The Inca Trail route & highlights

Your Inca Trail experience will start off in Cuzco - giving a couple of days to acclimatise at altitude before taking on this mountain trek, and explore nearby ruins. On the first day of your trek you'll drive around three hours to Pisacucho, known as Km 82, where your trek begins. You'll typically be hiking between five and seven hours each day, with the second day readily agreed to be the toughest, as you reach Dead Woman's Pass at over 4,200m. From there it's not quite all downhill, but things get a little easier. There are plenty of other ruins to explore along the way, including Wiñay Wayna and Sayajmarca. You might spend your final night camped near Machu Picchu, or in accommodation in Aguas Calientes, ready to reach your final destination at dawn the following day, on foot or by bus.

Alternative routes, including the Lares and Salkantay treks, are becoming more popular, as these don't require permits. They also take around four to five days to reach Machu Picchu. The Lares trek is a little gentler with a cultural focus, while Salkantay has more ups and downs - and feels like more of a wilderness experience. Read more about the alternative treks here.
Aguas Calientes

1. Aguas Calientes

Now known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town's proximity to Peru's main draw has turned it into a fully-fledged tourist hub. Attractions include a botanical garden; Putucusi Peak - which has incredible views of Machu Picchu; and Quechua handcraft markets. Be sure to book your hotel in advance - with 1,500 visitors a day, this little pueblo fills up fast.

2. Cuzco

Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire, but for modern tourists, it may as well be the capital of Peru. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, sitting at a cool 3,400m, is the gateway to the Inca Trail, colourful Quechua culture and snow-sprinkled peaks. The colonial architecture of this cobblestoned city is beautifully preserved, and it's a great place to adjust to the altitude before setting off to explore the riches of the Andes.
Dead Womans Pass

3. Dead Womans Pass

The ominously named Warmiwanusqa - known as 'Dead Woman's Pass' - is the highest and most exhausting point along the Inca Trail. A strenuous 2.5-hour climb takes hikers up to the 4,200m pass, where guides normally allow for a break to recover before continuing with a steep descent into the Pacamayo Valley.
Huayna Picchu

4. Huayna Picchu

The 'young peak' overlooks the ruins of Machu Picchu, and is just as iconic as the Inca citadel itself - appearing in the backdrop of every proud photo of the site. Rising 360m above Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu also has Inca temples and terraces at its summit, which can be reached via a steep, slippery two-hour trail - but this is not for the faint-hearted.

5. Llactapata

Hikers opting for the five-day trek can visit the ruins of Llactapata on the first day and camp here overnight. Believed to be an Inca rest stop on the way to Machu Picchu, Llactapata was constructed by an Inca chieftain. As well as being a ceremonial site, its Sun Temple may also have served an astronomical role during the solstices and equinoxes.
Machu Picchu

6. Machu Picchu

Rediscovered a century ago, the 'Lost City of the Incas' has not lost its ability to astonish, thanks to its phenomenal position atop a mountain peak, with panoramic Andean views. Stones cut so perfectly that they sit together without mortar demonstrate the Incas' phenomenal skills. The 500 year old ruins include the Temple of the Sun, steep terraces, around 150 homes and an astronomic stone clock.

7. Phuyupatamarca

The 'Town Above the Clouds' gives visitors the strange sensation of floating in the sky when the clouds roll into the valley below this 3,670m-high, crumbling town. There is evidence here of the fascinating hydraulic system the Incas used to irrigate their terraces crops - incredibly, it still works. There are also ritual baths, bridges, plazas and protective walls, plus glorious views of snow-capped Salkantay.

8. Runkuracay

Roughly translating as 'basket house', this strange ruin, sitting at just under 4,000m, is believed to be an Inca tambo where messengers would rest and recharge while traveling along the Inca Trail. Its unusual circular shape means that its open passageways faced out in all directions of the Inca Empire, with views across the sweeping Andean ranges.

9. Salkantay

At 6,271m, Salkantay - meaning 'savage' or 'invincible' - is the Vilcabamba Range's highest point, and its sheer face rises up to a permanently snow-capped peak. Being located directly south of Machu Picchu, the Southern Cross appears above its summit when at its highest point in the sky, which the Incas attributed to Salkantay's sacred powers. The Salkantay Trek leads hikers around the mountain's base.

10. Sayacmarca

The 'inaccessible town' sits high on a ridge with precipitous drops around three sides - hence the name. Saycamarca was built by the Incas' enemy, the Colla, but later adapted by the Inca. No-one is sure of its purpose, which adds to the sense of mystery of this strange, isolated site.
Winay Wayna

11. Winay Wayna

Translating as 'eternal youth', Winay Wayna is an Inca site built into a steep slope, comprising houses connected by a sheer staircase, along with agricultural terraces for corn and wheat. The setting is suitably dramatic, as are the views of the Urubamba River, below. Winay Wayna is usually visited on the Inca Trail, and provides one of its most impressive detours.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Inca Trail trek or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Inca Trail itinerary

Organised Inca Trail vacations will always incorporate a day or two to acclimatise to the altitude in Cuzco, which sits at 3,400m, and this may include an excursion to the nearby Sacred Valley, or the Sacsayhuaman fortress. After this, your trek begins.
Day 1

Day 1:

Set off from Cuzco for the three-hour drive to Piscacucho, to meet your guides and porters, and pass the first checkpoint. The first few hours of your journey follow the Vilcanota River, passing farms, cacti gardens and the snowcapped backdrop of Nevado Veronica. Inca ruins line the route and today you’ll explore the ridgetop site of Llactapata, before reaching your camp for the night. 11km, 6-7 hours.
Day 2

Day 2:

The second day of the Inca Trail is notorious for being the toughest, as you ascend though cloud forest to Warmihuañusca – known ominously as Dead Woman’s Pass. At 4,215m this is the highest point on the trail, and once you’ve crossed if there is a steep descent down to the Pacamayo River valley, for your next camp, at 3,600m. 10km, 6-7 hours.
Day 3

Day 3:

Today you’ll ascend again, but it’s a much gentler hike, up to the ruins of Runquracay and the Runquracay Pass at 3,930m. Here, the Inca Trail becomes more clearly defined, and as you walk along the flat boulders, you can muse over whose feet may have followed this same route five centuries ago. You might pause to explore the Sayajmarca ruins before entering the rainforest. 12km, 5-6 hours.
Day 4

Day 4:

Your final day of trekking sees you descend down the Inca steps – a 2km stone staircase set into the mountains. You’ll see the landscapes shift as you drop in altitude, and trek through moss and lichen clad cloud forest en route to the Inca ruins of Wiñay Wayna, which spill down a steep slope less than 5km from Machu Picchu. Most tour operators choose to camp here, tantalisingly close to your end goal, so that you can get up at dawn to reach Machu Picchu first thing in the morning. However, others will push on today, to reach the Sun Gate in the afternoon and avoid the sunrise crowds.

You won’t enter the site today, but will enjoy the views over it from the Sun Gate at this much quieter time of day. If not camping at Wiñay Wayna, you may spend the night in a hotel or hostel in Aguas Calientes. With your first proper shower and bed since you started trekking, you’ll no doubt enjoy an early night in preparation for a full exploration of the site in the morning. 9km, 6-7hrs, depending on where you sleep.
Day 5

Day 5:

If you’ve camped at Wiñay Wayna, you’ll wake up early today to hike the final 5km of the Inca Trail. You’ll see the jagged outline of the Vilcabamba Range in the distance, and finally the iconic outline of Huayna Picchu, the peak which stands guard over Machu Picchu itself.

Those arriving from Aguas Calientes will also have an early start to take a government registered bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu. It’s only a 30 minute drive, but with hundreds of people hoping to do the same thing, you’ll need to beat the crowds, and queues, especially in the busy May to October season.
In either case, you’ll begin your visit with a guided tour of the site followed by free time to explore, permits usually allow for around four hours on site. Some tours will end with a night in Aguas Calientes, others will head straight back to Cuzco using public buses and trains.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Giacomo Buzzao] [Aguas Calientes: Nick Jewell] [Cuzco: Kenneth Moore] [Dead Woman's Pass: Mx._Granger] [Huayna Picchu: McKay Savage] [Llactapata: Bex Walton] [Machu Picchu: Tomas Sobek] [Phuyupatamarca: Anthony Letmon] [Runkuracay: Teddy Sipaseuth] [Salkantay: McKay Savage] [Sayacmarca: Alberto ....] [Wiñay Wayna: Kevin Jones] [Sacsayhuaman fortress: Pablo G.] [Day 1 (Nevado Veronsica): Edubucher] [Day 2 (Dead womans pass): Colegota ] [Day 3 (Runquracay): Tyler Bell] [Day 4 (Winay Wayna): My Favorite Pet Sitter] [Day 4 (Sun Gate view): Tyler Bell] [Day 5 (Machu Picchu): Eduardo Flores]