I hope this doesn’t sound overly dramatic, but there are many important and not so obvious things you should know before attempting to hike the Inca Trail, which was one of the toughest and most awesome things I’ve ever done! I did tons of research prior, therefore I can share all that great information!
First you have to fly to Cusco, most likely via Lima. LATAM airlines, Avianca, American and JetBlue all fly there.
You must hike the Inca Trail with a licensed tour operator. Permits can sell out six months ahead of time since only 200 tourists are permitted on the trail at any given time. The high season is May to October.
I used SAS Travel and was happy with this company. They have many options but I chose the Classic Inca Trail Hike with tours of Cusco and Sacred Valley. There were a few administrative issues pre-hike, but the guides, support staff and the food were incredible. With any tour operator you must read the fine print regarding cancellations, what is included and not included. A tent was included, but sleeping mats, sleeping bags, and hiking poles you had to rent or bring your own.
Our guide Rogelio and assistant guide Davis were excellent. In our group there were 15 tourists and 21 staff members including a chef, sous chef, waiter, camp manager, chef for the porters, and many porters.
Most of us opted to pay $60-$80 more for a porter to carry an additional 6-8 kg of stuff. THIS IS WELL WORTH IT! You will marvel at how these fit Andean Peruvians literally run up and down the trail with huge packs on their back.
This is the one and only Rogelio, aka “Roho”.
If you can’t hike the Inca Trail, you can take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes then the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. You don’t need a special permit to do this. The bus roundtrip to Machu Picchu is $48 dollars and you must show your passport. Also, the line for the bus can be two hours long!
As for the train, you should purchase tickets ahead of time. Train tickets range between $60 to $90 EACH WAY depending the time and type of train. The fancy train is called the Vistadome. If you buy first class tickets you will be served a light meal. They even have music and a fashion show on the train (then aggressively sell you things).
You must have tickets to Machu Picchu ahead of time. You can either buy them in Cusco or online. The Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Cusco City and the Machu Picchu Cultural Center in Aguas Calientes both sell tickets. This is not a sure bet, however. Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can only officially issue 2,500 entrance tickets to Machu Picchu each day. During the peak season of June to September they often sell out. They are $45 USD.
If you just want to get this stress out of the way you can buy online. Third party ticket vendors may charge up to double, hence it’s better to use the official government site. http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe
Hiking Huanya Picchu (that mountain peak you see in all the Machu Picchu pictures) is an option, however it is limited. They only allow 400 people per day to do this in divided groups. Sadly, I missed out on this because of food poisoning.
What is it like to hike the Inca Trail you ask?
In Cusco we stayed at the Hotel Marqueses. It was included in the SAS tour but prices are reasonable, the location is perfect and the hotel is beautiful with very nice staff.
You will be camping as you hike the Inca Trail. If you opt to spend the night at Machu Picchu and hike Huanya Picchu the next day you can stay in nearby Aguas Calientes, which has mostly small hotels and hostels and is not known for its fine accommodations. I sadly cannot recommend anything since nobody was happy with their hotels.
There is only one hotel right in Machu Picchu called Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. It is 5 stars and expensive but if you feel like a splurge, this would be the place and you will deserve it after all that hiking and camping.
Being prepared for a trek such as the Inca Trail is integral to your experience.
This is perhaps the most important item and worth investing in. These don’t require “breaking in”, are waterproof and breathable and very comfortable. I didn’t have ankle pain or blisters. They come in other colors then the pic below. Highly recommend!
I learned a lot about backpacks on this trip! I’m a small person and a 18-25 L backpack was just big enough. My water bladder was only 1.5L , but it worked for me. I drank approximately 3L or more per day. At meals additional fluids are provided in the morning and also at night. In addition, the porters filled our bladders with freshly boiled clean water.
Things to consider:
I recommend going to your nearest outdoorsy store and finding someone who knows their stuff and try them on. Here are a few examples of ones that would work for a few days of trekking,
I prefer light weight jacket such as the NorthFace Resolve jacket. It has many nice features, also is comfortable, well-made and comes in many colors. Some hikers opted for a poncho, which you can purchase very cheaply immediately before your hike at the starting point. This covers you AND your backpack.
The pants that convert to shorts are really not a great idea here because of bugs. Something that dries fast and water repellant is perfect. I used the Patagonia Quandary Pants. They have a nice shape, lots of pockets, sun protection and were fine with light rain.
The other pant I brought is the Athleta Bettona Jegging. I adore these pants and get so many compliments on them. They are athletic leggings that looks like jeans with pockets. They come in petite, tall, plus and 4 colors. I wear these for flying, exercising lounging, sleeping or hiking. Talk about versatile! I am wearing them in the cover photo.
Rain pants are something to consider. I did not bring these and luckily did not need them. They are WARM, as most waterproof materials are.
It gets very cold at night at the high elevations. I slept in these.
You need a sun protection hat and a warm hat.
It gets dark early and at camp you will need this to get around, to see in your tent and for nighttime bathroom runs! The last morning involves hiking in the dark. I used this one and it was so strong for less than $15! You can get on Amazon!
Wet and Dry Sacks
Sometimes you need to keep wet things separated from dry things in your backpack and you want to keep important things, like cameras and phones, dry. I used these wet and dry sacks and they were very handy!
There is little shade along the trail and long days at high elevation in the sun, which is a recipe for sun damage. The sun ages the crap out of your skin and I don’t think anyone likes looking older right? This is my favorite sunscreen. No chemical ingredients and it works. Make sure to reapply every two hours, more if sweating.
The mosquitos in Peru are VICIOUS. I recommend bug spray with 30% DEET but I dislike using this near my face. I did some research then purchased what is supposedly the only herbal that works, “Repel Lemon Eucalyptus”. It smells nice and I used in from the chest up and those annoying gnats stayed away.
I took vitamin B1 pills twice a day starting a week before the trip and also during the trip. I learned this from a friend who works in Africa. It works. Overall I only had two bites the entire nine day trip, which may be a record!
Simply put, your body compensates for less oxygen by hyperventilating and this hyperventilation leads to chemical changes that can cause nausea, headache, fatigue, dizziness and appetite changes. The trekking companies all have oxygen available for emergencies. Acclimatizing properly is very important. Hydration is probably the most important factor in combatting altitude effects.
Disclosure: I use affiliate links in this post so if you purchase something I will receive a small commission. However I am only sharing products I love and truly believe hikers may need!
If you are an avid hiker, you will probably be fine but keep in mind the altitude factor. It makes you feel terrible and than there’s that not getting enough oxygen thing. I am not an avid hiker and have had three knee surgeries. Running a mile is sort of big deal for me. In order to prepare, I did the stairs in my high rise several times per week for months before my trip. Starting with with 20 flights, I eventually could do all 45, then repeated this up to three times, adding hiking boots and a backpack a couple weeks before the trip. It’s better to do every other step because this is more what it is like to actually hike the Inca Trail.
I still found the trail to be a struggle, but I did it. I suggest stair climbing for sure, as well as squats, deadlifts and anything to get your calves, quads and glutes strengthened and ready for the steep inclines and steps.
If I can do it you can do it!