The Inca Trail FAQ

Last updated: 08.05.2002


Introduction

1.1 What is this?

This is an FAQ for the Inca Trail, a list of frequently-asked questions about the Inca Trail, accompanied by some tentative answers.

1.2 How reliable is it?

Probably not very. It's based on my memories from a single trip along the Inca Trail fourteen years ago. This scarcely makes me an authority on the subject, so this is not in any way an 'official' or authoritative FAQ. It's simply a list of the questions that people have asked me, together with the answers that I've given them. I have tried to ensure that the answers are correct and complete but if in doubt you should confirm anything important by referring to other sources. I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies, or anything that may or may not happen to you as a result of following the suggestions in this FAQ.

1.3 What do I do if I notice any mistakes?

Mail me and let me know.

1.4 What are your rates? Can you give me details of the tours you organize?

I have no rates, and I am not organizing any tours. I'm not running a travel agency, nor do I have any connection with any travel agencies or any financial interest in the Inca Trail of any kind. If you read these pages carefully, you will see that I am not selling anything. Please do not mail me asking about prices, dates or anything else.

1.5 Do you accept credit cards?

Yes, but I don't always give them back.

1.6 I'm too lazy to read all this text. Can I mail you and ask you stupid questions?

By all means. Send your message to anyone.but.me@nosuchhost.com and it will be dealt with appropriately.

1.7 I've read the FAQ and have a valid question which it doesn't answer. May I mail you?

If you like. I have a mail form you can use to contact me. Bear in mind, however, that I try to include everything I know in this FAQ and that it's updated reasonably regularly. If the information you're looking for isn't here, I may not be able to help.

The Inca Trail

2.1 What is the Inca Trail anyway?

The Inca Trail is the name given to a walking route that partially follows the course of an old Inca roadway leading to the city of Machu Picchu. For most people, the trail begins at Km.88 on the railway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu and ends at Machu Picchu itself.

The Inca Trail is not the name of a particular travel company's itinerary, although many travel companies offer Inca Trail tours.

2.2 How long is it?

The figures I've seen suggest that from Km.88 to Machu Picchu along the trail is about 33-40 km (20-25 miles).

2.3 How long does it take to walk?

Most guidebooks estimate between two and six days for the section of the Trail that most people walk (from Huayllabamba to Machu Picchu), and the average time seems to be three to four days. When I walked the Trail, we took the midday train from Cuzco which left us at Km.88 in the late afternoon. We walked for not much more than an hour before making camp, then walked two full days, and finally arrived at Machu Picchu in the early afternoon of the third day (and would probably have arrived sooner if it hadn't been for a lengthy and exhausting wrong turning caused by some ambiguous sign-posting). Our time seems to have been slightly faster than the average, due probably to the fact that my companions were both fairly fit and set a fast pace. When planning your trip, remember to allow for travel to and from the ends of the Trail (taking into account the fact that the local train has its own timetable which may not exactly match yours), several days of acclimatization in Cuzco beforehand (essential) and time spent exploring the ruins at the end.

2.4 Do you need a guide or porters? Do you have to join an organized tour?

In practical terms, there's no need for a guide as the trail is fairly clear and well signposted where necessary. However, new regulations are now in force which make it mandatory to travel with either a licensed guide or an organized tour.

You're not obliged to join an organized tour, but if you want to travel independently, you'll need to get some other walkers together and hire a guide jointly. Solo walking no longer seems to be an option.

As far as porters are concerned, if you're fit and accustomed to hiking with a heavy backpack, you can do without them. If you are unsure about your ability to carry everything you need over rough terrain, or you are in a hurry, then porters may be a good idea.

2.5 How hard is it?

That will depend on you and what you're used to. It's generally reckoned to be a strenuous hike, but there's no rock-climbing or glacier-walking involved, so no technical expertise is required. The difficulty comes largely from the repeated steep ascents and descents, and from the high altitude. The climb to the first pass takes you up from around 2000m (6500ft) to more than 4000m (13000ft) in a relatively short space, followed by a descent of around 1500m (5000ft). After the second pass at 3500m (11500ft), things generally become easier.

You should remember also that unless you go with an organized tour or hire porters you will need to carry camping and cooking equipment, clothing and food for three or four days, all of which makes for a fairly heavy pack.

2.6 How fit do I need to be?

The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy it. Conversely, the less fit you are, the less you'll enjoy it. If you're extremely unfit, you may even fail to enjoy it to the point of collapsing in a lifeless heap somewhere along the way and having to be buried on the spot by your fitter companions.

In the absence of any agreed universal measure of fitness, consider that for a somewhat unfit twenty-two year-old (me) it was difficult but manageable. I found the first day very tough indeed, but thereafter things became easier. However, don't be deceived. It is very hard work in places (I wanted to give up on the first day, and had to take extended rest breaks every half-kilometer or so during some of the steeper parts) and you are likely to be carrying a heavier pack than you are normally used to. A better than average standard of fitness is probably highly desireable, if not absolutely required.

If you want to prepare yourself, hiking is the most obviously appropriate activity, but anything that builds stamina such as running or swimming is also useful. Stamina is more important than strength or speed; being able to bench-press five hundred pounds will probably not help unless you intend to walk the Trail on your hands.

2.7 What about altitude?

The Inca Trail is high enough that some people do have problems with the altitude. Being short of breath is relatively common and is not, by itself, cause for concern. On the other hand, severe dizziness, loss of coordination and concentration, severely irregular (Cheyne-Stokes) breathing, and death from pulmonary or cerebral odoema are generally regarded as more serious symptoms of mountain sickness.

If you, or someone with you, does start to show any of the symptoms of severe mountain sickness - severe breathlessness, noisy breathing, blue lips, frothing at the mouth, confusion or unconsciousness - you should descend to a lower altitude as quickly as possible and seek medical advice.

The chances are that you won't experience any ill-effects from the altitude, but it is definitely worth spending some time acclimatizing before you set out, with Cuzco being the obvious place to do this. If you go straight from sea-level to the Inca Trail you are much more likely to have problems. It's been suggested to me that 3-4 days acclimatization, including day-hikes in the Cuzco region, should be considered a minimum. Again, getting fit beforehand will also make life easier.

2.8 What's the best time of year to go?

The 'dry' season from April to October seems to be generally considered preferable, at least as far as weather is concerned.

2.9 What's the weather like?

According to Promperú, the driest months are from May to September, the winter months in the Southern hemisphere. Temperatures can fall below freezing above 4500m, and it may be windy from August onwards. During the spring, September to December, there are likely to be early afternoon showers (sometimes accompanied by electrical storms) of short duration, and it may be cloudy and overcast. Nights during this season are clear (which means cold at high altitude).

The rainy season is from December to May. There is likely to be heavy rain for two to three hours every afternoon, as well as the possibility of light showers that continue over a longer period. Walking conditions are difficult, and streams may become impassable.

Note that just as anywhere else in the world, these are general tendencies. You could have a dry day in December, you could get rained on in July. Note also that there's a wide variation in temperature, dependent on altitude and time of day. Some guidebooks report that it can vary by up to 25 degrees Celsius, so it can be quite warm during the day at low altitudes and below freezing higher up during the night. My own memories from a trip in August run from sweating in shorts and a T-shirt during the day to shivering fully-clothed - T-shirt, shirt, and heavy wool sweater - in a three-season sleeping bag at the Pacamayo campsite at night.

2.10 How much does it cost?

Prices have risen recently as the result of new regulations. The fee for walking the Trail is currently US$50 (US$25 for students and children), which includes entry to Machu Picchu. Entry only to Machu Picchu costs US$20 (US$10 for students).

If you go with a guided tour run by a local company, you should expect to pay a minimum of around US$120 for guides, porters etc. Lonely Planet suggests that the cheapest tour operators should be avoided, and that it is worth paying more (closer to US$200) to go with professional, responsible operators. Packages that also include visits to other sites, accomodation, etc. will cost more.

Other costs will include, of course, transportation, accommodation, equipment, food, clothing, etc. How much you spend on these will depend where you are and what you want.

2.11 I've heard something about new regulations for the Trail - what can you tell me about these?

The new regulations reportedly came into force on 1st January 2001. Among other things, they increase the fee for walking the Trail, limit the number of walkers, and make it mandatory to go as part of a guided group. A private travel firm, Andean Travel, has a good summary of the new regulations.

2.12 Is it true that the Trail is going to be closed?

It's periodically reported that the Trail will be closed temporarily or permanently. I think that a permanent closure is very unlikely, especially now that new regulations are in force to help preserve the Trail. On the other hand, temporary closures for maintenance are likely. It's hard to get definite information, but the usually reliable South American Explorer's Club suggests that the Trail will be closed for all of February 2002, and this has also been reported by other sources.

2.13 Is it dangerous?

Not especially. It's a three or four day walk in a fairly remote area. There are places where you could fall and hurt yourself, or even kill yourself if you really work at it, but unless you're very careless or clumsy it's not very likely.

On the other hand, it's not a good place to have a medical emergency. If you have a tendency towards cardiac arrest, passing suddenly into a diabetic coma, epileptic fits or whatever, try to arrange for it to happen somewhere else.

2.14 I'm scared of heights - will I be able to walk the Trail?

If the words 'Inca Trail' call up images of swaying rope bridges over deep ravines and narrow paths carved into the faces of sheer precipices, relax. There's nothing like that. And it's a walking trail, so you don't need to do any mountaineering.

There are a few steep descents, and there are some places where there is a drop-off on one side of the roadway. However, even people who don't like heights should be able to walk these stretches quite comfortably.

The stairway to Sayacmarca is a little intimidating, as it's quite narrow, overhung, and there's a steep drop on one side. However, Sayacmarca is optional: anyone who really can't handle the stairs can just sit by the main trail and wait while their friends explore the site.

2.15 What about theft?

Peru in general has a bad reputation for thefts from travellers. Given the fact that it is a poor country, and the average backpacker carries money and possessions which could probably feed a large family for the better part of a year, this is understandable. However, if you don't want to subsidize the local economy involuntarily, you should pay close attention to your belongings at all times.

Basic precautions include:

  • Don't flash money, jewellery or expensive watches around.
  • When carrying a shoulder bag or camera, carry it in front of you. Put the strap across your body, not just over one shoulder.
  • Don't leave valuables in hotel rooms.
  • Don't leave your luggage unattended. If you put it on the roof of a bus or in storage compartments, watch closely to make sure it doesn't get unloaded before the bus leaves.
  • When sitting in cafes or restaurants, make it difficult for someone to snatch your bag or camera by putting the leg of your chair through the strap (and sitting in such a way as to make it difficult for thieves to get at it).
  • Watch out for pickpockets in a crowd, or for any attempt to distract you by bumping into you, or thrusting something - a newspaper, a piece of cardboard with something written on it, etc. - into your line of vision. Another favorite trick is to spray you with something unpleasant - grease, excrement and so forth. While 'helpful' passers-by try to clean you up, their friends are busy cleaning you out.
  • Women alone should be especially careful, as women seem to be considered easier targets than men.
  • Don't go to isolated areas alone. Be very careful after dark. If you have doubts, ask locals, other tourists or the police if an area you intend to go to is safe.

One consolation is that the Peruvians mostly seem to favour guile rather than violence. However, there have been reports of tourists in Peru being robbed and worse at knife or gun point, and of 'strangle muggings' (where the victim is choked unconscious and then robbed) in Cuzco. The chances are that it won't happen to you, but you should pay attention to any warnings you hear or read, and take sensible precautions.

With respect to the Inca Trail specifically, thefts from tents, particularly in the region of Huayllabamba, are unfortunately fairly common. Don't leave your tent unattended, and don't leave valuables in your tent. At night, bring everything - including your boots - inside the tent and keep it close to you.

There are occasional reports of walkers on the trail being stripped of their possessions by armed men. These incidents seem to be very rare. Travelling as part of an organized group may further reduce the likelihood of this happening to you.

2.16 What about wild animals?

One section of the trail is optimistically marked "Zona de Osos" ("Bear Zone"), but your chances of stumbling across a bear are probably very slight. Making noise as you walk and staying on the trail will reduce them still further. Predatory wildlife on the Inca Trail consists mainly of the local pigs and dogs around Huayllabamba (who will eat anything that you leave outside, including boots, rucksacks and plastic garbage bags) and biting flies, which will eat you. The insects, particularly around the Pacamayo, are extremely fierce. There have also been reports of chiggers and other pests near Huayllabamba.

A good insect repellent is a necessity. An American brand called Cutters worked particularly well for me. The active ingredient in that is apparently diethyl meta-toluamide ('deet'), so other deet-based repellents (which is to say most of them, nowadays) might also work well. You might want to consider carrying a second repellent based on a different main ingredient, as a reserve, in case the flies have grown to like deet.

2.17 Is the Trail crowded?

In 1987, we met about five or six people a day. The campsites were nearly empty. However, according to the last figures I saw, something in the region of thirty to forty thousand people now walk it every year. (Hey, and you want us to believe your poxy Web site with this stupid FAQ is something special? Which planet are you from?) The latest reports I've had suggest that you're likely to meet about 200 other people per day on the trail, including large groups with guides and porters. The crowding appears to be particularly bad during the popular summer months. This has an inevitable impact, both on the facilities and the environment.

Whatever the conditions on the Trail, Machu Picchu is usually Tourist Central.

2.18 What about ... ahem ... you know ...

Toilet facilities? They're scarce. Apparently there are now pit latrines at the campsites, but the rest of the time you're on your own. What this means above all else is that you need to be a good citizen of the wilderness and obey the rules. Since it's impractical to backpack your crap out of the region along with the rest of your rubbish, this means that when you have to go, you should go a long way away from the Trail, and bury your excrement properly after you're done. This is not an especially pleasant task, but it must be done. And when you're at the campsites, use the facilities available: stepping or even sleeping in someone else's shit is less than pleasant.

Preparation

3.1 What should I take?

Among the things I would suggest as essential are:

  • camping gear, including a tent and a good sleeping bag
  • cooking gear, including a stove and saucepans
  • food for three to four days or more
  • water bottle (1.5 litre or better)
  • waterproof clothing
  • sturdy, comfortable footwear
  • light clothes for warm weather
  • heavy clothes for cold weather, including a windproof jacket and a sweater or fleece
  • insect repellent and 'sting relief'
  • sterilizing tablets (iodine/chlorine-based)
  • a guidebook
  • a good backpack to hold it all

Add to this the usual traveller's staples such as toilet paper, a flashlight, a knife and a basic first-aid kit, plus money (in a money belt or neckpouch hidden inside your clothes) and anything you need to record the trip - camera, film, sketch pads and notebooks etc.

If you're going on an organized tour, the tour operators may provide some of these items and porters to carry them.

Everything you don't need should be left behind. Many hostels and hotels in Cuzco will let you leave stuff with them. Your pack will already be uncomfortably heavy with just the essentials.

3.2 What kind of clothing and footwear should I take?

Remember the dramatic temperature range. Irrespective of what the weather forecast says, you'll want clothes for both warm and cold weather. At low altitudes it can be quite warm; on the peaks and at night it will certainly be very cold. The best thing is to work on the layer principle; if it gets too hot, take something off, if it gets too cold, put something on. A waterproof and windproof jacket is also essential.

Take strong, comfortable footwear. Heavy boots are probably not required or advised; all you need is something that you can walk in all day, that gives good traction and which supports the ankle. Lightweight modern hiking boots are probably ideal. I wore a pair of extremely cheap rubber-soled canvas boots from an army surplus store. They had the advantage of comfort and light weight, but offered little traction and no support. They were also not very robust; I survived the Trail; the boots did not.

Remember to wear your boots in thoroughly before you go and get used to walking in them. Blisters will reduce your enjoyment significantly.

3.3 Can I rent or buy equipment locally?

Yes. There are shops in Cuzco which will rent or sell equipment. However, bear in mind that shops may not have everything you want and that the stuff they offer to rent may be old, broken, heavy or have parts missing. Check everything before you leave the store. Whether you're renting or buying, you're likely to find it expensive.

3.4 What about food and fuel? Can I buy food anywhere on the Trail?

You can buy food and fuel in Cuzco. Don't count on being able to buy any food on the Trail. You may possibly be able to buy some food in Huayllabamba but it will be relatively expensive. There are also tourist facilities at the far end of the trail, but it's unwise to rely on either.

3.5 You mean there isn't a McDonalds or Burger King?

Not yet, fortunately.

3.6 What about water?

It should generally be possible to fill your water bottle from streams and rivers along the Trail. You must use sterilizing tablets or boil the water (remember that water boils at lower temperatures at high altitude, so you must boil drinking water longer to ensure it's fully sterilized). Take water from streams in preference to standing water, and filter it if in doubt. Be careful when taking water from fast-flowing rivers; by inconsiderately falling in and drowning you risk polluting the water supply for everyone else.

3.7 What should I take away with me?

Photographs, and all your rubbish.

Machu Picchu

4.1 Do I have to walk the Trail to get to Machu Picchu?

No. There are high-speed, air-conditioned tourist trains that run directly from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. When you arrive, there are buses to drive you up Hiram's Road to the site itself.

If you're short of time, or you don't think you're fit enough for the Trail, this is much the best option.

4.2 Can I stay at Machu Picchu?

Yes. There is a tourist hotel at the site, run by people who - in 1987 - were memorably described by my friend Abbey as "sour-faced f**kers". Their temperament may have improved since then, but the Ruinas Hotel probably remains a relatively expensive option for budget travellers. On the other hand, staying near the ruins does give you the chance to get to the site at times when there shouldn't be too many other people around.

4.3 Is there anywhere else?

Yes. If you follow the railway line from the station at Machu Picchu, you will come to the village of Aguas Calientes about a mile (1.6km) down the tracks. There are a number of small hostels and restaurants. Because of the large numbers of people who now walk the Trail, you may need to reserve accommodation ahead of time, and the hostels may not now be as much of a bargain as they used to be.

Another option which I've heard recommended is to stay at the hostel on the trail itself, which has beds and camping facilities. From there you can get up at first light and hike to Machu Picchu in time to see the sun rising over the ruins from Intipunku.

4.4 How can I see the site when it's less crowded?

Stay nearby and get up early. The site is only open for a limited number of hours every day. At the time I went, the first tourist train arrived about an hour after the site opened, and the last left about an hour before it closed. In theory, this should give you at least two hours in the day when the site is not completely overrun by (other) visitors.

4.5 Any advice for photographers?

Take more film than you think you'll need. Because of the altitude, a UV/skylight filter is worth having. As in most places, early morning and late evening seem to offer the best light for taking really striking pictures at Machu Picchu.

4.6 Is it true that the site is about to be closed?

Periodically, I hear rumours that Machu Picchu might be closed to the public at some point, but I have never been able to confirm this. These rumours may arise from the fact that the site has been inaccessible from time to time recently, due to a series of fires, landslides and rail strikes affecting the region. In each case, however, the authorities have worked hard to reopen the site as soon as possible. Due to the importance of tourism for the local economy, any permanent closure seems very unlikely.

The Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu may periodically be closed for maintenance, but the site itself tends to remain open.

If you hear anything reliable about planned closures, please mail me and let me know.

4.7 Do you know anything about the train timetables?

Not at present. The best information I have is that there are tourist trains (running direct to Machu Picchu) several times a day, as well as local trains (stopping at Km. 88 and Aguas Calientes). You may find more information in some of the guidebooks. If you know of anywhere on the Web that gives this information, or have any up-to-date information about the trains, please mail me and let me know.

Further information

5.1 Your FAQ is useless. Where can I get some information I can trust?

There are a number of good guidebooks available which cover Peru and the Inca Trail. I strongly recommend that you buy one and read the relevant sections carefully when planning your trip. If something I've said here conflicts with anything in the guidebook, believe the guidebook.

Among the ones I've seen, those from Lonely Planet and Rough Guides appear to be generally good. The South America Handbook from Trade & Travel Handbooks also has a good reputation. For French speakers, the Guide du Routard series are said to be good, while German travellers we met tended to use an independent guide called simply "Sudamerik", which appeared comprehensive and detailed.

You would be well advised to look at one or more of these guidebooks, as they are likely to have much more detailed, reliable and up-to-date information than this FAQ. Their websites are also good for getting up-to-date information. In particular, the Peru updates section of the Lonely Planet site is highly recommended, as it includes recent travellers' reports as well as 'official' updates to the guidebook.

5.2 Where can I get information about organized tours?

Refer to one of the guidebooks mentioned above (this is the best option), or search the Web using one of the Web's many fine search engines. Many travel companies have Web sites where you can get more information. Not having gone with a tour group, I can't speak from personal experience about any of them and wouldn't want to appear to endorse any by linking to them from this FAQ. If people I trust give me good or bad reports about particular operators, I might eventually add notes and links to this section, but for the time being you'll have to do your own research.

5.3 Where can I find more information on the Web?

You can search the Web using a search engine and keywords such as "Inca Trail" (or try one of the place names from the Trail; the more obscure the name, the more specific the information you're likely to get).

5.4 Are there other Inca Trails?

Yes. The Inca Empire ran from southern Columbia to central Chile, and while many of the communications routes they used have still to be discovered, a number have been identified. In Bolivia, for example, there are several known trails including Taquesi (which begins close to La Paz), Yunga Cruz, El Choro and the Camino del Oro. Times to walk these trails range from two to seven days.

Another alternative is to approach the Inca Trail via Salkantay instead of joining it at Cusichaca/Km. 88. This will add several days and some tough walking to your hike, but the views are said to be spectacular. Search for Salkantay on the Web using your favourite search engine, or read this description of the Salkantay section.

5.5 Where can I find maps?

Once again, the South American Explorer's Club offers paper maps, both of Machu Picchu and of the Inca Trail.

For online maps, there's a good map of the Inca Trail at Infoperu, as well as my own map of the Inca Trail on this site. Wholeo Online books have a sketch map of Machu Picchu, and there's a more precise but unlabelled map available as part of an article about a multimedia feature on Machu Picchu.

5.6 Who died and made you Inca? What makes you such an expert on the Inca Trail?

No one. I don't claim to be an authority on either the Trail or the Incas. I'm simply passing on what I remember from having once walked the Trail fourteen years ago and from what I've subsequently read or been told. The main aim of this FAQ is to reduce the amount of mail I get. You should treat all the information it contains with the same amount of suspicion as anything else you read on the Internet. Caveat lector.

5.7 How can I ever thank you for this wonderful FAQ?

Impractical suggestions aside, the best thing is if you can help me keep it up to date. If you walk the Inca Trail or visit Machu Picchu and you notice that something has changed or you discover some particularly useful information, please mail me and I'll see about adding it to the FAQ.

Acknowledgements

Any mistakes in this FAQ are mine. However, I would like to thank Martin Cover, Martina Faller, Daniel Leaño, Brian Moorhead, Berta Pires, Marian Seager and Peter Winkler for sharing their knowledge and experiences and helping me make the FAQ slightly more accurate and up-to-date.

The Inca Trail[HOME][UP]