A trek along an ancient stone path weaving through towering mountains to reach a once-lost city – the Inca Trail is the stuff travel legends are made of.
While Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most spectacular sights and an icon on every adventurer’s bucket list, the classic hike that leads you there is just as travel goal-worthy.
The Inca Trail is a 43km (26 mile) trek through the Peruvian Andes where you’ll hike for five to seven hours each day at high altitude over challenging terrain.
The trail winds its way through a sacred valley, past a raging river, massive mountains, lush jungle and fascinating ruins before Machu Picchu finally reveals itself through the fabled Sun Gate.
Trekking the Inca Trail is one of the most life-changing experiences you’ll ever have. While it’s no walk in the park, the trek is certainly doable even for inexperienced hikers. Here are some tips on how to conquer it.
1. Book early
Many travelers turn up to Peru each year thinking they can hike the trail whenever they want. Nope, they can’t. The Peruvian government has put strict limits on the number of people permitted on the Inca Trail (only 500 permits are issued per day), and the trek is booked out months in advance. It’s recommended to book your tour at least six months in advance during high season (May to October) and three months during low season (November to April). The classic 4-day trail costs from 600USD upwards.
2. Get a bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu
There are two treks you can take within the Machu Picchu sanctuary to get superb views from above – Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. Both are tough, steep treks of around three hours and need to be booked before you go. Huayna Picchu, which allows 400 trekkers per day, is hugely popular and is usually sold out months in advance.
3. Pack for four seasons
During the trail you might experience everything from freezing temperatures to steamy days to relentless rain, so pack for all seasons. Layers will be your best friend – take singlets or t-shirts, a fleece jumper and a jacket. A pair or two of hiking pants which zip off to shorts is also a good idea. Bring wet weather gear including a rain coat, a poncho to cover your entire body and bag, a beanie, gloves, extra pairs of socks, a hat and flip flops for getting around camp at night.
Don’t forget plastic bags to put dirty clothes in, a basic first aid kit, insect repellent, wet wipes (this is how you will ‘shower‘ every night), toilet paper, a towel, earplugs, lip balm, sunblock and a headlamp. You must bring your passport with you – it will be inspected at checkpoints along the Inca Trail and at the entrance to Machu Picchu.
Your tour will provide you with a bag where you can place up to 7kg of personal items (including your sleeping bag) for a porter to carry. Don’t over pack – anything over that limit you will need to carry yourself.
4. Carry only essentials in your daypack
Your porter won’t be hiking near you with your gear, so it’s important to have everything you need in your daypack. Fill it with essentials such as your passport, camera, water bottle, jacket, rain gear, hat, lip balm, sunblock, sunglasses and toilet paper. Resist the temptation to pack the kitchen sink. If your bag is heavy, you will seriously regret it.
5. Bring the right shoes
Whether you prefer hiking boots with ankle support or a pair of running shoes, both are fine for the trek, just make sure your footwear is comfortable and broken in. The last thing you want to deal with is sore feet and blisters. Also ensure your shoes have good grip and are preferably waterproof.
6. Stock up on snacks
Don’t worry, you will be fed extraordinarily well (think pancakes for breakfast, rice and meat for lunch and snacks like hot chocolate and cookies). But it’s a good idea to bring some extra sustenance like chocolate and energy bars. Also, if your guide or a porter offers you some cocoa leaves to chew on, give it a try. Although not the most pleasant tasting thing, they’ll give you an energy boost as well as alleviate any altitude sickness you may be feeling.