There are limits on the number of trail users, but you'll still see a lot of fellow trekkers along the way. The four-day trek takes you past ruins and through stunning scenery, starting in the thin air of the highlands and ending in cloud forests. The orchids, hummingbirds, and spectacular mountains aren't bad either.
You must go with a guide and a licensed tour operator, one accredited by SERNANP, the organization that oversees the trail and limits the number of hikers to 500 per day (including guides and porters). There are some 200 such licensed operators in Cusco.
time to make the four-day trek; rain is more likely in April and October and a certainty the rest of the year. The trail fills up during the dry high season. Make reservations at least four months in advance if you want to hike then—two months in advance the rest of the year. Bear in mind that not only are the number of permits limited, the early comers get the preferred campsite on the third night of the trek, which is much closer to Machu Picchu. The trek is doable during the rainy season, but can become slippery and muddy by November. The trail closes for maintenance each February.
Inca Trail Day by Day
The majority of agencies begin the Inca Trail trek at Km 82, after a two-to three-hour bus ride from Cusco. Tip: Opting to stay overnight in Ollantaytambo will allow you to get a bit more sleep before starting out.
Day 1: Compared to what lies ahead, the first day's hike is a reasonably easy 11 km (6.8 miles). You'll encounter fantastic ruins almost immediately. An easy ascent takes you to the first of those, Patallaqta (also called Llactapata). The name means "town on a hillside" in Quechua, and the ruins are thought to have been a village in Inca times. Bingham and company camped here on their first excursion to Machu Picchu. You will see different types of architecture there, both pre-Inca and Inca.
At the end of the day you arrive at Huayllabamba (also called Wayllamba), the only inhabited village on the trail and your first overnight.
Day 2: This will be your most challenging day of hiking. It's another 10-km (6.2 mile) hike, but with a gain of 1,200 meters (3,940 feet) in elevation. The day is most memorable for the spectacular views and muscle aches after ascending Dead Woman's Pass (also known as Warmiwañusca) at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet). The pass is named for the silhouette created by its mountain ridges—they resemble a woman's head, nose, chin, and chest.
A tricky descent takes you to Pacaymayu, the second night's campsite, and you can pat yourself on the back for completing the hardest section of the Inca Trail.
Day 3: Downhill! You'll cover the most ground today (16 km, 9.9 miles), descending 1,500 meters to the subtropical cloud forest where the Amazon basin begins. There's some of the most stunning mountain scenery you'll see during the four days. The ruins of Runkuraqay were a circular Inca storage depot for products transported between Machu Picchu and Cusco. It may have also been used for astrological purposes.
You also pass by Sayacmarca, possibly a way station for priests and others traversing the trail.
Most excursions arrive by mid-afternoon at Huiñay Huayna (also known as Wiñaywayna), the third night's stopping point, at what may now seem a low and balmy 2,712 meters (8,900 feet). The first possibility of a hot shower and a cold beer are here. After dinner there is usually a ceremony to say thank you and goodbye to your cook and porters, as well as to tip them.
There is time to see the ruins of Puyupatamarca (also known as Phuyupatamarca), a beautifully restored site with ceremonial baths, and perhaps the best ruins on the hike. At this point you catch your first glimpse of Machu Picchu peak, but from the back side.
Day 4: Day 4 means the grand finale, arrival at Machu Picchu, the reason for the trail in the first place. You'll be roused from your sleeping bag well before dawn to hike your last 6 km (3.7 miles) to arrive at the ruins in time to catch the sunrise. You'll be amazed at the number of fellow travelers who forget about their soreness and sprint this last stretch.
The trail takes you past the Intipunku, the sun gate. Bask in your first sight of the ruins and your accomplishment, but you'll need to circle around and enter Machu Picchu officially through the entrance gate—and don't forget to ask to get your passport stamped, you've earned it.
Prepping for the Inca Trail
You Must use a Guide: You must use a licensed tour operator, one accredited by SERNANP, the organization that oversees the trail and limits the number of hikers to 500 per day, including guides and porters. There are some 200 such licensed operators in Cusco.
When to Go: May through September is the best time to make the four-day trek; rain is more likely in April and October and a certainty the rest of the year. The trail fills up during the dry high season. Make reservations months in advance if you want to hike then—weeks in advance the rest of the year. The trek is doable during the rainy season, but can become slippery and muddy by November. The trail closes for maintenance each February.
Getting Ready: Tour operators in Cusco will tell you the Inca Trail is of “moderate” difficulty, but it can be rough going, especially the first couple of days. You must be in decent shape, even if your agency supplies porters to carry your pack—current regulations limit the porter’s load to 20 kg (44 lb) including his own gear. Agencies will typically offer a “half-porter” with a limit of 7 kg (15 lb) for your personal gear. The trail is often narrow and hair-raising and can be challenging for those with a fear of heights, although most will be fine. Hiking Huayna Picchu, however, is not recommended for those with a serious fear of heights. As the mountains sometimes rise to over 13,775 feet, be wary of altitude sickness. Give yourself two or three days in Cusco or the Sacred Valley to acclimatize. There are seven well-spaced, designated campsites along the trail.
While You’re Hiking
Food: All operators have their own chefs that run ahead of you with the porters, set-up camp, and create culinary feasts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This will probably be some of the best camp food you’ll ever have and maybe some of the best food while in Peru. We’re talking quinoa porridge with blueberries, chicken soup, and gourmet pasta dishes.
Campsites: There are seven well-spaced, designated campsites along the trail.
Coca Leaves: Although after Day 2 it is a gradual descent into Machu Picchu, you’re still high enough to feel the thin air. You’ll notice porters chewing coca throughout the trek. Coca leaves are a mild stimulant as well as an appetite, pain, and hunger suppressant. You’ll only need about one bag of your own (about S/1) for the trail. To properly enjoy the leaves, take about 15 of them and pick the stems off. Stack them on top of each other and roll into a tight little bundle. Place the bundle between your gum and cheek on one side, allowing the leaves to soften up for about two minutes. Eventually start chewing to let the juice out. It’s quite a bitter taste, but you’ll feel better. All tour operators will also serve tea during snack breaks.
Bathrooms: Toilets could be a lot worse. You won’t be able to sit down, but most porcelain-lined holes in the ground do flush and there are usually working sinks to wash up. You must bring your own toilet paper wherever you go. Camp sites all have toilets, but the trail itself does not.
Luggage: Check with your tour operator before you go, and pack as lightly as possible. If you hire porters, they’re probably going to be carrying a lot more than just your things on their backs. An American-style backwoods backpack is not the right piece of luggage—it weighs a lot on its own and is an awkward shape for the porters to incorporate into their massive bundles. A simple duffle bag is best, and is often provided by the agency you use. You should leave the rest of your belongings with our hotel in Cusco or the Sacred Valley. Staying overnight in Ollantaytambo the night before will allow you to get a bit more sleep before the trek.