Congratulations! Have you decided to visit the majestic Machu Picchu via the famous Inca Trail? This is definitely one of the most popular thing to do in South America. Sounds like a big adventure; where do you start? I had many questions when booking mine, so here is a guide to help you plan your Inca Trail Hike.
The Inca Trail or Camino Inca is the most popular hike to Machu Picchu.
The first thing to know is that Inca Trail is a protected zone, and you need a government permit to get in. Only 500 people are allowed on the trail each day, including porters and guides.
Since 2001, you are not allowed to hike the Inca Trail by yourself and will have to do this with a licensed tour operator. Here are the items you want to think about to sort out your Inca Trail trip.
When is the best time to hike the Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail is extremely popular, and permits are sold out almost every year. This is an activity that you want to plan early for.
April – September is the dry season, when rainfall is low. This is seen as a better time to visit as the weather is better. Therefore, you can expect a more massive crowd during this period.
November – February is the wet season. There is higher rainfall, so you want to be well prepared for wet weather during this time. Tickets for this period might be easier to get within a shorter time frame.
March and October are the bridging seasons, and the trail closes in February each year for maintenance.
If you want to go during the peak period, you have to book way in advance. I had to book five months in advance (in May) to get a slot at the end of Oct.
As such, it is essential to first decide when do you want to go. I usually try to avoid peak season whenever I travel. However, weather conditions can affect your whole experience when it comes to outdoor activities (as I found out when I did O’trek near the end season).
It is also important to note that permits are released by the government to licensed operators each year (usually in January but might vary). While you can prebook your slot with an operator before the permits are released, they cannot guarantee it until they actually get them. It will be wise to hold back on booking your flights, etc. until after the permit is secured.
Now, some of you late planners might realize that permits are all sold out for the period you are planning for. But hey, maybe now you can prepare early for next season and get better slots. Alternatively, the other popular trail that doesn’t require such advanced booking is the Salkantay trek.
Once you have decided on the period, here are some questions you want to think about.
How many days do you intend to hike?
The classic Inca Trail hike is 4D3N, but there is also a 5D4N option. The 5D4N Inca Trail route is the same but done in shorter segments with an additional day to make it easier. There is also a 2-day version that starts further up the classic route and a 7-day option that combines the Salkantay trek.
How difficult is the Inca Trail?
This depends on your physical fitness and how your body adapts to the altitude. I did the classic 4D3N with a porter and personally did not find the hike too challenging. However, I was also the fastest hiker in my group of 8, and some did struggle with the altitude. Everyone from the group managed to complete it, but we did see people from other groups having to turn back during the hike.
Do you need a porter?
A porter is a local who will help you carry the bulk of your items from one campsite to another. These are super impressive humans that defy the law of physics. Ok I am exaggerating, but these porters trek at an incredible pace while having a huge load on their back. They also handle your meals and campsite preparations, you have got to take your hats off them. Most of them have plied their trade on the mountain paths since a young age.
If you engage a porter, you will only have to carry a day pack each day with whatever you need during the hike. The porter team will carry the rest of the items such as your tent, sleeping bag, etc. to the next campsite.
Porters will add on to the tour cost. Some agencies will offer the basic package with porter services as an option, while others only offer packages with porters included. This might affect your choice of an agency if you are looking to save on the porter cost.
Where do you want to get picked up from?
What are your plans before the trek? Do you need to get picked up from a specific town on the day of the trek? Most people start from Cusco and Ollantaytambo, and these common areas will not be a problem. You should check with the agency if you want to get picked up from some other towns.
Do you need to rent camping gear?
Will you bring your camping gear, or do you intend to rent some stuff. Some agencies will already include all the camping gear in the package while others don’t. If it’s not included, they usually offer the option of renting.
Typical extra gears that you will need to consider will be
– Sleeping Bag
– Sleeping Mat/Air foam
– Trekking Poles
If you plan on using your own sleeping bag, make sure it is sufficient to handle the temperature on the mountain.
I highly recommend trekking poles for the Inca Trail, because Day 2 and 3 involves a lot of steep stairs downwards. The trekking poles will help to lessen the impact on your knees. I never got around buying my own trekking poles despite using them quite extensively through Patagonia. Never thought I would hike as much I did, so I always rented or borrowed them. That said, I found these Black Diamond ones from my travel buddy to be strong and sturdy, particularly with the rubber grip.
Do you want to take the Vistadome train?
The PeruRail Vistadome train is a more luxurious way of getting back to Cusco from Machu Picchu. It is a comfortable train with large windows on the sides and ceiling, so you get a so-called “panoramic view” of surrounding nature.
To be fair, it is not exactly panoramic, it still feels like you are on a train. However, you get to enjoy the Andean nature from the large windows for a good few hours before it gets dark. It is also just an extremely comfortable way to get back after a multi-day hike, especially since the last day starts really early.
If you want to take the train, make sure to check if the agency offers it as part of the package or an added option. Some operators send the group back by bus.
Do you want to do Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain after Inca Trail?
These are two mountains surrounding Machu Picchu, offering a great view of the ruins. Most Inca Trails operators will offer the permits to these treks as well.
Huayna Picchu is a shorter hike, thus it is more popular and sells out faster. The hike is usually done on the same day as the end of your Inca Trails hike. From the top of Huayna Picchu, you can get a top-down view of Manchu Picchu. Do note that hiking this mountain will eat into the time you can spend in the ruins of Manchu Picchu.
Manchu Picchu mountain is a longer hike. Some operators offer it on the same day, while others will only book it for the day after your Inca Trail hike. Depending on your plans, you want to find the one that is suitable for you if you plan to do this hike.
Other things to consider
Different operators offer slightly different services. Some will set up private toilet tents while others will use shared toilets etc. I’m sure each one of us has different priorities on various items. You should read up some reviews on the agencies to find out what suits your preference.
Apart from safety and security, one of my biggest concerns in this area was the mistreatment of porters.
I wanted to make sure the agency I go with does their best to treat their porters well. There is one obvious difference you can notice on the Inca Trail between porters from different agencies. Some porters are hiking with proper trekking shoes, while others have to hike in worn-out slippers.
I ended up going with Alpaca Expeditions and had a really memorable experience. The founder started as a porter himself at the age of 18, and today, he has built a company with a strong porters team aptly called The Green Machine! The company runs a bunch of social initiatives not just on porters’ welfare but also empowering women and children.
One of the porters had a pain in one side of the knee halfway through the trek, and our guide immediately gave his trekking poles to him instead. The whole team felt like a family, and I had the chance to just hang around with them whenever I arrived at camp early. Our guide, Robinson, also provided a lot more interesting knowledge along the way whilst many groups focused solely on hiking.
A couple of other operators with good reviews are Llama Path and Peru Treks. For an international company, G Adventure is a popular choice.
Information about the Inca Trail
Here are questions you might have about the Trail, and this is my experience with Alpaca Expeditions. Things might vary a bit, depending on the operator you choose to go with.
How long is the Inca Trail Hike?
The total distance of the Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu will be around 26miles or 40km. This will span across 4 or 5 days, depending on which tour duration you pick.
For the 4D3N hike, here is a brief breakdown of the 4 days with Alpaca Expeditions:
Distance: 8.7 miles/14 km (6-7 hours)
Campsite Altitude: 3300 meters (high) above sea level
Difficulty: Moderate day
Weather: Warm and windy
Walking distance: 9.94 miles/16 km (7-8 hours)
Campsite altitude: 3600 meters (high) above sea level (chilly weather)
Considered: Top day (Two highest passes)
Area: Andes and Cloud Forest
Weather: Cold and rainy
Walking distance: 6.2 miles/10km (5 hours)
Campsite altitude: 2.600 meters (high) above sea level (chilly weather)
Considered: Easy day – all downhill!
Area: High Cloud Forest
Weather: Warm and very humid
Considered: The most exciting and magical day (early wake up 3.30 AM)
Area: High Cloud and Subtropical Forest
Weather: Hot and very humid (bring lots of water)
Accommodation on Inca Trail
The multi-day hike to Machu Picchu will involve camping in 2-man tents. If you are alone, there is a good chance you will be paired with another traveler in the group. I got lucky due to some shuffles and had a tent to myself.
Are there toilets and showers on the Inca Trail?
We used portable toilets most of the time. It will either be shared by everyone or a private one just used within the group.
We had a private toilet tent, and it was always decently clean. There are some toilets set up by locals along the way, and they will likely be squad toilets.
On the last day, after all the camps are packed up, everyone will be using the toilets near the gate while waiting for the route to open. Those toilets will become very nasty; most people are not proficient with using squad toilets, so you might want to finish your bathroom business early.
There is the option of taking a cold shower at 1 or 2 of the campsites. None of us actually took a shower as the water is really cold. You can bring a quick dry towel and wipe yourself down, it should keep you refreshed and comfy.
Food and water on the Inca Trail
We had sumptuous meals along the way. The porter team prepares a great spread of 4-5 local dishes that keeps us ready to keep hiking! They even managed to bake a cake on the last day with the tools they brought along. Food is going to vary a bit depending on which operator you go with.
The porter team boil water early at every meal stop and cool them down so we can refill our bottles before we set off. Remember to bring a bottle to refill. I recommend carrying between 1-2 liters of water for each leg of the trek.
Inca Trail Packing List
For the Inca Trail, you want to pack for both warm and cold weather. If the weather is good, you will want to wear something cooling during the hike. However, it gets chilly at night, so you need something warm at camp.
I rented all the camping gear (sleeping bag, mat, and trekking poles); the tent comes included in the package. Here are some things I packed or would recommend packing after going for the hike.
I’m not big on brands for most things (unless specifically mentioned) as I get most items wherever on my travels whenever I need them.
- Hiking Shoes (I used the Salomon X Ultra 3) You should consider using a pair with waterproofing treatment like Gore-tex if you are going during the wet season
- 4 t-shirts, ideally dri-fit and good for sports use
- 1 pair of hiking pants. I like convertibles are they are versatile for different kind of hikes and you can adjust easily based on the temperature.
- 4 sets of undergarments. The Uniqlo Airism ones are great, I am a big fan of quick dry stuff.
- 4 pairs of socks. Make sure you use at least sports quality socks, so they are thick enough. You might also want to bring extra pairs to cater for wet weather
- 1 pair of Pants/Leggings or set of thermals for night use
- Warm Jacket for night
- Optional Beanie for night
- Optional Gloves for night
- Rain Jacket or Poncho (I carry a reusable one through my travels)
- Slippers or comfortable shoes for camp
- 1 Quick Dry/Microfiber towel
- Toilet paper just in case
- Toothbrush, toothpaste
- Wet Tissue and Baby Powder. I use these to keep myself clean and fresh.
- Mosquito repellent
- Powerbank for charging your devices. There are no charging ports during the trek.
- Camera. I use GoPro and my mobile phone
- Headlamp. This is necessary for moving around at night
- Basic First Aid Kit and Personal Medication
- I use my packing cubes to separate between items and clothes (clean/dry)
Plan for Acclimatization
If you have never hiked at high altitude, note that this will be an impacting factor. It is best to give yourself 1-2 days minimum to get used to the altitude before engaging in intense physical activities.
Altitude sickness affects people differently, and it is not related to just physical fitness. Even if you are physically fit, plan to factor in time for acclimatization. There are lots of stuff to do in Cusco to fill your time anyway!
If you are traveling down from the North like I did, Huaraz is an excellent spot to acclimatize and build up fitness. Here are some great trips and treks in Huaraz.
Fun fact: I always thought that altitude sickness only happens when going from a low altitude to a high altitude location. The guide told me that they also have problems when going to low-altitude places like Lima because they hang out so much at high altitude. Who would have thought!?
Getting Cash in Cusco
Due to the poor payment infrastructure in Peru, there is likely to be an extra percentage fee when paying for the tour with credit cards or Paypal. Therefore, you probably want to use cash payment for your Inca Trail booking.
It’s all good if you are coming directly from home, just remember to bring enough cash for the payment.
However, if you are a long term traveler coming from somewhere else, you probably don’t have enough cash on hand and plan to withdraw the money in Peru. If so, note that there is a chance that your card might have a combination of these disadvantages:
- Low cash withdrawal limit per single withdrawal enforced by Peruvian Bank
- Withdrawal charge from your home bank
- Withdrawal charge from Peruvian Bank
This means you will incur a lot of fees from having to withdraw a gazillion times through the ATM. In which case, you want to check out the BCP Bank next to Plaza de Armas (the main square). There is a service counter where you can withdraw a large amount of cash at one go, potentially saving on a portion of withdrawal fees.
Depending on your currency, home bank/card policy, withdrawal limit, etc, every person’s case is different. You will need to figure that part out to see if it is worth the savings.