Everything you need to know about Hiking The Short Inca Trail
Getting to Machu Picchu is a journey in itself. Taking the trains, with panoramic views is a great option but there are more challenging routes.
The Inca Trail is a well known hike that takes four days to complete. I did not have the luxury of this time, so I found a two-day version. The two-day Inca Trail involves six to eight hours of hiking, passing the Inca sight of Wiñay Wayna and ending at the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu. It’s followed by a night in a hotel and a day exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu with the option of climbing Huayna Picchu.
In this guide I’ll go over my experience and provide all the details and tips required for this hike. I’ve also included contributions from fellow travel bloggers who have conquered the traditional four-day Inca Trail pilgrimage and the Salkantay Trek.
DAY 1 - The Hike To Machu Picchu
Getting Ready for the Hike
The two-day hike involves one day of hiking to meet the last part of the Inca Trail followed by a late afternoon arrival at Machu Picchu. It’s a lot of walking but achievable with an average fitness level.
Before we even got started we had a briefing call the night before the hike. Our guide, Eban, from Llama Path Sustainable Tours went over all the things we need to bring, the weather forecast and how long the whole hike should take.
Early the next morning he picked us up at our hotel in Ollantaytambo and took us aboard the PeruRail Expedition. This train was well maintained, with big windows that gave us breathtaking views of the mountains and Urubamba river. The train stopped at marker km 104 and what was our queue to disembark.
And so, we started walking.
The First 4 hours of the Short Inca Trail
These were easily the hardest part of the hike. It was a constant four-hour climb. We looped around the edges of the mountains on a well-maintained path and what seemed to be, endless stairs.
The Urubamba river, which was running by our feet at the start, kept getting smaller and smaller, until it was just a line in the distance.
Though we alighted the train with several groups of people, everyone was moving at their own pace. Within minutes we were on the path by ourselves. Eban set the pace which was enough to motivate us.
The initial leg of the hike was heavily exposed to the sun. We were grateful for the parts of the trail that had been overgrown with trees to give us shade. Of course, we couldn’t linger too long, because shade also meant mosquitoes.
November is the start of the rainy season, so the mountains had lots of moisture. Thick clouds loomed on the horizon, a constant threat that our conditions could change at any moment.
Just before our four-hour mark, we passed in front of Winay Wayna Waterfall. After climbing for so long in the hot weather, this waterfall felt like a desert oasis.
We rested there for five minutes, which was enough time to wet all my clothes and eat an energy bar before moving on.
Thirty minutes later - I was dry.
After a tiring four-hour climb we were rewarded with our first up-close view of an Inca sight, Wiñay Wayna.
This was where our path finally intersected with the Inca Trail. For the four-day Inca Trail hikers, this would be their last Inca ruin before Machu Picchu. They would have passed six others before arriving at this point.
Wiñay Wayna has an upper level containing house structures. The remains of window frames and drainage holes give an idea of how people would have lived. The views from the windows put top-notch real estate to shame.
To the side of the houses are terraces, which are common in several Inca sights throughout the regions and were likely used for agriculture.
Halfway - Lunchtime
After Wiñay Wayna was the lunch stop. Llama Path had given us a hefty and healthy lunch filled with quinoa, chicken, avocados, fruit and energy bars. The lunch itself weighed down the backpack so it was a relief to eat it and get a lighter pack. Lunchtime was also when we were first greeted by llamas. They weren’t shy and wanted to eat my orange.
During the thirty-minute pause, we rested and used the washroom. The facilities were very basic but did the trick. I was surprised by how much water I drank on the hike yet lasted so long without needing the toilet. Clearly the heat and physical activity left me dehydrated - not good.
The Sun Gate
The last few hours of the hike were easier. The path was no longer elevated and our food gave us renewed energy. Eban fell back and let us lead. We maintained a good pace but had the leisure of stopping for views and to catch our breath.
Just before reaching the Sun Gate we had one last climb. The stairs were steep, I had to use my hands. I was out of breath but eventually made it to the top for my first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
There it was, tiny and off in the distance. I don’t know why but I had this perception that the Sun Gate would have been directly above the ruins.
Seeing it this far away gave me a greater sense of the layout. Other than the winding road for buses, there was no path to get there. One can really appreciate how remote it was and what a great job the Incas did at hiding it.
I felt a sense of accomplishment for having hiked through some of the Inca trail. I can only imagine the feeling of those who spent five days getting there.
After taking in our first sighting we slowly walked towards the ruins. We stopped above them for our first up-close view. The sun was starting to set at this point and most of the tourists had left for the day.
It doesn’t matter how many times I saw this picture before my visit, it felt amazing to take it myself.
Day 2 - Exploring Machu Picchu and Hiking Huayna Picchu
The second day of the short Inca trail involves getting a tour of the ruins and, if purchased in advance, a climb up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.
I go over this day and the challenging climb in my post on Machu Picchu.
How to Acclimatize for the Short Inca Trail
One does not simply land in Cusco and hike to Machu Picchu. Why? Because at an elevation of close to 2,430 meters (7,972ft) there’s less oxygen in the air than at sea-level cities, making altitude sickness is a very real and common problem.
It’s often advised to spend at least three days acclimatizing before attempting any hiking in the region. The Sacred Valley is a great place to do this.
Everyone’s body will react differently, so consult a doctor before travelling. I developed a cheatsheet listing all the things I did that helped me avoid getting sick. As a subscriber, you can download it for free.
Tickets and Regulations
The Peruvian government has strict control over the Inca Trail. Why?
Years ago the Inca Trail was a free-for-all and a lot of waste was left behind at the campsites (this is why we can’t have nice things). In order to keep the sites in good condition, passes are now limited to 200 permits for travellers every day.
If you’re planning on visiting during peak time (May-October) then tickets should be booked around six-twelve months in advance.
Please note that not all tour companies are sustainable. Much of what is found online are foreign-owned companies, which pay very little to their porters. It’s important to make sure that whatever company you book through, they’re a sustainable one, that treats their porters well and gives back to the Peruvian economy. For that reason I ended up booking with Llama Path.
This is a good list to reference for other top-rated, sustainable tour companies.
The 2018 cost to book with Llama Path Tours was:
1 person - $795 per person
2 people - $625 per person
3 people - $525 per person
4 people - $500 per person
5 people - $475 per person
6 + people - $460 per person
Additional costs were for:
Climb Machu Picchu Mountain: $85USD
Climb Huayna Picchu Mountain: $85USD
Walking Pole: $5USD (unless you really need it, I was fine without)
What to bring on the short inca trail
Three main pieces of advice for this hike are:
Keep your pack as lite as possible
Bring lots of water (1.5 litres, the tour provides about half of that)
Ensure half your pack is empty because the lunch is heavy and bulky
Other things to pack and wear:
waterproof jacket or poncho - rain can happen unexpectedly
breathable and comfortable pants and shirts (long ones will help against mosquitos)
sunscreen (min SPF35) and sunglasses
toilet paper (any toilet paper used on the trail needs to go with you and be properly disposed of at the end of the hike)
The Inca Trail Photography Tips
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The Inca Trail, short or long, involves a lot of walking and at a steady pace. This means there wasn’t much time to pause and shoot. Here are a few things that are good to keep in mind.
One of the most important things to remember is that insect repellent and cameras do not mix. Repellents, like Deet, have chemicals in them that dissolve plastic. It’s really important to avoid spraying repellent around your camera, and make sure your hands are carefully wiped after application.
The hikes are long and tiring, carrying unnecessary gear will only add to your already heavy, day packs. Consider bringing one lens. Since there’s lots of landscape views, a wide-angle lens is a good option.
Two accessories that will come in handy:
For longer treks there won’t be anywhere to charge batteries. Consider getting a portable solar panel charger. Charge it fully before the hike and hang it from your bag to charge throughout the day.
Peak Design Clip is my favourite accessory when hiking. It clips onto my backpack strap and allows me to secure and release my camera while I’m hiking. This means I’m hands free!
The Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek
The Inca Trail and Salkantay Trek are two longer and more challenging hikes. While I couldn’t fit them into my schedule, I’ve got some fellow travel bloggers who shared their experiences below.
If discovering Machu Picchu through the same trails as the Incas, is something that appeals to you, then check out their detailed posts.
You may also appreciate the book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, which recounts a man’s journey to retrace Hiram Bingham’s steps to find Machu Picchu. It’s filled with history and comedy, as he makes his way through the mountains and jungles.
The 4-day Inca Trail
The four-day Inca Trail Hike was a truly iconic experience. Day two was the most challenging, with a six-hour uphill climb to reach the highest point on the trail named Dead Woman’s Pass. At 4,215m above sea level, this is very physically challenging as your body battles the effects of altitude.
Day three takes you into the Cloud Forest, High Jungle. For me, it was a mystical experience as we explored an Inca settlement at the top of a hill while watching the cloud roll in beneath us.
Completing the walk through Inca tunnels and past llamas with the valley below blanketed by cloud was an atmospheric and magical moment to be savoured.
The crowning glory, hiking into Machu Pichu was a majestic end to an unforgettable experience.
The 5-Day Salkantay Trek
The Classic Salkantay Trek is a five-day trek from Mollepata to Machu Picchu and is one of the most amazing ways to get there, but certainly not the easiest. This trail takes you through a variety of landscapes, from snowy mountains to tropical forests. You'll experience a change of altitudes, from 1,600m to 4,630m, and plenty of walking. On your way you will also encounter extraordinary flora and fauna, archaeological sites and of course, the legendary Machu Picchu.
Whenever I get asked if I'd recommend doing the Salkantay Trek, my answer is always "yes, definitely"! It's an incredible experience full of nature, culture and learning more about yourself and your travel companions. While it might be a bit challenging for those with a low physical activity level, the Salkantay trail is a memory that will last a lifetime. For me the trek itself was even more unforgettable than seeing Machu Picchu.
The 5.5-Day Salkantay Trek - with Humantay Lagoon
This trek was one of the most physically demanding but rewarding experiences of my life. Between the breathtaking views (and altitude!) and great companions, we had an amazing time. The first morning of the trek started with a hike up to the serene shores of Humantay Glacier Lake. Then the intensity peaked on the Salkantay Pass where we reached the highest point of the trail at 15,190ft (4630m).
The rest of the days were not quite as difficult but equally rewarding – especially looking down from Llactapata to see Machu Picchu emerge from the mist. The stark changes in climate from day to day were surprising, and the transition from frigid desert to humid tropics is something most people never experience on foot. The Salkantay Trek allows you to experience a less traveled part of the Inca Trails in solitude and without having to plan it as far in advance.
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