The 7 Stages of Inca Trail Trekking

Phil Wild August 11, 2014 34

So you’ve decided to take on Peru’s famous Inca Trail, huh? It’s worth taking some time to reflect and think, “why did I do that?” Your friends probably think you’re crazy to voluntarily subject yourself to such an endeavour on your leisure time.

Lucky for you, I’m here to guide you through this process. Sit tight and put your feet up as I take you through the Seven Stages of Inca Trail Trekking.

1. Shock

Welcome to the “why did you sign up for this?” stage! There’s no air at this ridiculously high altitude, and you can’t even see the top of the mountain you’re headed for today, let alone Machu Picchu itself.

Day 1 is all about acclimatization and culture shock. Best advice: Just go with it. These thoughts are barely rational, and you’re probably delirious from the altitude anyway. You didn’t eat a big meal and go out partying in Cusco last night, did you?

Wait, you did? Well… you’re on your own.

Guide resting on the trail.

When the guide is looking beat, you know you’re in trouble.

2. Pain

Pain, so much pain! Why does it hurt so much? You were running up flights of stairs for months to train for this. Doesn’t that count for anything?

No. No, it does not. Welcome to Stage 2.

The task of simply putting one foot in front of the other is sapping your confidence, step by step. At the end of the first day, you can barely move, and you’re silently cursing the porters who breeze past you with 20kg (44 lbs) on their backs and a spring in their step.

3. Guilt

Not only did you subject yourself to this cruel, cruel task, but you encouraged your friends to join you on this tour as well. You are a bad friend. Now they’re starting to resent you (even more than usual), and you suspect that they’re planning to poison your food. Racked by guilt and suspicion, you collapse into your tent, alone.

hiker mounting inca stairs

Oh, the pain! The pain of it all.

4. Anger and Bargaining

Dead Woman’s Pass? Up there? You’ve got to be kidding, right? You’ve just hiked for four hours through the rainforest and only now can you see the top?

vista of dead womens pass

That’s it over there. Yeah. That’s it. Just to the right of the one you’re looking at.

No. Just… no. Why did the Incas put their city all the way up in the mountains, anyway? If you’d been emperor, you would have hiked for an hour or two, have seen a nice view, and set up permanent camp.

Okay, okay. You’ll just walk a couple more steps and then you’re done with this. Maybe if you look at the ground for a while, you’ll be a little closer to the top when you look up again. Mountain gods, let’s work this out.

5. Loneliness and Reflection

Oh, help. You’ve just gone up the painstaking last few steps to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, looked over the other side, and you can see steps stretching away as far as the eye can see. You’ve spent the better part of the day puffing and panting up this godforsaken mountain, and you’re going to go straight back down again. Why are you doing this again?

Nobody is going to do it for you. Look on the bright side: You can switch from burning calves and hamstrings to burning quads now. Hooray!

6. Acceptance and Hope

trekkers in a line walking down hill.

One foot in front of the other.

Day 2 has passed, and you’ve now only got the Gringo Killer steps to come on Day 3 before you attack the Sun Gate on Day 4. Maybe this is possible after all?

You: “So how many kilometers do we have to walk today?”
Guide: “Sixteen.”
You: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you properly, I thought you said sixteen.”
Guide: “You’ll be fine.”
You: “Gulp.”

Will you? Will you, really? Probably, yes. At least it’s all downhill. Savagely, steeply, downhill. But at this point, if you collapse from exhaustion, at least you’re closer to Machu Picchu than you are to Kilometer 82, the start of the trek.

view of a moutain gorge with a river at the base

Gorge-ous, right? Right?

7. Triumph!

Day 3 is done with and you are on top of the world! While you’ve got an early wakeup call tomorrow, it’s only a short hop, skip and jump over to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu itself.

The hard work is done and it’s time to judge all those lazy tourists who took the day trip train, and to intimidate them with your powerful trekker’s musk.

View of Machu Picchu from the sun gate

Machu Picchu awaits!

It’s over.

Although it’s an ordeal, ask absolutely anyone who has conquered the Inca Trail whether it’s worth it and the answer is always a resounding YES. Never has the adage “it’s the journey, not the destination” seemed more appropriate than when you take those final steps up to the Sun Gate and feast your eyes on Machu Picchu – because you earned it.

The story of being in isolation with Pachamama (Mother Nature for the native Andean people) for four days – on a trek used by people from a culture as ancient as the Incan – is one you will tell your grandchildren about.

standing at machu picchu

Completely worth it.

Do yourself a favour and experience it for yourself while you have the chance.

Have you trekked the Inca Trail? Did you go through similar feelings? Let us know in the comments below!

Getting There

G Adventures
 runs a number of departures on the Inca Trail encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of getting you on the trail today! Check out our small group trips here.


  1. Briar August 11, 2014 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Thanks Phil, you’ve captured the trek perfectly! This was a life-changing experience (even in rain the first two days) – if you are physically capable, put it on the top of your bucket list. (Thanks as ever to our guide Evert and the wonderful porters of Team 13.)

  2. marilyn August 11, 2014 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    Wow! Thanks for reliving the emotions of hiking the trail. Yes, it’s all that you say and then some. The exhaustion and exhilaration at the same time cannot be experienced in any other place. I loved my days in Peru but the Inca Trail is a highlight.

  3. Anton August 12, 2014 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Done the pain gruling trek to Machu Pichu, and day 1 had the same thought.. Why am I doing this, what was I thinking.. The thoughts going through your head are ones of quitting, doesn’t help when you’ve got a mild dose of food poisoning, altitude sickness and being scared to drink or eat anything.. just incase., but after resting up at camp 1 for the night a few amodiam tablets all’s good, then you see the stairs to dead women’s pass Wowsers, but to tell the truth once you’ve concurred that it’s a very pleasant walk, after a night at camp 2 we were on the home stretch to a hot shower. We had lunch on top of a pass after about 3 hrs of solid walking and once that was over there were a few of us that actually ran to the final camp, just so we could get the hot water.. The next day the sun gate and Machu Pichu, only someone that has completed the trail can actually know the feeling you get when you arrive. You get there before the bussed up tourist and actually enjoy the tranquillity truly a spiritual experience. I truly believe the experience you have doing this is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. I thought at the time it would kill me but I would go back and do it again in an instant.

  4. Rudy Achata August 12, 2014 at 11:41 am - Reply

    I enjoyed your comments about the Inca Trail, just think about it, The Incas traveled this trail to supply the residents of Machu Picchu with lots of things they could not find there, they only had the llamas to help out with the loads of supplies.

  5. Diana August 12, 2014 at 6:35 pm - Reply

    I hiked the Inca Trail 5 years ago and would love to do it again but take the Lares route this time. Half way through the first day I thought I had taken on something that I might not be able to do but you have no alternative but to keep going. I was very proud of myself once it was done. I thought that, for me, the trek was more important than seeing Machu Picchu.

  6. Carolle Desrosiers August 12, 2014 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    It was all of that and more!!! Hard work but very much worth the effort. I was very proud of myself when I finished, and some of my friends did think I was crazy for doing this, I also did at times, but it was worth it!! Proud of that accomplishment!! Thank you Peru & our dear guide Silver Ballone!!!

  7. Phil Wild August 13, 2014 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    Thanks guys! While some of this is definitely a little “tongue in cheek”, you certainly go through a range of emotions as you climb.

    The biggest thing that kept me going was that our CEO had told us at the start that he had a seventy year old passenger finish it just recently. If they can do it, surely I can too!

  8. Nicole August 13, 2014 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    Loved reading about your experiences! Did you deal with altitude sickness at all? I know acclimating and drinking plenty of water is important but I’m curious if there is anything else you (or others who read this) did to help battle the symptoms? I love hiking in the mountains but really struggle around 10,000/11,000 ft. Tips and/or suggestions are greatly appreciated!

  9. Marcy August 13, 2014 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    These stages are perfect! On found the hike to be extremely difficult to complete, especially the high altitude, but it was definitely a great time and worth all the effort. Day 2 over Dead Woman’s Pass was crazy hard!

  10. Liam Anderson August 14, 2014 at 5:15 am - Reply

    This is brilliant, perfect reading instead of my statistics revision this morning! Indeed it does capture the laugh out loud moments and the moments of reflection. I distinctly remember hauling my self up dead woman’s pass whilst another guide played the flute… it was truly haunting and for a moment we were able to forget about the excruciating pain in our knees… this was shortly before i chose to take a tumble off the edge of the path at 3000 meters up best way to turn up to the last lunch station; bloody, bruised, but immensely happy to just be somewhere so beautiful.

    In response to Nicole above, I think your best bet if you plan on doing Peru and the Inca trail is to start seeing Peru from a lower altitude, then work your way through the country over a few days or a week which will slowly take you up to Cusco… by then you should be more naturally acclimatised.

    Ohhh i want to go back! Happy Travelling everyone … P.S. if you haven’t already read Bruce’s book ‘LOOPTAIL’ then read it! It captures the true essence of what travelling should be. I’m no New York Times but it was a fantastic read, I have recommended it to everyone.



    Edinburgh, Scotland :D

  11. Alison August 15, 2014 at 6:43 am - Reply

    You forgot to mention the gastro on day two…
    I loved the whole trek anyway

  12. Phil Wild August 15, 2014 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Hi Nicole! Thanks for your comments!

    As Liam mentioned, I’m no scientist, but everyone has told me the same thing: it doesn’t matter what shape you are in, being sick from the altitude or not is a lottery!

    Having said that, you can increase your chances of getting over it by taking at least a day in Cusco to acclimatise, and drink a lot of water. Staying away from rich foods and alcohol in the first day or two should help as well.

    The locals also chew a lot of coca leaves. I’m not sure as to how effective this is, but it’s worth a try I guess! I was lucky in that I wasn’t really affected by the altitude – and neither was anyone in my group. That is to say – we didn’t feel sick – just out of breath trying to hold a conversation at walking pace!

  13. Adele August 15, 2014 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    Yes yes yes, so really worth it, day one hot so very hot, but eye opening, day two dead woman’s pass hot and wet then the joy of down hill, day three so refreshing, David our leader had said ‘it’s a stroll in the park’ and yes such a beautiful National Park, day four a very early start but the monkey climb to the SunGate so very worth while. At the start i said this was a journey not a race for me, I so enjoyed the trek, I look forward to the next time :)

  14. Margaret Campbell August 16, 2014 at 1:54 am - Reply

    It was that and more, every time we got to the top I saw the next top with a huge down & up before it. Someone advised me to join the ‘slow group’! Well I was the ‘slow group’.We got snowed on at Dead Woman’s pass. However the final scrabble up ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and broaching the top as the sun’s rays shone down over Macchu Picchu on the solstice was stunning. The feeling of achievement cannot be beaten. It’s worth every bit of the effort.

  15. Marielle Sengers August 17, 2014 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    So worth it and yes, it was as hard as described above. I did it in 1996, I remember that on day 1 I thought why did I book this, why didn’t I train harder for this. My legs were killing me. The track up up and up was so freaking tough but the fact that you’re doing this and sharing this with people from all around the world and all walks of life, you push through it and that’s the award in the end, it was absolutely fantastic and a once in a life time experience I’ll never forget.

  16. danielle connolly August 26, 2014 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    this blog is a great help, making me all the more anxious and excited for my inca trail in feb.. thank you!

  17. Ben September 2, 2014 at 1:59 am - Reply

    Thanks for the update Phil! I just loooooved your update. I am saving my pennies for this already!

  18. Hilary Farnell October 6, 2014 at 11:00 am - Reply

    I might have been that 70 year old woman who trekked the Inca trail 2 years ago this summer!!

    It was tough but,my biggest concern was that I was slower than the younger ones in our group.
    some of whom had quite severe problems with altitude sickness – this didn’t seem to slow them down as they charged ahead and still overtook me!
    I lost my appitite around dead womans pass!!
    Our guide was wonderful,and sometimes went on ahead,leaving we 3 slightly older trekkers to enjoy the peace and solitude – we would find him waiting for us around a bend on the path!
    The Monkey steps to the sun gate,I had been told where OMG – I actually found them not really difficult at all – and the view coming through the sungate just before sunrise—awesome–and then the sunrise!!!!!
    A most incredible experience,sooo glad I did the trek instead of taking the train.
    my appitite returned as soon as we came down the mountain!!
    Surprise yourself—GO FOR IT!!!!

    • Phil Wild October 7, 2014 at 9:50 am - Reply

      Fantastic work Hilary! You’re right – you never know what you can achieve until you try. Altitude sickness aside (which has nothing to do with physical fitness I’m told), I think it’s achievable for anyone in reasonable shape, at any age.

      And you are absolutely right that it’s better to do the trek instead of taking the train.

  19. Lori Igleski January 28, 2015 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    My daughters (20, 23) and I (52) are coming in July and I am looking for any training tips to get ready. I was so confident when I reserved our trip and now I am panicking – even with 5 months to prepare! Help!

    • Daniel Sendecki January 28, 2015 at 10:28 pm - Reply

      Hey Lori — the Inca Trail is certainly not easy but you don’t need to be an athlete to take it on. Naturally, fitness is important but it is the kind of trek that anyone with a little determination can do. However, the more fit you are the more you will enjoy the trail and the more chance you will have to take in the scenery and appreciate the ruins along the way. The trail takes visitors through rugged mountain pathways and steep inclines, so the journey can be challenging at times. In order to prepare your body for the physical demands of the trek, I’d recommend simple hill walking and some stair climbing in order to condition your lower body for the trail. Some people recommend carrying a weighted pack up and down hills to prepare, as well. Most importantly, though — relax. It’s going to be amazing.

  20. RW Starratt February 7, 2015 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    Don’t be intimidated I found the difficulty in this blog to be overstated, I did the 4 day trek at age 57 and found it very manageable. Unless you are in pathetic physical shape you can do it. If you are worried about altitude see your Dr. about some diamox although neither my wife or I needed it.

  21. Sheila Ashley February 7, 2015 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    I trekked the Inca Trail in 1989 and it sounds as if it is as phenomenal now as it was then. Go for it, everyone! In 1989 the major difference would be the number of folks on the trail at a time. The trail is the same, challenging, but totally doable and worthwhile.

  22. Jenny February 7, 2015 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    Thanks for a great reminder of the trek. The article describes it pretty much perfectly, right down to the feeling i got looking down the stairs at the back side of Dead Woman’s Pass and thinking, “holy, moly, you mean to tell me I just climbed up all that way and now i have to go back down again???” LOL. I went 6 years ago and while I don’t think I want to do it again, I’m so glad I had the experience. Walking through the Sun Gate and seeing Machu Picchu spread out before me was one of the top moments of my life.

    To anyone thinking about it, DO IT! You won’t be sorry.

  23. Priska Strickler February 7, 2015 at 10:07 pm - Reply

    Phil, I absolutely loved reading your 7 stages. My husband and I (we were both 68) only did the 1 day trek. My husband grows orchid, so every time he saw one we had to stop. I was sooo glad. I needed the rest to catch my breath. I found the thin air got to me after a while. But the view from the Sun Gate made it all worthwhile.

    • Phil Wild February 13, 2015 at 10:02 am - Reply

      Thanks Priska! Sounds like the distraction was well worth it!

  24. Jennifer Pritchard February 7, 2015 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    I hiked the Inca Trail to celebrate my 65th b’day. It had been on my bucket list for a long time…almost waited too long, but I made it! So glad I didn’t take the train/bus. (Celebrated my 60th by skydiving in Namibia) Hope this encourages someone else to Go For It!

  25. Sandy February 7, 2015 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Nicole: I know acclimating and drinking plenty of water is important but I’m curious if there is anything else you (or others who read this) did to help battle the symptoms?

    Hi Nicole, when I went to Peru a few years ago, I did not get an opportunity to trek the Inca Trail. I still hope to do it one day. When we first landed in Cusco at 11000 ft, to get acclimated, all by me in my group were laid up with varying degrees of altitude sickness. I never felt it then or later in my trip. I believe I was well tipped off … Soon after landing I constantly sipped the local coca tea and chewed on coca leaves which must have helped because my energy level was higher than usual and I could even manage the trek in Puno at 14000 ft.

  26. Buck Purcell February 8, 2015 at 8:09 am - Reply

    The date was April 27, 2006, up early my group of 6 was joined by another G Adventures group of 6 making our combine group now of 12, with two guides, a chef, and 19 porters we were off. I was the oldest of the group at the young age of 61. First day was getting to know the new people that had joined our group and getting set for the big hike on day two, what a surprise when we got to our noon stop with a tent and lunch all set up, with a table and chairs, and again with the night stop tents set up and a great meal. Day two now to the top huff huff, I was the third person of our group to the top of Dead women pass. What a great trip it was seeing Machu Picchu come into view. After a guided tour around myself and two other men of my group also climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu so making it a big hiking adventure.

  27. Lorna Topley February 8, 2015 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks Phil for putting together the Inca Trail experience. Everything you wrote was exactly how I felt at the Trail. Questioning my sanity why did I subject myself to such a torture especially climbing Dead Woman’s Pass played in my head like a broken record. I suffered altitude sickness for 3 days in Puno but got better in Cusco. I am no athlete but my adventurous spirit, our fantastic group of nine trekkers and the wonderful tour guides, David and Joel made it happen. I bungee jumped in Costa Rica, skydived in Namibia, climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, but hiking the Inca Trail is so far the hardest and most difficult one for me. I am no Spring chicken either, but i did it!

    • Phil Wild February 13, 2015 at 10:03 am - Reply

      Thanks Lorna. You’re absolutely right – it’s a challenge, but one of those things you just need to prove to yourself you can do. The feeling at the end is well worth it.

  28. Michael Rowley February 8, 2015 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    I hiked the trail in 2006 at age 50. I think the key is acclimate, acclimate, acclimate. I spent three weeks in country starting in Lima, through Nazca, Arequipa, Lake Titicata, Colca Canyon then Cuzco before the trail and had no problem hiking the trail. Drink water and the coca tea and enjoy the awesome experience of the trail. It is truly a bucket list event. I intend to do it again.

  29. Keith Buchholz February 23, 2015 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    We are leaving for Peru in 2 weeks and will be hiking the Inca trail starting on March 25th. Any thoughts on how to dress for the trip while on the Inca trail?? Will be in Lima, along the coast, up to Puno, and finally to Cuzco so quite a wide range of weather. I didn’t want to over pack with warm clothes for the hike.

Leave A Response »