What You Need To Know To Successfully Hike The Inca Trail


machu picchu


For those looking to hike the Inca Trail in Peru, there is a lot of conflicting information when you search the web. To help you prepare and do it right, here is a guide on how to successfully hike the Inca Trail.

Why Hike To Machu Picchu

If you’re just looking to see Machu Picchu, you don’t necessarily have to hike, as there are also bus and train options. That being said, I personally recommend hiking to it if you are physically able to do so. By hiking the Inca Trail, you’re immersing yourself in the world of the Incas that much more by traversing the same path they did hundreds of years ago. You’ll visit numerous other ruins along the way, making the information your guides give you more visual. And, the sense of pride you’ll feel once you reach Machu Picchu on foot will be well worth any of the harder sections of the trek.

Getting In

Fly into Cuzco, Peru. This is where tour companies leave from, and where you’ll have your orientation the night before the trek.When To Book

While I’m usually a bit of a slacker when it comes to booking in advance, believing tour companies just advise you to book in advance to lock you in, this is not one of those times. When I did my trek in June, I booked in November. A friend of mine who wanted to join me attempted to book the same trip in February, but it was already filled up. As soon as you know your dates, make a reservation.

The reason for this is regulations allow only 500 permits to be given per day. This covers about 200 tourists and 300 guides/porters. They’re issued on a first-come, first-serve basis until all permits have been sold out. If you’re trying to go in June through August, book six months in advance. For those looking to go April through May or September through October, four to five months in advance should be good. Even during the low season it’s still best to try to get your permit three to four months in advance as to not risk missing out.


dead woman's pass


Who To Go With

Hikers are not permitted to do the trek on their own and must go with a licensed tour company. Important things to consider when booking include how knowledgeable their tour guides are, if they’re bilingual (if you don’t speak Spanish), how they treat their porters, their stance on environment issues, how well they feed the hikers and group size. While price may be a concern, make sure to really consider why a company is so much cheaper than others. If it’s because they don’t give their porters proper gear or skimp on food, opt for the more expensive company.

I went with Llama Path, and would highly recommend them. The guides had both gone for special schooling to allow them to work in Peru’s tourism industry, and there wasn’t a question they couldn’t answer on Inca history. While informative, they were friendly with the hikers as well as the porters. The porters were treated well, having special uniforms, eating adequate meals and being made to feel like part of the group, despite the fact they didn’t hike with us during the day. As for food for the hikers, expect to eat a lot. Because you’ll be trekking almost non-stop, you’ll be constantly hungry. Each day we received a snack bag, as well as three buffet-style meals and a before-dinner tea time with hot drinks and snacks. And in the morning, you’ll be woken up with a cup of hot tea and a hot towel brought to your tent.

Another reason this company really stands out is how on the last day they made us wake up at 3:00 a.m. to get to the Sun Gate before any other group. While that may sound torturous, being the only group at Machu Picchu and having the awe-inspiring site all to ourselves was an unreal experience.

If you’re the backpacker type, you may want to look into doing a group tour with GAdventures. While I didn’t personally participate in their Inca Trail experience, their group was directly ahead of mine the entire time. I spoke with the hikers in their group – all of whom seemed to be in the young 20s to early 30s hostel crowd. They all seemed to be having a great time, loved their guides and were being well fed.

Physical Preparations

The hike is moderate, and if you’re in decent physical condition you should be able to do it. That being said, the trek reaches heights of 13,600 feet, and everyone is affected by altitude differently. Make sure to arrive into Cuzco a few days earlier to acclimate, get plenty of rest and avoid alcohol on the days leading up to the trek.

Additionally, the trail is about 30 miles total with some very challenging sections, particularly day two. First thing in the morning you trek two hours straight uphill, followed by two hours straight down, break for lunch, then continue hiking. If you’re not in shape – or even if you are – it can be quite difficult. While you don’t need to be a marathon runner, I’d suggest hitting the gym to get your endurance up beforehand.


inca trail


Packing Tips

While your company will most likely give you a packing list the night before your trek, you’ll probably want to know what you need beforehand so you’re not scrambling around.

  • To enter the Inca Trail, you’ll need your passport, which they’ll stamp for you at the entrance.
  • Bring cash with you, not only to tip your porters and guides, but to purchase snacks at some of the small villages you pass along the way.
  • Make sure to bring some waterproof clothing, shoes, a poncho and a rain jacket, as the weather can be unpredictable and you do not want to be hiking for hours in wet clothing.
  • A four-season or below 10-degree sleeping bag will keep you much warmer during chilly nights than a regular one will.
  • You’ll want to dress in layers, as your body temperature will be changing from hot to cold frequently. Additionally, warm clothing and accessories at night are a must.
  • Pack some plastic bags to ensure your clothing stays dry.
  • Don’t forget your insect repellent.
  • You’ll be reaching high altitudes and spending hours in the sun, so sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat can help protect your skin.
  • Bring medications and basic toiletries only. You probably won’t be showering unless you opt to use the cold non-complimentary showers on the third day.
  • Pack your camera, and make sure to bring spare batteries. You won’t have electricity for four days, and you’ll be taking hundreds of photos.
  • Bring toilet paper and antiseptic hand gel, as you’ll be using the “Inca toilet,” also known as the bushes, quite a bit. When there is a real toilet, it will be of the squat variety.
  • Once you’re done hiking, you’re going to want sandals to rest your feet in.
  • At night you’re going to need a flashlight. Better yet, a headlamp allows you to successfully complete the hike at dawn on the final day.
  • Your tour company will supply boiled water for you to drink, but make sure to bring a water bottle to put it in.
  • While I tried to be tough and not bring the recommended walking sticks, I will admit I wish I had them. Luckily, one girl shared hers with me and the hike was much more enjoyable.
  • If you’ll be going swimming in the hot pools in the town of Aguas Calientes bring a swimsuit. Towels can be rented there.
  • While you’ll be fed a lot as long as you go with a reputable company, I would still recommend bringing extra snacks. With all the hiking you’ll be doing, constant hunger is inevitable.

I would recommend not renting gear through your tour company, as rental shops like Speedy Gonzalez at 393 Procuradores in Cuzco are cheaper.


inca trail


What To Expect On The Trail

Machu Picchu isn’t the only Inca site you’ll see when doing the Inca Trail. You’ll pass sites like Q’entimarka (shown above), Sayaqmarka, Phuyupatamarca and Winaywayna, some of which are surprisingly developed and each of which had specific purposes for the Incas. Expect tough yet scenic sections of trekking as well as alternating climates mixed with stops at ruins and historical discussions. For example, along the way our group learned how the Incas survived longer than other cultures. This was mainly due to their ability to predict natural disasters by finding strange seashells not common in Peru. Additionally, we talked about how at first the Incas believed the Spaniards were the gods they had been waiting for and were friendly toward them until they started killing off their people. We also discussed the Incas informal language system, which incorporated colored strings, knots and sounds made by shells.

Inca Trail Alternatives

If you didn’t book the Inca Trail early enough to reserve a spot but still want to hike to Machu Pichu, some worthwhile alternatives are the Salkantay Trek, Lares Trek and Ancascocha Trek. These hikes will take you past Inca ruins and beautiful scenery, while also allowing you the sense of accomplishment when you reach Machu Picchu on the final day. Wait until you arrive in Cuzco to book these alternative treks, as you can save more than 50%.

[Images via Jessie on a Journey]

The Most Expensive Way To Get To Machu Picchu

Getting to Machu Picchu really is half the fun. Although the site isn’t nearly as difficult to reach as it was in 1911 when historian Hiram Bingham (pictured above in a historical photograph) brought the ruins to the attention of the world, it’s still no walk in the park to get there. For starters, no roads lead directly from main points of entry – Lima and Cusco – to Machu Picchu. Some choose to walk a four-day trek (or portion of it) on the Inca Trail, while others reach the base by chugging along on trains. But did you know it’s possible to get to Machu Picchu in style in a wood-paneled train car with its own private balcony? Well, it is.

The “Presidential Service” by Inca Rail is by far the most luxurious way to get to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. If you order the service, the train operator actually attaches a private carriage to the train that includes its own bar, bathroom, panoramic windows, seating area and a balcony. As you’ll see in the images below, there are also plenty of window shades so that rock stars, dignitaries and others who can afford the ride can do so without any interference. The $10,000 price tag comes with an open bar, hors d’oeuvres and tea service, plus huge bragging rights and lots of stares from passersby. Its maximum capacity is eight people, and it must be booked at least 30 days in advance.

Do you think the train ride is worth the price? And in your opinion, do you think it would add to or take away from the Machu Picchu experience?

[Image of Hiram Bingham from a historical display at Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel. Train car images courtesy Inca Rail]

Archaeologists Discover Portion Of The Inca Trail

Inca TrailA section of the Inca Trail has been discovered in Peru.

The new/old section is located in the archaeologically rich Cusco region and hasn’t been used for 500 years. The Peruvian archaeologists who discovered it say that most of it is well preserved, with about a third overgrown or washed away by landslides.

The trail measures 1.7 meters (5 feet 7 inches) wide and 4.3 kilometers (2.7 miles) long and links the main trail up with the archaeological site of Kantupata. This sanctuary was associated with Macchu Picchu only a few miles away and is currently being excavated and restored.

The Inca Trail is a popular destination for trekkers. It offers some challenging walking, as well as beautiful views and sites of historical interest. It culminates with the spectacular site of Macchu Picchu, the estate for one of the last Inca emperors.

This stretch of the trail will open to hikers in about two years after it has been properly studied and restored.

[Photo courtesy Ian Armstrong]

National Geographic celebrates 100 years of Machu Picchu

National Geographic has launched a special Machu Picchu websiteToday marks the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu by explorer Hiram Bingham. That discovery became one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century and has been inspiring adventure travelers to visit Peru and South America ever since. To celebrate the occasion, National Geographic has launched a fantastic Machu Picchu website that offers a wealth of information about the Inca stronghold, along with stunning photos and tips for those who want to visit the place for themselves.

The website has a number of great articles for travelers and history buffs alike. For instance, the list of top ten secrets of Machu Picchu is a fascinating read, while the gallery of famous visitors is fun as well. You’ll also find the latest theories on what the mountain-top city was used for and get to read Bingham’s own historic writings about the discovery itself. The experts at National Geographic also provide six excellent alternative hikes to the famous Inca Trail, as well as five other “must see” places to visit while in Peru. And when you’ve finished digesting all of that information, you can test your knowledge on a Machu Picchu themed quiz too.

It is highly doubtful that Bingham had any idea that his amazing find would one day become one of the most popular tourist attractions in South America. Each year, thousands of travelers flock to Peru just to visit the place for themselves, and while the site is often crowded with people, it remains one of the greatest ancient structures found anywhere on the planet. So, while you’re going about your day today, take a moment to give a tip of the fedora to Bingham and his wonderful discovery. One hundred years later, it is still inspiring a sense of adventure.

[Photo courtesy National Geographic/Jeff Bridges]

National Geographic Traveler announces 2011 Tours of a Lifetime

National Geograpic Travelers Tours of a LifetimeNational Geographic Traveler magazine has announced its annual list of their picks for Tours of a Lifetime, selecting 50 fantastic journeys to the far flung corners of the globe. For each of the past six years, Traveler has examined thousands of tours in a variety of categories, including volunteer vacations, family friendly trips, small-ship voyages, and adventure travel. From all of those itineraries, they’ve narrow down their choices to this select group, which represent the absolute best in travel, offering amazing cultural experiences, unique activities, and a commitment to sustainability.

On their website, Traveler has broken down the selected tours into six regions of the world, including Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, North America, and Oceania. By clicking on one of those options, readers are presented with the magazine’s recommendations for the very best tours operating in that area, complete with a brief description, links to the tour operator’s website, and price, which can vary wildly depending on the destination and options.

Amongst the selections for this year’s Tours of a Lifetime are Serengeti bush treks, whitewater paddling in Siberia, and a journey deep into the interior of Guyana. There is a journey along the Inca Trail on horseback and cycling tours of Italy and France, as well an expedition to the South Pole on skis. In short, there is a little something for everyone, depending on their interests and budget.

Since all of these trips are researched and vetted by National Geographic, you can rest assured that all of the tour operators are not only legitimate, but also top tier. These trips were specifically selected because they offer something that is a little out of the norm. Something unique that you can’t generally get anywhere else. I’m pretty sure, even if you think you’ve been everywhere and done everything, you’ll still find something to appeal to you on this list.

[Photo credit: Christian Heeb, laif/Redux]