The Inca Trail has to be the most iconic trek in the world encompassing dense sub-tropical vegetation, stunning mountain scenery and finally building towards the first glimpse of Machu Picchu through Intipunku, the Gateway of the Sun. Our guide to trekking the Inca Trail covers everything you need to know to begin planning your trip.
Peak season on the Inca Trail is May to September, coinciding with the western hemisphere's summer holidays. These months offer probably the best trekking conditions with fairly dry and sunny weather. However you will need to book earley, as June, July and August tend to book out 3,4 or 5 months in advance. October, November and December are also great months on the Inca Trail with fewer trekkers albeit with a fairly strong chance of rain on at least one day of the trek. Availability is also better, with spaces often available one month or less before departure. The rainy season runs from January to March - so expect it to be fairly wet at times, however it is still perfectly feasible if you have good quality waterproof gear. Again Inca Trail permits are a lot easier to get hold of at this time of year. The Inca Trial is closed during the month of February each year for conservation projects - although Machu Picchu and alternative routes are open during February.
If there are no Inca Trail permits available, or, like me, you would prefer to avoid the crowds, then there are a number of alternatives to the Inca Trail. None (except for the short Inca Trail) offer quite the same experience of Inca ruins and the spectacular approach to Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, but are fantastic treks in their own right which include a day in Machu Picchu.
Classic Inca Trail from £334pp: The Classic four day Inca Trail is top of most people's agendas. And whilst, yes it is busy, yes getting permits isn't all that easy, it is still the ultimate way to see Machu Picchu and the stunning surrounding scenery.
Short Inca Trail from £255pp: A 2 day one night Inca Trail for those with less time or less inclination to trek for four days. This trek misses some of the best mountain scenery but does take in the spectacular approach to Machi Picchu. This trail is still subject to permits.
The Salkantay Trail from £395pp: The 5 day / 4n night Salkantay Trail was named one of the 25 best Treks in the Worlds by National Geographic Adventure Magazine. Salkantay (Salcantay) is an incredibly beautiful if sometimes demanding trek. After 3 days of trekking you are transported to Machu Picchu for a guided tour.
Lares Valley from £410pp: The Lares trek takes you off the beaten path through beautiful valleys and traditional communities. The emphasis here is on exploring villages, visiting markets and seeing the locals produce wonderful hand-made textiles. After 3 days trekking you're transported to Machu Picchu for a guided tour.
Choquequirao Trek from £555 pp: Choquequirao is often touted as the new Machu Picchu. It is believed to be the last refuge of the Incas and has gained in popularity since restrictions were placed on the Inca Trail. The trek itself takes in stunning mountain scenery and abundant inca ruins.
Permits were introduced on the Inca Trail in between 2003 and 2005 to protect the trail against overcrowding and abuse. Permits are sold on a first come first served basis.
The Inca Trail is restricted to 500 people a day, this allows for around 300 staff (guides, porters etc.) and 200 trekkers. There are around 150 registered tour operators that have licenses to operate on the Inca Trail, and it is through these that all trekkers must make their arrangements. It is not possible to the trail independently, although it is theoretically possible (but difficult) to arrange your own qualified guide.
The Inca Trail regulations require all licensed tour operators to meet certain minimum standards that govern porter welfare and group sizes. There is a set minimum wage for porters and a maximum weight which they are allowed to carry (this is vetted at a checkpoint on the trail). The tour operators are required to use professional qualified guides, and provide emergency first aid, oxygen and radio equipment. Group sizes are limited to a maximum of 16 trekkers, with a maximum guide to trekker ratio of 1:8.
Availability of the Inca Trail permits is controlled by the Peruvian National Institute of Culture http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ - (please note these instructions have recently changed, this is the latest access for 2011 Inca Trail Permits). The website has recently been revamped and is now much easier to access, if a little temperamental. Availability moves incredibly quickly so it is only really useful as an aid to planning. Your operator will book the permits for you (you can not do it yourself through this website).
To give an idea of the typical profile of trekkers on the Inca Trail, the following snapshot shows the demographic breakdown of trekkers booked on the Inca Trail in March 2011
- 50.2% are male, 49.8% are female
- 19% are Argentineans, 12% US, 11% UK, 9% Australian, 8% Canadian and 8% French
- 78% are between the ages of 21-40, with the youngest under 10 and the oldest over 70!
How much does the Inca Trail cost?
Prices vary for the Inca Trail from $400 to $750 for the 4 day trek. This usually includes entrance fees, guide, tents (2 per tent), meals, porters (for the camping equipment, not personal gear) and the backpacker class tourist train back. At the lower end of the price range expect larger group sizes (16 people) and lower paid staff at the higher end expect smaller groups (8-12 people) and fixed departures - meaning that even if only two of you end up booking a particular date the trek will still go ahead just for you.
For those who like a few luxuries there are several premium inca trail options. Personal porter upgrades (approx $60)give you a 7kg personal luggage allowance with the porters - meaning you can get away with only carrying a day pack, and on the return train journey you can upgrade from the backpacker train to the vistadome train (approx $30) which resembles first class trains service with floor to ceiling windows. Alternatively there are luxury inca trail treks for about double the price of the standard trek featuring such luxuries as inflatable beds, wine in the evening, 12kg luggage allowance and the coup de grace a masseuse on hand to ease those aches and pains.
Only local companies are granted licences to operate on the trail so if you do book through GAP Adventures or other international operators, they will be using a local operator to carry out the trek - expect to be paying a higher rate for a similar service to that received from booking direct with local operators. Some international companies (such as Tourdust) act as agents for local operators and sell at the same rate you would pay if you contacted them directly. The advantages of booking through an international agent are that payment is easier and your money is usually protected in the case of the local operator going out of business (although you will always need to check this is the case).
If you are planning on trekking the Inca Trail the following sites are superb resources:
http://www.raingod.com/angus/Gallery/Photos/SouthAmerica/Peru/IncaTrail/ A virtual tour of the Inca Trail by Angus McIntyre
http://matadortrips.com/how-to-trek-the-inca-trail A guide by Richard McColl who has trekked the Inca Trail five times.
http://www.panoramas.dk/fullscreen6/f2-machu-picchu.html A 360 degree panorama of Machu Picchu
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2YBVlgqqco Michael Palin takes a tour around Machu Picchu.
The incredible shot of Machu Picchu was taken by Flickr user jayegirl99
An in depth guide to the history, stories and people of Machu Pichu, Peru and The Incas.
Thanks for this excellent advice. It will really help a lot of people. I shared it with my friends on Facebook and Twitter because I know a lot of people need it.
Max White 4th June 2010
I am looking to walk theinca trail. A few days in the jungle and some time at lake titicaca. Would like prices for everything except international flights from uk to lima.
tony 26th April 2011
Wow! I have completely fallen for the picture on top. It simply looks amazing. I would love to be there and possibly spend 2-3 days in that amazingly beautiful place.
Trek to Everest London 18th February 2012