Not only is Machu Picchu one of the 7 Wonders of the World, the journey along the Inca trail to get there is also one of the top hikes in the world.
Over a million people visit Machu Picchu every year. Only a fraction of these visitors get there by hiking the famous Inca Trail though. There are strict limits on how many people can hike the trail each day. It is also mandatory to go with a guide and spots sell out up to 6 months in advance.
Before hiking the Inca Trail though, there are some things you need to know.
1. The Classic Route is 4 Days & 3 Nights
There are actually a number of routes to reach Machu Picchu. The Inca empire was advanced and roads crisscrossed the Andes mountains all through their vast territory. The standard route to Machu Picchu though follows the classic Inca trail for 4 days and 3 nights.
Most tour companies follow this classic Inca trail hiking route. Over 4 days, you will hike approximately 45km (28 miles). You will also hike up to a peak of 4,215 meters (13,825 ft) above sea level.
All most all of the Inca trail hiking options, whether following the classic route or not, depart from Cusco first by car. After a drive to the trail head, you will begin the journey to Machu Picchu.
2. Tickets to Hike the Inca Trail Sell Out Fast
As mentioned above, anyone hiking the Inca trail must be part of a tour or with a guide. There is also a limit on the number of people who can be on the trail each day. This combination means that every person on the Inca trail must book and pay for their spot ahead of time.
The official limit, set by the Peruvian government, says only 500 people can be hiking the Inca trail each day. This includes all guides and porters. Companies offering hiking tours open up reservation spots usually a year of more in advance.
You will need to plan ahead in order to get a spot. In low season, hiking spots on the Inca trail sell out around 1-2 months ahead of time. During high season—June to September or so—spots sell out as much as 6 months in advance.
3. The Inca Trail Hike is Closed in February
Not only are hiking spots on the Inca trail limited daily, there is also a whole month of the year when the main trail is closed.
Thankfully, the classic route is not the only Inca trail hike.
There are a few other routes that follow less known Inca roads to Machu Picchu. These include the Salkantay and Lares treks. As these routes are less popular, you can also usually book a spot with a hiking tour last minute.
4. There is a Lot More to See Than Machu Picchu
As they say, it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. When it comes to the Inca trail hike, there is a lot more to see on the journey than just Machu Picchu at the end.
The Inca trail hike follows an original section of an ancient Inca road. Naturally, all along this road, there is evidence of the ancient Inca themselves.
Most hiking tours include visits to a number of Inca sites over the typical 4 days of hiking. A few sites you might see are:
Located around 3600 meters (11,800 feet) above sea level, this ancient Inca settlement is known as “The City Above the Clouds”
One of the largest archaeological sites along the Inca trail hike, Wiñay Wayna means “forever young” in the local Quechua language
This archeological site is thought to have been an important checkpoint along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu
In addition to the above, one of the most memorable moments on any Inca trail hike is the chance to see sunrise over Machu Picchu from Inti Punku or the Sun Gate just above the city.
5. Make Sure You Pack Light
Almost anyone could hike the Inca trail, however it is a difficult hike with both rugged terrain and high altitudes. Having porters to help carry supplies is required. This is a way to help employee local Peruvians but also used as a safety measure.
Your porters will carry all the food, camping equipment, and medical supplies required for the hiking group. They also help carry personal supplies for each hiker.
Packing light is crucial as there is a strict weight limit for all hikers. While on the trail, you will carry only necessities like water, snacks, and possibly an extra jacket. Your porter will carry your additional supplies – up to 6kg.
These extra supplies will include your sleeping bag and mat (around 3kg). This leaves only a small amount of weight available for any toiletries or extra clothing you want. As such, you’ll need to pack as light as possible to meet the limit.
If you want to hike the Inca trail, you might at first think that it doesn’t really matter which tour company you book a spot with. After all, you are all hiking the same trail anyway.
This really couldn’t be further from the truth. Each company hiking the Inca trail has their own set of guides, porters, camping spots, cooks, supplies, etc. Picking the right company can make a world of difference.
Don’t just select the cheapest Inca trail hiking option, unless maybe everything else sells out. Instead, do a bit of research on each company and see what past hikers have said.
Was the food good? Were the guides knowledgeable about the Inca archaeological sites? Was the camping equipment in decent shape?
These are the type of questions that can help you see whether or not a tour company is worth booking.
While over a million people might visit Machu Picchu each year, it is only a select few who can say they hiked the Inca trail to get there.
The journey will take you past ancient Inca settlements and shrines. It will let you walk literally in the footsteps of history. You’ll experience the majestic beauty of the Andes mountains.
And in the end, you will reach Machu Picchu, a true wonder of the world.