The Ultimate Guide on Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is arguably the most famous trail in all of South America. It is the 2nd most important trek in the whole world.
It’s a 26 mile (42 kilometers) path that connects several Incan archaeological sites: Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyuptamarca, Wiñaywayna, and of course none other than the magnificent Machu Picchu citadel.
Trekkers ascend over 13,000 feet so if you have altitude problems make sure to think twice before committing. Apparently some Incan porter did the Inca Trail in just under 3-hours. I chose to slow the pace a little and do it over 4-days.
I’m going to start this blog by giving a brief backstory on myself.
Oooo.. Go on…
The Inca Trail was the first challenging multi-day trek of mine on my backpacking trip – like with camping and everything, not just in hostels with an option to take the bus along the way (Quilotoa 👀). Despite having completed a few treks along the way, I was nervous. The Inca Trail would be my toughest trek yet.
For a variety of reasons, after my almost 4-year relationship ended my confidence was pretty dented. I kind of lost my way a bit. Initially I couldn’t quite see how much of myself I’d lost (much to my poor mothers dismay). It has only been during travelling that I’ve gained all of my confidence back. And now I’ve gained it all back, I finally understand how much I actually lost… if that makes sense.
This was quite a profound realisation I had on Day 2 of The Inca Trail, as I climbed to the top of the Dead Woman’s Pass summit. I finally realised that I can do things, if I put my mind to them. I used to regularly race for Pete’s sake!
A note on Loki Travel
If you take away even one thing from this article – let it be this. Do NOT under any circumstances book with Loki Travel!!!
Why? What happened? Who did you fall out with…
Genuinely not my fault this time.
Don’t give me that!! Really! So this is remotely easy to follow, and so I don’t just rant for about 4 pages, I’ll break it down into 3 things:
Problema número uno
Eddie. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie. I’ll come onto Eddie more in a second, but Eddie initially messed up by charging Gen and I twice for entry to Machu Picchu when we settled the final bill. This includes charging us for Wayna Picchu entry (which we did not ask for), which is stated that it is not recommended for those doing Machu Picchu unless you have 1 extra night in Aguas Calientes because it is unsafe and takes time away from the citadel tour. Even if we wanted to stay 1 more night and climb Wayna Picchu, we couldn’t as Eddie had booked us for the same day as our arrival into Machu Picchu.
Problema número dos
We were initially provided with a non-English speaking guide, who claimed to speak English. When we met our guide the day before the Inca Trail, he appeared to know “hello, how are you” and so on, but as soon as Gen (who speaks about 3 words of Spanish) started asking him very basic questions such as, “what time are we being collected tomorrow” and “where do we pay for the rest of our Machu Picchu balance” he had no idea how to answer. Eddie was required to translate. It then transpired that he didn’t speak English at all.
I’m sorry, but The Inca Trail costs a fortune compared to The Salkantay. Furthermore we booked the damn thing in February AND we specifically requested an English-speaking guide. Why would two girls from Ireland and England respectively want otherwise? And why would it take Loki until 12 HOURS BEFORE WE LEAVE to realise this? Gen and I checked our e-mails thoroughly and the request ‘English-speaking guide’ was definitely mentioned on numerous occasions.
Problema número trés
Our guide Rodger (from this point on Rodger the dodger or RTD) was an absolute creep. He initially started a bit overly-friendly but we shrugged it off, assuming the Peruvian way of being nice. He kept saying how he was delighted to be on a trek with two beautiful girls. He insisted on asking us whether we were single at the introduction ceremony.
We should have said we weren’t, but the last time I lied about having a boyfriend my story spiralled out of control and I told the creeper in the bar my boyfriend was called ‘Bob’ and later down the line it transpired that ‘Bob’ was a builder. Can he fix it? Oh yes, he can. Thank you for asking.
Well everyone knows we shouldn’t hire you to be an undercover cop 😂
Rodger the dodger also insisted on standing too close to Gen whilst she unzipped the tent, and grabbed my arm to touch and admire my many (14 on day 1) mosquito bites. By day 2 (after Rodger was hanging around staring at me whilst I limped down Dead Womans Pass) I completely lost it with Rodger and asked him to leave me be in Spanish. After that my wish was my command. But Rodger was worse with Gen, asking her out on dates, telling her she had a beautiful smile and asking why she was single.
It took Gen asking Rodger twice to stop bothering her (probably far more genteel than I did), and then finally losing her temper with him on the evening of day 3 for Rodger the dodger to leave her alone.
So what about Eddie?
Eddie didn’t take our problems seriously, and argued/rolled his eyes whilst Lucy and I complained about our respective tours. Lucy went on the jungle trek and also had a host of problems. Eddie behaved as if by refunding us the double charge to Machu Picchu entry was a gesture of good will!
Loki Travel no longer do the classic Machu Picchu trek. But check out TripAdvisor for yourself, you’ll see how awful the reviews are.
Did this affect your actual experience to Machu Picchu?
Other than the problems with our guide? Not at all, and I’d 100% recommend The Inca Trail to others. It was magnificent!
What do I need to pack for The Inca Trail?
- A packable down jacket
- A couple of vests
- A long sleeve t-shirt
- A couple of sports leggings
- Hat, gloves, scarf… basically stuff to keep you warm if it gets a bit chilly at night
- Decent socks – ideally wick-able ones, the cheapo llama ones we bought at San Pedro market didn’t cut the mustard and we chucked ‘em eventually
- Erm… underwear and toothbrush and stuff (if you’re over the age of 7-years-old you don’t need me to tell you this).
- HIKING STICKS!!! These are a must. They saved my life!!! I will never walk without hiking sticks again; even around London I’ll use them to prod people on the tube. I’m a changed woman as a result of my hiking sticks. They cost me 5 Soles per day to hire.
- Decent walking boots (I wear these sexy babies)
- A sleeping bag (there are about 400 cheapo camping shops around Cusco and they all open late). I got a fantastic duck down sleeping back and it cost 6 Soles per day to hire.
- Mosquito repellent – especially for the first 2 days. I got bitten terribly; I got one on my forehead and everybody laughed. The Spanish guy on my tour (Jesus) poked it and said ‘India! India! Jajajajaja.’ – alright Mr Racist.
- Toilet paper!! Unless you want to drip dry in the camping loos
- A torch
- Snacks – they cost about $73738838 on the trail to buy; couldn’t have done The Inca Trail without my vegetarian Percy Pigs and Fizzy Fangs
TIP: Hire a porter!!! You’re spending a lot of money on The Inca Trail anyway, why not save yourself some pain and spend an extra $60-120 on a porter? Gen and I shared 1 porter between 2 and it was more than sufficient for $60 each. A porter can carry 14KG each. My whole rucksack wasn’t even that heavy.
What happens during the evenings on The Inca Trail?
At 5pm most tours have a ‘happy hour’ or hora de feliz if Español is more your bag. It doesn’t comprise of half price booze – rather coca tea, hot chocolate and biscuits. Then at 7pm dinner is served; every dinner (and lunch, to be honest) begins with soup. The vegetarian option is usually pasta, or omelette or stir-fried veg whilst the meat eaters have chicken, beef or llama. Every dinner was served with potatoes or rice. I can’t complain about the food, it was delicious considering the limited equipment.
And what is the morning routine like?
Wake-up for most groups is usually between 5-6am. You’ll be woken up by a porter knocking on your tent singing, “Coca tea! Coca tea!” – one morning our porter actually attempted to zip the tent open! After drinking your coca tea you’ll be expected to pack up and clean your entire tent. If you’ve booked a more expensive tour perhaps they do this for you – who knows.
When should I do The Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be hiked all year round, except for February when the trail is closed for maintenance. The best time to go is May – September when there is less rain (but there is still rain, it p*ssed it down on day 2 making the steps down very miserable and slippery) and temperatures are cooler.
The high season is June to September, but again make sure to book at least five to seven months in advance regardless of when you decide to travel.
Rain is almost guaranteed between November and March.
Day 1: 12 km (8 miles), 5-7 hours from the start of the trail (kilometer 82) to Wayllabamba
We were collected at 5:30am from our hostel. Well, I say 5:30am, it was 6am because Eddie didn’t tell our guide Rodger the Dodger to collect us from Wild Rover Hostel, and he was waiting over at Loki. Lol.
Our bus took us through the picturesque villages of Chinchero, Urubamba (where we stopped for breakfast – pancakes and terrible coffee not included so bring 20 Soles in preparation) and Ollantaytambo, for the 3-hour scenic trip to the start of the trail. This is where we met Jesus, another hiker. He was very nice but spoke 4 words of English.
At this point RTD/Rodger the Dodger introduced us to all the animals we may see on our trek. This included condors, pumas and snakes (to which Gen almost had a heart attack).
FYI: we didn’t see any animals. Not one.
On day 1 we crossed the Vilcanota River and passed through a small village. After we saw the ruins of Huillca Raccay, which come into view high above the mouth of the river Cusichaca (‘happy bridge’) before descending onwards. For another 7km or so path followed the left bank of the river up to Wayllabamba Village (3,000m). The name in Quechua means ‘grassy plain’ (I totally googled this). I remember Rodger saying something about it being the last village… sorry I can’t be more useful as an auxiliary Quechua guide.
Hatunchaca was the name of our camping site!
What happened on the first evening?
It was the first evening Gen received her very exciting birthday cake, and an even more surprising treat of RTD following her around in the dark.
On the first day the guide will schlep out all of the porters, who introduce themselves. This includes name, age and (weirdly) number of kids. And then they all twirled and we clapped. It was like something out of ITV’s Take Me Out.
We then did the same. “Hi, I’m Amber, I’m 25-years-old and I erm… well I have no children.”
Day 2: 11 km (7 miles), 7-10 hours from Wayllabamba to Pacaymayu
I actually dreaded this day…
Because they called it the Gringo killer! 5 hours hiking uphill in altitude, 3 hours hiking downhill. “Steps and steps and steps and steps” Rodger the Dodger told us. But you know what?
It was absolutely grand. Honestly. There are so many blogs that dramatize this day completely. YES its hard work, but if you take it slow, chew some coca leaves and take plenty of snacks and water (and – top tip – listen to your iPod) it actually is quite enjoyable. The views are splendid!
The steady climb up from Wayllabamba camp takes about 3 hours through steepening woods and increasingly spectacular terrain brings you to a meadow known as Llulluchapampa (3,680m). It is another 1-hour climb to the highest pass of the trail (Abra de Huarmihuausca or ‘Dead Woman’s Pass) at 4,200m.
In my (humble) opinion, the walk down is harder than the walk up. It is extremely slippy and the euphoria of reaching Dead Woman’s Pass wears off quite quickly. I asked poor Rodger and David every 20 seconds, “how much longer left??? WHAT DO YOU MEAN 1 MORE HOUR???” 🤨
The 2nd night’s campsite is at Pacamayo (3,600m) – this campsite is at the highest altitude and gets COLD at night – utilise those woolly socks!
TIP: take some Diamoxin that morning; Gen did and she felt grand. I didn’t (clever) and toward the higher altitude I felt… woozy. Weird! I felt like someone who was coming around from antibiotics.
Day 3: 16 km (10 Miles), 10 hours from Pacaymayu to Wiñaywayna
This was the longest day of the trek. This was also the day the straw broke the camels back – Gen absolutely lost it with Rodger that very evening.
You need to understand that Gen is extremely positive (sometimes too much – sorry babe) and doesn’t get upset easily. But when Rodger tried to tell us that the reason Eddie sold us 2 identical tickets each to Machu Picchu was in case we felt compelled to leave the citadel, and then pop back later in the evening… well, lets just say Gen saw red.
Poor Jesus didn’t know what to do with himself what with all the arguing. My poor Spanish translation didn’t help matters. Hora de feliz was more like Hora de Triste.
So from Pacamayo campsite you climb to he top of the second pass: Abra de Runkuracay (4,000m) via the ruins of Runkuracay.
At this point most of The Inca Trail is completely original. It took Rodger the Dodger about 20-minutes and a bit of a strop to convey this information. To be fair English is his third language (behind Quechua and Spanish), and my brain had probably gone to mush in the altitude. Rodger also did this thing during explanations where he drew seemingly unrelated lines in the ground with his walking stick. It was rather distracting.
Atop Runkuracay, Rodger gathered us for a special ceremony. From here we could see Salkantay (6,271m) and Veronica (5,750m). The ritual involves taking three coca leaves, saying a prayer and thanking both Veronica and Salkantay. You then blow the coca leaves away and make three wishes.
I think I genuinely wished for a decent hot meal, and for my next hostel to have showers with good water presser.
Alongside good health and happiness for my family of course!!!
After about 1 or so later we arrived at Sayaqmarca via very steep stone staircase. Sayaqmarka is an Incan temple that was never discovered by the Spanish. A group of Chinese tourists taking photos almost knocked me down the side of the steep staircase – so do take care!
The name Sayaqmarca means ‘Inaccessible Town’ (according to Google) – I’m guessing inaccessible because the Spanish didn’t ruin them. Nobody knows the exact purpose of these ruins (again, according to Google – apologies that I can’t be a beacon of Incan knowledge).
After a little backtracking the trail descended into a magnificent cloud forest with a wide diversity of flora and fauna (“Gen, what is all that smoke?”).
The trail then climbed up to Phuyupatamarca Pass. It was absolutely stunning!
My spirits weren’t so high about 2 seconds after this photo was taken – Rodger announced we had 3 hours of straight downhill to come. My poor knees! Just after Rodgers announcement, it began to rain. I’m sure this is called pathetic fallacy or something (I got a C in English Literature).
Finally we finished at the Wiñay Wayna Ruins – terraces used for agricultural purposes to grow a variety of natural medicines. Nobody can say the Incan’s aren’t clever! Here Machu Picchu is SO close.. and yet so far.
Day 4: 5 km (3 Miles), 1-3 hours from Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu
Rodger promised us sunrise at the Sun Gate. He failed to mention that sunrise in these parts during September is at 5:30am – this is the time the checkpoint into Machu Picchu citadel opens. He also promised us a sandwich in our pack lunch on the final day. That was also a lie – we only received an apple and some biscuits. I was a bit sick of Rodger and his lies at this point.
The trail from the final campsite to Machu Picchu takes between 1-3 hours depending on fitness. The hike is relatively easy; to be honest I had so much adrenaline at this point (fuelled by a manky apple and naranja biscuits) because the end was finally nigh!
The trail finishes with vertical flight of 50 steps leading up to the final pass at Intipunku (otherwise known as the Sun Gate). Gen and I took 1.5 hours to reach the final pass.
When you reach here and look down onto Machu Picchu, the feeling is euphoric. Such a sense of achievement! I actually got a bit emotional – I pretty much threw my walking sticks to the ground and ran around the gate like an excited labrador.
What happened with Rodger the Dodger?
He abandoned us at the Sun Gate.
Yup. His creepy advances onto Gen weren’t getting anywhere so he decided to abandon ship. We found another wonderful guide to take us on, whose English was fabulous. I really do wish I remember what tour company he was with.
Despite all my problems I just want to re-iterate how much I recommend the Inca Trail. Especially as you get to Machu Picchu: what you both see and learn at the citadel ties in everything you learnt during the 4 days trekking. Machu Picchu just kind of… I dunno, makes sense? It all came together once I had my citadel tour.
The citadel tour lasts an hour. You really don’t have time to hike Wayna Picchu. And take it from me – you’ll be absolutely exhausted.
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