This is an FAQ for the Inca Trail, a list of frequently-asked questions about the Inca Trail, accompanied by some tentative answers.
Probably not very. It’s based mostly on my memories from a single trip along the Inca Trail in 1987. This is not 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.
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. Please do not mail me asking about prices, dates or anything else.
Yes, but I don’t always give them back.
The Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is the name given to a walking route that partially follows the course of an old Inca roadway leading to the ruins 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.
The figures I’ve seen suggest that from Km.88 to Machu Picchu along the trail is about 33-40 km (20-25 miles).
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).
Because walking the trail independently is no longer an option, your time will now be determined by your tour operator. As most tours include porters, you will probably more quickly than if you had to carry all your own equipment and supplies. Two or three days seems likely.
When planning your time in Peru, remember to allow for transport. Local trains and buses may follow timetables that do not match yours. You should also ideally plan on a few days in Cuzco to adjust to the high altitude. Also allow time for visiting Machu Picchu, and other sites of interest in and around Cuzco and the Sacred Valley.
No, this is no longer possible.
The Inca Trail regulations require that all visitors are accompanied by a guide. In theory, you could organize your own tour by finding an authorized local guide, arranging your own Trail permits etc. Groups led by a single guide are limited to a maximum of 7 people, including the guide and any porters.
In practice, however, it will be very difficult to do this. Most authorized guides already work for one of the licensed tour operators. Moreover, tour companies quickly take up most of the limited number of Trail permits available. It will generally be much easier to book to travel with an organized group run by a licensed agency.
High demand means that you will also need to book several months in advance. It is just possible that you might be able to find a spare place on an organized tour at short notice, but it’s unwise to count on it.
Booking with a licensed tour operator does simplify things generally. The operator will typically provide an experienced guide, food and water, porters and some camping equipment. They will also obtain the permits needed to walk the Trail and enter Machu Picchu. They may provide transport from Cusco and even accommodation. Check with the agency to find out exactly what they offer, and the cost of any optional extras.
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 from the altitude and the repeated steep ascents and descents. 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.
As a member of an organized group, you will most likely not need to carry all your own equipment and supplies, which makes things significantly easier.
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.
Because the new regulations make joining an organized group mandatory, you are likely to have porters to shoulder some of the heavier stuff. This reduces the fitness requirements a bit, but if you’re not an experienced hiker, you may still find that carrying even a relatively light pack at high altitude can be quite demanding. 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.
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. However, symptoms such as severe dizziness, loss of coordination and concentration, and severely irregular (Cheyne-Stokes) breathing indicate a more serious problem. In some cases, altitude sickness can lead to death from pulmonary or cerebral odoema.
If you, or someone with you, shows 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. While severe cases of mountain sickness are fairly rare, they do occur. In 2013, a British tourist died while visiting Machu Picchu, reportedly from the effects of altitude sickness.
You can reduce the likelihood of suffering from altitude sickness by 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 quite likely to have problems. As a rule of thumb, plan for 2-4 days acclimatization, including day-hikes in the Cuzco region. Again, getting fit beforehand will also make life easier.
The ‘dry’ season from May to October is generally considered preferable. July and August is the peak period for visitors, so it will be more difficult to book a place on a guided hike or get access to Machu Picchu during those months.
The Trail is closed during February each year for maintenance.
According to Promperu, 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 as much as 25°C (45°F), 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.
Prices have risen recently as the result of new regulations. The fee for walking the Trail is currently close to US$108, which includes entry to Machu Picchu. Entry only to Machu Picchu costs about half that. There are reductions available for students, children and residents of Peru. Some activities, such as climbing Huayna Picchu, may also be subject to additional charges. In most cases, the fee will be included in the cost of your tour (but check with the tour operator to make sure).
The cost of an organized tour now seems to range from around $650 to $2000 and up. In general, you should expect to pay more for better-run tours; Lonely Planet advises against going with the very cheapest tours.
Other costs will include transportation, accommodation, equipment, food, clothing, etc. How much you spend on these will depend where you are and what you want.
Prior to 2001, the Inca Trail and visits to Machu Picchu were very little regulated. That has all changed.
Since 2001, Peruvian authorities have limited the number of walkers on the trail to 500 per day, and made it mandatory to go with a guide. This means that hikers must typically now go as part of an organized tour run by a registered tour operator. Moreover, around 300 of the places available are typically taken by guides and porters, leaving slots for just 200 hikers each day.
Restrictions have also been placed on the number of visitors allowed at Machu Picchu each day. At the time of writing, only 2,500 people are allowed to visit Machu Picchu each day. 400 are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu, and 800 to climb nearby Mount Machu Picchu. These restrictions are in the interests of protecting the ruins and the Trail, as there was concern that large numbers of visitors were causing significant damage.
The new restrictions mean that the days when you could turn up and walk the Trail are over. It is now recommended that you book with a tour company beforehand. Estimates vary as to how far in advance you need to book ahead. Some sources suggest that if you intend to walk the Trail during the most popular period (May to September), you should book 3-6 months or even as much as a year in advance. Whenever you intend to go, you should make your reservations as soon as possible.
If you intend only to visit Machu Picchu, you should still book ahead, although it may be possible to book just weeks or even days before visiting. You should also book a seat on the train well ahead of time; trains typically fill up quickly. If you plan to stay at Machu Picchu, or in the nearby village of Aguas Calientes, you should also reserve your accommodation well in advance.
It’s periodically reported that the Trail will be closed temporarily or permanently. Permanent closure is unlikely, especially now that new regulations are in force to help preserve the Trail. On the other hand, the trail may be closed temporarily for maintenance. The Trail is now typically closed for maintenance during the whole of February each year, and sometimes longer: in 2020, the Trail was closed for an additional two weeks.
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.
If you have a medical condition, you should be aware that medical facilities on the Trail are very limited, and that emergency evacuation may be difficult and slow.
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.
There have been periodic reports of robberies occurring on the Trail. In November 2005, thirteen hikers camped overnight were robbed by armed and masked men. Peruvian authorities subsequently arrested three men and have now assigned officers from the national police to protect tourists on the Trail.
Robberies on the Trail itself are rare enough to make the news when they do occur. However, violent robberies and assaults have been reported elsewhere in Peru. There have been reports of tourists being robbed or raped at knife or gun point, and of ‘strangle muggings’ (where the victim is choked unconscious and then robbed) in Cuzco. You can greatly reduce the risk of anything happening to you by taking sensible precautions and being aware of risks.
Thefts from tents, particularly in the region of Huayllabamba, were reported in the past. Don’t leave your tent unattended and don’t leave valuables in your tent. At night, bring everything – including your boots – inside the tent.
Peru in general has a bad reputation for thefts from travellers, usually involving guile rather than violence. Given the fact that Peru is a poor country, and the average backpacker carries money and possessions which could probably feed a 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 items 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, pay close attention to your possessions. If you have to put bags on the floor, make it harder for someone to snatch them 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 for robbery than men.
- Don’t go to isolated areas alone. Be 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 section of the trail is optimistically marked “Zona de Osos” (“Bear Zone”), but your chances of stumbling across a bear are very slight indeed. Making noise as you walk and staying on the trail will reduce them still further. Poisonous snakes live in the area, but you are not likely to see any, particularly if you stick to the Trail. 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.
Recent reports suggest that on most days the number of people on the Trail is close to the official limit of 500 per day. According to people I’ve spoken to, it’s now very difficult to get out of sight of other groups. Crowding appears to be particularly bad during the summer months, with an inevitable impact on both facilities and the environment.
Toilet facilities? Historically, these have been scarce. There are apparently now some facilities at the campsites, but they’re probably far from luxurious and they’re in fairly heavy demand. A few years ago, there were reports that hikers unwilling to use the toilet facilities in camp would crap anywhere that was convenient for them – which was usually somewhere inconvenient and unpleasant for someone else.
If you need to go while hiking, 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.
Among the things I would suggest as essential are:
- water bottle (1.5 litre or better)
- waterproof clothing
- sturdy, comfortable footwear
- light clothes for warm weather
- warm clothes for cold weather, including a windproof jacket and a sweater or fleece
- insect repellent and ‘sting relief’
- sterilizing tablets (iodine or chlorine-based)
- a guidebook
- a good backpack
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.
Organized tours will typically provide tents, cooking equipment and food and water, along with porters to carry them. You should check with the tour operator to find out what is provided and if there are any additional items that you need to bring.
Everything you don’t need should be left behind. Many hostels and hotels in Cuzco will let you leave stuff with them.
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.
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.
Food and fuel should be provided by your tour operator, as most tours are now fully catered (but check with the operator to see what exactly is provided, especially if you have any special needs or dietary restrictions). You may also want to bring snacks (chocolate, energy bars, trail mix etc) of your own.
In the past, there were only a few places on the Trail where it was possible to buy food. There are tourist facilities toward the end of the Trail which may offer food.
It used to be possible to safely fill your water bottle from streams and rivers along the Trail. This may no longer be true. If you do fill your bottle from a stream, you must use sterilizing tablets and filters 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, and try not to pollute the water supply for everyone else by falling in and drowning.
There are reports that streams close to campsites may be contaminated by waste from the sites. Avoid filling your bottle in these areas.
Tour operators will generally provide water for walkers on organized tours.
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.
There are some luxury hotels at Machu Picchu itself, with prices starting around $550/night. While this is out of reach for most budget travellers, staying near the ruins may give you the chance to visit the site when it is less busy.
Yes. The nearby village of Aguas Calientes (sometimes known as Machu Picchu Village) is about 1 mile (1.6km) down the railway line from Machu Picchu station. Aguas Calientes has a number of hotels, restaurants and hostels. Hotel prices now seem to be in the $150-300 range, smaller hostels may charge less. Prices are likely to vary dependent on the season. Because of the large numbers of people who now walk the Trail, you should reserve accommodation ahead of time.
Another option which I’ve heard recommended is to stay at the Huinay Huayna hostel (whose official name seems to be the Trekker’s Hotel) 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.
Access to Machu Picchu is now divided into two blocks: 06:00-12:00, and 12:00-17:30. Your ticket will probably be for one block or the other. Generally, there will be fewer people around early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Staying nearby and getting up early may be the best way of seeing the site when it’s not overrun with other visitors. Remember to check the time of sunrise and sunset when planning.
You must be accompanied by a licensed guide at all times. You can’t use a selfie-stick or a tripod, and only small backpacks are allowed (16” x 14” x 8” maximum). Use of drones and strollers is forbidden. High-heeled shoes are not permitted.
Additional information may be available at the Peruvian government’s official Machu Picchu site (requires Flash).
In 2002, around 150,000 people visited the site. Peruvian authorities, on the advice of UNESCO, have now imposed a limit of 2,500 visitors per day.
Because of the altitude, a UV/skylight filter may be helpful. As in most places, early morning and late evening seem to offer the best light for taking really striking pictures at Machu Picchu.
There are periodic rumors that Machu Picchu might be closed to the public, but it seems unlikely. New regulations designed to protect the site by limiting the number of visitors are now in place.
The site has occasionally been closed in the past due to strikes, wildfires, heavy rain or landslides. In each case, however, the authorities have worked hard to reopen the site as soon as possible.
Temporary closures for maintenance are 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 Machu Picchu usually remains open.
If you hear anything reliable about planned closures, please mail me and let me know.
The best source for train information is probably the Peru Rail site.
There are now bus services that run from Cuzco to Km.82 (six kilometres before the usual start of the Inca Trail), making that a possible option for walkers. I don’t have any further information about these. As far as I know, they do not run all the way to Machu Picchu.
TripAdvisor has a good Inca Trail FAQ.
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. Some sites have forums where recent travelers can share their tips and experiences.
Refer to one of the guidebooks mentioned above (this is the best option), or search the Web. 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.
The guidebook sites often have bulletin boards where you can exchange messages with other travellers and ask for recommendations.
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.
The classic ‘Inca Trail’ to Machu Picchu is a 3-4-day hike that begins around Km. 88. There is also a shorter 2-day trail that begins with an ascent to the ruins of Huinay Huayna. There are also alternative Trails in the region, such as a 7-day high-altitude hike via Salkantay, or the Lares and Ausangate trails. Not all of these trails reach Machu Picchu itself, but most will allow the opportunity to view the site from a distance. Guided tours following these trails may also include a Machu Picchu visit as part of the package.
In addition, there are other trails that lead to other Inca sites. The less-visited site of Choquequirao can currently only be reached by walking trails, although authorities plan to build a cable car to allow easier access to the site.
See the alternatives page for more options.
If you like. I have a contact 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. Try working through the links page first to see if any of the other sites answer your question.
Please contact me and let me know.