Machu Picchu Hike - a Quick Guide

by Kshaunish Jaini

Machu Picchu Hike

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the world’s greatest treks. Though it is possible to do a faster route, the four-day classic trail passes ancient Inca ruins and meanders up through spectacular Andean countryside. The Inca trail is not possible to complete by yourself. A guide will accompany you as well as porters who carry your belongings and help set up camp each night. This relatively small leg is part of a vast network of trails used by the Incas that stretch 39,000 kilometres from modern day Ecuador down to Chile. These were originally used for trade, religious events and by the military. During the reign of the Incas, there were runners who used the paths to deliver messages to other communities. The steep slopes along some of the trails and long distances meant it wasn’t practical for delivering goods by humans. The Incas used llama and alpaca herds to carry food and products across the empire.


The route takes trekkers from the starting point at Kilometre 82 up to the famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu . This 15th century citadel was built for Emperor Pachacuti and was once home to a thriving Incan community. A century after being created, the site was abandoned. The reason is unknown, but historians believe they left because of a smallpox epidemic or perhaps it was to avoid an imminent attack by the Spanish, though there is no evidence to suggest the Spanish ever knew the city existed.

Perched atop a mountain ridge in the Andes, the site overlooks the Sacred Valley and Urubamba River below. It was ransacked by a German businessman called Augusto Bern in the 1860s, but it is the American historian and adventurer Hiram Bingham who brought international attention to the site when he discovered it in 1911. Though it has been restored, it still serves as one of the best examples of Incan architecture in Peru and it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 80s.


The city was made up of a mix of buildings, from residential to religious. The three most important structures are the Room of Three Windows, Intihuatana (more popularly known as the Sun Gate) and the Temple of the Sun.

There are several other treks including the Lares and Salkantay, however though they pass through some incredible Andean scenery, they don’t take you directly to Machu Picchu and therefore other transport is required to reach the site.

The cost of the Inca Trail is anywhere between US $500 and US $1,000 depending on the size of group. Other treks that are longer are considerably more expensive.

Porter welfare

This challenging trek is not possible to complete by yourself and require the support of guides and porters . While you are left to carry a day pack with water, tough local porters walk the same route in front carrying up to 20 kgs of your belongings. They are required to walk quicker to ensure the camp is set up by the time you arrive.

Unfortunately, many of these porters have a terrible deal. In recent years, conditions have got better, but unscrupulous operators have been known to force porters to carry a crippling load. Porters are only legally allowed to carry up to 20 kgs on their backs, and this includes up to 5 kgs of personal items. These days, porters are weighed to ensure they aren’t carrying more than 20 kgs, but operators have sometimes restricted their personal allowance which stops them from carrying the warm clothing necessary for safely completing the hike. In the past, porters have been given little to eat or just the leftovers from the guests’ food.

The blame for their treatment is entirely the fault of the tour operator, but this doesn’t mean that guests can’t help. When picking the operator, be sure to ask for their porter policy. Though it might seem tempting to book the very cheapest trip, remember that this will most probably mean the porter is getting a bad deal. Guests should also make some effort to interact with porters. Most come from the region and have a phenomenal knowledge of its history. Be sure to thank them for their efforts at the end of the tour as well as tipping.  Lastly, if you see any porter abuse, weather it’s lack of food, warm clothes or appearing to be carrying too much, first report it to your guide. If it’s not taken seriously, speak with Tourism Concern.

Classic Inca Trail Itinerary

Day 1
This morning, you will be picked up from your hotel and given a safety briefing en route to Ollantaytambo. You will be given duffel bag to fill with up to 5 kgs of your things. This will be given to the porter to carry for you. Arrive at Kilometre 82, the official start of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Begin todays trek which will take around 4 hours depending on the speed of the group. Accompanied by your guide, you will cross the Vilcanota River and take the trail that meanders through pretty little Andean villages. You’ll also get your first glimpse of Huillca Raccay, some impressive Inca ruins. Descend down to the Cusichaca River and follow it all the way to the village of Wayllabamba located at 3,000 metres above sea level. The porters will have walked ahead to set up a comfortable camp and prepare dinner. Enjoy a well-deserved menu and a rest.


Patallacta day 1 of Inca trail trek Photo by Emmanuel Dyan

Day 2
Today is an early start. After a camp breakfast, begin a challenging uphill ascent for the morning to reach the 4,200 metre above sea level Dead Woman’s Pass. There is no particular rush and guests can hike at their own pace. This is the highest pass on the whole route. As you cross, you will admire spectacular views over the snowy peaks and the valley below. This is where you are likely to encounter the harshest weather conditions – scorching sun and freezing winds are not uncommon. From here, you will quickly descend along a winding trail to the campsite in Pacamayo. Again, you’re guides will have continued on ahead to build camp and begin your dinner preparation.


Rainforest on day 2 of Inca trail trek Photo by Emmanuel Dyan

Day 3
Another early start. Breakfast is usually around 6 a.m. after which there is a 2 kilometre uphill climb to the Runkurakay pass located at 3,950 metres above sea level. Like the Dead Woman’s Pass, there are some gorgeous views over the Andes mountain range. If lucky, you may also see circling condors gliding above. During the afternoon leg, the scenery becomes greener, through a cloudforest teeming with wildlife and orchids. The trail here was paved by the Incas and makes for easy walking. Cross over the third pass where views of Salkantay can be seen before droping down to Winay Wayna to overnight at the camp.


Misty mountains on day 3 of Inca trail trek Photo by Emmanuel Dyan

Day 4
The day starts before dawn. Grab a coffee and set off along the final section of the trail. Arrive at the famous Sun Gate overlooking the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. The gate is 345 metres higher than the ruins, so you get an excellent first glimpse before hiking down.  Enjoy a breakfast as you watch the sunrise. The porters will be leaving now to head back to Cuzco. Your guide will take you on a tour of the ruins to help you understand its history. There is plenty of time to explore the site at your own pace or visit the Inca Bridge. In the afternoon, take the short bus ride down to the town of Aguas Calientes. Have lunch or soak those weary bones in one of the town’s hot springs. In the afternoon, catch the train back to Poroy station and transfer back into Cuzco.

What to pack for Inca Trail Hike

Much of what you need for the Inca Trail such as camping equipment, a stove, water and food is already provided, so you will not need to bring many things. Typically, you will have a 5 kg allowance for the porter to carry as well as a day bag. Ensure you wear comfortable walking shoes. There are some steep sloops to climb and descend - the trek can easily be ruined with shoes that aren’t suitable for the job. Be sure to bring warm clothes. The temperature can plummet at night and when you hike through the mountain passes. The area can have four seasons in one day, so it’s wise to bring some waterproofs, particularly in the rainy season between December and April. Though food and water and provided, it there are particularly snacks you like, make a quick trip to one of the shops in Ollantaytambo before the trek as there isn’t much available along the trek.  If you have any medical requirements, let the tour operator know before the trek, and bring whatever medicine you might need.

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