Going Places: Hiking the Inca Trail

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Hiking the Inca Trail


Trains depart from the main San Pedro terminal across from the market in Cusco. Hikers heading to the traditional starting point of kilometer 88 will need to take the local train. The tourist train stops only in Ollantaytambo and Puente Ruinas (Machu Picchu).

Local train: First class is 15 soles (about $5.40); 2nd class on wooden benches is 13 soles (about $4.70). Buy your tickets the morning before you intend to leave. The train is very crowded; you should get a seat coming from Cusco, but count on standing for the return.

Tourist train: The tourist train offers three classes: Autovagon ($55 return), Pullman ($34), Expreso ($22).

Bus: Another option is to arrange bus transport with one of the many tour groups. Inquire at Raymit Tours on the Plaza de Armas. Cost is 15 soles (same as the tourist train). Bus tours usually begin from Chilca at kilometer 82. Hiking distance is similar to the start from kilometer 88.

Still not slaked that thirst for adventure? HeliCusco offers helicopter flights to and from Machu Picchu through the spectacular Sacred Valley and Urubamba Gorge. Cost is $80 one way; $150 round trip. (HeliCusco, 084- 227-283/243-555).

Not sure of going it alone? Machu Picchu is Cusco's main attraction, and a mind-reeling number of agencies offer tours of the Inca Trail. Standard package tours for four days cost between $50 to $75 (less with student discount) including food, transportation, tents, and porters. You will have to carry a day pack. Quality of the guides and food are determining factors. One recommended company is United Mice (Av. Plateros).


Entrance to the ruins is $10 (included in the Inca Trail ticket). You can re-enter the following day on the same ticket for an additional $5. Guides are available for groups at about $2/person; $10 for a private tour.

The Inca Trail (including entrance to Machu Picchu) permit costs 44 soles (about $15.75); 22 soles with an ISIC student discount.

You are not allowed to bring large backpacks into Machu Picchu. Bag check at the ruins is 20 cents (1 sole).


Camping is prohibited at Machu Picchu itself. The closest camping is along the river below the Puente Ruinas train station, 45 minutes down the walking trail (seasonal). Shuttles run from the hotel as well. The town of Aguas Calientes, 10 minutes down the rail lines, has several hostels and many people stay here for the joys of soaking their aching muscles in the local thermal baths. You can also leave packs here for the uphill walk to the ruins in the morning.

At the ruins themselves Machu Picchu Ruinas runs a luxury hotel. (511-211-0826/440-8043; fax 440-6197; San Isidro, Lima). Recommendations strongly recommended.


Several companies rent hiking gear. Most are located along Plateros, one block from the Plaza de Armas in the center of Cusco. One reputable company is Soqllaq'asa (Plateros 359; 084-252-560/222-224). Count on about $10/day for tent, sleeping bag, backpack, and stove with fuel. Check tents carefully for evidence of leaks; many hikers discover too late that their tent passes water like gauze.


With terrorist problems largely a thing of the past, tourists are returning to Peru — and especially Cusco — in droves. You should have no problem walking the trail alone, but the usual precautions apply: Don't leave camping gear or stoves sitting outside your tent at night, and try to camp in groups. There should be no problem finding a group to walk with along the trail.


Although not grueling, the Inca Trail is a rigorous hike crossing three passes over 13,000 feet. Expect variable weather with a strong possibility of rains from late September onward. Aside from the usual advice (e.g., don't plan to hike the trail in brand-new boots), consider the following trail-tested wisdom: a trekking pole to save your knees from arduous descents down thousands of stairs, a large poncho to give you and your pack shelter from sporadic rains, plastic bags for keeping socks dry and picking up trash along the trail, a dromedary bag for hauling water, sun screen and good bug repellent (against those nasty biting flies), and high-speed film (ASA 400) for dimly lit woods and cloudy days. Remember to boil or treat all water along the trail.


Inca legend and ambient magic have drawn an increasing stream of visitors to Cusco. The city is undoubtedly the center of Peruvian tourism — and with good reason. Within a day's journey lie the impressive ruins of Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo, as well as the ancient fortress and colorful local market of Pisac. To the north, Manu National Park stretches across pristine tropical rainforest, and in the south the wild canyons of the Apurimac River challenge rafters.


Exploring Cusco (4th ed.), Peter Frost. Lima, 1989. A little out of date but still the best guide for the Cusco area. Includes route descriptions for the Inca Trail, recommended walks, history, and site maps for the major ruins of Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Sacsayhuaman, and others.

Lost City of the Incas, Hiram Bingham. New York, 1972. The classic account of Bingham's explorations, including his discovery of Machu Picchu. Great read.

The Conquest of the Incas, John Hemming. London, 1970. A thorough, well-written history. Major contributions to current knowledge and theories.

Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, Frost & Bartle. Lima, 1995. Gorgeous homage to this UNESCO World Cultural & Natural Treasure. Inspirational photos and text. Great souvenir to remember your visit.

Both Peru: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, 1995), and The South America Handbook (Passport Books, 1998) offer recommendations on lodging and food in Cusco.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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