To hike the Inca Trail is one of the great iconic travel experiences anyone can have today. Each year, thousands of hikers undertake the four-day journey that ends at the celebrated Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, which sit at a height of 7,972 feet above sea level. It’s a trip that challenges the spirits of those who undertake it, yet also rewards them generously out of sheer accomplishment.
Over nearly four days of hiking, the views and attractions along the way are exciting and varied. Archaeological ruins, sweeping views, and lush forests are all joined together by their common stone path, first laid down by the Incas themselves and worn smooth over hundreds of years of ambitious steps. Of all the notable features along the way, the most talked about is Dead Woman’s Pass (“Warmiwañusca” in the Quechua language). This naturally occurring feature is so named because, when seen from the valley below, its crests resemble the form of a woman’s supine body.
What makes Dead Woman’s Pass so famous (or infamous) is its altitude. At 4,215m (13,828 ft), it’s the highest (and most dreaded) point of the Inca Trail, and nearly 1,800m (5,905 ft) higher than the altitude of Machu Picchu itself. The pass comes during the second day of the hike, often perceived to be the most challenging. Because much of the day is spent at higher altitudes with fewer trees, the terrain becomes rockier and more difficult, and trekkers are more exposed to the weather conditions of the day, which can offer anything from cool rains to blazing sun to strong winds.
And yet the factors that make the day more difficult than the others are what make reaching the pass one of the most rewarding moments – probably the second most rewarding moment – on the trail. It’s at this mini summit when many feel a first sense of real accomplishment. They’re undertaking something physically unusual and emotionally strenuous, and it serves as a great life moment for those that choose to be here. Trekkers sometimes celebrate their arrival with a quick shot of rum and a photography session with the valley in the background before continuing on their way.
Everyone that hikes the Inca Trail has their own experience as well as favourite memories that they take home with them. Dead Woman’s Pass is a big achievement for hikers, yet it is just one on a trek filled with special moments. It is the embodiment of the importance of the journey, rather than that of the destination.
Article originally published on January 10, 2017. Updated on August 5, 2021.
Ready to cross over Dead Woman’s Pass? It's a significant achievement for any traveller and you can give it a whirl on tours like: The Inca Trail and Amazon to the Andes. Want to just get straight to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley? You can on Machu Picchu Adventure!