Machu Picchu guide: Inca Trail tips for first-time trekkers
You’ve decided that Peru and its famous Inca Trail is at the top of your travel wish list, but how do you make it happen? Is it within reach for an inexperienced hiker and what should you know before you go?
“I arrived at the Sun Gate at the end of a grueling four-day hike and took my first look at Machu Picchu. As the stone walls pierced the early morning fog, and the entire Inca city unfolded before me, the tiredness melted away.
When I reached that peak on an early morning in January, I joined my hiking group in a series of hugs, high-fives and ear-splitting grins, but then pulled away for a moment of silent reflection. It had not been an easy journey, and there had been a moment when I’d seriously considered turning back. I’m not an athletic person by anyone’s standards, but I felt I should still be able to experience the Inca Trail.
While it was the hardest, most physically challenging thing I’ve ever completed, the Inca Trail is a very realistic goal, even for inexperienced hikers. Here’s how to do it.
Hire a porter
There’s no shame in hiring a porter. In fact, I’d say anyone starting the Inca Trail without some training should take advantage of this service. Many people try to push themselves to do the trail on their own and end up burning out after one day. It may not seem like a big deal, but carrying your backpack full of snacks and clothing, with an attached sleeping mat and bag, adds up to a lot more weight than you may think.
My entire experience changed on the morning of the second day, when I decided to take the advice of my guides. “If you don’t hire a porter, you’re not going to make it to Machu Picchu,” they told me. The moment I slipped off that bag and handed it over for 80 soles (US$35), my entire mood lifted and I finally started to enjoy the hike.
Not only was I able to change my personal trail experience, but by hiring a porter I was supporting a local family. Each trekker on the Inca Trail is obliged by law to sign up with a guided tour. While this includes a set number of porters who carry all campsite gear and food, you have the additional option to hire someone to help carry your personal belongings. These porters depend on this fee to help support their families.
While each tour group varies greatly, there are specific companies that pride themselves on their ethical treatment of porters, providing them with clean uniforms and ensuring they receive a fair wage. Booking your Inca Trail tour with such companies can cost a bit more, but think about who that money is going to help.
Select your gear
The gear you’ll need depends on the season. I went in January, the peak of the rainy season, and had to account for that.
Waterproof hiking boots, pants and a solid raincoat are essential, but what really saved me was the poncho I decided to buy last-minute in Cusco. Get an oversized version that fits over your backpack and gear. When you finally reach the campsite after hiking all day at 14,000ft, and your sleeping bag is still dry, you’ll appreciate that $2 plastic poncho.
Many people choose to purchase walking sticks, especially for the two-hour downhill stretch on day 3. I had a solid half hour of deliberation over taking one, but in the end decided against it. While I did have a few moments of “How the hell am I going to make it down that cliff?”, I chose to go slow and used the three-points-of-contact rule.
This meant I was pretty much crawling down a mountain, but I found a rhythm after a while and eventually felt pretty confident. If your balance isn’t great, I’d advise the sticks. Otherwise, ask yourself if this is really worth the extra weight. When you’re hiking for eight hours, every pound counts.
After hiking those eight hours, I was happy I’d had the foresight to dress in layers. Hiking at 5am can be pretty cold, but after a few hours of uphill climbing I was sweating. Bring base layers that are good insulators. Then add a second t-shirt and hiking pants and bring a light jacket or raincoat. Make sure to add layers for your extremities for nights at camp. My last-minute purchase of an alpaca hat and gloves earned me a few extra hours of warmth in my tent, and saved me from nights of shivering sleeplessness.
Cusco lives off the tourism industry of Machu Picchu. Its streets are lined with shops offering hiking gear for rental at very fair prices. If you’re not sure you want to commit to an expensive pair of hiking boots or a North Face sleeping bag, save yourself the money (and having to lug those boots around on the rest of your trip) and go the rental route. The shops are eager for your business, especially during the off-season, so don’t be afraid to bargain. I paid 10 soles a day for my insulated sleeping bag, which totaled just $15 for the entire trip.
The porters accompanying each group are responsible for carrying enough food for each trekker, and cooking it as well. I was surprised at how many gourmet chefs double as porters! There were some nights I was so tired from the hike I’d fall asleep in my tent before dinner. Don’t make that mistake.
Your body is burning calories at a much faster rate than normal and needs to be constantly nourished. Plus, the provided meal choices are super delicious, with options like honey-covered pancakes, vegetable soups and chicken with rice.
It’s also important to bring along some snacks for the road. Nuts and power bars are good to keep energy levels up, but don’t forget to pack some cookies for a rush of sugar and carbohydrates.
On day two, as I was still a few hours away from the top of the pass, the skies opened and I was drenched before I could reach my poncho. Each step grew heavier, and with such thin mountain air I could barely breathe. I grabbed a packet of cookies from my pocket and quickly ate two. Instantly, I felt a little better. My dizziness grew fainter, and I was able to keep walking towards the campsite.
Plan your costs
The Inca Trail is not cheap. Yes, you can very easily find tours that cost $100 less, and swap good hiking boots for sneakers, but these decisions will affect you on the trail. As a newcomer to the world of trekking, do yourself a favour and create the most comfortable and supportive environment you can. It’s worth the extra money. Sleeping bags are usually US$25 and hiking poles will set you back about US$10.
Ready to tackle Machu Picchu? Check our range of guided small group tours in Peru.
Photo: Rafal Dubiel