Everything You Need to Know About Hiking the Inca Trail
Hiking the Inca Trail is without doubt one of the highlights of a trip to Peru. In fact it’s probably one of the world’s most famous hikes. If you fancy the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful mountains, lush cloud forest and remote villages on the way to the stunning ruins of the famed Incan city, then this is a journey you should undertake. There’s certainly a mystique about hiking to the ruins of a civilization passed.
There are actually a number of overlapping trails that go to Machu Picchu. The Classic Inca Trail, the most popular route, starts 82 kilometres from Cuzco along the railway line at about 2800m in altitude. It treks high into the mountains passing other Incan ruins along the way, covering 45km in four days. The idea is to arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise on the fourth day, entering through the Sun Gate.
Some companies allow you to lengthen or shorten this by either including visits to other ruins or starting further along the railroad and cutting through to join the trail further along.
Because this route is often booked out, you may wish to consider some of the following alternatives. The Mollepata Trail is one route, starting in the highland village of Mollepata and taking about five days, four nights to reach Machu Picchu. It joins the classic Inca route on the fourth day at Wayllabamba. This is sometimes referred to as the Salkantay Trek and there are variations of it with extensions of up to seven days. The trail reaches higher altitudes than the Classic route but the views are superb.
Another longer option is The Choquequirao from Cachora to Machu Picchu, a rugged, 12-day trek. It visits smaller Incan sites and Quechua villages along the way. Or you could do the Lares Trek, a three-day route from Lares that does reach high altitudes but allows for more interaction with the people and culture of the region.
The best time to hike the Inca Trail is between May and September when it’s relatively dry, although June and August are particularly busy and should be avoided if possible. Given the altitude and conditions, you’re best to avoid the rainy season altogether. The trail is closed in February for maintenance.
The Peru government requires all people visiting Machu Picchu to be part of a guided tour. They also limit the number of people on the trail to 500 per day and have restricted the number of companies, but there are still plenty of options to choose from.
When selecting a tour/agency compare the options carefully. There will be an array of options and varying prices but expect to pay about US $400 or more for a well-organized trek on the Classic Inca Trail. Prices will vary dependent on how many people are in the group, how many you will share a tent with, how many porters are provided, what you need to carry and what food and gear they offer. Generally expect to have about 15-20 people plus porters, cooks and guides.
Also make sure you understand what the service fees include. For example most should include transport to the start of the trek and return to Cuzco, entrance fees, the guides, tent, food, porters and some first aid. Factor also into the costs that you will probably need to tip the porters, guide and cook and you may like to buy water or snacks along the way.
Groups depart every day for Machu Picchu so there are plenty of options, however you should book in as far in advance as possible. If you need to do this in your own country before you get to Peru, just make sure you choose a reputable, well-known company. Treks purchased directly in Cuzco will probably give you better value for money.
Items you will need to provide yourself include good hiking shoes, a torch (flashlight) and a quality four-season sleeping bag. Even during the summer months it can get pretty cold on the trail because you are climbing to high altitude and mist often blankets the mountains. So pack plenty of warm clothes, although layers are better than thick bulky jackets.
The Inca treks can be quite arduous so some level of fitness is recommended, although kids and seniors do make it all the time. If in doubt get out your stairmaster or simply start walking before you come. You should also allow a few days in Cuzco to acclimatize before setting out. Cuzco itself is 3326m (10, 910ft) and you will climb even higher before reaching the Incan city (2430m). If you know you have problems in altitude, rest well beforehand and keep hydrated along the way, this may help prevent the onset of sickness.
Hopefully the only hardships you suffer will be the trek through the jungle itself. Just remember too that at the end of it all is the stunning Incan city itself with ruins, tunnels and paving stones to explore.