Hiking to Machu Picchu

Hiking to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a wonder of the world, the fabled lost Incan city in the clouds, standing 7,970 feet above sea level and attracting one million visitors per year!  An ancient citadel constructed by the Incan Emperor Pachacuti in the mid 15th century used as a royal estate and religious retreat. Miraculously during the 16th century as the European conquistadors arrived, this city was never found.

Machu Picchu

In 1911, when largely forgotten, an American explorer and academic, Hiram Bingham III identified and made public the existence of this “lost” city, which was called Machu Picchu ( “Old Peak” in Quechua, the language of the Incas).

Fun fact: Some believe Hiram Bingham was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones!

I did tons of planning for this trip and will share with you everything you need to know.

Read More: What You Should Know Before Hiking the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail

The Incas had thousands of miles of trails in South America with Cusco as their capital. A particularly beautiful stretch of trail that connects several important Inca sites and leads to Machu Picchu has been popular with hikers for the past 3o years is known as the Classic Inca Trail. It is usually done over four days and three nights culminating with a sunrise arrival in Machu Picchu on the 4th day.

It is recommended to spend a couple of days in Cusco before hiking the trail to acclimatize. You can easily spend two days visiting Cusco and nearby Inca ruins as well as exploring the Sacred Valley.

You must be reasonably fit to do this because there are six hours of hiking per day and the elevation ranges from 8,000 to 14,000 feet. The total distance is 35 miles. At high elevations, the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere is lower than at sea level. This can cause shortness of breath as well as headache, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. Good times!

Looking for other hikes from Cusco? Check out this Day Trip to Humantay Lake

Day 1

We had a 5:30 pick up in Cusco followed by a three-hour drive to the starting point. Here we could use the restrooms, buy water, snacks and coca leaves. We gave our belongings in duffel bags to the porters, got our backpacks situated, then officially started the hike!

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The start is from Piskacucho Km 82, named this because it lies 82 km along the railway line from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The hike begins with what they call a “gentle climb”. I realize that in comparison to everything else, it is, but it didn’t feel so gentle at the time!

This part of the hike goes through a desert terrain with giant cactus and native bushes.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

After three hours with occasional rest breaks, we arrived at the first major Inca site, Llactapata, aka “Terrace Town”. We learned about the terracing system used extensively during Incan times for growing corn which required irrigation in the dry highlands.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Shortly after this was the best part of the day…lunch.

We weren’t sure what to expect. We happily dumped our backpacks, some took off their shoes, and hot water and soap was provided for us to wash with. You quickly learn that the little comforts like this are EVERYTHING!  We were served fresh local juice which was some sort of passionfruit (they have 16 kinds of passionfruit in Peru), which happens to be one of my favorite fruits. We sat for lunch and were blown away by the multi-course gourmet feast that chef Julio managed to prepare up in the Andes.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Ceviche made with fresh river trout

After lunch we had a 3o minute nap, which was divine, then three more hours of hiking. At one point we looked back and saw a rainbow. This did wonders to my mood because it had been a long day!

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

At camp we found that the porters had already arrived, set up the tents and our duffel bags and sleeping mats were there. Warm water was provided to clean up and “happy hour” starts. This is in the dining tent where they had cookies, popcorn, tea and hot chocolate. I recommend drinking lots of the various teas Anis, Coca and Herba Luisa, which are all great for altitude and digestion.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Bedtime is early. By 7:30 pm you are VERY ready for sleep!

Day 1 Stats

Minimum elevation: 8,790 ft    Maximum elevation: 10, 824 ft

Distance: 12km/7.5miles

Day 2

They woke us at 5:00 am with coca tea and more clean water to wash and brush teeth with. Breakfast was served and our water bottles or bladders were filled with freshly boiled water.

At 7:00 am we started the hike. This is the toughest day and I was kind of nervous because I thought the previous day was quite hard. I listened to my body and stopped when I needed to catch my breath, even if just for 30 seconds. I chewed the coca leaf and drank plenty of water.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Today there were steep climbs up to Warmiwanusca, Dead Woman’s Pass. We passed through many microclimates in the various altitudes,  a jungle, a cloud forest, and treeless grasslands and finally saw the highest point ahead. My advice is not to look up and get discouraged, just take it slow and use the zigzagging switchback method to make the walk seem less steep.

Just keep on going!

Often we became hot, took off layers and then the sun hid behind the clouds and some light rain started, so we would stop, put our rain jackets on, cover our backpacks with rain covers, and five minutes later the sun was back out and we were hot again. I like to think Pachamama (“Mother Earth” in Quechua) was playing with us and laughing. It is a bit infuriating but Peruvian weather is famous for this craziness. We were lucky to have no drenching downpours. Of course, I didn’t mind stopping as much as possible.

Before collapsing at the top, I was greeted by cheers from not only my group but random guides and porters waiting to give me a high five. This was kind of awesome. It was very chilly at the top so once again…layers came out. The best part was this amazing rainbow that suddenly appeared. If you look close you will see it’s actually a double rainbow!!

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

My lungs loved the next part, a nice descent into the Pacaymayo valley to our camp. Another gourmet dinner and an early bedtime. This night was spent at high elevation and was freezing.

Day 2 stats

Minimum altitude 9840 ft    Maximum altitude 13,776 ft

Distance 10 km/6.54 miles

Day 3

Another early wake up for the longest day of hiking and the most beautiful day. There were many Inca Ruins to visit today, all spectacular.

This is Runcuracay, which was most likely an Incan “Tambo”, a place where the “Chaskis” (messengers) would stop for food and rest before continuing onward.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Looking back at Runcuracay

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Unfortunately, we still had another steep incline today. After visiting Runcuracay we trudged along and after this lake could see the summit. I was over the uphill and shortness of breath that I couldn’t wait for the dreaded three hours of downhill steps that we were warned about. Silly me, only thinking about my selfish burning lungs. Little did I know what my poor knees were in for!

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The second summit was amazing because the weather had become perfect.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Energized from this and good weather, we started the descent, stopping for photo shoots often.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The ruins of Conchamarca

We arrived at the impressive ruins of Sayacmarca via its entrance, a narrow steep staircase. This fortress was originally built by the biggest enemy of the Incas, the Colla. The Incas improved upon this structure, which had no room for agriculture.


This part was a solar observatory, the temple of the sun.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

This part was likely residential.sayacmarca

After this nice little break with a history lesson, more hiking. More hiking. More hiking. Eventually, we saw the ruins of Phuyupatamarca ahead.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

It is a beautiful ruin.  Phuyupatamarca means “Place above the Clouds” named for its typical cloud cover and location in the cloud forest. It contains terraces and an intricate series of ceremonial baths connected by water channels.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Peru

Day 3 Stats

Minimum altitude 8,856     Maximum elevation 12,300 ft

Distance: 10 km/ 6.54 miles

Day 4

This is it…the day we finally see Machu Picchu. After a 3:30 am wake up, we walked a short distance the entrance which opens at 5:00 am, followed by a two-hour hike to arrive at Intipunku, the Sun Gate. I was so excited that I was able to ignore the pain in my legs with every step.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Agricultural terraces

At the Sun Gate, we only saw clouds, but once we walked down the hill for a bit, we finally saw it.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The city is incredible. It is invisible from below (which is why the Conquistadors never found it) and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces sufficient to feed the population, and watered by natural springs.

Machu Picchu

The mysterious city has palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms, and over one hundred houses, all remarkably well-preserved.

Machu Picchu
Temple of the Three Windows
Machu Picchu
Temple of the Sun

If you’re still with me, check out my short video about the hike!


Read More:  Cusco 3 Day Itinerary

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Inca Trail Image for Pinterest

About The Author

Cherene Saradar

Cherene is a travel expert with 30 years of experience in over 100 countries and 7 continents. She has traveled solo to over 50 countries. She is also a nurse anesthesiologist with over 20 years of healthcare experience. Her passions include wildlife travel and visiting wine regions of the world.


  1. Chrissy K | 27th Aug 19

    Wow great photos! I love how detailed you are regarding the hike. This definitely has been one place on my growing list. Even better you did this on a hike. Great post!

    • csaradar | 21st Sep 19

      Thanks so much! It was really hard but glad i did it.

  2. Rainbow Mountain Peru - WanderingRedHead | 19th Nov 16

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  3. Laura | 6th Nov 16

    Awesome Cherene! So proud of you…wonderful pictures and video

    • csaradar | 10th Nov 16

      Thanks sweetie!

  4. Elaine | 31st Oct 16

    This is absolutely at the top of my bucket list! It look like an amazing trip. PS.. your hair is amazing in the pics!!

    • csaradar | 31st Oct 16

      Ah thanks Elaine! My hair color distracts from how unwashed it was on the trip! LOL

  5. Jacqui | 30th Oct 16

    This literally sounds so amazing. Congrats for finishing and being badass haha.

    • csaradar | 30th Oct 16

      Haha thanks! I don’t know about bad ass but I’m definitely determined! Thanks for commenting:)

  6. Ro | 30th Oct 16

    I won’t lie, I took the train up to Machu Picchu. But seriously, your pictures are making me want to revisit… this time hiking the Inca Trail. These photos are incredible and your fiery red hair is honestly just the perfect compliment to them. Thanks for posting these.

    • csaradar | 30th Oct 16

      Ah thanks for the compliments. It’s nice having a hair color that distracts from what a mess it always is! LOL But seriously, it was incredible and I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. I would never judge anyone for taking the train! I totally understand why this is the more popular option!!

  7. Jacky | 29th Oct 16

    Alright, I’m officially impressed. I’m really jealous of people who can do these sort of hikes. Of course, you can always catch a ride to the top, but isn’t it so much more rewarding to work for the view? I think we need to work on our fitness a bit before heading to South America 😛
    Thanks for the post! I think it was very informative and well structured. Maybe with this in the back of my head, I can one day see myself doing the hike myself.


    • csaradar | 29th Oct 16

      Ahh thanks girl. I’m not that young and not that fit so if I can do it I think anyone can! Much of it is mind over matter! There was a 63 year old woman with our group and she was faster than me. LOL! When are you headed to S. America?

  8. Milena | 29th Oct 16

    The view from the top is incredible! And I lvoe the picture with the rainbow 🙂

    • csaradar | 29th Oct 16

      Thanks for your comment! I also loved the rainbow. It made my day and made me feel so much better:)

  9. Kristine Li | 29th Oct 16

    I love this! Love how you wrote about the entire ordeal physically and mentally to get there; never knew it’ll be so challenging nor take so many days! (seen too many IG-ers/bloggers post a photo like they just appeared there by a plane or something, hehe)

    • csaradar | 29th Oct 16

      Haha right? I like to be honest about these things. It was definitely challenging but do-able one you just put your mind to it.

  10. Kaylene | 29th Oct 16

    I’d love to hike this trail! Looks like such a beautiful hike, one of my friends just did this too! I love your photos!

    • csaradar | 29th Oct 16

      Thanks for stopping by! It is beautiful. I hope your friend enjoyed!

  11. Christina | 28th Oct 16

    This is AWESOME! You go girl. I need to get to Machu Picchu soon, but not sure I could do this entire hike. Seriously so admirable. Great post.

    • csaradar | 29th Oct 16

      Girl you can do it. I’m telling you, I can’t even run 2 miles. Lol. I’m glad you enjoyed and hope you go one of these days!

  12. Gina | 28th Oct 16

    What an incredible experience! I visited Macchu Picchu in 2010 but the Inca Trail was closed die to flooding. Your post is definitely convincing me to go back soon to hike it for myself ?

    • csaradar | 29th Oct 16

      Oh how unfortunate. At least you saw Machu Picchu! It is unforgettable:) Thanks for you comments!

  13. Things You Should Know Before Hiking the Inca Trail - WanderingRedHead | 27th Oct 16

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  14. Moani | 27th Oct 16

    Great post! I loooove all the photos. It looks like such an amazing landscape there. Seeing that in person must have been unreal. Definitely a good history lesson too!

    • csaradar | 29th Oct 16

      Thanks Moani! I am such a history dork. History and great views…my kind of thing!

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