To hike the Inca Trail is said to be one of the greatest iconic travel experiences anyone can have today. Each year, thousands of hikers undertake the four-day journey that ends at the celebrated Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. It’s a trip that will challenge you physically and emotionally, yet yields a great reward of sheer accomplishment.
The trek is without a doubt one of the most amazing, challenging, and rewarding things I have ever done. Some may wonder if it’s really worth roughing it for 4 days and hiking over 28 miles when you can simply get there by train in less than 4 hours. I’m sure the leisurely train ride has its perks, but let me just tell you; there is nothing like the sense of accomplishment you feel after you have traversed mountain peaks and trekked through jungle forest over ancient stepping stones – all while sleeping under the star-filled sky – when you finally walk through the Sun Gate and get your first glimpse of the ancient city. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you have a travel list, this should be on it!!
The busiest season for the hike is March & April. We happened to go in early July, which is closer to the end of the dry season. We got lucky and had perfect weather the entire hike. They allow 200 travelers on the Inca Trail a day accompanied by 250 porters so it’s recommended to book your tickets well in advance.
There are a lot of companies out there that offer different itineraries for the hike. We booked the 5 day/4 night Classic Inca Trail Hike with SAS Travel. They cooked our meals and set up our campsite each day and provided a great experience. I would recommend them if you’re looking for a reliable company.
Now, here’s what our hiking itinerary looked like:
DAY 1: CUSCO-WAYLLABAMBA:
Distance: 7.45 miles / 12km
Estimated time: 6-7 hours
Maximum altitude: 9,850 feet / 3,000m
On the first day, we were picked up from Cusco in the early morning (5-6AM), made a quick stop in Ollantaytambo for breakfast, and then started our hike along the Vilcanota River. The trail starts at Piscacucho (2,680 m / 8,790 ft)as you cross a suspension footbridge over the Urubamba River. The first day was approximately 6 hours of hiking and was the “easiest” day (which inevitably made us a bit nervous as it was a relatively taxing start). We took several breaks to learn about Incan culture from our tour guide Freddy and passed through several small communities that live along the trail… It’s amazing that people live in places like this! We settled in our tent for the night and enjoyed our first beautiful view of the night sky with giant mountains surrounding our small camp.
DAY 2: WAYLLABAMBA – DEAD WOMAN`S PASS – PACAYMAYO:
Distance: 6.83 miles / 11km
Estimated time: 6 – 7hours
Maximum altitude: 13,799 feet / 4,200m
This was definitely the most challenging day! The terrain became much rockier continuing on a steep climb for approximately 3 hours and the altitude was a killer as we neared Dead Women’s Pass; the highest point of the entire Inca Trail. This pass sits at 13,828 ft! Nearly 5,905 ft higher than the altitude of Machu Picchu itself. You can literally feel the air temperature drop with each step. We had to take breaks to catch our breath about every minute or two and eventually we took breaks ever 20 steps. But of course with any challenge comes a sweet reward. Reaching the pass and looking down to the valley where we began was awesome and probably the 2nd-most rewarding moment of the trek.
Once you reach the top, it’s another 3 or so hours descending to the campsite (this was not easy on the knees). Our campsite was of course another beautiful spot nestled in between the mountains.
DAY 3: PACAYMAYO – PUYA PATAMARKA – WIÑAY HUAYNA:
Distance: 9.93 miles / 16km
Estimated time: 8 hours
Maximum altitude: 12,664 feet / 3,860m
Another beautiful day of hiking! The trail today lead us through jungle ravines and even through a small tunnel. We passed through several archaeological sites and learned more about the ancient Incan civilization. We made camp in Puya Patamarka; “The Town Of Clouds”. This was by far my favorite campsite! Words can’t even describe it and the pictures just don’t do it justice….
DAY 4: WIÑAYWAYNA – MACHU PICCHU – AGUAS CALIENTES
Estimated Time: 6-7 hours
Maximum Altitude: 8,856 feet / 2,700 m
The final section of the trail was from Winaywayna to Intipunku (The Sun Gate). We woke up at 2 AM (thank goodness for cocoa tea!) and hustled to try and make the sun gate by sunrise. Hiking in the dark along narrow cliff sides made for an exhilarating experience. Just another element of this versatile trekking experience! The second half of the day’s hike was easy except for a small portion of stairs where you’re on your hands and knees. Reaching the sun gate was very exciting! We were thrilled to finally be looking upon the finish line!
DAY 5: (Extra Day) HUAYNA PICCHU
We chose to stay the night in Auguas Calientes and spend another day at Machu Picchu in order to hike Huayna Picchu. Although we were exhausted from our previous trek we knew the hike up this one last mountain would be worth it – and we were right! It was an amazing view of Machu Picchu and the mountain ranges surrounding it. It was about a 30 minute hike straight up with some rather precarious steps, but wasn’t all that hard compared to what we had already accomplished in the days before.
Some Quick Tips: Don’t over pack (more on that later). Hire a porter (these guys are worth their weight in gold!!) Wear good hiking/waterproof shoes. Wear layers. Bring a water bottle. Bring toilet paper (or you’ll be sorry).
You can check out more photos of our trip HERE. You can find more tips on what to pack, what to do in Cusco, and where to stay while acclimatizing in our upcoming posts.
More on a few of our other amazing adventures in South America coming soon!