One of South America’s most iconic attractions — and one of the most famous hikes in the world — the Inca Trail is on many a hiker’s bucket list. This 25-mile route meanders through the beautiful Peruvian countryside, rises high into the Andes and then ends with one of the most breathtaking spectacles on earth — the ancient city of Machu Picchu.
The Incan Empire, which at its largest covered what is now Peru as well as parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, created many miles of trails to connect its important settlements. The Inca Trail is one of them. When hiking this trail, you can experience the best of what Peru has to offer, including lush cloud forest, soaring Andean peaks and majestic ruins.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you’ll need to know to prepare for an Inca Trail trek, including the best times to go, what to pack and how to make a reservation.
Best Time of the Year to Hike The Inca Trail
You can hike the Inca Trail all year round with the exception of February, when the trail is closed for maintenance. However, the best time to go is between May and September, when the temperatures are slightly cooler, and rainfall is significantly less. The rainy season, which lasts from November to March, is less popular. However, there are advantages and disadvantages of going during each season, which we’ll cover below:
- Pros of the dry season: As the name suggests, the chance of rain during this time is significantly less. You can expect dry, hot mornings and afternoons.
- Cons of the dry season: The dry season in Peru coincides with high tourist season, so you can expect the Inca Trail to be at full capacity every day. This means that campsites are fuller and traffic along the trail is higher, although tour companies do their best to space out the groups. There is also a higher demand for tours during this season, meaning that it’s important to book tour far in advance. Another potential disadvantage of the dry season is the nighttime temperatures, which can be quite chilly.
- Pros of the wet season: As the rainy season is a less popular time to hike here, the number of people on the trail will be much less, as will the number of tourists at Machu Picchu. Tours also cost slightly less, and you can often book them just a few weeks in advance. The nighttime temperatures are also less chilly during the wet season.
- Cons of the wet season: There is a chance you could be hiking and camping in the rain for all four days of the journey. Not only is this unpleasant, but it could also be dangerous, as rocks can become quite slippery.
Below is a chart of the average high and low temperatures for each month, as well as the average precipitation amounts:
- January: 65.3 – 42.4°F, 154 mm
- February: 64.4 – 42.6 °F, 119 mm
- March: 65.1 – 42.3 °F, 101 mm
- April: 66 – 39.6 °F, 40 mm
- May: 65.7 – 35.6 °F, 6 mm
- June: 65.3 – 31.6 °F, 3 mm
- July: 64.6 – 31.5 °F, 3 mm
- August: 66.7 – 33.1 °F, 8 mm
- September: 66.6 – 38.1 °F, 25 mm
- October: 68.5 – 40.5 °F, 47 mm
- November: 68 – 41.5 °F, 75 mm
- December: 65.8 – 42.1 °F, 112 mm
Hiking Difficulty, Elevation and Length
The Inca Trail is not as difficult as many believe, but every hiker’s experience will be subjective and based on their level of fitness, hiking experience, attitude, weather conditions and other factors. The most difficult day of hiking is the second, when you will hike from your campsite to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,828 feet. After this point, the hike is relatively easy.
When searching for a tour company, you’ll want to pick one that provides both a main guide and an assistant guide. The main guide will stay at the front of the group and lead, while the assistant will stay in the back. They have lots of experience supporting hikers in a group who are either struggling or are slower than other members to ensure that everyone has the best possible experience possible. If you are having a hard time keeping up, it’s their responsibility to control the situation, assist you in getting to camp and help manage the overall schedule of the group.
Below is a detailed overview of the Inca Trail hike led by Wildland Trekking:
After three days of sightseeing in Cusco and other nearby attractions, you will depart from your hotel and travel approximately three hours to Piscacucho, also know as Km 82, the starting point for the Inca Trail. The hike begins in a high desert forest with vistas of Waqayhillca, the highest peak in the Urubamba mountains. After hiking for several hours and stopping for lunch, you will enter the Cusichaca Calley, where the vegetation becomes jungle. At this time, you will also get to visit the Incan ruins of Patallaqta and admire the ruins of Willkarakay and Q’anabamba from a distance. You should arrive at your first campsite around 4 p.m., allowing you to rehydrate and relax before eating a delicious dinner at 7 p.m.
On this first day, you will hike for 7.5 miles over seven to eight hours. The lowest elevation is 8,858 feet, and the highest is 10,168 feet.
On the second day, you will wake up early to drink warm cocoa tea and eat a delicious Peruvian breakfast. You then hit the trail at 7 a.m. and for the next two hours, the path will meander through high-elevation jungle, cloud forest and grasslands before reaching Dead Woman’s Pass at an elevation of 13,828 feet. You will then descend for about two hours until you reach your camp at Paqaymayo at 11,975 feet. This camp offers stunning views of the clouds in the valley below, which you can enjoy while relaxing with a scrumptious Peruvian dinner.
Due to the steep ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, Day 2 is considered by many to be the most difficult day of hiking. The length of this segment is seven miles and takes seven to eight hours to complete. The lowest elevation is 9,842 feet, and the highest is 13,828 feet, at Dead Woman’s Pass.
On the third day of the hike, you will get to take in a wide variety of flora, stunning mountain views and a number of Incan ruins. You will start by ascending to Runkuraqay, a pass located at 12,959 feet, where you will stop to take in breathtaking vistas while enjoying a snack and some water. You will be able to see and photograph two amazing mountains in the distances, Pumasillo (19,685 feet) and Huaqaywillka (19,028 feet). You will then descend down the other side of the pass and explore Incan ruins at Sayaqmarca.
After eating lunch, you will then hike about four more hours before reaching the Inca Trail’s most beautiful campsite, Phuyupatamarca. Here, you will once again have views of Mount Pumasillo and Mount Huaqaywillka, as well as the mountain of Machu Picchu.
Day 3 of the hike is considerably less strenuous. The distance covered is only 6.2 miles, and the minimum and maximum elevations are 11,975 feet and 12,959 feet, respectively.
On the morning of the fourth day, you will leave Phuyupatamarca after enjoying breakfast and a mountain sunrise. Shortly after departing, you will visit Intipata, a gorgeous Incan site. You’ll then hike downhill for around three hours, during which time you’ll see some of the trail’s most magnificent ruins, Winayhuayna. You’ll take a guided tour of the ruins, at which point you’ll say goodbye to your chef and porters and start your two-hour hike to the sun gate located at Machu Picchu. Once you’ve arrived at Machu Picchu, you’ll have a great opportunity to take photos because most of the crowds will have left by then. You’ll then hop on a bus to Aguas Calientes, where you’ll spend the night in a hotel and eat dinner at a great local restaurant, Indio Felice.
The Day 4 hike is only three to four miles long and takes five to seven hours. The highest and lowest elevations are 8,858 feet and 7,874 feet, respectively./p>
For the fifth day of the hike, your group will have several different options depending on how you are feeling. One option is to get up early and take a bus to Machu Picchu to watch the sunrise. Another is to sleep in a little, let the crowds die down a bit and then take a bus to Machu Picchu around 10 a.m. Your group will decide on this the night before.
When you arrive at Machu Picchu, a local Peruvian guide will take you on an in-depth tour of this fascinating Incan city for three or four hours. You’ll learn all about the impressive cultural history of the Inca and Machu Picchu as well as some of the mysteries surrounding this remote ancient city. After the tour is over, you will return to Aguas Calientes to eat lunch. You’ll then take a train to Ollantaytambo, a nearby historic town. Once you arrive in Ollantaytambo, you’ll then board a van to the town of Urubamba. Depending on time, you may eat dinner there or continue to Cuzco, where you’ll eat dinner and check into your hotel.
If you’re set on hiking the Inca Trail but would prefer a less strenuous way to do so, Wildland Trekking also offers the option of hiking a portion of the famous trail.
Preparation for the Inca Trail Hike
As we mentioned above, the Inca Trail is not easy. Although it is far from the most strenuous hike out there, its significant elevation change and other features provide a challenge for most hikers. While you do not need to have a lot of experience to hike the trail, attaining a decent level of physical fitness before arriving in Peru will make your hike easier and more enjoyable. If you don’t exactly fit the description of physically fit, don’t despair. Instead, see the Inca Trail as your motivation to start exercising more.
When it comes to packing for your trip, keep in mind that, regardless of the company you choose, you can opt for porters to carry your goods as they accompany you on the trail. While this means that you’ll only have to carry your own day pack, it doesn’t mean you can bring whatever you want. Below is a list of things to bring with you to Peru for your Inca Trail hike:
- Your Passport: While it’s obvious that you need a passport to get into Peru, what many hikers don’t realize is that they also need it to get on the Inca Trail. At the beginning of the trail, there is a government checkpoint that serves to enforce how many hikers can hike the trail each day. They require foreigners to show their passports. They will offer to stamp your passport at the checkpoint, which can be a cool souvenir.
- Proper hiking attire: Keep in mind that you’ll be showering only once during your four-day hike, if at all. This means you’ll want to pack a good supply of socks and underwear. You’ll also want to bring items you can layer, as daytime and night temperatures are quite different, and your body heat will spike and drop throughout the hike. You should pack clothes that can handle all of these situations. Cold weather gear, including gloves, hats and scarves, is a good idea for the chilly nights, especially if you’re hiking the trail during one of the colder months of the year.
- Proper footwear: Be absolutely sure that your footwear is waterproof. There a high chance you’ll encounter at least some rain and mud during your hike, even if you come during the dry season. When choosing between shoes and boots for your trip, consider that shoes are more lightweight, whereas boots offer more ankle support. Whichever you choose, make sure that your footwear fits and has been broken in.
- Other waterproof items: A rain jacket or poncho — and some plastic bags to separate your dry clothes from your wet clothes — are essentials.
- Toiletries: These should include moist wipes, toilet paper, soap, deodorant, toothbrush, sunscreen and lip balm.
- Flip-flops: If you’re planning to shower the third night, you’re going to need a pair of flip-flops. Even if you don’t get a shower, flip-flops can still help your feet breath in the evening after a long day of hiking.
- Snacks/water bottles: While your tour company will provide you with food and water, you may find yourself hungry or thirsty at certain times throughout the hike. These items will hold you over until it’s time to stop and eat a meal.
- First-aid kit/personal medications: While your guides will be carrying a first-aid kit with them on the hike, it can’t hurt to bring your own basic kit during your trek. Of course, don’t forget any personal medications that you need to take.
- Flashlight: Although easy to forget, this item is essential for finding your way around the campsite in the dark.
- Batteries, memory cards and any other needed electronic goods: As you might have expected, there aren’t any opportunities to charge your devices during your trek. For this reason, we recommend that you bring extra batteries. If you can’t, then try to only use your devices when you have to.
Cash: Although you won’t need tons of money while on your trek, it’s still recommended that you bring some cash. You’ll go by a number of small, locally-run shops while on the trail. You may also want to use it to tip your guides and porters.
Inca Trail Permits and Reservations
If you’re planning to hike during the dry season, then you should make a reservation as soon as possible. If you’re taking an Inca Trail hike during the less popular rainy reason, you don’t have to book as far in advance, unless you are inflexible with your dates, in which case sooner is better than later. It’s possible to book last-minute, although your options for dates and tour companies will be very limited.
Since 2002, the Inca Trail has been limited to 500 hikers a day, regardless of the time of year. This means that everyone must obtain permits ahead of time to hike the trail. To secure a permit, you must go through an approved tour provider, which buys these permits in advances. Whereas you can do other hikes in Peru independently — including other hikes to Machu Picchu like the Saltankay and Ancascocha — the Inca Trail can only be hiked with an approved tour company.
Because of Peru’s often unpredictable permit systems, it’s a good idea to register before October 1st for hiking trips starting the following year. Wildland Trekking offers a five percent discount to hikers who do so.
Booking an Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu With Wildland Trekking
When you choose Wildland Trekking to lead your Inca Trail hike, you can look forward to the following benefits:
- Personalized hiking vacation: Our backpacking and hiking tours are always small and usually have five to ten guests — and never more than 12.
- Great track record: With over 10,000 hikers joining our tours every year, we have a strong track record of providing high-quality trips that go above and beyond the expectations of our guests. We are the highest rated tour company — and even activity — on five different Trip Advisor pages (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains.) We’ve also earned five stars for Sedona and Yosemite on Trip Advisor, as well as Yelp, Google Reviews and Trust Pilot. Click here to check out some of our online reviews.
- Exceptional guides: We are committed to hiring and training the industry’s best guides. We do this by finding career-minded guides, taking them on as employees instead of independent contractors, conducting regular training and requiring up-to-date medical certifications. In addition to credentials and technical competency, we also require our guides to have great people skills. Our extraordinary guides can turn a getaway into an inspiring and unforgettable adventure. You can read more about them on our Meet Our Team page.
- Delicious meals: Our meals are customized depending on the preferences of your group. You can count on them being hearty, delicious meals that will fuel you well during your adventure. We also accommodate vegetarian, vegan, non-gluten, kosher and various other specialty diets.
- Exceptional gear: We provide only the best hiking gear, including Osprey and Deuter backpacks, Sierra Designs sleeping bags, Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads and MSR stoves.
Start exploring our Peru Hiking Tours today and book a hiking adventure of a lifetime.