Classic Inca Trail
Key information: Classic Inca Trail
- Follow this famous ancient path to the lost Inca capital of Machu Picchu.
- Beautiful mountain scenery, colourful indigenous people, history and tragic romance: this walk has it all.
- A famous walk, so can be crowded; and Machu Picchu can be miserably overfull.
- Possible closure of trail for part of the year: there is talk of the trail being closed to visitors as a result of deterioration of the environment (no action as at mid 2008: check carefully if you are thinking of walking this route).
- This is a tough walk in high, remote mountains, on which you will have to be self sufficient and where altitude can cause real problems. Come prepared.
- Walkopedia rating97
- Natural interest15
- Human interest17
- Negative points5
- Total rating97
- Note: Negs: altitude and popularity
- Length: 46km
- 4 days
- Maximum Altitude: 4,200m
- Level of Difficulty: Strenuous
The “Classic” Inca Trail is popular – excessively so, during high season, when it can be hard to find a good place to pitch your tent (and, indeed, can be booked out – always reserve your place on this trail months ahead. But it is popular for very good reasons: a three to four day duration, and a less altitudinous route (the highest pass is 4,200m, compared to 4,800m or higher on the main, longer, alternatives); superb scenery, ancient trails and a thrilling arrival in Machu Picchu.
After jumping off the (briefly stationary) train at the km88 marker, cross the Urubamba river and pay your trail fee.
A detour to the romantic, quiet sites of Huayna Quente and Machu Quente is a worthwhile preliminary to the larger Patallacta (also called “Llacta Pata”), a substantial Inca settlement, and its religious complex at Pulpitnyoc. Take some time here. Some people camp here before hitting the main trail.
Roughly 1 ½ hours’ walking gets you, on a generally steady trail, to the rough trailhead village of Huayllabamba, where you can get food and porters. It has a reputation for theft, so take care.
From here on, it gets much tougher: a long (3hr) haul up the steep Llulluchayoc Valley to the Llullchapampa campsite at 3,600m, a total climb of 1,100m. (There are campsites earlier if the altitude gets to you.) There are endless-seeming steps to clamber up, but you pass through lovely scenery, including some lush cloud forest; making sure you pause to enjoy it won’t be a struggle. Llullchapampa is a substantial place with a toilet block – necessary on this overused trail. Recommended first night.
From here it is a steep, grinding climb (1 ½ hrs) to the ominously named Dead Woman Pass, the high point on the trail. The views open out as you near the pass and the forest falls behind you. A steep, long, (800m) descent gets you, in an hour or so, to Pacamayo camp. This is another big campsite, and popular. Fill up on water, enjoy the lovely valley, but gird yourself for the hard 350m (2 hr) climb to the day’s second pass. The trudge is relieved by good views and the Inca ruins of Runca Raccay, and small lakes near the pass. A short Inca tunnel and a long, at times tough, descent get you in an hour or so to the significant, superbly sited, Inca town of Sayac Marca. Shortly (half an hour) up the trail is the second day’s recommended site, Chaquicocha. (Some may continue on to Phuyu Pata Marca.)
The trail from Sayac Marca is arguably the most beautiful and atmospheric of all, much of it on original Inca stones as it winds its way high above the cliffs, enjoying superb views, to the Third Pass after about 1 ½ hours. It passes through a long Inca tunnel and goes over a particularly special viewpoint on a ridge with huge views.
Shortly after the Third Pass is Phuyu Pata Marca, another fascinating Inca site; its atmosphere is somewhat reduced by the large nearby campsite. Some choose to camp here, and, while it can be cold at night and is overpopular, it is spectacularly sited and less horrible than the Trekker’s Hotel. It is around 10km from here to Machu Picchu.
Here is where you have to make a choice: if you want to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu, you will have to stay at the Trekker’s Hotel, some three hours on. Or you can press on for three more hours to make it to Machu Picchu on the same day.
There is a choice of routes to the Trekker’s Hotel; the main route descends 500 impressive but hard metres of Inca steps and winds through fine forest. A longer, lovely, now relatively unused alternative winds down a steadier route to the west.
The Trekker’s Hotel is the last place you can camp before Machu Picchu, so is usually crowded, so you will need to get here early in high season for a tolerable spot to pitch.
Allow 2 hours to get to Intipunkuy for the dawn view; it is a shame, though, to do this gorgeous walk, with its wide views, in the dark, so weigh up how much you really need to be there for dawn. A long third day is a good option.
If you are going to walk to Machu Picchu on day three, book the (expensive) nearby hotel (Machu Picchu Ruinas Hotel) ahead, so you can stay up on the hill – or descend the road (yes! Road, with buses!) to the campsite by the Urubamba. Even if you are walking in on day four, you may want to stay in the hotel: take your time in this outstanding place.
Machu Picchu has been endlessly written up, and we are about walking, so we won’t embark on a detailed description here. Suffice it to say that you will need a lot of time to explore – and just sit and ruminate in – this marvelous site on its famous ridgetop perch between the mountain and its Sugarleaf outcrop, topped with Inca terracing, Huayna Picchu. (In fact, the climb up Huayna Picchu, at times so steep it is rope and stair assisted, is unmissable for walkers.)
Thrilling, but expensive: the 25 minute helicopter ride back to Cuzco. Or walk (45mins) or bus down to Aguas Calientes in the valley floor for a train back to Cuzco.
www.tourdust.com organise an expedition here : we have travelled with Tourdust, and were delighted. They were very nice and flexible to deal with, and evidently cared about quality, as their walk was meticulously prepared and our support team were outstanding in every way. We are proud to be their partners.
See our Inca Trails page for more general and practical information.
Map of Machu Picchu
From Wikipedia Commons, by Hobe / Holger Behr: Licensed for free use: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Karta_MachuPicchu.PNG
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
COMMUNITY COMMENTS AND PHOTOS
Posted on: 27/08/2012
The following is Simon Darvell's piece on walking here, which was on our shortlist for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition.
Dead Woman's Pass
It's the second day of our trek along the ancient roadways of the Inca empire, a journey that will conclude at the UNESCO world heritage site, Machu Picchu. I'm walking behind a young Peruvian porter who tells me to call him Sammy. His movements are light-footed and rapid; they remind of those of a small bird. He's burdened by a thirty kilogram backpack that is as long as he is tall, yet I'm struggling to match his pace. It's early and it's cold. The alpaca gloves I'm wearing retain no warmth. Every breath sends a ghostly pall out in front of me. We're walking through a forest that is alive with sounds of nature waking: branches cracking in the changing temperatures, birds singing, dew falling onto lower leaves. When we take a twist in the path, I can hear a powerful river nearby, shrouded by the trees. The porters and trekkers are silent, almost reverentially so.
After eighty minutes we reach a clearing - it's seven a.m. There is a small shack with a toilet and, oddly at this painfully cold hour, traditionally-dressed Peruvian women selling chocolate bars and Gatorade. They converse with Sammy and the other porters in Quechua, the native tongue of the Incas.
The rising sun is obscured by a mountain. The mountainside we are about to climb up is illuminated the colour of gold. We'll be ascending into warmth. Refreshed, the porters press coco leaves into rectangles and put them in their mouths. They brace themselves and hoist their loads onto their backs. I watch them leave and wait for my group. The cold defeats my resolve; I decide to break ranks and keep moving.
The slabs, laid centuries before by the Incas, are hard work. A foot high and deep, you don't step onto the next ledge, you push your body onto it with power through your entire lower body. That this pathway has been created here, laid by man in this remote, arduous place, seems implausible, impossible.
We leave the canopy and I see Warmiwanusca, or Dead Women's Pass, so called because from the valley floor where we camped the night before the mountain ridge resembles the contours of a supine woman. The sinewy staircase rises to her breast. I soon overheat in the sunlight and have to remove a few layers. The high altitude and the rising temperatures make the trek tougher. My lungs feel as though they are inflating to the size of tennis balls.
Every time I pause to catch my breath the astonishing scenery rejuvenates me. Seeing the pass above me, perhaps thirty minutes away, renews my enthusiasm for the challenge. We continue upward; all I see are Sammy's bulging calves in front of me. I try walking with his backpack. After five minutes my chest feels like it is being compressed inward. My back muscles tire quickly. I happily relinquish the backpack to Sammy.
Sammy is nineteen, five years my junior. Shorter, skinnier, he's cheerful company, a young man completely devoid of cynicism. He pulls the backpack on and keeps moving. It's the fourth time he's trekked to Machu Picchu. His dream is to become a farmer. He looks faraway the youngest of the porters. I ask him how old the rest of the men are. He tells me most of them are in their thirties. Their faces, weathered and wrinkled, look like the faces of men who should be settling into retirement, not completing a trek that leaves physically fit travellers gasping and aching. Yet they’re bounding past me, up the steep slope.
After forty minutes we reach Warmiwanusca, the highest point of our four-day trek at 4,215 metres above sea level. The reward is one of the most stupendous views I'll ever see. Near me, a middle-aged man stands alone before the void, teary-eyed. Imbued with energy, I climb up onto the dead lady's nipple. Mountain ranges crisscross for miles, their snow-capped peaks level with wisps of chalk-white cloud. Great crevices in the mountainsides are cast in shadow, and the rest of the rock face seems to have the colour and texture of green velvet. And above is the sheer magnitude of the sky, an enormous blue dome encompassing the world.
A flow of porters reach the crest. A few stop to rest and snack, but many continue straight over and start jogging down the steps that descend onto a pathway back in time. They are machine-like; you'd think we had risen 1,000 metres this morning on an escalator. Sammy is eating a snack in the company of other porters amongst bracken on the mountain side. He gives me a thumbs up. Other trekkers reach the top. Some ignore the boundless views on either side and collapse in relief as their exertions are momentarily suspended. Others walk to other side of the ridge and look at the expanse in front of them. Their expressions are proud and overawed.
After being dwarfed by these monoliths, it's a profound moment to stand atop them, a transitory and finite human, and enjoy the view of the Gods. Steadily our group gathers at the top. Once the entire group has peaked and photographs have been taken, we begin the descent.
We start on the winding path down. Descending is less physically exhausting that the upward walking in the morning, but more daunting. Dropping from one ledge onto the next jars the knees and ankles. Some of the slabs are loose in the soft earth underneath, and a misplaced step could result in a twisted ankle. Considering we're a two-day trek from any meaningful form of civilisation, getting injured isn’t an option.
After the exhilarating views from Warmiwanusca, everything below is far more serene. The wildlife on this side of the mountain is more colourful and varied. The pathway is flanked by flowering bushes and sprouting saplings. Butterflies flutter amongst the flowers. A mockingbird travels between trees. Faraway to our left a thin waterfall careens silently down the mountainside. Soon the mountains whose peaks we had been roughly level with are towering above us once again, stalwart and infinite in their grandness. Even though the tourists have slowed down, we regularly hear the call "Porters!", and the tough, stocky men come jogging past, the great weights on their backs no impediment to their speed or agility. It's utterly humbling when we reach our campsite and they have prepared the tents, the lunch and are waiting for us to refuel and recover before they can do the same.
Our campsite is situated in a bowl at the base of the mountains. After completing our walking for the day, trainers are hastily removed and water is drunk in large gulps.
As daylight wanes there is little to do but prepare for the cold night and a few hours of restorative sleep. We have been briefed that we will be woken at half-past five with a cup of coca tea. We will trek to the peak of the mountain that is above us, the pathway of which is almost hidden beneath the trees, a faint meandering white line leading through the jungle-covered mountainside to another seat on top of the world.
Posted on: 27/08/2012
The following is Simon Andrewes' piece on walking here, which was on our longlist for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition.
From KM88 to Machu Picchu
Kilometre 88 is where you get off the train and enter the National Park. The walk along the valley to Wallabamba is fairly easy going. Then you turn right, into another valley, heading northeast towards Machu Picchu. This is where the long steep ascent from around 2,000 metres to the first and highest mountain pass, Abra de Warmiwanyusca, at 4,200 metres begins.
The climb is long and hard. Best to stop early for the night at Llullucha and start fresh early next morning. First you pass through a forest of enormous eucalyptus trees, and then, once above the tree line, the path just climbs and climbs relentlessly. The scenery is spectacular and on a massive scale; the sky a pale, pale blue that fills the heart with yearning.
Take time to appreciate the landscapes and enjoy just being there, especially if you still feel some discomfort because of the altitude. Remember how, two days ago in Cusco, you were gasping for breath walking up the gentle incline from the square to your hostel. This morning you’ll have been walking with a rucksack on your back for almost five hours.
The descent into the valley of the Pakaymayu River is harder than the climb. The path is crumbly and all the time you have to watch where you place your feet for the ground is very uneven, while straining your leg muscles to stop yourself falling into a run. Even if by now night is falling and patchy cloud forming, the vista looking down the river valley is most impressive, with snow-capped Andean peaks forming the distant horizon.
Climbing again out of the valley, you come across the first signs of what you might call the Inca trail proper in the forms of steps carved into the mountain rock. At Runkuraqay there are two Inca watch-posts to guard what is formally the beginning of the path to Machu Picchu. Look out for some tent-like structures, consisting of a framework of poles with layers of straw laid over them. This is a good place to spend the second night.
In the early morning, the deep steep valley that you have crossed remains in shadow long after the sun, somewhere, has risen. The side of the valley that you descended the previous day presents itself as a wall of greyish green, impassive and eternal. Now you are on the east side of the valley, so the sun never gets to you until you have climbed up to the pass several hundred metres above.
After crossing this second pass, you find yourself in a completely different kind of terrain, and you can see the Inca trail for miles in front of you, a narrow ribbon of stone, winding through the lush vegetation, following the gentle contours of the broad valley.
Just before crossing over to the other side of the valley, look out for the steps that will take you up to the left to a ridge on which lies the settlement of Sayaqmarka. To call them ruins would be misleading, for the buildings are all virtually intact, very much like Machu Picchu itself. Only the roofs have gone. These would have been made of straw, lain on a structure of poles, in a similar fashion to the huts we had slept in at Runkuraqay. It is more their desolation that gives them the air of being ruins, and lends them that tragic aura of a lost, legendary civilisation. The guide book suggests the settlement was built around a temple and an astronomical observatory.
From here on the Inca trail is clearly defined. At one stage it passes through a narrow tunnel cut into the rock. It is easy going now. You can get into your stride and trust that your feet will come down on a firm, flat, secure surface.
The next place you come to is called Phuyupatamarka. It is close to a peak with tremendous views across to the snow-capped peaks on the other side of the Urubamba river valley. Nearby are more ruins, with a commanding view of the territory all around. If you look down to the north, far below you can see something that looks like an enormous Roman amphitheatre.
There is also a complex of Inca baths, more or less intact. You’ll find one that is still functioning where you can take a welcome shower. Only three kilometres remain, according to the guide books, to Winyaywayna, so it is tempting to spend a leisurely afternoon at the baths, lazing around and feeling that the trek is practically over.
Only the feeling would be deceptive. For the three kilometres to Winyaywayna consist largely of a stone staircase descending along the side of the mountain and it’ll cost you some time and some pain to get down. This is, remember, the third day of an arduous trek at high altitude. By the end, your knees will be defying you to take another step.
The ‘ruins’ at Winyaywayma are on no account to be missed. Once again, up in the swirling evening mist, you’ll find a settlement that is virtually intact, a village running down the edge of extensive terracing for crop cultivation: this is the ‘amphitheatre’ you can see from Phuyupatamarka. Beyond it, the valley drops almost vertically to the Urubamba River. The terracing itself is astonishingly steep. It probably provided food for all the settlements you have passed through. Machu Picchu is just one splendid part of a whole complex of interdependent communities which were abandoned 500 years ago because ...? It is hard to imagine a place of greater safety than that which these inaccessible terrains provide.
At Winyaywayna there is a tourist hotel where you can spend the night. Leaving at first light will give you enough time to get to Machu Picchu to see the sun rise, looking down on it from Inti Punku – the Gate of the Sun. Except it is more likely that you will arrive in stubbornly persistent cloud that refuses to lift. But wait. After a while, you will be rewarded as through the cloud you’ll make out, not a shape, but a change of colour at first, and finally a patch of cloud will clear away completely for your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. In a matter of minutes the whole place will appear, lit up by shafts of sunlight through swirling wafts of cloud. Take your time descending the path. Absorb the perfection of the setting, the harmony between the man-made settlement and its natural environment.
Posted on: 27/08/2012
The following is Simon Andrewes' piece on walking here, which was on our longlist for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition.
My dream was to see day break over Machu Picchu looking down on it from Inti Punku – the Gate of the Sun. But as we approached it at a rapid pace – now I was at the front of the expedition in my eagerness – the cloud was as persistent as ever and showed no signs of lifting.
Only three days before, I had still been in Cusco. I had thought of spending a few days there to get acclimatised before starting on the Inca trail, but when it came to it, I just couldn’t wait to get going, so already on my first day in the Inca capital I made contact with some of the people I would be hiking with. That was just five days ago, when merely a short slow walk up the gentle incline from the main square to my hostel had left me gasping for breath because of the city’s high altitude.
Twenty-five years had passed since my only previous attempt to visit Machu Picchu. Then a series of mishaps had prevented me achieving my mardi gras experience. After a deviation and emergency stopover in Jamaica, the plane I was on approached Lima in the dim early morning light. I watched sleepily through the cabin window as we dropped through the cloud and Peruvian soil rushed – as it were - towards us. Then suddenly everything disappeared, the engines roared, and we were heading back up into the sky again. It was the notoriously familiar morning fog that had blanketed out the airport and prevented our landing. Our pilot circled above the airport for an hour, then tried again, but with the same result. Further mishaps meant that that attempt to reach Peru, let alone Machu Picchu, was abandoned. It was fate, declared my travelling companion.
This time I had spent a few days in Lima under grey skies and in a drizzle that was fairly constant. But my flight had arrived at midnight, and fog had not been an issue.
Cusco was a different world. Immaculately clear mountain air, bathed in bright sunshine for virtually twelve hours a day. Early that morning, just five days ago, the airplane had at last burst through the thick blanket of cloud that pushes up against the Andes and buries Lima for most of the winter. Flying inland in our approach to Cusco we passed some snow-covered peaks to our left and then on across the mountains like crumpled sheets below us until the excitement of passing Machu Picchu. It was on our right, the captain said, and I got out of my seat to look. But all I saw was the zig-zag slash of road coming up from the valley and the garishly red tin roof of the hotel de turistas, which was right next to the site of the Inca settlement. But Machu Picchu itself blended into the surrounding mountainside so well that I missed it. I know now that I was looking in exactly the right spot, but I simply did not see it.
In Cusco, I felt light-headed and short of breath due to the altitude (around 3,300 metres) but at the same time I was very excited and anxious that no further mishap should occur to prevent me from reaching my goal. I did not intend to let fate cheat me again. And for me the only fitting way to reach Machu Picchu was, of course, not by the tourist train to Aguas Calientes and then the tourist bus, but by the Inca trail that led to Inti Punku.
Then, through the cloud I made out, not a shape, but a change of colour, patches that were of a darker grey than the clouds, and as I pointed them out to the others, a patch of cloud cleared away completely and for a few seconds we could see a fraction of the lower part of the town of Machu Picchu.
So, technically speaking, I did not see the sun rise over the legendary secular shrine that is Machu Picchu. My first view of it was nonetheless a sensational experience that, over twenty years, has never dimmed in my memory.
I took plenty of time descending the path to the town and before entering I waited for a good while, absorbing the magnificence of that near-perfect harmony between the enigmatic settlement and its fabulous natural setting. My mardi gras experience was not a let-down.
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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