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Hike the Inca Trail | The Classic Machu Picchu Experience

Machu Picchu must be on everyone’s to do list and the Inca Trail is probably the most exhilarating way to get there.  Follow the route of the Inca’s through wild countryside past some of the most impressive archeological sites in the world.  After three days and three nights on the fourth day you reach The Lost City of the Inca’s and for us this was the most emotional experience of our South American adventure so far.  A truly magical place that penetrates deep into your imagination and touches your soul.

Machu Picchu is not the name the Inca people would of know it as, that name has been lost to history as no evidence of a written language has ever been found.  The site is named after the mountain it sits under in the Andes Mountains of Peru above the Urubamba River valley close to the town of Agua Caliente.

Even though Machu Picchu is known as The Lost City of the Incas it was never actually lost.  When Hiram Bingham found the site in 1911 there were a number of people living amongst the ruined buildings.  Seemingly he was led there by an eleven year old local boy.  Nine years before, a Peruvian farmer named Agustín Lizárraga, is said to have visited the site and could have a claim to being the first although the American explorer was the first person to bring the site to the public attention.

Machu Picchu Inca site
Machu Picchu Inca site

What is the Classic Inca trail?

The Classic Inca trail is a multi day hike done over four days and three nights ending in the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.  The hike covers a total of forty five kilometres and reaches an altitude of 4200m.  The whole trail has a limit of five hundred people a day including guides and porters and cannot be done independently.  It has to be booked in advance through a registered tour company.

What is the best time to do the Classic Inca trail?

Generally speaking, the best time of year to hike the Inca trial is between May and October as this corresponds to the dry season.  June to September are the busiest months with tickets selling out months in advance.  February the trail is shut for maintenance for the whole month.  Our pick would be May or the end of September beginning of October.  These are the shoulder months and the chance is it will be slightly quieter and the weather is still good.  Having said that it’s still important to book well in advance.

Inca Trail Map
Map Courtesy of Alpaca Expeditions

How to book and what to pay for the Inca Trail?

Permits for the Inca Trail are usually released mid October the year before and generally the most popular months sell out very quickly.  You can check availability here.  The cost depends on the tour operator you choose and if you want a group or a private trek.  The average price for a group trek seems to be around $695 and for a private tour over $1000 and that’s just for the basic package.  There are add ons you can choose and items you can hire that will increase the cost.

For example, we hired sleeping bags and thicker blow up matts to sleep on.  You can also hire walking poles and a private porter to carry your day bag.  You can also buy various extensions to the Machu Picchu visit itself and we climbed Huayna Picchu which is not included in the standard package.  This is an add on and cost $70.00  You can also upgrade your train tickets on the way back after the trek.

We would always recommend that you book directly with the tour operator themselves and not through a third party booking agent. It will never be cheaper and could end up costing you a whole lot more.  There’s nothing worse than finding out that someone on your trek has paid a lot less for the exact same experience. 

Altitude sickness & acclimatisation for the Inca Trek.

We can’t really do a post about a trek at this altitude without mentioning the risk of altitude sickness.  If you’re coming straight to Cusco from sea level  the altitude is going to be a bit of a shock to the system.  You may get symptoms ranging from a mild headache to something much worse that could mean you having to cancel your trip which is something best avoided.

Most experts would advise you spend at the least two days to acclimatise before going above 2500m and as Cusco is at 3400m this means trying to avoid flying directly in from sea level.  If you have to then make sure you leave yourself enough time to rest before doing the Inca Trek.  We had come from Huaraz and spent five days in Cusco before the trek so we were well used to the height.  The trek starts from 2720m and then climbs on the first day back up to the same altitude as Cusco so if you’ve spent two to three days in the city you should be ok.

Drink plenty of water on the trail and let someone know straight away if you start to feel ill.  The most important thing to remember is that it’s not a race, this is your time, it’s your adventure of a life time.  Don’t rush, take it easy, relax and enjoy it.  Don’t push yourself to hard and more than likely you’ll be fine.

Patallacta Inca Site
Patallacta Inca Site

Packing list, what to take on the Inca Trek?

The porters as you will find out are super human and they carry most of your stuff.  You only need to carry what you will need for that days hike.  There is a limit though the porters are rightly limited to what they are allowed to carry so each hiker is only allowed to give the porter seven kilograms of equipment and this includes your sleeping bag and mat.  Roughly speaking this leaves you about three and a half kilograms of your own stuff.  After that you either hire another porter at your own cost or carry it yourself.  Try and keep it to an absolute minimum the lighter you are the happier you’ll be.

You will need to carry your own water which is heavy. We were advised to carry two to three litres of water per session. We went to the bottom end of this as you can fill up with fresh drinking water at breakfast and lunch so you don’t need to carry a full days water.  On the first two days you can also buy drinks along the route.

In the mornings it is quite cold but it soon warms up so I managed without my padded jacket on the trail and just used it in the evenings so all we really carried was the water, a light weight rain coat, bug spray, sun cream, a hat to keep the sun off and a warm hat for the mornings. I would start off with my fleece on but then tie this round my waist when it got to warm.  Don’t forget the toilet paper, we deal with that later in this post! and snacks for the day if you want them.  

Everything else can go with the porters for a full list of everything you need see the map above Don’t forget your passport as you’ll need to have it with you on the first and last days. You’ll also want to have your camera or phone to collect the memories. 

The Toilet Question on the Inca Trek!

This is the question you’ll come to sooner or later, after all you can’t hold it in for four days.  The good news is that unlike the Santa Cruz Trek there are toilets along the trail.  The bad news is they are not always very good and when we were there they were not alway very clean either.  Most of them are of the long drop variety although there are a couple of proper sit down ones.  We got briefed at every meal time were the next one would be along the trail.
It is not encouraged to go along the trail as with five hundred people a day doing it before long it wouldn’t be a pleasant trek.  In the evenings a toilet tent is set up with a portapotty and you always stop at a toilet block to camp.  It’s not perfect but we found it manageable.
Winay Wayna Inca Ruins
Winay Wayna Inca Ruins

What to expect on the Inca Trek?

The following is based on our experience, of course this will be different for everyone, but we can only comment on our time on the trail.  We did the trek at the end of September with Alpaca Expeditions. Every tour company will do a slightly different itinerary and the equipment will vary.  Also we were very lucky with the weather only getting a brief shower on day three.  Hopefully your experience will be as magical as ours was.
The Briefing
The evening before the trek you meet for the first time as a group for a trek briefing.  Here you will also get your duffle bag that all your gear goes in that the porters will carry.  It takes about half an hour then it’s off to bed for an early night, if you can sleep that is!
Day One

It’s an early start and you need to be ready and waiting outside your accommodation at four in the morning.  Then its about a three hour bus ride to the first stop where breakfast will be waiting for you just on the outskirts of Ollantaytambo.  Here you are given your sleeping bag and mat to pack into your duffle bag then its off to the trail head at KM82 to register.  This is were you need your passport.  

Then that’s it,  you’re off on your way across the river and up the other side of the valley.  The first days hike is fourteen kilometres with a rise in altitude of just under 600m.  On the way you stop quite frequently and there are three Incan sites to explore and a rest spot with drinks and toilets. Lunch is waiting at about the half way point. We always find the first day the hardest as you get into the swing of things and this was no exception.

Chris & Lizandro our guide
Chris & Lizandro our guide
Day Two
Alpaca do things slightly differently to other companies, with them this is a very big day as we climb over two high passes, Dead Woman’s Pass and Runkuracay.  In total the day is about sixteen kilometres reaching the highest point on the trek of 4200m.  Lunch is taken at the low point between the two passes.  Again there are plenty of breaks and two more Incan sites to visit along the way.  This is supposed to be the hardest day and for some in our group it was but we were in the swing of things now and both really enjoyed the effort.
Day Three

Day three is ten kilometres and as our guides advised, mostly down hill.  You’ll find that Peruvian down hill undulates quite a lot. It’s an early start so we are at camp for lunch and the cooking class.  You can then rest or go for a slight excursion to a waterfall and my favourite Incan site which we had all to ourselves.

All the groups on the trail camp at this site ready for the mad dash to the sun gate in the morning, again during the day there’s plenty to see.  This was my favourite day for Incan sites they are quite spectacular and from this point on you are actually walking on the same stones the Incan people walked on.

Day Four
Day four starts early, around 3.30am and our group was first in the queue waiting for the ranger to open the gates for the mad forty minute dash to the Sun Gate. As we were warned the night before, don’t expect to see the sun rise as it’s light by the time you get there.  To be honest the Sun Gate was little bit of a let down for me I was expecting something different.  The disappointment didn’t last long though.

The next view point is the classic one you see in all the photos and it literally brought tears, it is a truly magical sight.  You are then back to reality as you hit the crowds for the first time in four days and its a bit of a shock to the system with so many people. Have they earned the right to be there?

We left the group two thirds of the way round our guided tour to climb Huayna Picchu which is well worth the cost and the effort as the views from the top are wonderful.  We then guided ourselves through the remainder of the site before jumping on the bus down into the town of Agua Caliente for lunch with the group and the train ride back into Ollantaytambo and then the bus ride back to Cusco. 

Huayna Picchu Mountain
Huayna Picchu Mountain

The Guides & Porters

We were a group of fifteen paying guests accompanied by two guides, twenty porters, and chef with an assistant.  These guys work so hard and until you see it you will not believe it.  The guides on our trek Lizandro and Henry were very caring and knowledgeable making sure each trekker was happy and well looked after and not struggling.  Usually one would lead and the other would be behind but sometimes they would both stay at the back and just let us all go at our own pace.

When we arrived at a point of interest there would be a group talk given by one of the guides about the place, the people who lived there, their customs, language and what the place was used for.  These guys speak at least three languages and deliver their information in a very entertaining and informative way.

The porters are, as I said, super human, they set up camp every evening and this includes everyones tents (including their own), a full kitchen, a dining room and toilets tents.  They even have a little individual bowl of warm water and soap waiting for you at each meal time so you can freshen up.  After you have left to enjoy your days hiking they pack everything up and literally at times, run with their loads up and down the trail to get there before you set up at the next camp.

The chef, our chef was amazing, the food he could produce from his little makeshift kitchen was incredible and quite easily surpassed all our expectations.  The variety and amount of food was exceptional and the presentation was breathtaking at times.  All this at all times was delivered with smiling faces, they seemed to all enjoy their jobs and each others company.  

Tipping Guide for the Inca Trek

As you can see from the previous chapter these guys work hard.  Fortunately nowadays they get a wage. There was a time not to long ago when they had to rely on tips as their only form payment.  Having said that you will want to reward them for their exceptional effort.

It can get quite complicated doing the sums so I’ll do them for you here, or at least try. We were advised that each porter would be very happy if he managed to go home with around 70.00 PEN and that the cook would be happy with just over double that.  This of course is all optional and there is no pressure to tip.  The fourteen of us did this a as a group giving just over what was recommended, so around 100.00 PEN per guest for the porters and around 25.00 PEN per guest for the chefs.

The guides were given their tips individually by each couple on the trek depending on there individual experiences.  In total we spent as a couple 500.00 PEN on tips which works out to be about $125. It seemed to us like a lot of money before we set off but when you see what they do and how hard they work to make your experience wonderful it doesn’t seem that much.  Of course it’s up to you how much you give or don’t.   

Our Machu Picchu Guides
Our Machu Picchu Guides

The food on the Inca Trek

I’ve already briefly touched on the food and how surprised we were al the quality and quantity.  You get three good meals a day and a snack of fruit, a chocolate bar and some biscuits to take with you if you wanted them.

Breakfast was usually hot drinks, fruit, pancakes, eggs, bread and one day even banana cake served as a buffet you could take what you wanted.  Lunch was different everyday with at least there choices of meat and vegetarian options and always three courses.

In the evening before dinner we got a hot drink and a snack usually popcorn.  The evening meal was a massive spread of food again over three courses and always with a surprise one day we had marshmallows to toast over a little decorative flame and another day we had dips with crackers baked in the shape of Llamas.

We even got a cake with candles on our last evening and a cooking lesson in the afternoon.  The food by any standard was exceptional and to think that very item had to be carried on a porters back for four days is unbelievable.

Alternative Treks

This trek is the most common way to walk to Machu Picchu however, there are other ways.  You can do a shortened version that starts closer to the citadel of Machu Picchu and takes two days with just one day of hiking.  If you cannot book in advance our fancy something a little tougher and closer to nature you can do the Salkantay Trek which goes a little higher and takes you away from the crowds.  This one is unregulated and can be done independently without a guide.  There are a lot of other variations offered by the tour companies but we didn’t really do any research on them as we knew what we wanted to do.
First glimpse of Machu Picchu
First glimpse of Machu Picchu

Our View

For us this was one of the must do adventures of a life time on our South American trip, we are very lucky travelling the continent for many months so we have had many adventures of a life time along the way.  If you are just coming to Peru or visiting long term like us we highly recommend you do this trek especially if your interested in the Incan culture and what they left behind.

We would also highly recommend Alpaca Expeditions they really looked after us at every turn and made the adventure  special.  Of course there are other options and we recommend you do your research before you choose. We would say use Alpaca as the standard is incredibly high and if you can find anyone who does it better then you’re doing well.

Booking resources for your stay in Cusco


You can compare cheap flights on the Expedia platform or here on the Aviasales website.  Both will give you a good idea of how much its going to cost you to get to your chosen destination.


We have always tended to use having said that if your on a tight budget another good site to try as a comparison is Hostelworld, If your looking to compare different sites you can do that on Hotellook, we tend to look on here first to make sure we are getting the best deal.

Tours & Tickets

You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site.  Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.

For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.

Some of the links on this page contain affiliate marketing links, which means we may get paid commission on sales of those products or services we write about. You will never be charged a fee for shopping through one of our affiliate links. You may even get a discounted rate and we will make a small commission. Our editorial content is not influenced by advertisers or affiliate partnerships.

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