15 Reasons to Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
As I lay flat in my sleeping bag at 12,000 ft, each thunder clap shaking the very ground beneath me, I questioned what exactly had left me up in these mountains in the first place.
The torrential downpour had begun shortly after dinner and I was exhausted from our first day on the trail.
Before dawn, our guide was poking his head into the tent offering us cups of coca-tea to ease the symptoms of altitude sickness.
In the low light of morning behind him, I could see the mist had lifted to reveal a jagged line of snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Despite the storm the night before, I was reinvigorated. I remembered why I had opted to embark on this journey in the first place.
Here are 15 reasons you should consider adding the Inca Trail to your Bucketlist.
1. Your Inca Trail permits directly support the Indigenous Quechua community.
Hiking the Inca Trail is expensive. In addition to the Machu Picchu entrance fees, you have to hire a certified guide, porters, and pay for additional camping permits. Most travelers who skip the Inca Trail say it was due to its cost when compared to other hikes in Peru. But sustainability is important. A percentage of the fees collected by the government go straight to the Quechua communities who live and work on the Inca Trail. They are the direct descendants of the Inca people. Most of them also earn a living as a porter or a guide And let’s be honest, ask anyone who has hiked the trail, and they will assure you the few hundred dollars you have to shell out is well worth it.
2. The best Incan Site isn’t even Machu Picchu. It’s Wañay Wayna & only reachable for those who hike the trail.
Thats right, I said it. Machu Picchu is not the best Incan site. My personal favorite is Wañay Wayna, located about halfway along the most popular Incan Trail route. This incredible site is carved into a steep cliffside in the mountains, surrounded by vibrant green tiers of grass. The best part, however, is that you’ll probably be the only one there. Not so at Machu Picchu. With over 2,000 people visiting the Incan capital per day, you’re guaranteed to be stuck in swarms of people during your visit. There’s no way around it. But on the trail, the number of trekkers is limited to 500 per day. And because of various levels of fitness and different routes or campsites, you’ll only run into other groups infrequently. Enjoy this castle-like structure facing jagged Andean peaks all to yourself.
3. You’ll get to try incredible Peruvian cuisine made with locally grown ingredients.
Food is probably the last thing you were expecting me to mention about the Inca Trail. But the companies running trekking tours have mountain cooking down to an art. Picture this; you arrive at camp just before dark, energy depleted after a day of intense trekking, and the porters and a personal chef have laid out a full spread of 4-5 Peruvian classics. That’s the reality of the trail. You’ll enjoy cozy home-cooked classics that celebrate the ingredients grown in the Andes mountains. I’m not talking about fine-dining, of course. Just good old-fashioned home-cooking.
4. You’ll be the first to reach Machu Picchu – the only visitors to enter through the Sun
Remember those crowds I was talking about? Well, hiking the Inca Trail is a good way to beat them. As a special trekking permit holder, you will be allowed to enter the Machu Picchu site earlier than the day-trippers. This means a quick opportunity to take in the view alone or snap a few photos without khaki-clad tourists milling about. Those hiking the Inca Trail also enter from the back of Machu Picchu. Through the infamous Sun Gate. Which contrary to popular belief, has very little to do with sunrise. This entrance allows full panoramic views of the entire complex before you descend into the archeological site itself.
5. Enjoy camping in some of Peru’s most breathtaking natural scenery.
Camping in the highest Andean peaks surrounded by lush jungle simply can’t be beaten. The entire route of the Inca Trail can only be accessed by horseback or on foot. This means no towns, no busses, no vehicles of any kind. Just remote wilderness. You don’t get that on the other Peruvian treks to Machu Picchu. Instead, they pass through small towns and villages, allowing you the comforts of guesthouses. But you’re sacrificing those quiet moments with mother nature. The mountaintop sunsets. Mornings spent sipping coca tea in the long shadows just before dawn. Traveling almost like the Incas themselves had hundreds of years ago.
6. Learn the medicinal uses for the Coca leaf and try it out on the trail.
Speaking of the infamous coca leaf, trekking the Inca Trail is a great opportunity to learn the medicinal uses of the plant. Coca is not a drug. It’s ancient medicine when used appropriately. The Quechua people chew the leaves as they summit the mountain passes to give them more energy and combat the effects of altitude sickness. Believe me, when you begin your summit of Dead Woman’s Pass, climbing above 14,000 ft, you’ll be ready to give it a try. I found the leaves to be bitter but very effective at alleviating the headache, fatigue, and shortness of breath while at high-altitudes on the mountain.
7. You’ll gain access to areas of Machu Picchu prohibited to the day visitors.
Having a guide when you reach Machu Picchu is a game-changer. A knowledgeable guide can give you more than just the brochure-ready historical and archeological explanations of the site. They can show you the lesser-visited (and more impressive) structures in the complex. This is just one of the many reasons those who choose to hike the Inca Trail are better off than the day-trippers. Our guide took us through the roped-off areas to give us behind-the-scenes tours of the many rooms inside various buildings in Machu Picchu.
8. Don’t worry, you’ll still get to ride the scenic train.
Everyone wants to ride the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The tourist train hurdles along the Sacred Valley floor following the curves of the Urubamba River. It’s an incredibly beautiful ride. And those who hike the Inca Trail don’t have to miss it! After spending 3-4 days high up in the Andes, you’ll return to Ollantaytambo on the train. The ticket is usually included in your Inca Trail tour.
9. It’s a great test of both physical and mental endurance.
Hundreds of years ago, when the Incas first laid each hand-carved brick, this long trail was used for religious pilgrimages. Today, that spirituality still hangs in the air. The reasons to hike the trail are endless. But a common one is to push both your physical and mental limits. The 34-mile trail ascends to a lung-burning 14,000 feet above sea level and then down again. The Andean mountains are unforgiving. It’s a constant battle between steep stone-step downhills and steady inclines jokingly referred to as “Inca Flat”. Many trekkers surrender on day one. But those who don’t, those who push through the grueling trail, are rewarded immensely.
10. You’ll be guaranteed a bucketlist worthy adventure but still, have a safe and experienced guide.
This is an epic adventure. A behemoth of a hike. Worth every ounce of sweat you’ll pour into it. But it’s also a “safe” adventure. Thanks to the Peruvian government, you must trek with a certified guide. Most of them have grown up in these mountains and hiked the trail hundreds, if not thousands, of times. They know the routes like the back of their hand and have helped people as old as 79 and kids make the treacherous journey safely.
11. You’ll make friends with like-minded travelers.
The most popular way to trek the Inca Trail is with a group. Each group consists of a handful of trekkers and at least one guide. Just like you, these people decided that the Inca Trail was worth the effort. This means you already have at least one thing in common. I still keep in contact with my Inca Trail hiking group today. Nothing bonds people together like collective suffering. Even better, suffering for a cause. The days spent on the trail will leave plenty of opportunities for swapping travel stories and getting to know your fellow groupmates.
12. It’s the only popular trail in Peru that passes through 4 ecosystems- rainforest, cloud forest, Andean peaks, & dry forest.
If discovering the diversity of the Peruvian Andes appeals to you, you can’t do better than the Inca Trail. On day one, you’ll pass through dry forests and learn about the various cacti that thrive near the river. Day two brings you to high elevation, the Andean peaks, and cloud forests. These misty mountains offer the most spectacular scenery in Peru. By day three, however, the landscape will transform again. Lush rainforests filled with wildlife; birds of paradise, and electric-blue butterflies dancing through the trees. It keeps the trek interesting. You never know what landscape or stunning Inca site the next bend in the trail will reveal.
13. You’ll get to learn the historical significance of the trail & understand why the Spanish never found these vast cities.
Fun fact; these trailside structures are not Incan ruins. They are Incan Sites. Ruin implies that the Spanish found and decimated these little cities. But they never found them. Which, for those that walk the trail, will be unsurprising. Tucked into the vast wilderness are still even more Incan sites left to be discovered today. This is just one of many topics your guide will cover throughout the 3-4 day trek. As with any historical site, having a knowledgeable guide is essential to understanding what you’re seeing. We can all go and see the Great Pyramids of Egypt, but they become more impressive with each new fact we learn about them.
14. You’ll leave the trail with the confidence to venture onto Peru’s more intrepid treks
The Inca Trail is by no means a “beginner-level” trek. But since it is a guided excursion, you’ll have a little bit more of a safety net when compared to other hikes in Peru. Colca Canyon, Laguna 69, or even Rainbow Mountain. All three hikes are incredibly difficult and something you’ll likely tackle on your own. Having at least one difficult hike under your belt will give you the confidence and knowledge to venture into the Peruvian wilderness on your own. Or at least complete the popular day hikes with ease.
15. Seeing Machu Picchu will be more remarkable because you will have earned it.
Stepping through that Sun Gate on the final day of my Inca Trail trek, I was overcome with emotion. I could see the vast golf greens of Machu Picchu perched in the small mountain valley below me. Nothing but sky and peaks in front of me. The morning mist trickled through the Incan structures. Having walked in the steps of the Incan people for days, I felt more connected to the site. I understood a tiny sliver of the hardships the Incan people endured to reach Machu Picchu because I had shared in them. Albeit, with the help of porters, chefs, and a guide. Many day-visitors to Machu Picchu leave disappointed. Because a structure, no matter how beautiful, rarely lives up to the hype. It’s the journey that makes Machu Picchu extraordinary, not simply the destination itself.