Inca Trail

This article is an itinerary.
A section of the Inca trail

The Inca trail to Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas", is a world-famous trek in Peru. It's the best known part of the Inca road system, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. The trail requires reservations months in advance, and all trekkers must be part of a tour group, which includes a guide and porters. Treks vary significantly in style, from budget backpacking to high-end glamping, but typically consist of 4 days and 3 nights on the trail itself. While the main route is fixed, timing and campsites vary.

Visits generally start from Cusco, the capital of the Incas. Due to the need to acclimatize to the altitude for a few days, the trek itself must be part of a longer trip, usually a few days in Cusco and the Sacred Valley; see Inca Highlands.


Animals seen along the Salkantay / Inca trail

Many countries have mountain ranges with beautiful scenery and Peru itself is richly blessed in this respect with many other areas for hiking. However the scenery is only one of the elements responsible for the magic of the Inca Trail. Can there be any walk anywhere in the world with such a combination of natural beauty, history and sheer mystery and with such an awe-inspiring destination? The various ruins along the way serve to heighten the hiker's sense of anticipation as he or she approaches what would surely find a place in any new list of archaeological wonders of the world - Machu Picchu.

Walking the Inca trail can be very rewarding and is possible for all ages as long as you are fit. Over the course of the Trail, you gain and lose 1000 meters several times, all of which is over 3000 meters where oxygen is noticeably thinner. Acclimation to the altitude is a must, and good physical condition advised. The journey winds through the valleys and hills of the surrounding area, taking you the through the scenic landscape, from high alpine to cloud forests.

Many agencies operating from Cusco offer organised hikes along the trail, providing most of the equipment (tents, etc.) and people to carry it. Also, don't forget that the trail ends at Machu Picchu. If you hiked the Trail, descend from the Sun Gate (Intipunko) at dawn and see Machu Picchu before the busloads of tourists show up around 10AM.

The trail is scattered with ancient monuments and Incan sites and is definitely worth the effort.

The Inca Trail is part of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, a protected area of 32,592 hectares, managed by the National Institute of Natural Resources, INRENA. Every visitor must obey park regulations prohibiting littering, cutting or damaging trees, removing or damaging stones of ruins and the Trail, removing plants, killing animals, lighting open fires or camping in the archeological sites (Only authorized campsites can be used).

Porters carry your camp gear, and they are often treated very poorly. Please use an operator that treats its porters well, and consider learning more and getting involved in improving conditions. A recent documentary chronicling one year in the life of an Inca Trail porter, Mi Chacra, won the Grand Prize at the 2010 Banff Mountain Film Festival.

Tickets and tours

Tickets (reserved in advance) are required, and trekkers must go with a licensed tour operator.

Since 2001, the Peruvian government has instituted a quota system on how many travelers can be on the trail on any given day and the passes now sell out months in advance during the high season. Availability can be checked at the Ministerio de Cultura: Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco (Ministry of Culture: Cusco), specifically the Boletaje Virtual (Virtual ticket) website. You must book with a tour operator well in advance of when you wish to walk the trail, as it is not allowed to organize your own trip. Don't expect to pick up last-minute cancellations either, as tour organizers must register client passport numbers with the government, and they are strictly checked at control points on the trail.

Key tips


The Inca trail is physically demanding, but doable by any fit person, barring specific health problems. If you have any concerns, check with a doctor. If you can walk and use stairs easily, you should be able to do it. No hiking experience is necessary, though the more used to hiking you are, the easier it will be. There are very few evacuations and deaths on the trail: the most likely risk is spraining your ankle and needing to be carried out. Many find the physical demands make the trip more rewarding, from the exertion and sense of accomplishment.

If you are physically unable or concerned about your ability, you can also do a shorter 1-day or 2-day trek to Machu Picchu, take a less demanding trek like the valley trek to Machu Picchu, or go directly to Machu Picchu by rail.

Book far in advance

Permits are required, limited, and book up far in advance: over 6 months in advance for the high season. Get these trail tickets before your plane tickets. If booked up, consider rescheduling your trip, or taking one of the alternative treks in the area, none of which require advanced booking.

…and don’t forget Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu requires tickets, which should be included in your tour, as does Huayna Picchu (optional part of the Machu Picchu ticket). Huayna Picchu is optional, and thus might be forgotten: make sure to get tickets in advance if interested! (Huaynapicchu will be closed from April 1 through 15 in 2016 for maintenance.)

Acclimatize for at least 2 or 3 days

Spend at least 2 nights in Cusco, ideally preceded by a day or two in the Sacred Valley, to acclimatize gradually to altitude before your trek. See Inca Highlands for what to do before your trek.

Use a porter (and a half)

The trek is demanding enough without having to carry camping gear or clothes: use a porter (for camping gear) and a half (for change of clothes) and just carry your day pack. (This gives a job to a poor local farmer!)

Use trekking poles (adjustable, with rubber tips)

The Inca trail, particularly the descent, is ideally suited to trekking poles, which significantly reduce stress on your knees. Rubber tips are required, to protect the steps, and duct taping the tips on is highly recommended, otherwise they come off easily from impact or mud. You can buy new ones at home, rent good ones in town for cheap, or buy broomsticks, which are cheap and adequate, but not great. You cannot use local branches, as too many trees were being cut down, and these aren’t much good anyway. Consider shock-absorbing poles to further minimize stress.

Pack appropriately

Packing is a complicated tradeoff: bring enough to be comfortable, but minimize weight, and split between day pack and duffel. It also depends on the type of trek (will water be provided?). See #Prepare, below.

Pace yourself

Don’t rush, particularly on the 2nd day climbing up to Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman’s Pass) – you have to climb down afterwards, after all. Slow and steady is better than rushing ahead and getting sweaty and winded. More subtly, climb down slowly, using poles – your knees will thank you.

Get in shape!

Walking, hiking, using the stair machine, and doing weights for leg muscles all help you be specifically prepared for the trek, and make it easier.


The Inca trail is a high-altitude trek in Peru, which largely describes it. However, there are many details that may trip you up.

Treacherous stairs, particularly descent

The trail has stairs, but the rocks are rough and uneven, and very slippery when wet. It is very easy to sprain your ankle, particularly when descending. Use trekking poles for balance, tread carefully, and be very careful when wet.

Filthy toilets

The toilets on the trail are filthy, and lack toilet paper and water. Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer (benzalkonium chloride is best, as it does not dry out your already-dry hands, as alcohol does; soap is ok, but takes water).


A passport is required both for reserving tickets, and for admission to the trail (copy not accepted), so you need to bring it in your day pack!

Also, it is easiest if you have the same passport when reserving your ticket as when you show up, so avoid renewing your passport or changing your name in the meantime: renew if necessary before, change name before or after.


Your companions are likely to snore; this is partly periodic breathing, part of acclimatization to altitude (see altitude sickness). Bring earplugs.

Strong sun

You're outdoors, at altitude, by the equator: the sun is very strong, and clouds don't block it. Wear a broad-brimmed hat (preferably with neck cover), UV-blocking sunglasses, long sleeves, sunscreen (SPF 30+), and sun-blocking lip balm.

Dry air

The air is dry, and drying: the low pressure means water evaporates more quickly. Drink plenty of water, and use moisturizer if desired.

Cold nights

It gets cold at night, dropping below freezing in the winter (June through August). Pack warm clothes in your duffel (alpaca hat, gloves, and socks are cozy), and make sure you have a warm sleeping bag. Also, flip-flops to rest your feet at the end of the day will leave you with cold feet: bring light, loose, closed sandals instead.

Delicious food

Meals on the trail are often impressively delicious!


The Inca Trail is one of the relatively few treks globally that features porters: pack animals are not allowed on the trail because their hooves damage it. Porters are local Quechua farmers, typically poor and uneducated, and this is a major source of income for them. Most will not speak English or even Spanish; knowing a few phrases of Quechua is a nice touch; see Quechua phrasebook.

Beware of poor treatment of porters, notably inadequate equipment, food, or shelter, and excess loading: a heavily-loaded porter wearing plastic sandals is not tough, he is being exploited. Conditions have improved, but ill-treatment is still common, particularly on cut-rate treks.

Porters need to arrive much earlier than trekkers, to set up camp, so please be aware of porters running past you and give way.


Tipping is expected, and a significant portion of the income, especially for porters. Verify exact composition of crew, expected tip amount, and protocol before the trek, and prepare tips. Use clean bills, given on either on last morning on the trail (for 5-day trek), or last night (for 4-day, due to early start), since porters return home early the last day.

When to go

May is best – start of dry season, so dry, sunny, and lush vegetation from the rains, and before high season and depths of winter.

Weather is best May to September: fairly dry and sunny. June through August is high season (summer vacation in Northern Hemisphere), and hence books up far in advance, but is winter here (because Southern Hemisphere), so a bit cold at night. Thus, May and September are ideal. Fringe months of April and October are also ok, but more risk of rain. If hoping to see the sunrise, June and July are driest and best, but May and August (into early September) are often ok.

November to March are the rainy season, so avoid if possible: cloudy skies (worse views), and rain, which soaks you, makes the rocks slick, and runs the risk of landslides, both on the trail and on roads. Less crowded though. The wettest months are January to April, when roads are often closed by landslides or flooding.

The trail is closed in February to clean up the garbage left behind.

Weather on the trail year-round features warm, comfortable days (around 20℃) and cold nights (often 5℃ or below), dropping to below freezing in the winter (June, July, August). Sun during the day and clouds at night increase the effective heat and cold.


Make sure you:

Book tickets

Tickets must be booked in advance, far in advance for the high season, through an authorized local tour operator. For the high season, tickets must be booked immediately when they become available: in 2012, for June, tickets had to be booked 6–7 months in advance.

Tickets are by season: reservations are accepted from mid-January, for the season from March 1st to the following January 31st. Some agencies will accept pre-reservations and then book immediately when tickets become available.

There are 500 permits available per day for the 4, 5 and 7 day treks and 250 permits for the 2 day trek. This includes both trekkers and tour employees (guides and porters). Since there are about 1.5 employees to 1 trekker, that leaves 40% for trekkers, so about 200 trekkers per day.

You can check official availability of tickets at the Boletaje Virtual (Virtual ticket) website. Beware that this is the total number left (trekkers and employees), so out of 500, and that days can book up in big chunks, due to booking a group (a group of 12 trekkers entail about 30 tickets total), so don't delay.

Which tour?

There are two tour lengths: 4 days and 5 days. They both sleep 3 nights on the trail, and follow the same path, but have different schedules, and stop at different camp sites.

It is also possible to take a short 2-day trek for just the last part, or visit Machu Picchu without the Inca Trail.

If you're tight on time or want to see the sun rise, do the 4-day, otherwise do the 5-day: it's less rushed and crowded.

The classic 4-day tour takes less time and is a bit faster and more demanding, particularly days 3 and 4: you have long days and relatively less sleep. It means you see the sun rise over Machu Picchu (assuming clear weather), but you'll likely be a bit tired, and may not be up to Huayna Picchu. You also may have a rushed day at Machu Picchu, and will need to plan your train back carefully if you want a full day at Machu Picchu, particularly to avoid the crowds. If you want, you can do the 4-day (arriving early) and then spending the night in Aguas Calientes, and seeing as much of Machu Picchu as you like, basically doing a fast-pace 5-day (with sunrise, and rest at the end).

The 5-day tour is more leisurely: it misses the sunrise, and takes an extra day, but is otherwise more pleasant: you see Machu Picchu after the crowds have left (on the first day) and before most crowds arrive (on the second day), with nice dusk/dawn light (golden hour, good for photos), you can be rested for Huayna Picchu, and the campsites are less crowded, because most people are on the 4-day schedule.

Choose tour operator

You must use a local authorized agency (one of the "agencias autorizadas"), of which there are about 200, listed on the Ministry of Culture Machupicchu website (e.g., 2013). You can book with a tour operator directly, or use a travel agent in your country. Some operators, notably high-end ones, only work through agencies. Beware that being authorized is no guarantee of quality, and many agencies are fly-by-night operations run out a storefront in Cusco. It is safest to use an established, reputable agency: research agencies and their reviews online. However, there are some newer companies that you might take a chance on if you find their story or reviews compelling.


Beware that cut-rate operators invariably cut corners at the expense of porters, but some good value operators treat porters well, and being expensive is no guarantee that porters are treated well. Also, due to intermediaries, paying a high price to a travel agency may not result in the tour operator getting much of it.


An operator is required. Out of the about 200 companies, many are bad. Check reviews, guidebooks, and the companies’ own websites to decide, or rely on a travel agent to choose for you. Here are a dozen well-respected companies, though there are other good ones.



Hiring an extra porter

An additional porter allowed you to carry 7 kg extra (from 7kg to 14 kg). However, the extra porter you hire is not just for you - he will carry an equal share of the whole set of gear to be transported, including everyone else's food, kitchen tent, etc etc. The tips for 'your porter' are part of the shared pool as well - so it's not really the case that you are paying for a porter for yourself. 

There seems to be about 1.5 porters per client on the trail, and you'll spend a fair amount of time getting out of their way as they hump all your gear to the next camp. Fortunately, the government has recently restricted the amount of gear tour operators can pile on each porter to 25 kg (including their personal stuff). You are allowed to pack only 6 kg for the porter to carry so choose carefully. On many tours you can pay extra for personal porter to carry most of your things, although you will always want a daypack for water, snacks, and clothing.

Get fit

You do not need to be particularly athletic to travel the Inca trail – so long as you are generally fit and can walk up and down stairs, you should be able to do it – but it helps make it safer and more enjoyable. A half hour on a stair machine a few times before the trek is adequate, but further conditioning helps. Check with a doctor or trainer before engaging on a demanding exercise program.

3 to 6 months beforehand – build muscles

Muscles take time to build, and help with stability and endurance. Get training if any exercises are new to you.

Squats are the best exercise for your legs and general stability; leg presses or quad extensions are acceptable alternatives.

Dips are ideal preparation for pole use, as the movement (particularly downhill) is virtually identical. Triceps extensions are an acceptable alternative.

3+ months beforehand – cardiovascular fitness

Any regular cardiovascular exercise is acceptable, though walking or running are the easiest option for most people. Hiking, particularly rough terrain at altitude, is best, if possible.

1 month beforehand – muscular endurance

Muscular endurance decays quickly, so do shortly before departure. An hour on a stair machine 3× or more per week is ideal, though steppers, sloped treadmills, or just climbing actual stairs is also ok.

Arrange gear

Headlamp (or flashlight) necessary at night
Inflatable mattresses


At its highest, the trail reaches 4200m above sea level, so you should spend at least 2 days in Cusco (be aware that at 3400 m altitude, there's a risk for altitude sickness in Cusco too) acclimatising before you start the trek. If you don't, altitude sickness could make your first few days pretty uncomfortable.

Get in

See Inca Highlands. You first need to spend a few nights in Cusco (and before that, preferably a night or two in the Sacred Valley) to acclimatize to the altitude. From Cusco, you can take a train, bus, or private car to the trailhead. This will likely be arranged by your tour group, so you just need to get to Cusco.


Around US$400. If you are paying less than US$350 for the 4 day trip, something is fishy, and porters are probably being treated very poorly. Make sure your tour includes the entrance ticket to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu (US$85) and the Backpacker train(US$48) or Vistadome train (US$71) back to Cusco.


This is one of the world's most rewarding day-hikes. The final climb brings you to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, where you achieve your first and most picturesque view of Machu Picchu. Make sure you have water since there will not be any on the Trail. Follow your guide up to the ruins of Huinay Huayna, (‘Forever Young’), to join the Incas' classic highway from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Stop here for a snack and water, but save your lunch for the Sun Gate, another hour away. You will find that the Trail is fairly easy until you reach the Sun Gate where you climb a flight of 50 stairs. Machu Picchu is most crowded at midday and clears out by 4PM, when the last train heads back to Cusco, so take your time finishing the hike. Late afternoon is the prettiest time to wander through the intricate stonework. The guards will herd you out at around 5:15, and the last bus down to Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu, departs shortly after the gates close.

Getting out

What train to take

Beware: if you are not spending the night in Aguas Caliente (4 day/3 night trip), then you only have part of one day in Machu Picchu, and thus your return train ticket from Machu Picchu will have a large impact on how much time you can spend there and whether or not you have time to climb Huayna Picchu at all. If you are spending this night, this isn't an issue.

When you are booking an Inca Trail ticket from home, the time of your train is probably a very low priority item. You are probably assuming that someone else made sure you have enough time to spend at Machu Picchu. But the reality is that trains get booked and your trail operator may buy you a train ticket out of Aguas Calientes at 1PM To make it to this train, you will have to be at the train station at 12:30, which means you have to leave Machu Picchu by no later than noon, which means that you will be there only briefly, and have to leave it when it is the most crowded. Machu Picchu is the best in the first half hour after opening and during the last two hours before closing. Most people are gone after 3PM, and the light till 5PM is gorgeous, the heat a little gentler, and you can sit on a patch of grass and soak in the place. You do not want to miss this. It will make Machu Picchu yours. At 10AM Machu Picchu is hot, crowded, loud, and bustling. You will be running around to not lose track of your tour group. At 4PM you can really see it at your own pace, and hang out with the resident chinchillas and llamas. But to do that, you have to take a later train.

Stay safe

Statistics on hazards on the Inca trail are not available, and probably do not exist: injuries and petty crimes are not reported, so all information is anecdotal. With proper precautions, and a bit of luck, you'll be fine, and major problems are rare, but more minor problems are common. At the end of the trail, beware of falls at Machu Picchu, especially at Huayna Picchu.

Most common issues on the Inca trail are: altitude sickness, lack of potable water, filthy bathrooms, sprains and broken bones, and petty theft. More serious issues are heart attacks, falling off the trail, landslides, lack of medical facilities, difficulty in rescue and evacuation, and lack of police. Deaths are quite rare (a handful or fewer per year, out of tens of thousands of trekkers), and typically make news. Similarly, serious crimes (murder, rape) are rare, though rape attempts of single women are reported at Wiñay Wayna, particularly when using toilet late at night: safest is to always be in a pair or group at night.

The tap water in Peru is not potable. Do not drink it. You must either boil water for five full minutes or drink bottled water.

Because you are visiting Andean areas, don't forget to take precautions to avoid altitude sickness if you are prone to it. Be sure to try a hot tea or an infusion of coca leaves on arrival at altitude. During your first day move slowly and eat lightly, resting the first couple of hours. At night you may be woken by the screams of a panicking trekker who is suffering an acute case of altitude sickness, and requires oxygen (particularly at Paqaymayu, the largest and usually highest campsite). Don't be scared, but acclimatize properly so this isn't you.

Sample altitudes above sea level:


Theft is common, primarily of unattended items at camp, and occurs particularly at meal time, when washing or using the toilet, and when sleeping: even experienced tour operators suffer theft. This is especially a problem at crowded campsites, notably Paqaymayu and Wiñay Wayna, which are crawling with people and virtually impossible to secure. More aggressive theft (armed robbery, tent slashing) is now rare, however. Prime targets include sunglasses, cell phones, cameras, lenses (camera and sunglasses), money, trekking poles, head lamps, and beer. Thieves are primarily porters (from your own group or another) or locals, who are very poor: there is no need to be overtly suspicious, but never let your guard down. You cannot realistically protect everything perfectly, but you can minimize risk.


Don't bring valuables
Leave jewelry at home, and consider bringing a smaller, cheaper camera. Unfortunately, you must bring your passport and tip money on the trail, and much gear is expensive.
Keep valuable items on your person at all times – passport and money
Passport is most serious, since this is disastrous if stolen. Fortunately, this and money are easy to secure, if awkward: use a money belt, even at night. Do not use a neck pouch at night, due to strangulation risk. Safest is to give these to someone when washing.
Leave nothing unattended, especially at meal time
Safest is to have multi-person tents, with someone always there, and either eat in your tent or bring your bags to meal. This is a bit paranoid, and you can generally leave bulky items (clothes, trail shoes) in your tent.
Leave nothing outside the tent, even shoes or clothes, especially at night
Leave nothing valuable inside tent entrance
Leave nothing valuable in easy-access pockets
Hide bulkier items mixed with other items in bags inside of bags inside of deep pockets
Backpack pockets, pant pockets, shirt pockets, etc. are easily searched. The more layers (bags, zippers, etc.), the less likely a rushed thief is to risk opening all of them or risk taking a large item. This provides added protection for items such as sunglasses, cameras, and lenses.
Hide valuables when approaching campsite, if possible
Take off your sunglasses and put your camera away, so you’re not marked as a target.

Injuries, evacuation, and death

Serious injuries and death are very rare, but possible.

Medical emergencies are very dangerous, due to the remoteness. Medical facilities on the trail are limited, and evacuation and rescue are slow and difficult. The closest major facilities are in Cusco, many hours away. If you are at risk of a medical emergency that would need a hospital, you risk death.

Prior to Warmiwañusqa, you can turn back. Once you pass Warmiwañusqa, there’s no turning back: the fastest and safest way out is onward to Machu Picchu. If you are injured, you will need to walk out or be carried out (if you cannot walk); horse are available for the first day, but not afterwards. Helicopter evacuation is possible from Machu Picchu, but not from the trail itself. Usual evacuation proceeds via Aguas Calientes (if past Warmiwañusqa), Ullantaytampu, then to Cusco.

If you fall off the trail, you will likely be seriously injured or die: off a sheer drop you will likely die, while if you fall into vegetation you will likely not be able to climb back up (mountainsides are scree covered with thick vegetation), and need to be rescued by a team with machetes and a basket stretcher, which can take hours.

It is safest to not be alone on the trail: if something happens, it can be some time before you are found, and if you fall off out of sight, it may be hours or days before you are found.

Be aware of the language problem: English is often limited, and porters usually only speak Quechua. Please document and learn to state any medical conditions in Spanish.

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