Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Your next adventure: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Where in the world?: Peru
Activity: Hiking, Tramping
Difficulty: A lot of people are put off this amazing trip due to the amount of walking and the passes involved. Although the walk is strenuous at times, you have plenty of time to complete it and many opportunities to rest.
Wrap up: One of the world's best historical treks, you'll be wowed by the Inca paving stones, ruins and tunnels while travelling through lush cloud forests, jungle and mountainous scenery before reaching the breathtaking site of Machu Picchu, the 'Lost City of the Incas'. There's really nothing that compares.
A bit about the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail follows the cobble stone paths to the once lost citadel of Machu Picchu. In 1911, Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu and in recent times it has become one of the world's classic treks.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is just one small part of an extensive Inca system of trails covering more than 23,000 kilometres that integrated the Tahuantinsuyo Empire that covered Colombia, the west of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, to the centre of Chile and the north of Argentina. These trails tended to be principally on the coast or in the mountains but in a few cases they reached the tropical edge of the jungle.
Essentially the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a 45km mountainous jungle hike, which can be done easily in 4 days. Many tour operators also offer a shorter 2-day 'light' hike option. Regardless of which option you choose, you will arrive at Machu Picchu at daybreak on the final day of your trip with plenty of time to explore the ruins, before returning to Cusco by train in the late afternoon. Alternatively, you can opt to spend the night at Agua Calientes, take in the hot pools and catch the train back to Cusco the following morning (recommended!).
Any reasonably fit person should be able to complete the 4-day hike. On day 2 of the hike, you will go over Abra de Huarmihuañusca (Dead Woman's Pass), the highest point of the route at an altitude of 4200m. Here you will be rewarded with a sense of achievement and amazing views of the Peruvian Andes.
Both the 2 and 4 day hikes will meet at the final campsite Wiñaywayna, where things can get crowded depending on the time of the year. Wiñaywayna is a serviced stop which means you will be able to get a cold beer or Inca Cola and have a shower if you choose.
On the final day you will set of from Wiñaywayna campsite before sunrise. The trail contours the mountainside and drops into cloud forest before reaching the final pass at Intipunku (Sun Gate). Suddenly (cloud cover permitting) you will get spectacular views the entire city - a fantastic sight for all.
From the Sun Gate it is a short hike to the ruins where you can begin to wander around in amazement at the Incan architecture.
How to get on the trail
The Peruvian government requires all visitors hiking the Inca Trail to go with a licensed tour operator. Like most places in the world, you will get what you pay for. Cheap / budget operations often rely on sub standard equipment, unreliable transportation and bad quality food and guides. This doesn't mean that you have to pay exuberant amounts for the trip. Do a little research, talk to the company or even better chat to people who have used them previously (travelers rarely lie about their experiences with a tour operator).
You can organise the trek from within Cusco a few days before you plan to depart, though you'll need to have some flexibility with your dates if you do it this way. Please check in with local authorities for up to date information on permits and availability.
Once arriving at Machu Picchu, take a few hours to wonder around this astounding city. Immerse yourself in the different sections of the city, which have very unique constructions based on the social class and its uses.
Most tours will offer a guided walk around the ruins with plenty of time for you to explore on your own.
A must see is the overview of Machu Picchu from its close neighbour Huayna Picchu. After a short, steep climb, you will be rewarded with astounding views of Machu Picchu and the Urubamba Valley, and witness some of the most breathtaking examples of Incan architecture.
Some tips you'll be glad you read before going
A lot of people are put off this amazing trip due to the amount of walking and the passes involved. Although the walk is strenuous at times, you have plenty of time to complete it and many opportunities to rest.
If you are planning to hike the Inca Trail, make
sure you have a good pair of walking boots – that have been broken in – with a
few pairs of hiking socks, a good fleece jacket and a waterproof rain jacket. Throw in some thermal baselayers to be sure you can sleep at night!
A warm sleeping bag is a must. Either down or synthetic will work, but it should be rated to at least 0ºC. A sleeping bag liner is a fantastic way to keep you bag clean, and to increase its temperature rating by a couple of degrees.
Water is sourced from local streams and due to a lot of human traffic, must be purified. Any water purification type will do. Iodine tablets are an easy and inexpensive way to purify water, however results in an unpleasant taste. Pack in a couple of 'powdered juice' packets and add it to your purified water to mask the taste.
A good head torch is a must! Since the final day of the trip starts in darkness a head torch is indispensable. Hand torches are not ideal, as you will need to have your hands free to navigate the sometimes-narrow path.
PACK LIGHT! No matter what operation you choose, someone (you or a porter) will have to carry all of the equipment from camp to camp.
You will be expected to tip at the end of the trip. Check with your operator for a 'suggested' amount and don't be shy to tip what you think is appropriate. A great alternative is to take old thermals, fleeces, beanies and gloves that you no longer use and give them to the porters and guides as well. This is just as beneficial for their work, but extremely hard (and expensive) to source from within Peru.
When to go and what to expect
Peruvian climate features two seasons:
- Dry season (May / June - September)
- Wet season (October - April)
During the wet season temperatures are often warmer, and the mountainsides are lush with vegetation. In the dry season the high Andean countryside is characterised by gold and brown colors, contrasted by clear blue skies. Two pretty great choices!
While there is some rain in the dry season, it is not generally enough to impede hiking, but the skies tend to be overcast, misty, and sweeping views of the ranges may be hard to find. Rainfall can occur at any time of the year and mountain weather can change dramatically and extremely quickly.
If you had to take a gamble, May, at the end of the wet season might be the best month to hike. Daytime temperatures can vary greatly, from about 10ºC to 30ºC with nighttime temperatures from 10ºC down to around freezing. During the month of February authorities close the Inca trail for repairs and conservation.
Cesar Piotto! Cesar was born in Brasil and later migrated to Australia with his family. After spending his 16th birthday in Hungary as an exchange student, the travel bug bit and there was no turning back. Having traveled extensively through South America including having lived and worked in Brasil, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, Cesar continues to be wondered by his home continent.
Thank you, Cesar for sharing your Inca insights with the MD community!
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