Hiking the Inca Trail, Peru: A Comprehensive Guide (2020)

Hiking the Inca Trail, Peru: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated February 29th, 2020.

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Hiking the Inca Trail is a bucket list activity for many. Although the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu is impressive in its own right, it is only by making the journey on foot that you feel both a sense of achievement and wonder when the mist subsides and the Incan ruins fade into view. 

While the altitude can be a challenge, the Inca trail is truly an experience of a lifetime. Along the trail, you will marvel at mountain views and Incan sites. By talking to your local guide, you can learn so much about Incan culture and history. Throughout those four days, you may learn a few things about yourself as well. Accompanying you will be like-minded individuals and perhaps even a few new friends!

A Trekking Group at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu – The one reason many people come backpacking to South America in the first place!

The Inca Trail is one of the most popular hikes in South America and arguably the world, so much so, that to secure a place you now have to arrange your Inca Trail hike months in advance! If this breathtaking trek is on your Peru Bucket List but you have no idea where to start with your planning, don’t worry. 

Our guide will tell you everything you need to know about preparing for the trek, arranging return transport (you won’t want to walk back as well!), trail etiquette and even our very own Inca Trail packing list!


Hiking the Inca Trail FAQs

Do You Need to Book the Inca Trail in Advance? 

There are only 500 walking permits for the trail, which means that there are only about 220 tourists on the trail a day, meaning spots are limited. This is done to protect the Inca trail. Generally, it is recommended you reserve your place at least six months in advance. Keep in mind that the trek is closed during the month of February for cleanup and maintenance.  

Girl hiking Inca Trail, Peru
You will usually need to book your Inca Trail hike in advance.

You must complete the trek with a registered tour agency. To avoid disappointment, I suggest you choose your tour agency early and plan your trip to Peru around your trek. Give yourself time to research different agencies and understand what they include.

Choosing a Tour Agency for the Inca Trail

There are plenty of tour operators trekking to Machu Picchu, so there is plenty to choose from. When choosing a company, make sure that they are offering fair wages to the staff and consider the welfare of their porters a priority. Suspiciously low priced tours are a red flag for a company that takes advantage of their porters. 

If you are hoping to book a last-minute Inca Trail trek directly in Cusco, this is possible. However, you will need to be aware that at this late stage, most of the spots leftover will be what other people don’t want. Therefore, there will be little, if any choice.

Bamba are frequently recommended in the South America Backpacker Facebook Group due to small group sizes and excellent local guides who are full of local knowledge. 

How Can I Prepare for the Altitude? 

You may not know how you will perform at altitude until you experience it. Often it has nothing to do with fitness and is just pot-luck who will suffer and who won’t. It’s a good idea before you leave home, to visit a pharmacist and enquire about a steady regiment of altitude pills and other medication you may need for the trip. There is some debate as to whether altitude sickness medication is required for hiking in South America. 

Even with the proper medication, it is really important to give yourself time to acclimatise. We spent several days visiting the smaller villages in the Sacred Valley, gradually increasing our altitude on a relaxed schedule until we made our way to Cusco. 

Alternatives to Altitude Sickness Medication: 

Take note from the Incas and pack some coca leaves. Chewing the leaves will make your cheeks tingle, but they will not get you high. For a sweeter treat which does the same thing, coca candies are also available. Drink lots of coca tea as you acclimatise and in the days leading up to your trek. There is a high chance that your tour agency will provide coca tea for you along the trail. Bad news backpackers, you are advised to avoid alcohol if you are trying to acclimatise. 

Coca leaves
Traditionally, coca leaves are used to help with altitude sickness in the Andes.

Are There Any Passport Restrictions? 

Check the expiry date of your passport before you book your Inca trail hike. Your passport needs to be valid for at least six months after the day you enter Peru. Your passport number will be on your trekking permit and if the numbers don’t match, the government officials will not let you on the Inca trail. Therefore, if your passport is going to expire before then, it would be a good idea to arrange a renewal before booking your trip and your trek.

What Happens if My Passport Gets Lost/Damaged/Stolen?

When it comes to dealing with a damaged passport, we have firsthand experience! My husband didn’t check his pant pockets and accidentally put his passport through the washing machine on a spin cycle. Fortunately, he had time to get a new passport and had a copy of his old one notarized. 

We notified our tour agency, who assured us that they would update his permit with the new passport number. As an extra precaution, he brought along his notarized copy too. Despite the previous reassurances, my husband was stopped at check-in, and his permit had not been updated. The dates you book are not flexible, transferable, or refundable. Therefore, had he not brought the notarized copy with him, we would have missed out! Officals can be strict in these parts and it’s best not to take any chances!

River running through mountains, viewed from above.
The Inca Trail showcases some of Peru’s finest landscapes.

In addition – you should always travel with photocopies of your passport. These may come in handy if something happens to yours as you can get this notarized. In all cases, contact your tour agency and update them on what has happened. They may advise you to contact the permit office directly. 

Do I Need Travel Insurance to Hike the Inca Trail? 

As always, travel insurance is a good idea, and some agencies may make it a legal requirement. You will be in a remote wilderness. If anything happens to you, being covered by insurance can make a big difference. Make sure to choose a policy that best suits your trip activities and pay attention to any altitude restrictions!

What Can I Do With My Bag?

Chances are, you won’t want to bring your main backpack with you and will, therefore, need to leave some things behind. Usually, the tour company provides a safe space in which to do this. A reputable hostel may also be an option.

Is Transport to/From the Inca Trail Provided? 

Your tour company will usually provide transportation to and from the Inca Trail. Make sure that the tour agency gives you a clear idea of what to expect, especially on your way back to Cusco.  When you have completed your time at Machu Picchu, you will need to make your way down to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes via bus, where you will catch the train to Urubamba. 

Once you disembark the train, you will find your bus back to Cusco. Our ride to the trail from Cusco was a shuttle bus that only included our trekking group and later on, some of the porters. On our way back, our guide took a different train back to Cusco. Therefore, we were on our own when locating our bus which we shared with different trekking groups. 

Unfortunately, some kids were posing as bus employees and offering to ‘help’ with bags or other valuables. The situation came to a head when they tried to steal a large backpack out of the baggage compartment. The lady loading the bags was letting them carry on like this and did not raise the alarm. It is definitely worth keeping an eye on your luggage just in case!

Furthermore, due to late passengers, we were delayed. When we finally reached Cusco, we were dropped off at Plaza San Fransisco, rather than at our hostel. Some people had to get taxis to their hostels. If you have specific travel requirements, make sure to discuss them with your tour company in advance.

Tips for Packing for the Inca Trail Hike

The lighter your backpack is, the better. However, being adequately prepared is crucial. Depending on your tour agency, you may or may not have a porter to help carry some of your personal items. Some tour costs may include a personal porter, or it may be possible to hire someone through an agency.

Couple of hikers pose along Inca Trail.
We chose to carry our own bags… In hindsight I’m not sure whether this was the best idea! 

As a cost-saving measure and for the extra challenge, we decided to carry our own bags. I won’t lie, there were moments when I wish I had packed less and hired the porter instead!

If you have a porter or choose to hire one, keep in mind that the porters have strict weight limits. The maximum weight a porter can carry is 20 kg. This weight limit includes camping equipment and you will need to check with the agency on weight designation for personal belongings. 

Porters are required to check-in at weigh-in stations to ensure their load has not increased along the trek. If you have not hired a porter to carry your things and change your mind on the trail, it is too late – you will be out of luck. 


Inca Trail Packing List

Clothes

When you’re considering clothes to bring on your Inca Trail trek, don’t pack cotton! If it gets wet, it will take a long time to dry. Merino wool is my favorite fabric for trekking in this climate. It’s anti-microbial, dries quickly, and will keep you warm. Polyester is another good option.

  • Rain poncho or waterproof jacket: The weather in the Andes can change drastically, and you don’t want to get wet. A light jacket is also handy for the cooler temperatures and wind.
  • Trekking pants and shorts: Bring two pairs of each. Preferably, bring trekking pants that can zip into shorts as this will help keep your bag lighter.
  • A shirt you can layer: Pack two hiking tank-tops or t-shirts as well as one or two long sleeves shirts. You may be alternating through the day. 
  • Socks: Good hiking socks are a must. Bring a pair for each day of the trek plus a spare!
  • Proper hiking boots: The wrong boots will lead to a miserable trek, so invest in a good pair and break them in if you have a chance. Hiking sandals are a good option when navigating the campsites.
  • Hat: Bring a hat to protect you from the sun. I’m also a massive fan of Buff Headbands (sports headbands) and wore one regularly on the trek. 
  • (Optional) Pyjamas: Honestly, hiking the Inca trail means you wake up early so I just wore the clothes I planned on wearing the next morning to bed. This means less weight in your bag and saves you a few more minutes of precious sleep. For those who get cold easily; long underwear and a beanie are good options. Beanies made in Peru are also a great souvenir. You can pick one up at a market before your trek.

 

Gear

  • Headlamp: You’ll want this when you’re looking for the toilet at night! It’s also helpful for when trekking starts in the early morning.
  • Hiking poles: These are knee savers, especially on the second day. Bring your own, or you may be able to rent them from your tour agency.
  • Water bladder: I will never hike without one! Water bottles throw your bag off-center and you often have to take off your pack to reach it.  
  • Sunglasses: With UV protection. 
  • Camera: Pack extra batteries or a battery pack and charger. 
  • Tent: Typically this is provided inclusive of the tour for no extra fee. 
  • Sleeping bag: Check to see if you can rent one or if you bring your own, make sure it’s equipped to deal with temperatures of around 5°C in the colder months.
  • Sleeping mat: We brought lightweight ones and chose these over the option the tour agency provided.
  • Waterproof backpack cover: The weather on the Inca Trail varies hugely so it is always best to be prepared. This was actually voted the best budget gift for hikers too!

 

Health

  • Loperamide (Imodium): The last thing you need is gut problems on a trek! Some cautionary measures in this department can’t hurt.
  • Blister pads or tape: A favorite brand of mine is Moleskin. Even with proper boots, there is a good chance you’ll get blisters.
  • Water purification tablets: It never hurts to be cautious, since water will often come from streams. I like to travel with a filtered water bottle but I would consider that  to be optional when hiking the Inca Trail. 
  • Toiletries: Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, a bar of soap (there is no guarantee these items will be available in the washrooms along the way), sunscreen and bug repellent are all necessities. In a small bathroom bag, you should pack basic toiletries only. A toothbrush, toothpaste and makeup remover towel (a great alternative to liquids or gels). If you have long hair, look for a small travel brush and bring a few hair ties with you. You’re out trekking so don’t worry about makeup and hair too much. If makeup is required; keep it simple and stay away from powders, which have the potential to make a mess. A tinted moisturizer with SPF is a good idea.
  • Personal medication: Don’t go cold turkey on anything and bring extra in case of emergencies.

Tips for Hiking the Inca Trail

Go to Your Orientation

Your orientation session goes over your itinerary, transportation, and rules for the trek. The orientation also provides an opportunity to answer any questions you may have and make any last-minute changes. Plus, you get to meet your fellow trekkers!

Train if Necessary! 

While you don’t have to be an athlete to complete the Inca Trail trek, being reasonably fit has its advantages. The Inca Trail hike is not easy and by ensuring that you are at a decent level of fitness, you are likely to fit in with the other trekkers in your group better and also enjoy the experience more.

Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu Mountain?

When you’re booking your trek or while you are at orientation, you may be offered whether you would like to pay extra for a trek up one of the nearby mountains. 

Deciding whether or not to do an optional climb once you are at Machu Picchu is a personal decision. Some people really enjoy it and rave about the views at the top.

Machu Picchu complex and Huayna Picchu Mountain.
Huayna Picchu overlooks the ancient Incan ruins.

However, I suggest that when you get to Machu Picchu, you enjoy your time there. We felt we had made a mistake when we paid extra to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. We ended up with an okay view of something we would have preferred to see up close. We climbed enough mountains during the actual trek! Rather than add to the experience, it ended up just costing money and time.

It is worth noting that many people rave about the Huayna Picchu trek. Make the choice that is best for you. Keep in mind that due to new regulations, you will have a limited amount of time at the Machu Picchu site. 

What is the Tipping Etiquette?

Your guides and your porters will do a lot for you throughout your Inca trail trek and without them, you wouldn’t be enjoying your trip as much. Tips are always welcomed. Stay up to date on tipping rates in Peru. 

Trek the Inca Trail Responsibly

Out of respect for those who live on the trail and also for the preservation of the trek, please don’t litter, vandalize, or take anything from the trail. Be knowledgeable and respect the rules regarding the Incan site’s cultural significance, as well as its preservation. 

Alternative treks to the Inca Trail…

The Inca Trail is the most famous trek to Machu Picchu, but there are plenty of other hikes you can do to reach the ancient Inca ruins such as the Salkantay Trek, which is famous for being the most beautiful one nature-wise (and voted one of the best treks in South America!), or the Inca Jungle Trek, which includes mountain biking and river rafting.

Couple overlook scenery along Inca Trail, Peru.
Hiking the Inca Trail is one of Peru’s top attractions.

Traveller Experiences of the Inca Trail, Peru

Traveller Story 1 – Tine Haslam Nielsen

Day 1 – Cusco to Ollantaytambo

Before the sun hits the streets of Cusco, we are all standing with full backpacks, holding our hiking boots outside of our hostel. We are waiting for the minibus which is going to take us to Ollantaytambo, where we will eat breakfast and buy last-minute snacks before our Inca trail trek begins. However, the van does not come…

After an uncomfortable amount of pre-dawn waiting even our guide, Simba, loses his patience. He finds a taxi and soon after we are all heading towards the minibus, where we meet the last two members of the group. All in all, we are a small team of six including Simba. 

Immediately after our arrival in Ollantaytambo, we get attacked by an army of Peruvian women, who try to sell us everything from chocolates to hiking poles. We decide to buy a walking stick, a decision we won’t soon regret. After breakfast, we all meet up at the car, but this time Simba is accompanied by a woman called Luciana. The Brazilian girl Luciana has been left behind by her group; a welcome addition to our tiny clan, we let her in.

KM 82 along the Urubamba River

Then we drive to the starting point of the Inca trail, KM 82. We spend some time repacking our backpacks. Most of us have just a small backpack with the most basic stuff, but Luciana is prepared for anything that could happen and has packed all the necessary equipment (a lucky addition to our group for sure). When everyone is ready we all head down the path to the first checkpoint where our permits are checked for the first time.

We trek along the Urubamba River, among snow-covered mountains, calming green fields and the first few Incan ruins. We stop along the way to listen to Simba tell us about the Incans and the plants close to the path. 

We stop to pray to the mountains passes that we will be trekking through over the next four days. Everyone in the group receives three coca leaves, which we show to the mountains while we chant words in Quechua that we repeat after Simba. We then put the coca leaves into our passports so they will stay intact until we reach the  top of the mountain (called Pachamama in Quechua) where we are going to sacrifice them.

Arriving at our First Camp

We reach our camp after nearly five hours. The tents have been up for quite a while and the dinner is almost ready. The porters are truly fantastic! They are always the first to get up and the last to go to bed. They leave the camp later than the rest of the group and they are the first at the new campsites. On top of that, they carry 20 kilos of equipment every single day (before the restrictions were introduced, they easily carried up to 60 kilos).

Scenery along the Inca Trail.
We couldn’t wait to start our bucket list hike!

DAY 2 – A Tough Way Up

Early in the morning, we are awakened early by the porters. We each get a cup of coca tea and after a few minutes of packing (remember we don’t have much), we sit down to a wonderful breakfast.

We start the trip towards the mountain Warmiwañuska at 4215 meters. Shortly after beginning, the oldest group member, Mariann has to stop. She gets ill and has to return to Ollantaytambo, so Simba walks back with her to make all the arrangements. The rest of the group continues onward, despite our recent loss. 

We walk in the lush jungle, where we meet a small deer. We “climb” huge stairs and walk under the boiling sun. After a small break halfway up the mountain, we have renewed energy. Every time we stop for a break, the porters walk by cheering: “Vamos, vamos” (“Let’s go, let’s go”).

I keep thinking that the top is just a few meters away, but every time I walk around a corner I see that it is further away than I expected. People are getting more and more exhausted the closer we get to the top and a girl asks me: “Why did we pay for this? God, I hate myself!” As the path disappears into the thick of the jungle we wonder if we will ever reach the end…

Finally, after 4 hours and 40 minutes, I reach the top, the first one in my group to do so. The view is breathtaking and I thoroughly enjoy taking a break while I wait for everyone else. Surrounded by the other trekking groups we all cheer in unison for the rest of our group members to join us at the top. 

Mountain terraces.
It is not uncommon to see llamas along the trail and at Machu Picchu!

We are all exhausted, but happy that the worst part is over. Now it is just the descent to 3660 meters that lies ahead of us. The trip down takes us past unstable and rocky stone stairs, plus beautiful waterfalls nestled in the glorious mountains. 

Arriving at the camp 45 minutes ahead of the estimated time, I am met by a sea of surprised faces; porters who are used to being the top of the pack. They did not expect to see anyone this early and haven’t prepared any tea for my arrival. It doesn’t matter though; I just find my mp3 player and start listening to music in the warm Andean sun. After an hour, the rest of the group reaches the camp and joins me in finally resting their tired feet. After unpacking and enjoying a great three-course dinner, we all head to bed.

DAY 3 – Pachamama

We are awakened by the porters half an hour later than all the other groups so that we can have the entire Inca trail to ourselves, free to bask in the solitude and stillness of the expansive trek ahead. So, as we are watching all the other groups packing up their stuff, we take our time, enjoying our breakfast. 

A guide like Simba is precious on a trek like this. His knowledge about the Incas and the surrounding nature is massive. He loves his job, is a people’s person, and lets everyone trek at their own pace. The porters are hard at work, an irreplaceable asset to our Incan Trail experience. 

Today’s walk is one of the most beautiful ones. The trail leads through the jungle, past reflective lakes and is enshrouded in a constant wall of mist-covered mountains. After passing a small mountain lake, we reach the top – Pachamama. We still have our coca leaves ready for the sacrifice. 

To begin our blessing we collect a couple of mountain stones which we use to hold our leaves under. We say a few words in Quechua, which should be enough to bring us luck tomorrow and continue the journey along the path. When we arrive at the lunch site we see the other groups packing away their stuff and continuing towards the campsite for the night.

After a delicious lunch, the Inca trail trek continues. We walk on narrow paths teetering between safety and the deep cliffs which plummet off to the left side. As a necessary safety precaution, Simba orders us to stay on the right side whenever someone tries to pass. 

We are all tired after yesterdays walk. Each foot is splattered with bubbling blisters so every small hill is like a mountain to us. For the first time, I need music to keep walking. I reach an old robust Inca ruin and wait for the rest of the group. We have a small break while Simba recites another story illuminating Incan life, making our rich surroundings buzz with the history and life that once inhabited it.

We continue trekking through the jungle and all of a sudden we are facing a crossroads. We can choose between a shortcut and the original path to the campsite. Feeling invigorated, I make a solitary decision to take the original path and am accompanied by Simba. 

We walk by a couple of Incan terraces and a llama quietly wandering on the path beside us. On the trail, we are able to see the snow-covered mountains change colours as the sun goes down. Simba entertains us with stories from all his treks to Machu Picchu; from the one time where the whole journey turned into a marathon, to the time where he was trailed the entire time by a curious llama. When we reach the camp, it is time for dinner before an early bedtime.

DAY 4- Reaching Machu Picchu

The final day of the trek is also the earliest departure. I slept terribly the night before since the tent was precariously perched on a small bump, which meant that I kept falling into Luciana during the night. However, sleep ends practically before it started and at 3.30 am we were awakened by the porters: it was time for breakfast. 

That morning we ate fast, packed our stuff even faster and walked towards the day’s checkpoint which is sure to be an epic finale. The gate opens at 5.30 am, and we wanted to be among the first few groups there in order to see Machu Picchu before all the other tourists arrive.

Once the gate opened, all of the permits are checked and we were free to pass. After an hour of walking on another path (no longer the Inca trail) with deep drop-offs and a trip up knee-high stairs, we reach Inti-Punku (the sun door), where we get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

Mountainous scenery on the Inca Trail
That first glimpse of Machu Picchu made the sore legs more than worth it!

Finally, we arrive and the city oozes of history and mystique. I can almost sense the Incan people when we walk among the rustic buildings and through the stone terraces. Our tour through the ruins exceeds our expectations. 

The beautiful morning sun, the high verdant green mountains and the playful Urubamba River encircles elegantly this unique city, making it all a fantastic meeting with the past. We take it in, let the mystique soak into our veins, breathe in the thin mountain air, and feel the weight and journey of the last three days wash over us before we head back to Cusco, one amazing memory richer. 


Traveller Story 2 – Melissa Grove

During my last camping trip with my Granny before she requires round-the-clock care, walking on a groomed forest trail, my sister and I are eager to reach the park. Regularly we stop and wait for our Granny to catch up. Each time she reaches us she says, “I may be slow, but I keep on going.” We smile and walk with her until our natural gaits and young attention spans pull us ahead again. She doesn’t hold this against us; she is just happy to be out for a walk.

I signed up for the Inca Trail with complete faith in my physical abilities, yet I find myself taking another breathless step while chewing coca leaves as if the tongue-numbing plant were all I needed to live. I pay little attention to a wild llama who materializes in the tall grass on the side of the path, absorbing the encounter only as an unabashed excuse for a break. 

Llama on Inca Trail, Peru
Wild llamas on the Inca Trail, Peru.

While I was aware the altitude would be a problem, I did not anticipate how little physical strength matters when I can’t catch a breath. I have spent this last stretch not looking at the valley but only at the next patch of dirt where my foot is about to land.

My patient husband is faring much better. Every time he unknowingly walks beyond an arbitrary limit I have devised for him, I feel he is leaving me behind. Only to have him turn around to give me the encouraging smile I need.

Turning my attention inward, I recall my Granny. A rare disease hindered her movements in life, and when barely a senior, she was rendered immobile with her mind playing tricks on her. Because of this, when I travel, her memory is always close to my heart.

The author, Melissa Grove, with her sister and granny.
The author, Melissa Grove, with her sister and granny.

When I do reach the summit, it is cold, and clouds are rolling in. Blinking back tears, I embrace the views of the valley and celebrate with my group before descending to camp. The next two days bring lower altitudes, varied terrain, Inca ruins, and an unexpected shift of my own inner landscape. Every time we start and stop, my legs scream, but I keep on going.

My focus changes from conquering a challenge to reveling in the beauty of one. At one Inca site I feel as light as the clouds surrounding us. While walking through the jungle I enjoy both solitude and company. Standing on Inca terraces I hold my husband’s hand in amazed silence as we absorb views of the vast Sacred Valley. Surrounded by more llamas, I pause in delight at their antics. The rest of the trek I stop staring at my feet; I am just happy to be out for a walk.

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  • Melissa lives in Canada with her husband Cameron and their pets, where she works as a carpenter. Relatively new to travel, she persuaded her husband to go on their first backpacking adventure to Costa Rica.  In Costa Rica, she fell in love with the experiences only backpacking can bring. Since then they have travelled to Australia, New Zealand, Peru, USA and Mexico and recently returned from Southeast Asia. In her journals, Melissa kept a detailed account of their travels. After sharing some of these entries with friends and family, she was inspired to continue to write about her experiences and hopes to inspire others to travel themselves. 

    2 thoughts on “Hiking the Inca Trail, Peru: A Comprehensive Guide (2020)

      • Tyler Protano-Goodwin says:

        Hi Jeff,
        Depends on what tour operator you use! There are so many options, in the low season you can walk into agencies to book. In the high season though you will want to grab a spot a couple of months ahead of time! Happy trekking!

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