The Classic 4-Day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a bucket list standard, and possibly the most famous hike in the world. Its history, abundant nature, expansive views, and ancient ruins never fail to excite the thousands of guests who tackle the trek each year in their attempt to arrive at the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu Citadel much in the same way that people did during the time of the Inca Empire.
The only downside is that the Inca Trail has become so popular over time that access has to be limited to 200 hikers and 300 guides, porters and cooks a day. During the touristic high season of June, July and August it often sells out months in advance. Luckily, there are other wonderful alternative treks to Machu Picchu that boasts equally compelling landscapes and views. (These other treks are a great option for those traveling in February, when the Inca Trail closes for maintenance.)
Those who are interested in doing this trek should look for an agency that is an authorized Inca Trail operator, like our own agency Inca World. If your agency is not an authorized operator, then they are simply passing your reservation on to an agency that is, taking a commission along the way.
During the trek, hikers cover a distance of approximately 45 kilometers at an altitude that climbs from 2,600 and 4,200 meters above sea level. Porters are always used to carry the camping and cooking equipment, with individual hikers generally carrying their own belongings. Even so, the trek, while classified as moderate, can get quite difficult on the second day (during the hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass) and on the third day (during the ascent up the many tiny Incan stone steps of Wiñaywayna). Make it easier on yourself by renting walking sticks (with rubber tips if you want to be permitted to take them into Machu Picchu Citadel) and by acclimatizing in Cusco prior to the hike.
The trail begins at Km 82 along the Urubamba River, which means the trailhead is located 82 kilometers from Cusco, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This spot, where the control post is located, is also known as Qoriwayrachina. The first day is rather moderate, and you’ll see locals from small villages near this section of the trail as they take their animals to pasture.
The most difficult stretch of the trail is on the first half of the second day, which consists of a steep overall climb (with some dips) to Warmiwañusca, Dead Woman’s Pass. This is the highest point along the Inca Trail, and it’s difficult to reach, so you’ll want to rest here to replenish your energy and enjoy the view. From this point onwards, the trail gently descends until the Racaymayu River Valley, where hikers camp for the night.
The most impressive ruins along the trail are seen on the third day, when you’ll see Incan terraces, walk along paved sections of the trail, through a tunnel, and pass the remains of various Incan constructions. There’s Runkuraqay, which appears to have been a tambo (a rest stop for runners on the trail), Sayacmarka, the ruins of a citadel which overlooked Aobamba river valley, and Puyupatamarka, the remains of what appeared to have been ritual baths, whose name means ‘above the clouds’ because it is almost always enveloped by fog. Wiñaywayna is largest and most impressive in construction. There are ritual fountains, agricultural terraces,
On the fourth and final day of hiking the Inca Trail, one walk along an impressive and relatively level paved path from Wiñaywayna through dense wood. After about an hour and a half, one arrives at Intipunku, the Sun Gate. It’s believed to have served as some sort of control post for those entering and exiting Machu Picchu Citadel. At this point, the ruins of Machu Picchu come fully into view, and hikers descend into it. For many, arriving at the Sun Gate is the culminating moment of their trip, as it generally coincides with the sunrise in Machu Picchu. (What’s referred to commonly as the sunrise is actually first light, the moment when the sun can be perceived over the mountain peaks and first hits the ruins- this happens later than the actual sunrise.)