An Idiot’s Guide to Hiking the Inca Trail

The Incas built a highly advanced network of nearly 40,000km of trails to connect the distant corners of their vast empire that stretched from Quito in Ecuador down to Santiago in Chile. Cusco was at the heart of this great empire. Almost all roads and paths in the mountains surrounding Cusco were built by the Incas. However, a particularly beautiful 43km section of mountain trail connecting the important Inca archaeological sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Winay Wayna, and Machu Picchu, has become popular with hikers in the past few decades – and this is what is known as the “Inca Trail”!

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Access to the Inca Trail is strictly controlled and only authorised trekking companies are allowed to sell passes for this trek. All guides on the Inca Trail must be licensed and only a limited number of trekking permits are issued and must be purchased several months in advance.

The Classic 4-day Inca Trail can be hiked year round, although the months of April-October are more comfortable, as the weather is drier. The 4 day Inca Trail is closed each year during the month of February to allow conservation work to take place. Prices for the 4 day trek start at $500USD per person for a basic service (including entrance fees and return on train). This should be sufficient for most backpackers. Purchasing the trek directly with a local tour operator in Cusco can often be less than half the price of buying the trek before you get to Peru.

Cusco in Peru is a nice little town
Cusco in Peru is a nice little town

My Idiot’s Guide refers to the Classic Inca Trail which starts at a place known as “Km82” (so called because it is located 82 kilometers along the railway line between Cusco and Machu Picchu). It usually takes 4 days to do this trek arriving at the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu for sunrise on the fourth day (hence referred to as the Classic 4 day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek). 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 4,200m are reached, so ensuring that you are well acclimatised is important. If arriving from sea level, plan to spend at least 2 full days in Cusco prior to commencing the trek.

The starting point of everyone's 4 day trek!
The starting point of everyone’s 4 day trek!

Day 1 (12km): Travellers are collected early from their hotels (4-5am) and travel by bus, through the picturesque villages of Chinchero, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, for the 3 1/2 hour scenic trip to 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 hill fort 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 7km, 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.

Day 2 (11km): Climbing up from Wayllabamba for about 3 hours through steepening woods and increasingly spectacular terrain brings you to the tree line and a meadow known as Llulluchapampa (3,680m). It is another 1 1/2 hours climb to the first and highest pass of the trail (Abra de Huarmihuanusca 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 descent 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).

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Day 3 (16km): 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.

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You have to backtrack a little to re-join the trail, as it passes Conchamarca, a small dwelling situated in the shadows of Sayacmarca. From then on the path descends into magnificent cloud forest 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 (6,271m) 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.

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Leaving the site via an impressive staircase leading from the west side of the ruins (the far end from the baths), you descend a thousand or so steps. After about an hour of walking through cloud forest you may just be able to see the tin roof of the Trekkers Hostel at Winay Wayna, although it probably won’t be for another 2 hours until you arrive. The Trekkers Hostel certainly isn’t considered one of Peru’s best-looking hotels. It is also usually crowded and cramped, but it is the last official campsite before Machu Picchu, hence it is always full. There is, however, a restaurant where you can purchase food, drinks, and even a well deserved beer, as well as hot showers and toilets. Most people camp here but there are dormitory beds available in the hostel (book in advance) – or you can even sleep of the floor for a Dollar!

Winay Wanya
Winay Wanya

A short trail leaves from the southern end of the hostel to the ruins of Winay 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 centre 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 wonders of Machu Picchu await you - but can you afford it?!
The wonders of Machu Picchu await you

Day 4 (6km): The trail from the hostel to Machu Picchu is clearly marked and takes about 1 1/2 hours. Most people attempt to wake up at 4.30am so that they can leave Winay 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 cloud forest 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 and a just reward for your endeavours!

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