>  South America   >  Peru   >  The Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu AKA “Dead Woman in the Pass at 4200 Metres”
setting up in Ollaytaytambo for the inca trail hike to machu picchu

Winding up, down and through the Andes Mountains, the Classic Inca Trail hike takes 4 days, covers 42 km and reaches a maximum elevation of 4200-metres.

inca trail hike to machu picchu peru

The Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu takes 4 days and covers 42-km.

Passing through cloud forest, alpine tundra, and fantastic Inca ruins, before reaching Inti Punku or the Sun Gate, the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is every bit as stunning as its end point.

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The Inca Trail Hike | A Travelogue

I’m just 200-metres from the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass, but it might as well be 2000. The hood of my high-tech rain jacket is no match for the high winds that whip the freezing rain across my cheeks like blades, and I’m grateful for the knit Peruvian hat that provides a tiny bit of warmth to my ears.

The rock-hewn steps above me appear slippery and never-ending, and though I know that the hardest part of the Inca Trail hike is oh-so-close to over, my legs feel as though they weigh as much as all the stones of Machu Picchu combined.

It’s only about 70 steps to the top, but still I stop for what seems like my 3rd break in 50 metres.

entrance to the inca trail hike in peru

First control point for the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

Surprisingly though, up until this last torturous climb up to the dreaded Dead Woman’s Pass, the Inca Trail hike hasn’t been nearly as difficult as I’d anticipated.

*This is a personal travelogue of my experience on the Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu. Check this post, if you’re looking for tips on hiking the Inca Trail successfully.

The Inca Trail Hike Day 1 | An Easy Start

After an early morning pick-up at our hostal, we are transferred to Ollaytaytambo, an hour’s drive from Cusco. Our chef, Santiago, our porters and our Quechua guide, Wilberth are picked up along the way.

preparing for the inca trail hike in ollaytaytambo

Ollaytaytambo is the first stop to pick up final gear for the Inca Trail hike.

In cute little Ollaytaytambo, I have time to enjoy a cafe con leche and pick up breakfast, while our team of porters buys food and coca leaves and prepares all the gear for the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

When all is ready, we pile back into the van and head to Piscacuchu at 2700-metres, better known as KM82, or the starting point of the Inca Trail hike.

porters from quechuas expeditions preparing in ollaytaytambo peru

The porters preparing all the gear for the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

We pass Control (which is strict) and after months of anticipation, I’m finally walking the path of the Incas! Rewarded with clear, bright and sunny (dry!) skies, I feel optimistic and cheerful about what lies ahead, with good reason.

the inca trail hike to machu picchu day 1 scenery

The landscape on Day 1 of the Inca Trail hike is simply gorgeous!

Day 1 of the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is an easy walk through mostly flat, but beautiful terrain, and we arrive at the first campsite, Wayllabamba at 3000-metres, early, with lots of energy to spare.

The Inca Trail Hike Day 1 at a Glance

Start: Piscacuchu / KM82

Distance covered: approximately 12km

Rise in Elevation: 430 metres

Average Duration: 5 – 6 hours

End: Wayllabambo Camp at 3000 metres

The Inca Trail Hike Day 2 | Dead Woman in the Pass

I’m woken early by one of our porters, knocking on the tent. He comes with a steaming hot cup of coca leaf tea. I shift gently and find that my legs are not sore at all. It’s a welcome surprise, because I’m about to face the most challenging day of the trek.

Waking up to this view on Day 2 of the Inca Trail hike.

Over the next 8 hours, I’ll climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which summits at the maximum Inca Trail hike elevation of 4200-metres above sea level. From there, it’s down to Pacamayo at 3600-metres to make camp.

I know I’m in trouble when Wilberth, our guide, calls me over to the side of the campsite to perform a traditional Quechua ceremony. I’m instructed to choose 3 coca leaves from a bag and keep them with me until the end of the Inca Trail hike. He digs a hole in the ground and gives an invocation, praying for health and safety on our journey across the Andes and beyond.

guide on the inca trail hike

Wilberth performs a traditional Quechua invocation ceremony.

I carefully place the coca leaves in my pocket, and while on the Inca Trail trek, I find myself touching them for reassurance from time to time. In a strange way, the simple ceremony has given me comfort and a little extra confidence for what lies ahead.

girl holding coca leaves for good luck on the inca trail hike

I’m hoping these coca leaves will help me in Dead Woman’s Pass.

The hike starts easily enough, but it’s misleading, because within minutes, the rocky path starts veering upwards, and IT DOESN’T STOP. This isn’t like hikes I’ve been on in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, where a series of switchbacks guides you gradually and gently up the mountain. This is up, up, up with little to no reprieve.

Despite the physical trial, it’s absolutely wondrous to walk through the Andean alpine forest, see fields full of llamas in the distance and know that you’re following in the footsteps of the Incas. The scenery is simply astonishing and there are many moments when I stop and just look around with awe.

The first 3 hours of Day 2 are actually not that bad. Sure we’re going up and it’s challenging, but I’m still pretty fresh and the sun is shining.

inca trail hike day 2

The first few hours on Day 2 of the Inca Trail hike are not too difficult.

At some point though, the landscape becomes more barren and the weather changes as if by magic. The blue sky disappears, the wind starts blowing, and all of a sudden, I’m being whipped by sharp pellets of freezing rain, and struggling up a wet and slippery series of rocky steps.

The muscles in my legs are filling with lactic acid and it’s becoming more difficult to breathe. There’s definitely less oxygen available at 4,200-metres!

ascent to dead woman's pass on the inca trail hike to machu picchu

The hike up to Dead Woman’s pass on the Inca Trail is unforgiving.

Wilberth reminds me that the Inca Trail hike is not a race, and to enjoy the trek, and this helps me put things back in perspective. I decide to take my time, and stop every 10-15 steps to catch my breath and rest my exhausted legs. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, I make it to the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass, very much alive.

There’s no time to celebrate, or even take a picture however, because it’s freezing cold, I’m being pelted by rain, and still have to make it down to Pacaymayu Camp to sleep for the night. Now, it’s down, down, down for 800 knee-tormenting metres. As I make my way gingerly down each step, the porters, each carrying a load of 25 kilos, run past me in their sandals like I’m standing still. Truly awe-inspiring.

We start our day of hiking, while the porters break down camp every day, and then beat us to the next camp.

The most ironic part of all of this is that the porters run up and down the mountains, carrying our stuff, set up and take down our tents, cook all our food and clean up, while we struggle to finish. They beat us into camp and when we finally arrive some hours later, they applaud us! Huh?!

After surviving Dead Woman’s Pass, and the punishing journey back down the mountain, I must confess that I am more than a little proud of myself. This time, at least, the applause feels well-earned.

The Inca Trail Hike Day 2 at a Glance

Distance covered: approximately 11 kilometres

Rise in elevation: 1,200 metres

Average Duration: 7 – 8 hours

End: Pacaymayu Camp at 3,600 metres

The Inca Trail Hike: Final Thoughts on Day 1 and 2

To say that I was worried about the Inca Trail hike is an understatement. Truthfully I fretted about it from the moment the decision was made to do it. I was especially apprehensive about Day 2 and Dead Woman’s Pass. I mean, can’t they name it something a little less intimidating?!

But I survived and yes it was difficult and challenging, but nowhere close to as hard as I made it in my mind. There’s a lesson in there somewhere…

The Inca Trail Hike Day 3 | Walking the Path of the Incas

With the trials and tribulations of Dead Woman’s Pass already a fading memory, I awoke feeling eager to conquer the challenges of Day 3. That is, until I heard the unwelcome tap tap tap of raindrops against the canvas of our tent.

hiking the inca trail in the rainy season

A wet morning to begin Day 3

We were hiking the Inca Trail during rainy season, and thus far, had been extraordinarily lucky. Aside from the cruelty of Dead Woman’s Pass, we hadn’t had a single drop of rain. Only 24km of blissfully dry paths and vivid blue skies.

Unfortunately, this was all about to change.

As I finished my breakfast, the rain began to peter off and I thought that perhaps our luck would hold. But alas, as I made my way out of the campsite, the rain began again with a vengeance. Soon, it was a steady dribble and I was enveloped by a moist mist. I tucked my camera under my rain jacket and prayed that it was as waterproof as advertised.

hiking the inca trail in rainy season

All the rain on Day 3 of the Inca Trail hike was making me a little nuts.

Day 3 began with a massive upwards climb to the 2nd major pass of the Inca Trail hike – the Runcurakay Pass at 3,800-metres above sea level. With camp made down at a chilly 3,600-metres, we had a good 200 metres to ascend before we would reach the top, and complete one of the most challenging parts of the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

As I made my way up a never ending set of stairs, I was surprised to discover that my legs were not sore at all, and that my breath was flowing easily. It was as though some magical switch had clicked between Day 2 and Day 3, and I was now climbing with ease.

Perhaps I was gaining strength from the energy of Incas past. Or maybe the psychological triumph of conquering the much feared Dead Woman’s Pass was giving me a physical lift.

the trail up to Runcurakay Pass on the inca trail

The stairs up to Runcurakay Pass are no joke.

Whatever it was, I was glad for it, because after climbing up a series of stone stairs for thirty minutes straight, we were only halfway to the top, with no end in sight. In an attempt to stay dry, I was forced to pull my hat tightly around my cheeks, cutting off my peripheral vision AND my view of the stunning natural landscape around me.

My view of one wet stair after another into eternity was not the most encouraging one, and I despaired that the rain would never end. The sound of the raindrops against my hood actually began to drive me insane, and now I understand why Chinese Water Torture was so effective!

The rain was so much of a factor that we barely stopped to appreciate the ruins at Runcuracay. A quick picture and we were on our way back up the mountain.

Runcuracay Ruins on the Inca Trail hike

We barely managed a pic at the Runcuracay Ruins because of the rain.

After another thirty minutes of agonizing steps in the most aggravating of rain, I finally reached the 3,800-metre peak of Runcuracay Pass. Hallelujah!

On the other side of the valley, I could see the next landmark – the dry lake, Chaquiqocha. I, for one, could not wait to reach it, because Chaquiqocha is where we would hike the “true” Inca Trail, and walk upon the very stones laid by the Quechua people during the Inca Empire.

Sayacmarca Ruins on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Inca fortress Sayacmarca has a Temple of the Sun (not that I saw the sun) and residential areas.

But first we would have to pass by the Inca fortress, Sayacmarca. Accessible only by a single narrow stone staircase, historically, Sayacmarca effectively controlled the passage of people onto the trail beneath it.

When the rain finally began to wane somewhere along the walk down to the valley floor, I was able to remove my drenched hood and really look around. And what a view!

scenery on the inca trail hike to machu picchu

The Andes are simply magnificent.

I began to sound like a broken record, as I oohed and ahhed over the carefully laid stone trails, sheer cliff faces and tunnels built by the Incas so long ago. It’s truly mind-boggling to think of the level of effort, ingenuity, and work that was required to build the Inca Trail.

I was so enamoured by my surroundings, I barely noticed the physical labour involved in summiting the Phuyupatamarca pass at 3850-metres above sea level.

The stunning cloud-level town ruins on the other side of the pass made it even more worthwhile. There, we were able to see where the Inca performed rituals and prepared for human sacrifices!

Phuyupatamarca on the inca trail

The dreamy cloud level town of Phuyupatamarca,

After Phuyupatamarca, we had a long, steep and rocky descent downwards on the Inca Trail hike, before reaching the Winay Wayna campsite at 2700-metres above sea level.

Now, lest you think that the rest of the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu was a breeze because it was mostly downhill, let me correct you.

stairs on the inca trail hike day 3

The descent down to Winay Wayna is torturous.

This portion of the trail is known as the “Gringo Killer.” Where the Quechuas porters were able to step lightly, almost running, down the stairs with massive packs on their backs, we (the gringos), laboured downwards with aching knees.

As I made my way gingerly down 3,000 or so slippery, uneven steps, I felt quite a bit of fear, and the going was slow. I would even venture to say that I found the downhill portion of the Inca Trail hike more taxing than the ascent.

gringo killer on the inca trail

The Gringo Killer consists of 3000 uneven, rocky stairs.

It would be another 4 hours before I reached the final campsite and the glorious Incan ruins of Winay Wayna.

We arrive so late that I have to make a quick sprint to the ruins before they close at 6:30. With llamas walking gracefully around layer upon layer of Incan terraces, the ruins are nothing less than magnificent.

winay wayna inca trail ruins

Winay Wayna means “forever young.”

Winay Wayna is the last Inca ruin I’ll see, before reaching Machu Picchu – the mother of all Incan ruins. And for once, like a parting gift, the sky remains cool and dry above me.

After my arduous 14-kilometre day hiking the Inca Trail, I expect to be completely exhausted, but the mood in the campsite is jovial and exuberant. All around me, I can hear the sound of different groups cheering and clapping for their porters, thanking them for all their hard work over the last 4 days.

winay wayna on the inca trail hike

The sky is clear above the Winay Wayna archeological site.

Our celebration is a little more mellow, but I’m just as grateful for the level of service, strength and caring our porters displayed. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Inca Trail hike would’ve been impossible for me to complete without their dedication.

quechuas expeditions porters on the inca trail

These hardworking and dedicated porters made my Inca Trail hike possible.

After a last supper with our super-porters (we won’t see them again because they leave early in the morning in order to catch the first train home), exhaustion finally catches up with me, and I make my way to the tent for my final night of sleep on the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail Hike Day 3 at a Glance

Distance covered: 14 kilometres

Maximum Elevation: 3600 metres

Average Duration: 9 – 10 hours

End: Winay Wayna Camp at 2650 metres

Inca Trail Hike: Final Thoughts Day 3

There were a lot of ups and downs on Day 3 (literally), but the beauty of the trek far outweighed any pain experienced. The feats of engineering performed by the Inca so long ago were truly astounding. I am not exaggerating when I say that this was one of the best days I’ve had traveling EVER. 🙂

The Inca Trail Day 4: Machu Picchu at Last

I get a solid 4 hours of sleep before I’m woken by the dreaded sound of raindrops against the tent. This time, the drops are strong and insistent. It’s definitely a downpour this time and not a dribble. I lie awake for awhile, praying that the rain will stop, but eventually I give up and fall back asleep.

When I’m woken the next morning at 5AM, the rain has stopped, but everything feels soggy.

To be honest, I’m a little relieved that it’s my last day on the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. After 3 full days of no showers, no hot water, filthy pit toilets that don’t flush, and wearing the same old dirty clothes, I’ve pretty much reached my discomfort limit. The dampness that now seems to pervade almost everything doesn’t help matters much.

inca trail hike to machu picchu day 4 control point

At the Machu Picchu control point, bright and early.

After having breakfast and packing up our gear one last time, we race to the final control point, just in time to…

…stand in line.

Hmm. It turns out that the control point doesn’t open until 6:30am, leaving 200 trekkers anxiously waiting at the gate.

I’m not sure where all the reports of seeing magical sunrises at Machu Picchu come from, because there’s no way to get there before sunrise with the control point opening so late.

Mystical early morning views on the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

When we’re finally allowed to pass onto the the final portion of the Inca Trail hike that leads to Inti Punku, the first golden rays of sunshine are already peeking over the horizon. With the mist hovering in the valleys between the mountains, hushed silence all around and dawn starting to colour the clouds in the sky, the feeling is no less than mystical.

Buoyed by excitement, I race along the trail, making speedy progress towards the final goal. After an hour though, I run into another line-up of trekkers, and I cannot imagine what the hold-up is. After all, Machu Picchu is nowhere in sight.

washed out trail on the inca trail in rainy season

Jumping over a washed out part of trail on the Inca Trail hike.

It turns out that the downpour of rain from the night before has weakened the Inca Trail, and a small mudslide has occurred.

We jump over the void one by one, assisted by other trekkers who have already crossed over. My heart is thumping in my chest as I make the leap over. I later hear that the trail washed out, just as someone was about to walk across it!

3 km later, I reach the final set of stairs on the Inca Trail hike that lead to Inti Punku. And boy, are they a doozy. This part of the trek is called the Monkey Steps, because nearly everyone has to claw their way to the top using their hands AND feet. The steps are super steep and narrow, with barely enough room for a foothold.

I honestly don’t know how people made it up with fully loaded bags.

stairs leading to Intipunku

The final set of stairs leading to Inti Punku were fit for monkeys.

Below Inti Punku – the Sun Gate – are the majestic ruins of the lost city, Machu Picchu. After 42k, 3 days and a million steps, I’m more than ready to get my first glimpse of the ruins.

My brother had done the Inc Trail hike years earlier and described his first sight of Machu Picchu as a spiritual experience. I wondered if it would be as meaningful for me.

As I crossed through the Sun Gate at last, I prepared myself for my first stirring site of Machu Picchu. And this is what I saw.

After hiking 42km over 4 days, this is what I saw (Machu Picchu is down there somewhere).

Truly magical.

The Inca Trail Hike Day 4 at a Glance

Distance covered: 5 kilometres

Elevation Loss: 300 metres

Average Duration: 2-3 hours

End: Machu Picchu at 2,450 metres

The Inca Trail Hike: Final Thoughts on Day 4

Was I disappointed that I didn’t get a glorious view of Machu Picchu from above, after hiking for 42-km through rain, wind, and cold? Sure, I was… but not as much as you’d think.

Nothing… I mean NOTHING… could tar my experience or take away the feeling of utter satisfaction and accomplishment I had from conquering the trail. It’s SO worth doing, despite the physical trial.

machu picchu in peru

Seeing Machu Picchu after hiking the Inca Trail for 4 days is a once in a lifetime experience, rain or shine.

The Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is one of those rare bucket list experiences that can’t be diminished, no matter how many accounts you read or pictures you see. It’s truly an epic adventure where the journey is just as good, if not better, than the final destination.

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Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu: Essential Info and FAQs

How long does it take to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? The Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is 4 days, however, there are alternative routes available. There's a 2 day route that starts at KM 104, and a 5 day route that gives you a little more time to enjoy the hike.
Can I hike the Inca Trail without a guide? You must hike the Inca Trail with an authorized tour provider. No one is allowed on the trail without relevant permits and permission.
How hard is the hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail? The Inca Trail hike is rated as moderate, but it really depends on your fitness level, mental state, and comfort with high altitudes. However, anyone from kids to seniors have done this trek, so it's possible for you too!
When's the best time to hike the Inca Trail? The dry season from May to September are typically the most popular months to hike the Inca Trail, due to more favourable weather.
How much does it cost to hike the Inca Trail? Inca Trail hikes vary hugely in price, based on duration, services, and whether it's a private or group tour. To book with a reputable agency that takes care of their porters, and provides all the necessary services, it should cost no less that $6-800 per person for a group tour.

Is the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu on your bucket list? Which part of the trail is most intimidating for you?


  • April 26, 2016

    Your porters were also used to the altitude so had a huge advantage. We took the train from Ollantaytambo!

    • April 27, 2016

      That is true! But there has to be some kind of evolutionary/genetic thing going on too. I’m sure of it. They were running around those mountains like they were nothing…so impressive! 🙂

  • April 3, 2016

    By the last stretch up that hill, I had let my family and the guides go on ahead and I strapped on my iPod and just put my feet on autopilot. I didn’t even want to talk to anyone! I did the trail with my husband and FIVE teenagers (my 3 kids and 2 friends) and they were all like energizer bunnies while I followed like a snail on all the uphill parts. My knees were better than theirs on the downhills, though! Fun memories!

    • April 3, 2016

      My hubby was running up those mountains like they were anthills…and I was kind of pressuring myself to go as fast as I could and not enjoying it at all, but then my guide reminded me that it wasn’t a race and to take my time. That really helped me to put things in perspective and go at the pace that was comfortable for me. I must admit I was resenting hubby a bit for that portion of the trek… :p

  • February 7, 2016

    I’m writing my own trip on the Inca Trail from way back in 2000 and your post brought back so many memories! Oh Dead Woman’s Pass, why are you sooooo far away… stunning trail, thanks for the memories 🙂

    • February 11, 2016

      Hi Tara. I dreaded Dead Woman’s Pass from the moment we signed up for the trek. And sadly, it was as painful as I expected it to be. Haha. We lived to tell the tale though…and so happy that we did it. It must’ve been amazing in 2000…did they have the 500 person limit in place back then?

      • February 11, 2016

        I really can’t remember whether they had the 500 limit or not. They were on the verge of some management changes coming in, so possibly not. It really was worth the effort though, wasn’t it? It’s still right up there with amazing experiences even after all these years.

        • February 13, 2016

          Totally agree! It’s one of those “bucket list” experiences that doesn’t disappoint at all! Maybe all the effort even makes you appreciate it more?

          • February 13, 2016

            Definitely. I think that’s true of most hikes, the effort increases the reward ?

  • July 10, 2014

    I love your writing style! I’m trying to write about my own experience last month and came across your post. You manage to sum things up so much more eloquently. I don’t know how you managed the ascent in freezing rain! We were fortunate with good weather during our trek and I feel I just barely made it…amazing how we can rise to the occasion when necessary!

    • July 10, 2014

      Hey Shannon! Thanks a lot! 🙂 Oh, you’re so lucky you had beautiful weather. Honestly, there were some points in that trek, where I just felt so frustrated by the rain… but overall it was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad we did it, rain and all. 😀

  • August 5, 2013

    Well didn’t this bring up wonderful and rather painful memories!! During my tour-guiding stint in SA I must’ve done the Inka Trail at least half a dozen times. Each more painful than the next…
    But I did learn that resilience to altitude climbing has nothing to do with fitness actually, if that’s of any comfort!! I saw super fit guys crumble because they had a beer too many the night before they took off, and less-than-fit men and women (even an 80yo grandpa) strut up like it was a walk in the park. Apparently smokers may have it easier because their lungs are used to operating with decreased oxygen…so who knows?? anyway, loved reading about your adventure, especially because it reminded me of the most special trek for me, which was of course the very first one. So THANK YOU for sending me down memory lane :)))

    • August 9, 2013

      Wowwwww!! I can’t believe you trekked it multiple times. Lol…somehow it’s not reassuring to hear that each time was more painful than the last. 😉

      I was honestly surprised that I didn’t have a harder time. Except for Day 2, everything else was okay. 🙂

  • June 4, 2012

    Congratulations on a well-earned day. Two summits – I couldn’t do it! You’ll be able to brag about this trek for the rest of your lifetime.

    • Shelley

      June 5, 2012

      Doing it at all is a major accomplishment! And if i read correctly, you’ve done it THREE times?! 🙂 I wanna do it again…but in dry season!!!!

      • June 6, 2012

        Oh gosh no ! I only wish I had the capability to do so. I have visited Machu Picchu THREE TIMES though in my life. 🙂

        • Shelley

          June 9, 2012

          Lol…haha…okay obviously I read wrong…but still I betcha COULD do it 3 times, if you really, really wanted to. 😉

          • June 9, 2012

            You’re absolutely right and it would be easier each time. Perhaps in another life. Have a great weekend!

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