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Our guide to the classic Inca Trail
The legendary Inca Trail is generally considered to be one of the best treks in the world and is undoubtedly the most famous hike in South America. The journey to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu is unique and challenging and follows an ancient trail established by the Incas. It’s a spectacularly beautiful four-day trek studded with ruins from the Inca civilisation, revealing a fascinating story as it travels deep into Peru’s mysterious and complex past. Here’s the lowdown on trekking the Inca Trail.
The Inca Empire was the largest and most powerful in pre-Colombian America and stretched along the Andes from Colombia, through to Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. It was so powerful and pervasive that Inca customs still shape and define much of Andean culture today. Insights into the past are provided by everything, from traditional clothing, popular art and belief systems to the ways in which people work and even cook. The Incas created a network of cities linked by nearly 40,000km of roads, and although many cities were destroyed by the Spanish when they invaded in the 16th century, the buildings were so well constructed that their foundations have survived to the present day.
Machu Picchu, considered the Inca’s most sacred site, was never discovered by the Conquistadors and remained a secret until American explorer Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. It is an area of magnificent beauty, set in a dramatic location nestling between the jungle-clad mountains of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu and overlooking the thundering Urubamba River. Arriving on foot offers an unrivalled experience.
The classic trail takes four days to complete and covers over 40km, winding its way up and down mountain peaks, following the undulating stone path cut by the Incas more than 500 years ago. The distance may not seem intimidating, but climbing at altitudes ranging from 2,400m up to 4,200m can be challenging and will leave you breathless. You don’t need to be an athlete to take part but a good level of fitness is required, and giving yourself at least two nights in Cusco to acclimatise prior to starting the trek is highly recommended. Each night is spent in tents at campsites along the trail, normally close to cliff-hugging ruins that are presumed to have been rest places built by the Incas for the journey to Machu Picchu. Every day, porters scramble up the steep, narrow trails carrying tents, cooking equipment and food, and watching them race ahead is a jaw-dropping experience in itself. Well before your arrival at each site, your tent has been set up, a dining area created and dinner is well underway. Although there is nothing luxurious about the Inca Trail, you are treated like royalty every step of the way.
The Inca Trail begins in the Sacred Valley, 82km along the Cusco to Aguas Calientes railway line, and snakes its way across mountain peaks, through lush green cloud forest and into sub-tropical jungle. It is an incredibly diverse trail, and each day presents a new challenge, a new ecosystem and new Inca ruins to explore. The second day of the trail is considered the most daunting, involving trekking to the highest pass on the trail, known as Dead Woman’s pass. It climbs up to 4,200m and although challenging, the reward is the most incredible panoramic view of the surrounding mountain range. From there onwards, the trek is rich in tropical forest, hidden waterfalls, exotic orchids and mysterious Inca ruins. On the final day, the journey begins in the early hours of the morning in order to get to the top of the Sun Gate in time for sunrise. Clambering up fifty-odd vertical stone steps, reaching the top and watching the swirling mist slowly reveal the magnificent lost city is an unforgettable experience that makes the physical demands of the trek so worthwhile.
The Inca Trail is a special experience, packed with ancient wonder, outdoor adventure and spectacular scenery. In order to limit damage to the trail, the Peruvian government now restricts access to 500 persons per day – which includes guides and porters. Availability can sell out up to six months in advance, so if you want to do the Inca Trail, you must plan well in advance.
Get in touch with our specialists to plan your journey on the Inca Trail.