Imagine conquering one of the world’s greatest mountain treks to be rewarded with gorgeous views over an ancient world wonder. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is an ultimate bucket list adventure, but how do you hike the Inca Trail as a solo female traveler? This guide will show you the best Inca Trail tour to book, how to prepare, what to pack and what to expect.
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What is the Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail is a 26-mile (43-kilometer) mountain trek leading from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu, an emperor’s estate that managed to escape destruction by Spanish conquistadors. The Incas were the largest Pre-Columbian empire in South America, at their height in the 15th century. They built incredible cities and monuments in the Andes Mountains of Peru, and connected them by an extensive series of mountain trails. Today, the Classic Inca Trail is one of the most famous mountain treks in the world. Most trekkers begin at KM82 — named for its location 82 kilometers down the railway from Cusco to Machu Picchu — and take 4 days to hike among Inca ruins before their arrival at Machu Picchu.
Why Hike the Inca Trail?
You can visit Machu Picchu by train, but there is something incredibly precious about tracing the path of an ancient civilization and entering the city on foot.
It’s a moderate trek that will give you a great sense of accomplishment.
You’ll learn a great deal more about Inca culture than you would on a day trip to Machu Picchu, and you’ll connect more with local descendants of the Incas as you get to know your guide.
The scenery — with its steep mountain peaks, sweeping valleys, centuries-old ruins and oh so many llamas — is, of course, beautiful. It’s also far more peaceful than the busy site of Machu Picchu thanks to strict conservation permits that only allow 500 people on the trail per day (200 tourists, 300 guides and porters).
Machu Picchu, designated one of the new seven wonders of the world, is a striking sight for any visitor, but arriving at the Sun Gate via the Inca Trail is the only way for your first glimpse to be that classic breathtaking view over the abandoned imperial city.
The Best Time to Hike the Inca Trail
The best time to hike the Inca Trail is April or May. This is fall in the southern hemisphere, and in Peru specifically these months are the driest with comfortable temperatures. September and October, in South America’s springtime, are also good options.
The trail is closed in February for conservation work. January and March are the wet season. June, July and August are the peak season with more crowds both on the trail and especially at Machu Picchu.
When Can You See the Sunrise at Machu Picchu?
This is one of the most common misconceptions about visiting Machu Picchu, and I have seen unrealistic expectations put hikers in danger before. So, let me rip off this band-aid now: it is not possible to see the sunrise at Machu Picchu.
Sunrise takes place between 5:15am and 6:15am depending on the time of year. The final checkpoint on the Inca Trail doesn’t open until 5:30am, and from here it is about a two-hour hike to the Sun Gate. Because of the checkpoint opening hours, it does not matter what time you start hiking — the earliest you can reach the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu is around 7am, at least an hour after sunrise.
Coming over the stone steps to your first glimpse of Machu Picchu is an incredibly beautiful experience, no matter what time of day it is. Come into the trek with realistic expectations and don’t pin all your hopes on a sunrise view!
The Best Inca Trail Group Tour for Solo Female Travelers
I take no shame in booking group tours as a solo female traveler, especially when it comes to multi-day treks. It’s especially worthwhile to book a group tour on the Inca Trail, because of the permit requirements. Only 500 people (200 tourists and 300 guides and porters) are allowed on the trail per day, and you must have a permit from an approved tour operator. You should book at least six months in advance or more to ensure your place.
The best Inca Trail group tour for solo female travelers is Intrepid Travel’s Inca Trail Express. Intrepid Travel is my favorite tour operator because they go above and beyond to employ local guides and support community efforts for all of their destinations. The Inca Trail Express tour is 7 days, beginning and ending in Cusco, and it includes a choice between staying in Cusco to take a train to Machu Picchu, hiking the 4-day classic Inca Trail or hiking the 3-day Quarry Trail — an off-the-beaten-path alternative to the classic route that does not end at the Sun Gate.
How to Get to the Inca Trail
With Intrepid Travel, and most other tour operators, you will meet your guide and fellow travelers in Cusco. If you are not already in Peru, fly to Lima and then to Cusco. It’s much cheaper if you book these flights separately. The airport in Cusco is very close to the town center, but it’s still worth it to take a taxi. Keep an eye out for another backpacker to share your ride and split the fare.
Like the Inca Trail, Cusco is at a high altitude, so it’s worth arriving in the city at least a couple days before your trek begins to acclimate. I had been at high altitudes before with no problems of altitude sickness, but I felt it in Cusco!
Intrepid’s itinerary will give you time to explore Cusco before moving to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From there, your guide will take you to KM82, the starting point of the Inca Trail.
How to Prepare for the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is at high altitude, so in addition to lots of walking and aerobic exercise in the months leading up to your trek, it’s very important to give yourself at least a couple days in Cusco to acclimate. When you take practice hikes, gradually increase your distance and altitude, and practice pacing yourself. You might also plan some strength training for your legs and core if you’re not already a frequent hiker.
Know how to recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness: dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, nausea and vomiting. These are mild symptoms that can usually be helped with over-the-counter or prescription medication. See a doctor before your trip and pack whatever they recommend. You may not ever need to use it, but better to be prepared. More severe cases of altitude sickness could lead to serious complications, so if you’re having symptoms you should let your guide know right away and be prepared to head to a lower altitude if necessary.
What to Pack to Hike the Inca Trail
With Intrepid Travel, your guides will provide you with a duffel bag to pack the bare essentials for your trek so you can store your main backpack at a hotel. Out of consideration for the porters — or “chaskis” as they’re called on the Inca Trail, a cultural heritage callback to the Quechua word for messenger — it’s very important to pack as lightly as possible. Bring a little bit of duct tape and a Sharpie so you can label your duffel.
To keep your bags light, stick to bringing only 2 or 3 t-shirts (ideally something moisture wicking), one pair of hiking pants, a long sleeve tee and leggings for sleepwear, a sweater or fleece and a warm hat for chilly nights at camp, 1 or 2 sports bras, and 3 to 4 pairs of socks and underwear.
You should, of course, wear shoes with good traction, but you don’t need heavy duty hiking boots for the Inca Trail. A simple pair of trail runners is sufficient and will still be comfortable enough to wear at your campsite after the day’s hike is over.
Intrepid Travel will provide tents and you can rent a sleeping bag through them, so you don’t need to bring any heavy duty gear with you. Some people love hiking poles, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll need them on the Inca Trail.
Since overnight gear is carried by chaskis, you will need a small day bag for your on-the-trail essentials. You can see my full multi-purpose day bag packing list here. For the Inca Trail, your day bag must have a water bottle, water purifier, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, first aid supplies, hand sanitizer and toilet paper or tissues, as well as your camera and/or phone. If you’re relying on your phone to take pictures, an external battery is a must. You should also keep a light rain jacket with you while hiking, just in case. And don’t forget your passport! Your hiking permits are tied to your passport number, so you will need to show it at certain checkpoints on the trail.
Your overnight duffel will hold your sleeping bag, a headlamp, any clothes you’re not wearing, and some basic toiletries like your toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. Cleanser wipes can help you feel freshened up after a long day of hiking, but don’t discard them on the trail — bag them up and take the trash with you to properly dispose of later.
What to Expect on the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is a moderate to difficult hike with some steep sections. If you’re in reasonably good health, you’re unlikely to have any problems. Occasionally, though, some people do decide to turn back after the first day, like Lia and Jeremy of Practical Wanderlust. Altitude sickness is a bitch.
Your tour group will probably have a wide range of ages and hiking speeds. Remember it’s not a race — be considerate of folks who hike more slowly than you.
Most days you can expect to wake up around 6am to a hot cup of coca tea — the local remedy for altitude sickness — and hit the trail at 7am. You’ll make a couple stops to rest, including one for lunch, and typically reach your next campsite by 5pm. Chaskis will set up and take down each campsite, and your tour group will also have a cook to prepare meals. (The quality of food from Intrepid Travel is incredible and I’ve also heard great things about similar tours with G Adventures!)
Accommodations on the trail are double tents, but you can pay extra if you prefer to be in a single tent by yourself.
Your first day of hiking is the easiest with plenty of mild, flat sections before you start heading uphill. You’ll see the ancient ruins of Llactapata before reaching the Wayllabamba campsite around 3100 meters above sea level. Cross your fingers for a clear night — Wayllabamba is an incredible location for stargazing and you might even see the Milky Way.
The second day of the Inca Trail is typically considered the most difficult as you cross the trail’s highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200 meters. From there you’ll make a fairly steep descent to the Pacaymayo campsite at 3650 meters. The silver lining to the world’s toughest stairmaster: llamas! They’ll even traipse right through your campsite. Llamas do not give a damn.
Personally I found the third day of hiking more challenging than day two. Dead Woman’s Pass is one long climb followed by one descent. The trail’s third day has more ups and downs with some large and steep stone steps. Fortunately this also makes day three more interesting with a variety of scenery! Most groups camp for their final night at Winay Wayna, very close to the final checkpoint, but you should know that sometimes permit rules change. My group in 2017 had to camp at the top of the last mountain pass, Phuyupatamarca, giving us a longer fourth day of hiking to reach Machu Picchu.
Your final wake-up call is an extra early one around 4am, so you can be ready and waiting at the trail’s last checkpoint as soon as it opens. From here it’s about a two-hour hike to Intipunku, the Sun Gate for your first epic view over Machu Picchu.
Your entrance fee to Machu Picchu is included in your trek tour costs and you’ll take about a two-hour guided tour of the ruins before boarding the train back to Cusco. Recent changes to conservation policies mean that it is no longer possible to explore Machu Picchu independently without a guide.
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was by far the biggest item on my bucket list when I took my round-the-world trip and boy did it not disappoint! You can make this incredible experience part of your own trip with the Map It Out! Itinerary Planner.