Prepare to Hike the Inca Trail: 11 Tips from Trail Survivors!
It ain't easy folks. BUT, it ain't impossible either. All it takes is preparation and determination and you can join the awesome club of 'Inca Trail Survivors'! That club includes us (woo!), my 50-year-old aunt who has a hip replacement, a 60-something man who, while battling altitude sickness, still made it to see sunrise over the ruins, a couple of young Aussies who carried massive backpacks the whole way, and countless others who put fear, doubt, and cleanliness aside in order to explore one of the true wonders of the new world. Ready to go? Good! Here's everything you need to know to join this bad-ass club of hikers:
- Book at least six months in advance. Can't prepare if you haven't booked the trip right?! In the interest of preservation, the Peruvian government limits the number of people who can enter the Inca Trail to 500 per day. That number includes everyone: hikers, guides, porters, etc. so needless to say, permits go quickly. Also note, the Inca Trail is completely closed in February for maintenance. February is a super rainy time of year, so it's not the best time to hike anyway, but if that month is all you got, then there are alternate trails you can hike to Machu Picchu. Whenever you decide to go, make sure to:
- Choose the right tour company. We did the 4 day 3 night hike with SAS Travel and it was fan-tastic. They've been around since 1990, pay their guides, porters and cooks fairly, and employ a well qualified, knowledgeable, English-speaking staff (our guide, Hilbert, was an Archaeologist!). The food is amazing and plentiful (thank God) and the accommodations and equipment is top notch and comfy. While in need of an update, their website has a wealth of information as to what's included in the price and what's not, what to bring, how to tip the staff and guides, and it also offered the chance to rent extras like sleeping bags, mattresses and trekking poles which we very happily did!
Now, that you've locked in a date and committed to crossing this epic trip off your bucket list, you can begin the real preparation...
- Hike hills and climb stairs. Notice I didn't say run or lift weights. There are 7000+ stairs on this trail and the majority of it is uphill. As our guide famously repeated: "Hold your llamas. This is not a sprint. It is a marathon." No matter how many miles you run or how much you can bench press, hiking the Inca Trail is a totally different type of exertion and this is hands down the best way to prepare.
- Hike with the backpack you plan to carry. And either weight it or actually pack it to experience the full heft of the bag. It's one thing to hike 12 kilometers per day with nothing on your back, but it is entirely another to hike that distance weighed down. You want to know where the pack rubs and where you fatigue so you can make adjustments.
- Break in your boots and clothes. This should be a no-brainer, but we actually saw people buying boots in Cusco. Imagine hiking for four days in new boots?! My feet hurt to even think about it. And you really don't want to realize that the only pants you brought chafe like a mother-effer. So, wear your boots as much as you can beforehand, ideally a few times a week for a few months before you leave. And wear your hiking clothes (undies, base layer, hats, socks, everything) around for a full day so you know how they feel after multiple hours of wear.
- Arrive in Cusco at least two days before your hike. Real important guys. The altitude is no joke and you will need time to acclimate. On the trail, you'll hike up to 14,000 feet and at that altitude your body gets only 60% of the oxygen it does at sea-level. You'll notice the altitude as soon as you arrive and most people, us included, felt sluggish and got winded after three steps. Just take it slow, drink the coca tea, relax, and DO NOT booze it up or eat heavily the night before your hike. Seriously though, drink the coca tea...it's better than any altitude meds.
- Book an extra night in Aguas Calientes. Named for the hot springs located just outside the town center, this Andean hamlet is 25 minutes from Machu Picchu via bus down a very windy road. Your tired legs, hungry bellies and stinky self will definitely thank you for taking an extra night of rest. There are great restaurants, colorful markets, and a TON of massage parlors where you can get a hour-long massage for about $9 USD (totally legit, clean, and no 'happy endings' offered!) We stayed at the Tierra Viva Hotel and it was incredible.
- Order Peruvian Soles before you go. We got ours through our bank before we left the States to avoid transfer fees and so we didn't have to worry about it upon arrival. We took 1500 Soles (~500 USD) for the both of us and it was plenty. You will most likely need cash to tip the guides and porters at the end of the trip, but check your company's policy for specifics. Also, on the first day of the hike, you will see local stands selling water, Gatorade, snacks etc. and obviously an Andean villager does not accept Visa. Note: There are no 'trail side' stands after the first day.
- Check the weather patterns and report. The high Andes create a micro-climate all their own and it's totally unpredictable. Check blogs, weather forecasts, Google "Hike Inca Trail (insert month here)", and scour the website of your tour company to get an idea of what you'll need to prepare. Is it the rainy season? How cold will it be at night? What did other hikers find successful? See our packing list for what we took on our hike in the dead of South American winter (July).
- Learn a little Spanish. It goes a long way and is very useful in Peru. Most people speak a little English, but we were surprised at how much we used and needed our Spanish. Thankfully all the guides and most employees we met at the tour companies were fluent in English, so don't freak out. For language learning, we like the Duolingo language learning app or the BBC Language website for basic instruction. Both are really helpful and really FREE.
- Do your homework. There are amazing ruins and vast terraces along the Inca Trail well before you reach Machu Picchu and you're going to want to know what you're looking at. Plus, once you arrive at Machu Picchu, the site truly comes to life if you know why certain buildings are constructed a certain way or face a certain mountain. We read The Machu Picchu Guidebook before we left.
- Bonus Tip: Prepare to love the Peruvian people. They are some of the warmest, funniest, and most caring people we've met in our travels and their history is astounding. Truly, the more you respect, appreciate and seek to understand the Incan and Peruvian civilizations, the more they will delight and amaze you!