Doing the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu may push you, will likely help you know yourself better, and will certainly be an amazing experience. Doing the Inca Trail with a well planned itinerary and with an excellent outfitter means you’ll hike away from crowds, that you’ll have charismatic fun guides, and that you’ll do it all in style with great equipment and food.
To hike the Inca Trail you need to have a pre-purchased permit and to go with a sanctioned Inca Trail operator and guide. It is important to note that in recent years buying Inca Trail permits has become more challenging as more stringent regulations have been put in place and as the trek continues to grow more popular. To avoid any issues plan to book your hike 4 months in advance or more, and you should have no issue.
The Inca Trail can be hiked throughout the year, other than in February when it is closed down. Rainy season in the Peruvian Southern Highlands (region that encompasses Cusco, Sacred Valley of the Inca, and Machu Picchu) is primarily between November and March. During this time the trail conditions won’t be as good and you will experience more rain, however there may be fewer hikers and will certainly be less visitors in Peru overall. Follow these links for more info on weather in Peru and the best times to visit Peru. Of course, it is always a good idea to check your local weather network for a weekly weather report while packing for you trip abroad.
Choosing an Inca Trail Outfitter
It is very important to carefully examine and evaluate any Inca Trail operator’s itinerary prior to booking so that you get the experience you are looking for. Here are a few tips:
1) Look for an itinerary that doesn’t market a “sunrise over Machu Picchu”
Over 80% of Inca Trail operators plan an itinerary that promises an early morning push to Inti Punko (the Sun Gate) for amazing sunrise views. Machu Picchu is in a cloud forest in the mountains and shadowed by an adjacent peak, so rarely if ever is there said spectacular sunrise. I would even venture to say that this is a widely abused false marketing tactic. Of greater importance than not actually seeing a sunrise, is that with so many trekkers on the same schedule there is a gold rush of sorts that results in a mess of people jockeying for space to get photos from Inti Punko. This should be both a magical and intimately personal arrival following this special pilgrimage, and it is a real shame to arrive amongst this misinformed mass. These trekkers are then visiting the site when they are dog tired, and they are doing so in the morning when the site sees the greatest volume of day visitors.
Avoid all of this by booking an Inca Trail trek that features an itinerary that has you arriving to Inti Punko in the late afternoon or early evening, when not only is the light best for photos but you will likely have your first majestic views of Machu Picchu in solitude. You can then hike down along the side of the site and catch one of the final busses back down to Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu Pueblo these days), get a good night of sleep in a hotel in Aguas Calientes, and return to the site the following day for a full day of well-rested Machu Picchu bliss!
2) Choose an itinerary with a full day visit to Machu Picchu
This is really a continuation of the above point, but it is relevant to emphasize that Machu Picchu is a massive archaeological complex. We recommend having a full day so you can have your guide explain the site a bit in the morning, and then wander about on your own and take some deep breaths at your own pace in what almost anyone will recognize as both a spiritual and inspirational place. And of course having stayed in a hotel the night before means you will visit the site after a hot shower. Having a relaxed pace at Machu Picchu and not worrying about catching a train in a few hours is even more important to Inca Trail trekkers than it is for day visitors as they arrive tired from a multi-day trek.
3) Find a company authorized to utilize campsites other than the large group sites
The most important thing is to find out if the operator you go with is authorized to use campsites other than the fixed location sites. Fixed location sites are where 90% of trekkers have to camp, which means the solitude factor is gone. It also means that you hike amongst a crowd as, inevitably, a mass of people set out from these camps on any given day and, although, they stretch out over the day, end up together at the next group site that evening. This effect can be seen if you watch a satellite map of the Inca Trail. However a few select companies such as Knowmad Adventures have obtained permits to camp outside of these massive camp areas. They do so by meeting stringent environmental standards such as carrying their own bathroom tents with compostable toilets, among other important things. This is the biggest factor in making sure your Inca Trail trek is a peaceful, inspiring experience rather than a crowded hike.
4) Clarify the size of your group
The size of your group can make a big difference. It is possible to request a private Inca Trail trek however you will pay a supplementary cost. If within your target budget, this can be a nice option. More and more of the bargain Inca Trail outfitters are consistently running treks with 25 or more people. These will almost always be of a far inferior quality than small group operations capping their treks at 16 or less and consistently averaging under 10 people per departure.
5) Least Expensive Inca Trail treks
Less is not more when it comes to Inca Trail costs. Obviously I’m not saying the most expensive trek is necessarily the best or that you should indiscriminately look for a more costly hike, but it is worth noting that many of the absolute cheapest published Inca Trail hikes are able to charge so little because they are not following ethical practices regarding the pay and treatment of their porters and support staff. In order to not perpetuate or be a part of the marginalization of indigenous people in the region, it is advisable to focus on finding an operator you feel is focused on quality as much as price. There is no way to guarantee you choose an operation that is ethical as they will all tell you their porters and support staff are treated well, but asking questions, not choosing solely based on price, and trusting your intuition will usually ensure you make a good choice.
The Inca Trail as part of a perfect Peru trip
Having a successful and enjoyable Inca Trail trek starts well before you’ve even strapped on your favorite pair of dusty hiking boots. As Peru treks take place at altitude it is vital to take at least a couple of days to acclimatize to the altitude before embarking. In the case of the Inca Trail (average altitude throughout is 10,000 ft. with a range between 9 and 14,500 ft.) you should acclimatize for at least 2 days prior to hiking. We recommend doing this in the Sacred Valley which is lower than Cusco and allows for a more gradual process. The Sacred Valley is also an ideal hub to access remote indigenous communities and authentic cultural travel. We suggest also complimenting time in the Sacred Valley, an Inca Trial hike, and visits to Machu Picchu with plenty of time to enjoy Cusco. The following 10-day Peru tour featuring a 5-day Inca Trail hike is an incredible flow. For a more detailed itinerary see our Inca Trail and Beyond.
DAY 1 • Lima
Arrive in Lima. Visit the city sites, museums and restaurants.
DAY 2 • Sacred Valley
Head into the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo. Relax, explore town, and visit the ruin complex clinging to the mountainside above town on your own.
DAY 3 • Sacred valley villages and the weavers of amaru
Visit the isolated Amaru indigenous community in the Andes. Gather plants used as natural dyes and see the Amaru’s colorful textiles brought to life. Lunch with community leaders or picnic amongst the Pisac ruins before visiting the region’s most vibrant market to bargain for wares.
DAY 4 • Inca trail – Sacred Valley – Llaqtapata
Begin hiking the famed Inca Trail to the Lost City of Machu Picchu. Enjoy first-class equipment, informed and fun guides and porters, and gourmet trail picnics and meals. Doing the trail in five days rather than four means you’ll camp and hike away from the crowds.
DAY 5 • Llaqtapata to Llulluchapampa
Visit the small indigenous community of Huayllabamba. Ascend to the first pass for a breathtaking sunset upon Mount Huaynay.
DAY 6 • Llulluchapampa to Phuyupatamarca
A challenging day of hiking past Sayacmarca ruins overlooking the Aobanba Valley takes you to your isolated camp outside a remote Andean village.
DAY 7 • Phuyupatamarca to Machu Picchu
Hike past ruins continuing into verdant cloudforest before arriving to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, in time to see the sun set over Machu Picchu. Descend past the ruins and continue to Machu Picchu Pueblo for the evening.
DAY 8 • Machu Picchu
Revel at the sunrise from Machu Picchu. Enjoy a complete guided tour of the site with time to explore on your own as well. Return to Cusco in the evening.
DAY 9 • Cusco
Enjoy the day at your leisure exploring Cusco – a city where traditional Andean cultures, the colonial Spanish, and modern Peru fuse into one. Visit Korikancha – Temple of the Sun, shop at Andean markets, enjoy savory Peruvian cuisine and see colonial cathedrals built atop Incan foundations.
DAY 10 • Fly to lima and return home
Fly to Lima and depart.
Have you hiked the Inca Trail?
If so, what would your advice be to those who are considering hiking the Inca Trail or doing another Peru trek? We’d love to hear from you.
Big Views, Jordan
Jordan is a Co-Founder of Knowmad Adventures, a company dedicated to creating unique, private and custom trips in South America. He was recently honored by Travel & Leisure as the A-List Top Travel Specialist for Chile, Argentina, and Peru. “Travel brings me incredible experiences and challenges, highlighting the world’s natural beauty while connecting me with inspiring people. I am convinced that travel makes us better people, and better people make a better planet.” Read Jordan’s biography and more about the Knowmad team.