Hiking the 4 day / 3 night Inca Trail

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
10
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
10
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
8
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
6
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
10
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
10
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
85 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
South America
country
Peru
Length of time
3-4 days
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 750
Time of year visited
May
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
15th/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 5% SUMMARY RATING: Unmissable

Summary

The Inca Trail is a 43km hike that snakes its way majestically through a combination of stunning Andes mountains, Peruvian countryside, near perfectly maintained Inca ruins, thick cloud forest mists and ending at the Sun Gate, the mountain entrance to the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.  It is one of those rare travel experiences that really lives up to the hype

As you can see in the tips below, there are a few things to consider before heading off on the trail, in particular your level of fitness, the cost and going at the right time of year.  It can also get a little busy at times, but this is all relative – 200 hikers per day spread over the 43km rarely feels crowded compared to Machu Picchu and the various Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.  If you have the time, the money and the stamina, you’ve got to do it.  The combination of the mystery of the Inca ruins, the truly breathtaking mountain scenery and its world fame makes this one of the must do travel experiences in South America and, in my opinion, the world

highlights

#1 Hiking through some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world

#2 Checking out the various Inca ruins throughout the trail - many you would never have heard of which, of course, adds to the wonder

#3 Working your way through the local traffic

#4 The challenge - only 43km, but some brutal uphills at times!

$5 Waking up early on the last day to hike to the Sun Gate for your first look at the world famous Machu Picchu

#6 Staying in some rather nicely located camp sites along the way

#7 Spending your final day in Machu Picchu, one of the Wonders of the World

Travel Tips

There are so many sites out there that offer huge amounts of detail on the Inca Trail route and exactly what you’ll need for the trek (Dusty Roads for example do a great one, link here), so I won’t repeat what you can find elsewhere.  Instead I’ll just focus on the key tips we found:

  • Choosing the right company to go with is obviously super important (you cannot walk the Inca Trail on your own).  We went with Inca Trail Reservations who were recommended to us by a few people and had very good ratings in their various online reviews.  Total came to US$670 per person (US$250 up front, USD395 remaining, US$25 for sleeping bags.  Plus you should probably bring around US$70 for tips for your guides and porters – they earn it), which included all the permits, entry for Machu Picchu, gear for the hikes, guides, food etc etc.  But also included some really useful pieces like pick up from the airport and just managing the whole process beforehand for you.  And the food was surprisingly good considering the porters and teams of donkeys have to carry everything for the 4 days.  Would recommend
  • I’d strongly suggest taking 2-3 days after landing in Cusco and before starting the Inca Trail to:
    • 1. Acclimatise to the altitude – the Inca Trail starts at 2,750m / 9,000 feet and by the second day you’re passing the high point of Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200m / 13,780 feet.  That’s high enough to give you altitude sickness (generally feeling a bit like a bad hangover, which isn’t fun).  You can do various things to help, such as take pills (we took Acetazolamide and felt like it helped), drink coca tea, take pain killers to help with the headache etc, but the best way is simply to give your body time to get used to the altitude
    • 2. See the world-class historical sites near Cusco (Walking around some of the Inca sites near Cusco) and the Sacred Valley (Driving through the Sacred Valley) that will give you some of the context to the Inca and also really prime you for the jewel in the crown, Machu Picchu, when you finish the trail
  • Level of fitness – the whole Inca Trail is 43km spread over the 3.5 days, but of course this involves a lot of ups and downs, plus the altitude makes the passes harder.  To give an idea, over the 3.5 days my iPhone showed 84,000 steps and 620 flights climbed, so its definitely a challenge.  I’d say though that as long as you have a moderate level of fitness that you can do the Inca Trail.  A few reasons for this:
    • 1. The guides are actually very good at both motivating you and assessing your level of fitness.  Very early they’ll potentially split the group into those who will go quicker and those that will need more rests
    • 2. For those who are bit worried if they’ll be able to walk the full distance to the next campsite, the porters will give you the option to wake up super early to give yourself more time
    • 3. There is the option of giving yourself more days through a 5 day / 4 night hiking option
    • 4. The surrounding scenery really is motivating, and once you’re over Dead Woman’s Pass on the second day, its fairly straightforward from there
  • Bring as little stuff as possible – you’ll get told this repeatedly.   The porters are only allowed to carry a certain weight of your stuff (6kg / 13lbs), so the rest will be on you.  Bring clothes for cold, hot, rain, and sun – so, one pair of worn-in hiking boots, waterproofs, lightweight hiking clothes (everyone has their preferences, but a good rule is to combine synthetic fibers and layering), basic toiletries (including toilet paper), something for blisters (don’t faff about with band-aids / plasters – go for something like Compeed which is far more comprehensive for blisters) and my extra tip is a power bank for 3-4 phone charges (there are sometimes places to charge along the way, but they are hit and miss).  You can leave the remainder of your stuff with the company in Cusco
  • Showers are very very basic – I always feel like I need a shower at least once a day and am prepared to face up to glacial cold water to get one (and they really are cold on the trail).  There are some warmer showers, but be prepared for them to super stink and not be available each day
  • No internet – a nightmare or a dream depending on how you look at it!  We found a couple of high spots that had some mobile / cell reception, but don’t count on them
  • Machu Picchu – the view on the final day from the Sun Gate down on Machu Picchu is stunning and well worth the very early start to the day.  But be prepared for a bit of a shock to the senses when you enter actual Machu Picchu in terms of the numbers of tourists, especially after spending the past 3 days in the tranquility of the mountains.  For more tips on the visit to actual Machu Picchu see the Machu Picchu entry
  • Inca Context – as with most of the Inca sites, try to read up a bit on the Inca Trail / Machu Picchu and the broader Inca context before your visit.  For sure, the trail and Machu Picchu will be impressive even without the history, but having the background cranks the experience up another notch.  I’d recommend Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams – an easy read as the author re-creates the rediscovery of Machu Picchu and gives enough detail that any first time visitor would need.  For the broader context on the Incas and the other pre-Columbus American civilisations, I’d highly recommend 1491 by Charles Mann which will, I think, open your eyes to just how sophisticated these civilisations were before the arrival, in particular, of Eurasian diseases
  • You don’t have to start your tour from Cusco – we actually spent 4 days exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley and were picked up from a hotel near Ollantaytambo.  The benefits of this is that you don’t have to keep returning to Cusco from your day trips; you get to stay in areas that see a significant drop off in tourist numbers; and because the Ollantaytambo area is 2 hours or so closer to the start of the Inca Trail than Cusco, it gives you a bit more of a lie in on the first day.  We stayed at a gorgeous hotel in the valley that leads up to Machu Picchu called Del Pilar Ollantaytambo Hotel, and would really recommend
  • For tips on other great experiences in Peru and for an itinerary for a trip there, see 2/3 weeks for the highlights of Peru

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Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone