Ah, the Inca Trail.
It seems like only yesterday when I was dragging myself up Dead Woman’s Pass. This was when squat toilets were the norm, and quenching your thirst with warm water was a daily occurrence. Back then, it was perfectly reasonable to lose the feeling in your knees due to the ruthlessness of many stone steps. And rolling up your pant legs to use said squat toilets just so happened to be the latest fashion.
But after briefly remembering having to dodge llama poop on 15th-century grass-laden terraces, I take a step back, stretch and smile to myself. Yes, yours truly has completed the Inca Trail! Trip of a lifetime! Bucket list item number 104 crossed off the list!
What an unbelievable journey!
I completed the Inca Trail in April of this year (2016). Many people have been asking me about my recent experience, particularly from a planning perspective. But there’s a lot. When I was researching the Inca Trail, I had to do so from 84 sources. Literally. While there’s plenty of information out there, nothing was in the same place. I longed for someone who could not only share their personal experience with each step but also answer every single logistical question that I needed to know. Well, here I’m trying to become that person for you.
This post focuses on my experience planning for the Classic 4-Day Inca Trail route. I’m naturally far from perfect, so if you notice that edits are needed, please tell me so in the comments below!
What is the Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail is the most popular way to reach to Machu Picchu on foot. For hiking and tourism purposes, there is a 26 mile (43 kilometers) section of the Inca Trail deemed the “Classic” Inca Trail.
The Classic Inca Trail follows the most beautiful section of the entire route and passes by several untouched settlements and ruins. Hiking the trail passes through the Andes, climbs over two mountain passes, and descends from alpine areas through cloud forests, eventually reaching temperate rainforests. Though there are other treks to reach Machu Picchu on foot, this is the one that everyone and their mother aspire to do.
The Classic Inca Trail starts at Kilometer 82 in Ollantaytambo and takes four days to hike. If you’re not keen on that, you can also see part of the trail on a 2-day trek which starts from Kilometer 104. The Kilometer references the distance from Cusco via the train track. So, Kilometer 82 is 82 kilometers away from Cusco, and so forth.
Note: Contrary to popular belief, the Inca Trail is not the only original Incan path in existence. They built several trails all over Western South America, back when the Inca Empire extended well past Cusco and Peru. Alternate treks are the Salkantay and Lares Trek, which can also reach Machu Picchu.
Best time to go
There are two seasons on the Inca Trail: wet and dry. The dry season runs from mid-April to August and the wet season spans from October to March. Each year, the Inca Trail is closed for the entire month of February for maintenance and conservation efforts.
I’m a fan of shoulder season visiting. My tour started on March 31, and we began hiking on April 3. I was still able to take advantage of off-season prices and had a higher probability of seeing good weather. You could do the same thing in September. I would recommend using the same tactic if you’re flexible with your dates.
If you’re planning on visiting during the high (dry) season, please plan to book six months out.
Booking with a tour company
I’m not a tour person. However, booking a tour is necessary for hiking the Inca Trail due to a combination of factors. For example, the Peruvian government regulates the Inca Trail permits and only allows 500 people on the trail at any given time. For this reason, booking a tour becomes an invaluable resource for trekkers, as tour companies coordinate all the logistics behind securing permits. Another reason is that tourism is a huge part of the economy in Cusco, and tour companies can employ several people, including porters. That’s not a bad thing, right?
Choosing a tour company
My entire selection process began when I discovered theclymb.com, one of the best sites for impulse buying for people with wanderlust tendencies. The site specializes in discount outdoor gear and has amazing deals on adventure travel packages. Purchasing an adventure travel package on theclymb.com is similar to other discount travel sites in which a certain deal is live for a certain amount of time.
On one lonely evening, I spotted a deal for a 7-day Inca Trail tour with Valencia Travel Cusco for about $1200 including airfare ($850 without). This tour included the 4-Day Classic Inca Trail, some optional city tours plus hotel accommodation and transfers in Cusco.
Before booking, I did tons of research on blogs, TripAdvisor and other review sites, YouTube, and asked around. Since tour companies employ porters to carry equipment, one of the things I wanted to make sure was that Valencia Travel Cusco isn’t shady. I’ve heard horror stories about the mistreatment of porters and Sherpas, so I wanted to do my due diligence in making sure they were legit.
At the start of our hike, I noticed that Valencia’s porters all had sturdy boots, back braces, appropriate weather gear, and full plates of high energy food. I didn’t see their sleeping arrangements, but I assumed they were fine. The Porters Law enacted by the government protects porters from mistreatment. I met a few other trekkers from different tours, and they had similar observations with their groups.
It’s worth noting that your search doesn’t have to be limited to a 7-day tour. Many companies have options to book just the 4-day Classic Inca Trail which can be a good option for people who don’t need Cusco accommodation, nor other extras.
Another thing, if you spot a tour that is incredibly cheap, take warning. It may mean that the company doesn’t pay their porters well.
I had a good experience with Valencia Travel Cusco. However, there are other great companies out there, so check out TripAdvisor for some ideas.
If you book a tour package that doesn’t include airfare, you’ll want to read this next section. I purchased my tour without airfare since I was planning on extending my trip.
Booking a flight to Cusco isn’t at all difficult, but there are some things to keep in mind. Note that there aren’t any direct international flights to Cusco. You will need to connect from a major hub, most likely in Lima.
Flights to Cusco from Lima are notoriously unpredictable, mostly due to the weather and flight patterns (you need to fly over the mountains). You know those ethereally misty clouds that drape over the Andes? While they add to the allure and beauty of the place, the clouds are famously capable of messing up travel itineraries. Add to that, landing in Cusco requires a “fly direct” approach, meaning, the pilot must land the plane by sight alone. As such, there is some likelihood that incoming planes will need to abort and head back to Lima.
Consequently, flights are frequently delayed or canceled altogether which increases the chance for luggage loss.
So, booking my flight to Cusco was rather tricky. To quell my luggage loss paranoia, instead of booking a round trip ticket from Los Angeles to Cusco, I booked a round trip to Lima and a 2nd round trip ticket from Lima to Cusco. Both flights were direct fares.
Sounds weird, right? Here was my rationale.
When Lima is my final destination at the start of my trip, it means that my luggage doesn’t need transferring. I can pick up my luggage in Lima and promptly recheck it for my flight to Cusco. The same rationale applies for my return flight home.
If you decide to follow the same, you MUST make sure you allow enough time between flights in case of customs or if your outgoing flight is late. I gave myself four hours between my initial arrival to Lima and my departure to Cusco.
Cusco is at 11,152-feet (3,399 meters) in elevation. Though Machu Picchu is only at 7,972 feet (2,430 meters), Inca Trail trekkers will cross Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,828 feet (4,215 meters) to reach it. For a person living at sea level such as yours truly, it seems nuts to be able to function properly at that elevation. Altitude sickness is a major concern. How do you prevent this, or, at the very least, ensure that you don’t die?
The best thing to do for acclimatization is two things
First, ask your doctor to write a prescription for Diamox (Acetazolamide). This nifty drug helps combat altitude sickness. Second, arrive in Cusco early enough to acclimate. By early, let’s say at least three days. From there, you can choose to tough it out in Cusco, or make haste to the Sacred Valley.
Note: my tour built in one day to acclimatize as part of the 7-day package. Unless you are a beast, this is NOT enough time!
The Sacred Valley sits just shy of 10,000 feet. During these three days, you will kick back, lay low, and not push yourself physically. You shall drink plenty of water and refrain from alcohol. You shall not gorge on empanadas, but instead, eat light and healthy.
I spent five days in Huarocondo ( a small town near the Sacred Valley), which sits at 10,928 feet. Over five days, I found myself huffing and puffing up the slightest incline. But it got better. After the first day, I was able to do some light sightseeing. I eventually worked up to full day of activities and even a day hike before returning to Cusco.
Note that if you’re unable to get a prescription for Diamox before leaving home, you can easily buy it in Peru. And no, this is not on the black market. Any pharmacy should carry it. You can even buy single tablets.
Tours typically provide an oxygen bottle (carried by the guide). Just find out in advance.
“And if all else fails, more coca leaves.”
Physical preparation/Do I need to train?/I’m a fit enough?
Whenever I give the short answer to this question, no one believes me. So here’s a back story that has a point, I promise.
I’m a pretty avid hiker, but I admit, I didn’t train for the Inca Trail. In fact, I did the exact opposite. After holiday season was up, I spent the majority of January-March sitting on my ass eating ice cream. I subsequently gained about 7 pounds. If my ass, 7 lbs heavier, managed to make it, so can yours!
Any reasonably fit person can complete the Inca Trail. And because you’re planning on doing it, I’m willing to bet that you’re already reasonably fit, or plan to be. The hiking is strenuous, but remember it’s not a race. Tour company guides and porters are very supportive and motivating. Porters are available to help carry your loads if needed.
If you feel you must train, know this. There is no substitute for training for a hike than to hike. Cardio while hiking is different than cardio on the treadmill or stationary bike. When hiking, you’re doing cardio while skipping over rocks, uneven terrain, shifting elevation, all potentially through inclement weather. Smooth surfaced treadmills don’t offer the same experience, and neither does Zumba. Sorry Zumba.
It’s also worth noting that the Inca Trail is mostly rock stairs, which can be 12-18’’ high, uneven, and will go on forever. In fact, there is one segment of the hike dubbed “the Gringo Killer” which involves descending 1000 meters via 2000 steps.
Peru doesn’t have any mandatory vaccines. However, it’s not a bad idea to check with your doctor first.
I called Kaiser’s Travel Clinic, and they recommended Typhoid and Hepatitis vaccines.
In addition to Diamox (mentioned above in Acclimatization), Kaiser’s Travel Clinic wrote me a prescription for Cipro. Cipro is an antibiotic used to treat traveler’s diarrhea and taken “as needed.”
I ended up using the entire bottle.
Booking Huayna Picchu
Huayna Picchu is the tall pointy mountain in the backdrop of Machu Picchu. It rises 1,180 feet above, allowing you to look down on the city like the high priests or local virgins in their day.
Since I was already journeying to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail, I figured, why not cap off the experience by looking down on Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu? Not as easy as it sounds.
As it turns out, climbing Huayna Picchu is just as regulated as the Inca Trail. Only 400 people are allowed permits on each day, and you need to secure your permit at least three months in advance.
Tickets for Huayna Picchu are typically not included in the Classic 4-Day Inca Trail Hiking tours. The reason is, there is limited time and guides want to focus on showing you Machu Picchu on ground level.
I was a bit disappointed at first, but in the end, I was glad we hadn’t purchased tickets. After schlepping all the way to Machu Picchu, I was in a stupor. My knees (still wobbly from the Gringo Killer) were so ineffective that I could barely crawl my way around Machu Picchu as it was. Our guide rushed us around for a 2-hour tour, and that was it. We needed to be on the train back to Ollantaytambo that afternoon. There would’ve been no time to climb Huayna Picchu whatsoever.
In hindsight, the only conceivable way to fit in Huayna Picchu would’ve been to abandon the tour in Machu Picchu and stay the night in Aguas Calientes.
Note: There is a 5-day Inca Trail option available with some tour companies. This option allows an extra night camping. But instead of reaching Machu Picchu in the early morning, you reach it in the afternoon. You then return to Machu Picchu the next day for the full experience. I’m not 100% sure if Huanya Picchu is more feasible in this regard, but it’s worth checking.
Hopefully, this post has answered your questions about planning for the Inca Trail! And as mentioned above, if anything should be added or edited, please let me know in the comments below!