The Inca Trail is one of the most popular treks in Peru and South America.
It starts from Chillca and follows a route to Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Incas.
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 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 two 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 archaeological 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 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 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.
Vistadome: there is no point in taking Vistadome after 5 p.m. because it’s dark, but sometimes service and comfort are well deserved after the strenuous hike.
Booking your Inca Trail
For 2015, the Inca Trail permits for the month of May sold out the first day they became available (in the second week of January). Permits for certain dates in March and April also sold out quickly. To book permits for March, April, and May, it is best to do so by December, before the permits become available.
Tickets for the rainy season (low season) are generally easier to book. 1-2 months in advance would be sufficient. The rainy season runs from October to March.
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.