Group photo at the km 82 checkpoint
Travel

Is hiking the Inca trail hard? What To Expect Each Day

If you’re thinking about hiking the classic Inca Trail to Machu Pichu but not sure what to expect from the trail, then keep reading. In this post, I share with you what you should expect on each day of the trek.

When I first started planning my backpacking trip to South America, naturally, Machu Pichu was on top of the list. So I started reading up about all the different ways to visit, and I just knew that I had to take the classic Inca Trail. We chose to go with Peru Treks and Adventures, a locally operated, family-run tour company in Cusco.

I’d never been hiking before in my life, and it was going to be the first big challenge of my 15-month backpacking trip through South America. 

The Inca Trail is no average hike either. Also known as Camino Inca, it is a hiking trail in Peru that the Incan’s constructed over 500 years ago.

Hiking up to the highest pass on the Inca Trail
Hiking up to the highest pass on the Inca Trail

The 4-day trek takes you through several types of Andean environments, including over mountain passes, through cloud forests and alpine tundra and eventually ending at the sun gate of the breathtaking Machu Pichu.

During the hike, you will ascend and descend mountains, up to 4000 metres above sea level where the air is thin, making it difficult to catch your breath and potentially resulting in altitude sickness.

Don’t let any of that scare you though. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu is by far one of the most rewarding and best things I have ever done, even if it is hard work.

Here is what to expect during each day of the trail

Note: Due to landslides making the last campsite on day four inaccessible (which is relatively common) we did not camp four nights on the trail. We made it to Machu Pichu in the late afternoon on day three, then spent the night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes and returned to Machu Pichu by bus the following morning for sunrise. 

Day 1 of the Inca Trail

We kicked off our adventure at 5 am when our tour company picked us up from our hostel in the heart of Cusco. We chose to go with Peru Treks and Adventures, a locally owned tour operator. After we had done the rounds and collected everyone from their hotels, we headed away from Cusco and into the Sacred Valley. 

We stopped at a little town called Ollantaytambo, where we had breakfast, bought some trekking poles and stocked up on coca leaves to help with the altitude sickness. 

Then we were off to Km 82, the official starting point of the trek. My friend Tash and I offloaded most of our stuff to the porter we hired and then it was time to head to the first checkpoint to get our passports checked before beginning the trail. 

Our group was a mixture of nationalities, some solo travellers, some couples and even and mother and daughter. Our guide’s name was Edwin, and he was a fantastic guide who knew the trail like the back of his hand. 

Group photo at the km 82 checkpoint
Group photo at the km 82 checkpoint

And off we go…

The official’s stamped our passports and we crossed the Urubamba river to set off on our adventure. 
Day 1 of the trail was the easiest, but still not easy in my opinion.

The trek started at a gentle pace uphill, passing through meadows, small villages and the ruins of Llacatapata, before descending through a valley to our lunch spot. 

Great view of the Llacatapata ruins while trekking the Inca Trail
Great view of the Llacatapata ruins while trekking the Inca Trail

By the time we reached our lunch spot, I felt exhausted and just wanted to eat and sleep. I was already contemplating what I’d got myself into!

Amazingly, the porters had already arrived, set up the lunch tent, cooked us a delicious lunch and cheered us on as we entered the lunch camp.
I was utterly blown away that they ran ahead in sandals, each carrying 20kgs on their backs and arrived in enough time to set up the dining tent and cook us lunch well before our arrival. I’d never seen anything like it before. The human strength and dedication these men displayed were extraordinary.

The first night at camp…

After lunch, we continued trekking until we reached our campsite for the evening. Situated around 3000m above sea level, it was very cold during the night. 

Again, the porters had arrived well before us, set up all our tents, the dining tent and cooked us a delicious dinner.
Let me just say, the food we ate during the trek was so delicious, and it’s hard to believe that they could cook up something so gourmet while camping. One night they even made a birthday cake for one of the trekkers in our group! 

The dining tent that was set up for lunch and dinner during our Inca Trek
The dining tent that was set up for lunch and dinner during our Inca Trek

After dinner, we sat talking for a little while before getting cosy in our sleeping bags. We need to get plenty of rest for the next day, which was going to be the hardest of all.

Day 2 of the Inca Trail

We were woken by Edwin at 5.30 am for breakfast and we departed camp around 6 am to begin the hardest day of the trek, the ascent to Dead Women’s Pass. 

The climb to the first pass, Tres Piedras (three stones), is very steep and took about 1 hour. 

From there the trail continues to steepen, and we entered into a lush cloud forest, passing waterfalls and climbing stone steps still in their original form from the time of the Incas. The terrain was truly spectacular. But the air was getting thinner and thinner, and it was getting harder and harder to catch my breath.

Tash had marched ahead of me, while I remained at the back of the group, slow and steady. Meanwhile, tens of porters were running past me up the mountain. All I remember thinking about is concentrating on getting one foot in front of the other. There were many doubtful moments, that’s for sure. 

The Inca Trail Porters racing past me up the mountain with 20 kilo backpacks on their back
The Inca Trail Porters racing past me up the mountain with 20 kilo backpacks on their back

After about 3-4 hours of climbing, we made it to the top of the treeline where we entered a meadow known as Llulluchapampa, and we finally got to rest for lunch. 

Surviving the climb to Dead Women’s Pass…

After lunch, we had another 1.5 hours to climb until we reached Dead Women’s pass. 

The weather was kicking my arse. We got a taste of real Andean climates. The sun was scorching hot, and I was hot and sweaty, but the closer we got to the pass, the colder and windier it got. It was chilling. I probably couldn’t count the number of times I had to take my jacket on and off. 

By the time I reached the summit of Dead Women’s Pass, the highest pass on the trail at 4,200m, I felt like I was about to collapse.
I just remember strolling up the path, being able to see the summit ahead of me, and Tash watching me, smiling and cheering me on. I felt like those 50 metres took forever because all I could manage was the tiniest little steps, barely lifting my feet off the ground. 

Arriving to Dead Women's Pass on the Inca Trail, beat and exhausted
Arriving to Dead Women’s Pass on the Inca Trail, beat and exhausted

It was freezing at the top and so windy. There were a couple of ladies up there selling bottles of coke, chocolate bars and a few other snacks. I bought a snickers bar, and I think it was probably the best snickers I’ve had in my life. The sugar hit was divine.

We admired the panoramic views of snowcapped mountains and rugged terrain, took a few group photos, a shot of rum and saluted to Pachamama and then hurried away from the freezing cold and began our descent down the mountain.

Group photo at the summit of Dead Women's Pass on the Inca Trail
Group photo at the summit of Dead Women’s Pass on the Inca Trail


I was much quicker going down. It wasn’t great on my knees, but all I could think about was getting to camp. 

I think I spent most of the descent on my own, powering down the mountain. It began raining just as I arrived at the camp, and I couldn’t have been happier to see those little green tents in the distance. I had made it. I survived day 2 of the Inca trail, and the hardest part was now behind me. 

Day 3 of the Inca Trail

We woke at 4.30 am and began our day walking in the dark with head torches. 

Day three was the longest trekking day of all. Due to landslides making the last campsite unaccessible, we trekked all the way to Machu Picchu and arrived at the sun gate in the late afternoon. 

The most fun day of the trek…

The third day of the trek was quite a lot of fun as we got to explore lots of different Incan ruins and landscapes. First, it began with an ascent up to 4000m. The trail was paved, most of it being original Inca paving, so it really felt like you were on the path of the Incas. 

Of course, after the ascent, we then had to descend. The descent down the steps was really steep and often slippery, and I had to catch myself from slipping a couple of times. But it was pretty cool as we crossed high stone embankments and steep rock faces. 

Part of the original paved Inca Trail wrapping around a narrow cliff face
Part of the original paved Inca Trail wrapping around a narrow cliff face

After about an hour, we arrived at the ruins of Sayacmarca, which means ‘inaccessible town’ as cliffs protect it from three sides. We got to explore the ruins for a little while before continuing on the trail to the next ruins of Conchamarca. These ruins were known to have been a resting spot for tired travellers. 

The ruins of Sayacmarca on the Inca Trail, also known as 'inaccessible town'
The ruins of Sayacmarca on the Inca Trail, also known as ‘inaccessible town’

The trail then descends into another beautiful cloud forest, and you find yourself joyfully strolling through the woods surrounded by delicate orchids, tree ferns, bright green mosses and lots of flowers. 

After another ascent to the 3rd pass at 3,700m we got to break for lunch before heading downhill to the next site of ruins, Phuyupatamarca which means ‘Town in the Clouds’. To exit the ruins we had to climb down 1000 steep steps and boy was I glad I had hiking poles.

Carefully climbing down 1000 steep steps on the Inca Trail
Carefully climbing down 1000 steep steps on the Inca Trail

There were a few more hours of walking ahead of us before we arrived at the sun gate of Machu Pichu. We passed by the ruins of Winay Waynu which boasted impressive agricultural terraces and stone baths where pilgrims would take place in ritual cleansing before the final leg of the trail to Machu Pichu. 

Impressive agricultural terraces at the ruins of Winay Waynu
Impressive agricultural terraces at the ruins of Winay Waynu

Finally arriving at Machu Pichu…

After about another 1.5 hours of hiking, we arrived at our final strenuous challenge, a flight of about 50 almost vertical steps that would lead us to Intipunku, the sun gate of Machu Pichu. Here we would finally lay eyes on the breathtaking Incan Empire. Those last 50 steps were tough, they were steep and thick, and I was climbing on all fours to get up them!

When I arrived at the sun gate of Machu Pichu, a feeling of complete satisfaction and gratefulness came over me. I spent time taking in the glory of the site below and taking photos before we headed down the hill into Machu Pichu. 

Finally arriving at the sun gate of Machu Pichu after 3 days of trekking.
Finally arriving at the sun gate of Machu Pichu after 3 days of trekking.

Because we were coming back again the following morning for sunrise, we didn’t spend any time exploring the ruins this afternoon. So, we piled into buses and taken into Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Pichu, where we stayed in hotels for the night. Finally a hot shower and a proper bed!

Day 4 of the Inca Trail

We woke early to get a spot on the buses to take us back up to Machu Pichu at 5 am in time for sunrise. 

When we arrived, Edwin took us on a tour of the ruins and explained to us the history of Machu Pichu and the different sections of the ruins. It was so beautiful to see the sun rising and shining through the ruins. 

Machu Pichu in all of its beauty at first light
Machu Pichu in all of its beauty at first light
Happy to be seeing the wonderful Incan Empire Machu Pichu
Happy to be seeing the wonderful Incan Empire Machu Pichu

After Edwin had finished his tour, we were then able to wander off and explore the ruins on our own. Some even did the hike to the peak of Huayna Pichu, but we had decided against booking that initially, so we just spent time wandering through the ruins and hanging out in little nooks. 

There are plenty of Llamas to pat at Machu Pichu
There are plenty of Llamas to pat at Machu Pichu
Exploring the ruins of Machu Pichu
Exploring the ruins of Machu Pichu

Adios Machu Pichu…

After a few hours, we decided it was time to farewell Machu Pichu and head back to Aguas Calientes to have a look around before heading back to Cusco.

We opted to hike the trail back down to town, which was fairly steep at times and took about 1 hour. It was hard on the knees after the last three days of trekking, but we didn’t want to take the bus. 

We had the whole afternoon ahead of us once we got back to Aguas Calientes, so we decided to head to the thermal baths and treat our body to some relaxation. 

At 5 pm, we boarded the train bound for Ollantaytambo, and we were on our way back to Cusco.

Final thoughts on the Inca Trail

As tough as it was, I am so glad that I chose to trek the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu. Taking the bus and train there would not have been the same experience. It really was about the journey and not the destination.

Don’t get me wrong, Machu Pichu was astonishing, but the journey to get there was the best part. I’d never pushed my self to hard in my life trekking the Inca Trail, and the challenge was one that I will always remember.

The landscapes and sites along the way were just magnificent. Our guide Edwin was terrific, the people in our group were great, and the satisfaction of completing the trek was unmatchable. 

Have you trekked the classic Inca Trail?

Share your experience in the comments below!

Sammy xx

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