Many countries have mountain ranges with beautiful scenery and Peru itself is richly blessed in this respect with many other areas for hiking. However the scenery is only one of the elements responsible for the magic of the Inca Trail. Can there be any walk anywhere in the world with such a combination of natural beauty, history and sheer mystery and with such an awe-inspiring destination? The various ruins along the way serve to heighten the hiker's sense of anticipation as he or she approaches what would surely find a place in any new list of archaeological wonders of the world - Machu Picchu.
Walking the Inca trail can be very rewarding and is possible for all ages as long as you are fit. Over the course of the Trail, you gain and lose 1000 meters several times, all of which is over 3000 meters where oxygen is noticeably thinner. Acclimation to the altitude is a must, with generally a minimum of 2 days advised before starting the hike, and good physical condition advised. The journey winds through the valleys and hills of the surrounding area, taking you through the scenic landscape, from high alpine to cloud forests.
Many agencies operating from Cusco offer organized hikes along the trail, providing most of the equipment (tents etc) and people to carry it. Also, don't forget that the trail ends at Machu Picchu. When you hike the Trail, you get to descend from the Sun Gate (Intipunku), and it is recommended to reach the Sun Gate at dawn to see Machu Picchu before the busloads of tourists show up around 10AM.
The trail is scattered with ancient monuments and Incan sites and is definitely worth the effort.
Since 2001, the Peruvian government has instituted a quota system on how many travelers can be on the trail on any given day and the permits now sell out months in advance for the high season. Permits for the entire current year usually become available at the beginning of January. Availability can be checked at the Ministry of Culture - Cusco Region website . You must book with an authorized tour operator well in advance of the date when you wish to walk the trail, as it is not allowed to organize the trek yourself. Don't expect to pick up last-minute cancellations either, as tour organizers must register client passport numbers with the government, and they are strictly checked at control points on the trail.
The Inca Trail is part of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, a protected area of 32,592 hectares, managed by the National Institute of Natural Resources, INRENA. Every visitor must obey park regulations that prohibit littering, cutting or damaging trees, removing or damaging stones of ruins and the Trail, removing plants, killing animals, lighting open fires or camping in the archeological sites (only authorized campsites can be used).
When to go
Cusco has a Andean climate with year round temperatures fluctuating between 14-16°C, with warm days and cold nights. The rainy season in Cusco is from December to March. Machu Picchu has a semi-tropical climate, with warm and humid days and cold nights. The rainy season in Machu Picchu is from November to March, so be prepared to get soaked and slippery trail conditions. The wettest months are January to April when roads are often closed by landslides or flooding. The best months for visiting Machu Picchu are from April to October. The High season is June to August (book well in advance).
The trail is closed in February for maintenance and to clean up the garbage left behind (please do not litter when hiking the Inca trail), and because the rain makes it too dangerous to open to the general public.
What train to take
Beware: your return train ticket from Machu Picchu will have a large impact on how much time you can spend there and whether or not you have time to climb Huayna Picchu at all. When you are booking an Inca Trail ticket from home, the time of your train is probably a very low priority item. You are probably assuming that someone else made sure you have enough time to spend at Machu Picchu. But the reality is that trains get booked and your trail operator may buy you a train ticket out of Aguas Calientes at 1 p.m. To make it to this train, you will have to be at the train station at 12:30, which means you have to leave Machu Picchu by no later than noon, which means that you will be there only briefly, and have to leave it when it is the most crowded. Machu Picchu is the best in the first half hour after opening and during the last two hours before closing. Most people are gone after 3 p.m., and the light until 5 p.m. is gorgeous, the heat a little gentler, and you can sit on a patch of grass and soak in the scenery. You do not want to miss this. It will make Machu Picchu yours. At 10 a.m. Machu Picchu is hot, crowded, loud, and bustling. You will be running around to not lose track of your tour group. At 4 p.m. you can really see it at your own pace, and hang out with the resident chinchillas and llamas. But to do that, you have to take a later train. Keep in mind though, that from Aguas Calientes to Cusco the travel time is about 4 hours, so the later you stay in Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, the later you will arrive in Cusco.
Booking your Inca Trail
You can reserve and make your deposit for the Inca Trail with a tour operator even before permits for that year are available. Although there is no way for the tour operator to 100% guarantee they can get the tickets for you, they should do their best to make sure you get the date you reserved. The worst case scenario if your date becomes filled, is that the tour operator would try to reserve a date before or after the one you wanted.
Preparing for your trip
On the trail
How to book your Inca Trail: You will need to have an experienced, certified guide when hiking the Inca Trail. Contact your travel agent or tour operator in your country, or use an authorized Inca Trail Trek Operator in Cusco.
What to take
Hiring an extra porter
If you request an additional porter, he will carry up to 15 kg (33 lb) of your belongings, the remaining 5 kg (12.5 lb) will be for the porter’s personal belongings. The tips for 'your porter' are part of the shared pool as well - so it's not really the case that you are paying for a porter for yourself.
The Extra Porter can be shared between a maximum of two persons. A Porter (who is a part of the tour price and who is not an Extra Porter) is in charge of carry camping gear, food, kitchen equipment, etc., plus 5 kg of his own personal belongings, which is given by Peruvian law.
There seems to be about 1.5 porters per client on the trail, and you'll spend a fair amount of time getting out of their way as they haul all your gear to the next camp. Fortunately, the government has recently restricted the amount of gear tour operators can pile on each porter to 25 kg (including their personal stuff). On many tours you can pay extra for personal porter to carry most of your things, although you will always want a daypack for water, snacks, and clothing. A recent documentary chronicling one year in the life of an Inca Trail porter, Mi Chacra , won the Grand Prize at the 2010 Banff Mountain Film Festival.
Around US$700. If you are paying less than US$400 for the 4 day trip, something is fishy. Make sure your tour includes the entrance ticket to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu (US$90), and trains through PeruRail http://www.perurail.com/ such as the Expedition ($70-80) or the Vistadome train ($80-90) although the prices may vary from low to high season. Be aware that many companies subcontract tour operators in Cusco, so if you book with a company, you could be going with a completely different company on the ground that may cost more. Companies such as SAS, Llama Path, Cusi Travel, and Wayki Trek are all tour operators, so they have their own guides, equipment, staff and offices in Cusco. When you book with these companies, you know you are going with them.
The tap water in Peru is potable but it is not recommended to drink directly from the tap, so do not drink it. You must either boil the water for five full minutes or drink bottled water. However you can brush your teeth with tap water without causing any problem to your stomach, as long as you do not swallow it.
Because you are visiting Andean areas, don't forget to take precautions to avoid altitude sickness. Be sure to try a hot tea or an infusion of coca leaves on arrival at the high altitude. During your first day move slowly and eat lightly, resting the first couple of hours. Also make sure you drink plenty of water. Sample altitudes above sea level:
Alternative Route to Machu Picchu
With the new regulations regarding availability of spaces to do the trek each day (500 permits per day), you might consider trekking to Machu Picchu following a different route. Alternatives are:
Ausangate trek (7 days) is not in the same region as Machu picchu therefore is not seen as an 'inca trail alternative.'