You have pictured its deep green gorges, the lost citadels and misty peaks that ebb in and out of view. It is nothing less than mind-bending to climb these stone stairways laid millennia ago, following the Andean route that evaded the Spanish for centuries. There is no doubt: trekking the Inca Trail is a traveler’s rite of passage and the adventure of a lifetime. Logistics can be confusing, so preplanning is essential before you get your boots on the trail.

Planning Your Trek

When to Go

Organized groups leave year-round except in February, when the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance and it rains so much that nobody in their right mind goes trekking. The coldest, driest and most popular months are June to August. But those who are well prepared with proper gear can enjoy the trail during any month it’s open.

To skip the crowds, consider going before and after the rainy season: from March to May (best vegetation, orchids and birdlife) or September to November.

What to Expect

Even if you are not carrying a full backpack, this trek requires a good level of fitness. In addition to regularly exercising, you can get ready with hikes and long walks in the weeks before your trip (also a good time to test out your gear). Boots should be already worn in by the time you go. On the trail, you may have to deal with issues such as heat and altitude. Just don’t rush it; keep a reasonable pace and you should do fine.

Booking Your Trip

It is important to book your trip at least six months in advance for dates between May and August. Outside these months, you may get a permit with a few weeks’ notice, but it’s very hard to predict. Only licensed operators can get permits, but you can check general availability at www.camino-inca.com.

Consider booking a five-day trip to lessen the pace and enjoy more wildlife and ruins. Other positives include less-crowded campsites and being able to stay at the most scenic one – Phuyupatamarka (3600m) – on the third evening.

Take some time to research your options – you won’t regret it. It’s best to screen agencies for a good fit before committing. Also make sure you have international travel insurance that covers adventure activities.

Feature: Warning!

Due to the Inca Trail’s overwhelming popularity, you must book at least six weeks in advance for trips outside high season and six months to a full year beforehand for departures between late May and early September. The same goes for the abbreviated two-day route.

And if it’s already booked for your dates? Check out the alternative routes.

Regulations & Fees

The Inca Trail is the only trek in the Cuzco area that cannot be walked independently – you must go with a licensed operator. Prices cost US$595 to US$6000 and above.

Only 500 people each day (including guides and porters) are allowed to start the trail. You must go through an approved Inca Trail operator. Permits are issued to them on a first-come, first-served basis. You will need to provide your passport number to get a permit, and carry the passport with you to show at checkpoints along the trail. Be aware that if you get a new passport but had applied with your old, it may present a problem.

Permits are nontransferrable: name changes are not allowed.

Choosing an Inca Trail Operator

While it may be tempting to quickly book your trek and move onto the next item on your To Do list, it’s a good idea to examine the options carefully before sending a deposit. If price is your bottom line, keep in mind that the cheapest agencies may cut corners by paying their guides and porters lower wages. Other issues are substandard gear (ie leaky tents) and dull or lackadaisical guiding.

Yet paying more may not mean getting more, especially since international operators take their cut and hire local Peruvian agencies. Talk with a few agencies to get a sense of their quality of service. You might ask if the guide speaks English (fluently or just a little), request a list of what is included and inquire about group size and the kind of transportation used. Ensure that your tour includes a tent, food, a cook, one-day admission to the ruins and the return train fare.

If you have special dietary requirements, state them clearly before the trip, being clear about allergies (versus preference issues). Vegans will meet with a lot of quinoa and lentils. If possible, get confirmation in writing that your specific requirements will be met.

Porters who carry group gear – tents, food etc – are also included. You’ll be expected to carry your own personal gear, including sleeping bag. If you are not an experienced backpacker, it may be a good idea to hire a porter to carry your personal gear; this usually costs around US$50 per day for about 10kg.

Part of the fun is meeting travelers from other parts of the world in your trekking group. Keep in mind that individual paces vary and the group dynamic requires some compromise.

For those who prefer more exclusive services, it’s possible to organize private trips with an independent licensed guide (US$1250 to US$2000 per person). This can be expensive but for groups of six or more it may in fact be cheaper than the standard group treks. Prices vary considerably, so shop around.

Porter welfare is a major issue in the Cuzco region. Porter laws are enforced through fines and license suspensions by Peru’s Ministerio de Trabajo (Ministry of Work).

Lonely Planet only lists operators who haven't been sanctioned at the time of research. Of course, there are other conscientious operators out there, and some offer treks as well as other tours around Peru.

Feature: Porter Welfare

In the past, Inca Trail porters have faced excessively low pay, enormous carrying loads and poor working conditions. Relatively recent laws now stipulate a minimum payment of S170 to porters, adequate sleeping gear and food, and treatment for on-the-job injuries. At checkpoints on the trail, porter loads are weighed (each is allowed 20kg of group gear and 5kg of their own gear).

Yet there is still room for improvement and the best way to help is to choose your outfitter wisely. Conscientious operators do exist, but only a few are confident enough to charge the price that a well-equipped, well-organized, well-guided trip requires. A quality trip will set you back at least US$595. The cheaper trips cut costs and often affect porter welfare – on the Inca Trail and other trekking routes. Go with a well-recommended company.

There’s more you can do on the trail:

  • Don’t overpack. Someone will have to carry the extra weight and porters may have to leave their own essential gear behind.
  • Don’t occupy the dining tent until late if it’s where the porters sleep.
  • Tip the cooks if you liked the food, and always tip your porters.
  • Tip individuals directly and in Peruvian soles. Don’t leave it to the company or a guide to distribute.
  • If you don’t plan to use your gear again, items such as good sleeping bags are like gold to porters. Warm jackets, pocket tools and headlamps also make thoughtful end-of-trip tips.
  • If you don’t like what you see, complain to your guide and to the agency, and register an official complaint with iPerú (www.peru.info), either at a branch or online.

Though guides and outfitters are subject to annual review, it can take time to deactivate a company that has acted irresponsibly. It is important for trekkers to give feedback. To learn more about the life of porters, look for the documentary Mi Chacra, winner of the 2011 Banff Film Festival Grand Prize.

What to Bring

Trekking poles are highly recommended, as the Inca Trail features a cartilage-crunching number of downhill stone steps. Other items that will come in handy: first-aid kit, sunscreen, sandals for camp, a down jacket for cold nights, a waterproof jacket, a warm hat and gloves, sun hat, travel towel, broken-in hiking boots, warm trekking socks, thermal underwear top and bottom, a fleece, water bottle or hydration pack, insect repellent, long pants and sunglasses. Make sure that the weight of your pack is comfortable and that you have enough camera batteries – there are no electrical outlets on the way.

Take cash (in Peruvian soles) for tipping; an adequate amount is S100 for a porter and S200 for a cook.

Feature: Water

When hiking the Inca Trail, get your next day’s water hot in a well-sealed bottle; you can use it as a sleeping bag warmer and it will be cool to drink by the time you’re hiking.

Alternative Routes to Machu Picchu

For more information on alternative routes to Machu Picchu, the Alternative Inca Trails Information Packet from the South American Explorers Club is a great resource.

Two-Day Inca Trail

This 10km version of the Inca Trail gives a fairly good indication of what the longer trail is like. It’s a real workout, and passes through some of the best scenery and most impressive ruins and terracing of the longer trail.

It’s a steep three- or four-hour climb from Km 104 to Wiñay Wayna, then another two hours or so on fairly flat terrain to Machu Picchu. You may be on the trail a couple of hours longer, just to enjoy the views and explore. We advise taking the earliest train possible from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo.

The two-day trail means overnighting in Aguas Calientes, and visiting Machu Picchu the next day, so it’s really only one day of walking. The average price is US$400 to US$535.

Lares Valley Trek

This is not a specific track as such, but a walk along any of a number of different routes to Ollantaytambo through the dramatic Lares Valley. Starting at natural hot springs, the route wanders through rural Andean farming villages, lesser-known Inca archaeological sites, lush lagoons and river gorges. You’ll finish by taking the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Although this is more of a cultural trek than a technical trip, the mountain scenery is breathtaking, and the highest mountain pass (4450m) is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Salkantay Trek

A longer, more spectacular trek, with a slightly more difficult approach to Machu Picchu than the Inca Trail. Its highest point is a high pass of over 4700m near the magnificent glacier-clad peak of Salkantay (6271m; ‘Savage Mountain’ in Quechua). From here you descend in spectacular fashion to the vertiginous valleys of the subtropics. It takes five to seven days to get to Machu Picchu.

For a luxury approach, Mountain Lodges of Peru offers high-quality guiding with accommodations in comfortable lodges with outdoor hot tubs. Prices vary according to high and low seasons.

Inca Jungle Trail: Back Door to Machu Picchu

Dreamed up by outfitters and guides, this multisport route between Cuzco and Machu Picchu travels via Santa Teresa with options to bike, hike and raft your way in two to five days. Some call it 'Machu Picchu via the back door.' The number of days and activities vary, but the backbone of tours on offer is the same.

The trip starts with a long, four- to five-hour drive from Cuzco to Abra Málaga – the high (4350m) pass between Ollantaytambo and the Amazon Basin. Somewhere on the Amazon side you’ll board mountain bikes for the long ride down to Santa María. Starting on a paved road that turns to dirt after about 20km, it’s an incredibly scenic descent from the glacial to the tropical, up to 71km total.

Some operators walk the 23km from Santa María to Santa Teresa; others send you by vehicle (one hour), arguing that it’s not a particularly interesting hike, though there is a short section of preconquest camino de hierro (iron road) – the Inca version of a superhighway.

Either way you’ll arrive in Santa Teresa to the welcome spectacle of the Cocalmayo hot springs. Some companies include rafting near Santa Teresa or the ziplines at Cola de Mono.

From Santa Teresa, you can walk the 20km to Machu Picchu, 12km of it along train tracks. There’s nice river scenery but no particular attraction and it’s usually dusty and hot. Alternatively, you can catch a bus and a train. You may reverse this route to get back to Cuzco, but it’s much quicker to catch the train via the Sacred Valley.

Many varieties of this trip exist, and bare-bones versions may not include hotels or entry fees, so read the fine print. Whether you stay in a tent or a hostel, key factors in the trip price are bike quality, professional English-speaking guides and whether you walk or catch the train to Aguas Calientes. Three-day/two-night trips start from US$465, and usually include a guided tour of Machu Picchu and return train ticket to Ollantaytambo.

Gravity Peru offers the best-quality bikes. Other respected operators include Reserv Cusco and X-Treme Tourbulencia.

Sidebar

A guided overnight route with the top highlights of the trail. Permits are limited, so book far in advance.

Best done with a guide, this culturally oriented option is a flexible multiday trek through quaint Andean villages, combined with train travel from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.

A scenic, but demanding, five-day hike that ranges from jungle to alpine terrain, peaking at 4700m. It’s possible to do independently or with a guide.

With hiking, biking and rafting options, this guided multisport route stages to Machu Picchu via Santa Teresa.