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(Cusco Highlights - Category: Best Trek - Editors Pick)
The Inca Trail is Peru's best known hike, combining a stunning mix of Inca ruins, mountain scenery, lush cloud-forest and rich subtropical jungle. Over 250 species of orchid have been counted in the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, as well as numerous birds such as hummingbirds, waterfowl and the majestic Andean Condor. The star of the Sanctuary is the spectacled bear - a shy, herbivorous animal that is extremely rare and close to extinction.
Essentially the Inca Trail is a mountainous jungle hike leading to the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu. The 45km trek is usually covered in 4 days, arriving at Machu Picchu at daybreak on the final day before returning to Cusco by train in the afternoon.
The trek is rated moderate and any reasonably fit person should be able to cover the route. It is fairly challenging nevertheless, and altitudes of 4200m are reached, so ensuring that you are well acclimatized is important. If arriving from sea level, plan to spend at least 2 full days in Cusco (3 days is better) prior to commencing the trek. This should allow plenty of time for acclimatization and give you sufficient opportunity to visit the city of Cusco and nearby Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman, Q'enko, Pucapucara and Tambomachay, as well as spending a day or two exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas visiting the tradition market town of Pisac and the fascinating Inca fortress at Ollantaytambo.
If you are searching the web for information about the Classic 4 day Inca Trail you'll probably be overwhelmed to find literally thousands of travel agencies offering this popular trek amongst their services. In fact in 2016 over 195 trekking companies in Cusco were awarded licenses to operate the Inca Trail. Licenses are awarded only to registered Peruvian tour operators who have offices in Cusco so even if you buy your trek with a company in your own country the trek won't actually be operated by them. The price of the 4 day Inca Trail trek with a mid-range trekking company should cost between US$620 and US$680 (2016). If you want extra porters to carry your personal items, very small group sizes, or return by luxury class train then expect to pay much more.
In the last few years the price of the 4-day Inca Trail trek has risen a lot. The are several reasons for this:
1. The government authorities have introduced minimum standards for the trekking companies. All companies operating the Inca Trail now have to be licensed. The license is issued on a yearly basis in December. Click here for a full list of the 195 licensed Inca Trail tour operators in 2016. If a company's name isn't on the list it is because they don't actually operate the trek, they are probably just an agent (a middleman) taking a commission to send you on a trek with one of the licensed companies.
2. The maximum group size is now 16 persons and each company has to take basic equipment such as a kitchen tent, dining tent, first aid kit and oxygen, etc. More equipment means more porters per group. For groups of more than 8 trekkers an additional guide must accompany the group. All guides now have to be professionally qualified and licensed.
3. The Porters Law introduced in 2003 has tried to improve porters working conditions. All porters should now receive a minimum wage of S./47 (about US$16) per day. Their loads are also limited to a maximum of 20kg, they have to take sleeping bags, back packs, back-support belts and warm clothing as well as being provided with suitable meals, access to first aid and accident insurance. Extra equipment and reduced loads leads to more porters per group. Most responsible operators now use a ratio of about 3 porters for every 2 trekkers. Unfortunately, however, there are still many companies that fall well short in meeting these minimum legal requirements.
4. The number of trekkers allowed to start the trek has also been limited to about 200 people per day (500 people in total including guides, cooks and porters on the classic Inca Trail, the shorter Inca Trail and the Salkantay trek) making it essential to book your trek well in advance. The price of the Inca Trail trek permit in 2016 is 254 Peruvian Soles (about US$77) per person. This price doesn't include 18% sales tax. Porters also have to pay an entrance fee, although at a reduced rate of 43 Peruvian Soles (about US$13).
5. The tax authorities have clamped down very hard on the trekking companies in recent years. You can now expect to pay around US$90 per person in sales taxes which should be included in the price of the trek. However if you buy your trek with an overseas tour operator then the trek is exempt from Peruvian sales taxes (known as IGV) so buying a trek directly with a local tour operator helps benefit the local economy much more than booking with a company in your own country.
6. To give you an idea of where your money goes when you buy an Inca Trail trek see the table below. The cost per person is calculated based on average group size of 12 persons. If the average group size is much smaller then the operating costs per person increase. Therefore a company that has an average group size of just 8 persons may have to charge in excess of US$640 for the same quality of service. However most of the trekking companies such as SAS, Peru Treks & Llama Path have average group sizes of around 12 persons with a maximum of 16 persons. Only the company Enigma has a maximum group size of 12 persons which is reflected in their slightly higher trek prices.
Estimated 4 day Inca Trail trek costs
Cost per person US dollars
Private bus to start of Inca Trail (2hrs)
Entrance fee Inca Trail / Machu Picchu (254 Peruvian Soles - 2016 rates)
Guide (includes wages, food, train ticket)
Assistant guide (includes wages, food, train ticket)
Cook (includes wages, entrance fee, food, transport)
Porters - assumes ratio of 1.4 porters per person (includes wages, health insurance, entrance fee, food, transport)
Food (9 meals) & gas
Camping equipment depreciation (tents, dining & kitchen tents, cooking utensils, first aid etc)
Bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes (20 mins)
Expedition train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo (price 2016 rates)
Private bus from Ollantaytambo to Cusco (1 hr 30 mins)
Office costs (5%) include staff wages, rent, municipal rates, health care, pensions, utility bills, website costs, commissions etc
Trek deposit bank fees / transfer charges - credit card handling fees, Paypal, Western Union, bank transfer costs etc
Sales tax (18% IGV) - on the conservative side and based on 18% x US$500 since some of the costs listed above already include tax (train, bus, food etc)
Gross Profit (5%)
Total Estimated Cost US dollars
The costs above are just to help give you an approximate breakdown of the trek costs and will vary considerably from company to company and dependent on group size. However the main reason for including the table is to demonstrate that in 2016 you should be able to buy a perfectly good 4-day Inca Trail trek for between US$620 & US$680, but if the trek costs much less than this then the company is cutting corners. As you can see in the table above the cost of the porters make up a large percentage of the total operating costs. Most of the cheaper trekking companies are probably not paying their porters the legal amount and their porters are likely being forced to carry more than the maximum legal loads to reduce porter numbers. Andean Travel Web is completely against such exploitation and companies offering the Inca Trail for less than US$600 should be avoided altogether.
A better quality service, fair treatment of porters, increased revenue in the form of taxes for a developing country is all good news, but the downside is that hiking the Inca Trail for people on a budget is now impossible. The increased Inca Trail rates apply to everyone including Peruvians and other Latin Americans and their absence from the Inca Trail and Cusco has been very noticeable in the last couple of years.
Since the number of trek permits is limited to 500 per day (about 200 tourists and 300 trekking staff) it is important to book well in advance. The trek permits are issued on a first-come-first-served basis up until all the permits have been sold out. In the low season (December & January) there are some days when there are still permits available 4 or 5 days in advance, but in the high season (May to September) it is recommended that you book at least 5 months in advance to guarantee a place. We would actually recommend making a reservation 6 or 7 months ahead. You can check out how many permits are left on our webpage Inca Trail trek permit availability. If the Inca Trail is already fully booked on the departure date that you require you can always consider one of the Alternative Inca Trail Treks
The main difference between the various Inca Trail services are the number of people in the group, the level of comfort that you can expect, the quality of the guide, food and camping equipment, how well the porters are treated and whether the company will actually guarantee their departure date, even if they can't find anyone else to fill up the group. The prices quoted below are to be used as a guide only and may vary considerably from company to company .
Services are generally classified into the following groups: Group or Private services.
Group Trek Services
Many companies have fixed departure dates or even daily trek departures. You simply join up with other trekkers from all over the world to make a larger group. The maximum allowable group size on the Inca Trail is 16 persons. This service is known as a group service (or pooled service). The advantage of this type of service is that the trek works out cheaper and that you get to meet other like minded people from all over the world. The disadvantage is that the groups can be fairly large and that people within the group can be of mixed ability. When the group is larger than 8 persons, regulations require that two guides are used.
Prices for the 4-day group service Inca trail trek generally range between US$620 & US$680 (2016). These prices should include entrance fees and return on train (You can almost double these figures if you buy the trek with a tour agency outside Peru even though the service is the same). A US$40 discount is offered to students who have valid ISIC cards and to children under 18 years old. This is the standard service offered by most tour operators in Cusco and offers the most economic way of hiking the Inca Trail as part of an organized group. Group sizes tend to be between 12 and 14 persons although each year we have seen a tendency for the groups sizes to be smaller as it becomes more difficult to obtain the trek permits. Services can vary from operator to operator, generally speaking the following services are included: Bus from your hotel in Cusco to the start of the trek, bilingual professionally qualified guide, assistant guide for groups of 9 and over, entrance fees (254 Peruvian Soles, about US$77), tent, foam sleeping mattress, cooking equipment, cook, meals, porters (to carry the tents, food and cooking equipment), train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo on the Expedition train service (currently US$78) and bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco. The following items are not usually included: Breakfast on day 1, snacks along the trail, tourist bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes (US$12), meals on the final day apart from breakfast, porters to carry your personal items (can be hired separately for between US$120 and US$160 for the 4 day trek), entrance to the thermal springs in Aguas Calientes (US$3), any tips for the porters or guide.
Competition amongst trekking companies is fierce in Cusco and many companies offer the 4 day Inca Trail trek for below US$600. Simple arithmetic shows that it is not possible to provide a quality service and guarantee departures with small groups for this price. Most of the cheapest trekking companies join together to form large groups of 16 persons, use inexperienced guides and use poor quality equipment. At the end of the day you usually get what you pay for.
Private Trek Services
Private services are arranged just for you and your group. If there are just two of you this type of service can work out very expensive since the cost of the guide, cook, porters etc are obviously spread amongst just the two of you. If you have a group of 6 or more persons the cost is considerably reduced and may well be worth considering. If you have a group of 12 or more then this option can even work out cheaper than the standard group service. The advantage of a private service is that you have more control of your trek itinerary. With a small group you can usually make better progress each day and camp at some of the less well used campsites. If you are fit then you may try to complete the trek in three days rather than the usual four. On the other hand you may opt for taking things easy and taking five days to get to Machu Picchu. With a private service you can also choose your day of departure.
A private group and is generally similar to the group service but usually slightly more comfortable. Additional items such as porters to carry your personal items are usually included in this service. Typical costs per person provided by a medium range tour operator are: 2 persons: US$1680, 3 persons: US$1270, 4 persons: US$1060, 5 persons: US$940, 6 persons: US$860, 7 persons: US$800, 8 persons: US$750, 9 persons: US$720, 10 persons: US$690, 11 persons: US$670, 12 persons: US$650, 13 persons: US$635, 14 persons: US$620, 15 persons: US$610, 16 persons: US$600
These costs include entrance fees and return on the basic Expedition train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and then bus back to Cusco.
Prices based on 2016 rates and can vary considerably from company to company depending on the quality of the service and what is included.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Andean Travel Web's aim is to promote responsible tourism and promote companies that have a genuine interest in providing a quality service and paying their porters fair wages. We highly recommend that you do not purchase treks or tours from salespersons working in airports, minibuses or taxis. Quality companies do not promote their services in this way. There have been an increasing number of instances where agents have claimed to be from a reputable company and taken money for a trek only to disappear after you have paid them the money, never to be seen again. ALWAYS pay for a trek or tour in the office of the tour operator and obtain a written receipt and contract of services. Beware when purchasing services through your hotel as they usually re-sell your trek to a company that pays them the best commission and not one that provides the best service.
Alternatives to the 4-day Inca Trail that also arrive at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate
The Inca Trail can be hiked year round although the months of May till October are probably more comfortable since the weather is drier. June through September is the high season when reservations must be made well in advance. There are three main alternative treks to the traditional 4-day Inca Trail that both end at Machu Picchu. The first and most popular alternative is the Short Inca Trail which can be completed in just one day. This is an easier trek and starts further along the Vilcanota River Valley closer to Machu Picchu at a place called kilometre 104 (since it is located 104 km along the railway from Cusco to Aguas Calientes). There is no need to be acclimatized before starting this trek. The second alternative trek is the 7-day Salkantay to Machu Picchu Trek. This is a more strenuous hike via the sacred Apu Salkantay, a beautiful snow-capped mountain. (Apu = mountain god in the local Quechua language). On the fourth day this trek joins the route on the classic Inca Trail and continues to Machu Picchu. All of the above mentioned treks are subject to the Inca Trail regulations which have strictly limited the number of trekkers allowed on these trails. Trekkers can't do these treks on their own and must book through a licensed trek operator. Trek permits must be bought well in advance.
Alternatives to the 4-day Inca Trail that are combined with a visit to Machu Picchu via Aguas Calientes
In the last few years some alternative to the Classic Inca Trail have started to become more popular. Although none of the treks listed below arrive directly at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, a train ride to Aguas Calientes is tagged onto the end of the trek and a bus is then taken up to Machu Picchu. These treks pass through some spectacular scenery. Since trek permits are not currently required, these treks can be arranged just a few weeks or even days in advance. (during the peak season it is not recommended to wait until you arrive in Cusco to buy these treks because the train tickets can often be difficult to obtain). The lack of government restrictions on these routes also means that unlicensed tour operators and guides can be used so be very careful when choosing a tour operator.
Salkantay - Santa Teresa - Machu Picchu Trek. This trek is generally offered as a 5 day trek including a visit to Machu Picchu on the final day. The first three days involve a fairly long hike through mountain scenery ending at the village of Santa Teresa. The fourth day is a fairly short hike down to the Vilcanota River followed by a one-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes where you will usually spend the night in a hotel. The final day is spent visiting Machu Picchu and then returning to Cusco. Although this is a great trek in its own right, it really can't compare with the spectacular scenery and Inca ruins on the Classic 4-day trek. The Salkantay to Santa Teresa route >> more info >>
Lares Valley to Machu Picchu Trek. This trek is often referred to as the "Weavers Way" and takes you well off the tourist trail through unspoiled valleys. You'll see small communities living the same way as hundreds of years ago, practicing their local traditions and farming techniques. You will also have the chance to see locals producing beautiful hand-made textiles. The trek starts in the small village of Quishuarani and then climbs to a high pass offering spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes. The trail then drops down to the village of Cuncani and continues to Willoq. A bus then takes you down to Ollantaytambo where you will take a train to Aguas Calientes. A visit to Machu Picchu is included on the final day >> more info >>
Map the the 4 day Inca Trail to Machu PicchuDay 1 (12km): Travellers are collected early from their hotels and travel by bus, through the picturesque villages of Chinchero, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, for the 3� hour scenic trip to kilometre 82 (the start of the trail).
Hikers cross the Vilcanota River and follow the trail to the right as it climbs steeply up from the river. After passing through a small village, the ruins of the Inca hillfort of Huillca Raccay come into view high above the mouth of the river Cusichaca ('happy bridge'). It is a simple descent down to the Cusichaca river.
[Note most tour operators now commence the trek at Km82 as this is as far as it is possible to go when travelling by bus along the Vilcanota valley. If travelling by train from Cusco you can get off a little further along the valley at Km88. There is, in fact, very little difference to the total length of the trail whether you start at Km82 or Km88 since the trails join approximately midway between the two.]
For a further 7 km the path follows the left bank of the river up to the village of Wayllabamba (3,000m). The name in Quechua means 'grassy plain'. Most tour groups spend the first night here although there are prettier campsites a little further on.
Day 2 (11km): Climbing up from Wayllabamba for about 3 hours through steepening woods and increasingly spectacular terrain brings you to the treeline and a meadow known as Llulluchapampa (3,680m). It is another 1� hours climb to the first and highest pass of the trail (Abra de Huarmihua�usca or 'Dead Woman's Pass) at 4,200m. During this part of the trail hikers are exposed to the Andean elements: first scorching sun and then, closer to the pass, freezing winds. Once at the top hikers can celebrate having completed the most difficult section of the trail.
The decent from the pass is steep although not difficult, following the trail on the left side of the valley to the valley floor and to the 2nd night's campsite at Pacamayo (3,600m). There are toilet facilities here.
Day 3 (16km): From Pacamayo it takes about an hour to climb up to the ruins of Runkuracay. These small circular ruins occupy a commanding position overlooking the Pacamayo valley below. Another 45 minute hike will bring you to the top of the second pass: Abra de Runkuracay (4,000m). At last you'll feel that you are walking along the trail of the Incas with paving, for the most part, being original. The descent down the steps from the pass is steep so take care. This section of the trail, up till the 3rd pass, is particularly beautiful as the path crosses high stone embankments and skirts deep precipices. After about 1 hour from the 2nd pass you'll arrive at Sayacmarca by way of a superbly designed stone staircase. The name Sayacmarca means 'Inaccessible Town' and describes the position of the ruins perfectly, protected on three sides by sheer cliffs. No one knows the exact purpose of these ruins.
You have to backtrack a little to rejoin the trail as it passes Conchamarca, a small Inca dwelling situated in the shadows of Sayacmarca, which was probably a tambo for weary travelers on their way to Machu Picchu.
From then on the path descends into magnificent cloudforest full of orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and flowers, passing through an impressive Inca tunnel, carved into the rock, on the way.
The trail then climbs up to the 3rd pass (3,700m). The view from the pass offers excellent views of several snow-capped peaks including Salkantay (6,271m) and Veronica (5,750m). A few minutes after the pass is Phuyupatamarca, the most impressive Inca ruin so far. The name means 'Town in the Clouds'. Access to the ruins is down a steep flight of stairs passing six 'Inca Baths' probably used for the ritual worship of water.
Leaving the site via an impressive Inca staircase leading from the west side of the ruins (the far end from the baths) you descend a thousand or so steps. Be careful with your knees which will feel the strain by the end of the day.
After about an hour of walking through cloudforest you may just be able to see the tin roof of the Trekkers Hostal at Wiñay Wayna, although it probably won't be for another 2 hours until you arrive.
The Trekkers Hostal certainly isn't considered one of Peru's best-looking hotels. It is also usually crowded and cramped, but it is the last official campsite before Machu Picchu, hence it's always full. There is, however, a restaurant where you can purchase food, drinks and even a well deserved beer, as well as hot showers ($1.5) and toilets. Trekkers on the Classic 4-day trek will camp here. The dormitory beds in the hostal used to be used by trekkers doing the shorter Inca Trail trek but trekkers now have to continue directly to Machu Picchu and spend the night at Aguas Calientes. There are plans to demolish the hostal in 2005 which, most people will agree, will be a great improvement.
A short trail leaves from the southern end of the hostal to the ruins of Wiñay Wayna. The name in Quechua means 'forever young' and is named after a variety of pink orchid which grows here. The ruins comprise magnificent agricultural terraces set in an impressive location. There are also many buildings of good quality stonework and a sequence of 10 baths, suggesting that the site was probably a religious center associated with the worship of water. Ritual cleansing may have taken place here for pilgrims on the final leg of the trail to Machu Picchu.
Day 4 (6km): The trail from the hostal to Machu Picchu is clearly marked and takes about 1� hours. Most people attempt to wake up at 4.30am so that they can leave Wiñay Wayna by 5.30am to get to Machu Picchu before sunrise. The sky starts getting light by 6am and the first rays of the sun reach Machu Picchu at about 7am. The trail contours a mountainside and drops into cloudforest before coming to an almost vertical flight of 50 steps leading up to the final pass at Intipunku (Sun Gate). Suddenly the whole of Machu Picchu is spread out before you in all its glory - a fantastic sight for all.
(The trek itinerary above has been adapted from an itinerary provided courtesy of Peru Treks and is subject to international copyright. Reproduction of any text is strictly prohibited without prior consent)