It's the most famous hike in South America – perhaps the world – and a must-do, life-changing experience. Hiking the Inca Trail through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu is both arduous and awe-inspiring. Four days of cold, pain and exhaustion dissipate as the mist lifts to reveal the emerald peaks and terraced ruins of the mystical ancient city.
Itching to go? Here are a few tips:
- The best time to visit is May through September. Sure, it's the busy season (especially June to August), but it's also the dry season. And trust us, you don't want to visit during rainy season! Note that the Inca Trail is closed February.
- Make your Inca Trail reservations several months in advance – up to a year if you're going during peak season. You can only visit with a licensed agency, and spots book up quickly.
- Choose your trekking agency carefully. Shop around and ask lots of questions: what you'll have to carry, how many people to a tent, how many porters for the group, if there are arrangements for special diets. It's worth paying more for a reputable agency that treats its porters well and respects the environment. We've recommended a tour we like at the end of this article.
- No matter what time of year, the trail gets cold at night. Bring a warm sleeping bag and layer your clothes.
- Other must-brings: sturdy shoes, a flashlight (with fresh batteries), water-purification tablets, high-calorie snacks and a basic first-aid kit.
- Take a stash of small Peruvian currency for buying bottled water and snacks along the way, as well as for tipping the guide, cook and porters.
- If you can't get an Inca Trail reservation, don't despair. There's always Kuélap as an excellent alternative or you can check out the Lares Trek or the Salkantay Trek. Stop by South American Explorers for an information packet.
- Altitude sickness is serious and can ruin your trip. The biggest mistake you can make is to fly directly to Cuzco (3326m/10,910ft) and expect to hike the next day. Give yourself a few days to adjust to the altitude first.
Make it happen
Ready to hit the road? We can recommend the high-quality Inca Trail Tour, from Gap Adventures. It hits all the highlights, including Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is a hot topic on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum - so head there for other travellers' advice on packing, on-the-ground tips and where to go after.