(Cusco Highlights - Category: Best Trek - Editors Pick)
The Inca Trail is Peru's best known hike, combining a stunning mix of Inca ruins, mountain scenery, lush cloud-forest and rich subtropical jungle. Over 250 species of orchid have been counted in the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, as well as numerous birds such as hummingbirds, waterfowl and the majestic Andean Condor. The star of the Sanctuary is the spectacled bear - a shy, herbivorous animal that is extremely rare and close to extinction.
Essentially the Inca Trail is a mountainous jungle hike leading to the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu. The 45km trek is usually covered in 4 days, arriving at Machu Picchu at daybreak on the final day before returning to Cusco by train in the afternoon.
The trek is rated moderate and any reasonably fit person should be able to cover the route. It is fairly challenging nevertheless, and altitudes of 4200m are reached, so ensuring that you are well acclimatized is important. If arriving from sea level, plan to spend at least 2 full days in Cusco (3 days is better) prior to commencing the trek. This should allow plenty of time for acclimatization and give you sufficient opportunity to visit the city of Cusco and nearby Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman, Q'enko, Pucapucara and Tambomachay, as well as spending a day or two exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas visiting the tradition market town of Pisac and the fascinating Inca fortress at Ollantaytambo.
If you are searching the web for information about the Classic 4 day Inca Trail you'll probably be overwhelmed to find literally thousands of travel agencies offering this popular trek amongst their services. In fact in 2016 over 195 trekking companies in Cusco were awarded licenses to operate the Inca Trail. Licenses are awarded only to registered Peruvian tour operators who have offices in Cusco so even if you buy your trek with a company in your own country the trek won't actually be operated by them. The price of the 4 day Inca Trail trek with a mid-range trekking company should cost between US$620 and US$680 (2016). If you want extra porters to carry your personal items, very small group sizes, or return by luxury class train then expect to pay much more.
Since the number of trek permits is limited to 500 per day (about 200 tourists and 300 trekking staff) it is important to book well in advance. Unlike the Machu Picchu entrance tickets you can't buy the trek permits yourself. Only licensed Inca Trail Tour Operators are able to purchase the permits. When you make a trek booking with a tour operator they will take care of buying the permits for you, it will be included in the price of your trek. You'll need to give them your name, nationality, passport number, gender and date of birth. The trek permits are issued on a first-come-first-served basis up until all the permits have been sold out. In the low season (December & January) there are some days when there are still permits available 4 or 5 days in advance, but in the high season (May to September) it is recommended that you book at least 5 months in advance to guarantee a place. We would actually recommend making a reservation 6 or 7 months ahead. You can check out how many permits are left on our webpage Inca Trail Trek Permit Availability. If the Inca Trail is already fully booked on the departure date that you require you can always consider one of the alternative treks such as the 5-day Salkantay Santa Teresa Trek or one of the Lares Valley Treks
The main difference between the various Inca Trail services are the number of people in the group, the level of comfort that you can expect, the quality of the guide, food and camping equipment, how well the porters are treated and whether the company will actually guarantee their departure date, even if they can't find anyone else to fill up the group. The prices quoted below are to be used as a guide only and may vary considerably from company to company . Services are generally classified into the following groups: Group or Private services.
Many companies have fixed departure dates or even daily trek departures. You simply join up with other trekkers from all over the world to make a larger group. The maximum allowable group size on the Inca Trail is 16 persons. This service is known as a group service (or pooled service). The advantage of this type of service is that the trek works out cheaper and that you get to meet other like minded people from all over the world. The disadvantage is that the groups can be fairly large and that people within the group can be of mixed ability. When the group is larger than 8 persons, regulations require that two guides are used.
Prices for the 4-day group service Inca trail trek generally range between US$620 & US$680 (2016). These prices should include entrance fees and return on the train. A US$40 discount is offered to students who have valid ISIC cards and to children under 18 years old. This is the standard service offered by most tour operators in Cusco and offers the most economic way of hiking the Inca Trail as part of an organized group. Group sizes tend to be between 12 and 14 persons although each year we have seen a tendency for the groups sizes to be smaller as it becomes more difficult to obtain the trek permits. Services can vary from operator to operator. Generally the following services are included: Bus from your hotel in Cusco to the start of the trek, bilingual professionally qualified guide, assistant guide for groups of 9 and over, entrance fees (254 Peruvian Soles, about US$77), tent, foam sleeping mattress, cooking equipment, cook, meals, porters (to carry the tents, food and cooking equipment), train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo on the Expedition train service (currently US$78) and bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco. The following items are not usually included: Breakfast on day 1, snacks along the trail, tourist bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes (US$12), meals on the final day apart from breakfast, porters to carry your personal items (can be hired separately for between US$120 and US$160 for the 4 day trek), entrance to the thermal springs in Aguas Calientes (US$3), any tips for the porters or guide.
Competition amongst trekking companies is fierce in Cusco and many companies offer the 4 day Inca Trail trek for below US$600. Simple arithmetic shows that it is not possible to provide a quality service and guarantee departures with small groups for this price. Some of the cheapest trekking companies use inexperienced guides, use poor quality equipment and treat and pay their porters badly. At the end of the day you usually get what you pay for.
Private services are arranged just for you and your friends. If there are just two of you this type of service can work out very expensive since the cost of the guide, cook, porters etc are obviously spread amongst just the two of you. If there are six or more of you in your group then the cost is considerably reduced and may well be worth considering. If you have a group of 12 or more then this option can even work out cheaper than the standard group service. The advantage of a private service is that you have more control of your trek itinerary. With a small group you can usually make better progress each day and camp at some of the smaller, less well used campsites. If you are fit then you may try to complete the trek in three days rather than the usual four. On the other hand you may opt for taking things easy and take five days to get to Machu Picchu. With a private service you can also choose your day of departure.
A private group and is generally similar to the group service but usually slightly more comfortable. Additional items such as porters to carry your personal items are usually included in this service. Typical costs per person provided by a medium range tour operator are: 2 persons: US$1680, 3 persons: US$1270, 4 persons: US$1060, 5 persons: US$940, 6 persons: US$860, 7 persons: US$800, 8 persons: US$750, 9 persons: US$720, 10 persons: US$690, 11 persons: US$670, 12 persons: US$650, 13 persons: US$635, 14 persons: US$620, 15 persons: US$610, 16 persons: US$600
These costs include entrance fees and return on the basic Expedition train service operated by Peru Rail from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and then bus back to Cusco.
Prices are based on 2016 rates and can vary considerably from company to company depending on the quality of the service and what is included.
Travellers are collected early from their hotels and travel by bus, through the picturesque villages of Chinchero, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, for the 3.5 hour scenic trip to kilometre 82 (the start of the trail).
Hikers cross the Vilcanota River and follow the trail to the right as it climbs steeply up from the river. After passing through a small village, the ruins of the Inca hillfort of Huillca Raccay come into view high above the mouth of the river Cusichaca ('happy bridge'). It is a simple descent down to the Cusichaca river.
For a further 7 km the path follows the left bank of the river up to the village of Wayllabamba (3,000m). The name in Quechua means 'grassy plain'. Most tour groups spend the first night here although there are prettier campsites a little further on.
Climbing up from Wayllabamba for about 3 hours through steepening woods and increasingly spectacular terrain brings you to the treeline and a meadow known as Llulluchapampa (3,680m). It is another 1.5 hours climb to the first and highest pass of the trail (Abra de Huarmihuañusca or 'Dead Woman's Pass) at 4,200m. During this part of the trail hikers are exposed to the Andean elements: first scorching sun and then, closer to the pass, freezing winds. Once at the top hikers can celebrate having completed the most difficult section of the trail.
The decent from the pass is steep although not difficult, following the trail on the left side of the valley to the valley floor and to the 2nd night's campsite at Pacamayo (3,600m). There are toilet facilities here.
From Pacamayo it takes about an hour to climb up to the ruins of Runkuracay. These small circular ruins occupy a commanding position overlooking the Pacamayo valley below. Another 45 minute hike will bring you to the top of the second pass: Abra de Runkuracay (4,000m). At last you'll feel that you are walking along the trail of the Incas with paving, for the most part, being original. The descent down the steps from the pass is steep so take care. This section of the trail, up till the 3rd pass, is particularly beautiful as the path crosses high stone embankments and skirts deep precipices. After about 1 hour from the 2nd pass you'll arrive at Sayacmarca by way of a superbly designed stone staircase. The name Sayacmarca means 'Inaccessible Town' and describes the position of the ruins perfectly, protected on three sides by sheer cliffs. No one knows the exact purpose of these ruins
You have to backtrack a little to rejoin the trail as it passes Conchamarca, a small Inca dwelling situated in the shadows of Sayacmarca, which was probably a tambo for weary travelers on their way to Machu Picchu.
From then on the path descends into magnificent cloudforest full of orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and flowers, passing through an impressive Inca tunnel, carved into the rock, on the way
The trail then climbs up to the 3rd pass (3,700m). The view from the pass offers excellent views of several snow-capped peaks including Salkantay (6,180m) and Veronica (5,750m). A few minutes after the pass is Phuyupatamarca, the most impressive Inca ruin so far. The name means 'Town in the Clouds'. Access to the ruins is down a steep flight of stairs passing six 'Inca Baths' probably used for the ritual worship of water.
Leaving the site via an impressive Inca staircase leading from the west side of the ruins (the far end from the baths) you descend a thousand or so steps. Be careful with your knees which will feel the strain by the end of the day.
After about an hour of walking through cloud-forest you may just be able to see the tin roof of the Trekkers Hostal at Wiñay Wayna (no longer used), although it probably won't be for another 2 hours until you arrive.
Wiñay Wayna is the last official campsite before Machu Picchu.
A short trail leaves from the southern end of the hostal to the ruins of Wiñay Wayna. The name in Quechua means 'forever young' and is named after a variety of pink orchid which grows here. The ruins comprise magnificent agricultural terraces set in an impressive location. There are also many buildings of good quality stonework and a sequence of 10 baths, suggesting that the site was probably a religious center associated with the worship of water. Ritual cleansing may have taken place here for pilgrims on the final leg of the trail to Machu Picchu.
The trail from the hostal to Machu Picchu is clearly marked and takes about 1.5 hours. Most people attempt to wake up at 4.30am so that they can leave Wiñay Wayna by 5.30am to get to Machu Picchu before sunrise. The sky starts getting light by 6am and the first rays of the sun reach Machu Picchu at about 7am. The trail contours a mountainside and drops into cloudforest before coming to an almost vertical flight of 50 steps leading up to the final pass at Intipunku (Sun Gate). Suddenly the whole of Machu Picchu is spread out before you in all its glory - a fantastic sight for all.
(The trek itinerary above has been adapted from an itinerary provided courtesy of Peru Treks and is subject to international copyright. Reproduction of any text is strictly prohibited without prior consent)