Is hiking the Inca Trail worth it
Wander Healthy

Is hiking the Inca Trail worth it? In a single word, yes! The Inca Trail is an amazing and famous trekking route in Peru, South America. It’s an ancient trail built by the Incas, an indigenous civilization that flourished in the Andean region of South America from the 13th to the 16th centuries.

The Inca Trail is most well-known for leading to the historic site of Machu Picchu, which is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Machu Picchu was an important Inca citadel and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Beyond the natural and historical wonders, hiking the Inca Trail is also a physical and mental challenge. The trail stretches for approximately 26 miles (42 kilometers) over varied terrain, including steep ascents and descents, high-altitude passes, and uneven stone steps.

The journey requires stamina, determination, and perseverance. Overcoming these physical and mental obstacles can be immensely rewarding, leaving a lasting sense of accomplishment and personal growth.

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Is the Inca Trail Worth it?

Absolutely yes. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a brilliant adventure, with breathtaking views, unique cultural immersion, and extraordinary historical significance.

While you can take a bus to see Machu Picchu, the experience of hiking there is everything. We chose to take a private, guided tour with friends, and chose the classic Inca Trail hike.

You’re required to hike with a guide under current, 2023, regulations and they take care of everything for you including Inca Trail permits. There are a variety of different options, in terms of time and expense.

We went with the Inca Trail 4 day itinerary, as it seemed a good compromise between all the options.

Inca Trail: 26 miles, highest point: 14,828 feet, 4 days

I was 10 years old the last time I did a 26 miler, the Alaskan Equinox, and I did it in a single day. It seemed fitting to add three more days to that number since I was somehow three decades older. Anxious, uncertain, nervous and excited.

My concerns were mostly trivial but existed nonetheless, even in my dreams leading up to the trip: shower-less for four days, the bathroom ‘situation,’ eating meat I considered pet-worthy.

I was eager to get going though, to see what the week would hold. I had read so much about this hike I almost felt like I had already done it. Except I didn’t know what it felt like.

Day 1 of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The flat beginning of the Inca Trail with cacti on either sides of the trail

Day1: 8.6 miles, 1900 feet elevation gain

I taped my toes for the day ahead, thinking it’s probably not necessary but do I dare take the chance? I was sure to get blisters in places I don’t or can’t tape, but not the first day. Day 1 was supposed to be an easy hike, through the rolling hills of Cusichaca Valley.

We were picked up early in the morning in Cusco by our guide and driven to the trailhead. The starting point of the trail, known as km 82, is located near Ollantaytambo, which is a prominent feature of most tours in the Sacred Valley due to its impressive ancient ruins.

These ruins, consisting of vast terraces, hold historical significance as the site of a significant Inca triumph over Spanish colonizers and are considered one of the country’s most important landmarks.

It may come as a surprise that the Inca Trail we typically refer to when discussing this adventure is just one among several trails that traversed the entire Incan Empire, extending from Ecuador in the North to Chile in the South.

Starting off slow is a good way to start the trip, I thought, so that they could assess what sort of hikers we were and what the next four days would hold for all of us.

Trekking tip #1 –  if you value the aesthetic and functional properties of your feet, try to hike in shoes made for hiking.

Wise words from our guide service. Yet some of the porters were wearing Birkenstocks. Though they are not tourists, and possibly not human either. I had heard of the stamina of these guys and was planning to be impressed repeatedly throughout the journey.  

They say that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Here was the end of mine. And so the beginning I guess.  Dana, Krystal, Matt and I. I have known Krystal since I was 14. She lived in Florida at the time of this hike, and participated in triathalons in her spare time.  

Dana, Krystal’s friend and soon to be mine, is a chiropractor in Florida and I would soon learn, one of the funniest people walking this planet. Matt, my husband, who loves adventures as much as I. And myself in the middle.

We followed the path of the Riobamba river for some time. The air was dry and the bugs numerous. Talking was unwise yet we did it anyway, digesting a full meal in protein even before breakfast.  

Our guide was full of information about everything we see in every direction. This plant is a natural insect repellent, this one produces a powerful hallucinogen, that one draws hummingbirds. The next is a steak plant.

The guide company treats their porters well, but they very clearly earn their pay. Some wore flip flops, some wore pinstripe suit pants, but they all worked hard. All day and even after they carried their load to its daily destination.

Their packs were not supposed to weigh more than 50 pounds. There is an enormous range of respect for porters as people, as employees, and many from other guide services are taken advantage of. Ours were happy and it showed.

We stopped for breakfast soon after getting started. It was inside, but outside, and the temperature was about 45 degrees or so. Refreshing and miserable at the same time.

It became strikingly clear that coffee snobs, I mean enthusiasts, would have issues. I decided to switch from coffee to tea for the next several days. Good bye, good coffee.

Hello Scorpions. Wind of Change, plays on the pan flute while we eat breakfast. Perfect. Charming really.

Krystal walked at a slow, measured pace, determined not to add sweat to the list of hygiene issues resulting from the lack of a shower in the days to come. At least not on the first day. Progress was slow for me as well, as I stopped every few minutes to take a photo.

We rested for a 4-course gourmet lunch. Because food matters. We were hungry and tired and not quite ourselves. We had arrived in Cusco two days in advance, to partially acclimate to the altitude and I think it was just enough time for jetlag to catch up with us.

A nap would not have been un-welcome but since we had really only just started I was not inclined to bring it up.

The trail was dotted with well-preserved ruins, terraces, and temples that evoke a sense of wonder and admiration for the ingenuity of this lost civilization. Each site tells a story, allowing you to immerse yourself in the rich history and traditions of the Incas.

We passed by the Inca site of Llactapata, The ruins are unbelievably fascinating. Our guide, Edwin, took us back in time, to get a true sense of what life was like for the Incan people.

The name “Llactapata” translates to “High Town” or “Town at the Heights” in Quechua, the language of the Inca civilization. The site is situated on a ridge between the Urubamba and Aobamba valleys.

Llactapata was a strategic outpost and agricultural center for the Inca Empire. The main structures at Llactapata consist of terraces, platforms, and buildings made of stone. They were constructed using impressive Inca architectural techniques, such as precise stone fitting without mortar.

We camped the first night, at Ayapata (10, 829 ft). The porters had our tents set up when we arrived, they clapped in unison as we entered the campsite, congratulating us for surviving this first, relatively easy day.

Adding cheerleaders to their already lengthy list of job duties. I was beginning to think of them the same way I regarded teachers at that point and wondered if there was anything they were not responsible for.

We sat down to a 4-course feast by our chef, Fernando, with banana flambes for dessert. Some of the foods were not recognizable.

Edwin explained, in all seriousness, that one of the ingredients of our avocado dream dish from heaven is guinea pig cheese. This was the first sign we had of his delightfully subtle sense of humor. He told us that some people don’t even question this comment.

So when he warned of mosquitos the next day, whose name means mosquito that makes pumas cry, we couldn’t help but wonder if it was really true.

Blister count: 0. Hummingbird count: 7

DAY 2 of the Inca Trail Tour

Dead Woman's Pass

10 miles, up, down and partway up and down a second mountain pass

Clearly defined as the hardest day of the trek. Dead Woman’s Pass, 13779 ft. The name takes on real meaning on the way up.

And steps. A death march, with three hours of stair climbing to the top. It was not the legs that ached, but the breath that was slow to catch up. Harder the higher up we went.  My thoughts along the way were mixed.

I counted steps before pausing for air, telling myself that it’s okay not to be okay. I had hiked Mt Saint Helens and Mt Fuji in the last few months, in training for this hike. But hiking at altitude requires a downward shift in expectations.  

All the hikers supported each other, playing hiking leapfrog on the way up.  Feeling, and needing, the support of the entire universe today.

Is the Inca Trail Difficult?

Steps of the Inca Trail

The trail is goatworthy without a doubt. It was clear Matt had been doing something right in his training and preparation. While not hiking often, he had been working out nearly every day of his life up to that point. Maybe that was it. The rest of us tried not to look like we’re trying so hard.

The coca plant seemed to be a staple in Peru. The source for cocaine, it’s chewed, brewed and celebrated. It’s also supposed to help with altitude sickness and provide energy to some degree.

Edwin explained how to make the most of its supportive and regenerative powers. It seemed appropriate given our environment, our goals for the day and that it was also illegal back home. Welcome to the jungle.

There are no words or pictures to describe the beauty, the difficulty or the feeling upon reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, alive. We could have been done right there, the hike complete.

But we were not. A steep drop of 2600 feet, then up again 1400 more feet and down again to sleep at an elevation of 11800.

Hiking tip #2: When faced with miles of irregular stone stairs, up or down, a zig zag pattern is the slowest, steadiest and surest way to get where you want to go.

There was slightly less talking on this day, more breathing, more thinking. A lot more breathing.  I survived the vaccinations however, so felt confident I could handle two hours of hard stone steps. The Gringo killer. Down 3300 feet of steps. Brutal.

Our campsite the second night was at Chaquicocha 11800ft. My overall impression of the hardest day of our hike: Adventuring is insanely addictive.  

Is the Inca Trail Worth it

Blister count: 0, though I could no longer feel the tips of my toes. Hummingbird count: 23

Day 3 of Hiking the Inca Trail

Mountain views along the Inca Trail

Less than 6 fairly flat miles

We had a short distance to cover along what is known as the Inca Flats (gentle ascents and descents) and spectacular views of the Andes in the distance.

Disconnected – the adjective for our third day. Being out in the middle of nowhere had become second nature for all of us. We were alone and we were as one, together. Everyone should experience the soul satisfying joy of trekking, at least once in their lives.

With visits to 2 Inca sites (Phuyupatamarca and Winay Wayna) this was by far one of the most impressive days of the trek. The Incans were stunning engineers.

The name “Phuyupatamarca” translates to “Town above the Clouds” in Quechua, indicating its lofty, mesmerizing position in the Andes Mountains.

One of the remarkable features of Phuyupatamarca is its strategic location, providing panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Due to its position, the site served as a control point along the Inca Trail, regulating access to the sacred site of Machu Picchu.  served as a resting place for travelers.

The site’s design and layout demonstrate the Inca’s advanced engineering skills. Water played a significant role in the Inca culture, and the elaborate water channels and fountains at Phuyupatamarca may have held symbolic and ritualistic importance.

Hiking tip #3: if you are guaranteed to need one hiking stick, two is always a good idea

Our campsite for the third night was at Winay Wayna (8792ft) which we arrived to early in the afternoon and got to have an extended guided tour of once we have settled in.

Winay Wayna is another remarkable Inca archaeological site. The name “Winay Wayna” translates to “Forever Young” or “Eternal Youth” in Quechua, the language of the Inca civilization. It is situated along the final stages of the Inca Trail, just before reaching Machu Picchu.

The architectural layout of Winay Wayna is impressive and showcases the skillful craftsmanship of the Inca civilization. The site contains multiple stone buildings, plazas, fountains, stairways, and ceremonial structures.

The structures are built with precision, with stones carefully cut and fitted without the use of mortar, a characteristic feature of Inca architecture.

Winay Wayna also possesses a sophisticated water management system. It has several channels and fountains that demonstrate the Inca’s mastery of hydraulic engineering. The fountains were likely used for ritualistic and ceremonial purposes, emphasizing the importance of water in Inca culture.

Blister count: 0. Hummingbird count: too many to count, making it my favorite day so far.

Day 4, The Sun Gate and Machu Picchu

Climbing to the sun gate at Machu Picchu

Nearly flat, 3.5 miles

Up at 3:00 a.m., with coca tea brought to us in bed and a 2 hour hike to see the sunrise at the Sun Gate, losing 900 feet in elevation.

Hand over hand up; it seems like the last push is always the most demanding. Dr. Dana popped Krystal’s leg back into place the night before (ouch), taping it as well and it makes all the difference in her pace.

Tip #4: always bring a doctor or nurse with you if possible while hiking.

The Sun Gate, also known as Inti Punku in Quechua (the language of the Incas), is a significant and iconic feature of Machu Picchu.  

The Sun Gate served as the main entrance to the citadel of Machu Picchu during the time of the Incas. Passing through the Sun Gate was an important moment for pilgrims and visitors as they entered the sacred site.

The Incas had a deep connection with celestial bodies and placed great importance on the sun. The Sun Gate was strategically positioned to align with the sunrise during the winter solstice, which held cultural and agricultural significance for the Incas.

The sun’s rays would pass through the gate, illuminating the path and marking the beginning of a new agricultural cycle.

Visiting the Sun Gate is an integral part of the Machu Picchu experience, offering a glimpse into the ancient world and providing a sense of awe and wonder.  

This iconic archaeological site is a testament to the Inca Empire’s magnificence and provides a sense of mystery and wonder. As hikers emerge from the Inti Punku (Sun Gate), they are greeted with the awe-inspiring sight of Machu Picchu, nestled amidst the rugged mountains.

The sight of this enigmatic city, shrouded in mist and surrounded by lush greenery, is nothing short of breathtaking. Edwin guided us through the city, filling our heads with images of life and death from centuries past.

Once at Machu Picchu, we were no longer a small group of five alone in the world.

Machu Picchu

Countless tourists who rode the bus up looked at us, or possibly smelled us, with obvious disdain. The crowds and noise were too much too soon. It was exhausting on its own.

After exploring for a few hours amidst the crowds, we escaped for another hike. Just across the way there, to another unforgettable story in itself.

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What to Do for Hiking the Inca Trail

Llamas on the Inca Trail
  • Choose a reliable and licensed tour operator that follows responsible and sustainable practices. They will arrange logistics, provide knowledgeable guides, and ensure a well-organized trek.
  • The Inca Trail is a challenging trek, so it’s important to be in good physical condition. Engage in regular exercise and consider acclimatizing to the altitude before the trek.
  • Bring essential items such as appropriate hiking gear, comfortable clothing, sturdy footwear, a backpack, rain gear, sun protection, and insect repellent. It’s essential to pack light and carry only what you need.
  • Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated throughout the trek. Consume nutritious meals to maintain your energy levels.
  • The Inca Trail is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Preserve its beauty by not littering, staying on designated paths, and respecting any rules or regulations. Do not remove or damage any artifacts or archaeological structures.
  • Listen to your guide’s instructions regarding safety, trekking pace, and any important information about the trail. They have local expertise and knowledge.
  • Book in advance, 6 months if possible. There is a limit on how many people are allowed to trek. 500 people per day, including hikers, guides and porters.

What Not to Do Hiking the Inca Trail

  • Don’t hike without a guide. It’s mandatory to hike the Inca Trail with an authorized guide. Unauthorized trekking is not permitted to protect the site and ensure visitor safety.
  • Don’t rush or overexert yourself. Pace yourself during the trek. Take breaks, acclimatize to the altitude, and listen to your body. Rushing or overexerting yourself can lead to altitude sickness or injuries.
  • Don’t litter. Keep the trail clean and carry your trash with you until you reach designated disposal areas. Dispose of waste responsibly and help maintain the pristine environment.
  • Don’t stray from designated paths. Stay on the established trails and avoid wandering off into restricted or sensitive areas. This protects the environment and prevents damage to the archaeological sites.
  • Don’t ignore altitude sickness symptoms. Altitude sickness can be a risk on the Inca Trail due to the high elevation. If you experience symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, or shortness of breath, inform your guide immediately.

I recommend Safety Wing Travel Insurance, which provides insurance up to 14,763 feet (4500 meters). For higher elevations, World Nomads, link below, is the way to go.

FAQs

Campsite on the Inca Trail
Where does the Inca Trail start?

Km 82 is the starting point for the classic four-day Inca Trail trek that leads to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

Can you hike the Inca Trail without a guide?

No, guides are now required to hike the Inca Trail as of 2023.

Can a beginner hike the Inca Trail?

While a beginner can hike the Inca Trail, it’s not recommended. The trail requires strength and stamina, so unless the beginner is in excellent shape from other activities, it’s probably best to build experience first.

What are the cons of the Inca Trail?

If you enjoy being in nature, the only disadvantages of hiking the Inca Trail are the time it takes to get there and the expense involved.

What is the success rate of the Inca Trail?

The success rate of the Inca Trail is over 90%, as the difficulty is spread out over a number of days.

How difficult is the Inca Trail trek?

The Inca Trail is considered a moderate level hike in difficulty. While there are some sections that are far more difficult than others, most of it is fairly easy.

Final Thoughts: Is the Inca Trail Worth it?

Hiking into a tunnel on the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Peruvian Andes. It’s an unforgettable journey through stunning landscapes, ancient ruins, culminating in the awe-inspiring sight of Machu Picchu.

It’s an experience that leaves a profound impact on just about anyone, fostering a deep appreciation for the wonders of the world and the resilience of the human spirit.

  • Things I didn’t need to bring: food, three coats
  • New things: coffee mixed with hot chocolate, coca leaves and tea, Pisca sour
  • Things I’m thankful for: new and old friends, they didn’t serve guinea pig on our trek