Hiking to Machu Picchu– The Inca Trail Guide
| Machu Picchu
The Inca Trail is known as one of the most sacred pilgrimages in the world. Built within the dramatic landscape between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin in Peru, the Inca Trail leads cultural tourists, nature-lovers and history buffs alike to the historic city and profound Incan legacy of Machu Picchu, and on one of the world's most beautiful historic hikes.
You can take two types of trails, the traditional trail that takes four days to complete and an easier version that takes two days to reach one of the most impressive preserved cities in the world, Machu Picchu. The trail and the city itself is one of the finest examples of man's relationship with the environment, and deserves the introduction.
Machu Picchu is one of the most visited sites in Peru, and the hike to get there helps you to get in touch with the spiritual road of the Incas and trace their strong archaeological legacy. Built in the 15th century, the old abandoned city lies high up in Andean mountains, and is known for its dry-stone walls that were built without the use of mortar. One of the most impressive urban creations by the Incan Empire, the historic site is set within a completely natural environment, with peaks, valleys and mountainous slopes filling the landscape that surrounds city. A listed World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu is 2,340m above sea level and its trails encompass both the mountainous terrains of the Andes and the tropical jungles and forests of the Amazon. On the trail you will experience the diverse and rich flora and fauna of the Amazon region, as well as the impressive numbers of species of animals that are endemic to this area.
Experiencing the Inca Trail
Before Machu Picchu was abandoned in the 16th century, the city was certainly not considered “off the beaten path”. Regular transportation, migration of the city's servants and services ran to and from the city regularly, this is clear by the lack of large government storage at the site. Cuzco would have been the main source of goods and services for the site, and the surrounding lands would have supplied the city's agricultural needs.
The trail begins in the region known as “Quechua” at around 2,500 m above sea level. The Spanish invasion and excessive use of the trail did a lot to damage it and today we still do not know the true extent of the Incan network. Today only 25% of the network is visible, largely due to modern infrastructure, as well as the region's bloody history. UNESCO and IUCN, however, are working to protect the site and the six countries it traverses.
Despite some knowledge of the city's use and the Incans themselves, the area largely remains a mystery and the tales and myths have a great impact on many tourists that take the trail. Ask anyone and they will tell you that the best way to experience the magic and mystery of Machu Picchu and the Incan culture is to put on your walking shoes and get hiking.
Here's our guide to the two-day and four-day trails through the valley and up to the city:
Four Day Trail: The Classic Inca Trail
Taking a four-day trek through the Urubamba Valley to Machu Picchu is the ultimate way to experience the Inca trail. Known as the “Classic Inca Trail,” treks usually start from the town of Urubamba or from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or at km 88. The 43-km trail has incredible views of the Valley and of Llactapata, also known as Patallaqta, an area of extensive Incan ruins that were used for religious and ceremonial functions, as well as for crop production and housing soldiers.
The trail ascends along the Kusichaka River and takes in the small village of Wayllapampa, which is home to around just 130 families. For the first night of the trail hikers will most likely camp down at Llulluchapampa at 4,215 m (the highest point on the trail).
The trek takes in not only other areas of Inca ruins, but also waterfalls, cloud forests, mountainous climbs and Inca tunnels, with the longest one overlooking two valleys. Campsites are organized and this four-day trail also includes a trip to Intipata, a recently uncovered site of agricultural terraces that would have harvested sweet potato, maize and potatoes.
See rare orchids, over 400 species of birds, and maybe even the indigenous spectacle bear. Learn about the significance of each of the sites and the whole region for the Incas, and even where pilgrims would have engaged in spiritual cleansing, before making the final leg down to Machu Picchu at sunrise on the fourth day.
There is a slightly longer version which intersects with this trail, known as Mollepata, which includes the highest mountain pass that reaches 4,200 metres above sea level and can cause altitude sickness.
Two Day Trail: The Sacred Inca Trail
The short Inca trail literally takes half the time of the classic trail, and is great for travelers who want to experience the beauty of the landscape of the region and some additional sites, but don't have enough time to complete the four-day trek. The trail also requires a lower level of fitness and so often appeals to travelers who find hiking or trekking difficult. It is also less frightening if you are afraid of heights, as it only reaches a maximum altitude of 2,750 m above sea level.
Joining up with the four-day trail in Winaywayna, the two-day trail joins the classic trail just in time to see the most beautiful views of the trek, including stunning mountain scenery and Incan ruins. Most two-day treks begin just 14 km away from Machu Picchu at km 104.
On the first day you get to walk through Machu Picchu, but stay in Aguas Calientes, before waking up for a sunrise walk of the ancient city. After your walking tour, most tours usually have the option to climb Huayna Picchu, a massive 8,890 feet up and a 45 minute hike, if you want to.
It may also be possible to shorten your trek to one day, which is great for very inexperienced walkers.
Be aware that the hikes are mostly uphill, and you should have a good level of fitness to complete the treks, especially the four-day trail, as well as wear the appropriate hiking gear.
- A good pair of walking shoes/boots
- Plenty of layers: You may feel hot and cold on this hike
- Sunscreen: Even if it doesn't feel hot the sun is extremely strong and dangerous
- Warm clothes for the night time
- Altitude sickness prevention tablets. Read our Altitude Sickness Prevention Guide.
- Plenty of water
To avoid disappointment make sure you book your trek well in advance as only 500 visitors (excluding guides and staff) are allowed on the Inca Trail at any one time. This is mainly down to concerns from the Peruvian government about the erosion of the ancient trail, and can mean the treks are booked up in the high season. Please be aware that due to the sensitivity of the trail, metal-tipped hiking and trekking poles are not permitted.
You cannot take the trek without an organized guide or group, this has been prohibited since 2001 in the national park.