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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.
Fly into Cuzco, Peru. This is where tour companies leave from, and where you'll have your orientation the night before the trek.
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.
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.
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.
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]