12 Tips To Hiking The Inca Trail

Tips to Hiking the Inca Trail

A Domeck Dream came true in the fall of 2013: Justin and I completed the 4-day, 3-night hike along the traditional route of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was an incredible journey, rife with majestic vistas and physical challenges. To this day, we still ask ourselves, “Would we ever do it again?”

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My answer is an affirmative “¡Sí!” However, I’d do a few things differently on my next trek through the Andes. I’ve reflected on our first hike down that famous footpath and taken note of things to consider for any future excursions. If this feat is also on your Bucket List, I hope you can learn from our experience.

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 12 Tips to Hiking The Inca Trail

1. Remember: You get what you pay for.
The Peruvian government regulates how many travelers can be on the Inca Trail each day: 200 tourists and 300 porters. Therefore, all hikers must go with a licensed company which acquires the proper permits for legal passage.

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After researching dozens of backpacking outfitters to escort us on our Andean journey, we chose Enigma – and it was a decision we’d make all over again! Enigma was a pricier option, but they were worth every peso. Here’s why we loved hiking with Enigma:

  • Pre-hike consultation – Our guide, Edwin, came to our Airbnb residence in Cusco a few days before our journey began in order to familiarize us with each leg of the hike and answer any questions.
  • A small group – Edwin was the guide for six people in our hiking party. That’s it! With other companies, we could have been traveling with as many as 20 other hikers! Group size can really impact your traveling experience, and it’s something to consider when choosing your tour company.

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  • The leaders of the pack – Because Enigma’s itinerary gave us an earlier start than most, we enjoyed our surroundings without jockeying for position along the trail with other hikers. Also, we usually hiked farther along the trail so that we had campsites almost exclusively to ourselves.  For example, instead of staying the second night with all these folks…

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We slept here!

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  • We were served gourmet meals, every meal!SONY DSC Avocado salad. Chicken cordon blue. An entire cake. Our chef made some incredible dishes off one propane tank, and his meals were delicious and filling, which was great and terrible all at the same time…

2. Pack smarter.
When it comes to packing for a hike on the Inca Trail, make sure to read carefully what your outfitter is going to provide you. Justin and I had tons of energy bars, trail mix, and other snacks that we never consumed on the trail, all because our company provided great meals and daily snack bags for us! What a luxury to have a mid-morning banana, which can go a long way on the trail, but what a packing misfortune: our packs never became lighter, even as our bellies grew full.

Knowing that our 3-week trip to Peru would include nights at very cold temperatures, I bought a new sleeping bag, a great find in the sense that it was very comfortable and warm. However, while hiking the Inca Trail, I could feel the bulk of the sleeping bag literally weighing me down at times. I realized that if I had had a smaller, lighter sleeping bag, I could have put on more clothes if it got too cold at night… or snuggle with my tent buddy!

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3. Hire a porter to carry your personal items
This is related to No. 2. If you must have your snack selection and your over-sized sleeper, then go ahead and spend the extra bucks to hire a porter to carry your personal items, who can take up to 15 kg. That leaves you responsible for carrying your water, rain jacket, camera and anything else you’d want with you as you hike. With your load lightened, you can really have something to smile about.

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4. Prep with steps.
Following the Inca Trail is like moving along an eternal staircase, and I am convinced that the Inca People should have been called the Stair People for their love of building upon uneven terrain! If it’s been a while since you hung out with Sir Stair Master, you two may want to get reacquainted before you set off for Peru.

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Michelle, the Canadian woman in our group, said that these Inca stairs made the seven-day hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, aka the Roof of Africa, seem like a cakewalk. Guess I got that one in the bag – whenever I get over there!

On another note, although going up Incan staircases can take your breath away, going down them can be more dangerous and requires much more caution. Hiking poles were a huge help in managing those stone steps of unpredictable height. Folks, if you don’t have good knees, you may need to consider taking the train from Ollantaytambo to the ruins of Machu Picchu. Seriously, these Inca steps are a challenging bunch.

5. Don’t forget to look around you!
When you are focused on trying not to trip and fall off a cliff to your death, sometimes you forget to look up. Make sure to take regular breaks from your stair climbing, not only so you can catch your breath, but also so you can enjoy the incredible views!

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6. Learn from your guide.
Edwin was a phenomenal guide and an invaluable resource. Regularly, he would point our attention to a natural treasure – like orchids or hummingbirds – or explain something about the Inca ruins we encountered. He gave us insight into the local culture and what life is like for the people who still live in the Sacred Valley. Edwin was also a very fast hiker.

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7. Appreciate your porters.
Many Inca Trail porters are local farmers who run this route seasonally. Let me tell you: they are powerhouses. Every day, they’d wake up before we did to prepare breakfast, break down the campsite, pass us along the trail, set up for lunch, make an amazing meal, break everything down, pass us again, arrange our next campsite, and prepare the third meal of the day. They are hard workers who do their jobs with integrity and determination, and they deserve respect and appreciation for the immensely physical roles they perform on the Trail.

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For our small crew, twelve porters were hired to carry the tents, food, propane tank, supplies, and even the trash. When one of our comrades fell seriously ill on the first day, three porters stayed behind with our friends to help them on their return journey to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. (Our friends rested for a few days and took the train to meet us at Machu Picchu, a most felicitous reunion.) The Inca Trail is a rigorous route, and the journey is not very enjoyable if you are not in full health. I would know that to be true from my own experience.

8. Beware of Altitude Sickness.
As soon as you exit the plane in the Cusco airport, you are greeted by this giant advertisement for Sorojchi Pills, mystery pills to cure altitude sickness (called soroche in Spanish).

Sorojichi Pills at Machu Picchu

But surely, I thought upon first laying eyes on this comedic capitalistic commercial, my Peruvian adventures won’t be affected by such a dramatic scene!

Some 5 days later, I discovered just how horribly real altitude sickness is and how it can strike at any moment. I woke up in the middle of the first night on the Trail and grumbled. Nature was calling. I shimmied out of my sleeping bag, geared up, unzipped the tent and stepped out into the cold night. With only the light from the stars to guide me, I clambered up an uneven footpath to the campsite’s latrine. Porcelain squatty potties. Oh lovely, I thought.

I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that my midnight outing started a series of unpleasant urges that continued throughout the next day, the longest and hardest day of hiking, leaving me weak-kneed and wishing for a lighter backpack… and those porcelain ground toilets. No amount of coca tea, the traditional remedy for altitude sickness, could help me at this point. Thankfully, Mamma Michelle gave me Imodium tablets at lunch, so by the late afternoon, I was able to hike unhindered.

Next time, I will pop any pill to halt that awful circumstance from occurring again. It’s too bad I didn’t have any Imodium a week later while spending the night on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, 12,000+ feet above sea level…

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9. Lift your spirits with some llama lovin’.
As you make your way along the Inca Trail, be on the lookout for herds of llamas that roam the mountain range. They will be sure to brighten any dark mood or invigorate your tired body. These fluffy pack animals made me smile and helped me forget any physical troubles I was experiencing at the time.

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Confession: I could not stop taking pictures of llamas, alpacas, or vicuñas whenever they were around. Maybe I’ll have to dedicate an entire post to these fleecy fellas. Just maybe.

10. Don’t be fooled by the chinchillas at Machu Picchu.
Speaking of animal life, you can spot viscachas, furry creatures of the chinchilla family, that pop up from the granite quarry of Machu Picchu. However, they are not native to the area and are imported to amuse tourists. I have to admit that this Peruvian ploy worked well on me. Look how cute these little guys are!

We called them Bunny Monkeys or Bunkeys for short.

11. Do stay a night in Aguas Calientes and return to Machu Picchu a second day.
For several reasons, this decision had a huge impact on our overall experience. First, it was of great relief to enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage Site at a leisurely pace after four days of hiking and a 3:30am wake up call. Second, the hikers and tourists in Aguas Calientes get to the site first thing in the morning, but once the trains from Cusco begin arriving, Machu Picchu is crawling with people. By staying a night in Aguas Calientes, we were able to explore the ruins of Machu Picchu at the end of the day (when those taking the train home have cleared the area) and enjoy some quiet moments in that mystical setting as the sun went down over the far ridge.

A third benefit to having at least two days in Machu Picchu is that you can make reservations to hike Huayna Picchu, the famously pictured peak in the background of all those iconic photos. It’s a steep hike and not one for the faint of heart, but Huayna Picchu offers the bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu, which was designed to mirror the outline of the Andean condor.

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12. Just get to Machu Picchu – by any route necessary.
Machu Picchu is truly a wonder of the world, and even if you are not into hiking, this is a Must See Destination. I cannot explain the effect of walking through this abandoned city of Incan royalty. Undeniably, Machu Picchu is an incredible place. This once “Lost City of the Incas” is a profound reminder of their powerful empire, a reign that stretched down the spine of South America, reaching across desserts and jungles, high mountains and rugged coastline, and crowned with architectural wonders.

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Hey friends! Is Machu Picchu on your Bucket List? Would you take any of these lessons to heart? Do you have any tips you’d like to share or questions about hiking in Peru?

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9 Comments

  1. Is the hike very unstable? Usually I wouldn’t be super nervous but I am still in recovery from knee surgery and am hiking the Inca Trail in 2.5 weeks. I also won’t have to carry anything other than light personal items as I am traveling with a teen group. What would you recommend doing in order to get ready for the hike? Thank you, your post was very helpful!

    1. Hi Sidney,

      The Inca Trail is well marked and well traversed. However, what makes it a fairly tough hike is that much of the trail consists of ancient staircases. At times, those stone steps are very uneven. Not unstable, necessarily, but of varying heights and depths.

      The best way to train for the Inca Trail is to “hike” up as many staircases as you can. That will at least give you an idea of what your body can handle. Also, having trekking poles is a must, as they help relieve pressure from the knees, especially when going downhill.

      If you are still unsure about the hike, talk to your outfitter/guide for more advice on making your trip successful and enjoyable.

      I wish you the very best!
      Happy Trails,
      Hailey

  2. Hi Hailey, I loved your post ad you had so many good pointers! My husband and I are doing the 4 day Inca Trail next May and I can’t wait! Like your post says, we have personal porters with our trekking company and we are staying overnight in Aguas Calientes on the last day so we can go back to Machu Picchu for a second day to climb Huayna Picchu. What do you suggest we do with our extra trekking duffel bag on that second day that our porter carried on the trek? I really don’t want to have to carry them with us up the mountain but our guides and porters will be gone. Do you have any recommendations? Do you think our hotel will hold them for us and we can pick them up on our way back before we get on the train back to Cusco?

    1. Hi Torie!

      First of all, GREAT call on staying in Aguas Calientes the night after you reach Machu Picchu. When you get there on the last day of your hike, your guide should give you a little bit of a tour around the ruins. After a little exploring, I suggest taking a seat at the restaurant near the park entrance, relaxing while the hordes come during the midday hours, and then wander around in the late afternoon – when many folks have gone back down to catch the train to Cusco. THAT is why it’s so nice to stay a night longer. If you have good weather, being the last ones in the park is simply a magical experience. Plus, you’ll get some fresh legs (and maybe some fresh clothes!) for the big climb up Huayna Picchu the next day!

      Second, to answer your question… I would ask the hotel to keep your luggage for you on your second day. Normally, that is not a problem, and we were able to do that as well. However, if your accommodations aren’t so accommodating, then you could check your duffle bag at the entrance of the Machu Picchu park.

      I’m so excited for you and your husband as your prepare to tackle the Inca Trail together. It truly is a special experience, and I wish you both the very best on your adventure! Safe and happy trails to you both!

      1. Thank you so much Hailey! Your advice about going to the restaurant sounds perfect. I’m so glad that our duffel bags shouldn’t be a problem on the second day. I know we are still a long ways off but now that the big planning is done I keep thinking of small details that I don’t know the answers to. And now there is one less thing to worry about. Thanks again for your help! I really appreciate it!

        1. You are very welcome, Torrie! I know what it’s like to be thinking of all the small details when planning for a big trip. Hopefully, they aren’t keeping you up at night! Let me know if I can be of any further assistance. Bests, HD

          1. Hi again Hailey! Sorry to bother you but I have another question and you seem to be really knowledgeable. I am looking to buy a backpack for the Inca Trail but I’m not sure what size to get. Do you think a backpack of 24L is big enough? I read that you can’t bring any bag over 25L into Machu Picchu so it would be nice keep our backpacks with us instead of leaving it at the gate. We have a personal porter that will carry 7 kg for each my husband and I on the trail, but that includes our sleeping bag and pad. I’m just concerned that 24L wont be enough to fit whatever clothes and items that the personal porter can’t carry. What size backpack did you have?

            1. Hello again, Torie! If there is one thing I learned about hiking the Inca Trail is that you should have little need of a large backpack. Since you have to go with a trekking company, who will carry your food, tents, supplies, and since you have hired a porter to carry your sleeping bag/pad, the ONLY thing you need a backpack for is a day’s worth of water, as few clothes as possible, and necessary personal belongings (camera, passport, etc.).

              I had a 60L backpack with me, but you’ll notice in my pictures, that it was very lean. I could have crammed 3x more items inside it to fully expand it. And I was SO envious of another woman in our group who had a day pack, probably 24L size (or smaller?), and let the porters carry her sleeping bag and a few other items.

              If you are worried 24 L isn’t enough space, then test it out at home well in advance. Go ahead and pack your backpack as if you were setting off for the trail. See what fits and what doesn’t. If you’re having a hard time, ask yourself “Do I really need this?” and remember, layering clothes is important. Having clean clothes to put on every day is not :)

              After you’ve done your test packing experiment, maybe, go walk the stairs at the nearest high-rise or stadium. That’s a great way to train for the Inca Trail.

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