The Inca Trail

At its most basic, the Inca Trail (Camino del Inca) was a footpath through the Andes leading directly to the gates of Machu Picchu. Contrary to its image as a lone, lost, remote city, Machu Picchu was not isolated in the clouds. It was the crown of an entire Inca province, as ruins all along the Inca Trail attest. Machu Picchu was an administrative center in addition to its other putative purposes. That larger purpose is comprehensible only to those who hike the ancient royal route and visit the other ruins scattered along the way to the sacred city.

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More than that, though, the Incas conceived of Machu Picchu and the great trail leading to it in grand artistic and spiritual terms. Hiking the Inca Trail—the ancient royal highway—is, hands down, the most authentic and scenic way to visit Machu Picchu and get a clear grasp of the Incas’ overarching architectural concept and supreme regard for nature. As impressive as Machu Picchu itself, the trail traverses a 325-sq.-km (125-sq.-mile) national park designated as the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. The entire zone is replete with extraordinary natural and man-made sights: Inca ruins, exotic vegetation and animals, and dazzling mountain and cloud-forest vistas.

Today the Inca Trail—which, as part of the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, has been designated a natural and cultural World Heritage Site—is the most important and most popular hiking trail in South America, followed by many thousands of ecotourists and modern-day pilgrims in the past 3 decades. Its extreme popularity in recent years—more than 75,000 people a year hike the famous trail—has led to concerns among environmentalists and historians that the trail is suffering potentially irreparable degradation. The National Institute of Culture (INC) and the Ministry of Industry, Tourism, Integration, and International Trade (MITINCI), reacting to pressure from groups such as UNESCO (which threatened to rescind Machu Picchu’s World Heritage Site status), instituted far-reaching changes in practices designed to limit the number of visitors and damage to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, though these alone may not be enough to forestall the trail’s damage.

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There are two principal ways to walk to Machu Picchu: either along the traditional, fairly arduous 4-day/3-night path with three serious mountain passes, or as part of a more accessible 2-day/1-night trail (there’s also an even shorter 1-day trek that covers just the last part of the trail, which is suitable for inexperienced walkers). You can hire porters to haul your packs or suck it up and do it the hard way. Independent trekking on the Inca Trail without an official guide has been prohibited since 2001. You must go as part of an organized group arranged by an officially sanctioned tour agency. (Fewer than 200 agencies, both in Cusco and beyond, are allowed to sell Inca Trail packages.) A couple or a small number of people can organize their own group if they are willing to pay higher prices for the luxury of not having to join an ad hoc group.

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Sadly, even with the new regulations, hiking the Inca Trail, beautiful and mystical as it remains for most, is not a silent, solitary walk in the clouds. At least in high season, you will contend with groups walking the trail both in front of and behind you, and some will invariably be noisy student groups.

Preparing for The Inca Trail

The classic 4-day route is along hand-hewn stone stairs and trails through sumptuous mountain scenery and amazing cloud forest, past rushing rivers and dozens of Inca ruins. The zone is inhabited by rare orchids, 419 species of birds, and even the indigenous spectacled bear. The trek begins at Qorihuayrachina near Ollantaytambo—more easily described as Km 88 of the railway from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The 43km (26-mile) route passes three formidable mountain passes, including the punishing “Dead Woman’s Pass,” to a maximum altitude of 4,200m (13,800 ft.). Most groups enter the ruins of Machu Picchu at sunrise on the fourth day, although others, whose members are less keen on rising at 3:30am to do it, trickle in throughout the morning.

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The 2-day version of the trail is being promoted by authorities as the Camino Sagrado del Inca, or “Sacred Trail,” although it might also be called the Camino “Lite.” It is a reasonable alternative to the classic trail if time or fitness is lacking. The path rises only to an elevation of about 2,750m (9,020 ft.) and is a relatively easy climb to Huiñay Huayna and then down to Machu Picchu. The minitrail begins only 14km (8 3/4 miles) away from Machu Picchu, at Km 104, and it circumvents much of the finest mountain scenery and ruins. Groups spend the night near the ruins of Huiñay Huayna before arriving at Machu Picchu for sunrise on the second day. More and more people of all ages and athletic abilities are tackling the Inca Trail; the Peruvian government, in addition to adopting more stringent regulations governing its use, placed flush toilets in campsites several years ago in an attempt to make the trail cleaner and more user-friendly.

Either way you go, it is advisable to give yourself a couple of days in Cusco or a spot in the Sacred Valley to acclimatize to the high elevation. Cold- and wet-weather technical gear, a solid backpack, and comfortable, sturdy, broken-in (and waterproof) hiking boots are musts (also needed: sleeping bag, flashlight/headlamp, and sunblock). Above all, respect the ancient trail and its environment. Whatever you pack in, you must also pack out. You should also choose your dates carefully. The dry season (June–Oct) is the most crowded time on the trail, but it’s excellent in terms of weather. Shoulder seasons can be best of all, even with the threat of a bit of rain; May is perhaps best, with good weather and slightly lower numbers of trekkers. Other months—especially December through March—are simply too wet for all but the hardest-core trail vets. The entire trail is closed for maintenance and conservation during the month of February—which is one of the rainiest and least appealing months for trekking to Machu Picchu anyway. For the most popular months (May–Sept), early booking (at least 3 months in advance) is essential.

The Peruvian government has sought to not only limit the number of trekkers on the Inca Trail (now capped at 200 trekkers and 300 trek staff, or 500 total per day), but also to maximize revenue from one of its foremost attractions. Thus, the cost of hiking the trail has steadily climbed—it now costs at least three times what it did just a few years ago. Standard-class 4-day treks, the most common and economical service, start at around $600 per person, including entrance fees ($61 adults, $30 students) and return by tourist rail. Independent trekkers generally join a mixed group of travelers; groups tend to be between 12 and 16 people, with guaranteed daily departures. The cost includes a bus to Km 88 to begin the trek, an English-speaking guide, tents, mattresses, three daily meals, and porters who carry all common equipment. Tips for porters or guides are extra (and considered mandatory). Personal porters, to carry your personal items, can be hired for about $150 for the 4 days. Premium-class services generally operate smaller group sizes (a maximum of 10 trekkers), and you generally get an upgrade on the return train. Prices for premium group treks, organized for small private groups, range from $750 to as high as $1,700 per person. Note that entrance fees to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu should always be included in your package price.

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Prices vary for trail packages based on services and the quality and experience of the agency. For the most part, you get what you pay for. Rock-bottom prices (anything below $600, generally) will probably get you an inexperienced guide who speaks little English, food that is barely edible, camping equipment on its last legs, and a large, rowdy group (usually 16 young trekkers). Especially important is the ability of an agency to guarantee departure even if its desired target number of travelers is not filled. Students with ISIC identification can expect about a $40 discount.

Be wary of hidden costs; never purchase Inca Trail (or, for that matter, any tour) packages from anyone other than officially licensed agencies, and be careful to make payments (and get official receipts) at the physical offices of the agencies. If you have questions about whether an agency is legitimate or is authorized to sell Inca Trail packages, ask for assistance at the main tourism information office in Cusco.

To guarantee a spot with an agency (which must request a trek permit for each trekker), it is imperative that you make a reservation and pay for your entrance fee a minimum of 15 days in advance (though in practice you’d be wise to do this at least 4–6 months or more in advance if you plan to go during the peak months of May–Oct). Reservations can be made as much as a year in advance. Gone are the days when trekkers could simply show up in Cusco and organize a trek on the

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fly. Changing dates once you have a reservation is difficult, if not impossible. If spots remain on agency rosters, they are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

The entrance ticket for the 2-day Camino Sagrado, purchased in Cusco, is $51 for adults and $44 for students.

Inca Trail Regulations

For decades, individuals trekked the Inca Trail on their own, but hundreds of thousands of visitors—more than 75,000 a year—left behind so much detritus that not only was the experience compromised for most future trekkers, but the very environment was also placed at risk. The entire zone has suffered grave deforestation and erosion. The Peruvian government, under pressure from international organizations, has finally instituted changes and restrictions designed to lessen the human impact on the trail and on Machu Picchu itself: In the first couple of years, regulations were poorly enforced, but in 2003, the government announced its intentions to fully and strictly enforce them.

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All trekkers are now required to go accompanied by a guide and a group. In addition, the overall number of trekkers permitted on the trail was significantly reduced, to 200 per day (with an additional 300 trek staff, for a total daily number admitted of 500); the maximum number of trekkers per group outing is capped at 16; only professionally qualified and licensed guides are allowed to lead groups on the Inca Trail; the maximum loads porters can carry has been limited to 20kg (44 lb.); and all companies must pay porters the minimum wage (about $15 per day).
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These changes have cut the number of trekkers on the trail in half and have made reservations essential. Guarantee your space on the trail by making a reservation at least a month in advance of your trip (but 4–6 months or more in advance for high season May–Oct; reservations can be made as much as a year in advance). Travelers willing to wing it stand an outside chance of still finding available spots a week or a few days before embarking on the trail, perhaps even at discounted rates, but waiting until you arrive in Cusco is a ridiculous risk if you’re really counting on doing the Inca Trail.

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The key changes for travelers are that it is no longer possible to go on the trail independently and no longer dirt-cheap to walk 4 days to Machu Picchu. The good news is that the trail is more organized and that hope for its preservation is greater. But if you’re looking for solitude and a more spiritual experience, you might consider one of the “alternative ruins treks”.

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The Road Less (or More Comfortably) Traveled: Alternatives to the Inca Trail

The legendary Inca Trail was once very much off the beaten path and at the cutting edge of adventure travel—for hard-core trekkers only. Although the Peruvian government adopted new measures to restrict the numbers of trekkers along the trail, it has become so popular and well-worn that in high season it’s tough to find the solitude and quiet contemplation such a sacred path deserves. Trekkers and travelers looking for more privacy, greater authenticity, or bragging rights are seeking out alternatives, and many adventure-travel companies are catering to them by offering less accessible trails to keep one step ahead of the masses. Several international operators now offer custom-designed alternatives to the traditional Inca Trail, and many Peru cognoscenti believe this is the future of trekking in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Some of the challenging treks terminate in visits to Machu Picchu, while others explore stunning but much less-visited Inca ruins like Choquequirao. Adventure Life (www.adventurelife.com; tel. 800/344-6118) promotes a 10-day Cachiccata trek, 12-day Choquequirao trek, and 10-day Ausangate trip alternative; Andean Treks (www.andeantreks.com; tel. 800/683-8148) offers a 4-day “Moonstone to Machu Picchu” trek, as well as others to Choquequirao and Ausangate; Mountain Travel Sobek (www.mtsobek.com; tel. 888/831-7526) offers a 9-day (7 days hiking) “Discovering the Lares Region” trek; Peru for Less (www.peruforless.com; tel. 877/2609-0309), originally based in the U.S., offers a series of small-group alternative treks in the Vilcabamba region, with trips to Choquequirao, Ausangate, and Espíritu Pampa; and Wilderness Travel (www.wildernesstravel.com; tel. 800/368-2794) has a 14-day “Choquequirao: Trek to the Cradle of God” tour. Most treks range from about $600 to $4,000 per person. Note: Keep in mind that these tour groups may change the names and details of their available treks at any time; call or review their websites for what’s available at the time of your trip.

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The trend toward luxury, or soft, adventure has gained traction in the Peruvian Andes, and companies offering treks to Machu Picchu and other highland destinations are targeting more affluent and creature comfort–oriented travelers who want the adventure experience without roughing it too much. Mountain Lodges of Peru (www.mountainlodgesofperu.com; tel. 877/491-5261 in the U.S. and Canada), a Peruvian adventure travel company, has constructed several lodges on private lands in the Vilcabamba mountain range west of the Sacred Valley and also in the Lares Valley. The inns are stunning, not only for their high-altitude locations but also their sophisticated architecture and amenities—which include whirlpools, hot showers, fireplaces, and sleek dining rooms. Mountain Lodges offers its own 7-day treks to Salkantay (beginning at $2,990 per person), culminating in a visit to Machu Picchu, as well as 5- or 7-day treks in the Lares Valley (beginning at $1,899 per person). The company has also contracted with international trekking and adventure companies, including Backroads (www.backroads.com; tel. 800/462-2848), Wilderness Travel, and Mountain Travel Sobek (see above), which have booked the lodges for their own 9-day (5 days trekking) “Machu Picchu Lodge to Lodge” or “Inn to Inn” packages. Prices for full trips, including stays in Cusco, run to $5,698 per person. Andean Lodges (www.andeanlodges.com; tel. 305/434-7167 in the U.S. and Canada, or 084/224-613), a rare joint initiative between the Cusco tour group Auqui Mountain Spirit and local Quechua shepherding communities, operates four simple and ecofriendly mountain lodges, which it claims are the highest altitude lodges in the world (at 4,000–4,500m/13,000–15,000 ft.), along the Camino del Apu Ausangate (in the Vilcanota range). Trek prices start at $2,770 per person.
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If the notion of soft or luxury adventure travel doesn’t excite your inner hard-core adventurer, consider one of the spectacularly scenic (and arduous) 4- to 11-day treks that have gained wider traction in the last few years: Salcantay, Vilcabamba, Espíritu Pampa, and Choquequirao, the last two “lost” Inca cities only truly unearthed in the past decade. All are increasingly offered by local trek tour agencies in Cusco and some of the most established international trekking and Peruvian travel companies (see above). Much as I hate to disparage the legendary Camino Inca, it has become too popular and laden with restrictions and hassles for many adventure travelers to enjoy. By going off the standard trekking grid, not only can you be sure that when you get back to Cusco not everyone in the coffeehouse will have the same bragging rights, but also you are likely to have a more authentic, peaceful, and exhilarating outdoors and cultural experience.

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Howling at the Moon

For a truly spectacular experience on the Inca Trail, plan your trip to coincide with a full moon (ideally, departing 2 or 3 days beforehand). Locals say the weather’s best then, and having your nights illuminated by a full or near-full moon, especially for the early rise and push into Machu Picchu on the last day, is unforgettable.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.