The Inca Trail complete guide – Everything you need to know about the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is one of the world’s most talked-about treks, and for good reason. This 26-mile trail meanders, climbs, and descends through the Andean countryside and cloud forest, over spectacular passes, past lesser-known Incan ruins, and up mountain-carved steps. Then, after multiple days of trekking, delivers you to the doorstep of an ancient world wonder, the Inca’s mountaintop citadel of Machu Picchu. Chances are you’ve arrived in this blog post because you’re pondering an adventure tour on this famous Andean trekking route. Keep reading for the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about this popular Peru trek.

Cusco: 3 350 msnm / 10 990 ft
Sacred Valley: 2 850 msnm / 9 350 ft
Machu Picchu: 2 470 msnm / 8 104 ft

Weather in Cusco:
Max.: 17º C / 62.6 Fº
Min.: -2º C / 28.4 Fº

From March to December

Trekking Level:
Easy – Moderate – Challenging

What was the Inca Trail used for?
Besides allowing for rapid mobilization of the Inca armies, the Inca Trail was a safe way for the Incas to cross mountains and jungle within their empire, Tahuantinsuyo.

What is the Inca Trail and who used it?
The Inca Trail, or Qhapaq Ñan, is composed of a network of roads of varying quality and size. Some stretches of the trail are between 6 and 8 meters wide, while the more mountainous sections are only a meter wide and extremely steep. Llamas were used as the main means of transportation for the merchants and Inca armies. Chasquis, or Inca messengers, were also frequent users of the Inca Trail. They would travel long stretches to deliver messages entirely on foot.

How difficult is hiking the Inca Trail? How long does it take to hike the Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail involves 4 days of hiking (and 1 for visiting Machu Picchu) with the average distance being 6.5 miles per day. For most people in moderate to good physical condition, it could take an average of 6 to 7 hours of hiking per day. There are significant ups and downs and the highest point of elevation on the hike is of 4,200 m.a.s.l. In general, most people agree that if one is accustomed to backcountry hiking and amping will have no problem enjoying the trek.

Why is the Inca Trail so famous?
Of course, the promise of an epic and hard-earned arrival to Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) is high on the list of reasons why adventure travelers embark on this particular trek in Peru, but what really makes the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu so famous lay in its history and the fact that the entire route is along Inca-laid road. No other trek in Peru can promise that. This route to Machu Picchu was used strictly as a pilgrimage route to the citadel, one that passes a series of sacred peaks, including La Verónica and Wakaywilka.

What activities can you do on the Inca Trail?
Besides birdwatching and admiring various versions of the orchid flower, there’s a steady supply of Incan ruins to visit en route, including Llaqtapata and Llulluchapampa, and a host of adventure sports to enjoy with each shifting landscape, be it a canoe adventure down the Urubamba River or a scenic bike ride through the Andean countryside. There’s also a zip line near the approach to Machu Picchu that will amp up your already off-the-charts adrenaline levels.

How far in advance should I book my Inca Trail hike?
This year’s tendency is that permits get sold out at least 2 months in advance or even before, as such has demand grown in the past year, with permits selling out for May to October typically around 4 months in advance. The trek’s popularity, increasingly stringent regulations, and the possibility of even fewer permits in the future ensure that this period will only grow.

How crowded is the Inca Trail?
In 2012 the Peruvian Government put in place widespread new regulations for the Inca Trail. This has caused crowds to decrease although it is still common for most groups to hike amongst others throughout the day. In Explorandes we prefer that the hike be a more solitary experience, and we are one of the very few operators that, by meeting stringent environmental practices, are able to stay at alternative campsites to the larger, standard sites.

This allows us to be at different points of the trail throughout the day than most other groups, meaning you’ll typically see few people other than those within your group.

How big are the groups?
On our Fixed Departure group treks, which depart every Sunday and Wednesday, the average group size is 10 to 15 people during high demand dates and 4 people during less high demand dates. Most groups never exceed 8 people.

We’ve heard that the Inca Trail is sold out. Can we get permits when we arrive in Peru?
We get this question fairly often when Explorandes and/or other reputable companies have told travelers that the Inca Trail permits are sold out. Once permits are sold out on the official government website, they are sold out. The government requires exact passenger information to purchase a permit and your passport must match the passenger information registered on the permit when beginning the trek, and they are non-refundable and non-transferrable.

When is the best time to hike the Inca Trail?

Climate is the biggest differentiator when it comes to determining the best time to hike the Inca Trail. The highland areas of Peru experience everything from rain to sun, clouds, and very cold nights. In this article, we break down what you can expect for weather month-by-month on the Inca Trail.


The rains can be persistent in January, especially at night. The days are typically cloudy, with a few sunny days thrown into the mix on occasion.


No one can trek the Inca Trail in February. Every year, the Ministry of Culture closes the trail for the duration of the month for maintenance and to improve the route. Machu Picchu is still open, however, but the train will be your only way to it.


Like January, expect rainy nights and cloudy days. If you’re lucky, you may get a sunny day or two.


By April, the rainy season typically peters out. The days grow warmer and more pleasant, with a few sporadic rains here and there.

May to October

The dry season begins in May and ends in October meaning the days are full of steady sunshine. June through September are some of the best months to hike the Inca Trail, as the days are exceptionally and consistently clear with fresh temperatures and the landscapes are even more beautiful. The nights, however, can get quite cold.


By November, the rainy season begins again. Expect sporadic rain showers and storms between bouts of sunshine.


December tends to be a rain-filled month with the occasional sunny day; however, cloudy days without rain are more likely.

cusco hiking inca trail


What are the advantages of doing the Inca Trail in 5 days instead of 4?
The Inca Trail Trek is one to be savored, not rushed. By stretching the trek an extra day, you’re able to slow down and appreciate the view, get the shot, avoid the crowds, and connect to the beautiful landscapes and sites you meet along the way.  Many of the 4-day Inca Trail treks start at the same time and camp at all of the same campsites in near-perfect step with each other. The beauty of the 5-day trek is how it inherently staggers you from the rest of the trekking groups, both on the trail and at the campsites, plus those ungodly early morning wake-ups aren’t necessary when there’s an entire extra day to arrive.

What equipment does Explorandes provide for Inca Trail hikers?
You will be supplied with all necessary camping gear for your Inca Trail trek other than sleeping bags (which are available for rent with advance notice, however, most people prefer to have their own bag). This includes all cooking gear and commissary gear, expedition class tents (Eureka Out­tter Special Edition or similar models), dining tents, tables, chairs, toilet tents, water puri­ers, and sleeping pads. Our equipment is inspected and replaced regularly.

The Classic Set Up

We always make sure to have the best equipment on our treks. On the basic trek, you will always find sleeping tents (double occupancy) with Thermarest sleeping mats, dining tents (with tables, stools and dining tools), cooking tents (where our staff will prepare your delicous meals).

The Tents

We usually work with 4-season tents to ensure that you stay warm and dry in the event of any weather complications. The brands that Explorandes has worked with for many years are Eureka and Big Agnes.

Our Sleeping Bags

We have different sleeping bags depending on what trek we operate. We make sure that the sleeping bag provided during the trek is the right one so that you can stay warm all night. The brand that Explorandes has worked with for many years is Mountain Hardware.

Sleeping Mats

We will provide Thermarest sleeping mats to you on the trail.

If walking poles are needed, please always inform the guide on your briefing day.

What trekking gear will you need to complete the Inca Trail?
The answer to this question depends on what time of year you’ll be trekking the Inca Trail. If it’s during the rainy season (November to April), you’ll need to be sure to have a dry sack, waterproof hiking boots, and a poncho or rain jacket to throw on when the skies let loose. Year-round it’s a good idea to have a pair of trekking poles handy for those steep ascents and descents. Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to packing is that it all needs to fit within a small to medium-sized pack that you’ll have to carry for hours on end each day. The weight limit for your personal items to bring on the Inca Trail is 8 Kilos.  Only throw into it what is absolutely essential. Your shoulders and back will thank you for it later.

For a detailed packing list and clothing suggestions please see the Inca Trail packing list at the end of this blog.

What are the campsites like?
We are one of the few permitted to camp in remote sites away from the crowds. Night one we camp near the archaeological sites of Wayna Q’ente and Llaqtapata. The following night we camp outside the indigenous Andean village of Huayllabamba with a breathtaking view of Mount Huayanay. The third night we camp in a beautiful clearing in the vicinity of Phyupatamarca (translates to the village on the edge of the clouds). This combination of sites ensures remoteness, contact with authentic Andean indigenous people, and solitary visits to archaeological sites.

camping areas chamana inca trail

What are the guides like?
Explorandes Guides are among the very best and most experienced guides on the trail. They are all from the surrounding areas of the Sacred Valley and Cusco; fluent in English as well as Spanish and fluent or conversational in the native tongue Quechua. They are certified Wilderness First Responders, have training or degrees in a diverse range of fields such as tourism, history, culture, spirituality, ecology, anthropology and archaeology. Moreover, they are personable, likable and positive people who thrive on sharing their region and heritage. He/She will meet you at your hotel lobby the evening before the start of your trek and will coordinate pre-trip briefings and make sure you have all necessary equipment and clothing to undertake your excursion or adventure.

Can we hike the Inca Trail without a guide?
No, it is not permitted to hike the Inca Trail without a licensed guide that comes from the area around Cusco/Machu Picchu. For those people that prefer to hike alone, you are more than welcome to hike separately from your group and guide, but are required to be an official member of a guided trek and to camp with the group.

What is the food like?
Simply put, the food is scrumptious, hardy, and fresh. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and hearty snacks are prepared and provided for you. Meals are a mix of local specialties and international favorites. Vegetarian meals are available upon request, and we can accommodate most dietary restrictions as well with advance notice.

How is water supplied while on the Inca Trail?
In spite of there being a couple of places along the trail to buy bottled water, we strongly recommend travelers bring a couple of reusable water bottles to limit plastic waste. Water is boiled, treated and ­ltered by cook staff and guides and available to hikers throughout the trek.

How will altitude affect me while hiking the Inca Trail?
As everyone reacts differently to altitude, the best indication of how the Inca Trail’s high altitudes will affect you is your previous reaction to high altitudes. The average altitude throughout the trek is 10,000 ft, with altitudes ranging from 9,000 ft to 14,500 ft. The highest campsite is at 12,000 ft.

For this reason, all hiking-intensive itineraries include at least 3 days of acclimatization before beginning your hike, which allows some amount of acclimatization and an opportunity to see how you will feel while hiking. Most visitors experience mild altitude symptoms such as fatigue, headache, trouble sleeping, or light-headedness during their first day or two at elevation. Our porters on the Inca Trail have oxygen available for travelers having problems with the elevation. It is a reasonable precaution to ask your doctor about Diamox or other medications for altitude sickness.

What are some tips for beating altitude sickness?
There is a chance that you’ll experience the dizziness, shortness of breath, vomiting, and headaches of altitude sickness during your Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to minimize that risk. Stick to light, easy-to-digest meals, chew on coca leaves or consume them in a tea throughout the trek, and stay super hydrated. In advance of your holiday in Peru, be sure to visit your doctor for a check-up and to stock up on altitude sickness medication that you can take if the preventative measures fail.

What if I have a medical emergency while on the trek?
Guides carry a fairly comprehensive ­rst-aid kit while on the trek and are Wilderness First Responders as well as having Red Cross training in ­rst aid, and are capable of treating basic medical problems (cuts/scrapes, blisters, travelers’ diarrhea, etc.). Our guides lead hundreds of treks each year and we have rarely had a traveler unable to complete the hike. In the rare instance that someone is unable to complete the trek, they will be evacuated back to Cusco and, in most cases, can rejoin the group back in Machu Picchu going by train. The nearest modern medical facilities are in Cusco.

What does Explorandes do to minimize environmental impact?
Specifically while on the trail we use environmentally friendly portable toilet systems, biodegradable soaps, and facilitate hikers utilizing reusable water containers. Most importantly we transport all the garbage back to Cusco. All staff and guides undergo continuing education in environmental sustainability.

explorandes everything we do sustainable

Where to stay in Aguas Calientes?
Where to stay in Aguas Calientes after four demanding and unforgettable days on the Inca Trail is an important aspect of your trekking experience. Are you the type to splurge on the five-star lodging experience or are you simply after a cozy and clean spot to rest your head after one too many nights in a tent? It’s certainly something to think about in advance of your Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu. In this blog post, we present a few Aguas Calientes hotel options to fit every budget and style.

High-End Stay

  • Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel
    This intimate mountain lodge by Inkaterra Hotels is set amidst terraced hills on a private 5-hectare reserve, meaning its 83 casitas are surrounded by cloud forest, orchids, and, last time they checked, 214 different bird species. The hotel itself offers a variety of in-house excursions to complement your post-Inca Trail Trek experience, as well as an inviting spa to nurture your tired and sore muscles.
  • Belmond Sanctuary Lodge
    Touted as the only hotel located at the entrance to Machu Picchu, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge is as close to the finish line as an Inca Trail trekker can get. Its relaxing gardens, rejuvenating spa, and hotel activities, like pisco tasting and private sunrise breakfasts, are exactly what you’ll never knew you were craving when you reach the end of the Inca Trail.
  • Sumaq
    Considered to be one of South America’s best hotels by travel publications like Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure, Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel is an invigorating oasis at the foot of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary. The hotel is known for its five-star personalized service, innovative cuisine, and cultural experiences, like exploring Machu Picchu with a shaman and experiencing an Andean wedding ceremony.

Mid-Range Hotels

  • Inkaterra El Mapi
    The Inkaterra El Mapi is an atmospheric experience. As soon as you enter its lobby of lofty ceilings, panoramic windows, and natural accents, you’ll feel right at home. It’s conveniently located in the heart of Machu Picchu Pueblo on a street known for its restaurants. The rooms are comfortable and contemporary featuring all of the amenities one could need to rest and restore after an Inca Trail trek.
  • Casa Andina Standard
    The Casa Andina Standard hotel is a great no-frills, yet modern, option for your post-Inca Trail recuperation. With 53 comfortable rooms, some of which overlook the river, your stay includes the welcome amenities of room service, a breakfast buffet, and soundproof windows to allow you the rest and recovery you need after your four-day Inca Trail trek and tour of Machu Picchu. It also happens to be steps from the Machu Picchu Pueblo train station.

Low-Cost Options

  • Inti Punku
    This inexpensive Aguas Calientes chain of hotels is both comfortable and conveniently located. Each of Inti Punku’s three properties – Machu Picchu, El Tambo, and Alameda Inn – are within minutes of the train station and mere steps from a variety of affordable restaurant options and the local handicraft market. The rooms are cozy and comfortable with amenities like heating and air conditioning, LCD televisions, and en suite bathrooms and showers.

Inca Trail Alternatives you should know about:

Peru has a knack for luring adventure travelers to its ancient trails and ruins, but what many travelers don’t realize is that there is more than one trek to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail, as some of you may know all too well, sells out quickly. To trek it, you’ll have had to have your permit purchased nearly six months in advance of your travel, and though it’s a popular trek for good reason, these two Inca Trail alternative treks to Machu Picchu are equally as stunning and satisfying. Allow us to introduce you to the Ancascocha Trek and the Salkantay Trek.

  • The Ancascocha Trek to Machu Picchu
    The Ancascocha Trek to Machu Picchu is like every tour operator’s best-kept secret. If you were to ask us, which route to Machu Picchu offers the quietest trails and campsites without skimping on the Andean views and Incan ruins, we’d immediately reveal that it’s the Ancascocha Trek. This four-day trek covers 20 miles (32 km) of trail through the high plateaus, river gorges, and remote villages north of Cusco. Each night’s campsite includes views of snow-capped and glacial peaks that often neighbor small Quechua-speaking communities. The trail ends in the community of Camicancha, just outside of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From there, you can either combine your trek with the Inca Trail Express, a one-day hike from Km 104 to Machu Picchu Pueblo, or hop aboard the train to Machu Picchu in Ollantaytambo.
  • The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
    The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu has been the go-to trek for a while now when trekking Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail is out of the question. As a result, this trek is slightly more crowded than what you may find on the Ancascocha Trek to Machu Picchu, but the natural scenes this trek brings are unparalleled. The Salkantay Trek truly is the ultimate way to arrive if challenging adventure is what you’re after. The route traverses 30 miles (50 km) in 5 days and reaches heights of 15,210 ft. (4,636 m.). The ascents are steep and the descents are long and winding. You’ll find yourself repeatedly humbled by the huge expanses and snow-clad mountains before you. The final two days of the trek take you through a dense cloud forest, eventually arriving at your first glimpse of Machu Picchu from afar. The trail ends at the hydroelectric station where you’ll board a train for a short ride to Machu Picchu Pueblo.

What to pack for the Inca Trail? – Inca Trail specific packing list

Inca Trail or alternative treks with camping – The weight limit for your personal items to bring on the Inca Trail is 8 Kilos. It’s best to bring a bag you intend to bring on the trail in addition to your main bag which will be left locked in our Cusco offices while you’re trekking. If needed, a duffel bag for your personal gear while on the trail can be supplied the night previous. Multi-purpose, layerable, quick-dry clothing used for hiking worldwide as well as comfortable shoes are the recommendation. Besides, we recommend bringing your own sleeping bag (0 to 15 degree F rated) as well as a pack towel sold at gear shops. With prior notice, a sleeping bag can be rented.

Below is a more detailed Inca Trail pack list:

  • Short-sleeved shirts or t-shirts (non-cotton recommended)
  • Light-colored long-sleeved shirts
  • Fleece or wool sweater
  • Lightweight pants
  • Hiking shorts
  • Regular and long underwear
  • Medium weight jacket (synthetic is better but down will suffice)
  • Hat for sun
  • Hat for warmth
  • Rain gear or rain poncho
  • Light gloves
  • Medium weight socks
  • Comfortable hiking shoes
  • A change of shoes for around camp
  • Trekking poles (optional)
  • Sleeping bag (0 to 15 degree F rated)
  • Small daypack
  • Strong duffel or another bag for your personal gear to be carried by porters
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunblock, lip balm, and insect repellent
  • Headlamp or flashlight with spare batteries and bulb
  • Quick-drying pack towel
  • Swimsuit
  • Water bottle

Personal first-aid kit – Guides carry a medical kit, but we suggest this for bruises and blisters. Knee or ankle braces are useful if you suffer from weakness or previous injury. Include any special medication your doctor might suggest for you.

Want to read about an Inca Trail Experience from the words of an Explorandes traveler?

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Ready to book a trek on the Inca Trail? Explorandes’ 5-day Inca Trail trek is one-of-a-kind, affording you all of the trail’s spectacular views and ruins away from the crowds and in the company of an expert guide. Contact us today for more information.

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