Hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu: A Short Guide

by Paul Joseph  |  Published August 16, 2022

One of the world’s most famous mountain hikes, the Inca Trail attracts huge numbers of visitors every year, all of whom come with one end-goal in sight – Machu Picchu.

Hikers walk alongside a river during the Inca Trail (Photo: Aled via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Taking you along ancient narrow paths deep into the southern Peruvian countryside and high into the Andean mountains, past ancient Incan ruins and enchanting cloud forests, leading inexorably to the iconic citadel of Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail is a truly magical travel experience for all who complete it – and one that’s destined to leave you with memories that last a lifetime.

How and when you choose to negotiate the famous 40 kilometre trail depends on a number of factors: namely, time, budget and fitness levels. If you’re thinking of embarking on an Inca Trail adventure and would like to get the inside track on what to expect, what to bring, how to book, and plenty more, we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to hiking the Inca Trail, which you’ll find below.

History of the Inca Trail

The Classic Inca Trail was built between the 1400s and 1500s during the Incan Empire’s height, with Inca engineers using advanced techniques and the power of thousands of workers to move rocks and build the stone-paved trails and sacred archaeological sites that still line today’s route. After the Hispanic Invasion in 1532, Manco Inca II, Rebel Inca King, fled with his army, destroying all trails and bridges, resulting in the Ina Trail being lost for hundreds of years.

A view of Machu Picchu (Photo: Pedro Szekely via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1911, Machu Picchu was discovered by the American Explorer Hiram Bingham, and four years late, he also unearthed the Inca Trail itself, subsequently performing a series of excavations throughout the trail, during which many archaeological wonders were uncovered. In 1983, Machu Picchu was officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2007 achieved even greater acclaim when it was announced as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

When to go

Peru has two seasons – dry and wet – and it’s possible to hike the Inca Trail during either. Each, however, come with their own pros and cons. As the name indicates, dry season sees the least amount of rain; however, it also coincides with Peru’s peak spell for tourism, resulting in the trail being at full capacity pretty much every day. All of this means fuller camp sites and more traffic along the route.

Wet season is a less busy time to hike the Inca Trail, meaning more chance to connect with your stunning natural surroundings without the backdrop of clomping feet and chatter. Prices can be slightly cheaper and easier to book in wet season, too – even at short notice – while night-time temperatures also tend to be a little higher than dry season. On the downside, if your luck’s out with the weather, hiking and camping in the rain is few people’s idea of fun, and if there’s significant rainfall, hiking conditions can become a little treacherous.

How long to go for

As mentioned in our introduction, the duration of your hike depends on how much time you have, how much money you’re willing to spend, and how much energy you’re able to expend. The Classic Inca Trail route is a 3 to 5 day hike, and on average, it takes 4 days and 3 nights to reach Machu Picchu. For those short on time, there’s also a shorter route, which starts at Kilometer 104 and only takes one day to hike to Machu Picchu.

A steep section of trail leading up to an archaeological site (Photo: Wendy Harman via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

One other factor that may influence your decision is whether or not your Inca Trail visit is part of a wider regional trip. There are a number of organised tours available in which the Inca Trail makes up only a very small portion. So, for example, if you’re travelling around South America for several weeks and embarking on other hikes or arduous activities during that time, one of the shorter Inca Trail hikes may appeal.

How much it costs

At time of writing, Inca Trail tours start at around £550 per person and can rise to £1,500. As a general rule, if you see prices any cheaper than this bottom end, then you may want to think twice, and if you see anything pricier, you’re either looking at a very upmarket tour or are booking through a tour agent. It should also be noted that Inca Trail tours booked via agencies will often simply place you on an available tour with a local operator, so you have very little control on quality.

The tour price will usually include transport to and from the starting point of your hike, all camping equipment (apart from sleeping bags), three meals a day, your tour guide, and porters.

Sleeping and eating

There are no hotels on the Inca Trail and your only available accommodation comes in the form of a tent provided by your tour company and carried by porters. The tents are all two-person, meaning you’ll either be sharing with a friend/partner, or a randomly assigned member of the same sex. For those that would prefer more privacy, you can also pay extra for your own one-person tent.

Hikers gathered outside a tent along the trail (Photo: Craig Nagy via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The porters carry all the tents along the trail and usually power on ahead of your group to set up the tents each afternoon before you arrive, and then take them down and pack them up again in the morning. Needless to say, the porters will be among your favourite people on earth by the end of the trip – and it is custom to tip them accordingly.

As for food, on most tours chefs are included as part of the support staff, with all food, apart from snacks along the way is included in the price. You won’t even need to lift a finger to prepare it or wash up. Instead, around a table in a make-shift tent dining room, you’ll receive breakfast and a three-course meal for both lunch and dinner each day. A typical dinner includes fresh hot soup, a main course, and then something sweet to round it off – all washed down at the end with cups of tea. Vegetarians are catered for, too.

What to pack

Packing light and smart are the keys to preparing for the Inca Trail. After all, weighing yourself down with too much equipment will make the already arduous walk much less enjoyable, while forgetting essential items will leave you with eternal regrets. The good news is that, if you’ve ever hiked or spent anytime backpacking before, then you’ll likely already have a lot of the necessary equipment at home.

First up, it may not seem obvious but you’ll need to take your passport. You can’t enter the Inca Trail without first getting your passport details checked and verified with your permit at the Km.82 checkpoint, and you’ll also be required to show it to enter Machu Picchu. Your reward? A much sough-after passport stamp to add to your collection.

When it comes to clothing, it’s best to prepare for all weathers. So even if you’re travelling in dry season, we’d recommend packing a waterproof jacket or poncho with a hood. Other essentials are a warm hat for those chilly mornings and nights, and sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to protect against the sun, which can do even more damage than usual at high altitude.

A trekker holds a wooden hiking pole (Photo: Phil Whitehouse via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

It’s critical to get your shoe wear right, too, and we strongly recommend packing good quality, waterproof hiking boots. Although you’ll notice the porters walking in tatty old trainers, the trail’s contours and difficult slippery underfoot conditions in sections are well-known and easy to these guys who have been traversing it for often their whole lives. The average tourist, however, will be far less well-accustomed to this often challenging terrain.

Other optional items that you may want to consider include a head torch for navigating the campsite safely after dark, hiking poles to help ease the burden on your body as you walk, toilet paper and hand sanitiser, thermal underwear, and a good quality sleeping bag. If you don’t bring your own sleeping bag, then it’s usually possible to rent one from your tour company or at one of the outdoors shops in Cusco.

Hot springs in Agua Caliente, where many visitors head to after the Inca Trail (Photo: apardavila via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Where to book

There are a huge number of Inca Trail tour providers that let you book online. One of the most popular is Bookmundi, and we’ve picked out three of their best tours catering for varying durations and budgets.

First up, Trekking the Inca Trail is a 4 day, 3 night small-group adventure which invites you to hike past rambling rivers, cloud forests, ancient ruins, and scenic mountain views. The terrain is rugged and steep but the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel is unparalleled once you reach Machu Picchu by sunrise. On reaching the site, you’ll enjoy a guided tour before returning to Cusco in the evening.

If you’d like to combine the Inca Trail with another famous Peru hike, The Lares Trek and One-Day Inca Trail could be for you. Spread over 5 days, you’ll start with a full-day guided tour of the Sacred Valley before embarking on your first big hike of the tour on day 3. The high-altitude hike starts near the village of Lares, approximately 40 miles north of Cusco, taking you through the Lares Valley in the east of the Urubamba mountain range, and taking two days. Then, on day five, you’ll head off on a one-day hike of the Inca Trail, culminating with a guided tour of Machu Picchu before travelling back to Cusco by train.

Alternatively, for those who only have limited time, the 2-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu may well fit the bill. This express tour includes only one full day of trekking leading to a Machu Picchu guided tour on the second day. It also includes one night in a 3-star hotel as well as pick-up and drop off in Cusco.

Please also note, all companies operating the Inca Trail must be registered and have a special operators license. A number of these companies are only established to provide specific private tours in high season, with the rest offering year-round excursions. New operators are added to the list each year so, as quality, experience, and equipment offered can vary quite a lot.

It’s also necessary to pay a deposit in advance to secure your Inca Trail permit, so if you book with a new or cheaper provider, make sure you’ve done your research before coughing up any cash. After all, you don’t want the upfront savings to mean a less memorable experience. Also be aware that permits are only issued with a tourist’s name and passport number and, once booked, they are non-changeable and non-transferable.