Pura's 10 minute guide to The Inca Trail
There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu, from walking the Inca Trail to taking the train. Here we cover the various options and give insight into what you can expect from each of them.
Train to Machu Picchu
There are several trains every day from Cusco, ranging from the backpacker service to the super deluxe Hiram Bingham train.
The trains stop in Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu pueblo, a ramshackle village in the Urubamba river valley below Machu Picchu. From the village you take a shuttle bus up the mountain via a series of switchbacks to the main entrance of Machu Picchu.
At the main entrance you'll find a snack bar with a terrace, luggage storage, toilets, stalls selling guidebooks, and the Sanctuary Lodge hotel.
All in all it isn't the most calm way to enter Machu Picchu.
If you are going to visit Machu Picchu by train then we strongly recommend that you include an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes so that you can take a later train up the valley and try to time your arrival at Machu Picchu for the quiet of the mid-afternoon. You can then return early the next day to enjoy the relatively quiet dawn period.
Walking to Machu Picchu
There is only one way to walk into Machu Picchu and that is to arrive on the Inca Trail. This is the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Whether you choose the one-day 'Royal' trail or the four-day 'Classic' trail, your trek ends at the Sun Gate ('Intipunku'), which looks down over the citadel from a nearby ridge. This way you walk into Machu Picchu itself via what is effectively the back door.
At Pura Aventura we operate our own dedicated Inca Trail hikes. By doing this we can fine-tune your experience and be sure that you will get the most from your walk to Machu Picchu. Below you can see why this makes such a big difference.
Inca Trail Permits
Each day the Peruvian Government allows 500 people onto the Inca Trail. This number includes all guides and porters so this actually equates to about 200 hikers starting the hike each day.
If this sounds like a lot, frankly it is, but there are ways to avoid the crowds.
Classic Inca Trail
The vast majority of these 200 walkers do the three-day trail which aims to arrive at the Sun Gate for sunrise on the last day.
Once they arrive, they visit Machu Picchu and catch that afternoon's train back to Cusco.
Those going at this pace on the Inca Trail suffer a few disadvantages.
Firstly, you have less time to acclimatise as you tackle the highest point of the trail on only the second day.
Secondly, the campsites are very busy, particularly the last night in Winaywayna, where more than 300 people usually spend the night. That's a lot of tents, a lot of noise and some fairly unpleasant sanitary conditions.
Thirdly, almost everyone wants to be at the Sun Gate for sunrise, so they get up before dawn to make sure they are first in line. Arriving at the Sun Gate, people often find their views of Machu Picchu can be rather compromised as everyone jostles for a perch in the small viewing area.
Lastly, since Machu Picchu is in a cloud forest, it tends to be very misty in the early mornings and there is perhaps only a 'real' sunrise around 30% of the time. It is more common for the clouds to gradually clear later in the morning as the sun gets higher in the sky.
If the weather isn't ideal first thing in the morning, many people will not get to see the site in all its glory as they will be on a train back to Cusco that same afternoon.
Pura's Inca Trail
Meanwhile, Pura Aventura clients set off half a day later than the main group of walkers, starting the hike in the afternoon on the first day.
It's not until the third day that you cross the highest pass, so you have an extra day to acclimatise.
Our guides work hard to make sure that you can hike the Inca Trail at your own pace and away from the crowds at any time of year. The trail ahead of you is usually empty, and you have plenty of time to stop and take in the magnificent views without meeting other groups coming up behind you. The places we camp are very quiet and peaceful.
You arrive at the Sun Gate in the late afternoon when the light is at its best and the site is at its quietest. At this time of day, there won't be many other people at the Sun Gate, so you have time here to enjoy the views and a great sense of achievement before you walk down to the citadel, about 4km further on. Strolling through the citadel, you can soak up the atmosphere before spending a welcome night in a comfortable hotel nearby.
The following morning you come back up to Machu Picchu early enough to catch sunrise if you like. You have your guided tour of the citadel before returning to Cusco by train that afternoon.
In all you have about 24 hours around Machu Picchu, spread across two days, which gives you the best possible opportunity to see the site at its best.
Jake (our guide) and the porters always found us wonderfully quiet spots to camp and Pura's method of taking plenty of time for the trail and not using the busy sites made the trail very special.
Royal Inca Trail
The one-day or 'Royal' Inca Trail is a halfway house between walking the full trail and taking the train to Machu Picchu. You still need a permit for this route so it counts as being part of the daily allocation of 500 people.
You get the train almost all of the way up to Aguas Calientes then hop off with your guide at km104 and start to walk up the steep side of the valley.
The Urubamba River Valley is quite sheer-sided at this point so the walk is a zig-zag up the hillside gaining about 700m of altitude.
The uphill part takes a good couple of hours before you emerge onto the main trail at Winaywayna, the last major Inca site before Machu Picchu.
From this point on the route flattens out as you follow the main trail through the cloud forest. At around 3pm you come to the Sun Gate for your first views of Machu Picchu, hopefully bathed in warm afternoon light.
From the Sun Gate you walk down to Machu Picchu itself, wander through the site, spend the night in Aguas Calientes and then return to do a formal visit of the site the following day.
This is a great option for anyone who appreciates the idea of 'earning' that first view of Machu Picchu without having to commit to the full trail.
What is certain is that whichever way you choose to travel to Machu Picchu, it will be a special moment.
Inca Trail Practicalities
The night before your trail, we hold an Inca Trail briefing which will cover any important aspects of the walk. Here is a sneak preview.
Inca Trail Permits
The Peruvian Government allows 500 people onto the trail every day of the year, except during February when the trail is closed for maintenance.
Permits are bought ahead of time, in fact they generally sell out up to six months in advance.
For all Pura Aventura holidays including the Inca Trail, we buy your permits for you and they form part of your Peru holiday price.
At the start of the trail you need to produce your passport so that guards can tally your information with that on the permit.
There is no means of avoiding the permit system and you must be sure you are travelling on the same passport as the one used to purchase your permit.
When to walk to Machu Picchu
The best season for the Inca Trail runs from April through October. This is the winter season when the weather tends to be dry and sunny, though it can get very cold at night along the higher parts of the trail. Machu Picchu itself is at a relatively low altitude of 2,800m and the climate here tends to be milder and wetter in general than in Cusco and along the Inca Trail.
How hard is the Inca Trail?
The full Inca Trail covers 40km over four days, so the distance in itself is not that great. However, the altitude ranges from 2,900m up to 4,215m. The going can be slow and it is fairly tough on your knees as there are a lot of uneven steps. You must be used to hill walking to enjoy the trail, and walking poles are essential.
The following outlines the pace on Pura Aventura's version of the Inca Trail, with artwork courtesy of our guide Joaquin.
Day one is a short walk on easy terrain at a lower altitude than Cusco, so you should find this quite easy.
Walk 5km, 2 hours, up 100m
Day two is a longer walk, mostly uphill on good paths with some paved sections. This is the day where you will really start to feel the altitude.
Walk 10km, 8hrs, up 1,100m
Day three is the hardest day as you go over the highest pass on the trail, down then up over a second pass and finally down and over a small third pass.
Walk 15km, 8hrs, up 600m, down 1,000m
Day four is relatively long but you are walking downhill for most of the day. The path becomes much more structured with long sections of narrow steps and paved stretches. It can therefore be the toughest day for your knees.
Walk 11km, 6hrs, up 100m, down 1,000m
The above breakdown relates to Pura Aventura's pacing of the Inca Trail and is not representative of the daily distances on the 'sunrise' trail.
You are going to camp out for three consecutive nights.
The first night will be relatively mild as you are starting at about 2,950m.
The second two nights are spent camping at around 3,700m so you can expect very cold temperatures at night and early in the morning. From June to September, the coldest months, it is normal for temperatures to be below freezing.
You sleep two people to a tent. Tents are generally sized for three people so they are fairly spacious and comfortable for two people.
Tents are pitched for you by the porters.
Pura provides thermal sleeping mats but not sleeping bags. We recommend that you rent these from our team in Cusco. Expect to pay around US$20.
These bags are cleaned between uses and are suitably four-season rated. You may want to take a cotton, silk or fleece sleeping bag liner to make them a little bit warmer.
Eating and drinking
Food on the Inca Trail is freshly and cleanly prepared by Pura's highly experienced team of cooks.
Expect three course meals at lunch and dinner with hearty breakfasts.
Purified water is provided for you each day though you must bring your own bottle.
Pura groups carry a toilet tent with a portable loo which is pitched at a discreet distance from the group.
Each morning your porters wake you with a bowl of warm water with which to have a 'bird bath'.
The majority of your luggage will be left securely stored in Cusco at the hotel. You will return to Cusco after the trail to be rejoined with your bags.
What you do take on the trail can weigh up to 7kg, including the sleeping bag.
It is therefore safest to assume that you have a 4kg allowance which will be carried for you by your porter.
Before you set off on the trail you are given a duffel bag into which you decant your 4kg of luggage for the trek.
The porters then load these into large bags which they strap onto their backs (porters do not generally use backpacks).
Walking the Inca Trail is made much, much easier by your team of porters. We are particularly proud of the work they do for us.
By the end of day one you are likely to really appreciate the work your porters are doing for you.
In the mornings they are there to wake you for breakfast with a cup of tea and warm water for a wash.
As you set off walking for the day, they take down the tents and overtake you a while later fully laden with all of the gear.
A couple of hours later you come across them again and they will have prepared a three-course lunch for you on the side of the trail.
After this, you continue onwards and upwards only to be overtaken again soon afterwards.
By the time you get to the day's stopping point, the team will have set up the campsite, have supper on the go and greet you with a cup of tea!
Pura Aventura adheres strictly to the Porter Protection Policies in place on the Inca Trail.
In fact our porters are from the community of Chacllanca, about 45km from Cusco.
Generally they are subsistence farmers who supplement their earnings by working on the Inca Trail. Our two head chefs are in charge of getting the teams together and are therefore the bosses.
Your team of porters is usually therefore made up of friends, family and neighbours who respect one another and work well together.
On the Inca Trail it is customary to tip the guide as well as any cooks or porters.
The rule of thumb is that each porter/cook should receive around US$20, so the amount you give does rather depend on how many people are in your group.
A reasonable guideline for the porters and cooks is US$10 per passenger per day for the four days of the Inca Trail hike.
For the guide, who is usually with you for a full week, a tip of US$10 per day per passenger is reasonable.