What You Need To Know To Successfully Hike The Inca Trail

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.

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.

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.

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]

Exploring The Culture And History Of Peru Through Food

While not widely known as a food destination, Peru is one of my all-time favorite countries for delicious cuisine. Not only is eating out in the country extremely affordable, the dishes are often influenced by other cultures and time periods. Moreover, Peru’s unique landscape of coast and Andes Mountains allows for fresh ingredients and delicious food staples – like potatoes, corn and quinoa – to be used in a variety of ways.

Dining Tips:

  • Eat at local restaurants, and take advantage of their set menus. You’ll usually get a soup, entree, juice and sometimes a desert for less than $3.
  • Don’t drink the tap water.
  • The sauce that is usually put on the table is aji, and is spicy. Try it before pouring it all over your food.
  • If you get the chance to eat in a local’s home, take it. This is how you’ll really get to learn about the culture through food. You can do a homestay, or take a tour that includes a lunch in a home, like Urban Adventures’ Sacred Valley Tour in Cuzco, Peru.
  • While tipping isn’t expected – except for 10 percent in very upscale venues – it is appreciated.

For a better idea of cuisine in Peru, check out the gallery below.


10 Things To Do In Cuzco, Peru, That Don’t Involve Visiting Inca Ruins

When visiting Cuzco, Peru, you will be overwhelmed by the amount of tourism agencies and street vendors selling tours to Machu Picchu, Moray, Ollantaytambo, Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Puca Pucara, Templo de la Luna and the various other Inca ruins. While seeing these sites is an important part of the culture and getting to know the area, there are days you may want to do something different. Here were some of the things I enjoyed doing when in Cuzco that didn’t involve Inca ruins.

Explore Pisaq Market

Pisaq Market (shown right) sells handicrafts, jewelry, minerals, herbs, spices and local foods and is the biggest market in Cuzco. Sunday is the best time to go, when locals from hours away come to attend church and buy and sell goods. This is also when you can see locals dressed in traditional clothing from the church procession that takes place in the town. Even if you don’t buy anything it’s a good way to learn about the local way of life, get a taste of how herbal medicine works, see how paints and dyes are made using natural minerals and sample the various local foods. Make sure to try the choclo con queso, a regional strain of corn on the cob topped with cheese and chili sauce.

For something closer to the downtown area of Cuzco, you can also visit the San Pedro Central Market located on Santa Clara near the Church and Monastery of Santa Clara. The market is enormous and sells an array of traditional and offbeat items. You can purchase handicrafts, beauty products, fresh fruits, ornate flans, sweet breads, traditional llama fetuses, colorful masks and even hallucinogens.Get A Massage

Walking around the streets of Cuzco, you’ll be bombarded by hundreds of people selling massages and spa treatments. While most will sell these at 30 to 50 Nuevo Soles (about $11 to $19), I found an excellent place called Spa Hampi Maki at 250 Marquez Street, on the 2nd floor of the “Artesanias El Solar Dorado” building. They gave me a 60-minute full-body massage with hot stones for 15 S/.$ (about $6). It was very relaxing with a dark, private room, gentle music and comfortable table.

Indulge Your Sweet Tooth At The Chocolate Museum

While you’ll find plenty of worthwhile Inca and history museums in Cuzco, one that stands out from the rest is the Chocolate Museum, officially called the ChocoMuseo. The museum is free to enter and features chocolate and cocao history, facts, old advertisements, videos, tastings, workshops and the chance to make your own chocolate. They also offer a Cacao Farm Tour. Moreover, the chance to indulge in delicious chocolate delicacies, like cacao tea, fondue, iced chocolate and a chocolate tasting with Peruvian coffee, can be done in their cafe. Note: The museum is a bit hard to find. It’s located at 210 Garcilaso, on the 2nd floor. Simply walk through a small hallway into an open courtyard to find the stairs leading up to the entrance.

Take A Cooking Class

What better way to get to know a culture than through food? Cusco Cooking offers Peruvian cooking classes where you not only learn how to make traditional dishes, but also how to navigate the markets and create cocktails. Some of the meals you’ll make include crema de choclo, a corn-based soup, arroz con pollo, chicken and rice, lomo saltado, a spiced and marinated beef dish and Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru. You can choose between three menu choices. The classes take place in the ChocoMuseo at 210 Garcilaso everyday at 5:30 p.m. Prices range from $33 to $42 per person, depending on the size of the class.

Lie Out In Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas is a big plaza in the downtown area with numerous small gardens, benches and statues. Numerous churches and shops with charming stone architecture surround it, which adds to the aesthetics of the area. The ambiance is charming and peaceful – the perfect place to relax and lie out with a good book.

Explore The Art Of Cuzco

Walking around the city, you’ll find numerous galleries that are free to enter. Here, you’ll find cultural pieces, many of which also incorporate Inca traditions. The works are amazing, with vibrant colors, life-like portraits and landscapes that seem to jump off the page. My favorite galleries were in a building called the Centro Artesanal Arte Inka, located at 392 Triunfo, near Plaza de Armas.

Hike To Cristo Blanco

While you’ll need to pay 70 Soles (about $26) to enter the archeological sites nearby, it is free to hike to Cristo Blanco. It’s located to the right of the admission booth for Sacsayhuaman. Trek 11,811 feet up Pukamoqo Hill, and you’ll come face-to-face with an enormous statue of Christ. The piece was a donation in 1945 from the Christian Palestines who were living in Cuzco as refugees. At night, you can see Cristo Blanco all lit up from the downtown area of the city.

Get Religious At One Of The Town’s Places Of Worship

Cuzco is full of beautiful churches, cathedrals and convents. Near Plaza de Armas is the Cathedral, La Compañia de Jesus, the Convento de la Merced and the Church and Monastary of Santa Clara. Moreover, next to the Parque de la Madre, you’ll find the Church and Monastary of Santa Teresa. My favorite, however, was the Templo de Santo Domingo, with a beautiful manicured lawn and expansive facade, located on the corner of Avenida El Sol and Arryan.

Visit a family In Chichubamba

Chichubamba is a small village in Sacred Valley that is home to 14 families, each of whom have a special talent that you can learn about and experience. When I was there I visited Celia, a woman who makes chicha, or corn beer. I learned about the production process and got to play a local drinking game, where players toss heavy coins into the mouth of a metal frog. Moreover, I visited a family of ceramics makers, and saw how high-quality pottery was made, even getting to roll the clay, create the base and paint a pot myself.

Experience The Nightlife

Cuzco has many options for bars and clubs. The best part: it’s easy to get a buzz on a budget, as a full-priced cocktail will only set you back about $4 to $6. Paddy’s Pub is a lively Irish bar with a great happy hour, although you’re more likely to find Pisco Sours and Cuba Libres on the menu than Magners. However, they do have Guinness. If you want to experience the best club in town, Mama Africa is a favorite among tourists and locals. Other popular bars and clubs include Real McCoy, 7 Angelitos, Groove, Mythology and The Frogs.

Tips for navigating the markets of Cuzco, Peru

Perched sovereignly at 11,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian mountains, Cuzco evokes the architecture of Europe and the tough ambiance of South America. There’s haphazard street art that references Pacha Mama, the Inca shout-out to Mother Earth. There are gilded churches that make their homes on top of ancient stone foundations. There’s also a lot of shopping. And if you’re the kind of person who likes shiny jewelry, mosaic mirrors and knit scarves, you’ll be attracted by the markets, too. Before plunking down a sole or two, however, it helps to fill your head with the overwhelming knowledge of bargains, bartering and the cultural basics. So we’ve put together this intrepid guide for any making the trip.

Everyone wants to emerge from Peru draped in the softness of alpaca fur, and for good reason. The fuzzy stuff that grows on these guys is among the rarest textiles in the entire world. When you reach the stalls, though, don’t fall for any old luxurious fur. While the merchant might swear to the authenticity of a scarf, sweater, or pair of socks, very few items you’ll find in a market actually are 100% alpaca. With tighter and more densely woven textiles, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with an alpaca mix. And those items that claim to be “100% bebe?” Not actually woven from (or by) baby alpacas. “Bebe” refers to the first sheer of the animal, or the seasonally virgin hairs from the area around the neck of the animal, thought to be one of the softest spots. Products made from these materials are still stellar, but it helps to know what you’re getting when you approach the bargaining table.

Nothing dazzles in a Peruvian market quite like the shimmering displays of gold, silver and copper, and all three are fantastic gifts to bring back from Cuzco. With the God of Exchange Rates smiling down on you, you can get amazing deals on rings, necklaces and other pieces of jewelry, particularly of the silver persuasion, to bring home and dazzle your buddies. When looking through silver jewelry, keep an eye out for a #925 stamp. That little number stands for the percentage of silver, 92.5%, and is actually the calling card of sterling silver, which is pure silver mixed a few alloying metals. This stamp could be the difference between 100 soles or 50, but if you’re still not convinced your score is worth the price, the old flame-under-the-ring trick can solve your dilemma.Of course, even with all of those dazzling jewels, you may be tempted to just grab a shot glass for your growing collection, and a llama glass would look epic against a row of shimmering Vegas-themed counterparts, but there are a few items you can’t leave Cuzco without looking for. If you’re stuck for ideas, start with carved items, like home goods made from gourds, or even pan flutes. If you fancy yourself a fashionista you can find bright, edgy textiles in Incan patterns etched onto high top sneakers and tote bags. You’re also sure to come across a few stands where artists are patiently drawing on sheets of canvas and pinning them to the walls of their modest kiosks. Besides being gorgeous, these gifts are a great way to give back to the locals, and they can be bought rolled up for easy transport.

Part of the fun of shopping in other countries is the barter and Peru is no exception. But keep in mind the type of good you’re up against before you ask the merchant to take half-off. Handmade items (think: anything carved, woven or painted) take time and care to make, and if you think the seller would rather take a massive hit than let a sale walk away, you’ll be flying home without a souvenir. Start just a few soles away from what you’re willing to pay and meet the merchant half-way. Oh, and while you’re bartering and perusing, be careful not to walk out of one kiosk, where you’ve built a relationship with the staff, and into another. With similar wares and squished spaces, you might find yourself paying for an item at a completely different price than the one you already agreed on.

Finally, take time to sit and take it all in – and take it easy. Altitude sickness is no joke. It can take you from happy to pukey in just minutes. Combat illness, at least temporarily, by taking a break from rampant consumerism with the milky looking tea made from coca leaves. It’s a staple in Cuzco and a great treat to replenish your energy after a day at the shops. You can purchase the leaves to bring home, but check with your local air authorities before marching into customs with a full baggie of coca leaves.

Tips for traveling Cuzco, Peru, on a budget

When traveling in Cuzco, Peru, it can be easy to spend more money than you budgeted for, especially with the myriad tour agencies offering treks and sightseeing adventures as well as the many restaurants offering overpriced comfort food. Luckily, there are still ways to save money on food, activities, and accommodation while traveling through this popular city.

Eating on a Budget

One thing to remember is that while you may be drawn to the big, touristy eateries because they are familiar and comfortable, you are going to end up paying the price. Look around a bit and you’ll see that there are plenty of smaller restaurants that can give you delicious food at a budget-friendly price. For example, in their blog Jack and Jill Travel the World, the bloggers talk about how a lunch at Jack’s Cafe, a popular tourist restaurant, will cost about 20 soles, while at the eatery right next door patrons can order a soup, a main course, and a drink for only 5 soles.

Some other venues to try if you are eating on a budget in Cuzco, Peru:

  • The market- About a ten minute walk from Plaza de Armas, you can fill up on an array of foods here without spending much money. For instance, an egg sandwich will cost about 1.20 soles, while a meal of rice and fish will be about 3 soles.
  • Prasada– This ambient vegetarian eatery is located in San Blas, Cuzco, and serves delicious fare and decent portions at a cheap price. Some menu items include vegetarian tacos for 5 soles, pizza for 3.50 soles, and lasagna for 5 soles.
  • Chifa StatusChifa is a word used to describe a fusion style of food that mixes creole Limean food with Chinese-style cuisine. Some examples of chifa-style fare include wontons, fried rice, and noodles, which often include different types of meat. At Chifa Status, which is located near El Mega Supermarket on Av. de la Cultura, you can get delicious chifa dishes for 2-3 soles.
  • Kukuly– Located on Calle Waynapata 318, this cozy little eatery offers a daily set menu of soup, a meal, and a drink for 6 soles.
  • El Encuentro– This vegetarian restaurant is located at Santa Catalina Ancha 384 in the Plaza de Armas and serves a set menu that includes a make-your-own salad bar, soup, an entree (usually a stew or bean dish), and tea, all for 7 soles.

Cheap Activities in Cuzco, Peru

While there will obviously be some worthy activities that will be expensive, for example, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, there are still many fun things to do in Cuzco that will not cost a fortune. Here are some examples:

  • Visit the colorful salt pans of Maras and the ruins in Moray– Maras is located about 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) north of Cuzco and is located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The salt pans have been used since pre-Incan times to extract salt from the local subterranean stream. Moray is an archeological site located about 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) northwest of Cuzco. Here you can see unique Incan ruins that form terraced, circular depressions in the Earth. You can visit these sites by doing a day tour, which will cost about 20 soles for transportation, 5 soles for admission to Maras, and 10 soles for admission to Moray.
  • Learn to salsa dance- If you are looking for a free and fun activity, many bars around Plaza de Armas can offer free salsa lessons to anyone interested. However, if you are serious about learning salsa and want a truly quality lesson for a reasonable price, Salseros Cusco on Colla Calle offers group lessons for 1 hour each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with class times varying by skill level. Classes cost 10 soles.
  • Take a day trip to Ollantaytambo– Know as the “living Inca city”, Ollantaytambo is located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and is a modern day city as well as a pre-Incan site. There are many things to see here, such as impressive ruins, the Temple of the Sun, the Lagoon of Yanacocha, the rural community of Willoc, and much more. If you’re into the active outdoors, you can hike up the pre-Incan granaries (across from the town’s main ruins) for a complimentary view of the city.
  • Learn about Chocolate at the ChocoMuseo– Located in the Plaza Regocijo, you will not only learn about chocolate itself and the production process, but also its history since the Maya were around 1,000 years ago. You can enjoy free chocolate samples, participate in chocolate workshops where you make your own chocolate, and visit a cacao planation and talk to the farmers who work there. Admission to the museum is free.
  • Browse the Sunday market in Chincero- If you’re looking for a more traditional market, this one is a lot less touristy than the market in Pisac. From 9AM until just after midday, you can come here to buy local produce and handicrafts. If you still want to shop later on in the day, from 4PM until 5:30PM the town also hosts a market catered to tourists in the city’s main plaza located right near the church.

Cheap Accommodation in Cuzco

The following hostels all offer rooms for under 20 soles and come with high overall ratings on hostelbookers.com:

  • Ecopackers– With a 92.8% rating, this accommodation offers both shared and private rooms (although a private room will cost you about 43 soles, which is still very inexpensive). Luggage room, linen, and breakfast are included, internet is available, and there is a game room and 24-hour reception.
  • The Point Cusco– Rated at 90.2% with 6, 8, and 12 bed dorms available (there is also a 6 dorm room with an ensuite bathroom). Luggage room, linen, and breakfast are included, and if you need airport pickup this can be arranged for 20.40 soles. Services at this hostel include internet, 24-hour reception, a bar, restaurant, lockers, game room, lounge area, tours desk, and currency exchange. Credit cards are accepted.
  • Backpacker Bright Hostel– This hostel comes with an 83.1% rating and includes shared and private accommodation (private will be about 31 soles). Expect free luggage room and linen, as well as an on-site restaurant, tour desk, lockers, and 24-hour reception.
  • Wild Rover Backpackers Hostel– This hostel comes with a 90.9% rating and features free luggage room, breakfast, and linen. Other facilities include a bar, restaurant, tours desk, lockers, lounge, pool tables, and 24-hour reception. Dorms range from 4 to 14 person dorms, many of which include an ensuite bathroom.
  • Dream Hostel– Rated at 81.3%, shared and private accommodation are available (private will be about 30 soles). This hostel includes free luggage room, breakfast, linen, and towels. Other features of the hostel include a bar, restaurant, lounge area, car park, tours desk, 24-hour reception, internet, washing machines, and lockers.