Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu
This post is in no way sponsored. The Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu might just be my FAVORITE experience to date. Four days spent with two of my best friends in the Andes Mountains without cell service— there isn’t much else I could ask for. I came home from Peru on cloud nine. I may have gone into too many details during my stories about this trip, which turned into not being allowed to talk about it anymore with certain friends… oops! Peru just has so much to offer!
What You Need to Know
Inca Trail Permit— MUY ImportantE
With only 500 permits granted per day to hike the Inca Trail, you’ll want to check availability for your intended travel dates ASAP. This per diem includes the permits that are needed for the guides and porters accompanying your hike. For our trip in 2016, the permits were released in December of 2015. The timing has since changed— Permits for 2019 went on sale at the start of October. Bookings for May and June sell out the fastest. So, if you’re hoping to go during the beginning of the summer make sure you secure a reservation with a travel company ASAP so they can procure your permits. The Inca Trail is closed during February for trail maintenance.
After reading many reviews and looking at availability, we decided to book our trip with SAS Travel . I have nothing but great things to say about our experience. The coordination, the guides and the food were all excellent!
Our guide, Felipe, was fantastic— I highly recommend trying to get into his group if you book through SAS Travel! If you aren’t able to secure a permit for the Inca Trail, he also guides hikes for other popular trails in the area, some of which also lead to Machu Picchu.
Throughout the excursion Felipe paused to teach us about Incan history, the flora, the fauna, and the folklore. We learned how to chew coca leaves, we were taught to give thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) before drinking chicha (a fermented Peruvian beverage), and we were told tales about the sacred trinity: the puma, the condor, and the snake.
SAS doesn’t offer the portable bathrooms that some other tour companies advertise. Felipe told us that this is because SAS feels that it is inhumane for the porters to have to handle human excrement. I agree. There were bathroom stalls at all the campgrounds. These bathroom stalls are probably a little different than what you’re used to — they had the type of toilet you squat into and they aren’t cleaned regularly. If you have to go to the bathroom while hiking, you simply get to go surrounded by nature!
In 2016, the base price of the four day, three night excursion was $690 per person. This covered the permit, four days of food, the tent, a guide, and the porters to carry all the communal goods. It also included the bus ride to the trail head from Cusco, the bus ride down from Machu Picchu into Aguas Calientes, and the train ticket from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco. We also split a porter to carry 18kg of our belongings for $160, in addition to adding a set of walking poles for $20/person and a sleeping bag for $25/person. At the end, we each tipped the group $40, as recommended. In total the excursion cost around $830 per person.
The 4 Day Hike
The night before the hike, my two friends and I showed up for the orientation meeting and found out that we were in a group of six. Our small crew was made up of a couple from Seattle, Washington, a gentleman from El Paso, Texas and us, three recent college grads from Washington, DC. After hearing how active our fellow hikers were, we were intimidated to be in such a small group. Even though we are all former collegiate athletes, we were not confident in our aerobic abilities for this adventure after being out of school for a year. We had an urge to slink to the back of the other group of thirteen that was departing the same day as us. However, it turned out to be a blessing to travel in a small group. The six of us got along well from the start and we all moved at a relatively similar pace. We still keep in touch with the folks that were in our group. We even met up with our El Paso friend when he was in Washington, DC for business this past spring!
You can find the full detailed itinerary for all four days of the hike here — I will point out my personal highlights:
Duration: 6-7 hours | Distance: approx 12 km | Minimum altitude:2,680 m/8,790 ft | Maximum altitude: 3,000 m/10,824 ft | Ascent up: 620 m
Full of nerves and excitement, we boarded the bus at 5:45am to make our way to the Inca Trail entrance in Piscacucho. Halfway through the ride we were jolted awake by a loud noise and the bus came to a halt. A popped tire... The bus unloaded and we all snacked on our brown bag breakfasts in a field somewhere between Cusco and the trailhead entrance. Half an hour later we re-boarded the bus and made our way into Ollantaytambo, an ancient town that now makes a living on hikers passing through.
We stocked up on coca leaves and ash to help us with the altitude. Our guide, Felipe, showed us how to properly chew the leaves by wrapping some of the ash in the leaves to cut the bitterness. Felipe claims that the leaves aren’t addictive, but he also shared that he and many other Peruvians chew the coca leaves everyday.
At the trail head our passports and permits were checked. Once cleared, we crossed a suspension footbridge across the Urubamba River— out first steps on the Inca Trail! The initial part of the trail was a typical hiking path with a slight incline. We stopped along the way to learn about the large agave plants that arched over the path, rope making from dried agave palms that were used to make bridges between the canyons, cacti parasites that were crushed to make early forms of makeup, and fables about protective Andean bears.
We were absolutely blown away by the spread of food that was presented to us at our first lunch. The meal started with pumpkin soup. Felipe explained that the food would be dependent on the altitude we were at and then proceeded to show us the patch of pumpkins they pulled our meal from. Next we were presented with a feast that included fried trout, trout ceviche, rice, avocados topped with a basic tomato salsa, slices of sweet potatoes, a traditional tomato and onion salad, and large Peruvian corn topped with llama cheese. After lunch we sipped on anise tea and took a short nap before making our way to the campsite.
Before dinner we were formally introduced to the chef and team of porters that were traveling with us. Each porter told us what items they were carrying in their packs. They also shared with us where they were from, how big their family was, and how long they had been in the job. I was surprised to hear that some of the porters had multiple wives! Felipe translated the introductions for us since the porters spoke in the native Andean language, Quechua or in Spanish.
Make sure you book with a reputable travel company. Not all trekking companies treat their porters ethically. SAS Travel treats their porters well (i.e. no tent bathrooms).
Dinner was delicious. Hearty and tasty food turned out to be the standard for all of our meals during the excursion. We retired to our tent for the evening and fell asleep full of nerves for the notoriously difficult second day of hiking.
Duration: 7-8 hours | Distance: approx 12 km | Minimum altitude:3,000 m/9,840 ft | Maximum altitude:4,200 m/13,776 ft | Ascent up: 900 m
When I opened my eyes, it took a second to remember where I was since the first day felt like a dream. When I unzipped the tent, I was left speechless by the view. We were nestled on the side of a mountain in a valley. The morning light burned off the fog and the mountains were blue.
The porters boiled water for us to wash up and brush our teeth with. Breakfast was a Peruvian version of oatmeal made with quinoa. Then we were off…
I got altitude sickness during our first day in Cusco, so I was a little nervous for the hike to Warmiwañusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass, which sits at an elevation of 13,828 feet. Luckily I did not get any symptoms of altitude sickness— I actually felt like I was thriving on the climb up! There was a gentleman in the other SAS Travel group that had to turn around due to altitude sickness before making it to the pass.
The trail was mainly made up of Inca stone steps which took us through a lush forest and up to the treeless grasslands where the pass lies. We took many stops along the way to catch our breath. Local Andeans sold refreshments for high price at a few resting points in case you were running low on water. Felipe also woke up our senses with “llama pee”. He’d pour the liquid into his hands, clap them to activate the mystery potion and then had us smell his hands to wake us up. I have no idea what was in this concoction, but it smelled like tequila and it was quite effective.
After about an hour or so into the day we each started moving at our own pace. We stopped for lunch along the way to refuel.
Once we all made it, Felipe led us in a special ceremony with coca leaves and confetti to pay thanks to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
As we made our way down the other side of the mountain, my knees struggled with the steps even with the support of walking poles. I don’t usually have knee issues and my friends had no problem. I took my time, but I ended up getting stuck in a hail storm with the gentleman from El Paso. We finally made it to the campsite about 30 minutes behind everyone else. Our porters had already set up camp and offered us hot tea and popcorn when we got there. We filled our bellies with another magnificent dinner and fell asleep fast.
Duration: 7-8 hours | Distance: approx. 16 Km | Minimum altitude: 2,700 m/8,856 ft | Maximum altitude:3,750 m/ 12,300 ft | Descent : 700 m
Day three was packed with ancient Incan ruins. I think the pictures do this day better justice than my writing.
Since we were speedy hikers, we arrived to our campsite early enough to do a little extra exploring at Wiñaywayna, an Inca Ruin built on a steep hillside just a half a mile from camp. The name means ‘forever young’ in Quechua. Alpacas peacefully roam the terraces and they were kind enough to take photos with us!
The chef and porter team made us a celebratory cake on our final night of the adventure. They served it with “condor eggs” AKA canned peaches that looked like a large cracked egg in a bowl. They got a kick out of our confused and hesitant faces when they played that joke on us…
Felipe also hosted a tipping ceremony after dinner. It was suggested to tip $40 per person for the four day, three night trek. We pooled our tips and Felipe divided them based on each person’s job. We then handed each porter and the chef their tip and thanked them for their services. They were a polite and friendly bunch.
Duration: 6-7 hours | Distance: approx. 8 Km plus exploration of Machu Picchu | Minimum altitude: 2,400 m / 7,872 ft ( Machu Picchu ) | Maximum altitude: 2,700 m / 8,856 ft | / Descent : 300 m.
The last day gets started with a 3:30 am wake-up to ensure you get to Machu Picchu before all the day-pass tourists. You enter via Inti Punku, or the Sun Gate in gringo speak, as the morning sun rises. This was once the main entrance into Machu Picchu. During the Southern Hemisphere’s summer solstice the sun rises right in between the gate’s posts.
The normal morning routine is shortened to get everyone lined up. Our permits got checked again before entering the last segment of the trail that leads down to Machu Picchu. It felt like a race— everyone was hiking SO fast to try to catch the sun rise at the Sun Gate. About halfway to the Sun Gate you’ll come across the “gringo killers”, which as it turns out, are just a wall of tiny steps that aren’t easy for people with big feet to climb. Fitbit let us know that we reached 10,000 steps before 8 am.
We were astonished by how small the Incan site looked in the distance from the Sun Gate. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach with each step closer to the “Lost City of the Incas”.
The first thing we did when we got to the site was take the popular photo with Huyana Picchu in the back ground. The couple in our group split off to go climb Huyana Picchu, or Young Peak. This requires an extra permit which can be booked through your tour company. After our four day trek, the rest of us were happy we didn’t have 1,000 ft worth of stairs to climb.
Felipe was an excellent historian and a wonderful guide through the ancient ruins. There were so many interesting legends of conquest and details of daily life. The entire way of life in this remote city in the Andes is fascinating.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS HIKE! Give yourself time to live four days tied only to the present moment.
Alternatives to the Inca Trail:
Salkantay Trial- Many people I know have chosen to hike the Salkantay trial for two reasons: there is no limitation on permits and it is far less crowded than the Inca Trail. If you’re booking a last minute trip to Peru, this is probably the trail for you. I have heard great reviews from friends. If my adventures take me back to this part of Peru, I’d like to explore this trail.
Day Trip from Cusco- You can take a train to Aguas Calientes from a small village outside of Cusco called Poroy. Aguas Calientes is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. It is very touristy, but cute. To actually get up to Machu Picchu, you’ll have to book a bus and secure your entry ticket. Do this far in advance. There are also passport stamps at Machu Picchu for you to mark your own passport!
Huayna Picchu is the large peak that you see in all the pictures of Machu Picchu. You can buy a combination ticket to get access to this mountain. Only 200 of these tickets are offered per day. The trail is essentially 1,000 ft. of stairs.
Sun Gate/Inti Punku — If you’re just visiting Machu Picchu for the day and want to explore further than the main grounds, you can hike up to the Inti Punku, or the Sun Gate. Access is included in the Machu Picchu + Mountain combination ticket. This was once the main entrance to Machu Picchu.
*This is not an exhaustive list. These are the alternatives I came across through my experience.
Backpack — I have a small Osprey pack that I tried to use. It was a little small for everything since I didn’t have a full porter to myself. I’d go with a bigger day pack.
Comfortable Hiking Shoes — You don’t necessarily need over the ankle hiking boots. I didn’t have them, but I think it would have made the hike a little easier on my ankles. Both my friends had over the ankle boots.
In Your Day Pack:
Patagonia Nano Puff jacket — This jacket folds into itself for easy packing. It is warm for the cold mountain nights and the lower temperatures at Dead Woman’s Pass. All three of us wore this jacket.
Rain Jacket — Bring something truly waterproof and quick drying. We brought North Face and Patagonia rain jackets.
Middle Layer— I brought my Patagonia Better Sweater. I live in this at home, but it was a little bulky for the hike. I’d bring something that cuts the wind better.
Two water bottles— Each morning the porters boil water for your hiking supply. We filled one water bottle with normal water and dropped an electrolyte tablet in the other.
Electrolyte Tablets — Stick these in your water to ensure you’re staying hydrated and energized during the hike.
Hand Sanitizer— Plenty for before eating and after going to the bathroom.
Toilet Paper— BYOTP
Flashlight/Headlamp— For hiking in the dark and walking around camp at night.
Warm Hat and Gloves— You’ll want these for the lower temperatures at Dead Woman’s Pass. We didn’t realize we would need a hat and gloves until our orientation so we made a last minute purchase at a shop in Cusco.
Sunglasses— I’d suggest polarized.
Athletic Headband— Your hair will get dirty from not showering. This will help hide it in pics…
Toothbrush & Toothpaste — For your daily routine.
Wipes— The porters provided us with water to wipe down with, but we still found baby wipes and face wipes a staple in our nightly wash.
Deodorant — You’ll be sweating on this hike.
Sunscreen— For your face. You are closer to the sun at elevation.
Chapstick — A necessity.
Poncho/Backapck Cover— In case it downpours. Many hiking backpacks have a cover built in.
Bandaids/Second Skin— In case you get a blister.
Portable Charger— There is no charging available at the campsites.
In the porter’s duffel:
Pants— As females we packed three pair of leggings. You can rewear a pair, but you’ll want extra if it rains. Hiking pants were also popular on the trail. Guys will probably want a pair of shorts and a couple pair of hiking pants.
Shirts— Two long-sleeve, moisture wicking shirts, four base layer, moisture wicking shirts.
Underwear/Socks — Four pair each.
Flip-flops/ Sandals — You’ll want to walk around camp in these after a long day of hiking.
Vaccines— Consult your physician on what vaccines you will need. You can find the most common vaccines for visiting Peru from the USA here.
Altitude Medicine— I didn’t take this medicine because I was scared of the side-effects (diarrhea…) and I regret it. I got altitude sickness during our first day in Cusco. I live in Washington, DC, so basically at sea-level and my body was not ready for such a big change in altitude. My friends were fine. One is from Colorado and the other took the medicine.
Anti-diarhetic — Someone in our group got ill during the hike. They made it through but it wasn’t pleasant for them.
When I go back:
If I were to hike to Machu Picchu again, I’d like to explore the Salkantay trail since I have had my experience on the Inca Trial. Next time I’d summon up the energy for Huayna Picchu— I think it’d be worth the view. I’d also like to spend a day strolling around Aguas Calientes. Felipe told us that the famous hot springs are actually pretty dirty from all the tourists, so I’d still avoid those.