Hike Peru's Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
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One of the most popular hikes in South America, Peru’s Inca Trail is definitely an experience of a lifetime. Constructed by the Incas over 500 years ago, the Classic Inca Trail is the most famous stretch of Inca road system – consisting of 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles) of trail spanning north to south through Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
Photo: Happy hikers at the top of Dead Women's Pass - the first major ascent on the Classic Inca Trail
Start your hike: Your journey to Machu Picchu will start in Peru’s city of Cuzco, and this stunning four-day hike begins at a place called Kilometer 82. As the name suggests, this famous trail head is situated 82 kilometers along the railway from Cuzco, on the way to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. You can board a train to Kilometer 82 at Poroy Station in Cuzco, which is approximately 18 kilometers from the city centre. On this journey you’ll pass through the town of Ollantaytambo, and you’ll find Kilometer 82 situated halfway between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes.
Photo: Hikers at Piscacucho Train Station (Km82) ready to begin the 4 day, 3 night Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu
If you’re taking a guided tour like our ‘Jaguar’ trip, your transport to Kilometer 82 will be pre-arranged for you.
Finish your hike: You’ll complete your hike on the 4th day as you arrive at Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate in time to watch the sun rise over the misty ruins, with plenty of precious time to explore the ruins before the tour buses arrive.
IMPORTANT: Before you begin your hike, think about what you’ll do for transport from Machu Picchu back to Aguas Calientes and Cuzco. A guided tour (like our ‘Jaguar’ trip) will take care of all of this for you, but if you’re looking at other tour operators you’ll want to make sure this is all included since the buses and trains will fill up, and accommodation in Aguas Calientes will book out.
To skip to the guided tour page for the Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, click here:
Most people say you need to be in relatively good physical condition to hike the Inca Trail. It's not that the hike itself is extremely difficult (although it is technically more difficult than the Lares Inca Trail), but it’s more a case of making sure you take all of the best precautions to prepare for the altitude. At its highest point the Classic Inca Trail ascends to 4,226 meters (13,866 feet) which is high enough for most people to be affected by altitude sickness and/or a lack of energy due to the lower oxygen levels.
Altitude sickness on the Classic Inca Trail should be taken very seriously and monitored closely. If you’re wondering what you can do about altitude sickness while you’re on the trail, the most important thing to do is to communicate with your trip leader and travel companions as to how you’re feeling at all times. As soon as you or anyone else is feeling ill, experience has told us that taking it easy, eating lightly and drinking a lot of water are all elements that assist with remedying the sickness. Our guides are extremely well trained in the matter, and they’ll always be there to advise you as and when you need it.
If you’re wondering how to prevent altitude sickness on the Classic Inca Trail – we’ve found that the best thing you can do is to take a couple of days to explore the city of Cuzco and take a gentle bike ride in the Sacred Valley before you begin your hike. This will get your body used to the thinner air, by staying active but at a less strenuous pace. This is why you’ll notice that the best tour operators – who have been in running trips in Peru for decades, will offer a 7 day guided trek to Machu Picchu… opposed to the shorter 4 day / 3 night option. Their cases of altitude sickness are far less than the shorter trips, meaning everyone is more relaxed along the way, getting a far greater connection to the local Peruvian culture and spending more time soaking in the stunning Andean mountain vistas. It’s a simple formula that works well.
Day 1: Cuzco to Pisonay
Maximum altitude: 2954m / 9694ft
Minimum Altitude: 2670m / 8761ft
Distance Travelled: 10.89km / 6.77ml
Approximate Walking Time: 5 hours
Day 2: Wayllabamba to Pacamayo
Maximum Altitude: 4226m / 13866ft
Minimum Altitude: 2954m / 9694ft
Distance Travelled: 7.10km / 4.40ml
Approximate Walking Time: 5.30 hours
Day 3: Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna
Start Height: 3627 masl / 11900 ft.
Max Height: 3974 masl / 13030 ft.
Approximate Walking time: 8 to 9 hrs
Day Distance: 11 km / 7 ml
Day 4: Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu
Start Height: 3688 masl / 12100 ft.
Max Height: 3688 masl / 12100 ft.
Approximate Walking time: 4:30 hrs
Day Distance: 7.29km / 4.53 ml
For a detailed breakdown of these daily hiking distances and elevations, and to learn about the highlights along the way – then take a look at the Inca Trail Itinerary.
Weather-wise, the most popular time to hike the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is during the dry season that runs from May to October, when the rainfall in the Amazon basin is at its lowest and you’ll be able to make the most of Peru’s blue-sky-days. Having said that, April and November are great choices too, since you tend to get the best of both worlds when it comes to the weather and there are fewer tourists around - which is always a good thing if you ask us!
Inca Trail closures for maintenance
The Classic Inca Trail is closed each year for the month of February. The wet season is at its peak between January and March, so with fewer hikers about it’s a great time to keep the trail in world class condition. During these months, you can still hike the Lares Inca Trail on your journey to Machu Picchu.
No. The fact that the Classic Inca Trail has survived hundreds of years of passing seasons is a true testament to the quality of workmanship that went into its construction. But after Machu Picchu’s discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911, the Classic Inca Trail’s reputation as a bucket list hike grew and with the crowds of tourist came the trash and ultimately trail decay. This forced Peru’s Ministry of culture to place a daily restriction of 500 hikers per day on the trail – made up of 200 hikers and 300 guides/porters. Part of the restriction stipulated that no person can hike the trail unaccompanied by a guide, and each hiker requires a hiking permit.
If you’re joining a guided tour, your operator will simply require your passport details and they’ll organise your hiking permit for you. Be sure to plan your trip well ahead of time – hiking permits for the Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu can sell out up to 3 or 4 months ahead of time.
If I miss out on Inca Trail hiking permits, what are my alternative options?
The best alternative to the Classic Inca Trail is the Lares Inca Trail. In fact, it’s widely seen to be the superior option of the two trails. Although the Lares Inca Trail doesn’t take you all the way to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu, it’s far less crowded and you’ll immerse yourself in a much more culturally rich experience. You’ll be welcomed into the local villages along the way, dining and creating artefacts with the locals, and the final night’s accommodation is a cosy local hotel in Aguas Callientes where you can enjoy a hot meal and a shower - opposed to a final night of camping on the Classic Inca Trail.
Prepare for your hike to Machu Picchu before you arrive in Peru
Inca Trail guided tours are designed for real people, both beginners to the world of hiking and seasoned adventurers alike. Your guides will tailor your trip to your ability, letting you set the pace, regardless of which end of the spectrum you are.
I’m in Cuzco, what should I do to prepare for the start of my hike?
If you’re arriving in Cuzco from a low-laying homeland and you’re thinking about hiking an Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, it’s a great idea to take a couple of days to loosen up the legs after your flight, gently adjusting to the altitude of the Andes. A great way to do this is to explore the history, sights and sounds in the beautiful city of Cuzco, and join a group tour for a stunning bike ride through the Sacred Valley. While you’re in the Sacred Valley it’s well worth the short hike to explore the Pisac Ruins.
You’ll find that most tour operators will recommend this transition process, as you’ll see in trips like the ‘Jaguar’.
‘Luxury camping’ is a term that’s often referred to when we’re asked about the accommodations on the Classic Inca Trail. If you’re looking for high class lodges along the way, you won’t find them. Everyone that hikes the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu camps for all 3 nights. Having said that, it’s some of the most comfortable camping you’ll ever experience.
Photo: Camping on the Classic Inca Trail, with Active Adventures South America
Along the way your tents are completely prepared for you before you arrive. You’ll sleep on comfortable camping mats, and only the best tents are used. You’ll stay dry and out of the elements, setting you up for a great night's sleep. Below are examples of the tents used on the Classic Inca Trail.
Photos: Examples of the 4 man tents used on the Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu
Food on the Classic Inca Trail
Every day you’ll enjoy delicious sit down breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Your guides will cater for any dietary requirements, and you’ll enjoy a range of homemade marmalades, dried fruits (pineapple, banana, berrys, etc), energy bars and chocolate brownies, and homemade bread.
The photo below was taken at lunch time, on our ‘Jaguar’ trips Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu:
And don’t worry about the weather – if it’s raining you’ll eat in the shelter of the dining tents:
Toilets on the Classic Inca Trail
Remember, you’re high in the Peruvian Andes, so don’t expect too much comfort. But we’ll make sure your camping experience is as good as it gets. At each camp we use private camping toilets with biodegradable detergents which don’t pollute the environment. We’re constantly trying to ask fellow operators to make the same effort.
For a closer look at the day to day hiking distances, elevations and highlights, click the link below to take a look at the Classic Inca Trail guided tour Itinerary.
Hike the Classic Inca Trail on the following Peru adventure tour:
Jaguar Ultimate Peru Adventure
- 10 Days
The ‘Jaguar’ is our most action-packed multi-activity trip in Peru. It captures everything this beautiful country has to offer, from the towering peaks of the Andes down to the steamy depths of the Amazon jungle. You’ll have a blast in this land of geographical and cultural extremes! We start our trip in the heart of the Inca empire where we explore fortresses and surrounding valleys, hike over stunning mountain passes to Machu Picchu, cycle into the Sacred Valley of the Incas and view Amazon wildlife up close. The variety of activities and landscapes on this trip will give you a Peruvian adventure like no other – and an experience you’ll never forget!
For a great way to see Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian salt flats too, combine this trip with our Titicaca and Bolivia 'Chinchilla' - chat to our team to learn how!
Highlights of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The endpoint of the first day’s trek along the Inca Trail, Wayllabamba, which means “grassy plain” in Quechua, is the perfect spot to watch the sunset behind the dramatic Andean peaks. This grassy plain overlooks a stunning spot of Andean scenery, with centuries-old Incan terraces winding through the surrounding mountainsides. There is even a village nearby where travelers can mingle with local villagers.
The Valley of Llulluchapampa
Trekkers will start off the first portion of day two of the journey hiking through the picturesque Valley of Llulluchapampa. As you gradually ascend in altitude, you will even be afforded perfect views of stunning snowcapped cliffs.
This unique oval structure, sometimes colloquially know as the “Egg Hut,” is believed to have been a kind of rest stop for Incan travelers, called a tambo, providing them with a place to spend the night and rest their animals. It is the perfect place to enjoy a mid-hike break and marvel at the beauty of Incan architecture.
First discovered by the famous Hiram Bingham when he wandered along a road extending from Machu Picchu, the dramatic Sayacmarca is situated at a fork in an old Incan road in a dense subtropical forest full of butterflies and hummingbirds. Quechua for “Dominant Town,” these unique ruins have an almost mystical air about them and are arguably the most impressive along the Inca Trail (except for Machu Picchu itself, of course!). It is believed that Sayacmarca was actually built by the Colla, a major enemy of the Incas, and that the Incas took over the site following their conquest of the group.
Dubbed “La Ciudad entre la Niebla” (“The City above the Clouds”), this major archeological site is situated a staggering 3,200 meters above sea level. Apropos to the nickname, Phuyupatamarca is very often surrounded by dense, white clouds. The ruins, dramatically constructed into a steep cliffside, contain five stone baths that fill up with freshwater during the rainy season. It is believed that these baths were used for religious ceremonies. Visitors can also check out the site’s elaborate hydraulic system, a true testament to impressive capabilities of Incan engineering. Of all of the Incan ruins in the region, Phuyupatamarca is arguably the most intact and therefore a truly spectacular site for trekkers passing through.
Huiñay Huayna (Wiñay Wayna)
Huiñay Huayna (traditionally spelled Wiñay Wayna in Quechua, the language of the Incas) was constructed into a steep hillside overlooking the Urubamba River. In addition to the site’s ancient houses and temples, it also boasts an incredibly complex system of Incan terraces, formerly used for agriculture. The name of the site roughly translates to “Forever Young,” and many trekkers report that these ruins are the most beautiful found along the trail.
Find out more about this trip, or book your hike on the Classic Inca Trail today!