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.
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.
In this guide
- 1 The Inca Trail Hike | A Travelogue
- 1.1 The Inca Trail Hike Day 1 | An Easy Start
- 1.2 The Inca Trail Hike Day 2 | Dead Woman in the Pass
- 1.3 The Inca Trail Hike Day 3 | Walking the Path of the Incas
- 1.4 The Inca Trail Day 4: Machu Picchu at Last
- 1.5 Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu: Essential Info and FAQs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Is the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu on your bucket list? Which part of the trail is most intimidating for you?