Chances are you’ve either never heard of the Inca Trail or you are curious yet intimidated by the ancient path to Machu Picchu. Rightfully so, the 26-mile trail isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Its cobbled path climbs from the arid foothills outside of Cusco, Peru, through the mountainous terrain of the Andes. It peaks at the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass before descending into the misty rainforest below.
The trek is far removed from civilization and requires four days of backpacking to reach the historic site. Although it sounds overwhelming, with a little bit of preparation, this journey can be one of the most unique and fulfilling experiences of your life.
Who To Hike The Inca Trail With
Permits are required for every hiker and only 500 people, including guides and porters, are allowed on the trail each day. This means you may have to book up to a year in advance.
Your trekking company will coordinate getting the permits since you cannot hike the trail by yourself. There are numerous providers to choose from in the region, but make sure you know the total cost. Usually, the price includes a guide and the porters who will carry food, camping gear and backpacks up the mountain.
Other items that you may need on the trail, such as an air mat and hiking poles, will cost additional money and you should also include a tip for your guide and porter. Last, please do your research into companies who consider their porter’s well-being. They must be paid a fair wage and given the proper equipment to ensure their health and safety.
This is a rugged trail and safely completing it should be a top priority for all. For this reason and after reading great reviews, we chose to use Alpaca Expeditions or Get Your Guide. Their guides were fun, knowledgeable and well-prepared to lead us on the journey.
Where To Stay Before Your Hike
Most people hiking the Inca Trail will fly into Cusco, a city located in southeast Peru. Situated in the Andes, Cusco sits at 11,200 ft. and is known for its proximity to Machu Picchu, which is located 46 miles to the northwest.
Your trekking company will coordinate getting you from Cusco to the start of the trail so that all you have to do is enjoy the history and delicious foods of the city. It would be best if you planned to acclimate for at least a couple of days ahead of your hike.
Take this time to visit Cusco’s chocolate museum or wander around the artisan shops and cafes in the San Blas neighborhood. Before our departure, we stayed in San Blas at a small hotel called Atoq San Blas. It was budget-friendly, had a great view overlooking the city, and is just north of the Plaza de Armas. Most of the tour operators are located close to the plaza and you will need to visit their shop to pick up your gear and attend a pre-hike briefing.
Finally, if you’re wondering what to do with your suitcase while you’re hiking the trail, fear not! It’s standard for hotels or tour operators to offer storage in their luggage room that you can pick up after you return from the hike.
When To Hike The Inca Trail
Winter in the southern hemisphere means you can expect primarily cool and dry days. It is also the most crowded at this time of year.
Spring marks the transition from cool and dry weather to the warmer days of summer. As you get into November, you can expect days with more rain, but temperatures are still comfortable. This is shoulder season and the trail and Machu Picchu are typically less crowded.
It’s summertime and the weather is warm and rainy. The Inca Trail is closed the entire month of February for trail maintenance and because the region is prone to flooding and landslides at this time. This is the off-season and typically a quiet time to visit.
Fall in the southern hemisphere means you can expect a transition from the warm and wet weather of the summer into cooler temperatures. There may be some rain here and there, but it will get drier the closer you get to June. This is also a shoulder season and it will be less crowded than summertime.
What To Pack And How To Prepare For The Inca Trail
As with any hike, you should invest in a good pair of hiking boots and preferably waterproof ones. The Inca Trail is known for changes in weather and rain might surprise you even in the dry season.
I wore the Merrell Moab 2 Mid Waterproof boots and they held up well. My feet stayed warm and dry after almost a full day of rain and I had no issues with hot spots or blisters. You’ll want to break in your boots by wearing them on frequent walks or use a treadmill to walk on an incline at least a few times before you depart.
In the winter and cooler months of the shoulder season, you’ll want long pants and sleeved shirts that you can add layers on top of. Wool is one of the best options since it is warm and doesn’t cling to moisture and odor like other fabrics do. Investing in wool pajamas is well worth the cost.
Trust me. I learned from experience that shivering in your sleeping bag until sunrise is no fun. I’d also recommend a down or synthetic-filled jacket and a rain poncho. In the summer, you’ll want to pack short and long layers that you can add on and remove as temperatures fluctuate throughout the day.
Additionally, you’ll need to be mindful of the weight of your clothing since the porters who carry your backpack are weight restricted. Most trekking companies limit you to 14lbs. The weight adds up fast when you consider including your sleeping bag, air mat and clothing. You’ll probably have to re-wear an outfit, but it’s a small price to pay for the adventure ahead.
Remember that your other backpack with clothing and camping gear will be with the porters who are far ahead of you on the trail. You typically only have access to this bag in the evenings when you arrive at camp and in the mornings before you head out. With this in mind, you should bring a day pack for items you need throughout the day, including reusable water bottles, snacks, a headlamp, blister band-aids or moleskin and your camera.
Many day packs come with a rain cover and, if yours doesn’t, consider purchasing one because you will get rained on at some point. Finally, if you forget anything, don’t let it be bug spray or sunscreen. The sun can be powerful and the mosquitos, while quieter in the winter months, can be fierce in the wooded areas.
While we saw all different body types on the trail, I’d recommend a regular workout routine before the hike. Extended walks, the stair master, and some cardio will serve you well. Altitude is no joke and the trail can be nearly straight uphill at some points.
Remember the aforementioned Dead Woman’s Pass? It sits at a whopping 13,828ft and is the highest point of the Inca Trail. From there, it’s (mostly) all downhill and you will reach Machu Picchu, which sits at 7,970 ft. With such a variation in terrain, you will enjoy the experience more if you are physically prepared.
Additionally, your doctor may recommend and prescribe medication that helps prevent and reduce symptoms associated with altitude sickness. I felt that this helped me a lot as I did not experience any issues with altitude during my trek.
Regardless, you should use good practices like acclimating before the hike, drinking plenty of water and hiking at a comfortable pace. Remember it’s not a race and your whole group will arrive at Machu Picchu simultaneously.
Additionally, be mindful of sanitation on the trail as there is no running water or electricity. This means you should pack hand sanitizer and use it often, especially before meals.
Also, consider bringing body wipes to clean up at the end of the day. Your tour operator should boil the water before you fill your bottles each morning since the water along the trail is not potable. If you use a Camelbak water reservoir, be cautious when setting your pack down that the mouthpiece doesn’t contact dirt or water. A contaminated mouthpiece or dirty hands could expose you to bacteria or parasites that cause stomach illnesses.
If you find yourself having these issues, Imodium may help relieve some of the symptoms and allow you to continue hiking. If the problem persists, you should seek medical attention in Cusco. Be prepared and have travel insurance just in case something like this happens. It will give you peace of mind should you need to cancel an excursion or pay medical bills.
Why You Should Hike The Inca Trail
Now that I have sufficiently scared you from going (mosquitos, rain, uphill all day!?), you may be asking why anyone would want to hike the Inca Trail.
Few places in the world are so remote yet still accessible to the average person. Imagine the first rays of light as they pour over the snow-capped peaks of the Andes with a steaming cup of tea in hand. Picture nights around the dinner table laughing with fellow hikers from all around the world.
Think about the magic of looking down upon a seemingly endless blanket of trees and spotting a temple rising from the forest while your guide describes the journey made by people thousands of years ago.
It’s in those moments that you begin to understand that although Machu Picchu is the destination, the trail is where the story unfolds. So when you walk up those final steps to the Sun Gate in the early morning hours and look down upon the former Inca Empire, it’s then that you realize what makes this place such a world wonder.
We hope that this article has inspired you to hike the Inca Trail, Peru. If you have any questions or advice to share with our readers, please leave these in the comments below.
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