Seeing Machu Picchu is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. It is a magnificent piece of architecture and history, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and just freaking cool. But you aren’t like other travelers; you like to take things one step further. So you have decided to hike the Inca Trail. Congratulations! The Inca Trail is seriously amazing. It will be a challenging 4 days. You will be sore and exhausted, but you will also feel accomplished and fulfilled. Standing at the Sun Gate as the sun rises over Machu Picchu is a feeling unlike any other. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is everything you need to know about planning, preparing, and priming yourself for the Inca Trail.
Choosing Your Tour Guide Company
This might be the most important decision you make before your hike. The company you choose will dictate how many miles you hike each day, where you camp, what you eat, and a million other little things over the course of four days. Research is key in this stage. I knew that I wanted to be one of the first people through the gate on the final day, securing a mostly people free view of Machu Picchu. It was also important for me to choose a company that valued all of their employees and took good care of them. There is a long history of exploitation and abuse of native people who work as porters (the wonderful people who carry your tents/food/personal belongings).
Another issue that I ran into during my research was the issue of portable toilets. Each campsite has outhouses with squat toilets, but some tour companies bring a portable toilet with them (i.e. a porter has to carry it). In my mind, I wouldn’t want to carry that toilet, so why would I ask another human being to do it for me? It’s demeaning. You might disagree with me, but for me, it was an easy decision to pass on the portable toilet.
Price will always be a driving factor. Hiking the Inca Trail was the main reason that I went to Peru, so I was prepared to spend what was necessary to enjoy my limited time there. That being said, I didn’t see a huge variety in prices. Most companies who offer the 4 day/3 night classic Inca Trail hike charge between $650-$700 per person plus any add-ons you might need.
All of this research I did lead me to Llama Path. It was hands down the best decision, and they were the reason that I enjoyed hiking the Inca Trail so much. All of their porters are paid well, receive a full uniform (including shoes), and a house to stay at in Cuzco in between hikes. The food at each meal was delicious and varied. We had people with dietary restrictions on our hike, and they customized the meals to them with no issue. We even had a chocolate cake on our last night! Our campsite locations were top notch, and we were the first people through the gate on the last day. I was the 9th person through the Sun Gate (seriously so awesome!).
Booking Your Trip
The Peruvian government has limited the number of people who are allowed to be on the Trail every day in order to preserve it. The cap is currently at 500 people, including all porters, guides, and tourists. So realistically, there are only about 200 spots available each day. This means you need to book your hike as soon as you know that you’re going to Peru, especially if you’re going during high season (June-August). I recommend at least 6 months in advance whenever possible,
It is also important to note that the Inca Trail is closed for the entire month of February for repairs and improvements. The rainy season runs from October to April. I hiked at the end of March, and while it rained on and off during days 2 and 3, our final day was perfect with hardly any clouds or fog as we descended on MachuPicchu.
Finally, if your chosen dates for the Inca Trail are sold out (which they very well could be) or if you don’t have 4 days to devote to hiking, there are tons of other options. There are hikes as short as 2 day/1 night as well as hikes that include extra activities like biking and zip lining. If you want to hike, there is a trail for you!
Hire a Porter
Seriously. Do it. I don’t care if you think you’re Superman or Wonderwoman. Hiring a porter costs on average $75 to $100USD. They will carry 7kg of your stuff, including your sleeping bag. There were a few people on my trip who didn’t hire a porter, and you could tell after the first day that they were regretting that choice. Hiking for four days is hard enough; don’t add extra stress.
Training for the Hike
If you start reading forums online, you will see tons of people saying “My 94-year-old grandma did this hike with ease!” or “I haven’t worked out since 1997, and I was just fine!”. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. But don’t let these random internet people fool you; hiking the Inca Trail is HARD. On Day Two, you hike through Dead Woman’s Pass. Dead. Woman’s. Pass. The name is not a hyperbole. I literally thought I was going to die. Obviously, I didn’t, but it sure made me wish I had trained a little harder before I left for Peru.
- Lower body strength training at least once a week (think lunges, squats, calf raises, leg press).
- Lots of cardio (high-intensity interval training and the stair master should be your new best friends).
- Yoga (helps with your flexibility and breathing techniques).
- Actual outdoor hiking (preferably with the pack you will be taking, loaded up with about the same amount of weight you will be carrying).
Of course, some training is better than nothing. Don’t feel like you have to stick to a hardcore workout regimen before you leave. I tried to make small adjustments in the months I left as well, like always taking the stairs, parking at the back of the parking lot, and taking my dog on longer/extra walks.
Immunizations and Medications
Check with your physician to see if you need any vaccinations before you head to Peru. They will vary based on where in Peru you will be heading but may include typhoid, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies, and yellow fever. Don’t put this off until the last minute. Four to six weeks before your departure date is recommended.
Another thing you might want to discuss with your doctor is preventative medicine. If you have a sensitive stomach, talk about antibiotics for diarrhea. Altitude sickness is another big concern. My wonderful doc gave me a prescription for scopolamine patches. I’ve seen others take Diamox, Dramamine, and Ibuprofen. But disclaimer: I am not a doctor, I did not go to medical school, and this is not medical advice. Please talk to your primary care provider to make the best decisions for you and your health. It is also important to note that when on the trail, your guide and porters will supply you with coca tea which helps with the altitude and any soreness you might have from hiking. For many people, the tea alone is enough to combat any altitude sickness.
Finally, before you hike the Inca Trail, you MUST spend at least 48 hours in Cusco or the surrounding area to acclimate to the higher elevation. Make sure that you drink tons of water and take it easy, especially on your first day. Explore Cusco by foot the first day, leaving plenty of time for breaks and even a mid-day nap. On the second day, you can explore more of Cusco or venture into the Sacred Valley. I personally chose to spend the night in the coolest hotel ever. There is so much to do in Cusco and the Sacred Valley that you will have no problem filling up those 48+ hours.
All in all, hiking the Inca Trail is a wonderful experience. A little bit of preparation beforehand can make all the difference between enjoying your time and struggling through it. As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Have you hiked the Inca Trail? What did you do to get ready for your hike?
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