30th May 2020

THE INCA TRAIL – EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW

View of Machu Picchu from The Sun Gate on a Cloudy Day
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post (however affiliate links may be used, including Amazon Associates, which mean I earn commissions on purchases at no extra cost to you) and all thoughts are my own.

Machu Picchu is one of the most iconic sights in South America, with most travellers dreaming of visiting one day. The Inca Trail is almost just as famous as Machu Picchu itself, with hundreds of traveller starting the 4 day/3 night trek every single day.

I completed the Inca Trail and proudly reached Machu Picchu in March 2018. Before booking the hike, I had so many questions…

Hopefully, this blog post will answer some of the queries that you have if you are thinking about booking the Inca Trail. If any questions are unanswered, please feel free to email me (escapingessex@outlook.com) or get in touch via Twitter – I am always more than happy to discuss all things travel!

Team beginning the Inca Trail hike

Do I have to do a hike to visit Machu Picchu?

No, you do not need to hike to Machu Picchu. While I am mainly going to talk about The Inca Trail, I should point out that there are many different ways to reach Machu Picchu including budget buses, luxury trains and varying hikes through beautiful terrains. The options available are vast and can certainly be overwhelming!

I had never hiked before and almost chose the bus/train option. But with time and money on my side, I thought “why not try”! I was also swayed greatly by friends who had already completed the trip. Many people who have visited Machu Picchu will tell you that the way they visited is “THE BEST WAY” or “THE ONLY WAY” to experience this world wonder.

While listening to my peers worked well for me and I had a great time, I truly do not thing that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to visit. Do not be swayed too much by other people’s opinions – there are lots of things that you should take into consideration while making your decision, including your level of fitness, your budget and how long you have. Make sure that you do your research and make a choice that you are comfortable with. If you’re considering doing a trek, read on!

Inca Trail Sights

What is the Inca Trail?

The Incan Empire created trails spanning thousands of miles throughout the South American continent. However, a 26 mile route which starts just outside Ollantaytambo, passing various Incan sites before finishing at Machu Picchu is known as the classic “Inca Trail”.

The trail has become well-established for travellers and is now regulated by the Peruvian government to minimise the impact of tourism on this ancient site. Most people begin the trek with a reputable guide from Cusco.

Normally the hike is completed over 4 days / 3 nights, however shorter and longer versions are also available. The shorter version (generally 2 days / 1 night) does not cover the entire trail and is therefore a good idea for people who are concerned about their fitness levels or do not have enough time to complete the 4 day trek. The longer version (generally 5 days / 4 nights) completes the exact same trek as the classic route, just spread over a longer period, meaning you hike shorter distances each day.

Alpaca on The Inca Trail

Is the Inca Trail the only trek I can do?

The Inca Trail is arguably the most popular trek but there are plenty of other options available to you, the most popular being:

Inca Trail Rice Gardens

Are There Benefits Of Choosing Another Trail?

Definitely! I was swayed by friends who convinced me that The Inca Trail was THE best way to visit Machu Picchu, and as I’ve already mentioned, this isn’t necessarily true.

Many people who complete other trails gloat at how isolated the other trails are. While the Peruvian government do limit the number of people that enter the Inca Trail each day, you will bump into other tour groups along the way. I didn’t find this to be an issue and enjoyed the social aspect. By no stretch of the imagination did I think the Inca Trail was over-crowded but if you are looking for complete isolated bliss, one of the other trails may be better!

If you’re a confident hiker and do not wish to be limited by a tour guide (or pay the price for a tour guide), it is possible to complete some of the other trails on your own. If this intrigues you, please make sure that you do your research properly and stay safe!

In my opinion, the main benefit is flexibility. You need to book the Inca Trail months in advance (more on this later) whereas the other trails can (usually) be booked a matter of days before you intend to trek. This is something I wish I had considered more when planning my trip.

Alpacas on The Inca Trail

Why is the Inca Trail so popular?

Firstly, prestige. The Inca Trail has a great reputation across the globe and many wish to follow the same route as the Incas, all those years ago. Something that the other trails may not necessarily offer.

However, the main reason is likely to be The Sun Gate, an elevated viewing platform which is only accessible via the Inca Trail. On the final day of the trek, you wake up extremely early to complete the final part of the hike to the Sun Gate as early as possible. The intention being that you view Machu Picchu at sunrise from the Sun Gate.

All other treks end in Aguas Calientes, a nearby town. If you opt for another trek, you will enter Machu Picchu through the main entrance, alongside all of the travellers who have arrived by bus/train.

Alpaca Adventures Team Reaching Machu Picchu

How hard is the Inca Trail? Do I need to be fit?

This was one of my main concerns before I booked my trip.

How “hard” the trek is will, of course, depend largely on your physical circumstances. There were members of my tour group who had completed multiple marathons and lived very active lifestyles, these people completed the trek incredibly easily – often they reached peaks/meeting points at least an hour ahead of me!

26 miles spread over 4 days is actually very attainable for most able-bodied people. 26 miles is the same length as a marathon (which many people complete in a matter of hours, not 4 days)! The difference is of course altitude, and may people will not know how altitude affects them until they are completing the trek.

For reference, I was 23 at the time of travel and living a relatively healthy lifestyle but could definitely improve my health/fitness! I very rarely exercise (other than general walking), work in an office (therefore spending a lot of time sitting down) and love junk food as much as the next person. I told myself that I would do some “training” for the trek but this never materialised…. And I was generally fine!

The thing that I struggled with most was the inability to catch my breath while walking up hill. I tend to get a bit out of breath when walking uphill generally, this becomes much more extreme when you are hiking at altitude and oxygen levels are lower. Otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised at how “hard” the trek was, but maybe this is because I went in with extreme expectations!

One member of our group felt extremely rough on the first day and really struggled. She was given an electrolyte drink by our guides and recovered well to carry on with the next 3 days. Altitude sickness should be taken seriously and I cam very glad that I didn’t experience sickness during the trek.

In summary, if you are in good health and make sure that you acclimatise before beginning the trek (more information on this below), you should be able to complete the trek.

RELATED: If you want to hear about how rubbish I am at hiking, read this post about all of my travel mishaps during my 3 months in South America!

Inca Trail Valley

How do I acclimatise before my trek?

I’ve already mentioned that you need to acclimatise before beginning your trek. I am from a particularly flat region in England and have absolutley no idea what the highest altitude I had experienced before my trip to South America (I imagine it was very low), so I didn’t know how altitude would affect me.

I travelled through Chile and Boliva before reaching Peru. Many of the areas I had travelled through before beginning my trek were actually higher than that of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, so I was happy that I had acclimatised well.

However, most people wont have completed this extensive travel before reaching Cusco. Generally, you should aim to arrive in Cusco at least 4 days before beginning our trek; this will give you a few days to acclimatise and seek medical advice if necessary.

RELATED: If you’re looking to extend your travels, you can read my full 3 month itinerary here!

Inca Trail Guides

Can I do the Inca Trail without a guide?

The Classic Inca Trail can only be completed with a guide. Experienced hikers who do not enjoy following a guide, may therefore be inclined to book one of the other, unregulated, options which do not always require a guide.

Do I need to pre-book the Inca Trail?

YES. 100% YES.

500 permits are issued for each day (300 of which are for porters/staff, meaning 200 tourists are allowed onto the trail each day). These permits are purchased by reputable tour agencies in advance and then sold to tourists as part of their tour package.

Pre-booking is generally required months in advance (especially if you wish to travel in the peak months). I was lucky as I was making a booking for the end of March (which is the end of the rainy season), so I managed to make a booking in January. However, at that point, all of the permits for April, May, June, July and August were sold-out.

If you do not want to be restricted on timings during your travels, it may therefore be better to book one of the alternative treks (which can generally be booked when you are in Cusco only a few days before departure). Having a pre-booked trek meant that I did have to rush part of my trip to make sure that I got to Cusco in time. If you’re read my entire 3 month itinerary, you will know that I had to skip Sucre in Bolivia to get to Cusco in time.

Girl Overlooking Inca Trail Valley

How do I choose a tour company?

As I had left my booking to the last minute, I had to simply book with the company which had availability (Alpaca Expeditions) which thankfully worked out really well for me!

Alpaca Expeditions were extremely professional and I would highly recommend their services. Before booking, they answered all of my email queries efficiently, their office staff in Central Cusco were super helpful and friendly and the tour guides were extremely experienced. The company is founded by a former Porter, so the porter’s welfare and needs are very important to the company.

The things that you will need to consider are:

Inca Trail Campsite Sunrise

What equipment do you need?

Depending on which tour company you choose, you are likely to need very little equipment! This was super important to me as I didn’t want to have to carry specific hiking gear with me throughout my 3 month adventure for 4 specific days.

For the most part, you just need to bring sensible clothing. All of the camping equipment on my trek was provided by Alpaca Expeditions with additional extras available for renting if you wish (sleeping bags, hiking poles etc.) You can see Alpaca Expedition’s full packing list here!

If you arrive in Cusco and realise that you are missing something, there are plenty of hiking shops in the city but be warned that they are largely high-end, expensive shops.

Alpaca Expeditions Porters

Do I need to carry my belongings?

For the most part, no. Porters will carry up to 7kg of your personal items (clothing, toiletries, sleeping bag, air matt etc.). You will pack up your belongings each morning and hand these over to the porters – you will not have access to these bags until you have reached the campsite for the evening.

You will be expected to carry your small backpack containing the items you need during the day (water, camera, medication etc.), so make sure that your backpack is super comfortable! Be warned that backpacks exceeding 25L will not be allowed into Machu Picchu (you will be asked to check it into a luggage storage facility before entering), so the smaller the better!

For all additional luggage, your hotel/hostel in Cusco should have a storage facility to keep your belongings safe while you are trekking.

What facilities are available on the trek?

The facilities available on the trek are basic at best. As I’ve already mentioned, there are various campsites that each company can choose to use.

The campsites used by Alpaca Expeditions usually had a toilet which could be used (although we carried our own, much cleaner version). The final campsite also had a shower block which none of us decided to use as the smell was truly disgusting!

I’ve had so many people say to me “I can’t do the trek as I need to be able to shower” and that seems like such a wasted experience to me. You are still able to stay clean by brining body wipes, deodorant, dry shampoo etc. You will be having so much fun that you’ll forget you haven’t showered!

Girl At Summit of Dead Woman's Pass

How much does it cost?

Generally, the trek will cost circa $650 – $750 depending on which tour operator you decide to use and any additional extras you need to hire from them (sleeping bag, hiking poles etc.)

You should also factor in that you will be expected to tip your tour guides, cooks and porters (and trust me, you’ll want to thank them for their incredible service). Generally, the tour group work together to create a “pool” of money which is split between the guides/cooks/porters. The amount of your tip will depend on the number of trekkers and the number of staff. Alpaca Expeditions suggest that each porter should receive 60-80 soles and each chef should receive 150 soles for the Class Inca Trail (correct as at May 2020).

RELATED: Want to know how much my 3 month trip through South America cost? Read all about it here!

Machu Picchu

What is the best time of year to complete the Inca Trail?

There are two distinct seasons in this area:

I hiked in late March and experienced rain on 1 out of 4 days – which was far more successful than I anticipated! Disappointingly, the rainy clouds were also apparent on the morning we reached Machu Picchu, meaning we didn’t get the “classic” view from the Sun Gate.

Typically, the “best” months are known to be April, May, September and October as the temperatures are higher and the chance of rain is lower.

Inc Trail Sights

What is Huayna Picchu?

While booking your trek, you may see options to add “Huayna Picchu” to your booking for an additional fee. Huayna Picchu is a mountain within the grounds of Machu Picchu which gives you a stunning view from above.

The additional trek should take circa 45 minutes to summit and 45 minutes to come back down. I knew that I would be absolutely knackered from the prior days of trekking, so didn’t opt to climb Huyana Picchu too!

Of the 4 people in our group which had booked and paid to scale Huayna Picchu, only 2 actually did the trek.

2 responses to “THE INCA TRAIL – EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW”

  1. Rachel says:

    Peru is so on our list. We are waiting for our daughter to be a little older, so we can hike together. I totally agree about just using wet wipes and calling it clean. It looks so worth it.

  2. Polly says:

    I have wanted to visit Machu Piccu since forever. This Inca Trail sounds like so much fun. A real adventure! Would absolutely love to do it. Hopefully one day. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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