Stones of Inca Trail path with lush vegetation crowding in on side, Peru

The Classic Inca Trail – what the route looks like

Feb 29, 2024
Reading time: 10 minutes

The Inca Trail is a high-altitude trek that's usually completed over four days and ends with a visit to the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. Here's what to expect each day on the trek, as well as seasonal differences and what the actual path looks like.

Route overview

The Classic Inca Trail is a spectacular four- or five-day high-altitude trek in the Peruvian Andes that starts near the historic city of Cusco and ends at the famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

Llama looking into camera with Machu Picchu in background

A llama poses for a photo with Machu Picchu down below

The Inca Trail is by far the most well-known and popular of Peru's treks. It's a truly memorable experience in a dramatic and beautiful corner of the Andes. Moreover, you get to see and explore various mediaeval Inca ruins throughout the trek and learn about the region's rich cultural heritage.

The Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage site for both culture and nature!

In fact, the Inca Trail's natural wonders and incredible architectural ruins make it one of only 39 sites globally to be a UNESCO World Heritage site for both nature and culture!

 

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Inca trail elevation

The Classic Inca Trail is a challenging up-and-down route, as the elevation map below shows.

Follow Alice Inca-trail-elevation-map

 

But nobody does it alone; everyone trekking the Inca Trail travels with a tour operator, and your guide is there to encourage and look after you. The group dynamic is also a wonderful part of the experience.

Importantly, porters carry the bulk of your belongings and all that's need for camping and cooking. This means that all you need to carry is a backpack with your water, snacks, rain gear, camera and other bits and bobs.

Three porters walking up to Dead Woman-s Pass on Inca Trail

Porters nearing the highest point of the Inca Trail

The trail's two climate zones

Trekkers of the Inca Trail hike through beautiful cloud forest as well as high-altitude grassland known as puna.

The cloud forest in this part of the Andes lies between around 2,400 to 3,500 m (7,900 to 11,500 ft). The vegetation is thick and tangled, and boasts incredible biodiversity. You can look forward to seeing a variety of ferns, orchids, bromeliads and mosses, among other beauties.

Overgrown and tangled forest vegetation on Inca Trail, Peru

A section of cloud forest along the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail's cloud forest is – as its name suggests – often shrouded in mist.

Once you climb above 3,500 m (11,500 ft), you enter a harsh mountain environment where only hardy grasses, mosses and lichens grow. The views from this high up are just incredible!

Trekkers on contour path of Inca Trail with river far below, Peru

The views on the Inca Trail are the stuff of legend

Throughout the trek, be sure to keep your eyes open for the animals and birds of the Inca Trail. These include llamas, Andean deer, Andean condors, hummingbirds and more.

The trail in the rainy and drier seasons

The conditions on the Inca Trail vary depending on the season. There are two main seasons to note: the wet season and the drier season.

November to March is the wet season on the Inca Trail, and April to October is the drier season.

 Indigo lupin flowers along the Inca Trail, Peru

The Inca Trail's lupins usually bloom during the rainy season

You probably noticed that we say 'drier season' and not 'dry season', because the region sees clouds and rain all year round. In fact, you should expect cloud and mist to be part of your Inca Trail experience, no matter what time of the year you trek.

Also, you should note that Machu Picchu is often shrouded in mist first thing in the morning. Fortunately, this usually clears after a little while to let you enjoy panoramic views of the ruins and the surrounding valleys and peaks.

Trekkers with umbrellas and rain jackets in misty and rainy Machu Picchu ruins, Peru

Visitors exploring Machu Picchu in some mist

The footpath

During the trek you can expect to walk along:

  • Dirt paths.
  • Pathways that are paved with uneven stones.
  • Stone steps (some now have wooden handrails in place).
  • Narrow contour paths with very steep drop-offs.
  • A handful of bridges.

During and after rainfall, you need to take extra care with muddy sections and slick rocks.

Trekking poles are really useful on the Inca Trail. But please note that you're not allowed to use poles with sharp metal tips (unless you cover them with bungs). This rule exists to protect the integrity of the historic stones as well as the mountains' fragile ecosystems.

Footpath on the Classic Inca Trail March 2019, Peru

The Inca Trail was mostly constructed during the 1400s

As you saw in the elevation map earlier on, the Classic Inca Trail involves a series of steep ascents and descents. This is why we encourage you in How should I train for trekking to Machu Picchu? to prepare yourself for long stretches requiring big steps up and then long stretches requiring big steps down.

A hanging wire bridge spans the Urubamba river near Machu Picchu, Peru

A footbridge over the Urubamba River on the Inca Trail

What the route looks like each day

Let's now discuss what you can expect each day on the Classic Inca Trail if you do it over four days.

Map of the Classic Inca Trail in Peru

 

Map of the four-day Classic Inca Trail

Day 1: Inca ruins of Urubamba Valley

  • Start point: Km 82 train station (2,709 m / 8,888 ft)
  • End point: Huayllabamba (2,750 m / 9,022 ft)
  • Distance: 11 km
  • Duration: Around 5 hours
  • Highlight: Ruins of Llactapata

In the morning you're driven from Cusco to the start of the Inca Trail in the Urubamba Valley, where the adventure begins!

Willkaraqay or Huillca Raccay Inca Trail fortress ruin

On Day 1 of the Inca Trail you encounter the ruins of Huillca Raccay

On this first day of trekking, you pass through some rural villages and farms and cross a few streams. You walk in forest and, excitingly, you encounter a few Inca ruins straight away! For instance, there's Qanabamba, which was created as a resting place for travellers, and Huillca Raccay (also spelled Willkaraqay), the impressive ruins of a hill fort.

The highlight, however, is the sprawling, crescent-shaped ruins of Llactapata (also spelled Patallacta). The settlement is thought to have been abandoned around 1540. It has 116 buildings and five baths, plus a canal that would channel water to baths.

Aerial distant view of Llactapata ruins on Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu archaeological site from the Inca civilisation in Peru

You visit the ruins of Llactapata on Day 1 of the Inca Trail

Today's trek is relatively easy compared with those of Days 2 and 3. There are some ups and downs, but nothing extreme. That said, depending on how long you spent acclimatising before starting the trek, you may find exercising at such high altitude quite challenging.

Tonight you camp near the pretty village of Huayllabamba, which has the Río Llulluchayoc running through it. This is the largest settlement on the trail, and the last place where you can buy some basic supplies.

 

 

Day 2: Tackle Dead Woman's Pass

  • Start point: Huayllabamba (2,750 m / 9,022 ft)
  • End point: Pacamayo (3,000 m / 9,843 ft)
  • Distance: 7.5 km
  • Duration: Around 6 hours
  • Highlight: Crossing Dead Woman's Pass (4,215 m / 13,829 ft)

Things get serious today, as you must climb 1.5 km in elevation to cross Dead Woman's Pass! While the approach looks gentle enough at points, it's longer and harder than it looks, so it's time to dig deep.

Known abroad as Dead Woman's Pass, this high point on the Inca Trail is locally called Abra de Huarmihuanusca (or Warmiwanusca in Quechua). It's also sometimes called First Pass, simply because it's the first of the three passes that you cross on the Classic Inca Trail.

Trekkers on approach to Dead Woman's Pass on Inca Trail in Peru

The approach to Dead Woman's Pass

Note that once you've summited Dead Woman's Pass, your work isn't done. You now have a very long and steep descent ahead of you. In fact, you drop down 500 metres or so in the space of just two kilometres! The steps are large and often rocky and uneven, making those trekking poles we mentioned earlier an invaluable asset.

Much of today is spent trekking through high-altitude grassland. The views are expansive and absolutely breathtaking – they're every bit what you came to the Andes hoping to find! There are jagged, snowcapped peaks all around.

Alpaca on the Inca Trail on the way up Dead Woman's Pass, Peru

Llamas and alpacas are commonly seen on the Inca Trail

For most of us, encountering a llama on the Inca Trail is a real bucket-list moment!

During the descent to your camp for the night you enter the beautiful and humid cloud forest. This variety of scenery and vegetation is a huge part of the Inca Trail's appeal!

Tonight you camp at Pacamayo (or Paqaymayu in Quechua) in the heart of the gorgeous Pacamayo Valley.

 

 

Day 3: Beautiful cloud forest and incredible ruins

  • Start point: Pacamayo (3,000 m / 9,843 ft)
  • End point: Wiñaywayna (2,670 m / 8,760 ft)
  • Distance: 16 km
  • Duration: Around 9 hours
  • Highlight: The ruins of Sayac Marca

The trail today is another one of steep climbs and sharp descents. You cross two passes en route to the next campsite.

The first mountain pass of the day – Runcu Raccay (or Runkurakay) – sits at 3,750 m (12,335 ft) above sea level and is sometimes simply called Second Pass on maps. Runcu Raccay is named for the ruins that sit atop the pass; these probably served as a storehouse for passing foot messengers during the days of the Inca Empire.

Later you cross Third Pass (or Phuyupatamarca), which is 3,650 m (11,975 ft) above sea level.

Inca Trail in Peru. Trekkers climbing up stone steps in forest

You trek through pristine cloud forest on the Inca Trail

The various Inca ruins you encounter today are just next-level amazing. And on top of that, you can look forward to walking through more beautiful cloud forest, where you should be able to spot colourful orchids, hummingbirds and much more.

For many, Day 3 of the Inca Trail is their favourite day of the trek, as the scenery and ruins are staggeringly impressive.

Visiting the ruins of Sayac Marca (or Sayakmarka) is one of the undisputed highlights of the day. In fact, they're arguably the most beautiful example of Inca architecture on the entire trail. Sayakmarka means 'inaccessible town', and refers to the fact that the compound sits on a ledge poking out of the mountainside high above the valley floor.

Wiñay Wayna ruins on Inca Trail, Peru

The Inca ruins of Wiñaywayna

You overnight alongside the Inca ruins of Wiñaywayna (also spelled Wiñayhuayna). There are cold showers on offer here for a small fee.

Wiñaywayna (whose name means 'forever young') hangs onto a steep slope and is simply astonishing. At the centre of the site is the compound, and then on all sides of this are many terraces that are still in amazing condition.

The terraces at Wiñaywayna showcase the Incas' amazing ability to grow crops in even the most challenging mountain environments.

If, however, the campsite at Wiñaywayna is too full, you must head to Phuyupatamarca (3,680 m / 12,073 ft) for the night. This campsite – whose name means 'town in the clouds’ – offers an incredible view of the surrounding mountains!

Campsite on the Last Night of the Inca Trail overlooking the Urubama River Valley

The campsite at Phuyupatamarca

Day 4: Sunrise hike to Sun Gate and explore Machu Picchu

  • Start point: Wiñaywayna (2,670 m / 8,760 ft)
  • End point: Machu Picchu (2,430 m / 7,972 ft)
  • Distance: 5.5 km
  • Duration: 2 hours
  • Highlight: First view of Machu Picchu from Sun Gate (2,720 m / 8,924 ft)

The final day of the Inca Trail is a relatively short one. But utterly memorable!

Trekkers usually wake up and set out well before dawn in the hopes of reaching the fabulous lookout point offered by the ruins of Sun Gate (Intipunku) around sunrise. Sun Gate was an Inca fortress and its positioning affords you your first iconic view down towards Machu Picchu.

But be warned: the climb up to Sun Gate is taxing and involves some massively big steps!

Female trekker overlooking Machu Picchu on Inca Trail, Peru

View of Machu Picchu from Sun Gate

The Inca Trail ends with you entering Machu Picchu and exploring these incredible and iconic ruins. The stone masonry skills of the Incas – and the scale of their undertakings – is truly astounding, and never fails to inspires awe to this day. As noted in The Architects' Take:

The Inca people of the Andes had a special relationship with rock. Stone informed their entire culture, and was key to their empire-building success.

After visiting Machu Picchu, you enjoy lunch at the on-site restaurant if you're doing the trip with Follow Alice. Tummies full, you're then driven down to Machu Picchu Town (also often referred to as Aguas Calientes), where you could also enjoy lunch if you haven't already.

Rainbow over Aguas Calientes also known Machu Picchu Pueblo

Machupicchu Pueblo (Machu Picchu Town) sits in the valley below its eponymous ruins

Later in the afternoon you enjoy a scenic four-hour train ride back to Cusco for the night.

Keen to trek the Classic Inca Trail?

So are you inspired to trek the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? If so, please give us a shout. Those of you who know us at Follow Alice know that high-altitude trekking is our thing, and we'd love to help you make this adventure a reality!