Though only 26 miles from the city of Cusco in Peru, the four day walk up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is arduous thanks to its steep climbs and high altitude.
Doing an unsupported walk you will also have to carry all your gear – food, tents, the lot – for the trek.
Thanks to it being controlled by the national government you will also have to book your trip far in advance to ensure you can do the trek.
If you are properly prepared for the Inca Trail it will be one of the most rewarding and stunning treks you ever do.
You do need to be in peak physical and mental condition to manage it and that is a reward that will last far longer than the trip itself!
Machu Picchu booking
You also need to book tickets to enter the Inca ruins in advance.
If you want to book direct through the Peruvian government website, it costs around £35 per person.
Though the official Machu Picchu website sells tickets, many of these are reserved for tour companies and as such it may be easier to get hold of those – and a slot on the Inca Trail – through a tour company.
Under new rules put in place in 2019, you can only enter Machu Picchu with a tour guide – you cannot wander the site freely.
The new rules also limit your visit to a maximum of four hours.
There is a Machu Picchu museum that is free to access in the afternoon but the bulk of the crowds arrive through the Sun Gate at dawn.
Could you turn up at the Sun Gate at dawn to see what the fuss is about before chilling out until lunchtime and do the ‘afternoon shift’ when it is less busy and the museum, free?
Booking your place on the Inca Trail
It is no longer possible to book a slot on the Inca Trail without going through a tour company – see next section.
You should book your trip at least six months before you go as later you might not get a slot on the trek for a summer trek.
Winter treks can be booked far closer to the time thanks to the inclement weather at that time of year.
The sooner you do book the better.
There is a strict limit of 500 hikers on the Inca Trail at any one time, regulated by the national government of Peru.
That’s roughly 20 people per mile of the route – quite crowded as things go but far less so than it would be if this incredibly popular trek was unregulated.
March-September are the best six months to do the Inca Trail as you will see better weather.
It is possible to do the trail in winter months but you should be ready for some hardcore winter mountain trekking as you go.
Your pack’s lighter and the conditions less severe to go in Spring and summer in short.
Note that the trail is closed every February for conservation work for the whole month.
You MUST use a tour company
Unlike tickets to Machu Picchu, the Peruvian government no longer offers permits through its website.
Only Peruvian tour companies can directly buy permits from the government.
No international company, no matter how large, can access permits directly but must buy from a licensed Peruvian reseller.
Once more it is cheaper to buy direct from a Peruvian company – you can save 20% or more on your final trip by locating one in Cusco.
Your first step in locating one online is to see whether they have EIRL or SAC at the end of the web address.
If you are confident that the firm is Peruvian your next step is to email them direct to see whether they have direct access to the permits from the government.
If they are honest the answer is a simple yes or no.
Locate the right one and you’re on your way.
The bigger international companies will get you the tickets but at greater expense.
However they may get you into a group more easily as a lone traveller.
Tour guides impart their knowledge of the city and the ruins of the other settlements you encounter as you go along the Trail.
These experts aren’t just walking guides – they understand about altitude sickness and can make decisions about your health should you run into trouble.
As well as in some cases carrying your gear tour companies will get you from your home country to the starting point and then experts will take you up the trail.
You can effectively hike it alone but book all your tickets through a third party company.
If you want to be in solitude on an Andean mountainside as you do the trip to Machu Picchu you have the choice of taking a different, less known route to the city – or putting up with the crowds!
We will discuss the alternative routes at the end.
To do the Inca Trail you will need to be at peak physical condition.
The city of Cusco is 3,000 metres above sea level, or roughly three kilometres higher in the atmosphere than New York or London.
At your highest elevation on the Inca Trail you will be above 4,200 metres, or roughly 2.6 miles higher than New York and London’s streets.
This means that there is a lot less oxygen and you need your body to be ready for this.
Can you run a half marathon at a 5 minute mile pace?
If you can do that then you’re heading in the right direction for the fitness levels you need to have to do this walk.
As well as having the stamina and fitness to manage the walk, you may be carrying upwards of 15kg of gear on your back and climbing thousands of cliffside steps as you go.
That means as well as fitness training you need strength training for your legs and core.
Reading this you can probably gather that even if the loud crowds put a dampener on the whole expedition, your physical fitness and strength will be a souvenir that will last far longer than the iPhone you photographed the trip with!
There will be times on the Inca Trail when your body is screaming blue murder and you just want to roll up in a blanket and forget the pain and difficulty.
This is when your mind needs to start making decisions overruling your body.
Though the four day/three night trip is only seven miles or so a day, you will be under stress.
It may help therefore to do things ahead of the trek that take you well out of your comfort zone.
Have you run a half marathon?
That requires a similar fitness level to the Inca Trail and you will find you have to dig in mentally to finish when you want more than anything just to stop.
With some tour companies you may just need a day pack with some home comforts for the trek.
These can limit the amount they carry to 6kg that must include sleeping bag, mat and other stuff that they state they will carry.
If you are doing it ‘self-guided’ you will need a whole host of things for the four days.
You will need much of the list below even if with a tour company – you should consult their requirements before heading off but the list will include:
- Passport (essential to start the trail)
- Decent boots that are worn in from your training
- Socks suitable for your boots
- Sports and standard underwear
- Thermals and gloves
- Layers of clothing for cold and warm spells
- Waterproof layers – it will definitely rain
- Hat for sun and rain
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
- Cooking equipment (alcohol or gas)
- Bug spray
- Once in country, food for the trip
- Water purifying tablets
- Hand sanitiser
- Toilet roll
- Folding shovel
- Sun cream
- Altitude sickness tablets
- First Aid kit/personal medication
- Head torch (for getting around the camp and marching on the Sun Gate)
- Cash – no one takes cards and there are no cash machines
Arrive early to acclimatise
If you’re from a Western nation you’re in for a treat when you arrive in Peru as it is – a very different culture where the hispanics have blended with the indigenous nations.
You will be confronted with a riot of colours, smells and foods that you just could never replicate at home.
Appreciating the culture is one way of getting used to the rarified air on the Inca Trail.
If you arrive at the starting town of Cusco a few days early, at 3,000 metres above sea level your body will start getting used to the oxygen-poor atmosphere.
You may feel a bit sick and dizzy initially but that’s fine – better to feel this a few days before you start the trek than to arrive just in time and to find yourself at 4,200 metres feeling like death warmed up – or literally dying of altitude sickness – when you want to feel wonderful.
There are a number of mountain walks you can do around Cusco so it may pay to get there 3-4 days early and to do some half day treks ahead of the final push to Machu Picchu.
If you do get a couple of days to go walking before the Inca Trail then you can learn about the pace you need to go at on the trek.
Basically you’ll be going at half your sea level pace at best.
Don’t push much harder as your heart, even with all the prep you have made above, probably won’t be able to give much more than that.
The Inca Trail is the classic route from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Did you know that this isn’t the only way there?
One of the most impressive alternatives is the so-called Salcantay trek that takes 5-8 days and many say is a level above the Inca Trail connecting the two cities.
The mule-assisted trek gets as high as 4,600 metres and takes in the recently discovered Inca ruins of Llactapata.
Not far from there you can see the whole of Machu Picchu in all its glory.
One advantage of the alternative routes is that they aren’t regulated by the government (though you are still time limited in Machu Picchu) and can sign up at shorter notice.
They are less crowded than the Inca Trail and you will get to appreciate the high Andes in the solitude and peace so many seek in mountain trekking.
Quite an adventure, eh?
A trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu is an adventure not of a couple of weeks but several months, from preparation to the end of the trek.
As you can see, you won’t just have the great photos of the trek but you will also be in some of the best physical condition you ever achieve just to be fit enough to cross the start line.
That’s quite a reward in itself!