Hiking the Inca Trail: What you need to know about the 4 day trek

Hiking the Inca Trail: 4 day Itinerary

Hiking the Inca trail & visiting Machu Picchu is at the top of many travellers wish lists. You can get there by train, but for the fit and willing, I highly recommend hiking the Inca trail hike to properly experience Machu Picchu. Aside from the physical challenge of the trek which rises over 4200m above sea level; hiking the Inca Trail showcases Machu Picchu within the context of a broader Incan empire. Here is what you can expect hiking the Inca trail over 4 days…

hiking the Inca trail

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Hiking the Inca trail covers 43km / 26 miles at high altitude. Before embarking on this epic hike, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Acclimatise: Spend a minimum of two days in Cusco before hiking the Inca Trail. Take it easy, this is a time to let your body adjust to the altitude
  • Walk at your own pace: Pay attention to your body and rest when needed. Everyone reacts differently to the altitude and your body is slower to recover at high altitudes
  • Stay hydrated: Drink at least 4.5 litres per day
  • Remember to eat: Altitude can affect your appetite, remember to eat regularly even if you don’t feel like it

Read on for how to prepare for hiking the Inca Trail.

Hiking the Inca Trail: Itinerary

This is the 4 day itinerary we followed hiking the Inca Trail with Peru Treks. Please note, there may be slight variations between tour operators.

UPDATE: since I completed the hike, numerous tour operators have popped up with a variation of the name ‘Peru Treks’ & the website I booked through is no longer registered. When booking your tour, prioritise tour operators that pay their guides and porters a living wage. Other tour companies offering multi day hikes based in Cusco and the Inca Trail that come highly recommended include, Apu’s PeruLlama Path & Quechua’s Expeditions.

Day 1: Cusco to Wayllabamba

Distance: 12km/ 7 miles

Elevation: 3000m above sea level

Highlights: Llactapata

Cusco to ‘Km 82’

Day one was a gentle introduction to hiking the Inca trail, the section was easy and well-paced. The Peru Trek tour bus picked up everyone from their hotels between 5 and 6am. Our group consisted of 16 trekkers, two guides and 23 porters. The journey to ‘km 82’ (the starting point of the 4 day trail) took about 2 and a half hours and we stopped for breakfast along the way in Ollantaytambo.

We arrived at ‘km 82’ and collected our sleeping mats to put into our canvas bags along with our other belongings for the porters. Hiring a porter is optional but well worth it. Not only are you supporting the local tourism industry but there’s no way of knowing how your body will respond to the altitude. Hiking the Inca trail without a backpack frees you up to enjoy the hike. Choose a tour operator that prioritises porter welfare. The good ones weigh each individual bag daily and set a weight limit to ensure fair working conditions for their staff.

Before hiking the Inca trail, ensure your hiking poles have rubber tips to protect the trail. If you don’t have some already, there are often locals selling them before you pass through the check point.

The trek begins with an official check point. Our tour guide provided us with our entrance tickets which we presented along with our passport. Then the adventure began as we crossed the Vilcanota River around 10.30am and started hiking the Inca trail.

Day 1 ruins Atlas Introspective

Hitting the Trail!

We stopped frequently as we adjusted to hiking in the heat and altitude. Our guide pointed out local flora and fauna: ayahuasca, avocado and a cactus insect that is highly valuable and sold to make red dye. We encountered a lot of midges during this part of the trek, so it can be worth bringing insect repellant in your daypack.

Llactapata

We reached our first Incan site around midday: Llactapata. It is thought that the terraces at this agricultural site were used to grow crops like corn & potato, to supply to Machu Picchu. Like most Incan sites, the city was deserted after the Spanish Invasion in the 1570’s.

We had a late lunch at 3pm and reached camp at 6pm. Day 1 covered 12 km / 7miles in just over 7 hours and reached an elevation of 3000m above sea level, slightly lower than Cusco.

Meals

For lunch and dinner we were served high calorie, carb-dense 3 course meals. Keeping our energy levels up was essential not only to fuel us for the hike but also to help adjust to the altitude. The food was amazing. Some of the dishes included: popcorn (pre-dinner snack), quinoa soup, pork with passionfruit sauce, stir fried quinoa, trout, chicken. There were a few vegetarians in our group who were also well catered for. There was a lot of variety over the four days and we never ate the same dish twice.

We were offered coca tea at the end of meals, a local remedy for altitude sickness. Coca leaves are what cocaine is derived from. It’s legal in Peru but will register in a drug test for a few weeks after. Keep this in mind if drug testing is a routine part of your work back home. Coca tea tastes a bit like green tea and has stimulant qualities similar to an espresso.

Inside tent meal Atlas Introspective

Camp

The altitude can affect your sleep. Shallow breathing during sleep meant that I was taking in less oxygen and often woke around 2am feeling dizzy and nauseated. This in combination with jet lag and a noisy campsite means despite all the fresh air and exercise, a good nights sleep might be beyond you.

There are a few things you can do to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Pack warm clothes and sleep in a beanie and thick socks. If you decide to take altitude sickness medication, you should know that it’s a diuretic and you’ll need to use the bathroom a lot. And if you’re not taking the meds, it’s likely someone else at camp will be and will be getting up a lot through the night. Ear plugs and an eye mask might help you to get a decent nights rest.

Day 2: Wayllabamba to Pacamayo

Distance: 12km / 7 miles

Elevation: 4200m above sea level

Highlights: Dead Woman’s Pass

We were pre-warned that Day 2 was the toughest day hiking the Inca trail owing to hours of uphill steps and the long climb to the highest elevation of the trek: Dead Woman’s Pass (4200m above sea level).

The day started gently, we were woken at 5.30am by our guide and brought fresh coffee to drink in our tent while we packed.

After a big breakfast of pancakes and quinoa porridge we hit the trail at 6.15am. Trekkers are often in one of two camps: those who struggle more with uphill hiking and those with the downhill. I struggle most with the former, so it wasn’t my day. Throw in the altitude and it was slow going.

Hiking the Inca trail: Pace Yourself

One of my fellow hikers taught me a great breathing technique which really helped with the breathlessness that accompanies high altitude: take two short intake breaths, and then two short outtake breaths, similar to the panting that women in labour are encouraged to do. During some sections of the trail I had to stop and catch my breath every 5 steps, but listening to your body is crucial as you recover slower at high altitude. You might feel a sense of urgency to keep up with other members of your group, but it’s better to go at your own pace. Everyone reacts differently to the altitude and no one will be left behind.

Dead womans peak side view Atlas Introspective

We passed through a cloud forest before stopping for a break at Llullachapampa.

Lunch was at 1pm. The break and carbohydrates gave some much needed energy. There was also a drinks stand here for those who needed to top up their water. As you progress through the hike the cost of snacks and water gets incrementally higher to compensate the locals who have carried it in on foot.

Dead Woman’s Pass

After lunch there was the final push to Dead Woman’s Pass. This is the most difficult section of the trek, mainly due to the altitude. At it’s summit you are 4215m above sea level, 1800m higher than Machu Picchu. It took our group 2-3 hours to complete the final uphill section of the day. I needed frequent, short breaks to catch my breath. The distance covered isn’t great, but the pace was slow at high altitude.

I got a boost of energy as I neared the Pass and powered through, receiving cheers of congratulations from my new friends when I reached the top.

Dead Woman’s Pass is a wind tunnel so when the adrenalin wore off it was freezing and we needed to put on beanies and jackets. We took a well earned break and cheered on the rest of our fellow hikers.

Dead womans peak JF Atlas Introspective

Descending Dead Woman’s Pass- it’s all downhill from here…

After clearing Dead Woman’s Pass it was all downhill to camp, about a 2 hour trek. Our guide Manny taught us a great trick to protect our knees, step side ways with your feet parallel to the step and take one step at a time. I found alternating leading with the left and right foot every few steps worked best. Trekking poles also help with stability and will take some of the weight off your knees on the descent.

I didn’t make it through dinner, partly because I’d been battling a head cold during my week in Peru, but mostly exhaustion from the long day hiking the Inca trail.

Day 3: Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna

Distance: 15km/ 9 miles

Elevation: 3800m above sea level

Highlights: Runkurakay, Sayacmarca (“Town in a Steep place”, Phuyupatamaca (“Town in the Clouds”), Intipata (“Sun Terraces”)

We were woken at 5am for our coffee in bed. After breakfast we commenced our longest day: 10-11 hours of hiking the Inca trail up and down 3000 steps .

Dead Woman’s Pass was behind us and morale was high. Day 3 was my most enjoyable day hiking the Inca trail. The group dynamic was well established and everyone was really starting to enjoy themselves. Machu Picchu was just around the corner!

Runkuracay

An hour into our hike we arrived at Runkuracay between the first (Dead Woman’s Pass) and second pass (Qochapata). The circular Inca site contains sleeping quarters and stables suggesting it served as a resting station or ‘tambo’ for messengers (chaskis) en route to Machu Picchu. The inclined walls indicate it was built to tolerate earthquakes.

Inca ruins 2 Atlas Introspective

Between the second and third pass (Phuyupatamarka) we passed Sayacmarca and Conchamarca. From there we trekked into a subtropical cloud forest. One of the highlights was a pathway which took us through an Incan tunnel, burrowing through the cliff wall.

Phuyupatamarca & the Gringo Killer steps

Phuyupatamarca means ‘Town in the Clouds’. The site offered incredible views due to its high position. But what goes up, must come down. The 1000 descending stairs are known by the locals as the ‘Gringo Killer’. Along the way, we passed six Incan baths.

Wiñay Wayna

Wiñay Wayna was the most impressive site we had encountered hiking the Inca trail so far. Dramatic houses and terraces overlooked the Urubamba River and our campsite below.

Inca ruins steps Atlas Introspective

We arrived at camp Wiñay Wayna, named after the nearby Incan site, around sunset. Dinner involved a briefing of Day 4 and we were prepped for a 3.45am start.

The bathrooms at camp Wiñay Wayna had deep sinks and showers which some brave travellers used to bathe and wash their hair. There’s no hot water on the trail, so be prepared for a brisk wash!

Day 4: Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu

Distance: 5km/ 3 miles

Elevation: 2700m above sea level

Highlights: Sun Gate, Machu Picchu

Campsite day 3 Atlas Introspective

There was a sense of urgency on Day 4, as our porters needed to pack up camp in time to catch their return train to Ollantaytambo at 5.35am.

No coffee service in bed today, we were up at 3.45am and asked to pack our bags first thing- the bathroom would have to wait. A quick breakfast was at 4am followed by a short trek out of camp under the cover of night. All trekkers visiting Machu Picchu queued up to pass the checkpoint at 5.30am which meant an hour of waiting in the dark until dusk.

The Sun Gate

We hiked for approximately 1 to 2 hours in order to reach the Sun Gate (‘Intipunku’) by sunrise. The final climb to the Sun Gate was an almost vertical flight of stairs known as the ‘monkey steps’. So named because you need to climb them like a monkey, using your hands to pull yourself up.

Sunrise at the gate Atlas Introspective

We arrived at the Sun Gate in time to see the sun rise between the gate, and admired the sunrise before descending the final track to Machu Picchu.

Hiking the Inca Trail: Machu Picchu

When the clouds finally lifted, we had our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen photographs of this famous site, it will take your breath away. The cloud cover didn’t completely lift until we were just outside the official entrance to Machu Picchu, which is apparently quite common.

Just before arriving at the gate, we stopped to take photo’s. The peaceful isolation we had enjoyed while hiking the Inca trail was over and we found ourselves in the middle of a busy tourist site. It was incredible, if a little overwhelming after the previously quiet 3 days.

MP 5 Atlas Introspective

Before officially entering Machu Picchu, you can have your passport stamped, buy a snack or drink and use the best toilets you’ve seen in days. But beware the mirrors! They’re a frightening prospect to those who haven’t showered in 4 days.

Machu Picchu Guided Tour

Backpacks and hiking poles aren’t allowed into Machu Picchu, and must remain behind with the assistant guide. Our guide, Manny, gave us a 2 hour tour of Machu Picchu leaving 1 hour to explore on our own. A ticket to Machu Picchu grants access for either a morning OR afternoon and entrance is only possible with a guide. 3000 tickets are allotted to the morning and the afternoon (including guides as well as tourists) to protect the site for future generations.

Aguas Calientes

We left Machu Picchu at midday, caught a bus to Aguas Calientes for lunch and a relaxing afternoon, then caught the train & bus back to Cusco arriving at 10.30pm. If you have an interest in archeology, anthropology, or are a history buff, you can opt to purchase a second ticket and extend your visit through the afternoon and stay at Aguas Calientes for a night before returning to Cusco (note: this will be at your own expense).

Aguas Calientes is a bustling tourist spot where you can indulge in a variety of creature comforts: a hot meal, massage, spa visit, swim and of course, cold beer. Our tour group ate together, exchanged contact details and celebrated the end of a great 4 days. We then split up for our vice of choice, a hot shower the most popular.

F MP Atlas Introspective

Further Reading

Hiking the Inca trail was a bucket-list experience that didn’t disappoint. You may also be interested in Everything you need to know about Hiking the Inca Trail.

If you want to know more about the history of the Incas and Machu Picchu, I recommend, ‘Lost City of the Inca’s,’ by Hiram Bingham and, ‘Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time,’ by Mark Adams for a contemporary take on history.

What was your favourite moment hiking the Inca trail?