How to hike the Inca trail

Every time I took a step, my wet sneakers made the same sound as when I’m slurping spaghetti. I just crossed Dead Woman’s Pass (which won’t seem as derogatory once you hear the full backstory) at 13,700 feet and all I wanted was to sit down, get out of my soaking clothes, and take a hot shower. But I couldn’t, because I was on a four day trek on the Inca trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu.

Besides the rain (the rainy season is December to February), you’ll have to deal with the cold (Under Armour helps), the sun (bring lots of sunscreen, trust me), the snow (one porter died a couple years ago at Dead Woman’s Pass), the endless steps (both up and down), the wake-up times (4 am on the last day to get to Machu Picchu by sun-rise), and the traffic (thousands of tourists crowd the trail during the popular season, June to August).

Oh, and there’s also the $300 or so you’ll spend on mandatory porters and a guide.

Even with these hassles and expenses, I guarantee you won’t regret hiking the Inca trail. In fact, it’s a classic favorite on any traveler’s life-list. These days, though, many guides like Lonely Planet will try to convince you to take an alternative hike, citing the crowds on the trail and a rushed itinerary.

But it’s not just any old trail. Taking an alternative route will mean missing out on seeing the 10+ amazing ruins scattered throughout the 33-kilometer trail. And you can avoid most of the crowds by going outside of June to August, like I did. If you can afford it, hiring a private tour will help you feel less claustrophobic, since you can just zip right past other groups-or slow down and enjoy the ruins. Having said that, the standard 3-night / 4-day itinerary really gives you plenty of time to soak it all in.
What to expect

You’ll be hiking on a 500-year-old+ trail that’s wide enough for foot traffic in both directions. Granted, going down the steps can be treacherous sometimes, especially after it rains when the trail can turn into just another mountain stream. The first day is very relaxing as the terrain is level. The second day is grueling, as you’ll climb two passes, starting from inside a cloud forest up to snowy peaks; expect to hike more than ten miles. The third day is again fairly easy-I got to our camping site by lunchtime. And the fourth day, you’ll wake up when it’s still night and hike to the Sun Gate, where you’ll see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Simply spectacular.

Picking a tour

You can’t hike the Inca trail by yourself. Government regulations require you to pick a tour company, which will supply a guide, the tent, plenty of porters, and all the food you can eat. It’s a very good deal if you think about it, but expect to pay around $300 for a good tour. I’ve heard of one company that does it for $175, but you get what you paid for, which is a giant group of 25 hikers and little personal attention (and they treat the porters poorly). Recommended:

  • Llama Path (telephone: 50-0822)- I went with Llama Path, which was an amazing company that’s quite affordable. Ask for Dimas to be your guide-he knows everything about Peru and the Incas, and he comes with good stories.
  • Peru Treks (50-5863)-Locally owned
  • Aventours (22-4050)-Expensive, but good quality equipment and service
  • Andean Trek (617-924-1974)-Run by an American, with great guides

Not recommended:

  • SAS (25-5205)-Their group camped next to ours. They had something like 20 hikers with only a few more porters than in our group of 7. This is the most popular agency, but don’t fall for it!

How to get there

Fly or bus in to Cusco. Make sure you stay in Cusco for at least two or three days to get acclimated. Or get acclimated in neighboring Arequipa, which is what I recommend. Your tour company will arrange all transportation to and from Cusco.

See my gallery of the Inca trail and Machu Picchu here. I have galleries of Lake Titicaca, Lime and the Peruvian coast, the Sacred Valley, and canyon country up too.