Up for a hike or trek? Everything you need to know about the Inca Trail

Terra Explorer
October 15, 2021

This is Terra Explorer’s definite guide to the Inca Trail. We’ll go through some of the most googled questions about this ancient marvel, so you know what to expect on your next adventure trip to Peru. Let’s dive in.


What was the Inca Trail? 

Well, not to sound redundant but it was a collection of trails, paths, bridges, and so on, and so on, that sprawled over the Inca Empire (modern-day Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina). That means, the entire system of ‘walkable highways’ zigzags through steep mountains, arid deserts, dense jungle, and high altitude plains—connecting much of the notable cities, religious centers, and economic hubs of the time. 



What is the Inca Trail today? 

machu picchu

Today, the Inca Trail (also known as Qapac Ñan —that’s a tongue twister) is not as golden as it was during its heyday. Centuries of colonial wrought followed by disdain from the then-nascent Government institutions inevitably meant that huge chunks of lesser-known paths had been left in ruins or under lackadaisical care.


Then again, the Inca Trail has benefited from the incendiary fame of Machu Picchu. In the last decades—because of the collective craze of flooding tourists— a lot of these storied roads are being bestowed, once again, with widespread appreciation. This —paired with ancient ingenuity acting as a life raft on a wreck— has resulted in a Trail that can still be reclaimed and revived by those who decide to pay a visit. Who would have thought that we (touristy pilgrims) can scope out these ancient routes heartedly knowing that we’re doing our part to keep them alive and kicking? 


Although the Inca Trail is a subcontinental road system; when people resolve on treks or hikes they usually head to the ones leading to Machu Picchu. This is an unparalleled ending after an arduous quest—how arduous depends on you, it’s a pick-and-choose situation: anywhere from a light stroll near Cusco, to a feet-grinding multiple-day trek.



What’s exciting about the Inca Trail? 

Besides its historic allure, the Inca Trail poses an opportunity to get well-acquainted with the removed environs of Peru—to witness, first hand, the sublime Andean scenery. There is an ethereal feeling when encountering nature there—if you’ve been before, you know what we’re talking about: evergreen mountains hugged by a mist of clouds, the sounds of nature peaking at your ears, waterfalls, cliffs, lakes. Heaven. 

In addition to the sweeping vistas, there are a bunch of ancient citadels, but also, living and breathing hamlets sitting nearby where one can get in touch with the peoples who have inhabited the Andes for generations on generations. 

For the flora-and-fauna inclined, the paths become in-person Nat-Geo documentaries: hummingbirds, orchids, puyas, and spectacled bears—the latter, if lucky—adorn the trip.




What is there to do on the Inca Trail? 


For the not-so-keen-on-getting-dirt-all-over, we recommend doing the last stretch of the Inca Trail. This unsung footway snakes from Sacsayhuaman (pronounced, according to smirking locals, as ‘sexy woman’) to the main square of Cusco. But what is Sacsayhuaman exactly? Without overextending, it was both a religious complex and fortress on the outskirts of the imperial capital showcasing extraordinary masonry work. The leisurely walk on this path, plus a visit to the ruins can take about 4 hours. Certainly doable.

If you’re into more serious hikes, then, head to Pumamarca or Inkilltambo. Both involve visiting lesser-known ancient paths (often, they’re not taken into consideration when talking about the ‘actual’ Inca Trail, but still worth visiting) leading to archaeological sites: Ollantaytambo and Inkilltambo. Although not as polished as Machu Picchu or Coricancha, dozens upon dozens of ever-present Inca terraces turn the ancient citadels into tucked-away marvels. Seizing upon the absence of throngs of tourists, we usually set a picnic to assuage hunger while absorbing the astonishing views.


For a short-Inca-Trail-to-Machu-Picchu experience, you can take a two-day hike (that is if you count the day spent visiting the site itself, which is pretty much still a hike). This one is of the better-preserved sections of the road system, but one of the most visited too, be mindful of that. The hike, as all hikes on these footways, encompasses ruins and archaeological sites along the way. The cusp of the journey happens when arriving at Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate: a swoon-inducing vantage point from which to contemplate the citadel in the distance. 


Throw in some proper gear if you want to take on a laborious five-day Inca Trail trek. The starting point, The Sacred Valley of the Incas; the goal, reaching Machu Picchu. This expedition twists and turns around towering mountains, Andean forests, high-altitude plains, and amazonian jungle. A summation of ecosystems that provide pampering landscapes for the outdoor-attuned. 


Related: Seasoned hikers on what to Pack to Machu Picchu’s Inca Trail.


“I still don’t understand how they are able to cook such amazing meals in the middle of the mountains,” wrote a frolicking reviewer on Tripadvisor about our five-day trek on the Inca Trail. We’re guilty of alleviating the expeditions, especially for those who just recently started to gravitate towards adventure tourism. You won’t have to worry about carrying a huge backpack, just some water, and a camera, and you’re good to go, we’ll take care of the rest. 


Even if these hikes and treks seem a little out of your domain we can work something out. Our goal is for you to have the best Inca trail tour—whatever that means to you. Contact us if you’re craving some tailor-made experiences to add to your next luxury holiday.

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