Hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu is a bucket list item for many people. This is, after all, one of the most famous treks in the world! To hike along a trail which was built by The Inca civilization over 500 years ago and arriving at the epic citadel of Machu Picchu has to be one of the most incredible things you will do in your life, not ONLY on your travels. Travelling back in time and into the history of these incredible people, as well as the incomparable natural beauty of the trek, will leave you exhilarated, emotional and fulfilled, with amazing stories to tell your friends and family of your Inca adventure.
To get the most out of your Inca trail, there is some pre-planning, some organizing and some mental preparation to be able to experience the Inca Trail to maximum. Here are some top trekking essentials that will help you along the way of this fascinating route of The Incas.
What was The Inca Trail?
The Inca trail was part of a system of road networks called the Capac Ñan and is a winding pathway through the mountains of the Andes, to the impressive Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Indeed, it is the ONLY hike where you can actually walk directly into Machu Picchu…..The Incas were onto to something!
There are many variations of the Inca Trail and the 4 day/3 nights is considered the “classic” Inca trail, though there are different variations some of which are longer and others shorter. This usually means that you are walking the trail over a longer period of time or just walking a shorter section of the trail.
The Inca Trail is only actually 40km long (26 miles), doesn't sound very long, does it? There is a big “but” however, and these include the steep ascents and descents, as well as the elevations reached on the trek, which culminates at the high point of 4200 metres (13, 780ft) in elevation.
Why do so many people want to hike an ancient trail through the Andes?
The Inca trail is stunning! It will take you through lush jungle regions to the high mountain tops of the Andes along an ancient Inca road. All along the route, you can see many archaeological sites along the way including one of the many highlights on the final day, when you actually walk into Machu Picchu through the Inti Punku or “sun gate”. This will be your first sighting of the magical Machu Picchu. This combination of incredible scenery, ancient history, archaeological sites and different climatic regions are what attract so many hikers to this part of the world.
Inca trail Logistics
The first thing you should know about the Inca trail is that it is permit-dependent. You are not allowed to hike the trail unless you have a permit as trekkers are limited to 500 people per day, including the porters who carry everything along the trail! This is for the protection of this incredible Inca road. You have to trek with an authorized operator of the Inca trail and they will secure the permits for you when you book with them, bear in mind the trek is not cheap and you definitely get what you pay for so bear this in mind when you are choosing an operator! You need to book the trail at least 6 months in advance and even longer in advance if you are planning to hike in high season which runs from May to August to guarantee your permits!
The best time to do the Inca trail
The best time of the year to hike the trail is in the dry season which runs from April to October. May to August is the high season and best avoided if you want fewer people on the trek. Trains hotels and queues down in Aguas Calientes are always in issue in high season, so try and book the trail in April, September or October for a generally more relaxed experience. The wet season can also be an excellent time to trek the trail. The trail is closed in the month of February for maintenance, however, November and December, for example, can be a great time to trek if the rain holds off. The rain tends to showery, as opposed to setting in for days and you may even get lucky and not have any rain! The trail will be greener, with fewer people, lower prices and the time of the year when the incredible orchids of Machu Picchu come out to play.
How much does it cost?
The Inca trail can vary depending on the quality of company that you use and the size of the group you trek with. The best and most responsible way to trek the trail is with a small group; however, the smaller the group, the more expensive the cost will be. Cheaper operators will try to keep their prices down by trekking in larger groups. Current prices range from $550 USD to $1900 USD per person, depending on the quality of the agency and the group size. The inclusions are also an important factor with the price….. the standard of the train to return back to Cusco, the quality of the equipment they use, how much they are paying their porters and guides, the bus down to Aguas Calientes are common methods of keeping the costs down. Once you have booked the trail, you cannot change the dates. You will have to present your passport at the time of booking and also at the entrance to the trail. You cannot transfer your booking once made and can only change your passport number with the agency prior to trekking.
Prepping for the trail!
The Inca trail is a once in a lifetime trek for the majority of people so try and make the most of it! A generally good level of fitness will be necessary and will also make the trek a more enjoyable experience. Remember that trekking at altitude is an already difficult task, so being fitter will help you massively. The trek is not that technical but will take its toll on your knees, especially the downhill sections, but the many ascents and descents will have even the best of us, gasping for air!
What to take
Pack light, pack smart and pack for all weathers! You will be given a duffle bag for the porters to carry, but make sure you take a light day pack…..the lighter, the better as you will carry that! Take only necessary items that you will need for that day's trekking. Snacks, water, camera toilet roll bug repellent sunscreen sunhat and rain poncho are my daypack items!
Of course, your main luggage will stay in Cusco either at your hotel or the agency where you have booked. Your duffle bag should have your change of clothes, extra batteries, sleeping bag, toiletries, etc. There will be a weight limit for this bag as porters will be carrying them and they are weighed at a variety of checkpoints to make sure the porters are not overburdened and carrying more than they should.
These are the essentials for carrying. Take some little rewards for along the trek or to share with porters, they will certainly appreciate a candy or a coca leaf! Make sure your hiking boots are comfortable and worn in and take some sandals along to give your feet a breath at the campsites.
Most people will do the Inca trail as part of a longer itinerary. Most people will fly into Peru via Lima and a lot of people head straight to Cusco to acclimatise if they are going to be trekking. A minimum of 2 days’ acclimatisation is recommended before the trek to help avoid any altitude symptoms. You can fly from Lima to Cusco or go by road, depending on time restrictions. The flight takes 1 hour and the bus takes 24 hours to give you an idea! Going up to altitude gradually does have its benefits, however! Some people even fly directly from Lima to Puno and the neighbouring Lake Titicaca which is higher than Cusco and gives people more time to acclimatize in time for the trek.
How difficult is the trek?
The Inca trail can be difficult depending on your level of fitness, mental attitude, hiking experience and level of acclimatisation. Most people will tell you that the 2nd day is the most challenging and this is the day you will reach the highest elevation of all of the trek. However, others have more issues on the downhill section on day 3, especially if you have any knee issues. The group dynamics will also affect the difficulty. Some important things to remember are... This is not a race! The hike is stunningly beautiful and the slower you go, the better, to take in these magnificent views. Your hiking speed is assessed without you knowing it on day one and there will be a guide ahead and a guide behind so go at your own comfortable pace. Positivity… is a hiker's best friend! This will get you through the most difficult sections of the trek, every time!
Stick or no sticks…that is the question! Some people will prefer to trek with hiking poles and some will not. This really comes down to personal preference but especially for the downhill sections walking sticks are a hiker's best friend. They can help you keep your balance, take the weight off your knees on the downhill and give you an extra push up the steep ascents. I personally take 1 stick and change hands regularly, others prefer 2 walking poles and some prefer none… whatever is the most comfortable for you, is what we recommend.
The whole reason to hike the Inca trail is to arrive at the incredible archaeological site of Machu Picchu! The Inca trail is the only way to hike there and it's the original entrance into the site. Today however the quickest way to get to Machu Picchu is catch the first bus up to the site as this means you can enter before the people from the Inca trail can get into Machu Picchu. Another popular misconception is that you can see the sunrise through the sun gate…this happens very rarely to be fair; however, you can see the sunrise over the surrounding mountains, which is almost as spectacular! The entrance to Machu Picchu is included in your Inca Trail permit however if you want to climb one of the mountains inside of Machu Picchu, you will need to pay not only for the permit but also another entrance ticket to Machu Picchu! This will allow you to spend the whole day in Machu Picchu however so worth the while!
Camping and eating.
The agency who you book with will provide all or most of the camping equipment. Sleeping bags are not usually included, however, as these are generally considered a personal preference! Most agencies will be happy to rent you an appropriate sleeping bag! Agencies will usually provide all the other necessary camping equipment. The campsites are strictly allocated and the bathroom facilities are shall we say…basic! It depends on how healthy the rest of the trekkers are, as to the condition of the bathrooms. They do not have showers. Some agencies will take their own toilet tent though campsite allocations sometimes do not allow for a toilet tent, depending on the campsite. The food on the Inca trail is generally delicious and one of the highlights… it's actually amazing what they can come up with on the top of a mountain!
Usually, trekkers are fed really well, however, do take some snacks as a reward for getting over the mountain pass. You can buy snacks along the hike but will be charged double the price, so best to buy in Cusco before the trek. You can buy water along the trek, but plastic is no longer permitted along the trail. Your Inca trail agency will provide the water which has been boiled and filtered. However, take water the first morning as the cooks will not have had the chance to boil the water.
How much money should you take?
There are a few opportunities to buy snacks along the trail, yet nothing much else! Your nearest ATM will be back down in Aguas Calientes after the Machu Picchu visit so make sure you take enough cash and smaller denominations if possible. On the 3rd night, there is usually a special goodbye ceremony for the porters and cooks who have worked so hard all along the trek. So find out how much you should be tipping as a group to make sure you take enough cash with you. The guide can wait until you have got to an ATM, but the rest of the team usually heads off to their respective villages or back to the travel agency with all of the equipment.
Health and safety on the trek.
This is a remote trek. Make sure you have adequate travel and health insurance to cover you for any eventuality. There are means of evacuating you from the trail at a variety of points. Altitude sickness can also be an issue which is why we recommend a minimum of 2 days’ acclimatization in Cusco prior to the trek. Coca leaves help with altitude symptoms and plenty of water, but if symptoms are serious, the only solution is to go back down in elevation. Take a basic first-aid kit with you with Band-Aid’s, aspirin, alcohol and any personal medication. Your guide will be carrying oxygen should you need it.
Remember, this is a once in a lifetime experience, make the most of it, go prepared and most of all take with you a positive attitude and you will have the best Inca Trail experience …..ever!