Of all the things we did and places we saw during our 3 weeks in South America, hiking the Inca Trail in Peru is our favourite memory. It even climbed the ranks as one of our all-time cherished travel experiences.
And to think, I was a little hesitant to do it.
I’d heard so much about how difficult the hike is, but that wasn’t what was making me nervous. I like a good challenge and loved the idea of following in the footsteps of the Inca. We didn’t want to take the easy way out and arrive to Machu Picchu by train. It would have felt like cheating.
What initially held me back was my fear of getting sick on the Inca Trail. I worried the lack of oxygen from the high altitude would kick my butt (my cardiovascular endurance is pathetic). What if I got food poisoning? What if I got the flu? What if I got blisters? What if, what if, what if?
And if I’m being completely honest, the idea of going four days without a shower was not appealing.
Doubts aside, hiking the Inca Trail turned out to be a fantastic experience. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. We did feel the effects of the altitude (Mike more so than me) but it was manageable. And yes, my biggest fear came true- I got sick on the Inca Trail. Luckily it was on Day 1, the “easy day”.
Still, the 4 day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu wasn’t as torturous as I thought it was going to be.
All the challenges along the way made the experience much more fulfilling. The sense of accomplishment I felt at the end of the Inca Trail was tremendous. It was very rewarding to get out of my comfort zone, conquering doubts and fears. Then throw in all the wonderful vistas and Inca ruins we saw along the way, and that made for an unforgettable experience.
I am so glad I decided to hike the Inca Trail!
Note: Practical tips about choosing your tour operator, booking your trek etc. are included at the bottom of this post.
What to Expect on the Inca Trail Hike
To say the hike is hard is somewhat relative, but I will say it wasn’t easy!
Everyone will have their own personal challenges hiking the Inca Trail whether it’s altitude sickness, sore muscles and joints, physical exhaustion or even dehydration.
We had no experience hiking at very high altitudes, had never even done a multi-day hike before, and still were able to complete the trek.
To help you know what to expect on Inca Trail hike, here’s a day-by-day look at our experience. We hope this helps you to decide if the classic 4 day Inca Trail hike is right for you.
Hiking the Inca Trail- Day 1
Trail Head at Kilometre 82- Wayllabamba (12 km)
Our Inca Trail adventure started at 5:00 am when our trekking company picked us up from our hotel in the historic centre of Cusco. Once all 14 hikers were picked up, we headed away from Cusco and into the Sacred Valley.
We stopped at Ollantaytambo for a quick breakfast and at the recommendation of our guide, also rented trekking poles and bought coca leaves to help fight the effects of altitude.
After breakfast we drove to kilometre 82 of the Inca Trail, where the trek starts. We got our stuff organized with the porter we hired then headed to the first checkpoint where we had to show our passport before beginning the trail.
After passing through security, we crossed a bridge over the Vilcanota/Urubamba River then did a short uphill to a meadow area. Here we got an introduction to the trail by our guide Edy and then we all introduced ourselves. Our group was a mix of nationalities, ages and hiking experience and even included some solo travellers.
With all the formalities out of the way, it was time to get down to business. Day 1 is considered to be the easiest of the four day Inca Trail Hike, a “warm-up” for what is to come. There were some downhill and uphill parts, but nothing too drastic.
Along the way we passed by a few small villages where locals were selling drinks and snacks. For some reason, I wasn’t expecting people to be living along the Inca Trail. Every so often a man with a group of donkeys carrying supplies would pass by. There even was a guy on a dirt bike that whizzed past us!
As the day went on, it began to get quite hot out. I really started to notice the heat when we were stopped at a lookout point over the Llactapata ruins.
Llactapata means “upper town” in Quechua and was an agricultural station used to supply maize to Machu Picchu. Gazing over Llactapata got me excited for all the other ruins on the Inca Trail we would see in days to come.
After Edy was done his talk at Llactapata, we started the hike to our lunch spot. This is where things went downhill, and I’m not just talking about the trail.
All of a sudden I got severe stomach pains. I had a feeling it was from something I ate the night before. Seeing as we were in one of the few areas I’d seen so far with thick(ish) vegetation, I decided it was best to rest here. So, I ducked off the trail into the bushes and sat there on my knees, bent over in pain, hoping that whatever bug was wreaking havoc on my insides would hurry up and get the heck out of me.
It took about an hour, but finally I felt well enough to carry on. By this point, the assistant guide had just arrived looking for us. He was supposed to always be at the back of the line but went ahead with the group (which I was actually glad he did because how embarrassing would that have been!)
When we finally arrived at the lunch spot, the tent was already set up and everyone was inside waiting for us. I was embarrassed to admit I was dealing with food poisoning and felt bad for holding the group up, but everyone was very understanding. As it would turn out, I wouldn’t be the only one dealing with an upset stomach during the trek.
The rest of our hike after lunch was thankfully uneventful, but also not very memorable. I was just looking forward to getting to camp so I could lie down and rest.
When we did get to camp at Wayllabamba, the porters already had our tents set up. This was my kind of camping- no set up or take down, and no cooking!
The meals we were served on the trek were all very delicious, with enough selection to please even the pickiest eaters (like myself). I was impressed by the gourmet dishes they could make out in the middle of nowhere!
Wayllabamba camp was near a small farming community so there were donkeys, roosters and dogs roaming around. Those noisy animals kept us from getting a good night’s sleep, but at least the campsite had a clean, sit down toilet (I can’t say the same about the rest of the campsites).
Hiking the Inca Trail- Day 2
Wayllabamba- Pacamayo (12 km)
Day 2 is considered the hardest day of the Inca Trail hike because of the steep elevation gain and hundreds of stone steps, going both up and downhill. I kept telling myself if I could get through Day 2, the rest of the hike would be easy in comparison.
The scenery was very different from the previous day, much more lush because we were walking through a cloud forest. We even passed a small waterfall. I liked being in the thick of nature and Mike kept saying he felt like Indiana Jones!
As expected, we soon came to a section of stone steps, still original from the time of the Incas.
This part of the trail was tough, but in hindsight I was expecting it to be even harder. The key for me was to go slow and steady, always keeping the same pace so I didn’t have to stop and catch my breath all the time.
I felt like I was moving in slow motion, taking the tiniest steps. That’s all I could manage in the high altitude. I didn’t see the point in pushing myself and risking getting sick because I knew the majority of the hike today would be uphill. As long as I made it to the final destination, that’s all that mattered. It wasn’t a race, even though the porters running past us made it look as though it was.
Getting above the treeline, we stopped for lunch at Llulluchapampa, a meadow at 3,680m. It was a nice place to rest up for the most difficult part of the trail, the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass.
We were told it was another 1.5 hour climb to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest pass on the Inca Trail at 4,200m, but I think it took us longer than that. It’s called Dead Woman’s Pass because from the other side the top of the mountain looks like the profile of a woman lying down.
It was such a relief to get to the top of the pass because that meant that the hardest part of the trek was over. It was cold and windy so we quickly took a group picture then started our descent down the other side.
There were so many steep stone steps going down that I was glad we rented trekking poles. They really help with balance and stability and take some of the stress off your knees.
For me, going down the steps was the best part of Day 2. Passing through the cloud cover, incredible views of the valley and mountain peaks were revealed. Most of the way down I was by myself, so I decided to sit on a step and take in the moment.
There was a beautiful, ancient stone path in front of me, curving its way down into the valley. Mountain peaks surrounded me on all sides and the only sound was the gentle chirping of birds. This was my favourite moment of the trip so far.
Mike struggled more on this section of trail. The altitude was making him feel light-headed, so he had to really slow down and concentrate on where he was stepping so he didn’t tumble down the stairs.
Continuing on, I made my way down the steps until I arrived at our campsite for the night. I know I said it wasn’t a race, still I was impressed with myself for not being the last one to arrive at camp on the hardest day of the trek.
Pacamayo (3,600m) was probably the most scenic campsite I’ve ever stayed at. Our tents were set up on a ledge looking out onto a valley, with mountains on the other three sides.
Glancing back at where I just hiked from was surreal. I almost couldn’t believe I walked that high up a mountain!
After another great dinner, I set up my tripod and took a few night photos. It was a little cloudy and there was a full moon so I couldn’t capture a dark starry sky like I wanted. Still, I got some good shots of the mountaintop with moving clouds and a few stars.
Hiking the Inca Trail- Day 3
Pacamayo- Winay Wayna (15 km)
We got another 5:30 am wake-up, but I didn’t mind because I was very excited for Day 3 of the trek. I knew it was going to be incredibly scenic with some gorgeous Inca ruins along the way.
The first Inca site we came to was Runkuracay, a small circular ruin overlooking the Pacamayo valley. We stood inside the stone structure as Edy gave us another history lesson. He was such a wealth of information- I wish I could remember everything he said!
We got the best views of Runkuracay when climbing the hill to leave the site. A good reminder to always take a moment to look back where you came from!
From Runkuracay, it was about a 45 minute hike to the top of the second Pass, Abra de Runkuracay at 4,000m. This section of the trail is mostly original, the stones laid by the Inca.
It was crazy to think about all the work that must have went into building this trail and laying all those stones. And now, hundreds of years later, there I was walking the same path as the Inca did.
My favourite site along the Inca Trail was Sayacmarca. The ruins were spectacular and built in such an incredible location, protected on two sides by cliffs.
The name Sayacmarca means “Inaccessible Town”, which was very fitting considering the surroundings. All throughout the hike, I was so amazed at the locations the Inca chose to build their towns at.
We spent a good amount of time wandering through Sayacmarca as Edy told us about the site. I was so enamoured by these ruins I didn’t want to leave.
Back on the trail we passed by more ruins including Conchamarca, a small Inca dwelling that was probably a resting place for travellers on their way to Machu Picchu.
The path got very scenic again as we went through another lush cloud forest. The orchids were just starting to bloom and I bet in a week or so the trail would have been so colourful. We even passed by a group of llamas!
After going through an Inca tunnel carved into the rock, the trail started to climb up to the third pass (3,700m). The stone path hugged the mountainside, with nothing but a steep valley on my left. It was a little nerve-wracking to be that close to the edge, but oh-so photogenic!
From the pass I could see several snow-capped mountains and what looked like a small waterfall way on the other side of the valley.
After the pass we came to a clearing where we stopped for lunch. Once again, fantastic views were spread out before us. It’s funny because on one hand, these views make you want to sit and stare for the rest of the day, while on the other hand, they energize and motivate you to keep going and see what lies ahead.
Just down the hill from our lunch spot was Phuyupatamarca, the “Town in the Clouds”. It was another scenic ruin, but probably most memorable for the thousand or so steps leaving the site.
This section of trail has a reputation for being tough on the knees and even earned the nickname “The Gringo Killer”. My knees didn’t get too sore (probably because of the trekking poles) but the bottoms of my feet started to hurt. It’s tough walking on all those uneven rocks!
On our way to the last campsite, we took a short detour to the Winay Wayna ruins. This site had a spectacular set of agricultural terraces clinging to the mountainside and also some stone baths. Winay Wayna may have been a place where pilgrims to Machu Picchu engaged in ritual cleansing for the final leg of the trail.
I didn’t have a sense of just how tall the terraces were stacked until I walked down to the bottom. Standing in the shade of this man-made wonder, I suddenly felt insignificant and small.
From the ruins we could see our campground and hear the trains coming and going from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town). I started to feel sad we were getting closer to civilization, signaling our journey was coming to an end. I liked being in the middle of nowhere- it was so peaceful and relaxing.
We arrived at the Winay Wayna campsite just as it was getting dark. There was a group of cute llamas coming up the steps, so we let them pass before making our way to the tents.
Day 3 was a really long day, hiking from sunrise to sunset, but the jaw-dropping views and superb Inca ruins made it my favourite day of the trek.
Hiking the Inca Trail- Day 4
Winay Wayna- Machu Picchu (5 km)
This was the last day of our hike and we got the earliest wake-up call- 3:30 am! I was glad we were at a significantly lower elevation because it wasn’t cold out at all, even that early in the morning.
We had to get up early to line up at the last control point, which opened at 5:30 am. It was amusing to see a long line of headlamps leaving camp and hiking down to the station.
Once control opened we got through pretty fast and started the last leg of our hike to Machu Picchu. I was at the front of the group, behind Edy who was walking at such a fast pace I was huffing and puffing to keep up. We had to ask him to stop so we could take off layers since we were getting hot trying to match his pace.
After about 2 hours of hiking we had almost arrived to the end of the Inca trail. There was one last challenge- an almost vertical flight of 50 steps leading up to the Sun Gate (Intipunku). It was so steep we had to use our hands to pull ourselves up like we were crawling. That’s why this part of the trail is called the “Monkey Climb”.
At the top, I passed through the Sun Gate and there it was- Machu Picchu spread out in front of me, basking in the day’s first rays of light.
I immediately got emotional and had to wipe a few tears from my face. It was an incredible sight, one I never thought I’d actually see in real life.
My overwhelming emotion was a brought on by mix of thoughts from, “It’s so beautiful” and “I can’t believe I finished the hike”. It was a combination of awe and relief, pride and accomplishment.
This moment, that first glimpse of Machu Picchu was so satisfying and fulfilling. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
As much of a struggle the hike was at times, it was all worth it to have this incredible view be my first impression of Machu Picchu. There’s no better feeling than knowing you earned this view. Definitely a powerful moment I’ll remember forever.
As we descended the path into Machu Picchu I was reflecting on our hike. All of a sudden it didn’t seem that hard anymore. It’s like what they say about childbirth- you immediately forget the pain and agony once you see your baby. In our case it was that magical first glimpse of Machu Picchu, in the early morning sun, that made all the difficulties vanish from our minds.
Final Thoughts About Hiking the Inca Trail
It was the combination of stunning scenery, exquisite Inca ruins and overcoming a challenge that made hiking the Inca Trail so memorable.
Arriving at Machu Picchu by bus just wouldn’t have been the same. In fact, I’m still surprised that the best part of the 4 day trek wasn’t actually visiting Machu Picchu, but rather the Inca trail itself and the all the experiences that go along with it.
The old adage really rings true here- it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Pictures of the Inca Trail
Here are some more photos I took while hiking the Inca Trail.
Tips for Hiking the Inca Trail
Inca Trail Regulations: The Inca Trail can only be hiked with a licensed tour operator or guide.
- Only 500 trail permits are given out each day. This includes trekkers, guides, cooks and porters.
- Guides must carry emergency oxygen and first aid equipment.
- The maximum tour group size is 16 people.
When to Go: Conditions are fairly dry and sunny from May- September. June, July and August are the most popular months but can get very cold at night. The trail is closed in February.
- We went in mid-September and never had any rain beyond a few sprinkles at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. The first day was hot, but the rest of the days were cool, not cold, and perfect for hiking.
Booking Your Trek: We booked our trek 7.5 months in advance and the date we chose (in mid-September) sold out shortly after.
- For high season, June- August, you may have to book up to a year in advance.
- You will need to provide your passport number so the trekking company can buy your permit. You must carry your passport to show at checkpoints along the trail. Make sure your passport will not be expiring in between the time of booking and the departure date because this may lead to problems on the trail.
Choosing a Trekking Company: Consider booking your trek directly with a local operator. Only Peruvian trekking companies are licensed to operate the Inca Trail so when you purchase your trek from an international agency, they have to pay local companies to operate their treks. This means you will likely be paying more so the agency can take their cut before contracting out the tour.
- Be aware of the cheapest operators because the equipment may be subpar and they may be paying their guides and porters lower wages. Trust me, these are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen, tasked with a very difficult job, so it’s important that they are paid fairly and treated well.
- Ask if the company guarantees departure no matter how big the group is. If not, ask if the trek will be cancelled or what company they join with to meet the minimum group size.
What do Trekking Companies Provide: Service typically includes transport from Cusco to the start of the trek, permits for the Inca Trail, entrance fees to Machu Picchu, sleeping tents, meals, guides, porters to carry the tents, food and cooking supplies, train ticket from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and bus service from Ollantaytabo back to Cusco. Our trek price also included the bus ticket from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes and a sleeping pad (which was hard and thin, so you might want to bring your own).
- Our tour operator had sleeping bags available to rent.
Hiring a Porter: You will be required to carry your own personal gear (including sleeping bag) unless you hire the services of an extra porter. You will need to do this at the time of booking your trek.
- Our company provided us with a duffle bag that we could put our stuff in to give to the porter (we brought a lock to secure it). The maximum weight a porter can carry on the Inca Trail has been limited to 20kg, so we could only give him 12 kg of stuff, so he had 8 kg for his own personal items.
Drinking Water: Bottled water is available for purchase at some locations along the trail on the first and second days, and then not until Machu Picchu.
- Our trekking company provided us with boiled water for the third and fourth days.
- We didn’t have to drink from the streams, but I brought a filtered water bottle and purification tablets just in case.
Toilet Facilities: All the campsites have toilet facilities with cold running water. Toilets were available at lunch locations as well. We only had one sit down toilet, the rest were squat style. Be warned- they are not clean and smell very bad.
What to Bring: Passport (not a photocopy), cash to buy bottled water and to tip the porters and guides, sleeping bag and mattress, trekking poles with rubber tips (we highly recommend this, you can rent them), sturdy hiking boots, hiking socks, sandals for at camp, poncho/raincoat and rain pants, warm clothes that can be layered, hat, head lamp, toilet paper, blister cream and moleskin, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, water bottle or hydration pack, water purification tablets (for emergency use), bug spray, sunscreen, sunglasses, coca leaves, medication (altitude sickness pills, oral rehydration tablets/electrolytes, Imodium), stuff sack to use as a pillow, camera with a lot of extra batteries, a few snacks and any toiletry items you might need.
- Things we packed but didn’t use: Water purification tabs, most of our snacks (we brought way too many, so much so that Mike was nicknamed Snack Daddy. The altitude and coca leaves killed our appetite, but better safe than sorry).
Preparing for the Trek: Make sure your hiking boots are broken in before the trek. We found it helpful to do some day hikes and long walks leading up to our trek.
- Spend at least 2 days in Cusco before the trek to get acclimated to the altitude. We spent 3 days.
Accommodations in Cusco
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Products We Used and Recommend for the Inca Trail
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