For hiking enthusiasts, the Holy Grail of pilgrimages lies in the Andes mountains northwest of Cusco, Peru, and ends at the gateway to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail is a 25 mile stretch of mountains, jungle, forest, and ancient ruins culminating at the Sun Gate. This gate is said to be the most breathtaking way to enter Machu Picchu and is only accessible to Inca Trail trekkers. Fortunately, you don’t have to be the most experienced or in-shape of hikers to experience the trail. It is a moderate to challenging hike for those who do the full 25 miles over 4-5 days, but there are options for doing a slower-paced trek or tackling a shorter chunk of the trail over two days.
Why hike the Inca Trail? The reward at the end of the trail is enough for some. However, there are many ruins to see along the way and the Inca Trail gives you exclusive access to these ancient sites. You can climb the steps and explore the terraces and tunnels of some sites, while others are only fit for marveling from above. The trail’s biggest draw for many is the spectacular views. The diverse landscapes include rugged mountains, rivers, and the subtropical jungle. Because of the changes in altitude and climate conditions, there is also a variety of flora and fauna to see along the trail. Hikers can spot hundreds of plant and bird species, dwarf deer, and on occasion the elusive spectacled bear.
Traffic on the Inca trail is limited to 500 people a day and hikers need a permit and tour guide to make the full trek into Machu Picchu. There are many local tours available, and the companies will secure permits for you. There are a few options for the type of hike you choose. Tour companies generally offer 4-5-day treks covering the full length of the trail, or 2-day hikes that include about 6 hours of total hiking at less strenuous elevations. There are multiple tours available for both the long and short options, with options for rugged experiences or luxury hikes with multiple accommodations. The luxury tours include comforts such as hotel stays, high quality campsites, and slower-paced hiking. All trail tours are in high demand and must be booked months in advance, so planning is required.
To prepare for your journey on the Inca Trail, make sure you give yourself a couple of days to acclimate to the elevation change before your hike begins. Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol. You will want to make sure you have invested in comfortable and sturdy hiking boots, a good backpack, and a rain poncho. Pack sparingly but prepare for warm days and chilly nights. You will want to have sunscreen, insect repellant, and a water bottle. Most hikers will be able to leave luggage at their hotel in Cusco, and most tour companies have porters to carry your camping equipment. A backpack with your basic needs will be all you need to carry. Don’t forget your camera, and prepare to be amazed!