Complete Idiot's Guide to Hiking the Inca Trail

What is "The" Inca Trail?

The "Inca Trail" you read about on the internet is referring to a specific trail in Peru that you hike from the lower altitudes of the Sacred Valley, up through Inti-Punku (Sungate), then down to the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. There are many Inca footpaths in Peru and the Andes Mountains. Most were established hundreds of years ago by the ancient Inca civilization. But there is only one official "Inca Trail" hike. This is the ONLY hike that allows visitors to literally walk into Machu Picchu. All other hikes include a visit of the citadel after the hike concludes. You take the train to Aguas Calientes, then the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu.

People of all ages can hike the 4-day or the 2-day Inca Trail.  The 4-day hike is much more difficult than the 2 day hike. Both hikes require permits which are included in the cost.

There are 2 Official Inca Trail hikes to choose from:

  • 4-Day Inca Trail hike is 26 miles/41 KM total length (also known as Classic Inca Trail)  and includes 3 nights of camping. Permits can be viewed on the official government website.  These usually sell out many months in advance. The highest point is Dead Woman's Pass (approx 14,000 ft/ 4260 m)
  • 2-Day Inca Trail hike is 7.5 miles/12 KM and is also known as the Short or Easy 1-day Inca Trail hike. The highest altitude is 8800 ft/ 2730 m. Permits are required and availability can be viewed on the Machu Picchu government website. Permits rarely sell out and can be purchased last minute. Includes 1 night hotel in Aguas Calientes. (No camping or porter service)

EZ BOOK 2-Day Inca Trail Hike Online

Why are permits required?

The Inca Trail is the only hike that leads into Machu Picchu National Park, so permits are required for both the 2-day and the 4-day hikes. Licensed tour operators will get your permits for you.  Permits are required as a way to control access to Machu Picchu National Park and to limit the number of people on the trails each day.  Note: Permits are available on first-come, first-service basis. We cannot hold permits. Taking reservations now for all dates in 2020.

Can anyone hike the Inca Trail? 

Yes, anyone can hike if you are fit enough to carry a small backpack and hike at altitude. The 4 day hike is divided into a specific distance each day, and each night is at a specified camp. The hiking distance is the same for everyone and the choice of camps are determined by the Peruvian government and the operators. You can hike at your own pace depending on whether you book a group hike or a private hike.

  • The 4 day hike must be completed in 4 days and the 1 day hike must be completed in 1 day.  
  • The hike begins in the Sacred Valley and is one direction only. The Inca Trail cannot be hiked in reverse beginning from Machu Picchu.
  • Porter service is included in the cost of the 4 day hikes. Porters carry all the kitchen equipment, tents and up to 11 lb / 5.5 kg of your personal gear, including your sleeping bag and mattress. (the cost of the hike indicates the level of comfort upgrades: 2 porters for every hiker, small groups, therma-rest mattresses, high quality meals prepared by trained Trail Chef is our minimum standard. Services vary with different operators) Less expensive operators may offer hikes that include 1 porter, and they will expect you to carry your own gear including sleeping bag and mattress.
  • Most hotels have scales to help you weigh your duffle bag before the hike. Duffle bags can be borrowed from the operator.  
  • Permits are required for each hike and you must get your permit from a licensed operator.  You cannot hike the Classic Inca Trail on your own.  
  • Permits cannot be changed, refunded, transferred or cancelled. If you don't show up for your hike, your spot will go empty.
  • Permits for the 4 day hike usually sell out months in advance
  • Permits for the 2 day hike rarely sell out (but could)
  • There's no age limit for hikers.  Here's PARENT CHECKLIST to help you decide if your kids should hike.

Things to know about the Inca Trail hikes and what to be prepared for:  

  • Wide Variations in Cost. All operators have the same fixed costs including permits, entry tickets, buses and trains. Variations in rates for hikes are due to the number of porters provided, the wages for porters and guides, size of groups, and taxes.  We only use experienced guides, we always hire 2 porters per hiker and pay living wages, all our groups are small or private, and we will never ask you to pay for any portion of your trip in cash.  We accept all credit cards and we pay 100% federal and local taxes as specified by law. 
  • Misjudgement of the difficulty. The trail is not a technical hike. Although the terrain has steep switchbacks, uneven stone steps, not to mention paths of rough cobbles, even inexperienced hikers can negotiate the trail. Keep in mind that when combined with altitude, the rough terrain and lack of oxygen can lead to slow progress.  
  • Not enough time to acclimatize before beginning the hike. Package hikes don't include additional days to acclimatize before beginning the hike.  It's up to you to decide how many days you need and where you want to spend them. People who are inexperienced, over the age of 50, or who know they are susceptible to altitude sickness, should plan to arrive in Cusco at least 2 or more days before beginning any multi-day hike.  
  • Poorly prepared. We're not saying you need to have the latest high-tech equipment, but the items most likely to contribute to your discomfort are: inappropriate footwear and poorly designed backpacks that don't distribute the weight of the contents, and overpacking. Backpacks should be as small as possible and we recommend a maximum limit of 24 liters women/28 liters men.
  • Fitness. If you haven't done a multi-day hike in the last 8 months, we recommend that you test drive your stamina with equipment on local hikes before you go. It's not possible for us to send in a car or even a helicopter to pick you up. Once you begin the hike you are committed. Guides are trained to handle health issues or injuries. Guides will not allow you to begin the hike if they feel you are not in good enough shape to finish it.
  • The 2 day hike ends in Machu Picchu. The average hiker takes about 6 hours from KM 104 to get to the citadel. From there you ride the shuttle bus to the village. In case hikers are so slow they don't make it to Machu Picchu by closing (5:30PM) they could miss the last bus to the village. There are no vehicles in the village. The only way to get there is on foot. Which could take another 1-2 hours in the dark. 

If you're concerned about making it on the full 4-day Inca Trail hike, the good news is that most people who begin the hike, finish the hike. It's rare for anyone to turn back. Fortunately, you have choices and for some people, the better option might be the 2-day Inca Trail hike. Call our US office if you'd like to discuss whether or not you should hike the trail. Heather 757-270-9293 and Jacquie 757-714-6649 have hiked both trails.  

Follow this link for information about other things you need to know about Machu Picchu.  What's new? Lots!

Are there any easier hikes?  YES!  In the Sacred Valley there are easy hikes which can be customized to your needs and include support vehicle. No permits needed.  Can be set up last minute.

For kids and seniors or anyone who might hike at a slower pace, here's what you need to know:

  • Unless you live at altitude, you should arrive in Cusco at least 2-3 days prior to starting the hike to allow for acclimatization. There are plenty of tours and activities to do. 
  • You should plan to spend the night before the hike in a hotel in the village of Ollantaytambo. (our first choice hotel is Tunupa, but there are a few others as well. We can book it or you can book it)
  • Average person takes about 6 hours to complete the hike, but we have had a few who barely made it to Machu Picchu before the last bus down to the village. If you don't make it to MP by 5:30 pm and you miss the bus, the only option is to hike another 1.5-2 hours to the village. In the dark. There are no cars or taxis.
  • You must carry a backpack with lunch (we provide), water, rain gear, warm outer wear and everything you need for the overnight. (Or to reduce your load, you can hire a porter to take 1 small carryon size bag by train and deliver to your hotel)
  • We can book the earlier train at 6:10 am to give you more time to hike. This is why it's best to book a hotel in Ollantaytambo close to where the train station is.
  • Once you get on the trail, it is not possible to send a vehicle to pick you up and you cannot turn back.

Contact our US office with questions or to make a reservation. 757-714-6649 (eastern time) 

What is needed to make a reservation and when should we do it:

  • Dates are your choice. You can choose to join a small group any Tuesday, or select any date for your private group if permits are available (min 2)
  • Confirm availability. Contact our US office by phone or email to ask questions or confirm availability - 757-714-6649 (eastern time) 
  • Passports for each person. This is the only document needed. Scan or photograph your passport and send by email
  • Payment. Call our US office 757-714-6649 or 757-270-9293 to process your payment with any major credit card

Hikers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. So don't let those factors influence your decision. If you have doubts, these tips may help you decide:

  • Are you active at home? You don't need to be a "hiker," but you should participate regularly activities that require physical exertion. Could be biking, vigorous walking or jogging, swimming, gardening, or employment that involves lots of movement
  • If you don't have a mountain nearby, test yourself by climbing the steps in a high-rise building. How many floors are you able to climb before becoming exhausted?  If less than 4, then you definitely need to "get in shape!"
  • Can you walk or hike at a steady pace of 3-4 miles per hour at sea level?
  • If you have a "bum" knee or ankle, does it respond to OTC treatments?  The Inca Trail involves ascending and descending, sometimes for hours. Your joints will be tired and even sore. Some hikers use support braces, massage & take oral pain relievers.
  • Healthy children under 12 are physically capable of hiking, but may not have the interest. Assess your child carefully before deciding.
  • Are you over 50? If you regularly participate in physical activities, there's no reason why you can't hike the Inca Trail. We have organized hikes for people in their 70's.
  • If you are out of shape, reserving a hike is a great motivator to get back on track with your fitness goals.
  • Altitude affects everyone differently and there is no way to acclimatize in advance when arriving from sea level.  All our hiking tour packages start with 2 days in Cusco (11,000 ft/3413 m) to allow acclimatization prior to hiking.  If you're making your own arrangements, be sure to schedule time to adjust to the altitude.  The good news is that the altitude at the trail head is 9000' /2743 m, which is lower than Cusco 11,000' /3350 m.
  • If you're hiking the 2-day trail, there is a time limit for the hike.  The day begins by driving about 1.5 hours from your hotel in Cusco to the train station in Ollantaytambo. We normally book trains around 7:45 am.  This means you get on the trail about 1.5-2 hours later.  And you must be through the exit gate at Machu Picchu by 5:30 pm to get the last shuttle bus down to the village where your hotel is located. There are no cars or taxi service. The walk to the village is 1-2 hours. But it's mostly downhill!

All our group hikes are small. 5 people or less. We guarantee your reservations.  Even if no one else signs up, you could have a private hike. Solo travelers can join our small groups on Tuesdays as long as permits are available.

This is a list of people who should definitely not hike the Inca Trail:

  • Anyone who has difficulty walking, whether it be on flat surfaces or inclines.
  • People over the age of 70 unless they are dedicated hikers at home.
  • People with chronic health conditions that affect their mobility or activity level.
  • Pregnant women should not hike. There are no medical services available near the trail.  

Got questions? Call our US office in Virginia 757-714-6649
Send an email to Adios staff in the US office. We've hiked all the trails in Peru.