To give you a better sense of what the four-day trek involves, we've put together a brief day-by-day summary of the trip.
Total Distance: 10 to 11 kilometers (6.2-6.8 mi)
Arrive by train from Cusco, getting off at Km. 88, or by bus at Km. 82. From the station, cross the footbridge spanning the RÃo Urubamba and begin the gentle ascent up to the Inca ruins of Llactapata, where Bingham and his team first camped on their way to Machu Picchu. The trail then slopes upwards, following the RÃo Cusichaca, until it reaches Huayllabamba. To reach this small village, the only one along the trail that is still inhabited, it's about a two to three-hour climb. This is a good place to hire horses or mules, if you're so inclined. Most groups spend the night here, in preparation for the arduous journey up to the aptly named Dead Woman's Pass.
Total Distance: 11 kilometers (6.8 mi)
Although equal to the first day in terms of distance, Day 2 is perhaps the most difficult day of the trip. From Huayllabamba, you're in for a steep, one-hour climb to the ruins of Llullucharoc (3,800 meters). Catch your breath and prepare for another 90-minute to 2-hour steep climb through the cloud forest to Llulluchapampa, an isolated village situated in a flat mountain meadow. Spectacular views of the valley below will keep your mind off the steep ascent.
From Llulluchapampa make your way up the sheer climb towards Abra de HuarmihuaÃ±usca (Dead Woman's Pass), the first pass and highest point of the trek at 4,200 meters (13,780 ft). The 2 Â½ hour climb is a mental and physical challenge, subjecting trekkers to a killer sun on the way up, and thin air and bitterly cold winds at the summit. Don't be surprised if snow or freezing rain greets you at the summit. Inevitably, however, the mind-blowing views will distract you from the body-numbing cold and physically demanding ascent. Do make sure that you shelter yourself from the wind while you check out the valley below.
From the summit the trail descends sharply via stone steps into Pacamayo Valley (3,600 meters or 11,800 ft). This area also offers excellent camping, and if you're lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the ever-playful spectacled bears.
Total Distance: 15 kilometers (9.3 mi)
About an hour's trek towards the next pass, Abra de Runkuracay, you'll come across the intriguing ruins of Runcuracay. The name means "basket shaped" and is an appropriate title for the circular ruins unique among those on the trail. From the ruins it's about a 45-minute to one-hour steep climb to the second pass (3,900 meters or 12,780 ft). Just over the summit is another camp site, where you'll encounter magnificent views of the Vilcabamba mountain range. Follow the trail through a naturally formed tunnel and up a spectacular stone staircase to the ruins of Sayacmarca (3,500 meters or 11,500 ft). These beautiful ruins include ritual baths and terrace viewpoints overlooking the Aobamba Valley. It is believed that this tranquil area was once a resting spot for ancient travelers traversing the Inca Trail. You can camp near the remains of an aqueduct that once supplied water to the ancient settlement.
From Sayacmarca the trail descends via a remarkably well-preserved Inca footpath into thick cloud forest where you'll be astounded by exotic flora like orchids and bromeliads, and unique bird species. The trail winds its way towards Conchamarca, another rest stop for the weary. Pass through another Inca tunnel and follow the path up a gentle two-hour climb towards the third pass and the ruins of Phuyupatamarca (3,800 meters or 12,470 ft). This section of trail, whose name translates to "Town Above the Clouds," offers spectacular views of the Urubamba valley in one direction and in the other a grand view of the snow-covered peaks of Salcantay (Wild Mountain). The ruins include six small baths that, during the wet season, are teeming with constantly running fresh water.
There is an excellent place to camp here, where you may even catch a glimpse of wild deer feeding. Also, keep an eye out for the massive backside of Machu Picchu peak. From the ruins the trail forks and you have two options. Follow the knee-buckling 2,250 step stone staircase to the terraces of Intipata, or head towards the stunning ruins of WiÃ±ay Wayna. Only discovered in 1941, the ruins of this ancient citadel, named "Forever Young" for the perpetually blossoming orchids that flourish here, include spectacular stone agricultural terraces and ritual baths. A nearby hostel offers weary wanderers hot showers, food and a well-deserved beer. Be aware, however, that during peak season this hostel area can appear more like a tourist circus than a peaceful mountain retreat.
Total Distance: 7 kilometers (4.3 mi)
The final leg of this journey is all about getting to Intipunku (Sun Gate) and Machu Picchu. Be prepared for an early rise, as most groups depart camp at
4 a.m.to arrive at the ruins by 6:30 a.m. This climatic journey involves a 60 to 90-minute trek along narrow Inca stone paths, and a final push up a 50-step, nearly vertical climb to the ruins of Intipunku. The descent to Machu Picchu takes about 45 minutes. Upon reaching the ruins, trekkers must deposit their packs at the entrance gate and get their entrance passes stamped. From here you can bask in the glory of having completed the rugged journey to one of the world's greatest attractions.
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, Peru