Everything you need to know about hiking the Inca Trail

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The Inca Trail should be at the top of every hikers bucket list. From seasoned trekkers, to those who’ve never slept under the stars, the Inca Trail is a once in a lifetime experience. The trail is a 43km / 26 mile trek through Inca ruins, cloud forests and subtropical eco-climates leading to the hidden citadel of Machu Picchu. It rates highly as one of the worlds top multi-day hikes. Trekking with a tour company is mandatory, which takes the stress out of navigation, meal preparation & setting up camp at the end of a long day.

Those who can spare a few months to get in shape & wear in a decent pair of hiking boots, will love hiking the Inca Trail!

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Planning a trip to Machu Picchu

Trek or Train?

The train to Machu Picchu is a fantastic option for the time-poor, those lacking the fitness or inclination to hike or have physical limitations.

The Inca Trail is hike that requires training and a good level of fitness. But allows you to experience Machu Picchu as part of a vast Incan civilisation rather than a stand-alone tourist site.

I’m reliably informed that most people who start the hike, finish it (most likely because the only way out is on foot) and it’s not a technically difficult hike. But the trail is uneven and rocky, and the altitude can slow you down. There were 3 people in our tour group who were over 60, so age shouldn’t be a barrier if you’re healthy, in good shape and have been given the all clear by a doctor.

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Hiking the Inca Trail

Tour Guides

Anyone wanting to hike the Inca Trail is required to do so with a tour group. Independent hiking is no longer allowed. When selecting a tour operator look for those who support sustainable tourism and Porter Welfare.

By law, each porter should not carry more than 20kgs total (this includes individual and communal items such as tents, cooking equipment, food etc). Porters baggage should be weighed every day to avoid exploitation.

I booked with Peru Treks and would highly recommend them. They are consistently listed as one of the top tour operators for the Inca Trail and look after their staff. The food was incredible and the guides had extensive experience and local knowledge.

UPDATE: since I completed the hike, numerous tour operators have popped up with a variation of the name ‘Peru Treks’ & the website I booked through is no longer registered. When booking your tour, prioritise tour operators that pay their guides and porters a living wage. Other tour companies offering multi day hikes based in Cusco and the Inca Trail that come highly recommended include, Apu’s PeruLlama Path & Quechua’s Expeditions.

Tour groups book out early as a fixed number of people are allowed on the Inca Trail at any given time (this number includes guides and porters). Book as early as possible to avoid disappointment. For more on the hiking the Inca Trail, read my Inca Trail Itinerary which outlines the 4 day trek itinerary.

Training

The best training is walking and climbing stairs. Find a look-out with lots of uphill climbing and increase the number of flights of stairs each week. Train in the clothes you plan on wearing to ensure they’re comfortable and fit properly. Boots in particular must be worn in. If you can, train with a packed daypack filled.

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Porters

All hikers on the Inca Trail will benefit from the services of a porter. It supports the local tourism community, and regardless of fitness, there’s no way to anticipate how you will be affected by the altitude. Tour company’s cannot be relied upon to book porters at late notice or whilst on the trail, as tickets to the park must be booked in advance. Hikers are encouraged to book early to secure a porter.

On the trail there are some ‘unofficial porters’ who live in Wayllabamba. However, the service cannot be relied upon and the fee may fluctuate depending on demand. ‘Unofficial porters’ are independent operators and your tour company cannot accept responsibility for your belongings.

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Altitude Sickness

Most people will experience some altitude sickness in Cusco & on the Inca Trail. Altitude sickness is the body reacting to changes in air pressure and reduced oxygen levels, and occurs from 3000m above sea level. Ascending too rapidly at high altitude, such as, flying into Cusco (3399m above sea level) leads to altitude sickness. Being young and fit does not preclude you from altitude sickness.

The Inca Trail is just over 4200m above sea level at its highest altitude.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • insomnia
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • loss of appetite

Altitude sickness felt like a bad hangover or morning sickness. I woke up most mornings at 2am with nausea and headaches. I was breathless and dizzy when walking and I didn’t have much of an appetite the whole week I was in Peru.

Severe Altitude Sickness

For some, altitude sickness can be more severe. Fluid builds up in the lungs and / or brain which can be fatal. If you or a travelling companion experiences any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:

  • heart palpitations
  • blue fingertips, blue/ grey tinged skin (lack of oxygen)
  • irrational behaviour (denying symptoms, irritable, confused)
  • coughing (fluid in the lungs)

Managing Altitude Sickness

Spend a few days in Cusco prior to hiking the Inca Trail to adjust to the altitude. This is compulsory for many tour companies, and they may insist that you check-in at their head office in Cusco at least 2 days prior to the trek, as evidence.

As well as spending time at higher altitude and waiting it out, there are a few things you can do to acclimatise:

  • Have a medical check-up and discuss altitude sickness medication with your doctor before the trip
  • Eat and stay hydrated, even if you don’t have an appetite
  • Don’t smoke or drink alcohol
  • Don’t over-do it in Cusco while you’re acclimatising. Spend plenty of time resting
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Coca Leaves

Coca leaves and coca tea are the local remedy for altitude sickness. Cocaine is derived from coca leaves, and the drug may stay in your system for a few weeks after taking it. Keep this in mind if routine drug tests are common practice in your workplace. The use of coca leaves is legal in Peru, as it has cultural heritage and and may offer some mild alleviation of altitude sickness. But don’t expect a huge buzz, the amount of cocaine in coca leaves is minuscule and the stimulant qualities are similar to an espresso.

Coca leaves and coca tea are readily available in Cusco. Most hotels offer coca tea with breakfast and you can purchase your own in markets and supermarkets.

Remember, coca leaves are legal in Peru because they serve a medicinal purpose and have a cultural heritage. But try and take them across the border and you risk the rubber glove at customs.

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Bathrooms

Most bathrooms on the Inca Trail are squat toilets and the further you hike, the dodgier the loos. Bring hand sanitiser.

The plumbing in Peru can’t support toilet paper and baskets and buckets are provided for used TP. This might be a bit unusual for westerners, and does add to the ambiance. Get in and get out.

What to Pack for the Inca Trail

If you employ the services of a Porter, you will be given a canvas bag when you sign in with your tour group before starting your trek. Pack the items you want to bring and leave the remainder of your luggage in your backpack at the hotel. Most hotels usually have a storage room set aside for left luggage. Bring any valuables with you on the trek.

Your bag, including sleeping bag and mat should weigh no more than 6kg. Each morning after repacking your porter will carry it to the next camp site. During the day hikers carry a day pack for items you need on the trail.

The less you bring the better, so pack items that can serve dual purposes (ie zip-off pants, buff). If there are items that can be shared with friends and travelling companions (ie sunscreen, insect repellant, first aid kit), share the load.

Read on: my favourite Travel Gear for Hiking.

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Here’s what I had in my day pack:

  • Rain jacket & wet weather pants
  • Water bottle
  • Snacks
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellant
  • Camera / smart phone
  • Buff
  • Tissues & hand sanitiser
Clothes
  • 2 merino t-shirts
  • Long sleeve merino shirt
  • Hiking pants
  • Shorts
  • Fleece
  • Down jacket
  • Rain jacket & wet weather pants
  • Warm outfit for camp / sleeping
  • Hiking boots
  • Camp shoes (pref ones you can wear with socks)
  • 4 pairs merino socks
  • Hat, beanie & / buff
  • Gloves (pref water resistant)
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Gear

  • Headlamp
  • Tent lamp (ie luminAID)
  • 1 water bottle or camelbak (I love the LifeStraw water bottles)
  • Water purification tablets (or see above LifeStraw)
  • Camera / smartphone
  • Duct tape / tenacious tape for repairs to jacket, sleeping bag, tent etc)
  • Hiking poles with rubber tips
  • Snacks
  • Travel/ inflatable pillow
  • Sleeping mat (hire)
  • Sleeping bag (hire)
  • Dry sack
  • Plastic bags
  • Zip lock bags
  • Spare batteries for torches

Toilettries

  • Tissues / toilet paper
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellant (tropical strength)
  • Earplugs
  • Lip balm / chap stick
  • Wet wipes
  • Comb
  • Deoderant
  • First aid kit (bandaids, Panadol, blister protectors / Compeed, antiseptic cream, altitude sickness meds, Imodium etc)
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Water

Bottled water is available for sale throughout the Inca Trail but is progressively more expensive further along the trail. Water purification tablets are hard to come by in Peru and can be worth bringing from home for emergency use.

Cash

Take cash. There are no ATMs on the trail and cash will be needed to buy water, snacks and most importantly- have some money to tip your guides, cooks and porters. They earn it! If you think your fee covers this, trust me, you’ll feel differently by the end of your hike!

The porters do an incredible job and when you know exactly how it feels to hike 43kms at high altitude in every kind of weather, you’ll feel extremely grateful to the guys who did it with 20kg on their back (often running).

The following is a rough guide of your expenses on the trail and will give you an indication of how much cash to bring (accurate at the time of writing). Smaller denominations are better.

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TOTAL: 350 Peruvian Soles

  • 20 Soles for breakfast Day 1
  • 10 Soles for water Day 1
  • 1 Sole for toilet Day 1
  • 10 Soles for water Day 2
  • 120 Soles for unofficial porter for Dead Woman’s Pass (if necessary) Day 2
  • 65-90 Soles to tip porters & cook Day 3
  • 15-25 Soles to tip guide Day 4
  • 10-15 Soles to tip assistant guide Day 4
  • 35-50 Soles to tip porter Day 4
  • 5 Soles store backpack at Machu Picchu Day 4
  • 30 Soles Lunch in Aguas Calientes Day 4
  • 50 Soles Miscellaneous

Passport

Bring your passport with you on the Inca trail as you’ll be required to present it at the park entrance with your ticket. Keep your passport on you at all times during the trek. A zip lock bag can come in handy to keep it dry.

Camp

You’ll be allocated a 4 person tent to share between two. This is enough room to comfortably fit two sleeping mats and keep your belongings sheltered inside.

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There are basic communal bathrooms at each site. The campsite on day 2 was a short walk from the bathrooms & involved a small river crossing. Bring a head torch.

It’s a good idea to have a change of shoes to wear at camp. Your feet will be sore and letting your boots & feet dry out helps to prevent blisters. It can get cold at night so pack slip on sandals for camp that can be worn with socks.

Don’t bother bringing a book or anything to pass the time at camp, you’ll be way too tired to do anything. I literally left the meals tent in the middle of dinner one night because I was falling asleep at the table! It’s highly likely you’ll finish your meal, have a wash and be asleep before you know it.

Continue Reading: Inca Trail Itinerary