Home » 7 things no-one tells you about the Inca Trail

7 things no-one tells you about the Inca Trail

written by Justin Meneguzzi January 10, 2017

Machu Picchu needs no introduction. Google ‘South America’ and the ruins will probably be the first picture that pops up – and for good reason.

Anyone who’s been will remember that unforgettable moment when you first clap eyes on the Inca citadel. While this is definitely a highlight, and probably the reason you flew to South America in the first place, there’s a whole lot of stuff about the Inca Trail that people somehow never getting around to telling you.

It’s important to know the trail isn’t all llamas and mystical pan-flutes. It’s not always glamorous and there are forgotten parts of the trail that all would-be trekkers should know about. That’s what we’re here for. This article isn’t meant to scare or deter you, but to give you the information to plan ahead and make the most of your adventure. As they say, forewarned is forearmed.


1. Dead Woman’s Pass is even steeper on the way down

Yes, the dreaded Dead Woman’s Pass. Everyone will tell you about the knee-busting effort needed to climb this infamous summit. At 4,215m, it’s the highest point of the Inca Trail and is nearly 1,800m higher than Machu Picchu! While overcoming the pass is a celebration in itself, everyone forgets that what goes up must come down. The steps on the way down are much steeper, and there’s a good chance you could take a less-than-spectacular tumble down the stairs.

The best strategy is to use the time at the summit to catch your breath (you’ll feel the altitude), clear your head, and then make the descent using hired walking poles to keep steady. You can get these from Cuzco before departing on the trail. The trek down takes roughly an hour but after this you’ll be back on comfortable walking paths.


2. Chewing coca is an art form

The coca leaf has been part of traditional medicine in the Andes for centuries. When chewed, the plant acts as a mild stimulant and can ward off hunger, thirst, fatigue and some symptoms of altitude sickness. The traditional method of chewing coca involves keeping a saliva-soaked ball of leaves in your mouth combined with an alkaline substance (similar to ash) that helps extract nutrients from the leaves. Much like an Andean version of gum, there are friendly competitions between trekkers to see who can chew the biggest ball of coca leaves. Keep an eye out and you’ll usually see what looks like large gobstoppers lodged in porter’s cheeks while they’re walking.


3. Don’t underestimate altitude sickness

Like seasickness, nobody expects that they’ll suffer from the altitude until it happens. Unlike seasickness, altitude sickness is not only more common but can be fatal if untreated. Many travellers in Cuzco will suffer mild symptoms, including headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and vomiting, but these will usually subside after you’ve acclimatized (around 12-24 hours after arrival).

Unfortunately, the trail ascends and descends rapidly and the physical exercise puts a strain on your body’s ability to adapt. This is a large reason why Dead Woman’s Pass is such a challenge. I’ll never forget passing one unfortunate trekker who was carried by his porter. He was struck down with extreme dizziness, bouts of unconsciousness and diarrhea. I doubt he remembers the trail for the views.



Some native remedies, such as chewing coca leaves, have been praised for their ability to minimize altitude sickness. While these may be helpful, it’s important to listen to your body and learn how to identify the symptoms. Pushing yourself too hard or failing to identify the warning signs can be hazardous. Consult your doctor before arriving in Peru and discuss the possibility of using altitude sickness medication (and get a Yellow Fever injection while you’re at it!).

Altitude sickness tablets are usually small, cost-effective pills that travel well. You may not need to use them, but it’s better to be prepared than reach the Sun Gate on the back of your porter.


4. You get plenty of bonus ruins along the way


Everyone who signs up to the traditional Inca Trail knows what waits at the end of the road, but it’s the ruined fortifications that you pass along the way that make the trail magical. Trekkers pass through six ruins, ranging from the many steep terraces of Chachabamba to Phuyupatamarca and its enchanting cloud forest. Each site has its own history and character that your guides will explain along the way. Trekkers can hike at their own pace, so you should be able to explore each ruin at leisure. There’s plenty of great photo opportunities too, so remember to pack an extra set of batteries for the camera.


5. There will be squat toilets. They will be gross

Squat toilets are nothing new, in fact they’re widely used throughout Asia and South America. The difference between your standard squat toilet and those used in the high Andes is the lack of routine cleaning and electricity. Janitors don’t go out of their way to trek a hundred kilometres to clean them, which means they smell (badly).

They’re also pitch black at night. You’ll need to either pack a torch or use the ‘torch’ function on your phone (just don’t drop it). The toilets aren’t stocked with toilet paper either. Ask your tour company whether they will provide it or if you will need to buy some before you begin. A small bottle of hand sanitizer also goes a long way.

6. Keep your wits about you


Even with all the glossy travel magazines we see today, the reality is that there are still some places in the world that are inherently risky to visit. The worn pathways to Machu Picchu, which are vulnerable to landslides, are just one example.

On the final day, you’ll wake at around 4am and complete the final few kilometres of the trail. At this early hour, bleary-eyed trekkers will cross a narrow section that runs beside a cliff, with a sheer drop down to the valley floor. Most of the time the path will be clear, but sometimes it will be marked with orange tape (an indication that someone has recently fallen). Remember to stay focused and don’t get distracted trying to take pictures.


7. Put the camera down. Just enjoy it


That final early morning hike brings trekkers to Inti Punku, better known as the Sun Gate and the official entrance to Machu Picchu. Here you’ll be welcomed by a dramatic sunrise, with the ruins slowly being revealed in the morning light. It’s a reward reserved for those who complete the trail, as visitors who arrive by train must wait until after sunrise for services to begin.

This exclusivity means the site is completely empty. So don’t rush. Relax, snap some photos with your new hiking friends, and really soak in this special moment.

Inca Trail FAQ’s

What is the Inca trail altitude?

The highest point of the Inca trail is the dead woman’s pass, with an altitude of 4,215m

What is the dead woman’s pass altitude?

The dead woman’s pass has an altitude of 4,215m

Want to tackle the Inca Trail for yourself? Book a spot on one of our life-changing Machu Picchu treks.

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Barbara September 22, 2021 - 1:49 am

Adding my vote to recommend 1) training to hike and 2) arriving in Cusco early to acclimatize. I did that deliberately, since I’m allergic to the altitude medication: headache, mild nausea, loss of appetite and loss of sleep happened in Cusco, not on the trail. I felt great by the time I hiked 🙂

GMB July 10, 2019 - 12:37 pm

Just finished the walk with my family. I trained hard for it and shed 8 kegs in the process, at 181cms, and 76 kgs I reckon I was in prime condition. Arrived in Cusco 4 days early to acclimatise and added a walk up to the 400m high transmitter hill immediately east of the town centre as a warm up.
That said, the walk wasn’t too hard. Gruelling sections yes, but I managed to run the last 100m up to the Sun Gate out of shear excitement.
So being relatively fit made it enjoyable, but for those that say it’s an easy walk, I reckon they’ve seen the video and maybe bought a T shirt.
But whatever your shape it’s a worthy adventure,
And the walk contains sections that are awesome in their own right. It’s not a busy trek but the citadel sure is.
So if I had to chose, I’d do the walk and skip the citadel in favour of Wayna Picchu.
However you do it though, it’s priceless.

Gail Gillespie April 23, 2017 - 10:38 pm

At last an article that doesn’t make light of the difficulties one can expect on the Inca Trail. A great hike but you need to be fit and if you are affected by altitude it will be harder than normal. I did it last year early June and the weather was lovely fortunately. I took it slowly, but being older and larger than is desirable it wasn’t an easy hike! People were amazingly encouraging and there was a great sense of camraderie along the way. The porters are amazing and while sleeping in tents with very thin mattresses and the awful toilets were a negative, the cooks served delicious meals…if you could eat them and really looked after you.The altitude tends to kerb the appetite. Definitely take walking poles and knee braces…the $2 shops sell them and they really save the knees on the downhill parts. .And wearing well worn in good walking shoes or boots is essential for a comfortable 4 days.I hadn’t expected the “gringo killer” steps on the last day which is not as easy as some information makes out. The name says it all! But there is a great sense of achievement as one finally reaches Machu Picchu.

Jo Williams January 14, 2017 - 1:57 am

This is so true you never think about the less glamorous side of travel, I did the trail early 2015 and have conveniently forgotten the words “I’m never going hiking again!”. But it is so worth the months of going to the gym beforehand and even “dead woman’s pass” for the sense of accomplishment and epic views that will last a lifetime. Some of the best things in life are the hardest won. Enough time has passed I’m even thinking of the torres del paine trek. Maybe another year…

Tyler January 10, 2017 - 2:08 pm

This is a great article! Thank you so much 🙂

Peter January 10, 2017 - 12:43 pm

Agree with everything you say Justin.

We walked the Inca Trail as part of our Sacred Land of the Incas trip in the middle of last year. I am of moderate fitness but a good 15kg overweight and anything uphill just killed me. Our amazing guide and my partner stayed back with me and through a lot of cajoling got me to the top of Dead Woman’s pass. We were both forewarned about the steps down the other side. We both wore flexible knee supports on both of our legs! Even with drizzle that turned to rain that turned to hail, we both survived the gazillion steps down unscathed.

After a fine first day we had unseasonal rain that started as we crested Dead Woman’s Pass. We got soaked. Clothes leaked, tents leaked. The rain made it very hard to take many photos for the next day and a half. It was so wet on the third day we could barely see the amazing ruins that we passed by, and through.

It was worth every agonising step as we walked down into Machu Picchu on a magnificent clear day 🙂


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