How to Hike the Inca Trail

Trupti Devdas Nayak is a freelance writer and photographer who loves (and lives!) to travel. When not writing or traveling, she is busy planning her next adventure. Amongst other things, Trupti has trekked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, snorkeled with sharks in Oahu, seen horses dancing flamenco in Andalusia (Southern Spain) and has hiked in over 26 national parks around the world and counting. Trupti writes about her travel experiences at Exploring The Blue Marble.

So, you want to hike the Inca trail. But you don't know where to start? No fear! Here's a handy how-to guide that will prepare you for one of the most exhilarating experiences of a lifetime.

1. Booking trek dates, flights and hotels

First things first, you have to choose a licensed guide operator who will take you on the 4-day trek on the Inca trail through the Andes. As much as you might want to do this on your own, Peruvian authorities require all trekkers to be part of a guided outfit. The guides procure permits for you to hike the trail. Peru Treks is a well regarded Inca trail operator and they have great reviews. Book your dates at least six months in advance as they often sell out for the popular high season (also the dry season) of June through August. Prices per person depend on the individual operator but normally range between $500–$600 per person. This includes everything you need for the trek—camping equipment, food, water, porters, permits, and entry into Machu Picchu. Note that the Inca trail is closed in February for annual maintenance. Cusco makes a great base to start your journey. Many airlines like LAN and Taca fly to Cusco via Lima from several North American cities. Cusco is a lovely city and has numerous hotels and guesthouses to stay at. Our stay at Rumi Punku was beyond expectations. Once the trek dates are confirmed, book your flights and accommodation well in advance too.

2. Getting fit

The 4-day Inca trail hike is legendary because of two reasons—one is the grueling nature of the trek and two is the reward that awaits you at the end. You have to get to your personal best fitness level to hike the 26 mile mountainous, rocky trail. The more time you have to train, the better. Think of it as training for a half-marathon. But you will be doing a half-marathon every day for 4 days. The hikes are approx 7-9 miles each day for the first 3 days. Start with local hikes in your area, build it up with longer trails and all-day hiking on the weekend. Weekdays should be dedicated to strengthening the leg muscles and getting them used to steps—the stepper in the gym is your new best friend. This is because 'flat' does not exist in the Peruvian Andes. Every step will be either going up or going down. Your knees will be bearing the brunt of this hard work, so treat them kindly.

3. Reading material

Familiarize yourself with some history and context on the life of the Incas before your trip. A recommended read isThe Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie which provides an in-depth historical background to the Inca people and their conquest by the Spanish conquistadors. Some of the locals in Cusco speak English, but knowing a bit of basic Spanish will allow you to have a deeper and more meaningful conversation. All of the guide operators speak good English although the porters speak mainly Quechua.

4. What to pack

As is often said, less is more. April and October are shoulder months and tend to be rainy, so pack sufficient rain protection if you are going then. May through Aug are the most popular months to trek. Days are warm and sunny, but the Andes gets bone-chillingly cold at night, so make sure to pack plenty of cold-weather gear, including thermals, fleece layers, woolen caps, and gloves. Hiking poles help immensely, especially with the unending steps composed of hard jagged stones. Break into hiking shoes well in advance. Pack a few changes of clothes (wicking shirts and hiking pants), necessities like sunhat, sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellent, snacks like GORP, headlamps, personal medications and camera gear (of course!). This is not a comprehensive list, since the outfit you book the trek with will provide a full list of necessary items to bring. Don't forget supplements like Vitamin C and Immuno Defense, they will help keep your immune system going strong. Great, you're all set now!

5. Acclimatization

When you walk off that plane in Cusco, remember that acclimatizing is of paramount importance. It is absolutely important that your body adjust to the 11,000+ high altitude of Cusco before you embark on the Inca Trail. Staying in Lima won't help as the city is at sea-level. Arrive in Cusco a few days (2-3 days minimum) prior to the start of the trek, and spend the time acclimatizing in the city. There is tons to see and do in Cusco, so along with acclimatizing you will also be soaking up the local culture.

6. What to know about high-altitude sickness

High-altitude sickness can affect anybody of any age and fitness level. Being fit is not a proven way to prevent altitude sickness. However, if one is fit they can combat altitude sickness symptoms better. Altitude sickness occurs when oxygen level is low in the blood (due to thin air and shallow breathing) and this increases the acidity & CO2 in the blood leading to symptoms like nausea, headache, overall malaise and fatigue. The mild symptoms go away with plenty of rest and drinking fluids. But severe symptoms have to be addressed immediately with medical attention and descent to lower ground, else the affliction could prove fatal.

7. What to expect on the hike

While on the hike, know that days will start very early (before sunrise) and end early. The longest part of the 4-day Inca trail trek is the 2nd day when you will hike 7.5 miles and climb up 13,775 feet to cross Warmiwausca also known as Dead Woman's Pass. Don't worry about the ominous sounding name though, the locals call it that because the surrounding mountains look like the profile of a supine woman. Remember that the hiking gets easier with each passing day. On the 4th day, you will be tired and exhausted, but you will also be exhilarated and thrilled beyond imagination when you step up to the Sun gate (Inti Punku) which is the entry to the glorious ruins of Machu Picchu.

8. Advantages of going with a guided outfit

Going with a guided outfit means you don't have to lug along all your own food and camping equipment. As a matter of principle, some backpackers prefer carrying everything by themselves, although most people carry a day-pack and the rest of the gear is hauled by porters. The porters are so well acclimatized that they practically run along the trail as you labor behind, out-of-breath and sweating in the chilly Andes air. Most guided groups have pre-assigned campsites and the porters get there ahead of time every day and set up camps for you. They also set up a cooking tent and cook an unbelievably delicious, multi-course dinner for you. One of the best things in the world is finishing a grueling day of trekking, eating a nutritious & delicious meal around the table while exchanging hiking stories, anecdotes and jokes with all your other jolly companions and then retiring to a cozy tent and warm sleeping bag for the night. In our experience, all the guides take great care of their group. Not only do they provide food, shelter and water but also a much needed dose of encouragement.

Hiking the Inca trail is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. As you walk beyond Inti Punku (the Sun Gate), and catch your first sight of Machu Picchu emerging from behind the mist covered peaks of the lush green Andes, you will forget your sore legs and be spellbound by this glorious scene—a golden city built amongst the highest peaks of the Andes, far away from the prying eyes of invaders and Spanish conquistadors. And you will feel on top of the world for having made it here the Inca way!

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