The Inca Trail is a breathtaking 26 mile stone path that once extended from Cusco to Machu Picchu. This 4 day pilgrimage begins in the highlands of the Andes at roughly 8,959 feet and ends in a sub-tropical cloud forest after what feels like the journey Frodo takes in the 3rd Lord of the Rings, except there’s 5 times more stairs, and no monsters.
Nothing quite compares to the sense of accomplishment when you reach the prize at the end, and the sense of wonder as the sun first dissipates the clouds and cast its light on the ancient Lost City of the Inca. It is nothing short of magical.
While the endless stories behind the ruins you pass and stunning scenery make this an adventure of a lifetime, there are several things you must know before you go. After completing this trek, here are the top 10 things I think you should consider prior to taking on this challenge.
1. Get in Shape for the Hike
The arduous journey requires stamina, balance, perseverance and mental fortitude. If you’re unable to climb stairs for 4 + hour stretches, you may want to opt for the easy route and just take the train. While thousands make the trek each year (limited to only 500 per day, including porters and guides), don’t make the mistake of underestimating the challenge found along the trail. On day one, we passed a group that appeared to be ill-equipped as they had already decided to turn back and give up. If you traveled all that way and spent the money on a guide, trail passes and porters, then you want to make sure you’re as prepared as possible so that you can really enjoy the stunning scenery and ancient stories found along the way.
2. Inca Flat
Compared to the elevation gains ahead, the first day is a reasonably easy 6.8 miles. Our guide and travel materials basically described it as flat, but discovered almost immediately that this was not the case. After crossing the bridge at the start of the Inca Trail, you immediately climb your first hill of stairs and begin your ascent into the wonder of the Andes. Day 1 is not flat as we know it, it’s ‘Inca Flat’. After the 3 hour bus ride from Cusco, you spend the first day acclimatizing and technically gaining no elevation from the start of the trek to campsite number 1 at Llactapata. You go up and downhill all day making the start an exhausting undertaking.
After the incredible challenge of day 2 (called the ‘gringo-killer’ by the locals), a relaxing hike in a subtropical cloud forest is just what day 3 ordered. Imagine my frustration at the travel books for describing day 3 as ‘Downhill!’ when the morning began with 1,338 stairs (yes, I counted). Even our guide said we’d have 100 stairs up from the valley of Pacamayo campsite to the first set of ruins at Runkuracay…it was actually 525 stairs. The guides had a tendency to make the trek ahead sound easier than it was.
3. Walking Sticks are Magic Wands
At the small town near the Inca Trail entrance, you’ll have the chance to stock up on snacks, coca leaves, water and other necessary equipment. Before you head off the trail, be sure to buy a wooden walking stick for 3 nuevo soles. When you arrive at Machu Picchu, you will have to leave it behind, but is a much smarter purchase than the metal walking sticks which cost 10 times more.
After about 30 minutes of walking up or down the thousands of stairs along your path, you’ll be grateful to have your magic wand allowing you to more easily and safely find your footing and evenly distribute your weight.
4. People Make The Difference
You must hike the Inca Trail with a guide. Since you must use a licensed tour operator, one accredited by SERNANP, the org that oversees the trail, you might as well ensure you pick the best! I felt truly lucky to have had an amazing guide with Victor from Peru Treks and Adventure (in partnership with Erik’s Adventures)
Victor had an all-star staff with him. The porters and chef carried all supplies on their backs ahead of us, set up camp and created culinary feasts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food we had along the trail (quinoa porridge and fresh blueberries, delicious omelets, chicken soup, gourmet risotto dishes, etc.) was some of the best camp food we’ve ever had, as well as rich in protein and energy inducing nutrients.
You will also be spending hours with the people in your group. You’ll sleep in tents next to each other, eat every meal together, and really have a chance to bond. If you do the hike with well prepared, good-hearted, enjoyable people, it will make all the difference when you hit those physical or emotional walls you encounter along the journey.
5. Porters are Angels
The Peruvian men who make a career as Inca Trail porters are incredibly professional, athletic wonder-beings. You should pack as light as possible for your trip (ours lasted another week after we arrived to Machu Picchu, so doing laundry after the hike was necessary), and hire a porter to lighten your load. It’s worth every penny to have 20 less lbs on your back when you’re on your third hour of climbing stairs.
You will need to make sure you let your tour operator know if you want a porter, as they need to get a pass for the trail too. Often, porters can be hired the morning you leave at the town, however it is best to plan ahead.
6. Coca Leaves are Your Friend
Coca leaves have long been chewed by Peruvians and are a great help with the high altitude – obviously you’ll want to do whatever the porters are doing to ease the journey. Coca leaves are a mild stimulant, and an appetite, pain, and hunger suppressant. In town, you can buy a bag for yourself for 1 sole, and chew on pinches of 15 or so leaves throughout the day, or simply start your mornings off with coca tea (which tastes similar to green tea).
7. Enjoy all the comforts of camping
Along the trail, bathrooms are a rare sight, and while they could be a lot worse I imagine most choose to use the great outdoors. The bathrooms are nothing more than porcelain ground holes, so get good at squatting, and the campsites will have sinks for you to wash your hands, just be sure to bring your own soap.
Be sure to bring plenty of biodegradable toilet paper so you don’t need to carry used tp with you. You’ll also find it handy to have plenty of baby wipes since shower facilities are also lacking from the Inca Trail. You discover a new level of intimacy with your spouse when you’re baby wipe bathing over several days.
Other gear you’ll want to bring: Camping Towel, hand sanitizer, head lamp, Vaseline to apply on feet to avoid blisters, a great camera and layer of clothes for all the climate zones your pass through along your altitude assent and dissent.
8. Bring Cash
The are many farms and small houses along the Inca Trail. At almost all of them, you’ll be able to buy snacks and drinks such as Gatorade and water, both with or without carbonation, but only if you have cash. Throughout the days, you’ll need extra fuel and plenty of water to complete the hike. Once you reach day 2, your cooking and porter staff will boil water from nearby streams in order to fill your water bottles.
You also need to take good care of your guide, the porters and fantastic chef at the end of your journey, so be sure to bring plenty of nuevo soles so that you can show your appreciation for all they do to help you arrive safely at Machu Picchu.
9. It will Rain Even If it’s the Dry Season
The legendary Inca Trail takes you through the diverse wilderness of Peru and several different climate zones, ranging from Andean plain to cloud forests. As you ascend up all the weather-beaten stairs, reaching higher and higher into the foggy abyss, you are likely to encounter rain, so make sure have a poncho or Gortex shell as the trail is more fun if you’re dry. Good hiking shoes will help you stick your footing when the steps get slippery.
10. It’s More Beautiful Than You Can Imagine
“To travel is better than to arrive” would mean endless truths to anyone who has completed the Inca Trail. For me, the joy of reaching the grand finale was overshadowed with slight sadness of reaching the goal. It’s over, the journey of a lifetime, and the postcard-perfect scenery along its path. Enjoy every strenuous moment as the natural beauty and historical wonder found along the path will never be matched elsewhere.