How Difficult is the Inca Trail?

The Classic Inca Trail, which takes hikers from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu in Peru, is difficult for most people. There is no denying it.

To start with, most people are simply not accustomed to hiking for four days and sleeping in a tent for three nights. While the daily hiking mileages are not big, porters carry your gear, and the camping is luxurious, this out-of-the-norm experience can still be trying for many people.

Perhaps more importantly, there are some serious climbs and descents on the trail. Day Two of the hike is the most difficult uphill stretch, with an ascent of almost 4,000 feet. This is probably much more than most casual hikers are used to hiking at home! On the downhill, Day Four is the most difficult as the itinerary most hikers use includes a descent of 3,650 feet before the final gradual rise to the Sungate of Machu Picchu. This amount of descent, much of it on hard rock laid down by the Incas, can be very trying, especially for those with knee problems.

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The most difficult aspect of the trail for many people, however, is the altitude. The high point of the trail, Warmihuañusca or “Dead Woman’s Pass”, is at an elevation of approximately 4,200 meters or 13,860 feet. Unless you have trekked in a foreign country such as Nepal, climbed a mountain such as Mt. Rainier, or hiked in Colorado at the very tip of the Rockies, you have probably never been at this altitude. Everyone who hikes the Inca Trail will feel the effects of the altitude in terms of shortness of breath, many will have symptoms such as headache or nausea, and a few will have more serious symptoms.

Yes, the Inca Trail is difficult but there are things you can do to prepare!

  • Hike at home before you go, specifically focusing on hiking up and down hills. If you don’t have a good hiking trail in your area, create a routine of walking up and down the 10 flights of stairs in your building three times per day!
  • Spend time in the Sacred Valley or Cusco before your hike. Cusco at 11,500 feet is actually a tough place to fly into because of the altitude but if you do spend two days there, it will help you acclimatize. Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley is at about 9,500 feet and is another good place to acclimatize, especially if you do a few hikes to higher elevations when you are there.
  • Consider taking Diamox if you have had previous issues with altitude sickness or are very concerned about it. Diamox has been proven to alleviate some issues with altitude sickness. You should see your doctor or, better yet, a travel clinic if you are considering this.
  • Consider bringing extendable hiking poles if you have knee problems (or issues with balance). Any hiking poles must have rubber tips on the Inca Trail.

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The truth is thousands of people successfully hike the Inca Trail each year and only a few turn around because of the difficulties. Yes, the trip might be difficult but that is part of the challenge and will make it that much more memorable.

One comment on “How Difficult is the Inca Trail?

  1. I did the Inca Trail in April with Zephyr Adventures. A lot of what this article says is right on point in my experience. When first arriving to Cusco, the elevation was high enough that even carrying the weight of my backpack was noticeable…And I consider myself to be in decent shape. However, as part of the tour, we were brought down to lower elevation in the Sacred Valley to get more acclimated as well as did some practice hikes a couple days prior. I started taking the Diamox on the first part of the trip, but didn’t feel it was necessary to continue once half way through the trail.

    As far as trekking itself, our guides made sure to take things slow. Especially on day two with the steepest ascent, it was humbling to take things “one step at a time.” However, once we finally made it to Machu Picchu on our final day, that was the most gratifying experience – EVER. After four days and three nights on the trail, it was almost as like walking into the pearly gates of heaven to finally see that breathtaking ancient city! The physical effort was well worth it.

    Lastly, in our group, we had all sorts of people in various physical shape. One lady had a knee brace and she was fine. Our guides made sure no one was left behind. There was a guide up front, one in the middle, and one to bring up the rear. Zephyr Adventures and the guides obviously know what they’re doing and they’ve planned for every moment and every scenario on the trail.

    Overall, if you’re worried about the physical difficulty, don’t be too worried! The trail is all part of the journey and not just the destination. Slow down, allow the majestic mountain scenery to speak to you, and (cliche as it sounds) ENJOY THE VIEW! Trekking this ancient trail is a trip of a lifetime! I enjoyed it so much, I plan on Trekking with Zephyr Adventures on Mt. Kilimanjaro next!

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