“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!” That’s Rudyard Kipling talking about exploration in general, but for me, it’s a specific command to explore Peru’s Sacred Valley and its crown jewel, the lost city of Machu Picchu.
I’ve hiked Peru’s Inca Trail region seven times and can’t wait to do it again. I’ve traveled around the world and seen many stunning sights, but the deep call of the Sacred Valley always pulls me back. It’s that special.
Machu Picchu is often described as a summer retreat for Peru’s 15th-century Inca monarchs, their escape from Cusco, the nearby official capital of the Inca Empire.
Legend has it that when an Inca monarch craved fresh seafood, the empire’s famous Chaskis runner/messenger teams could deliver that to-go order overnight to the Cusco palace, 300 miles inland from the coast!
Your trek to Machu Picchu is not going to be nearly that fast — after long days on steep trails, your legs and lungs will be burning by the time you arrive. But trust me, it will be worth every tired, sweaty step.
With careful planning, hiking to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail will become one of your most cherished lifetime memories. And if you’re like me, as soon as you finish your first hike in the Sacred Valley, you’ll start dreaming of your next one.
So, let’s get started; there’s a lot to cover. Along with the area’s hidden highlights, I’ll also give you tips on how to book your tour, what gear to bring, the transportation options, and more.
Where is the Sacred Valley and the Inca Trail?
The Sacred Valley is located in the Andes mountains, in southeast Peru. This region is very fertile and supplied food for nearby mountainside cities during the Inca Empire.
The Urubamba River flows through the valley, and the Incas saw the river’s shape as closely matching the Milky Way overhead. The Incas took that as a sacred microcosm echoing the universe as a whole.
The Inca Trail crisscrosses the floor and slopes of the Sacred Valley and consists of three overlapping trails, with elevations ranging from approx. 7,000 to 13,000 feet (Machu Picchu is about 8,000 feet). The trails pass through everything from cloud forests to alpine tundra.
How long is the Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail described here covers approximately 26 miles (42 kilometers) of the much larger Qhapaq Ñan, the ancient Inca road system.
At the peak of the Inca Empire, their entire road system covered more than 18,000 miles (30,000 kilometers), stretching from Ecuador to Chile and Argentina.
How long do you need to hike the Inca Trail?
Most people choose to take four days to reach Machu Picchu, and that’s also the most common package offered by travel agencies. But other options range from three to five days, usually to accommodate a hiker’s physical conditioning or their available time.
How difficult a hike is the Inca Trail?
I’d generally classify it as a strenuous hike, but that depends on your conditioning and previous hiking experience. Granted, 26 miles in four days sounds easy to some, but remember that you’ll start the trek at 9,000 feet and hike up to almost 14,000 feet.
Do I need a permit to hike the Inca Trail?
Yes, and that’s a good thing. To regulate trail traffic and to preserve the sites, the Peruvian government limits the number of hikers on the main trail. However, there are alternate trails to Machu Picchu that don’t require permits.
Can you hike the Inca Trail without a guide?
No. Again, this is a good thing. The guides I used kept me safe and taught me a lot about the Inca, their customs, history, and the region as a whole.
What’s the closest city to the Inca Trail?
The closest large city is Cusco, the Inca’s ancient capital, now a mix of modern urban life and historic sites from both the Inca and Spanish eras. At 11,200 feet (3,400 meters) in elevation, Cusco is actually higher than Machu Picchu, so spend a few days in the city before you hit the trail, to get used to the altitude.
Pain and Glory
If you enjoy pain, Day Two will be memorable. You’ll climb from 9,500 feet to over 13,700 feet in the morning, only to descend to under 11,000 feet in the afternoon.
Just when you think your legs are about to buckle, a porter shouldering 70+ pounds will breeze past you on the trail, which can either shame or inspire you to keep going.
Brothers (and Sisters) in Arms
At the end of a long day on the trail, most hikers will rest and perhaps write in their journals before eating. Shared moments at the dinner table are always fun, with everyone so exhausted they’ll laugh uncontrollably at the most mundane things.
It’s a time to swap stories and praise the fortitude of the guides who cruise these trails every day.
As you walk in the footsteps of the Inca, you’ll have moments of reflection and awe. You’re a witness to the vibrant tapestry of Andean flora and fauna, with occasional glimpses of llamas, orchids, and rare birds.
You’ll quickly realize that there’s not much you really need that isn’t already provided by nature. Take that lesson with you and apply it to your daily life.
Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail every day. This includes hikers, guides, porters, and cooks, so be sure to reserve your spot at least six months in advance. Remember that permits are non-transferable, so check that your dates align with your travel plans.
The cost of agency tour packages varies, but budget at least $750 per person, although some high-end tours can cost double that. Packages typically include transportation to the trailhead and back, food, camping gear, entrance to Machu Picchu, and your guides.
My go-to agencies in Cusco are Alpaca Expeditions and Go Treks Peru. Stick with small, local agencies like these for competitive pricing, the most knowledgeable guides, and their ability to obtain last-minute permits.
Trust me — bring along lightweight gear. And pack as if you’re going on a day hike. After the first few hills, your oxygen-starved muscles and brain will complain loudly about every non-essential ounce. You’ll even question bringing that extra change of hiking underwear.
A compact sleeping bag is essential; ask your travel agency about rentals. Merino wool socks, sturdy boots, and lightweight waterproof pants and jackets are really the only clothes you’ll need. A hiking hat and a sun hoodie are also smart, because high-altitude sun and rain can be unpredictable and unforgiving.
Remember to bring a headlamp, a reusable water bottle, toilet paper, a small towel, toiletries, a small emergency first aid kit, walking poles, and energy bars as hiking fuel. And that’s it.
Your agency’s tour package will likely include transportation, but it’s smart to confirm your connections 24 hours in advance. You’ll start your trek at the trailhead by the Urubamba River. By train, it’s at the 82-kilometer marker that connects Cusco and Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu.
Or, take an early bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, about 90 minutes away. From there, a 30-minute taxi ride will bring you to the trailhead at the 82-kilometer marker. If necessary, hire a taxi or private car from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Allow plenty of travel time; running late is a Peruvian tradition.
Plan your transportation logistics in advance and coordinate with your tour operator. Consider schedules, availability, and your arrival time at Machu Picchu. Arranging trouble-free travel connections is essential.
The Inca Trail is a thing of beauty, stretching from the fertile plains of the Sacred Valley to the rocky, jungle-like mountains of Machu Picchu. Along the way, you’ll pass terraces, stone fortresses, and religious sites from an ancient empire that stretched over 2,500 miles. Here are a few of my favorite spots:
A captivating start. I’ve had my Day One lunch here several times, in the tradition of thousands of pilgrims before me. Even Hiram Bingham paused here in 1911, on his way up the hill to ‘re-discover’ Machu Picchu.
Be sure to take in the incredible valley vistas, including the andenes, or Inca crop terraces. These iconic curved walls carved arable into the steep, high-altitude slopes. Many have been farmed continuously for more than five centuries.
Dead Woman’s Pass
The hiker-killer. It looked scary even the day before, towering over my campsite and blocking the sun in the early afternoon. The first time I climbed it, the strong sun and exposed 4,000-foot ascent scorched me to a crisp by noon.
At the top, take a break to find your sandwich and your missing lungs while soaking up the view. You’ll descend 3,000 feet through slippery Inca stone steps and pass by a few chakras (farms), with families still tending the soil in the old Inca ways.
A hidden gem. Had I stumbled into Middle Earth? That was my first thought when this circular stone structure emerged from the fog on Day Three. After exploring it, I decided that, indeed, some sort of magic still lingered.
The chaskis messengers often rested here, on their way from Cusco to Machu Picchu. These athletic relay runners not only carried messages, but were also trained to read and translate them.
An amazing vista. This is where I slept on my last night on the Inca Trail. The remainder was mostly downhill, thank goodness. Machu Picchu was still a day away, but I was beginning to think I might make it.
This site embodies most of what I admire in Inca urbanism. There are the andenes, of course, but also the streams funneling into the buildings, to provide fresh water and a relaxing soundtrack. The view ahead shows two mountains seemingly about to collide in the mist.
The crown jewel. Machu Picchu looked almost deserted when I first visited in December 2015. It was the off-season, and several of us had started hiking before dawn, to catch sunrise over the site. Even through the rain, I instantly knew that this was the most jaw-dropping place I’d ever seen.
Going on a slow month has its advantages. No crowds, no lines, and lots of majestic silence. It echoed around the surrounding peaks as I walked from the Sun Gate toward Wayna Picchu, the little mountain directly facing Machu Picchu.
The Urubamba River slithers around the base of the mountain, the same river that defines the entire Sacred Valley. Its close bond with Machu Picchu fuels speculation that this place may have once been a religious site, an astronomical observatory, or both. But after half a millennium, no one really knows.
Machu Picchu is an amazing engineering feat, truly startling in its 15th-century sophistication. At this point, you’ve already examined the agricultural terraces up close, marveling at their tight fit and utility. But then you start noticing the network of small irrigation canals, carefully regulating drainage through the terraces.
When it’s time to return to the modern world, you’ll either walk or take a bus to the charming town of Aguas Calientes, the home of several excellent hot springs — a soothing reward for anyone who’s just conquered the Andes!
If you still need to lock up accommodation in Cusco on either end of your trip, do so early. The best hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs book up well in advance, especially during the peak season (from May to September).
Here are some of Cusco’s best accommodations, from budget to high-end:
The Salkantay Trek
Five days and 45 miles — that’s the Salkantay Trek, a rewarding option for those in top physical shape and who want the full Peruvian highland experience. You’ll hike from dry mountains to snowy heights, before descending into the jungle. The dazzling variety of landscapes makes this hike well worth it… if you have the stamina.
Salkantay is actually the name of the mountain you’ll trek past. Its name translates as “savage mountain,” and at 20,574 feet (6,271 meters) in elevation, it’s visible from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Nonetheless, there’s no climbing or guides needed for this trek; it’s a long haul, but not technical.
This is a shorter, no-permit alternative to the Inca Trail. It’s 21 miles over three days, and because it starts at a much higher altitude, there won’t be as many climbs. Note: To reach Machu Picchu, you’ll have to take a train to Aguas Calientes.
The Lares Trail passes through traditional villages that are as close to an Incan lifestyle as you can get in the 21st century. On your way to join the Lares is the small town of Calca, where I spent a night in a beautiful vintage hotel on the main plaza.
Choquequirao is not as well-known as Machu Picchu but is actually larger and far less crowded. On this trail, you can visit both sites in what will be a very challenging trek — eight tough days over a 40-mile route through pristine ecosystems.
Alas, there are plans to build a cable car to Choquequirao, which would make the site more accessible, but also compromise its beauty. I encourage you to take this trail while it’s still relatively untouched.
A low-cost, low-effort alternative, but beautiful. You’ll start at the Santa Teresa hot springs (four hours from Cusco) and walk six miles along the riverside train tracks. When you reach Aguas Calientes, it’s a 45-minute climb to Machu Picchu.
Leave early for Santa Teresa, enjoy the amazing (and often empty) hot springs in the afternoon, spend a night there, and walk to Machu Picchu the following day. It’s a relaxing weekend with some light exercise and beautiful, off-the-beaten-path sights.
There’s more to the Sacred Valley than Machu Picchu, so set aside a few days to visit other nearby Inca sites. From ancient fortresses and villages to massive salt mines and agricultural testing sites, there’s something for everyone around Cusco.
This Inca fortress above Cusco is a taste of what awaits you on the Inca Trail. And if you’re in Cusco on the 24th of June, catch the Inti Raymi ceremony, the Inca New Year celebration.
Sacsayhuaman is a World Heritage Site, with huge, tightly placed stones that are engineering mysteries as well as awe-inspiring. Climb to Sacsayhuaman through the beautiful San Blas neighborhood with its traditional artisan craft booths.
This enchanting village with well-preserved terraces and ancient stone structures was my favorite place in Peru when I lived in Cusco. Tourists usually pass it by, which makes it one of the more serene stops in the Sacred Valley.
Ollantaytambo is a veritable museum of Inca architecture, from trapezoidal doors and windows to the small water channels that bring water from the mountains. The main ruins are impressive but don’t overlook the Inca warehouses that face them.
Visit on a Sunday and shop for crafts from the local artisans. And consider the two-hour hike to the Inca ruins. The amazing view across the Sacred Valley is well worth it.
Pisaq is close to the Lares Trail. Before you start your hike, try to visit both Pisaq and Ollantaytambo. Both are showcases for traditional Peruvian culture, so the area’s proud heritage is on full display.
When I first went to Peru, I planned to stay a month. I ended up staying three years. And hiking Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was a big part of why I lingered. I came to see that the warmth and dedication of modern Peruvians was an outgrowth of their Inca ancestors’ values and incredible accomplishments.
Kipling’s words inspired me to bring fresh, alert eyes along on every trek. Behind every mountain, across every river, something new always beckoned. Every trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu was another chance for me to savor traditional Peruvian culture and imagine that shadowy Incan messengers were flitting past me on the trail.
Remember, Machu Picchu is only a destination — experiencing the journey is what matters. As a confessed Inca Trail addict, I hope I’ve answered any questions you have about the various trails and their highlights, how to book a tour, and the gear to bring.
But now I want to hear from you. Are you set on taking the classic Inca Trail, or will you decide to hike an alternate route to Machu Picchu? Either way, Machu Picchu will draw you in and reward you. You’ll be walking in the footsteps of history, and the echoes of the past will resonate within you.
The Incas were right to sense magic in the Sacred Valley — and hiking to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail is proof. It’s all there for you to discover: an enchanting tapestry of nature, human resilience, and stone testaments to one of the greatest empires ever known. May your journey be filled with wonder, gratitude, and memories that will last a lifetime.
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Last Updated on August 28, 2023