feet before you begin your descent to the impressive Incan ruins of Phuyupatamarka (“The City Above the Clouds”). Built along the natural contours of the terrain, this amazing site includes five fountains and an altar, likely used for llama sacrifice.
As the trail continues to descend down a series of irregular steps and staircases (some of which were carved into solid granite) you will notice the vegetation becoming more dense and lush. Eventually you will arrive at the recently uncovered Inca agricultural terraces of Intipata, where potatoes, maize, fruit, and sweet potato were grown for population of nearby Machu Picchu. After exploring this site and admiring the view, you will make the short hike to the third and final campsite.
After a quick rest in camp you will proceed to what will likely be the highlight of the day, the Incan ruins of Wiñay Wayna (“Forever Young”) so named for a flower that grows here. Built on a steep jungle hillside near a picturesque waterfall, the site consists of an upper and lower architectural structures set among multiple concave agricultural terraces. Running between the two groups of buildings there are at least 19 springs, ritual baths and fountains. It is amazing to think that this ancient plumbing still functions as well today as it did hundreds of years ago.
Return to camp and turn-in as tomorrow starts extremely early.
Inca Trail: Day 4
Waking up well before the sunrise, you will first need to clear the final government checkpoint before beginning todays hike in complete darkness. As day starts to break steep stairs will lead you to Intipunku, also known as the Sun Gate. It is from here that you will get your first glimpse of the grandeur of the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu which lie below. All that remains is a short downhill walk along the final stretch of the Classic Inca Trail ending at your ultimate destination… Machu Picchu – “The Lost City of the Incas”.
Machu Picchu is an unfinished 15th-century citadel believed to have been built as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachacuti. It was abandoned soon after the Spanish conquest of Peru and largely forgotten about until it was rediscovered in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then Machu Picchu has become one of the most famous and popular tourist attractions in the entire planet. It was declared a Peruvian Historic Sanctuary in 1981, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
Spend an unforgettable day exploring and wandering around this amazing ancient site. A guided tour of Machu Picchu will be provided by your tour operator — Highlights include the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Three Windows, Temple of the Condor and the Intihuatana rock. Starting in 2018 tickets were broken up into morning and afternoon time-slots and since you will be hiking in at dawn you will obviously be with the morning group. The name Machu Picchu roughly translates as “old peak” in the local Quechuan language although its original Incan name is likely lost to history forever.
The steep mountain which rises over Machu Picchu and dominates the landscape is Huayna Picchu or “young peak”. This mountain can be summited via a strenuous trail that eventually splits into two — One route takes you to the summit for amazing views of Machu Picchu below as well as additional ruins near the top; while the other route takes you to the rarely visited Moon Temple located on the other side of the mountain. An extra ticket is required to do this with a strict limit of just 400 issued per day; tell your tour operator at the time of booking if you wish to hike Huayna Picchu since it needs to be purchased in advance.
After an unforgettable day at Machu Picchu you will take a short bus ride down several switchbacks to the the city of Aguas Calientes, the first sign of civilization you would have seen in several days. While the town is of little interest, it is a good place to grab a quick bite to eat, do some shopping or just relax before catching the train to Ollantaytambo in The Sacred Valley. At this point it is time to say goodbye to your guide as they drop you off at your hotel for a much needed hot shower and good nights rest.
The Inca Trail Map
A great souvenir to remember your adventure is this map of the Classic Inca Trail that I personally researched and created after my trek. The map highlights not only the route of this ancient road but the various ruins, campsites, and passes encountered along the way. An elevation chart shows just how rigorous the hike was with the altitudes of the passes that you conquered listed. You can also customize your map by adding your trekking dates, name or whatever you would like. It was designed to look centuries-old and something that Indiana Jones might have used. The Inca Trail Map is available for purchase as a stretched canvas (with a 1.5” edge or 0.75” edge), rolled canvas, poster or mounted poster and in variety of different sizes. It will quickly become a conversation piece for friends and family as well as one of your most cherished works of art.
An Experience of a Lifetime
Of all the trips and countries I have visited in my life, it was my time hiking the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu that is without a doubt my most memorable. The spectacular ruins, the friendly Peruvian people, the delicious food and breathtaking landscapes of the Andes Mountains are truly unforgettable! If hiking the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is not on your bucket-list then it definitely should be. Hopefully this guide will be helpful when you are planning your own adventure to this amazing place.