In December 2016 my cousin and I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was the first time we had ever done something this adventurous before, so it required a lot of preparation. After coming home and recapping my experience to friends and family several people expressed interest in completing this hike too. As I recap my four-day adventure I will also share advice to help anyone who is considering this trek.
Why We Chose Llama Path:
One of the most important things you need to do when booking a hike on the Inca Trail is to choose the right company to guide you. We decided to book through Llama Path after doing a lot of research. The Peruvian government only allows 500 people to be on the Inca Trail each day and it requires a permit, so hiking on your own is not an option. There are a lot of unethical issues that arise in the treatment of porters by some companies offering treks on the Inca Trail. (Porters are the people employed to carry luggage and equipment for your group.)
Llama Path treats their porters ethically, provides them proper attire, limits the weight they carry, and supports them in education and housing. A good gauge for whether you are booking with an ethical company is the price of the trek. If the price seems too low (it should be around $600) it means they are cutting costs somewhere–most likely in the treatment of their porters. If you see a price under $500 you should be wary. Here is a list of some of the reputable companies to book, and you can find more information on porter welfare here.
Itinerary of the Trail
The classic Inca Trail pilgrimage is a 4-day/3-night excursion. I will break down each of our four days below.
My cousin and I stayed in the city of Cusco before and after the trek. We met our group in the center of Cusco at 4:30am and took a bus to the start of the trek. After about two hours we stopped for breakfast at a village located in the Sacred Valley. It was a beautiful place– the sun was rising behind mountains cloaked in mist and we could hear roosters right outside as we ate eggs, bread, tea and fruit. Keep in mind that this is the last place to pick up any goodies you need for the trail. Boiled water (which cools to drink) is provided starting at lunch on the first day of the trek, so plan to bring enough water to stay hydrated from 7am-2pm. This breakfast is also not included in the price of the trek, so it is important to bring cash (sols). It was 20 sols per person.
After breakfast we took a one hour bus ride to the start of the trail. Anticipation was high! We were still sleepy when one of our guides jumped up and said “Are you ready!?” I could feel my heart racing wondering what I was getting myself into. They say the first day is the “easiest” but it was still a challenging day. We had to get used to carrying our backpacks, practicing our breathing, managing our own pace, and navigating the ups and downs of the rocky Inca Trail.
Around midday we stopped for our first meal as a group. I couldn’t get over how amazing our porters were. They set up a lunch tent, prepared a delicious three course meal, and gave us coca tea (this helps prevent altitude sickness). Every time we arrived to camp they cheered for us–it was so motivating. We stopped to rest here for about an hour to eat and catch our breath before moving on to our final camp for the evening. The first day was challenging but a lot of fun. We started to bond with fellow trekkers and passed by small villages, Inca ruins, and lots of farm animals. It was beautiful! Around 5pm we made it to camp, enjoyed “happy hour” (which consisted of tea and popcorn) before changing clothes, enjoying dinner, and heading to bed.
Day two is said to be the most challenging day – and it was – but we survived it! We had to summit and descend two mountains. We set out to hike around 6:30am after enjoying a quick breakfast and packing up. The first summit is called Dead Woman’s pass. It is very hard-don’t get me wrong-but it isn’t impossible. Reading blogs about this pass made me feel a little anxious about the second day, but it turned out fine! I don’t work out regularly yet I managed to hike to the summit at my own pace without any problems–as did the rest of our group with people of varying ages and fitness levels.
A few important things to remember about hiking Dead Woman’s Pass: Take breaks as often as you need to catch your breath, hike at your own pace, drink lots of water, and don’t look up to see how much you have left to hike. You’ll get there eventually and it will feel like you are on the top of the world! The second summit is smaller but challenging to complete due to exhaustion. We made it to our camp about 6pm just as it was getting dark. We felt so much stronger and incredibly proud of ourselves as a group for getting through the hardest day together!
The third day is only a half day of hiking–a welcome break following day two. We started around 7am and ended at 2pm. It was mostly downhill hiking through a cloud forest. We passed by beautiful Incan ruins before arriving to lunch and camp for the evening. We all took a deep breath when we arrived to camp because we knew we were almost there–we could see Machu Picchu Mountain!
In the evening we had a celebration for our porters because this was the last night that they would be with us. The chefs (yes, chefs) made a feast that ended with a delicious cake covered in sprinkles. We thanked each of the porters and gave them tips for all their hard work. (Please make sure you do this if you ever take this hike-they work SO hard.) It was a little emotional saying goodbye to these kind men who made this life-changing experience even more meaningful. We all got to sleep early because we had a 3am wake-up call to hike the final portion of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
We had finally reached the last day! We groggily arose at 3am to hike ten minutes to the entrance of the trail to Machu Picchu. A long line begins to form here starting at 3:30am and only about 30 people can fit under the shelter where there are benches, the rest have to sit on a dirt trail. We waited two hours in the dark because we wanted to make sure we were first in line–and we were! At 5am we started our hike and one hour later we arrived to the sun gate and saw our first view of Machu Picchu. It was absolutely magical. We had one more hour to hike before arriving at the world wonder.
I plan to write a post specifically on Machu Picchu because there is so much to say, but overall it was an emotional experience. After a few hours of exploration we took a bus down to a little town called Aguas Calientes and had lunch with our group before departing via train/bus back to Cusco.
Things to Keep in Mind:
- Anyone can do this trek if you prepare properly for it. It is so important to go at your own pace and not rush. My cousin and I were great partners because we stayed pretty close together throughout the trek.
- Be ready for all kinds of weather. We went in December which is the start of rainy season, but we had mostly sun! The weather is unpredictable in the mountains so wear layers and bring a rain cover for your backpack. The temperatures ranged from about 40-70 degrees throughout the day in December.
- Wear sunscreen and a hat, even if it is cloudy, the sun is incredibly strong at this altitude and my ears got very badly burned.
- Arrive to Cusco a few days before the trek to acclimatise. I was so nervous about getting altitude sickness (it was probably my biggest fear) but it never happened! It still important to take at least two days to adjust in Cusco before embarking on the trip. And coca tea is supposed to help, so drink up.
- Bathrooms on the trail are not good. They are dirty, so prepare yourself. But it is all part of the experience! Bring lots of body wipes, deodorant, dry shampoo, and enough clothes to feel clean each night. My cousin and I prepared ourselves fully for the (un)hygienic element of this trip, and it made such a difference. Stay tuned for an entire post dedicated to exactly what to pack for this trek.
- Don’t forget to stop and look around. Trekking almost 10 hours a day is hard. You keep your head down for most of it to watch where you’re going, but the scenery is breathtaking so make sure to stop and look around, take pictures, and let it soak in that you are hiking the Inca Trail to one of the wonders of the world.
- Rent hiking poles. They will SAVE your knees on the steep downhills and will help you feel more balanced. If you buy or bring your own, make sure they have a rubber bottom because metal bottoms are not permitted on the trail.
- Wrap your toes! My cousin brought this really great blister tape which we put all over our feet before the hike began. We didn’t get any blisters which made the hike so pleasant.
- Bring snacks and drink up. Stay well fed and hydrated to keep yourself strong and healthy. The trekking companies provide incredible meals and enough water, but we found ourselves needing snacks in between meals.
- Bring cash for breakfast before the trail, lunch at the end of the trail, and to tip the porters.
- It gets cold at night so bring layers! The sleeping bags they provide are warm, but we also recommend purchasing a sleeping sak to put inside. It made it feel so clean and cozy. Here is the one I bought and I loved it.
Hiking the Inca Trail was truly a life-changing experience. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but it really was. I walked (limped?) away from this trek feeling stronger emotionally, physically and mentally. I recommend you try something that puts you out of your comfort zone at least once in your life, especially if it involves being out in nature. There was something spiritual about this journey that I can’t quite put in to words. And now I already can’t wait for my next adventure. 🙂
Have you ever gone on a trek like this? What was your experience and where did you go? Do you have any advice to share?
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