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This iconic trek to Machu Picchu is often misunderstood and confused with other alternative treks around Cusco. Here we outline the basics on the Inca Trail and why it’s so special.
What is the Inca Trail?
The fact is there isn’t just one Inca Trail. The Incas built a massive system of trails all across their empire for transporting goods, soldiers and sending messages. Quapaq Ňan, or Great Inca Road, was the principal highway and it ran for a staggering 6,000km from Colombia, through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and down into Chile. It is possible to follow the whole trail though only 25% is still visible. Just ask Laurent Granier and Megan Soon who walked the whole Inca Road in a mere 18months!
What’s the Classic Inca Trail?
The best preserved part of the massive network of Inca Trails is the 43 km section running from the Sacred Valley to the Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru. The normal time for walking along the Inca Trail section is the much more manageable 4 days, though the 5 day Inca Trail is highly recommended.
Why do the Inca Trail?
This fabulous trail through the Andes is an iconic trek. The Inca Trail is consistently voted as one of the top 5 treks in the world alongside the likes of treks in Nepal and the Alps. The Inca Trail offers an unbeatable combination of varied scenery, history and local Peru culture; not forgetting the spectacular finish as you descend to the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. The route is littered with birds, orchids, Inca ruins and spectacular views with a great variety of scenery each day. A really great all round trek.
What is it like on the Inca Trail?
You walk through a variety of landscapes including traditional farming communities, cloud forest and high Andean paramo with beautiful views of snow capped mountain ranges; so each day gives you completely different scenery and experience.
The trail is sometimes on Inca-built stone pathways or even a few steep stone steps, at other times it is a regular, clear trail.
There are opportunities for seeing grazing llamas, humming birds and plenty of orchids and, if you are lucky, the elusive spectacled bear.
On each day there are impressive Inca ruins to explore (time permitting)
For the regular 4 day Inca Trail, the toughest day is the second taking you over the highest pass (appropriately named Dead Woman’s Pass) at over 4, 000 m.
Look into the 5 Day Inca Trail for a more relaxed pace and more opportunities for exploring on the way.
It is a challenging trek but with full support from experienced guides and porters, anyone who is reasonably fit can achieve.
Is the Inca Trail overcrowded?
The Inca trail became a victim of its own success in the ´90s and suffered environmental damage. To address this, the government imposed many regulations including a limit on the number of people that can be on the trail at any one time. Anybody wishing to do the Inca trail must do so as part of an organized group and must have a permit to enter the trail. As the numbers of permits are strictly limited, places fill up fast so you need to book your spot in advance. To get away from the crowds you could take the 5 Day Inca Trail.
What is an Alternative Inca Trail?
Peru has some of the best trekking on the world. There are plenty of alternative treks you can do BUT there is only ONE Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and this is the only trek that will take you directly to Machu Picchu. Other alternatives such as Lares, Salkantay, the Weavers Way and the Inca Jungle Trail are all good treks – but they end up at the train station, not at Machu Picchu.
There are plently of short day trips and hikes in the countryside around Cuenca, Ecuador.
One place you can visit is Giron for beautiful cascades falling in different levels in the hills above the town.
You can easily visit the first waterfall in a 10 minute walk from the entrance. The second level of waterfalls is a 2-3 hour walk up above. Walk through farmland and small sections of forest with lovely views of the valley.
Entrance $2 for foreigners and $1 for locals. Waterfalls are run by the community and there is a small shop, restaurants, some basic acommodations and an area for camping near the entrance.
More well known for their glamorous lifestyles, UK celebrities Denise Van Outen, Fearne Cotton, Alexandra Burke, Amanda Byram, Gabriella Cilm were all over the UK press when they did a trek to Machu Picchu to raise awareness for Breast Cancer Care. They were joined on the trek by six ladies diagnosed with the disease, and a film crew. Follow in their footsteps
The media said that they did the famous Inca Trail, but what did they actually do?
Here is what they most probably did plus some insights into the experience and what they might have seen on the way.
What is a Lares Trek?
Lares is a mountainous area outside the city of Cusco, not too far from Machu Picchu. There are various hikes you can do here – called Lares Treks because they start or finish in the town of Lares.
Is it cheating not to do the Inca Trail?
Not at all. Take a look:
Day 1: Hot springs and waterfalls
A car will have taken them from Cusco, through the Sacred Valley and up into the Andean Altiplano at heights of 3700m. It’s a tough start on the steep zig-zag path that heads up to the pass at 420mm. The rewards though are views of beautiful blue lakes and waterfalls as they head down to the town of Lares. Just outside of town is the fabulous Lares Hot Springs. The springs are operated by the community and consist of various pools. There is one large pool you can swim in, then three smaller pools that go from fairly chilly to ‘oh my, I can only manage a minute’ hot. It is a great place to camp the night but the celebs carried on that day to the small community of Cuncani . It’s clear from this Mirror article the celebs enjoyed the hot springs.
People in these villages grow potatoes and other root villages and keep llamas or alpacas to earn a living. It is a very basic lifestyle. Women still weave their clothes in a traditional way. People live in stone-built houses with thatched roves and cook on basic wood fires, and have no doubt never heard of the visiting celebs.
In the kitchen you are bound to find plenty of guinea pigs squealing . These animals have special significance and are eaten on festival and celebration days, not a pleasant idea for the vegetarians in the group.
Some villages in the Lares valleys have benefitted from tourism with organizations supporting local schools, and tourists buying small weavings as souvenirs, or bottles of cola, but life is generally hard and people are poor. Trekkers are likely to see women and children looking after their alpacas, or men carrying goods by mule to the nearest towns for sale.
Definitely no phones, internet or other trappings of modern day living!
Day 2 : Snowy peaks and mountain communities
The ladies will probably have got up stiff after a night in a tent at altitudes. No hot showers up here! Some typical effects of altitude are difficulty sleeping, strange dreams and flatulence.
A cook will have handed them a cup of hot coca tea to wake them up. The coca leaves are enthusiastically chewed or made into tea in this area to help with the effects of altitude. Breakfast will be hearty to prepare for the day ahead and served in a dining tent.
It’s likely that the large group of foreigners attracted the attention of plenty of local children who follow along asking for sweets. It’s now the practice in the area that guides will advise people what to do about this and might suggest visitors give out bread or school supplies instead.
This day will have seen them pass some spectacular scenery. The Lares area has some white giants brooding over it in the form of the snow capped peaks of Chicon and Pumahuanja and huge open valleys populated with azure lakes.
Finishing in the community of Huacahuasi (pronounced wakawasi), the group might have set up camp in the stone shelter of a llama coral. These corrals are a feature of the landscape here. It is often the job of the children to bring the animals into the corrals at dusk to keep them safe from predators such as pumas.
Day 3: High passes and lakes
This is the hardest day of the trek as it is a long day with a pass of 4200m. Just to give an idea, that’s more than three times higher than Ben Nevis.
There are fewer communities here and no road transport but fabulous views of the snow capped peaks to the north covered in glaciers.
Sleep is on the edge of a lake formed by glaciers – so definitely no swimming! At this height, the sun is very strong. As soon as the sun goes down, though, you’ll be putting on your alpaca hats and socks. If your cold toes can stand it, it is worth sitting outside the tent for the fabulous views of the stars away from pollution and city lights.
Day 4; Machu Picchu at last!
Let’s give the ladies the benefit of the doubt and say they did arrive in Machu Picchu on the Inca trail; then the day went like this:
After an early start they walk downhill to where a car is there to take them down the bumpy road back to civilization. Then take a train to the practically named Km 104.
Here it is totally different terrain. It is an amazing experience to start the day in high Andean mountains with glaciated lakes, and then trek through lush cloud forests leading to Machu Picchu.
The final part is up 50 stone steps made by the Incas just to give that final challenge.
At the top, though, is the Sun Gate and the amazing, iconic view of Machu Picchu – a truly unforgettable moment for anyone!
After a much deserved rest and a tour of magical Machu Picchu, they could finally sleep in a hotel bed with hot showers, eat indoors in a local restaurant, and take the train back to the city of Cusco.
Why the Lares Trek and not the usual Inca Trail?
This sounds great but I’m not sure about all that hiking and tents
Have no fear! It is possible to get to Machu Picchu in a more relaxed style – just hop on a train!
Thank you to Al Toth for photos of Lares