Machu Picchu is one of the world’s top travel destinations, and it’s easy to understand why. The ancient Incan city is an example of the hard work, dedication, impressive architecture and advance engineering of the Incan people, giving it the well-deserved title of one of the 7 new wonders of the world. No trip to Peru would be complete without visiting Machu Picchu, but in order to fully appreciate the vast landscapes of the Andean mountains and the ingenuity of one of the most famous ancient civilisations, you have to hike the Inca Trail to get there.
The Inca Trail is a 45km long trek that stretches from the Urubamba River on the outskirts of Cusco to the Machu Picchu ruins in the town of Aguas Calientes. Located in the Andes mountain range, the journey passes through a variety of landscapes, including temperate forest, alpine tundra, and cloud forest. The trail takes an average of 4 days to complete, and along the trail you’ll encounter the remains of Incan settlements and farms, which provide a deeper insight into why the Incans were such a successful civilization.
Preparing for the Trek
So, you’re ready to embark on the adventure? Here’s everything you should know before you book a tour.
How Hard is the Trek?
Different parts of the trail range from easy to challenging, but overall I’d say the trail is closer to the easy end of the spectrum. Anyone of reasonably good fitness won’t struggle too much to complete the trek, and the not-so-fit but determined will find it okay provided you find the right pace for yourself and stick to it.
The first day of the trail is relatively flat and consists of some long hills with gentle inclines. Throughout the entire 4 days stunning scenery will constantly surround you. On the second day you will embark on the hardest part of the trail with a 2-4 hour steep uphill climb to “Dead Woman’s Pass.” The remainder of day 2 will consist of 1-2 hour increments of either steep downhill or uphill for about 6-8 hours. The third day is the easiest and most beautiful day of the trail where you will trek along what the locals refer to as “Inca flats,” or rolling hills. Throughout the day you will be able to enjoy the change of scenery as you travel through diverse landscapes and vegetations, with time to enjoy, explore, and learn about many Incan ruin sites along the trail. The final day of the trek will have you wake in the early hours of the morning, allowing plenty of time to arrive at the Sun Gate atop Machu Picchu Mountain before sunrise. This part of the trek is mostly uphill but not too difficult, with the only challenging part being the “Gringo Killer Stairs,” a set of just 50 stairs that sit almost vertical. Upon you’re arrival at the Sun Gate you will be rewarded with stunning views of the sunrise over Machu Picchu.
Most tour companies will include pickup from your Cusco hotel on the first morning of the tour. They will also finish by dropping you back in Cusco after the final day. You can fly into Cusco from several international airports, or you can travel from Peru’s capital city Lima via plane or bus to Cusco.
Adjust to the Altitude:
If anything, the high altitude is probably the hardest part of the trek. It advised that you spend at least a few days in Cusco to adjust to the high altitude. Make sure you drink plenty of water in the days leading up, to get as much oxygen into your blood as possible beforehand. Once you begin the trek it mostly goes down in altitude since Machu Picchu lies within a valley, so provided you are well adjusted beforehand the altitude shouldn’t cause any problems.
Choosing the Right Tour Company
You will be camping for 3 nights along the Inca trail, with different facilities and services on offer depending on the company you book your trek through. Like most things, you get what you pay for, so the more you’re willing to spend the more you will receive in terms of assistance along the trek and at the campsites.
Try and choose a company that provides you with porters, not only for camping and cooking equipment, but also at least 7kg for your luggage. If you have porters it will make the trek so much easier, however if you don’t (or if you bring more things than the weight limit allows) you’ll have to carry your belongings along the trail, which will only slow you down- so pack light.
Most companies will have workers and porters who will set up your tents before you arrive at the campsite. If you have the option of hiring a pillow, air mattress, and sleeping bag then do it, otherwise you will have to provide your own, and you should always prepare for cold nights. It’s important to sleep well each night so that you are refreshed and energized for the 5am (or earlier) starts. Most companies also offer hiking pole hire.
It’s important to ensure you are well fed on your journey, so choose a company that has a chef who will prepare all of your meals. You should also carry some extra snacks with you like energy bars, which can be purchased before you leave Cusco, or at any of the local vendors along the way. Many locals who live in the mountains have small stalls along the trail selling energy bars, snacks, and drinks.
What are you waiting for?
Hiking the Inca Trail is guaranteed to be a highlight of your trip to Peru, and it really is the best way to see Machu Picchu. So go on, book yourself a tour!
I trekked the Inca Trail in late January with Alpaca Expeditions, a 100% Peruvian company who work with locals that grew up in the area. I highly recommend them, our guide was very knowledgeable, the porters where incredibly hard workers, and the chef prepared an abundance of amazing food- even for vegans!