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Hiking the Inca Trail: a brief overview
When we completed hiking the Inca Trail in July 2017, it felt like one of the biggest achievements of our lives. Until just a few months earlier, we hadn’t even considered ourselves hikers.
Like many people, Machu Picchu is a place we had dreamed of seeing. The 15th-century Incan citadel in the remote Peruvian Andes is one of the world’s most iconic images. An architectural masterpiece of the Inca civilisation, it is considered one of mankind’s greatest engineering achievements.
While it is possible to visit Machu Picchu directly by train from the nearby city of Cusco, the most rewarding way to see it is by hiking the Inca Trail. The classic route is around 43 kilometres long and typically takes four days to complete. Winding through the mountains and jungles of Peru, the route passes various impressive Inca ruins and offers some of the most incredible scenery on the planet.
Having been there, done it and bought the t-shirt, I can tell you there is no feeling quite like descending from the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu as the morning mist lifts, revealing it in all its splendour. But first, you need to get there.
How to book the Inca Trail
First and foremost when planning your Inca Trail experience, you need to book in advance. The route is strictly regulated by the Peruvian government, with a maximum of 500 people allowed on any single day. New measures to preserve its natural beauty and archaeological sites are introduced regularly.
To secure a place on the Inca Trail, you need to sign up to a trek at least six months in advance. We booked our July 2017 trek in September 2016, and even then places were running out.
There are several travel agencies that run Inca Trail treks, with prices beginning at about 300 US dollars. We often used budget options for tours on our travels, but this was different. As one of the major highlights of our journey, we wanted to make sure the experience was the best it possibly could be, and so we decided to pay a bit more to ensure that.
We booked the Inca Trail with G Adventures via STA Travel. From a range of options we decided on the 7-day package, which included a day in the Sacred Valley and Ollontaytambo, two nights in Cusco, and the classic four-day Inca Trail with all accommodation and meals included.
We paid £800 each in total for the tour. To secure it we paid £100 deposit each, with the balance payable by seven weeks prior to our trip.
Another reason we were happy to pay more to go with G Adventures was their good reputation for treating local staff well. The Inca Trail is possible for tourists like us because every group is accompanied by a team of local porters who know the terrain and carry heavy luggage and equipment. Last year I wrote in more detail about our experience of the Inca trail and the legendary porters who looked after us.
STA Travel took care of all the bookings and paperwork needed for our Inca Trail, including the day pass for Machu Picchu. As newbie travellers – this was pretty much the first activity of our year away – this took a burden off our shoulders. While other tour operators such as Llama Path are quite a lot cheaper, not all the logistics are covered, or cost extra. For more experienced trekkers this might not be such a problem.
Inca Trail tours run all year round, but it is important to consider seasonal weather conditions. To avoid too much rainfall, the best time for hiking the Inca Trail is between May and September. We went slap in the middle of this season and hardly saw a drop of rain.
Physical training for the Inca Trail
The physical challenge of hiking the Inca Trail should not be underestimated. As a result of its high touristic profile the route is attempted by a lot of first-time hikers. But with its uneven, up-and-down topography it is no walk in the park, and requires training. If you arrive unprepared, it is likely to damage your experience.
The bread and butter of training for the Inca Trail is to do plenty of walking and hiking, building up distances and difficulty. Wherever you are, seek out nearby hiking routes and take it from there.
We began in January 2017, six months before our trek. Once a week on Sundays, we simply took a train to somewhere in London and walked from there back to our house. We started with Morden (5 kilometres) and worked our way up to Kingston (12 kilometres).
Gathering confidence, we graduated to off-road hikes in the South Downs. This swath of countryside in south-east England was the perfect nearby trekking getaway from London. We ranged from one-day, 13-kilometres hikes at Box Hill to overnight camping trails around Amberley and Ditchling Beacon.
When visiting friends in the north of England, We stopped for a hike in Carding Mill Valley, which was beautiful. Best of all, when staying with my Mum in Cornwall, we took on the South West Coastal Path – a hiking route that follows the coastline of one of the most stunning parts of the UK.
We kept this up on a regular basis all the way until our departure for Peru in June 2017. At least once a week we did an extended walk or hike, and we did several shorter walks together in the evenings.
When doing these training hikes, it’s best to wear the walking shoes you will be using on the actual Inca Trail. It would likely be disastrous to buy a new pair just before the trek; walking shoes need to be worn in. Without doing so, your feet may get sore to the point that it will ruin the experience.
The ascents and descents on the Inca Trail are not just smooth gradients; the trek involves thousands of steps. This requires a different kind of specific training. We were conscious to include training hikes that included some step walking, such as Box Hill.
Even more valuably, I did regular step training whenever possible. My workplace was in a nine-storey office building. At least a couple of times a day I would walk to the top of the staircase and back down. Over time, this built up the strength in my muscles I would need for the Inca Trail.
As you will need to carry some luggage on the Inca Trail, it is also important to build upper body strength. Gradually, we began taking weight on our training hikes and increased it over time. When we finally did the Inca Trail – thanks to our team of porters – we only carried about 8kg each. It’s a good idea to work out the weight you will be carrying and work towards that.
Last, but certainly not least, it is vital to build your cardiovascular system for the Inca Trail. This means doing a lot of aerobic exercise such as swimming, jogging or cycling. All of this improves your ability to process oxygen, which will be crucial when hiking at altitude (more on that below).
As a recreational hockey player, I was already getting plenty of aerobic exercise twice a week, but I stepped that up with more jogging. It’s a good idea to track your exercise progress with a smartwatch such as a Fitbit.
Acclimatising for high-altitude trekking
While there are many treks out there with longer distances, steeper ascents and tougher terrain, one little factor makes the Inca Trail a tricky proposition: altitude. With the route ranging between 2,500m and 4,200m above sea level, the thinner air makes each little exertion a lot harder.
Altitude can affect people differently and your level of fitness doesn’t make a difference. Some people have almost no problems at all, while others really struggle. If you can afford the time and expense, it’s very useful to visit a high-altitude destination a few week in advance of your trek to see how it affects you.
Two months before our trek, I was lucky enough to take a work trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – the world’s fifth-highest capital city at 2,355m. After a day of acclimatising with no issues, I tried a bit of jogging. Aside from being a bit shorter of breath than usual, I was ok.
If you can be flexible with your entry route into Peru, one option is to come in via Bolivia. Most of the country’s hotspots are at high altitude, including Salar de Uyuni, La Paz and Lake Titicaca.
You might find that you aren’t as lucky as I was, and suffer with altitude sickness. The typical symptoms of this include headaches, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. If you do find yourself struggling, there are ways you can beat it.
First of all, take as long as you can to acclimatise. The city of Cusco is the starting point for Inca Trail tours, and at 3,400m it is the perfect place. Arrive at least a couple of days before you begin hiking the Inca Trail. You might also want to buy some altitude sickness tablets, which are easy to find in the city. Avoid alcohol and drink plenty of water.
When it comes to the trek itself, take it slowly, take plenty of breaks and, again, drink lots of water.
Mental preparation for the Inca Trail
Hiking the Inca Trail is a feat of endurance that is just as much about the mind as the body. If you are not used to this level of activity, your mind will give up long before your body does.
You are likely to hit mental barriers; the feeling that you can’t go on, or don’t want to. You might tell yourself you’re unable to continue. First of all, you need to be aware that this is going to happen and be ready for it.
Inca Trail tours are usually run in fairly large groups; ours was 14 people. It’s likely you will have a briefing on the day before you set off, to meet your tour guides and the group, and find out more about the details of the trek.
This briefing is a good opportunity to raise any concerns or reservations you might have. If you have any anxieties about the trek, share them with the guides, and they will be able to help. That’s their job!
We were lucky to have two excellent guides who were extremely understanding and supportive of the slower people in the group. If you can set the parameters for the trek before you start, it will help to clear those niggling worries from your mind.
Take time to understand the route. This should be explained in detail in the briefing. While most people say that the second day of the Inca Trail – which includes hiking to the highest point of 4,200m – is the most difficult physically, many find the next day tougher. With a descent of over 1,000m in the latter stages of the day, locals call it the ‘Gringo Killer’, and it can be a real grind. The more you know the intricacies of the route in advance, the better you can prepare for it mentally.
It’s also a great idea to buddy up with someone for the trek, and again the briefing meeting is a good opportunity to set this up. By sharing the endurance with someone else, you can support each other to push through those tough moments.
Choosing the right equipment for the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is a serious trek that involves some harsh terrain, and where challenging weather conditions are not common. As such, it is vital to take high-quality, durable hiking gear. The three most important items for hiking the Inca Trail are your boots, jacket and bag.
Some of your gear is fine to buy online, but not shoes. You really need to try them on and have a good walk around. Consider the fact that you’ll probably be wearing thick hiking socks; it’s usually best to go for half a size above your usual.
I went with Berghaus Men’s Explorer, while Lisa chose Salomon Women’s Ellipse. These both worked out great for us. Everyone’s taste is different, but the important thing is to choose something comfortable. It’s best to go with a recognised outdoor brand – don’t take a risk for the Inca Trail.
For the jacket, waterproof is essential, and windproof desirable. We both chose 3-in-1 jackets that worked as a comfy fleece, a waterproof outer shell, or both together. Again we went for recognised brands; I chose the North Face Evolution Triclimate, and Lisa the Jack Wolskin Lawrence 3-in-1.
A well-designed bag is crucial to your comfort while hiking. We both took a Berghaus Twentyfourseven Plus rucksack, which distributed weight evenly and didn’t chafe at our shoulders.
Other equipment you will need for the Inca Trail includes:
- Walking sticks – essential for the extensive steep descents. You can hire them in Cusco, but if you’re planning to do any more hiking it may be better to buy some.
- Gloves, scarf and a hat to stay warm at night – it gets cold at altitude when the sun disappears.
- A sun hat for the daytime – the Peruvian sunshine can be fierce!
- Hiking socks
- Light t-shirts
Your bag-packing list for the Inca Trail
While you want to keep your bag weight to a minimum, there are some absolute essentials to take for the Inca Trail. I would recommend the following:
- Camel pack for water. You need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated on the Inca Trail, and the most comfortable and convenient way to carry it is in a camel pack that you can take regularly through a tube. We both used a 3-litre PEVA Camel Pack.
- Hydration tablets are useful for optimising your water intake and making your supply go further.
- Snacks. While our tour company provided a bag full of snacks, we supplemented it with our own, and were glad we did. Anything that’s light and provides energy and protein is good – nuts, seeds, dried fruit, energy bars, that kind of thing. Best of all is to make your own trail mix.
- Sleeping bag. We brought our own, but it was possible to hire them from the tour company.
- Head torch. It gets very dark at night in the mountains – you don’t want to get lost when nipping outside to the toilet.
- Camera. You’re going to see some of the most impressive scenery in the world, so be prepared to capture those memories.
- Cash. It should go without saying that there aren’t any ATMs along the trekking route. If you need to buy any snacks or drinks, they come at marked-up prices, cash only. Also, it’s likely you’ll want to give a tip to your guides and porters at the end of the trek.
- Your passport. You don’t want to miss out on getting the cool stamp at Machu Picchu!
I didn’t put electrical items like phones on this list because, well, they’re not really necessary. You won’t get much signal anyway! But if you really must take your phone, make sure it’s fully charged before you set off. You won’t find many power points in the Peruvian wilderness.
With your training completed and bags packed, there’s nothing left to do but go ahead enjoy the experience. You’ve earned it.
Have you done the Inca Trail and have some advice to share? Please post in the comments below.