I‘ve been off the grid for a bit. But for good reason. I just accomplished something mildly worth bragging about. I have hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu! To those vaguely familiar, the Inca Trail is 26 miles (43 kilometers) of rocks and stairs that connect several archaeological sites (i.e., ruins, settlements) that eventually lead to the city that was never actually lost. The 26-mile journey requires four days of hiking and three nights of camping.
Completing this trek is fresh in my memory, so I thought — no better than to write down my survival tips in the hopes that it may help you, dear reader, should you ever decided to embark on such a journey. These tips all assume that you’re hiking the classic Inca Trail route that starts at km 82 or 88 in Ollantaytambo, and that you’ve hired one of the many tour companies available.
1. If you’re not keen on backpacking (or would prefer to take it easy), hire a porter
When I originally booked this trip, I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing that this was an option but told myself I wasn’t going to do it. As this is a backpacking trip, it’s kinda sorta de rigueur to carry your items and not doing so seems lazy. However, the Inca Trail was clearly more than what I bargained for.
If you hire a porter to carry your extra items, tour companies charge you by weight. For example, 7 kg of stuff could be 40 soles per day. Please do your research beforehand on finding an Inca Trail tour company that treats their porters well. While there is a law that ensures that porters are not exploited (read more here), please do your research and be mindful when booking.
2. Bring muchos soles
Having cash on hand kind of sucks, but it’s a given. Traveling with an Inca Trail tour group means you’ll eventually need money to tip your guide and porters, and then there will be several places along the way to buy drinks and snacks. Oh, and you will often need to pay one sole to use whatever facilities that happen to be available. How much money you bring is up to you. We underestimated our monetary needs and were forced to borrow money from our fellow trekkers, promising to repay when reaching Aguas Calientes (assuming we weren’t dead before then). It was a little embarrassing at first, but everyone was bartering their items left and right.
I would bring at least 300 soles per person, which should take care of tipping your guide, cook, porters, plus any snacks or Gatorade on the trail. And yes, buying a Gatorade at 12,500-foot elevation is going to cost you a pretty centimo.
Save some soles for when you get to Machu Picchu.
Despite the gazillion out-of-towners that it attracts, there is not a single ATM in the place. Nowhere. While the restaurant thankfully allows you to pay with Visa, you will need soles to buy a bus ticket back to Aguas Calientes. True story — I actually lost those bus tickets. No problemo, I’ll just buy them again. But not so fast. After noticing the big sign emblazoned with solamente efectivo, I pleaded with the disinterested woman selling the bus tickets to point me in the direction of a cajero of any kind, to which she mockingly shook her head. I then ran helplessly to the restaurant where a kind server took pity. While he confirmed the bad news about the lack of ATM, he did walk me over to the closet-sized fancy gift shop and introduced me to a nice lady selling alpaca garments. This beautiful woman savior agreed to sell me soles at a 10% commission. I plopped down my Visa, thanked her in broken Spanish, and said a silent gracias to the Gods for not making me have to walk to Aguas Calientes.
3. Before leaving home, get a prescription for Diamox and Cipro
Unless you happen to live in Tibet, you will be gasping for air once you reach Cusco (around 11,000 feet elevation). However, don’t forget that Dead Women’s Pass (the highest point on the Inca Trail) reaches around 14,000 feet. Diamox (Acetazolamide) will help take the edge off. It is also available in pharmacies in Cusco if you happen to forget.
So that brings us to Cipro. As you may know, Cipro does well in alleviating Traveler’s Diarrhea. You DO NOT want to be afflicted with this while on the trail.
In essence, I was glad I had both of these on the trip because I sure very well used both of them! TMI.
So that brings me to #4.
4. Mentally prepare yourself for using the Inca Trail toilets
I have an unreasonable fear of bathrooms, but I don’t let that get me down. As such, I did plenty of research on the bathroom situation to the point of driving myself mad (Google: “bathrooms on the Inca Trail”). My conclusion? I would not use them under any foreseeable circumstance whatsoever.
I have no qualms about going to the bathroom in the bush. I actually prefer it. Being among the leaves and trees is very peaceful, and does wonders on your mental capacity when relieving oneself surrounded by such beauty. But with 500 people on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu each day, you can imagine how many folks have felt the same way. Whenever I found a choice place to throne, evidence told me that others beat me to it. Gross. I then found myself having to climb steep cliffs to find uncharted areas, only to discover that a donkey beat me to it. As you will see, those yucky toilets are put there for a reason.
While worse than outhouses, using the keyhole squat toilet is not impossible. There’s technique.
1. Roll up your pant legs and tuck your shoelaces in your shoes. You don’t want anything touching the floor. Take a deep breath before entering the stall
2. Make sure your toilet paper/wipes are easily accessible
3. Take a deep breath before entering the stall
4. Squat and aim, wipe and finish
5. As soon as you flush, jump backwards quickly. Flushing doesn’t exactly “flush.” It just floods the area with water. Eek!
5. Hand sanitizer for life!
I encountered one bathroom with a sink in Wallaybamba. Otherwise, there’s no running water anywhere on this hike. Be prepared to wash your hands in hand sanitizer for four days straight.
6. Take it easy on the papaya and cactus prickly pear
We were served a fair amount of papaya on our tour. Fresh, juicy, papaya that was oh so very refreshing. However, papaya is a laxative when consumed in large quantities. Trust me!
Conversely, cactus prickly pear has the opposite effect. This delicious fruit is readily available on parts of the trail.
Somehow, there must be the perfect amount of each fruit you need to eat to be regular.
When you find out, tell me.
7. Pack smart
Even though you decide to hire a porter to carry your bag, don’t go overboard. The trick is to think of efficiencies. Can you wear the same pair of pants for two days? What about socks?
8. Consider buying a few extra snacks to give to the porters
When a porter relieved us from our backpacks on the first day, we wanted to show our appreciation. Our guide suggested buying him a Coke, Gatorade, or even a Cusqueña. We called him over and asked him to pick whatever drink he wanted. He hesitantly chose a Gatorade. The humility of the porters never failed to tug at my heart. Witnessing their kindness was a highlight of this trip.
9. Say ¡hola! to every single porter who passes you on the Inca Trail
Even the ones who work for different tour groups. It’s fun and uplifts the spirits. You’ll start to recognize all of them all throughout the trip. I did this religiously for the entire trek and guess what — they always cheerfully said hola back, coupled with a smile! Even while carrying insanely big loads, these guys still maintained a friendly disposition. This tugged at my heart even more. All of my daily annoyances back home seemed to fade into oblivion.
So there you have it. Nine relatively easy steps to conquer the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Do you have any relatable experiences to share?