Characterized by rugged ascents boasting magnificent views of Andean scenery and trails that wind their way through the cloud forest and past ancient archaeological sites, the Inca Trail is perhaps the eminent South American experience.
While other trails in the Sacred Valley area and around Cusco offer the same spectacular scenery, this is the only Inca trail that leads to the awesome gates of Machu Picchu, the ultimate climax to any trekking experience. This world-famous trail is part of the Sanctuario HistÃ³rico de Machu Picchu, an area of over 32,000 hectares (79,000 ac) set aside by the Peruvian state to protect the host of flora and fauna that flourish here. In 2001, in an attempt to restrict the number of hikers and damage to the trail, the Peruvian government established new regulations requiring all Inca Trail hikers to be accompanied by a licensed guide. Therefore, trekking the Inca Trail independently is prohibited. In addition, every tourist and staff member must have a permit to do the trail. This will be organized for you by your tour agency.
Currently, a maximum of 500 hikers are allowed on the trail per day, including personnel (this accounts for approximately 200 tourists and 300 staff). This number is strictly adhered to and permits are sold on a first-come-first-served basis.
Note that the Inca Trail is closed for the entire month of February every year for maintenance.
Due to the daily limit on the number of people entering the Inca Trail, it is advisable to book as far in advance as possible, ideally at least three months in advance (in the low season, some last-minute spots may sometimes be available).. From May to September, you should book at least five or six months in advance. So plan ahead, book early and avoid added stress.
Tours can be arranged through a number of tour companies in Cusco, and most cost between $400 and $500, which includes the entrance fee to Machu Picchu ($50 for adults, $25 for students and free for children under 11), transportation to and from the trail, an English-speaking guide, tents, mattress, three daily meals and porters who carry group gear.For about $50 extra/trip a personal porter can be hired to carry your personal gear. If you're inclined (and it's recommended) you can tip your porters and guides. Independent travelers will generally be placed with a mixed group of travelers, and groups tend to be between 12 and 16 people. For premium-class service, groups are generally smaller and an upgrade on the return train is included.
Be cautious if the price is under $400, as the company may be cutting corners, or not adhering to the strict environmental regulations recently imposed. Only purchase your ticket from officially licensed agencies, and be sure to make your payments at the physical tour agency office. Direct any questions you may have regarding a tour company to the regional tourism office in Cusco, Dircetur (Portal Mantas 117-A. Tel: 235-123/222-032, E-mail: email@example.com), whom keep a database of complaints about tour operators.
You can save a little money by arranging your own transport back to Ollantaytambo, either for the last day of your tour, or by staying an extra night in Aguas Calientes and taking the early morning train, then catching a bus back to Cusco.
If you do take the train back to Cusco after your tour, make sure your return ticket has your name on it for the tourist train, or you will have to pay for any changes. Be sure to inquire if the guide for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu will be the same, as some companies save money by sending a less experienced guide on the trail and hiring a new, certified guide at Machu Picchu.
When To Go
The single most important factor in planning your Inca Trail experience is making sure you give yourself plenty of time to acclimatize to the high altitude before attempting the physically demanding trail. The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to spend at least a few days in the Sacred Valley area-which is slightly lower in elevation-or in Cusco, which is higher. The first two days of the trek involve arduous ascents, so take acclimatization seriously.
Usually the best months for trekking the Inca trail are April and May, when the weather is fine and skies are clear. From June to September, the trail is a busy stretch of mountainside, with people from all over the world flocking to its rugged peaks and lush valleys. During the rainy season, from October to April, it is less busy but for obvious reasons, slightly wetter. Again, the trail is closed for the whole of February.
For a truly unique experience on the Inca Trail, try to depart two to three days before a full moon. According to the locals, the weather is best at this time and at night the Andean skyline is fully illuminated by the moonlight.
What to expect
The popular 4 day trek will take you along the ancient stone Inca highway, past dozens of archaeological sights, rushing rivers and uncountable views of the cloud forest and eye-captivating mountain scenery. Along this 43-kilometer trek, you will tackle three formidable mountain passes and cruise to a maximum altitude of 4,200 meters (13,780 ft). The trek begins at Qorihuayrachina near Ollantaytambo, often referred to as Km. 88 of the Cusco railway.
Another, slightly less intense version of the classic four-day trek is also growing in popularity. The two-day version, referred to as the Camino Sagrado del Inca, or "Sacred Trail," or âCamino Real de los Inkasâ, is a good alternative for time-pressed or fitness-deficient individuals. Along this journey you'll reach a maximum altitude of only 2,750 meters (9,000 ft), which involve less arduous ascents, yet still leads to the wondrous mountain-mecca, Machu Picchu.
This mini-trek begins at Km. 104, just 14 kilometers (8.7 mi) away from the ruins, and groups spend the night near the ruins of WiÃ±ay Wayna before departing at sunrise for the gates of Machu Picchu. However, if you're looking for divine mountain scenery, then the four-day trek is your best bet, as most of the best views and ruins are not included in the two-day
Another alternative way of reaching Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail is to run it. Erik's Adventures, a U.S.-based travel agency, offer a nine-day tour of Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu which includes an 11-hour, 42.16 kilometer (26.2 mi) Inca Trail marathon, condensing the usual four-day hike into one, challenging day. The tour takes place annually in July/August and, as places are limited, sells out quickly and must be booked at least five or six months in advance. Spectators can also take part on the tour, taking the train to Machu Picchu instead of running. Peruvians and local runners living in Cusco are eligible to participate in the marathon without participating in the whole tour. This option may be possible in the future for foreigners; enquire with the agency. See www.incatrailmarathon.net for full information.