Like many of you out there, hiking the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu had been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. The 4-day trek follows ancient trails laid by the Incas, as they snake their way through the Sacred Valley, passing stunning mountain vistas, pre-columbian ruins, lush cloud forests and subtropical jungle. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the most highly-rated experiences in Peru – possibly in South America.
In spite of this I found it very difficult to find much information online to prepare me for the Inca Trail trek – to help me choose a trekking company, to advise me about what I should expect on a day-to-day basis, a breakdown of the costs involved, what I should wear and pack, how I should acclimatise to the altitude, and the level of fitness required to complete the hike.
So, for that reason I’ve written this little guide, from my own personal experience of trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu earlier this year. I hiked the trail from June 2nd 2014 – June 5th 2014 with Peru Treks.
What is the best time of year to hike the trail?
Summer in the Sacred Valley starts in October/November and finishes around March/April. However, this is also the rainy season. So the first question you’ll need to ask yourself is whether you’d rather warmer temperatures or dry days on the trail. Most people will opt for dry days (as it’s not a lot of fun hiking in the rain, and wet weather is not generally conducive to taking good photographs), which is why high season on the Inca Trail is June-August. May and September are classed as the shoulder season.
From June through to August you can expect hot, dry days, but the temperature plummets at night, often to just below or around freezing. Throughout the wet season, it’s usually clear and dry most mornings, with heavy bouts of rain in the afternoons and through the night. So, if you’re prepared to take your chances with the weather, the trail is a lot quieter during the wet season. You’ll need to avoid January and February though as it rains so heavily that the Inca Trail is actually closed during these months.
May and September can offer the best of both worlds – less chance of rain, quieter trails and not unbearably cold at night. I chose to trek the trail initially in May, as I figured that at the end of the wet season, the countryside would be lush, the streams full, and the flowers in bloom.
How far in advance do you need to book?
Bearing in mind that there are only 500 permits issued each day, and considering that these permits are not just for paying customers (they include guides, porters and cooks too, which can more than double your group size), they can sell out incredibly quickly. I booked my June trek in December, because the dates I wanted in May had already sold out.
Obviously how quickly the permits sell is dependent upon the time of year, but even if you choose to trek the trail during the rainy season it is still advisable to book 3-4 months in advance. If you wish to trek the trail from the end of April through to the end of September, I’d advise booking at least 6 months in advance. Fortunately we were flexible on our dates, but if you’ve only got a 2-3 week trip planned you could be disappointed if you don’t book far enough in advance.
How do I choose a trekking company?
Aside from other travel blogs and personal recommendations, the most invaluable resource I found regarding trekking companies was the Andean Travel Web. It’s an independent online travel guide to Peru and provides information on weather, money, flights, visa requirements, transport, safety, and even offers some suggested itineraries. More specifically you can view a list of recommended trekking companies, based purely on quality and performance (i.e these companies do not pay money to Andean Travel Web in order to appear in their listings)
Having all these trekking companies in one place allows you to easily compare prices, dates, availability, and what’s included.
As a general rule, don’t skimp on your trekking company. You do pay for quality – both in the company’s treatment of their customers, and of their cooks and porters.
What do I need to know when making a booking?
- Decide whether you want to hire a porter. My advice is yes – unless you’re absolutely sure you can do without. A few people in our group didn’t and after several hours of climbing up and down steps at high altitude and in high temperatures, they were starting to wish they had.
- If you want to hire a sleeping bag (if you’re on a long-term trip you probably won’t entertain the idea of bringing your own; it can add bulk to the luggage you already have, and how often are you really going to use it?) and poles, consider doing so independently from one of the camping shops on Calle Plateros. This can save you a significant amount of money, but do check the quality of the items before committing.
- You will need to pay just over 35% of the total cost of your trek as a deposit, so make sure you have enough funds in your account to cover this.
- There are various methods of paying your deposit, most of which incur a fee. As I’m a UK citizen I was able to do a bank transfer straight into the Peru Treks UK based account, but otherwise Paypal is probably your cheapest option (budget for around $12 in Pay Pal fees)
- Make sure you are able to arrive in Cusco at least 2 days before the trek departure date, as you’ll need to attend a welcome meeting with your trekking group and guide, and also to pay the outstanding balance due on your trek (Peru Treks only accepted cash for this – either Peruvian soles or US Dollars)
What will it cost me?
Here’s what I paid. Budget for a similar amount.
- $580 for the basic trek cost
- $20 sleeping bag rental for 4 days (we chose not to rent poles, as we seem to manage perfectly well without them but rental of poles will set you back anything from $5 upwards)
- $60 for porter services (they carry a total of 6kg per person but 3kg of that is taken up with your sleeping bag and mat, leaving 3kg for your own personal belongings – don’t give your porter anything you need that day)
- $21.93 (65 soles) tip for the porters and cook (this was the maximum we were advised to give because we’d all been so pleased with the service we’d received, and the outstanding food)
- $10 (30 soles) tip for the porter who carried our personal belongings
- $6.75 (20 soles) tip for the main guide
- $5.06 (15 soles) tip for the assistant guide
Total cost: $703.74
What do I need to pack?
For an extensive packing list and recommendations, check out this Inca Trail Packing Guide, but here’s a rough guide of what you’ll need:
- Walking boots. Before leaving the UK I contemplated not bringing these in favour of my more lightweight walking shoes (that also took up a lot less space in my backpack) but I’m so glad I did. I wore them all the time, and – with all the amount of climbing up and down steps on the Inca Trail – my feet were thanking me for it!
- Plenty of layers. Every day on the trek involves an early start, and it can feel bitterly cold before the sun rises, but as you start walking and the day warms up, you’ll gradually get warmer and warmer.
- Insect Repellent. Yes, in spite of the altitude, there are mosquitoes aplenty up here! I learnt the hard way!
- Sunscreen. It does get hot during the day and much of the trail is exposed, so you will burn if you do without.
- Plenty of water for the first day. You will be able to buy some along the way but prices are highly inflated in comparison to Cusco. Some people swear by CamelBaks, but I just stuffed a couple of bottles into the mesh side pockets of my daypack, and that did me just fine.
- Baby wipes. Unless you want a freezing cold shower in the dark (more on that later!), you won’t be able to wash for 4 days.
- Toilet roll. Once you see the toilets at the campsites you’ll understand why!
- A head torch – for trips to the campsite bathrooms at night.
- A waterproof poncho. I picked one up in Cusco for 20 soles ($6.75) which fortunately I didn’t need to use, but if the heavens do open, they’re roomy enough to keep you and your daypack dry.
- A good daypack. You’re going to be carrying it all day for 4 days in a row. It needs to fit right and feel comfortable.
- Warm clothes to wear at night. Despite having a high quality sleeping bag, it was cold in those tents, so I generally slept in all the clothes I had (which included an alpaca jumper, and lightly-padded down jacket) as well as my scarf.
- Coca leaves. Although the guides do carry them, having your own stash is so much easier. For me they were a complete life saver – kept my energy levels up and my limbs supplied with the oxygen they needed to trek comfortably at altitude.
- Plastic bags for dirty, wet clothes.
How fit do I need to be?
Reasonably. Although you don’t cover a great deal of distance on the trek (45 kilometres in 4 days), much of the journey consists of uphill climbs (mostly up stone steps, in varying levels of height and depth), which does take it out of you – especially at altitude. So you’ll need a strong heart, plenty of stamina and good knees.
How should I ensure that I’m appropriately acclimatised to the altitude?
A lot of people simply advise you to get to Cusco a few days beforehand in order to acclimatise, but in my experience that just won’t cut it. I spent a couple of days in Huaraz beforehand (3091 metres; Cusco is 3326 metres) and completed a half day trek up to 3800 metres, but I still suffered quite severely with the effects of altitude when I completed the Laguna 69 trek up to 4600 metres.
If at all possible, I would advise doing a hike at over 4000 metres before starting the Inca Trail.
It’s also advisable to ensure that you get enough sleep (a little more than you would normally have), eat little and often, drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol and cigarettes – although I don’t think the latter makes a lot of difference in moderation.
As I’ve said earlier, coca leaves have been my lifesaver on high altitude treks. If you don’t like chewing the leaves, just fill a water bottle with hot water (which they supply at the campsites) and add a load of coca leaves to it to make tea, which you can drink as you go along. Chewing the leaves is a lot more effective though in my opinion.
What should I expect on the trek itself?
- Be prepared for early starts. Around 5am is the usual wake-up time (the guides will bring a mug of coca tea to your tent to ease you into things), but on the final day, you leave the campsite at around 3:30am, and make the short walk to the check point in the dark (another reason for packing the head torch!). On the plus side though, there’s not a lot to do in the evenings, so an early morning is usually preceded by an early night.
- You’ll be amazed by the sheer diversity of the landscapes you’ll witness and how quickly the environment can change. I never expected to be walking through caves and subtropical jungle, and alongside gushing streams and under the cover of enormous trees.
- Although I was actually surprised there were bathrooms at all, having seen and used them I would rather there weren’t. Using nature’s bathroom was a much more preferable option. So be prepared for possibly the worst campsite bathrooms you’ve ever used (but then, I don’t think I’ve stayed at a campsite over 3500 metres above sea level before, far away from civilisation)
- You’ll enjoy some of the best (and most beautifully presented) food you’ll eat in Peru, prepared using the most basic of cooking facilities. I was seriously impressed with the quality (and quantity) of the food we were provided with.
- The toughest days are days 2 and 3. On day 2 you ascend 700 metres to make it to the top of Dead Women’s Pass (4200 metres) and on day 3 you descend 1000 metres. This day is colloquially known by the guides as the Gringo Killer, for obvious reasons.
- Generally one of the guides will lead the group and one will remain at the back, which means you have the freedom to keep your own pace, and have time for rest breaks and photo stops.
What are the highlights?
- Believe it or not, the highlight for me was not the arrival at Macchu Picchu, but the actual journey along the Inca Trail itself. Right up until the last day, the trail was quiet (we only passed 2 other trekking groups), and reasonably isolated and for that reason you really feel at one with the landscapes through which you pass. I loved exploring the Inca ruins dotted along the trail, and photographing the unusual plants and colourful flowers.
- We were also lucky enough to have a fantastic group and an amazing guide with a wicked sense of humour, which lead to some brilliant camaraderie between us, and some great friendships (our post Inca Trail night out at KM-0 in San Blas, Cusco was one of the best nights out I had throughout my 5-month trip).
- I will also never forget the incredible feeling of being one of the first in our group to make it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s a hard slog towards the end, but the sense of accomplishment I felt at the end immediately made the long and difficult climb to get there, pale into insignificance.
- The food! I’ve mentioned it beforehand but I was totally blown away buy the quality and variety of the meals on this trek. I was the only non-meat eater in the group, but this didn’t mean in any way that I missed out. My meals were as appealing and mouth-wateringly delicious as everyone else’s in the group.
What are the lowlights?
- The campsite bathrooms – for reasons I have previously explained. I guess that due to their isolated locations, and the fact that hundreds of people each day are using them, keeping them clean is a bit of an impossibility. I’m not even sure that anyone is assigned to the role of cleaning them!!
- The race to the sungate on the last day. Yes it was lovely to witness the first of the sun’s rays lighting up the tops of this immense Incan city, but I didn’t appreciate being herded like cattle in order to get there.
What did I think of Peru Treks?
Honestly? I couldn’t fault them. We chose them because they began life as a small family business, and seem to have retained that strong community ethic. They also have a good reputation for their porter care.
I was stunned at how efficiently the whole outfit was organised. Camps were set up expertly and in good time before our arrival, tents were warm, and mealtimes outstanding.
Our guides (particularly our head guide) amazed us with their historical knowledge and enthusiasm for imparting such information. They encouraged questions, and would willingly and thoroughly answer every single one of them. They also took the time to get to know each individual in our group, and continually made us laugh, which helped to keep our spirits high throughout the trek.
We also noticed that we seemed to win out on campsite location over the other groups. Ours were always situated higher up, which gave us the best views, and the farthest distance away from the ‘fragrant’ campsite bathrooms.
Cherish the journey. It is in many ways so much better than the arrival.
Any questions? I’d be more than happy to answer them. Just leave a comment below or shoot me an email.
My name is Kiara Gallop and I’m the writer behind http://galloparoundtheglobe.com. It’s a travel and photography site which focuses on all my favourite things – beautiful landscapes and architecture, hiking, cycling, art, culture, music, and food. I’ve recently returned from a 5-month trip through South America, and am currently re-living all my experiences by writing about them! Follow me on Twitter @KiaraGallop or check out my Facebook page for exclusive content and photos that you won’t find on my blog.