Classic 4 day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
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Classic 4 day Inca Trail
(Peru Highlights - Category: Best Trek - Editors Pick)
The Inca Trail is Peru's best known hike, combining a stunning mix of Inca ruins, mountain scenery, lush cloud-forest and rich subtropical jungle. Over 250 species of orchid have been counted in the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, as well as numerous birds such as hummingbirds, waterfowl and the majestic Andean Condor. The star of the Sanctuary is the spectacled bear - a shy, herbivorous animal that is extremely rare and close to extinction.
Essentially the Inca Trail is a mountainous jungle hike leading to the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu. The 45km trek is usually covered in 4 days, arriving at Machu Picchu at daybreak on the final day before returning to Cusco by train in the afternoon.
The trek is rated moderate and any reasonably fit person should be able to cover the route. It is fairly challenging nevertheless, and altitudes of 4200m are reached, so ensuring that you are well acclimatized is important. If arriving from sea level, plan to spend at least 2 full days in Cusco (3 days is better) prior to commencing the trek. This should allow plenty of time for acclimatization and give you sufficient opportunity to visit the city of Cusco and nearby Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman, Q'enko, Pucapucara and Tambomachay, as well as spending a day or two exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas visiting the tradition market town of Pisac and the fascinating Inca fortress at Ollantaytambo.
If you are searching the web for information about the Classic 4 day Inca Trail you'll probably be overwhelmed to find literally thousands of travel agencies offering this popular trek amongst their services. In fact in 2013 over 180 trekking companies in Cusco were awarded licenses to operate the Inca Trail. Licenses are awarded only to registered Peruvian tour operators who have offices in Cusco so even if you buy your trek with a company in your own country the trek won't actually be operated by them. The price of the 4 day Inca Trail trek with a mid-range trekking company should cost between US$540 and US$600 in 2013 and US$560 and US$640 in 2014. If you want extra porters to carry your personal items, very small group sizes, or return by luxury class train then expect to pay much more.
Inca Trail Prices 2014
In the last few years the price of the 4-day Inca Trail trek has risen a lot. The are several reasons for this:
1. The government authorities have introduced minimum standards for the trekking companies. All companies operating the Inca Trail now have to be licensed. The license is issued on a yearly basis in December. Click here for a full list of the 180 licensed Inca Trail tour operators in 2013. If a company's name isn't on the list it is because they don't actually operate the trek, they are probably just an agent (a middleman) taking a commission to send you on a trek with one of the licensed companies.
2. The maximum group size is now 16 persons and each company has to take basic equipment such as a kitchen tent, dining tent, first aid kit and oxygen, etc. More equipment means more porters per group. For groups of more than 8 trekkers an additional guide must accompany the group. All guides now have to be professionally qualified and licensed.
3. The Porters Law introduced in 2003 has tried to improve porters working conditions. All porters should now receive a minimum wage of S./45 (about US$18) per day. Their loads are also limited to a maximum of 20kg, they have to take sleeping bags, back packs, back-support belts and warm clothing as well as being provided with suitable meals, access to first aid and accident insurance. Extra equipment and reduced loads leads to more porters per group. Most responsible operators now use a ratio of about 3 porters for every 2 trekkers. Unfortunately, however, there are still many companies that fall well short in meeting these minimum legal requirements.
4. The number of trekkers allowed to start the trek has also been limited to about 200 people per day (500 people in total including guides, cooks and porters on the classic Inca Trail, the shorter Inca Trail and the Salkantay trek) making it essential to book your trek well in advance. Back in 2000 the cost of the entrance fee was only US$17, now in 2012 the cost is 254 Peruvian Soles (about US$92) per person. This price doesn't include 18% sales tax. The price of the entrance fee in 2014 has yet to be announced. Porters also have to pay an entrance fee, although at a reduced rate of 43 Peruvian Soles (about US$15).
5. The tax authorities have clamped down very hard on the trekking companies in recent years. You can now expect to pay around US$80 per person in sales taxes which should be included in the price of the trek. However if you buy your trek with an overseas tour operator then the trek is exempt from Peruvian sales taxes (known as IGV) so buying a trek directly with a local tour operator helps benefit the local economy much more than booking with a company in your own country.
6. To give you an idea of where your money goes when you buy an Inca Trail trek see the table below. The cost per person is calculated based on average group size of 12 persons. If the average group size is much smaller then the operating costs per person increase. Therefore a company that has an average group size of just 8 persons may have to charge in excess of US$600 for the same quality of service. However most of the trekking companies such as SAS, Qente, Peru Treks, Llama Path & United Mice have average group sizes of around 12 persons with a maximum of 16 persons. Only the company Enigma has a maximum group size of 12 persons which is reflected in their slightly higher trek prices.
The costs above are just to help give you an approximate breakdown of the trek costs and will vary considerably from company to company and dependent on group size. However the main reason for including the table is to demonstrate that in 2014 you should be able to buy a perfectly good 4-day Inca Trail trek for between US$560 & US$640, but if the trek costs much less than this then the company is cutting corners. As you can see in the table above the cost of the porters make up a large percentage of the total operating costs. Most of the cheaper trekking companies are probably not paying their porters the legal amount and their porters are likely being forced to carry more than the maximum legal loads to reduce porter numbers. Andean Travel Web is completely against such exploitation and companies offering the Inca Trail for less than US$540 should be avoided altogether.
A better quality service, fair treatment of porters, increased revenue in the form of taxes for a developing country is all good news, but the downside is that hiking the Inca Trail for people on a budget is now impossible. The increased Inca Trail rates apply to everyone including Peruvians and other Latin Americans and their absence from the Inca Trail and Cusco has been very noticeable in the last couple of years.
Inca Trail Availability 2014
Since the number of trek permits is limited to 500 per day (about 200 tourists and 300 trekking staff) it is important to book well in advance. The trek permits are issued on a first-come-first-served basis up until all the permits have been sold out. In the low season (December & January) there are some days when there are still permits available 4 or 5 days in advance, but in the high season (May to September) it is recommended that you book at least 4 months in advance to guarantee a place. We would actually recommend making a reservation 5 or 6 months ahead. You can check out how many permits are left on our webpage Inca Trail trek permit availability. If the Inca Trail is already fully booked on the departure date that you require you can always consider one of the Alternative Inca Trail Treks
Inca Trail Prices & Services
The main difference between the various Inca Trail services are the number of people in the group, the level of comfort that you can expect, the quality of the guide, food and camping equipment, how well the porters are treated and whether the company will actually guarantee their departure date, even if they can't find anyone else to fill up the group. The prices quoted below are to be used as a guide only and may vary considerably from company to company .
Services are generally classified into the following groups: Group or Private services.
Group Trek Services
Many companies have fixed departure dates or even daily trek departures. You simply join up with other trekkers from all over the world to make a larger group. The maximum allowable group size on the Inca Trail is 16 persons. This service is known as a group service (or pooled service). The advantage of this type of service is that the trek works out cheaper and that you get to meet other like minded people from all over the world. The disadvantage is that the groups can be fairly large and that people within the group can be of mixed ability. When the group is larger than 8 persons, regulations require that two guides are used.
Prices for the 4-day group service Inca trail trek generally range between US$560 & US$640 (2014). These prices should include entrance fees and return on train (You can almost double these figures if you buy the trek with a tour agency outside Peru even though the service is the same). A US$40 discount is offered to students who have valid ISIC cards and to children under 18 years old. This is the standard service offered by most tour operators in Cusco and offers the most economic way of hiking the Inca Trail as part of an organized group. Group sizes tend to be between 12 and 14 persons although each year we have seen a tendency for the groups sizes to be smaller as it becomes more difficult to obtain the trek permits. Services can vary from operator to operator, generally speaking the following services are included: Bus from your hotel in Cusco to the start of the trek, bilingual professionally qualified guide, assistant guide for groups of 9 and over, entrance fees (254 Peruvian Soles, about US$92), tent, foam sleeping mattress, cooking equipment, cook, meals, porters (to carry the tents, food and cooking equipment), train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo on the Expedition train service (currently US$61) and bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco. The following items are not usually included: Breakfast on day 1, snacks along the trail, tourist bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes (US$9), meals on the final day apart from breakfast, porters to carry your personal items (can be hired separately for between US$120 and US$160 for the 4 day trek), entrance to the thermal springs in Aguas Calientes (US$3), any tips for the porters or guide.
Competition amongst trekking companies is fierce in Cusco and many companies offer the 4 day Inca Trail trek for below US$540. Simple arithmetic shows that it is not possible to provide a quality service and guarantee departures with small groups for this price. Most of the cheapest trekking companies join together to form large groups of 16 persons, use inexperienced guides and use poor quality equipment. At the end of the day you usually get what you pay for.
Private Trek Services
Private services are arranged just for you and your group. If there are just two of you this type of service can work out very expensive since the cost of the guide, cook, porters etc are obviously spread amongst just the two of you. If you have a group of 6 or more persons the cost is considerably reduced and may well be worth considering. If you have a group of 12 or more then this option can even work out cheaper than the standard group service. The advantage of a private service is that you have more control of your trek itinerary. With a small group you can usually make better progress each day and camp at some of the less well used campsites. If you are fit then you may try to complete the trek in three days rather than the usual four. On the other hand you may opt for taking things easy and taking five days to get to Machu Picchu. With a private service you can also choose your day of departure.
private group and is generally similar to the group service but usually slightly
more comfortable. Additional items such as porters to carry your personal items
are usually included in this service. Typical costs per person provided by a
medium range tour operator are: 2 persons: US$1600, 3 persons: US$1250, 4
persons: US$1100, 5 persons: US$950, 6 persons: US$850, 7
persons: US$800, 8 persons: US$750,
9 persons: US$700, 10 persons: US$660,
11 persons: US$640, 12
persons: US$620, 13 persons:
persons: US$580, 15
persons: US$570, 16
These costs include entrance fees and return on the basic Expedition train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and then bus back to Cusco.
Prices can vary considerably from company to company depending on the quality of the service and what is included.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Andean Travel Web's aim is to promote responsible tourism and promote companies that have a genuine interest in providing a quality service and paying their porters fair wages. We highly recommend that you do not purchase treks or tours from salespersons working in airports, minibuses or taxis. Quality companies do not promote their services in this way. There have been an increasing number of instances where agents have claimed to be from a reputable company and taken money for a trek only to disappear after you have paid them the money, never to be seen again. ALWAYS pay for a trek or tour in the office of the tour operator and obtain a written receipt and contract of services. Beware when purchasing services through your hotel as they usually re-sell your trek to a company that pays them the best commission and not one that provides the best service.
Alternatives to the 4-day Inca Trail that also arrive at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate
The Inca Trail can be hiked year round although the months of May till October are probably more comfortable since the weather is drier. June through September is the high season when reservations must be made well in advance. There are three main alternative treks to the traditional 4-day Inca Trail that both end at Machu Picchu. The first and most popular alternative is the Short Inca Trail which can be completed in just one day. This is an easier trek and starts further along the Vilcanota River Valley closer to Machu Picchu at a place called kilometre 104 (since it is located 104 km along the railway from Cusco to Aguas Calientes). There is no need to be acclimatized before starting this trek. The second alternative trek is the 7-day Salkantay to Machu Picchu Trek. This is a more strenuous hike via the sacred Apu Salkantay, a beautiful snow-capped mountain. (Apu = mountain god in the local Quechua language). On the fourth day this trek joins the route on the classic Inca Trail and continues to Machu Picchu. All of the above mentioned treks are subject to the Inca Trail regulations which have strictly limited the number of trekkers allowed on these trails. Trekkers can't do these treks on their own and must book through a licensed trek operator. Trek permits must be bought well in advance.
Alternatives to the 4-day Inca Trail that are combined with a visit to Machu Picchu via Aguas Calientes
In the last few years some alternative to the Classic Inca Trail have started to become more popular. Although none of the treks listed below arrive directly at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, a train ride to Aguas Calientes is tagged onto the end of the trek and a bus is then taken up to Machu Picchu. These treks pass through some spectacular scenery. Since trek permits are not currently required, these treks can be arranged just a few weeks or even days in advance. (during the peak season it is not recommended to wait until you arrive in Cusco to buy these treks because the train tickets can often be difficult to obtain). The lack of government restrictions on these routes also means that unlicensed tour operators and guides can be used so be very careful when choosing a tour operator.
Salkantay - Santa Teresa - Machu Picchu Trek. This trek is generally offered as a 5 day trek including a visit to Machu Picchu on the final day. The first three days involve a fairly long hike through mountain scenery ending at the village of Santa Teresa. The fourth day is a fairly short hike down to the Vilcanota River followed by a one-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes where you will usually spend the night in a hotel. The final day is spent visiting Machu Picchu and then returning to Cusco. Although this is a great trek in its own right, it really can't compare with the spectacular scenery and Inca ruins on the Classic 4-day trek. The Salkantay to Santa Teresa route >> more info >>
Lares Valley to Machu Picchu Trek. This trek is often referred to as the "Weavers Way" and takes you well off the tourist trail through unspoiled valleys. You'll see small communities living the same way as hundreds of years ago, practicing their local traditions and farming techniques. You will also have the chance to see locals producing beautiful hand-made textiles. The trek starts in the small village of Quishuarani and then climbs to a high pass offering spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes. The trail then drops down to the village of Cuncani and continues to Willoq. A bus then takes you down to Ollantaytambo where you will take a train to Aguas Calientes. A visit to Machu Picchu is included on the final day >> more info >>
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Andean Travel Web Guide to Peru. Copyright Andean Travel Web Guide to Peru 2000-2013. All material used within this web site is original work and is subject to international copyright law. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited without prior permission from the editor. This web page was last updated in November 2013.