How to trek Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail

Curated by BuffaloTripJanuary 16, 2017 Viewed: 629

Dead Woman’s Pass looms large in the minds of trekkers preparing for the Inca Trail. After all, the trail’s highest pass yields its greatest reward.

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. It’s a trip that challenges the spirits of those who undertake it, yet also rewards them generously out of sheer accomplishment.

The Inca Trail is hiked by thousands each year.

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.

It's a long way up, and it's completely worth it. Photo courtesy Julian B.

Dead Woman's Pass altitude: 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.

One foot in front of the other. Photo courtesy Ian C.

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.

The reward. View from the top of the pass

Everyone that hikes the Inca Trail has their own experience as well as their 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.

Why is it called Dead Woman's Pass (Dead Woman's Pass History)

Dead Woman's Pass, also known as Warmiwañusqa, is called so because the mountain looks like the profile of a woman looking up at the sky.

Warmi Wañusqa or Warmiwañusqa (Quechua warmi = woman, wife; wañuy = die, "woman who died" or "woman died", also spelled Huarmihuanusca, Huarmihuañusqa, Warmihuañusca, Warmihuanuscca, Warmiwañusca, Warmiwañuscca, Warmi Wanusca) is a mountain pass in the Machu Picchu District.

Warmi Wañusqa lies on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, southwest of the archaeological site of Patallaqta. It is situated at a height of 4,200 metres (13,780 ft).

When to go

The main trekking season is from May to September, with April and November also providing reasonable trekking. However, as with most popular treks when in season the trails are quite crowded.

How hard is the trek?

The main trek is a four-day, three-night adventure. There is a shorter three-day, two-night version, although we strongly recommend the longer version. The trek can be challenging. Trudging up Dead Woman’s Pass on the second day can take a toll. It tops out at 4,200m / 13,770’, so some acclimatizing is helpful. It is likely you will have spent some time in Cusco, to help your body adapt. However, climbing is only one of the issues. The descent can also be troubling if there is a lot of precipitation, because the trail can get fairly muddy and slippery. In addition, the stone paths can brutalize your knees when descending so make sure you strengthen your quadriceps and hamstrings in the months prior to your trip.

How long is the trek?

The trek can be anywhere from 2 to 4 days of trekking. Since there are many different trail routes, the mileage varies greatly. You need at least 2 nights in Cusco before starting the trek in order to acclimatize. And you need at least one night in Cusco at the end before your onward travel.

What is the trek like? 

The Inca Trail is the only way to arrive at Machu Picchu on foot, and it is a classic Peruvian trek. You trek through river valleys, high mountain passes and lush cloudforest, and through indigenous communities and past Inca ruins. You trek on stairs and paths built by the Incas until reaching the Sun Gate and your first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail is 4 days of trekking and 3 nights of camping, and you cover approximately 26 miles. As you start looking at trips, you will find that the Inca Trail Trek is offered as 4 or 5 day packages. You can read more on our blog post What Are the Differences Between the Four and Five Day Classic Inca Trail Trek Options? There is also more information about this in the next section on visiting Machu Picchu on this trek.

You can also do a 1 day version of the Inca Trail, which is approximately 8 miles on the last section of the trail. In the morning you take the train part way to Machu Picchu, disembark, and then begin your hike. You arrive at Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. Most people spend the night in Aguas Calientes, and return to Machu Picchu the next day for a full tour. This trek also requires permits, and although they do not sell out as quickly as the full Inca Trail, they need to be booked well in advance.

You need at least 2 nights in Cusco before starting the trek in order to acclimatize. And you need at least one night in Cusco at the end before your onward travel.

What are accommodations like? 

On the Inca Trail there are no lodges, only camp sites. You must camp for 3 nights. Camping can be either comfortable tent camping on sleeping pads or glamping in spacious tents with air mattresses.

Do you visit Machu Picchu on this trek?

Yes, you will hike into Machu Picchu. When you start looking in to Inca Trail packages, you will see that some trips advertise a 4 day Inca Trail trek, and some a 5 day Inca Trail Trek. On the 4 day trek, you will wake up very early on the 4th day, hike into Machu Picchu, do a full guided tour of the ruins, and take the train back to Cusco that evening.  On the 5 day trek, you will pass through Machu Picchu on the afternoon of the 4th day, spend the night in Aguas Calientes, and return to Machu Picchu on the 5th day for a guided tour and return to Cusco that evening. I recommend the 5 day trip, as you get much more time to explore Machu Picchu, but the 4 day trip is more budget friendly.