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What to Expect on the Inca Trail: Day-by-Day Log of the 4-Day Hike to Machu Picchu

Hiking the famous Inca Trail and ending up at breathtaking Machu Picchu is a journey that many embark on daily, as it’s somewhat of a bucket-list item that sits top of many adventure seekers’ list of must-dos.

The trek up the Inca Trail is typically a four day journey, which gives adequate time for rest, eating, and some sightseeing along the way — the route up follows the ancient roads of Cusco, which provides unlimited views that are picture worthy, along with up close views of ruins that are perfectly preserved to this day.

Those who have completed the hike up to Machu Picchu claim it is hands-down the best hiking trail in the world, and every adventure publication consistently names the Inca Trail the top destination adventure.

Thousands of thrill seekers visit Peru every year solely to tackle Machu Picchu and the hike leading up to it. Just think — you are literally walking the same steps that have made the trek through the Andes Mountains for several centuries.

As mentioned, the typical Inca Trail hike up to Machu Picchu is done over a four day span, so we want to give you an idea of what exactly you should expect to encounter on each of those days.

We will go over a few bits of information regarding the Inca Trail, and then outline a typical four days, giving you a clear picture of what you need to prepare for — both physically and mentally — to complete the hike successfully.

Quick Overview of the Inca Trail

Machu Picchu HikeThe Inca Trail is a 26 mile journey through the Andes Mountains, located in Cusco, Peru. It’s a destination many visit not only to reach Machu Picchu, but also to take in all of the amazing ruins and scenery that is constantly visible along the hike.

It’s not a quick daytime activity though — it requires planning advance as well as physical training — to tackle the four day adventure. It’s one of the most famous destination adventures in the world, and for good reason.

This guided tour through the Inca Trail will introduce you to Inca ruins throughout the Andes, you will experience the Peruvian rainforest and jungle, as well as witness the cloud forest. YOu get to experience the same exact route the ancient Incas used to take more than five hundred years ago.

Let that sink in for a moment. Hiking the Inca Trail is embarking on a journey that was done over five centuries ago. It’s a truly once in a lifetime experience that you will never forget.

Each day is filled with hiking anywhere from four to nine miles, across a wide range of terrain. Uneven trails, changing weather conditions and seemingly endless stairs are just some of the challenges that you will encounter. But, nonetheless, it’s considered to be well worth it by those that have completed the Inca Trail tour in the past.

The History of the Inca Trail

Many immediately associate the Inca Trail with Machu Picchu, and that is what it’s most famous for, but it’s much more than that. It’s just a small part of a massive network of trails, paths and roads, totalling more than fifty-thousand kilometers in total.

They were originally created to connect remote areas to Cusco, creating a network that allowed for transportation of goods, workers, military regimes, as well as a messaging route to deliver important information throughout the empire.

During the hike, you will receive an in-depth history lesson that explains how the network of roads was used — hearing the stories and seeing it all first-hand is an unmated educational and cultural experience.

When you hear the story about Chasquis — who were runners that would transport messages to and from Cusco and Machu Picchu — and how they could run the entire trail in one day, you will be absolutely amazed, especially seeing it first-hand. The altitude, the stairs, the distance — it’s truly mind blowing.

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Must Visit Sites Along the Inca Trail

Throughout the hike along the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu there are numerous ruins, preserved incredibly, used all the way back five hundred years ago. Some are viewable up close, while others you can take in from the distance — either way it’s a sight to be seen.

You will see amazing ruins in the hills, on top of cliffs and out in the distance. The trail system throughout the Andes is massive — complete with stone paved roads and stairs — it’s amazing to think this was man-made hundreds of years ago.

While your tour will show you several sites along the Inca Trail, we want to highlight some of them for you ahead of time to help you prepare for your Inca Trail adventure.

The Starting Point of the Inca Trail

The start of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be found in the Urubamba Valley, and from there it follows the bank of the Cusichaca river, all the way to the ruins of Llactapata. These ruins are where travelers would take a break and rest, prior to continuing their trek up to Machu Picchu.

The typical trek is a four day adventure, which we will outline starting below, giving you a clear picture of what to expect on the Inca Trail.

Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

 

The first day of the hike up the Inca Trail is when reality hit you — it’s finally time to embark on the journey you have been waiting for and planning for. This is when it starts to get real — really quickly.

The months of preparation — both mentally and physically — are about to be put through the ringer. While this is a beautiful hike in terms of sights, make no mistake that it’s very demanding.

Thankfully, day one is a gentle introduction into the next four days ahead.

The beginning of the trail ascends the Vilcanota mountains, which is the first day’s challenge. The goal is to hike through, arriving at the village of Huayllabamba, where the first night’s campsite is located.

The path you behind the Inca Trail hike on is fairly wide and mostly a flat surface. A large portion of the initial hike is along the Urubamba River, winding through brush and trees. The sound of the river is consistent and offers a soothing sound. It’s almost like nature is welcoming you as you begin the hike.

While the hike does increase in altitude from the beginning, the increased incline is gradual and nothing too sudden. This gives your body and legs plenty of time to adjust. This is why it’s recommended to begin training three to six month prior — the more conditioned your body and legs, the easier it will be.

Since it’s the first day, your tour guide will break up the hike several times, taking small breaks to let you rest and recover, while also describing ruins found throughout the trail as well as providing a little history lesson along the way — there is endless history throughout the entire Inca Trail.

By the time you reach the campsite for the evening, it will feel good to have something warm to drink, put some food in your stomach and get your feet out of your shoes. A nice stretch followed by a good night’s sleep is key.

 Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

 Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

 

Day two of the Inca Trail hike behind early, before the sun is up. After warm tea and washing up, it’s time to gather your personal belongings and get ready for the day’s trek. Oftentimes in the early mornings the temperature will drop, which is why packing some warm clothes is a must-do.

Remember, you can always take layers off — so don’t be afraid to dress for the immediate weather, and remove as necessary during the hike. In the early hours you are likely to see a little bit of frost along the trail and the temperatures will be low enough to see your breath.

The early stages of day two is when the altitude really begins to kick in, and you physically notice it more. The Inca Trail is no joke — you are going to feel it in your quads and hamstrings — oftentimes they will begin to burn because of the steep incline you are consistently hiking. You will notice yourself breathing a little deeper and heavier, but don’t be alarmed — it’s just the effects of the altitude.

When you first break the tree line you begin to see just how far up in elevation you have already traveled. The views make all of the hard work up to that point well worth it. You can expect to stop several times at places very photogenic — the views of the valleys below will be unlike anything you have ever witnessed before.

The most challenging climb of day two is Dead Woman’s Pass — the stone steps are huge and they seem to go on forever. You will feel your legs begin to get heavier and your heart will race.

Then, once you conquer the steps you are treated to a nice steady decline down the valley. While you might think going down a nice path is easy, you still have to be careful. You must concentrate to keep a strong and stable footing — your legs will be tired and a lack of concentration can result in a slip and fall.

After another dip into the jungle you will arrive at a valley where the evening’s campsite is located. The views from the site look directly at ruins. It’s an incredible sight to look at while making camp and watching the sunset.

Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

 

The third day begins much like the previous day — rise early, pack up, wash up and get ready to hike the Inca Trail, continuing the quest to reach Machu Picchu.

Many travelers assume that the entire four day tour involves hiking straight up a mountain, but that isn’t the case at all. In fact, day three starts with a descent down into the valley.

Here, you realize just how “out there” Machu Picchu really is — it’s not a straight shot up a mountain to reach it like many would believe. It’s a pathway filled with twists and turns, up and downs, and so many different terrains. This is why knowing what to expect when hiking the Inca Trail is so beneficial — being mentally prepared to handle all of the challenges gives you a major advantage.

Walking down a steep decline is often more tiring to your legs than climbing, as many quickly realize. Towards the end of day three you will dip back down below the tree lines, deep into the Peruvian jungle that so much of the Andes region features.

As you make your way through the jungle along the Inca Trail you understand just how hidden all of the ruins along the way truly were. It was no easy task traveling back and forth — and to think that some of the empire’s messengers made the journey in a single day is incredible, and almost not believable.

After hiking through the jungle you will embark on the campsite for night three, where you will enjoy a much deserved shower, a hot meal and drinks. Sooner after, it will be time for bed — a good solid rest is needed for the final day of the hike.

You will certainly be excited as you fall asleep, knowing that tomorrow will give you a first look at the lost city — Machu Picchu.

 Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

 Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

 

This is the day that you have been waiting for — soon the previous three days of grueling hiking along the Inca Trail along with the aches and pains you accumulated throughout the journey will all be worth it.

The morning hike will continue to take you through the path, until you reach what many guides refer to as the Sun Gate. At that point, you get your first clear sight of Machu Picchu — and what a sight it is.

As you look below at the iconic wonder, you can’t help but just take a moment to soak in all of the mystery and beauty oozing out of it. Many visitors say that the image is even more impressive in person and nothing like the photographs in terms of just how spectacular it is.

Once you descend down the plateau and reach Machu Picchu you will be able to explore the grounds thoroughly, with your guide highlighting parts of the city — all built by hand without the tools, equipment and resources we have available today.

When you see up close at just how incredible the craftsmanship is you will undoubtedly agree that the hike through the Inca Trail was worth every minute. You are now witnessing one of the most incredible marvels of the world — right in front of your eyes.

From the stonework to the overall architectural design, Machu Picchu is visually stimulating on every level. You will want to take a lot of pictures, taking advantage of all the daylight left.

Tips for Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Now that you know what to expect on the Inca Trail, throughout a four day hike, we want to provide you with a few additional tips to help make your adventure more enjoyable by avoiding some of the common mistakes.

Plan your hike for a few days after you arrive: You don’t want to start your Inca Trail hike as soon as you arrive in Cusco. Instead, arrive a few days prior and get your body used to the altitude. Go on a few little walks and hikes to get your body ready.

Don’t bring new footwear: You want to bring footwear that is already broken in. Bringing brand new shoes could give you blisters and make the hike very uncomfortable.

Prepare for the elements: Apply sunscreen and bug spray every morning. A sunburn and bug bites will make you itchy and uncomfortable, especially when you sweat.

Pack snacks: If you get hungry mid-hike a few nuts or a protein bar can give you the needed energy to power through.

Bing wet wipes: This isn’t a luxury hike — a “shower” usually consists of washing your face and hands in hot water and soap. Wet wipes can help you clean up on the go and feel fresh.

Pack an eye mask and earplugs: These can help you sleep better especially if you aren’t used to hearing nature and outside elements.

Bring cash: The bathroom at Machu Picchu costs money — and only accepts cash. 

Bring extra batteries and powerpacks: Since this is a once in a lifetime trip, you will want to take a lot of pictures and video — make sure you have plenty of power, as there are no outlets along the Inca Trail.