Destinations

How Difficult is the Inca Trail?

Challenges of the Inca Trail & how to ease the stress on your body...

First, the numbers: if you tackle the classic four-day Inca Trail you’ll have 24-26 miles to trek (depending on which trailhead you set out from), over 2,000 metres to haul yourself up and level yourself down, and over 3,000 steps to deal with in total.

In terms of fitness and technical challenge, this is considered to be a trek of moderate difficulty. The effort required, though, isn’t evenly distributed across the four days. Rather, the greatest lung-bursting effort is front-loaded into the first day and a half. The high point, Dead Woman’s Pass, is – at 4,198 metres – definitely the toughest of the three passes, both in terms of the potential effects of altitude and the sharpness of the elevation gain. There are, however, a number of campsites on the way to this first pass, and some groups opt to make the second day easier by staying at the highest campsite on the first night. 

This does, of course, make the final hour or so of day one a rubber-legged slog up the brutal stairway to Dead Woman’s Pass.

This pass is also where you’ll suffer the worst of any altitude sickness that may afflict you, which generally manifests itself as shortness of breath and a temple-clamping headache. The entire trail is over the 2,400-metre threshold for altitude sickness, but those who spend a few days beforehand acclimatising in and strolling around Cuzco – 3,339 metres above sea level – should thereby circumvent the worst of the symptoms. Even better, spend a couple of days in Arequipa (altitude: 2,328 metres) first. Once acclimatised to Cuzco’s thin air, you can take a few more steps in the right direction by walking up to Sacsayhuaman on the outskirts of the city. These Inca ramparts are well worth the visit in their own right, and the 350-metre elevation gain required to walk there constitutes a good training session. 

Ideally, you’ll have already clocked up the hiking miles at home – either in the great outdoors or on a cross-trainer or stair-master – in the weeks before departure.

A couple of details could also ease the Inca strain on your body. Firstly, avoid eating or drinking anything that could upset your stomach in the days before setting out on the Trail. So, if you plan to drink Coca tea to help alleviate the pressures of altitude on the trek, make sure you drink a few cups in Cuzco first. Secondly, take trekking poles with you to help with the many descents – but not metal-tipped ones as they’re banned. Moreover, you should control any masochistic inclination to carry a full load on the Trail: put only the essentials in your daypack and leave the heavier lifting to the porters – and be sure to tip them too.

The Inca Trail itself is a solid pathway made of stones and boulders, so whilst it can take a toll on the knees there’s nothing particularly technical or vertigo-inducing about traversing this terra firma. Unless, of course, you’ve taken a punt on trekking the Inca Trail in the October-to-April rainy season – in which case your boots’ waterproof membrane and rubber soles may have to prove their worth.

For an example itinerary of what you can expect, please visit our Classic Inca Trail itinerary or alternatively our slightly easier Machu Piccu in Style.

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