This article was put together to help guide you through mental and physical preparations for your hike on the Inca Trail in Peru. It is based off my own personal experience hiking the trail and research on the topic. Opinions are my own and you should take your own health, age and physical conditioning into consideration when making decisions in preparation for the hike; including proper advice from your doctor. Now that we got that out of the way, here we go.
Contents of This Article
- Things and Places To Be Familiar With
- Reputable Tour Groups / Inca Trail Operators
- When to Book Your Inca Trail Hike
- Evacuation Insurance
- Hike Difficulty Level
- Acclimate to the High Altitude or Suffer
- Physical Fitness
- What to Pack For the Inca Trail Trek?
- Hiring Porters?
- Tipping Porters?
- Mentally Prepare for The Bathroom Situation
- Huayna Picchu
- New Rules For Machu Picchu (July 1, 2017)
- Useful Links
- Perspectives - Experiences From Other Inca Trail Trekkers
This guide is for those who plan to go on the 4-day hike to Macchu Picchu on the Inca Trail. I will go over details on the hike so you know what to expect, how to prepare for and what to pack. Before my trip to Peru and hiking to Macchu Picchu, our group did a lot of research on how to prepare and what to expect. This included watching tons of videos on the hike itself, talking to everybody I personally knew that went through the hike themselves and visiting REI every other week leading up to the trip. I hope to transfer some of this knowledge to you in an organized fashion.
I found great value in talking to different people who had completed the hike when I was preparing, so I've also reached out to many of those who have had experience with the hike and have documented their experiences online to get their take on specific aspects of the hike in our perspectives section. If you have any questions or like to see any other aspects of the hike covered on this blog, shoot us an email and we will do what we can to provide you with more information.
Things and Places To Be Familiar WithWhile these terms will be familiar to you soon enough, I thought I'd list some of them to make the rest of the article easier to consume in case they come up.
- Cuzco (or Cusco) - The capital of the Cusco Region, where Macchu Picchu is. This will be the city you go to first before being bused to the first area of the Inca Trail.
- Aguas Calientes - A small tourist-laden city and the closest access point to Macchu Picchu. Those who choose not to hike the Inca Trail will come here by train and either walk or take the bus to Macchu Picchu. There's restaurants, hot springs and other touristy attractions here.
- Coca Leaves and Candy - Coca candy, coca leaves for tea or just chewing or putting near your gums supposedly help with altitude sickness and is a popular item to bring with your on your hike. Personally, I did not notice any changes in energy or improvements in altitude sickness when consuming these coca products but many people swear by them.
- Porters - Porters are usually locals that live in the villages or nearby towns of the Inca Trail. They help you on your journey by carrying heavy items for you (tents, sleeping bags, cookware) and prepare meals, campsites and help guide you to your destination safely.
- Sols - Currency used in Peru. 1 Peruvian Sol equals approximately 0.30 USD.
- Ollantaytambo - A tourist site and town on route to the Inca Trail.
Reputable Tour Groups / Inca Trail Operators
Inca trail operators will help you organize your entire trip from hiring porters, guides and making sure you have all the gear, food and other camping necessities you need to make your trek a memorable experience. You should not go too cheap when finding a reputable tour group. Instead, look for one that has many years experience and positive reviews on sites like Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, and other reputable travel websites.
Things to consider when booking a trekking operator:
- Price per person and what they say that price entails
- Rental prices for equipment
- Do they have portable toilets (toilet tents)?
- Prices for porters, weight limits, and costs.
- Do you have the opportunity to speak with your actual guide beforehand?
- Important: Reputation of company from guides, locals, travelers and travel websites
For a few recommended operators, click here.
When to Book Your Inca Trail Hike
Booking in advance is required. Permits to hike the trail sell out quickly. Busy season is June to August. During the busy season, you will want to book 6 months early. The rest of the time you will want to book at least 3 months in advance. Once you book your trip, make sure you are committed, Inca Trail permits are not refundable. It is typically less crowded September and November and the rainy season is considered December to March. We went at the end of March and it only rained hard on our last day on the trail. The rest of the rain we encountered were "no poncho necessary" sprinkles.
Note: During February, the trail is closed for restoration.
No doubt when talking about insurance, you will hear about "the guy last week who was helicopter evacuated off the trail for 3000.00 bucks". I don't doubt the authenticity of these stories and insurance can pay for expensive medical and emergency evacuations if it happens. Many trek operators even require insurance that covers this. Either way, if you are looking to be insured for the trek, make sure it covers you for altitudes of over 4,000 meters (the standard travel policy coverage).
Note: Links to insurance company included below.
Hike Difficulty Level
If you hike on a regular basis (one a week), I consider this hike moderate. Hiking regularly means you hike on trails that are considered mild, moderate and difficult and do them on a consistent basis. This does not mean you log 10,000 amount of steps on your walk to and from work, around the park, and at the mall. Logging 10,000 steps daily can be awesome for mental and physical health, but the level of intensity is typically not the same as going on hikes through steep hills and trails.
Acclimate to the High Altitude or Suffer
If you are not properly acclimated to high altitudes, the trek can go from moderate to difficult as the hike peaks at 13,600 feet in elevation. To acclimate yourself to the elevation change, arrive in Cuzco earlier, avoid partying hard, drinking alcohol, and get as much rest as you can before the hike.
Our group of 5 arrived 2 days earlier to Cuzco and half of us couldn't sleep well and developed mild flu symptoms (nausea, dizziness, chills) upon arrival which made the first part of the hike difficult even though we had a few days to acclimate. Other hikers accompanying us had already been staying in Peru for over a week and had no problems at all.
For those who are sensitive to altitude sickness, you may want to consider getting a prescription for Diamox, also known as Acetazolamide. You can also obtain this over the counter in Peru, but I suggest getting your doctor's approval beforehand.
- Staying hydrated, eating lightly, limited alcohol intake can help you acclimate to the high altitude easier.
- I didn't take Diamox and suffered a bit from altitude sickness. People I've spoken to said they took it 2 days before ascending and didn't notice any symptoms of altitude sickness.
Before the Inca Trail hike, my training consisted of going on 4-to-7 mile hikes every other week and working out regularly doing high-intensity sprints and weight lifting. If you are in decent shape, the physical aspects of the hike will be easy for you. Others in my group were never considered gym rats but months before the trek, they began training with me on moderately difficult hikes and they fared just as well on the trail. The only person that seemed to have issues during the hike was the last minute traveler and mother of another hiker who didn't prepare at all for the hike. She was around the age of 55, much older than the rest of the group who were in their 20's or 30's.
My suggested exercise routine for at least a month prior to the hike would be weekly moderate hikes and cardio exercises like running or biking. If you can find places where people do step exercises, similar to the Santa Monica Stairs or the Balwin Hills Scenic Overlook, that would be ideal. If you are short on time and want to know a few movements and exercises that will help directly with your hike, here are 4 I would recommend:
- Step or stair exercises
- Walking with a weighted vest or backpack
Ideally, you want to do lunges, squats or any step or stair work with weights. This includes barbells, dumbells or a weighted vest or backpack. When you are hiking you will probably be carrying a bag with your water, snacks, camera and other items, adding 10-20 pounds of extra weight. Doing those exercises above with extra weights will help you prepare for your trek.
Tip from our Inca Trail guide: When hiking, walk in a zigzag pattern. This method takes up the least energy and is the most oxygen efficient. More anecdotal than scientific, but I followed this advice and it did seem to help.
What to Pack For the Inca Trail Trek?
Packing for a trip like this can seem daunting. While you don't want to forget anything important, you will get a few opportunities to get what you might have missed before your trip. Before the actual hike, trekking companies will stop by Ollantaytambo, where you can purchase any last minute items you forgot, including camping gear, snacks, coca leaves and more.
Before you begin buying brand new camping and hiking gear, check with the tour company you are with to see what's available to rent. Most companies will allow you rent essentials such as sleeping bags, liners, hiking poles, and more. If you feel the rental prices are too high at the travel company, you can look for rental shops before your hike in Cuzco as well.
Whether you decide to rent or not, be prepared to have these essentials on your hike:
- Your passport - These are required and will be stamped at the entrance before your enter the trail.
- Cash - For tips, snacks, and drinks along the way.
Travel / Adventure Clothing - Go waterproof whenever possible.
- Jackets, ponchos, hiking shoes, sandals (for the evening after the day's hike)
- Layer up and prepare for cold nights and hot days; Always with the possibility of rain.
- Ponchos are a must during the rainy season. Even if there is a chance of rain, you should carry one as they do not take up that much space.
- Sun Protection - Sunscreen, hats, shades, anything to prevent you from being burnt to a crisp in the high altitude sun exposed skies.
- Sealable plastic bags / Trash bags - Very useful for storing old and dirty clothes, toiletries and snacks. Being able to seal the bags is important in the case of wet weather conditions. The trash bags can be used to separate larger items (sleeping bags, mats etc..) when you or your porters are on the move.
- Insect repellant - Sprays and creams and plenty of it for reapplication. There are parts of the trail where mosquitos are extremely plentiful.
- Toiletries - Basics like toilet paper, toothbrushes and toothpaste are useful. Even better, if you pack wet wipes, they can be used as a replacement for showering, toilet paper, and paper towels.
- Water - The travel company will provide you with water but make sure you have a good hydration pack and water bottle to carry enough for you each day.
- Snacks - Although there will be opportunities to find snacks on specifics stops on the trail, packing your own is always convenient. Trailmix and Clif bars were all I needed.
- Ear plugs - Some people can sleep like a baby anywhere, but for light sleepers like myself, packing ear plugs, especially where you can hear your tent neighbor's snoring, is essential to a good night's rest.
- Headlamps - Very useful when the hike begins before the sun comes up and at night when you are looking for the restroom.
- Lamps, lights, and batteries - Since it is pitch black most of the time at night, having plenty of batteries for your lamps, lights, cell phones, and cameras are essential. Because it's otherwise pitch black in your tent, the lights help when you are preparing your clothes and gear for the next morning's hike.
- Hiking Poles - You can normally rent these so you won't need to pack them with you. It was the first time I've used these sticks to hike and I found them quite useful in lessening the impact hiking had on my knees.
Sleep Gear - You can rent most of these items but note that people do complain about the quality.
- Sleeping mats - As long as they don't have any holes, renting these are fine.
- Sleeping bags - You may want to look at the extra warm sleeping bags (0 to -10 degrees) but since I get uncomfortably hot when I sleep, regular ones served me fine.
- Inflatable pillows - The smaller the better. I purchased mine from REI.
- Prescription Medications - You don't want to be stuck on the mountain without any of your meds.
Food at the Campsite
The food that most of the trekking companies serve was very good and well prepared. Meals are multiple courses served family style under their "dinner" tent which provided an intimate environment to bond with your fellow campers and to listen to interesting stories and tips from your guide.
The meals were basically well rounded Peru style meals with rice, potatoes, vegetables and some type of protein like chicken or beef. There was plenty to each and I was pretty satisfied after each meal. Most of the trekkers in my group concurred. Here are some examples of what was served:
Hiring porters is a great idea. As you can see from the images below, they put in a lot of work for you, often individually carrying up to 70kg worth of camping gear. Hiring porters will make your hike more comfortable and free your mind and mental energy so that you can focus on the spectacular sights around you. Porters will help carry anything you might not want to carry in your day pack. This includes sleeping bags, mats and toiletries. They also will carry tents, cookware, and anything else they need to set up the campsite for your group.
The typical price is around 120.00 - 150.00 USD for a "full porter", which means they carry around 12kg - 15kg. Many travelers won't have that much for the porters to carry, so they will hire a "half porter" who can carry half as much for half the price. The price for porters generally goes to their entrance fee, small legal wage and a small percentage to the travel agency.
Of our group of 8 travelers, 6 of us got half porters and paid 75.00 USD and was allotted 6kg each. This allotment was plenty for us and we felt comfortable carrying only our daypack with our essentials during the hike.
The other 2 that did not hire porters were seasoned outdoorsmen and were fine with carrying their sleeping bags with them.
Note: I've spoken with other travelers and many had various pricing on porters and weight maximums, so please make sure you check with your companies before planning. Also, a portable luggage weight scale should be used when you pack for your trip just to make sure you don't over-pack or under-pack.
As you can imagine, porters live off little means and any tips would be greatly appreciated by them. As tipping can vary greatly between each culture, I will leave it to you to decide how much to do.
We were told tips should be given at the final dinner of the last campsite and a separate tip should be given to your head guide. Before that final dinner, we had a discussion within our group on how much to tip. There were some disagreements on the exact amount but we were able to come to a satisfactory conclusion by the end and everybody was happy.
Mentally Prepare for The Bathroom Situation
Although there are bathroom stops every few hours, you should be prepared for the types of bathrooms you will experience:
- Squatters - Be comfortable while you go in the squat position. These toilets were the norm you would encounter on the trail and at the campsites.
- Dirty toilets and bathrooms - Some bathrooms are not well taken care of and can be riddled with feces and urine and stink but hey, if you have to go, you have to go.
- Clean toilets and bathrooms - On occasion, you would come across regularly cleaned bathrooms that required payment of 1 Sol to use. Definitely worth it!
- The Inca Trail - There will be times you can't wait for the next bathroom break, luckily there are many areas on the trail where you can sneak into a semi-private bush.
- Portable Bathrooms - Some tour groups may offer portable makeshift toilets to be used at camp sites. Our group had this as an option but it wasn't much better than the dirtier bathrooms that were available but a bit further away. The ones I experienced were very small, dirty and cramped.
- If campsite bathrooms are dirty, politely ask your guide to let the porters know and they will take care of the bathroom.
- Females that have a hard time holding their pee may want to look into feminine urinary devices, a tool that can be quite useful while on the trail.
- For those sensitive to bad smells and tend to gag, a cheap odor respirator/mask may be useful for you.
Note: Do not expect to shower during this hike. Be prepared by bringing extra wet wipes to spot clean when necessary. To be honest, I didn't even think about it during the hike, I was too preoccupied about completing the hike and seeing as much as could to consider showering.
Don't Forget To Look Around
When all you can think about is the next milestone in the hike, you may forget to stop, take a break and enjoy everything around you. Besides accomplishing your goal of completing the hike unscathed, you also want to make sure you see and experience as much as you can.
New Rules for Visiting Machu Pichu
In attempts to reduce wear and crowding on the ancient Machu Picchu site, Peru has chosen to divide tickets into morning and afternoon groupings. The tickets will be divided into morning tickets (8am - 12:00pm) and afternoon tickets (12:00pm - 5:30pm). The date of the change has unofficially been set to January 2018. For those hoping to visit the site for a full day, both morning and afternoon tickets can be purchased.
Hopefully, the change will extend the life and improve the maintenance schedules of the ruins as well as make the crowds more tolerable for visitors all around the world.
An Overview of the Updated Rules (Starting July 01, 2017):
Split Entrance Times - From July 01, 2017, and for a period of 2 years
- Mornings: 6am - 12pm
- Afternoons: 12pm - 5:30pm
- All visitors must be accompanied by an official Machu Picchu guide or licensed tourist guide.
- Guides are allowed to take group sizes of 16 people and must sign in and our all visitors in their group.
Huayna Picchu Mountain
- There are two entrance times for this climb.
- First entrance: 7am - 8am
- Second entrance: 10am - 11am
- The trek should be between 3-4 hours.
- There are two entrance times for this climb.
Machu Picchu Mountain
- There are two entrance times for this climb
- First entrance: 7am - 8am
- Second entrance: 9am - 10am
- The trek should take approximately 4 hours.
- All visitors should have left the trek by 3pm.
- There are two entrance times for this climb
- New rules prohibit re-entrance to Machu Picchu.
- The original source document (in Spanish), can be found here in PDF format.
- The document allows for future changes and potential redefinition of the rules in 2 years from July 1st, 2017.
Important Rules of Machu Picchu to Note
- 19.1. Any type of bag/rucksack measuring more than 40 x 35 x 20 cm (15.7 x 13.7 x 7.9”) is not permitted and must be placed in storage (near the entrance).
- 19.2. It is prohibited to enter with food and drink.
- 19.4. It is prohibited to enter with alcoholic beverages.
- 19.5. It is prohibited to enter with umbrellas or sun shades (hats and ponchos/rain coats are permitted).
- 19.6. It is prohibited to enter with photographic tripods or any type of camera stand/support. This is only permitted with pre-authorization and the appropriate permit.
- 19.9. It is prohibited to enter with any musical instruments, including megaphones and speakers.
- 19.11. It is prohibited to enter with shoes with high-heels, or hard soles. Only soft soles are permitted (like those found in training shoes or walking shoes/boots).
- 19.12. It is prohibited to enter with children’s strollers/prams. Only strap on baby/child carriers are permitted.
- 19.17. It is prohibited to climb or lean on walls or any part of the citadel.
- 19.18. It is prohibited to touch, move or remove any lithic items/structures.
- 19.22. It is prohibited to enter with walking sticks with a metal or hard point. Only elderly people and physically-handicapped people are permitted to enter with a walking stick when it has a rubber tip.
- 19.25. It is prohibited to get naked, dress up, lie down, run and jump.
- 19.26. It is prohibited to make loud noises, applaud, shout, whistle and sing. The tranquility and character of Machu Picchu must be maintained at all times.
- 19.27. It is prohibited to smoke or use an electronic cigarette.
- 19.32. It is prohibited to feed the resident or wild animals.
- 19.33. It is prohibited to paraglide, fly any type of drone or small aircraft.
Note: Although a challenging climb, the video makes it look scarier than it is. Just take it one step at a time.
Trail OperatorsBelow are a few links to trail operators I recommend as well as a traveler's insurance company.
- G Adventures (Recognized as top Inca Trail operator by regional government of Cusco in 2017)
- Coca Tours (The one we used for our trek)
- Alpaca Expeditions (Popular and well reviewed)
- Peru Treks (Popular and well reviewed)
Note: for those interested in looking into travel insurance, World Nomads Travel Insurance is a reputable company.
Perspectives - Experiences From Other Inca Trail Trekkers
We've asked popular travel bloggers who have conquered the Inca Trail for their perspective on the hike. We did this to show that everybody's experiences can vary greatly depending on their current "life" situation.
Local Adventurer's Jacob and Esther Fu
For "Non-Outdoorsy" Individuals, The Inca Trail Hike Could be a Combination of Physically, Mentally and Emotionally Challenging
"Neither of us are super outdoorsy. This was the first multi-day backpacking trip we've done. We like challenging ourselves and finding amazing photography spots, and that's what drove us to do the hike. Being newlyweds, this was definitely a challenge for our marriage because the hike was tough physically and emotionally. We were both on edge and as a result, we annoyed each other more. It was tough, but definitely a memorable hike."
Is Macchu Picchu the Highlight or the Trek Getting There?
"We really enjoyed everything that we saw along the hike. When we arrived at Machu Picchu, it was so crowded that in retrospect, we realized that seeing all the ruins along the way was much more of a highlight. You didn't have to deal with tons of people and you had spectacular views all around you."