El Camino Inca: 20 Miles Through the Andes to Machu Picchu
When you’re in the middle of a pandemic, it never hurts to do a little daydreaming. Especially about international destinations that are off the current table. Though you may be stuck at home right now, join me on a mental journey to the jungle of Peru and learn why you may want to add the Inca Trail to your trekking and travel bucket lists.
Distance: ~26 miles
Time: 4 days (3-8 miles per day)
Location: Machu Picchu, ~45 miles outside of Cusco, Peru
Trail Type: End-to-end (trail is done east to west)
Need to Know
You may be asking, is Rachel really qualified to share this information with me? The answer is…I think so. I hiked the Inca Trail as part of an academic field course in college. That means that, luckily for me, I did not have to book or research the required arrangements. So know that I’m not an expert, but rather a hiker who enjoyed her trip.
The other key thing to know is that the Inca Trail is unlike most trails featured on the Trek. While hiking, you’ll carry just a daypack. Porters employed by your guide company will carry up to 50 pounds of camping, cooking, and first aid gear – and still breeze by you on the uphills. I’ll explain more why this is the case, but for now, rest easy at the prospect of a hike that requires no tent setup, resupplies, or even meal-planning.
Climate and Weather
The Andes are the highest mountain range in the world outside of Asia. In mountains around 12,000 feet of elevation, those familiar with the American West might expect to be near a rocky treeline. But in the Andes, the surroundings are still lush, if treeless. While snow-capped peaks may be visible in the distance, much of the Inca Trail travels through sub-tropical rainforest. You also pass through cloud forests, a rare ecosystem in the Andes characterized by persistent condensation and cloud cover.
May to October represents the dry season on the Inca Trail, with sunnier days but considerably cooler nights than the rainy season. The trail is busiest during June, July, and August. The rainy season takes place from November to April, particularly from January to March. The trail is closed for maintenance during February. While rain is more likely during this season, the trail is generally less busy. I hiked in early December and though it rained a few times, I recall more of a general mist, without the soaked-to-the-bone cold you might expect!
Guides, Tours, and Porters
Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s overseen by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. To protect the site, the Ministry of Culture limits the number of people on the trail to 500 per day, split roughly between 200 hikers and 300 guides and porters.
Further regulations include carrying a permit and traveling with a guide. For the vast majority of tourists, that means paying for a spot on a guided tour. You and your companions will hike with other tourists from around the world, accompanied by a professional guide and group of porters. Technically, you may trek “independently” as long as you still hire a guide. In this case you would carry all of your gear and food, in addition to the required first aid and emergency oxygen. However, most people take the traditional option, which is what I will describe here.
Another regulation designed to maintain the trail and historical sites is the prohibition of pack animals on trail. This means that porters, rather than mules, carry all of your group’s camping gear and food (even luxury items like tables, chairs, and silverware!). It’s important to book your trip with a responsible company that treats their porters well – and arrange a generous tip for the porters and guide at the end of your trip.
For a typical 4-day Inca Trail trek, you should expect to spend about $700 for a basic tour, with options to pay extra for things like a personal porter, rented sleeping back, walking sticks, return train tickets, etc. That price does not include airfare, but does include your entrance into the Machu Picchu site and hiking permit.
Again, the Inca Trail is not your typical long distance trek. Your tour guide usually supplies a tent and sometimes even a sleeping pad. When planning what to pack, you should categorize your gear into hiking and non-hiking related items. Before your trek begins, you’ll receive a duffel bag for your “non-hiking” items; this includes changes of clothes, your sleeping bag, toiletries, etc. Porters will carry the duffel between campsites, so don’t expect to have any access to it during the day. You should plan to pack your own backpack with those regularly required items like a rain jacket, water bottles, sunscreen, medication, and valuables like your money, camera, or phone. If you like hiking with trekking poles, make sure to pack those as well.
Veteran thru-hikers may at first scoff at the distances listed in the itinerary below, but you must remember the extraordinary differences between the Inca Trail and a classic thru-hike. Where thru-hikes are long, the Inca Trail is short, completed in under a week. Though some thru-hikers could hiked the entire Inca Trail mileage in a day, on the Inca Trail you’ll likely never go more than 10 miles in a day. However, a degree of physical fitness is still required, particularly to deal with the elevation and elevation change over the course of the hike. People sensitive to altitude sickness take specific care to avoid illness. Overall, the trail difficulty should be balanced out by your relatively light pack weight and the frequency of stopping to take pictures. Remember, this hike of course includes majestic surrounding scenery, but you should take time to learn the rich history of the ruins you pass by and through.
Day 1: Cusco -> Llactapata (3.1 miles)
Day 2: Llactapata to Llulluchapampa (5.5 miles)
Day 3: Llulluchapampa to Phuyupatamarca (8 miles)
Day 4: Phuyupatamarca to Machu Picchu (2 miles)
For additional reading and information, check out these sites:
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