For 4 days and 3 nights, I hauled a 30 lb backpack around the Andes Mountains on my way to Macchu Picchu. I slept on the hard ground in a tent and woke each morning before the sun rose. I didn’t shower. I went to the bathroom in stalls that were more disgusting than the porter potties at the Indy 500. My knees ached from the constant pounding on stone steps, and I had to endure rain more than once. But.
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I got to spend 4 days surrounded by endless mountain peaks and deep valleys. I climbed to an almost 14,000 foot summit in a country nearly 4,000 miles from home. I stood in places where the Incans used to worship and cook and play with their children on a daily basis. I laughed over popcorn and cacao tea with people from all over the globe who had the same desire as I did to conquer this trail. Mainly, I felt in awe of this world around me – the mountains, the people, the history. And I want to help you do the same.
Hiking the Inca Trail is no easy feat (let me tell you, there were moments I was cursing everything in sight), but with a little planning on your part, you can make it a trip of a lifetime. Below is everything you need to know to book, train, and travel the trail. Let’s get started.
Unless you already live at a pretty decent elevation, you will want to fly into Cusco, the base town for the Inca Trail treks, at least two days prior to when you leave on your hike. This allows you to get acclimated to the elevation and hopefully avoid altitude sickness. A girl on our hike succumbed to this, and let me tell you, it didn’t make for a pleasant 4 days for her. If you are used to elevation, you could probably fly in the day before your hike, although again, two days prior is best.
I used CheapOAir to find and book my flight into Cusco but definitely search around MONTHS prior to leaving to find the best deal. I ended up booking my flight about 6 months out because the fares were so low.
One thing to note: the cheaper the flight, the worse the layovers. My friend and I found a great deal, but this meant that we had to sleep on the cold linoleum floor of the Lima airport on our way to Cusco, which wasn’t enjoyable. It did save us a few hundred dollars, but you have to know what you are willing to trade off.
Because most (if not all) tour groups leave from Cusco and drop you off there at the end of your trip, you will want to book lodging there both before and after your hike. Luckily for you (and all of us), it is a mecca of hostels; thus, if you’re trying to save money, this is where you will do that.
I found my lodging through Airbnb (use this link and get a $25 travel credit!), and for 3 nights (2 before and 1 after), I think it cost me a total of $36. I told you, it’s cheap. Now, it wasn’t the Ritz by any means, but there was a bed AND we received breakfast in the morning. And that was all I needed ;)
Two suggestions before you book: First, try to stay within a comfortable walking distance of Plaza de Armas. This is the city center, and while it’s great to be near it in order to take advantage of the city itself during your days there prior to the trip, many tour groups also meet there before leaving for the trail. And you won’t want to drag your stuff across an entire city at 5am in the morning. Trust me.
Secondly, verify with either your hotel/hostel or your tour group that there will be someplace for you to safely and securely store your extra luggage that you won’t be taking on the trail with you. Most should provide this for free (our tour group did).
The Peruvian government limits the amount of people who can travel on the trail each day to roughly 500, and about 60% of these are for the porters who carry supplies for the tourists; thus, this means that only 200 permits are available each day for us travelers and most, if not all, are allocated to tour groups or private guides. So if you were hoping to travel the trail solo, I’m sorry, but it’s probably not happening.
Because the Inca Trail is such an iconic trip, spots on the tours tend to fill up fast. And I mean, FAST. We were 6 months out from when we wanted to go, and our 1st choice of days was already taken by the time we were ready to book. This is a trip you are really going to have to plan ahead, so don’t procrastinate: make sure you have chosen a tour company ahead of time and book your dates at least 6 months in advance if you want to have your choice of dates.
I’ll be honest, seeing as I’ve only done this once with one tour group, I’m not sure if any one company is better than the other; however, we used SAS Travel and had an amazing experience. Treks booked through these types of groups will go from anywhere to $550 to $700 (plus any credit card/Paypal processing fees, which usually run from 3-5%) and will normally include all your meals, tent, transportation to and from the trail, and entrance fee into Macchu Picchu. Other items can be rented through the tour company (like sleeping bags, walking poles, etc.), but it does cost extra. I’ve listed a few other tour companies below for you to check out:
Rainy season for the Inca Trail is from October through mid-April, which means you probably want to avoid it altogether during those months. The best time to go is May through August, when the weather is a little clearer and downpours are less likely. July and August are the busiest months, so try to book your trek in May or June. We went mid-May, and the weather was almost perfect throughout the entire trip. Don’t expect, however, to not get rained on at all during these times just because it’s the dry season – you are in the mountains and it’s a little unpredictable as to what you’re going to get, so be prepared for everything.
Listen, if you really want to enjoy this trip, you’re going to have to train for it. And that means your butt needs to be in the gym and on the trails.
Technically, you don’t have to go to a gym, but you do need to be getting some serious workouts in. Not only are you hiking 6-8 hours a day, but you’ll be doing it at a high elevation while carrying an extra 10-30 lbs. And that takes some strength and endurance.
My normal gym routine includes one leg day per week, but prior to the trip, I upped it to two since my body was already accustomed to lifting. If you aren’t currently strength training, one day per week will more than likely be enough to get you where you need to be for the trip. So what does leg day entail? Just think squats, lunges, calf raises, more squats, more lunges…you get the picture. If you need some help creating a workout, scroll through Pinterest or ask a personal trainer at your gym. You want to build up those legs as much as you can because you will have to push yourself up A LOT of stairs along the trek, and weak legs won’t do you much good.
You’ll also want to mix in 2-3 days of cardio to get those lungs ready for the reduced oxygen levels you will be experiencing. I developed a very close relationship with the stair climber at my gym, mainly because it also integrated the stairs aspect into it. Two months prior to my trek I was up to an hour session, and then I dropped back down to 30 minutes and added a backpack with 20 lb weights. It was killer, but I also killed it on the hike, so….yeah. Worth it.
Obviously, you’re going to have to try to take some long practice hikes if possible. I know weather and schedules sometimes get in the way, but doing it gives you a feel for where you are at in your training (and it was a big confidence booster for me). I did one day hike and one overnight hike prior to my trip, and I would highly recommend that you squeeze those in if possible. It will also give you a chance to test out your gear to make sure everything fits comfortably and is working properly. You don’t need to get all the way up in the Andes and then realize your hydration pack has a leak.
Yes, you have to get some immunizations before you go. A little advice: don’t wait until a month before your trip to do so like I did. They typically like for you to get these at least 6 weeks before your trip, so try not to procrastinate.
I believe the only immunizations I needed were for typhoid and Hepatitis A. However, I would also recommend you consult your doctor and receive altitude sickness medication as well. I had never had an altitude issue before, but I also didn’t want to chance it. Who wants to be sick on while in the mountains? Plus, insurance covered most of the cost, so they were only about $8. Just err on the safe side and get them.
Finally, the fun part ;)
As I stated earlier, you will want to get to Cusco a couple of days before you are schedule to leave for your trek in order to get acclimated to the altitude. While the city itself is interesting to explore for one day, I would highly suggest you schedule an activity of some sort on day two. Just saying.
We didn’t have anything pre-planned for our second day, but that was not an issue. There are a lot of travel companies along the main streets in the city that offer white-water rafting trips, four-wheeling excursions (which we did), and tours of the Sacred Valley, amongst others. It was a fun way to have a mini-adventure prior to the hike and see a little more of Peru.
First things first: I’m going to tell you what you need to bring.
This was the one main thing I was looking for while researching for my trip, and while I did find some, there were no comprehensive lists out there. Thus, I am doing you all a solid and providing it here for you. Granted, you may have to modify this one based no your own personal needs, but this is what you really, truly need if you are making the trek. I’ve even made it easier and made a downloadable checklist for you here. I know. I’m great. Anyhoo, here are the items:
I know it seems pretty lengthy, but a majority of these things are lightweight and/or small, and they easily fit in my backpack. And if I can haul this crap around for 4 days, so can you ;) Also, you'll want to bring some money with you for tips for the porters and maybe a beer or two you can purchase along the trail. Trust me, after seeing how hard these guys work, you'll wish you could give them more. Now on to what you’ll actually be experiencing on the trek.
I’m going to give you the basic structure of each day but know that they may be a little different for each tour group and the season you are going; however, this will give you a general idea of what to expect on the hike itself and prepare you for what you will encounter. Off we go.
Day 1: This is considered the “easy” day and is by far the shortest of them all. You will leave Cusco with your tour group at about 6am in the morning (get used to waking up early) and arrive at the entrance to the Inca Trail about 3 hours later. I think we actually started our hike at roughly 9:30 – 10am and had stopped at our first campsite at 4:30 that afternoon. (Yes, it gets dark fairly early, so you won’t be hiking much in the evenings.) The hike itself on that first day is pretty flat – a few stretches of uphill climbing but nothing too strenuous. Once you get to your campsite, you will have some time to unwind and clean up before happy hour/dinner. And then right after dinner, you will want to go to bed. Trust me. Everybody does.
Day 2: Our guide deemed this day the hardest, and if you hate uphill climbing, this day will also make you hate your life. You will wake up around 5 am and reach the highest point of the entire trek in the afternoon, Dead Woman’s Pass. In order to get there, though, you have to climb a lot of stairs. A lot. Like, a lot, a lot. Luckily, our guide broke it up into to sections, so we did one stretch of this uphill climbing before lunch and the remainder afterwards. This helped, but I was definitely glad I had trained as hard as I did prior to coming on the trip because it would have been slightly miserable otherwise. In a good way. Maybe.
After you reach Dead Woman’s Pass, you will begin about an hour descent down to a campsite that you will share with most, if not all, of the other trekkers on the trip. The bathroom situation isn’t the best, so be prepared. Other than that, it’s pretty much like the night before: clean up, eat, sleep. If you can, though, at least try to stay up to catch the stars one night. I took a midnight bathroom break at this campsite, and the sky was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Literally. No exaggeration.
Day 3: This is the day I deemed the hardest, not because of any tricky or difficult sections but because my joints were aching by the end of it. It was also one of the best days of the trip, for so many reasons. You pass (and stop to explore) a lot of different ruins on this day, and you get a feel for how expansive the Incan empire really was and how innovative they were as a people. You also (and this is the part I hated) have a roughly 2 hour descent down to get to your next campsite where your knees are constantly pounding stone steps. Mine were SCREAMING by the time we were through, and I don’t even have joint issues. However, we ended up at some terraces towards the end of the hike, and this is the view we got (rainbow included). Worth it? Definitely.
This is your last night together as a group, and I hope you enjoy yours as much as I did mine. We lingered over dinner a little longer than usual but were still in our tents by 9pm because wake-up call on the last day is early. Really early.
Day 4: Get ready to be up at 3 or 3:30am because that is how early you have to get up in order to WAIT IN LINE to start the hike to Macchu Picchu. They don’t open that entrance up until 5:30, so you basically get your shit together, walk 500 meters down to the entrance, and then sit for an hour until you can actually start your hike. Not going to lie, it kind of sucks but then again, it comes with the territory. Once you get through the entrance, though, be ready to go because you are high-tailing it to get to the Sun Gate by sunrise. You will stop there for some amazing views, pictures, etc. and then begin the trek down to Macchu Picchu.
Now, I didn’t time this by any means, but it probably takes another hour or so of hiking to get down to Macchu Picchu itself. You will then have most of the morning and early afternoon to explore the ruins, which are inherently indescribable. I wish I could explain to you the awe I felt, but words sometimes don’t do it justice. You’ll understand once you’re there. You’ll end your trip by taking a bus back down to Aguas Calientes and then a train back to Ollantaytambo where your tour company will have arranged for a bus to transport you back to Cusco. The End.
Small Things to Note
Ok, this is where I give you the insider scoop on some things many of the other articles I’ve read don’t talk about. Who’s excited? First, the bathroom situation.
There’s no better way to say it than they are disgusting. Flat, disgusting. Literally, it is a porcelain hole in the ground that you have to squat over to use. Because the trail is muddy, the bathrooms are also muddy (or at least that’s what everyone is hoping is on the floors). To “flush”, you have to pull this string and water will rush out of this pipe at the back of this porcelain hole. Disclaimer: when I say rush, I mean rush. You’ll want to strategically pull that string at the same time as you are ready to make your exit. And please, please don’t wear pants that drag on the ground. You won’t want them running through that muck.
Secondly, don’t plan on taking a shower for the entire length of the trek. I believe they had one at one of the campsites, but considering you’re sharing that with 100 other people, I wouldn’t touch it with a 10 foot pole. The bathrooms are bad enough. Just stick to your baby wipes, and you’ll be fine.
Finally, always layer up. For one, the weather is always highly unpredictable. It could be sunny one minute and raining the next, and you don’t want to be caught without a rain jacket. Secondly, when you are on the more strenuous parts of the hike, your body warms itself up pretty fast. Seriously, it’s like you’re working out. Because you are. Whenever you stop, however, you start to notice the cold, and you’ll want to put on those layers again. I think I arrived at Dead Woman’s Pass (the summit of the trek) in a T-shirt and had a fleece, rain jacket, and gloves on by the time we left that area. Layers are your friend, people. Don’t forget it.
Well, that is pretty much it, folks! I hope I didn’t make any of this sound too intimidating because no matter what age or fitness level you are at, you can tackle this trail with the proper planning and training. If you have any questions along the way, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask – you can either comment below or get in touch with me by going to my Contact page. Hope you enjoy your adventure as much as I did!
P.S. If you want to see more pics of my Inca Trail trek, head over to my post Lacking Wanderlust: What My Trip to Peru Taught Me About Traveling.