For those looking to hike the Inca Trail in Peru, there is a lot of conflicting information when you search the web. To help you prepare and do it right, here is a guide on how to successfully hike the Inca Trail.
What You Need to Know About Hiking the Inca Trail
If you’re just looking to see Machu Picchu, there are plenty of options to get there other than hiking the Inca Trail. That being said, I personally recommend hiking to it if you are physically able to do so. When it comes to the Inca Trail, it really is so much more about the journey than the destination. By doing the hike, you’re getting a chance to immerse yourself in the world of the Incas. You’ll visit numerous other ruins along the way and unlike Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, you’ll get to experience these ruins just you and your small group.
Most people who have done the Inca Trail all say they preferred the experience of the trail itself over Machu Picchu. A big part of that comes from the sense of pride you’ll feel once you reach Machu Picchu on foot. And not to mention, the crowds at Machu Picchu really ruin the experience – especially since you’ve gotten to enjoy the beautiful Andes and many other Incan sites in near solitude.
Do the hike, you won’t regret it.
The Inca Trail is in incredibly high demand due to limited permits. This is one of those times when you really do need to book far in advance. Most companies request you book months in advance – and it’s true. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis until all permits have been sold out. If you’re trying to go in June through August, book six months in advance. From April through May or September through October, book four to five months in advance. Even during the low season it’s still best to try to get your permit three to four months in advance as to not risk missing out.
Those who don’t book in time have other options to hike to Machu Picchu (so you’re not at a total loss) it just won’t be the traditional Inca Trail. Some worthwhile alternatives are the Salkantay Trek, Lares Trek and Ancascocha Trek. These hikes will take you past Inca ruins and beautiful scenery, while also allowing you the sense of accomplishment when you reach Machu Picchu on the final day. Wait until you arrive in Cuzco to book these alternative treks, as you can save more than 50%.
Choosing a Company
Hikers are not permitted to do the trek on their own and must go with a licensed tour company. Important things to consider when booking include how knowledgeable their tour guides are, if they’re bilingual (if you don’t speak Spanish), how they treat their porters, how well they feed the hikers, and group size. While price may be a concern, make sure to really consider why a company is so much cheaper than others. If it’s because they don’t give their porters proper gear or cram in large groups, opt for the more expensive company.
We decided to book with Llama Path, and would highly recommend them. Our guide (Juan Carlos) was absolutely fantastic – he was incredibly knowledgeable and really made the journey that much more special for us. Not only that, but Llamapath is usually in front of all the other groups throughout the day – which allowed us to really enjoy this beautiful hike in near perfect solitude. For the last day, they even make you wake up at 3:00 a.m. to get to the Sun Gate before any other group. Enjoying the beautiful sight of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate with no one else around was just amazing.
While the hike is absolutely stunning, it’s also worth noting how amazing the food was! We were in complete awe of great the food tasted and how much of it there was. Each meal consisted of an appetizer, soup, and then 3-4 main courses, and dinner usually included a dessert (the last night they baked a cake!). On top of the 3 daily meals, we also had a happy hour – which consisted of popcorn, breads & spreads, and drinks.
Other than Llamapath, other companies worth noting are Peru Treks and SAS. These companies are not only known for being great companies to do the trail with, but they also take good care of their porters.
Acclimatizing to Altitude
The hike is moderate, and if you’re in decent physical condition you should be able to do it. That being said, the trek reaches heights of 13,600 feet, and everyone is affected by altitude differently. Make sure to arrive into Cusco a few days earlier to let your body acclimatize. There’s so many beautiful sights in and around Cusco that these extra days really won’t go to waste. Consider checking out the city and exploring the Sacred Valley while you’re waiting to get on the trail.
Also be sure to get plenty of rest, and avoid alcohol on the days leading up to the trek. We actually ran into a traveller who had gone drinking the night before starting the trek, and ended up suffering terribly from altitude sickness because of it.
If you plan on seeing more of Peru than just Cusco, consider touring the country in order of increasing elevation. This will allow your body to slowly acclimatize as you go. While not necessary, if you’re touring the country anyway, it’s a much smarter plan of attack.
The trail itself is about 26 miles total with some very challenging sections, particularly day two. Different tour companies have different strategies for the layout of their hike (where the stop to camp each night). Llamapath, as well as a few other companies, go fairly far on day two in order to get ahead of the other groups. This day consists of climbing to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass (total elevation gain of ~3,000 ft) and then descending back down the other side (~2,000 ft). After a short lunch, it’s another 3-4 hours of summiting a peak (~1,100 ft) and descending back down (~1,300ft) before reaching that night’s campsite. Some companies leave the second summit for day 3. Either way, everyone ends up at the same camp site for the 3rd night.
Day 4 is the easiest day, focusing mainly on enjoying Machu Picchu. The main camp site is only a 5 minute walk away from the main checkpoint. This checkpoint doesn’t open til 5 (to let hikers through) but that doesn’t stop groups from getting up early (3 AM) to be the first in line for when it does open. Our group (Lllamapath) was the first in line, so as soon as the gate opened, our guide let us go ahead while he filled out the paperwork. Because of this, we were the first group to reach the beautiful Sun Gate and enjoy the scenery all to ourselves, before the other groups trickled in behind us.
You Can Do It!
The hike is 10% physical and 90% mental – as long as you’re in decent shape (you don’t have to be an athlete or anything) you’ll be fine. The hike moves at a fairly slow pace, and as long as you focus on just putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll be fine. If you want to minimize the stress on your body, follow these simple hiking tips, and you’ll thank me later.
1. Avoid stairs when possible. The Inca stairs suck… seriously. Instead of trudging up all the different heights of stairs (some of which are quite high), look for sections on the side of the path that allow you to skip the stairs and act almost as a ramp. This will be a lot nicer on your legs and knees, and you’ll tire much less quickly.
2. When using the stairs, look for the shorter ones. The Inca stairs are of varying heights, even on the same row. Don’t just blindly hike straight up the middle taking any old step. Look for steps that are shorter. For ever time you take 2 small steps instead of 1 big one, you’re body will thank you that much more.
3. Don’t feel like you need to walk in a straight line. The path is often at least 5 ft wide, so instead of walking directly up the middle look around for better pathways. Maybe you walk to the left side to step up some short steps and then cross over to the right side to walk up a dirt path instead of the stairs. Zig-zagging across the path also distributes the stress from the hike across different muscles.
4. Your feet don’t always have to point forwards. Instead of always walking with your feet pointing forwards, occasionally shift your gate and take steps sideways. You can change it up from facing left and facing right as well. All of this will continue to keep the stress off your legs and will be a major help in diminishing fatigue.
5. Avoid heavy impact on the downhills. When going downhill, avoid any large steps that jar your knees. You’re body is going to hate you for it later. Strike a balance between letting your legs slam down to the next step and going to slow. Everyone is different. Don’t go so fast that your legs are slamming down on the steps below, but don’t go so slow that you’re placing extra stress on your knees having to over-control each step.
Here’s a short list of packing tips for the Inca Trail. If you want to see exactly what we packed, check out our complete list of things to pack for the Inca Trail.
- Passport – To enter the Inca Trail, you’ll need your passport, which they’ll stamp for you at the entrance. You’ll also need it to enter Machu Picchu.
- Cash – Bring cash with you, not only to tip your porters and guides, but you can also purchase snacks along the way (first 2 days only)
- Rain Jacket/Poncho – The weather can be unpredictable and you do not want to be hiking for hours in wet clothing.
- Warm Jacket – You’ll want to dress in layers, as your body temperature will be changing from hot to cold frequently. Additionally, warm clothing and accessories at night are a must.
- Plastic Bags – ensures your clothing stays dry.
- Insect Repellent – there are mozzies along the trail.
- Sunscreen – You’ll be reaching high altitudes and spending hours in the sun
- Sun glasses – Don’t want to forget these!
- Basic Toiletries – You probably won’t be showering unless you opt to use the cold non-complimentary showers on the third day.
- Toilet Paper and Antiseptic Hand Gel. There are usually toilets at lunch and camping spots, but usually not along the trail itself (except day 1). Be warned, these toilets are the squatting kind.
- Flashlight – At night you’re going to need a flashlight. Headlamps are the way to go. On the last day you start hiking at before the sun comes up, so it’s useful then too.
- Water Bottle / Reservoir – Your tour company will supply boiled water for you to drink, but make sure to bring a water bottle to put it in.
- Walking Sticks – These can come in handy. There’s a lot of stairs going both up and down, your knees will thank you.
- Camera – Too many beautiful memories to capture not to bring one! And make sure to bring spare batteries – you won’t have electricity for four days, and you’ll be taking hundreds of photos.