Home » What it’s really like trekking the Inca Trail

What it’s really like trekking the Inca Trail

written by Tammy Burns May 2, 2016

Let’s get one thing straight: Dead Woman’s Pass is as awful as you fear. It’s called ‘Dead Woman’ for god’s sake.

Okay, so the name comes from the shape of the pass, like a woman lying down, not from actual deaths. But still. It’s a phrase that incites terror. And as I was slogging my way up, willing myself to just reach that next rock, that next bush, and as the snow line reached ever closer and the sun burnt ever stronger, I looked up at that reclining woman and cursed her and the Incas who had named her.

But let’s back up, to why I was huffing up the pass in the first place. I had decided to tackle the Inca Trail during one of those life reassessments that every human experiences in their mid-30s. In the span of a few weeks, I had registered for my first half-marathon, broken up with a guy, and decided to hike the Inca. The race because, well, why not. The guy because, well, meh. And the trail because it had been my dream since I first learned of Machu Picchu in high school Spanish class. And dreams are a dangerous thing. Abandon them and they haunt you forever. Follow them and you end up hiking to an altitude of 4,200 metres and wondering if dreamer you is actually a sadomasochist.

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I had arrived in Peru a week prior, on Intrepid’s Sacred Land of the Incas adventure. Even though I was lugging hiking boots and enough protein bars to feed a herd of llamas, it all seemed surreal. ‘One day’ had turned into next week and my brain couldn’t make sense of it. (Also, side note: the protein bars were totally unnecessary — the porters supply you with so much food that your belly barely has time to register a grumble before it’s time for a meal stop. For what you SHOULD bring to hike the trail, check out this packing guide.)

It didn’t help that I had caught a stomach bug while I was in the Amazon, mere days away from heading to Ollantaytambo and the start of the trail. For three days I shivered in the sweaty, sticky heat while my travel mates went off in search of anacondas and tarantulas. The Andes (and the strength to hike them) couldn’t have felt further away. On the morning we departed for the trail head, my stomach was still flipping — but this time not just from nausea, but from nerves. Reality had set in.

ALWAYS WANTED TO HIKE THE INCA TRAIL? BROWSE OUR TRIPS TO MAKE IT HAPPEN

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Thankfully, the trail eases you in on the first day, leading you over Peruvian plains — undulating hills that are the closest you’ll find to flat in the Andes. It’s the teaser of what’s to come, when the hills get steeper, the steps higher, the air thinner. It’s the day when you learn how things work, like how the porters run past you, carrying packs bigger than you and weaving up and down and around staircases. It’s the day you learn that Inca steps are nothing like the stairmaster you trained on.

It’s also on that first day that you realize what it means to be an Inca Trail trekker. Permits are given out to 200 trekkers (and 300 porters) daily, so even in moments when you feel tired and sore and totally alone, you’re never far from someone who’s able to give you a friendly nudge. Sometimes I was someone else’s cheerleader, and sometimes it was someone giving me a push.

On day two, as I struggled to move myself up the final 200 metres to Dead Woman’s Pass, I could hear hikers at the top calling down, urging me on. As I staggered the last few steps, a trekker from another group congratulated me by name. Because that’s the thing about the trail: you see and talk to the same strangers again and again, until they’re not strangers any more. You bond over everything from sore knees to altitude belly, and sometimes there are celebrations thrown in. Like on our second night, when we snacked on banana cake for two trekkers’ wedding anniversary — a surprise dessert made by our porters with nothing but a camp stove.

READ MORE: WHAT IT’S LIKE DOING THE INCA TRAIL AS A SOLO TRAVELLER

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Over the days, you battle steep climbs and steeper descents, lost toenails and broken blisters. You’re guaranteed to curse yourself at least once for not opting to take the train instead. After all, the vast majority people who visit Machu Picchu don’t take four days to get there. So why suffer the trek?

Well, because like with so much of travel, the reward isn’t the arrival but the journey. Machu Picchu gets all the fame and glory, but there are hidden treasures to discover along the trail, too — and unlike the finale, they’re only accessible on foot. Yes, hundreds of people trek the trail every day, but when you turn a corner and see the glorious ruins of Sayacmarca perched on a clifftop in the distance, or peer down and find Qonchamarka peeking out from beneath a jungle canopy, you’ll be forgiven for feeling, just for a moment, like you’re the next Hiram Bingham.

INSPIRATIONAL READ: THE ROAD TO MACHU PICCHU STARTS AT 385 LBS

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On our last morning, we reached the Sun Gate early enough that there was still mist draped over the mountains. By the way, all those photos you’ve seen of people standing before Machu Picchu? Those aren’t taken at the Sun Gate, no matter what their Tinder profile says. The Sun Gate is much higher, and gives you a view that stretches far beyond the ruins. It’s the first glimpse you get of Machu Picchu and it encompasses views of the surrounding peaks and the valley leading down into Aguas Calientes. You can spy the buses coming up the roadway and congratulate yourself for getting here the hard way.

After four days of hiking, I sat there, my aching feet dangling over a ledge as I watched the mist move in and out. I cried. Dammit, that sounds so cliché, but it’s true. I sat there with my back to everyone and dripped tears down my dirty face because dreamer me totally deserved this.

Ready for a proper challenge? Hike to Machu Picchu with Intrepid Travel.

Words and images c/o Tammy Burns.

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38 comments

Inca Trail March 23, 2020 - 3:02 pm

Friends and I are planning on doing the classic Inca trail in 2021, thank you so much for your post, it is one of the best that I have read so far and breaks things down quite well and explains what to expect.

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SALKANTAY TRAIL March 7, 2020 - 1:22 pm

Certainly, the complete Inca Trail is one of the most interesting Andean experiences, the effort during the 4 days is hard, I think the goal is the best motivation, knowing the route has been used to reach the Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is the cherry on the cake.

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Barbara April 18, 2019 - 3:13 am

The Inca Trail was one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced in my life. When I went with my cousins there were moments when we wanted to leave the trek but in the end we got the reward that was the satisfaction of having achieved it and to know the wonder of the Machu Picchu world.

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Panchito Pantigoso November 28, 2018 - 7:49 am

Great Post and Nice Article.All of the Photos are so good .I like it.Thanks for sharing.

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Anja November 14, 2018 - 5:40 am

Hi, is it possible to go in February? I have hear the trail is closed then, is it true? How is with weather / rain?

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Emily Kratzmann November 15, 2018 - 8:51 am

Hi Anja,

Thanks for the message! Each year, the Inca Trail closes during February for maintenance, however Machu Picchu is still open for visitors. It’s the rainiest time of year, so definitely not great for trekking!

Let me know if you have any other questions 🙂

Cheers,
emily

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Lena September 14, 2018 - 2:25 am

Also is November a good month to do the trek?

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Lena September 14, 2018 - 2:09 am

Thanks for sharing! I did the Annapurna Circle in Himalaya and damn it was tough! Mostly for struggling with the altitude. The Torong La pass is at 5,416m and the last day was painful. How did go your adaption to the height? Whats the highest point and which altitude you start with the trek? Thank you!

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David O August 10, 2018 - 1:12 am

Just finished the 4 day hike with my wife and two daughters. We had a great time. Hiked with G-Adventures. They did a great job. The hike is long and arduous, but with a great deal of will-power, especially with the never-ending series of ascending steps rising up before you, you can make it. Take it slow and pack light. Bring 1-2 liters of water each day. Eat light. I had problems sleeping at night due to the altitude, but no one in my family or the group we were traveling with got altitude or abdominal sickness. We had great weather the whole time, blue skies, warm days, and cold nights.

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travel to machupicchu May 20, 2018 - 3:39 am

Despite the arrival to Machu Picchu being pretty awesome – especially if you reach the Sun Gate and there are no clouds hiding the summit – it will be the four hard days of hiking you remember best.

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Anonymous April 8, 2018 - 7:09 am

I would LOVE to hike the Inca Trail but am petrified of heights and can’t seem to find much info on what the actual track is like. Is the track quite narrow? How much of the trail do you spend hiking with a cliff dropping down one side? Thanks

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Sean Parker June 23, 2018 - 2:59 am

There a a few narrow sections, mainly on the last day, but the track is pretty wide and you can squeeze against the track side if you get worried in some parts.
There is room for someone to walk next to you on the vast majority of the trail.
Don’t let it put you off.

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Doug Kueck February 17, 2018 - 4:11 am

My wife and i are going in May 2018. Stoked! Nice article you wrote.

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Russell Pastuchj November 5, 2017 - 11:17 am

My wife and I walked the trail in October, 2017. The weather was perfect, no rain, except for one over night. We didn’t really want to do the down hills on wet cobbles. Having walked the French and Spanish Caminos, and the Via Francigena (the Alps to Rome), we were somewhat surprised by how hard this trail really was. The other walks were long but for the most part flat. This was a constant up, up, up or down, down, down. Certainly not impossible, as we finished with no damage, but not the cakewalk some other posters have made it sound like. BTW, we are both 65. Take the pills, drink the coca tea, have good, and I mean GOOD hiking boots that are well broken in, pack light and dress in layers, go slow, and you will have a hoot, no doubt. The views are incredible. Entering through the Sun Gate, once in a life time moment.

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Mia September 30, 2017 - 12:11 am

wow – i plan to take this trek in April 2018 !!!. This article helps cause its fairly new…
Its definately my bucketlist item . All the tips in the article and comments are useful thanks!!!!!
Has anyone trekked in April. how was the weather during day, did it rain a lot? was it cold at night?

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Angela October 10, 2017 - 9:21 pm

Hey!
My husbamd and I are doing the hike in April 2018. When does your tour start?

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Russell Pastuchj November 5, 2017 - 11:19 am

We walked in October, 2017. You WILL enjoy it, hard but worth the sweat. Both 65 and we survived to tell the tale.

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Anonymous April 16, 2018 - 5:27 am

Thats good to know. We are doing the trail in July and i was a little worried about my husband who is 66.

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Tracy October 11, 2018 - 12:49 pm

I would love to know how you got on. I’ll be 60 (my mind keeps thinking 34 – but my body is 60). I’ve started training on nearby hills but am concerned about the up, up up.

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Dave and Rowena UK November 21, 2018 - 2:10 am

Hi We are walking the trail 9th April
Did you get an answer to conditions
Likely to experience in april?

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Anonymous March 14, 2017 - 2:19 am

I did the Inca trail 4 day hike last year in early May. It wasn’t as hard as a lot of people are moaning about. I carried a 25lb pack with 3L of water, a pro camera with two lenses and I was moderately fat(218 lb male) when I did it. No broken toenails, just sore quads. Make sure that you have plenty of fluids, and bring some electrolyte pills to put in your water if needed. Wear good hiking boots, not sneakers, or sneaker/boot hybrids. Wear good quality thick wool hiking socks. You will pay if you cheap out on your gear! High quality hiking poles with rubber tips. Take meds for altitude sickness if you need them. I did not. Before you even start the trail make sure that you spend at least 2 to 3 days in Cusco to acclimate to the altitude, eat light and drink water.

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Bev March 6, 2017 - 6:50 am

Tammy, you describe the experience of hiking the Inca Trail perfectly. My daughter and I completed it in June 2016. The most amazing thing we have ever done and also the hardest. Only those who have done the trail will understand the extremes of emotions that you feel.

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Ronan o'reilly March 5, 2017 - 11:20 pm

Well did it March 2016 . It’s as fantastic and stuff of nightmares as you could imagine. The views are breath taking and the group I travelled with were amazing aged from 24 to 70. The nightmares I exaggerated a bit but some people in the group had altitude sickness – headaches and stomach issues.
Surprised I did not. Fitness wise well you do feel the strain. You usually leave all together but soon find your level of fitNess and speed, but there are othere at your level which is good. By the last day you have z mixture of excitement and tiredness. But it is worth it.
I cycled 4-5 times a week before the trip to work about 120km n total. Not really too much no other excersise and didn’t cycle for 3 weeks b4 trip just in case of a crash.
So would say you need to be determined and have the drive to keep going ( late in the day -nxt 100m/50m stop breath push on ) luckily although not that fit I made it the 36 yr old lump that I was. Coca leaves thank you and brilliant porters .
So DO it you will make it and enjoy 🙂

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Peter February 15, 2017 - 5:51 pm

Perfect description Tammy! We trekked the trail mid-last year, also as part of the Sacred Land of the Incas tour. Hardest thing I have ever done, and will ever do. Dry season but it rained for two and a half of the four days. I only got to the top of Dead Woman’s pass due to the persistence of our wonderful Intrepid guide and my amazing partner. It was definitely one step at a time. But it was worth every agonising step! To climb the monkey steps on the final morning up to the Sun Gate and step through it to see Machu Picchu down below me was something I will never forget.

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rick be January 30, 2017 - 4:10 pm

If I can’t a trek like Paul did,I’ll pass. But if I wanted to get in shape for any trek,my prep would be outdoors in the rain & real terrain.

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Sara B January 9, 2017 - 8:47 am

I’ve finally booked to do the Inca Trail in March after having to cancel the trip 4 years ago after a cancer diagnosis. I’m nervous, excited but above all, determined to do this. After reading the piece written by Tammy , I cried but now can’t wait for my adventure to begin x

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Nicole February 22, 2017 - 1:21 am

Hi Sara, I’m also going in march! What your are you doing??

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rick be February 23, 2017 - 12:25 am

That’s how I feel,Tom,traveling amid the streets & alleys,meeting people,like the little old ladies selling their knittings.I brought back a dozen pair of gloves for lady friends.Eating Cui & Alpaca in some sidewalk cafe. But try walking to Lake Titicaca in Puno,if you want a real trek.

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Dan Schroeter February 25, 2017 - 2:04 am

Sara, I’m 54 years old. I trekked the trail last March. It is, as Tammy described, the experience of a lifetime. I trained hard. No matter how hard you train you’ll find moments when you think you’re not going to make it. Especially as you near the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass. You will. Persevere. Rely on those around you for inspiration. I had my son and a great group of friends who I had never met before. Take time to experience all that surrounds you. When you finally get to Machu Picchu someone, who took the train and bus ride to the top, will pat you on the back and congratulate you for taking the walk. And it will all be worthwhile.

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FLORENCE JOCHENS December 30, 2016 - 12:40 am

Machu Picchu is on my bucket list because of the spiritual aspects. I am 69 this January and walk 5-6 miles 3-4 times a week on treadmill. How fit does one my age need to be to do the 4-day hike? It seems that would be the most spiritual journey! Thank you for sharing your experience, should I not make it.

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Kathy January 26, 2017 - 6:58 pm

Hi Florence. I’m a 64 year old female, and trekked the trail in October 2016 (with Tucan Travel)…the lost toe nails and general tiredness (I had no problems with altitude) was well worth it. I kept up (and ahead most of the time) with all the youngsters on the trek…which was a boost to my ego 🙂 You must do stair training (ups and downs) and a good level of fitness!

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Thea February 1, 2017 - 8:49 pm

Florence, I did the Inca trail [just under your age group] in October 2016 with Intrepid. The general tiredness, experienced by many people doing the Inca trail, was well worth the life changing experience. With a good fitness level you will keep up with your group. Good walking shoes, tracking poles, good focus on your balance , telling yourself, “one step at the time and you can do it”, gets you there. There are no short cuts on this spiritual experience. Thank you Tammy for sharing your experience. Your team leaders, porters, your team mates and the people you meet on the track all will leave a big positive “footprint in your life’s journey”.

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maria December 17, 2016 - 2:54 am

you are awesome!!!! Kick a**!!!

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Paul August 12, 2016 - 2:28 am

I hiked the Trail back in 1975,with three other guys.No sign ups,no guides,no porters,no energy bars.We carried our provisions in our back packs,including two bags of coca leaves with leptia (the catalyst) for the leaves.We had a hand drawn map of the trail from a book “Highway in the clouds”.When we hit the Dead Woman Pass,11776 FT elevation, it was raining.Nobody to cheer you on,nobody else on the Trail for the five days we were on it.We found shelter from the rain in some rock overhangs on the other side of the pass.On the fifth day when we came down on the Gate of the Sun it was raining again,so all the tourists were out of the ruins at Machu Piccu.The only things in the ruins were three iiamas on that main plaza.It was a hell of a sight.The guards had to come and unlock the gate to let us out of the ruins.they weren’t happy about that.It was the highlight of my trip to South America.what I would like to know is do the baths at the ruins of Puyupatamarca still work?

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Tom August 12, 2016 - 1:42 am

We took a quaint Peruvian train to Machu Picchu, snacking on large-kernel corn bought through the windows, along the trip, from Peruvian farmers, while enjoying the countryside scenery. Machu Picchu is spectacular, but after 20 years, my best memories were of the adorable Peruvian children trying to scam us in the villages, riding horses in the Sacred Valley, taking a bus with villagers around the mountains, and struggling to walk to the post office in high-altitude Cuzco (only 30 feet from our hotel). We traveled to Peru with a list of activities we wanted to see, but in retrospect, the activities like walking an Inca trail, aren’t nearly as memorable as the everyday adventures.

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Anonymous January 31, 2017 - 3:04 am

Tom, since you hadn’t hiked the trail, how can you comment on memorability?
I did the hike and I must say the trail and the sights along it are every bit as spectacular as seeing Machu Picchu itself. For anyone doing the trail, do the Wayna Picchu bonus hike as well. The views back down on Machu Picchu are spectacular ( warning though, if you are afraid of heights, this trek is not for you)

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Jason August 11, 2016 - 4:54 am

I was in Pisac, Peru for a conference the second half of January. It was a no-brainer to take the post-conference trip to Machu Picchu. And while I took the train and bus to Machu Picchu, I did actually hike out to the Sun Gate from there. So I do have pictures from the Sun Gate, as well as the more classic “guard house” shot. Although, at my current level of fitness, that walk was a struggle and cost me time to explore the city. I want to go back and take more time to explore, not only Machu Picchu but also places like Ollantaytambo and even Cuzco. But, to a degree, this inspires me to get into good enough shape to do the trail. Thank you for sharing!

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Valerie May 20, 2016 - 3:04 am

Thanks for sharing pics of the Inca Trail! I’ve always wanted to go there. I would probably do the hike as well. Maybe someday. Actually, my husband went to a few high mountain villages in Peru a couple of years ago and built water systems for them through Engineers Without Borders organization.

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