The 4-day Classic Inca Trail usually tops the list of best treks in the world. It has also become the most sought-after and difficult-to-get-to mountain trails in the world due to the limit on visitor numbers, imposed by the Peruvian government since the year 2001. Does it rightfully deserve its reputation? Does it justify all the money, time, and physical effort spent? And is it really the most memorable and gratifying way to get to Machu Picchu despite being the most challenging at the same time? YES, YES, and YES! If you are still considering whether you should do it yourself, below you will find a few useful notes based on my personal experience.
How I signed up for the Inca Trail
The moment I decided to go to Peru, I knew I was going to do the Inca Trail. I don’t even remember, where or how I first heard about it, but this idea was firmly established in my mind. I didn't consider any alternative ways of visiting Machu Picchu.
It is worth mentioning that I am neither an experienced trekker nor a good athlete. Apart from a few easy short hikes in the Alps at a much lower altitude, I had not really done any trekking in my life. For the three preceding years, I’d been so busy with my work that my only exercise was a daily 10-minute walk from home to the office and back home. Oh, boy, did I realize at the time the physical challenge I was about to take? I think I did but not to the full extent.
Yet, judging by my observations the majority of tourists on the Inca Trail are just like me, first-time or beginning hikers that are more driven by their curiosity about the local culture than some sporting instinct or adrenaline rush. So if you are one of us, do not let your lack of athletic preparation scare you away from one of the most amazing trekking adventures available today. However, if you still have some time before your trip, mark my words: start training walking up and down the stairs to make your Inca Trail experience a bit easier and more enjoyable.
Preparation For The Inca Trail
It didn’t take me long to convince my boyfriend to go on the Inca Trail with me. Even though, just like me, he is more used to doing mental exercises than physical ones. Thus, as soon as we booked our permits, we started looking for whatever handy information we could find.
And we did find a lot. From reading an account by one woman who claimed to have gotten through the difficulties of the trek with relative ease despite being overweight and untrained. To watching videos made by an experienced hiker who lived in the mountains and who described his experience of mounting the steep Andean peaks rather challenging despite his envious physical shape and training. But whether you are physically strong or weak, you never really know how your body will react at high altitude. And no matter what you read or hear, it all remains a theory until you go through the real experience yourself. For us, the reality turned out to be closer to the latter than the former. Here is a first hint for you to explain why.
The high altitude
Cusco, which is normally the starting point for a trip to Machu Picchu, is located at the altitude of 3400 m. The Inca Trail itself starts in the village of Piscacucho at about 2600 m and ascends to 4215 m at the famous Dead Woman’s Pass. Then it alternates between up- and downhills at 3400 – 3800 m before eventually descending to Machu Picchu situated at 2430 m above sea level.
Why am I telling you this? Because hiking, or doing any other physical activity, for that matter, at altitudes above 2500 m takes a toll on a human body. The higher the elevation, the more rarified the air is, and the less oxygen there is available for you to inhale. As a consequence, it is more difficult to make any physical effort. Even the local Indian people who live up high in the mountains since birth use some natural stimulants like coca leaves (which is, by no means, a drug unlike its derivative cocaine), chachacoma, anise, and other plants that can help restore the energy and enhance physical endurance. But if you are one of the tourists that live at sea level all their lives, there is a risk for you to develop an altitude sickness which can be quite debilitating. Therefore, you need to learn about the symptoms of altitude sickness (such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, digestion problems, etc.) and how to fight or avoid them before you arrive in the mountains.
The most common and effective advice is to ascend to higher elevations gradually, letting your body adjust to the lower air pressure step by step. This means that you can plan your itinerary, taking into account the altitude challenges of the places you are going to visit. For example, you arrive in Lima, which is at sea level, then you go to Arequipa located at 2335m and only after that you go to Cusco where you spend a few days acclimatizing at 3400m ahead of the trek. But even if you don’t have much time and fly from Lima straight to Cusco, you’d better still arrange for at least 4-5 extra days before the Inca Trail to make sure your body has adjusted to the altitude well enough to take up a strenuous physical activity.
From my own experience, I can tell you that we had spent one and a half months traveling in the mountains at high altitudes prior to the start of the Inca Trail. Although we had never really felt any serious symptoms of altitude sickness during this period, even after such a long time we still got short breath very quickly when going uphill, jumping or running, something that doesn’t normally occur to us at home. So take this warning about the challenges of the altitude seriously and remember that prior acclimatization is essential for you to succeed on the Inca Trail.
The next essential element of your preparation for the trail is, of course, getting some physical training. Particularly, if, unlike us, you book your permit well in advance.
You do not need to be a great athlete to complete the Inca Trail unless you want to run a one-day marathon instead of a 4-day hike. Yes, take my word for it! There is an annual Inca Trail Marathon which some people finish in just a few hours. However, don’t try it unless you are a comic book superhero, an accomplished Marathon runner, or a local porter.
For the majority of us, gringos with average physical abilities, hiking the Inca Trail is already a great accomplishment. And the best exercise to prepare for it is walking up and downstairs in a zigzag way. Why? Because that’s what the Inca Trail is all about: going up and down very uneven and steep stone stairs built by Incas centuries ago. Mind you, you will be doing this for 7-8 hours, covering a distance of 11-16 km per day. This will put a lot of strain on your leg muscles and knee joints. Therefore, the more trained they are, the easier it will be for you to tackle the high Inca stairs.
As an extra help to reduce the stress on your knees and leg muscles as well as to prevent injuries, it is also highly recommended to use walking poles (book them from your tour operator or bring your own). A good pair of specialized trekking boots (not your everyday pair of sneakers), which you should break in before the trail, is also a must! They will protect your ankles and ensure a better balance and grip on the uneven or slippery surface.
What Else To Bring On The Trail
In addition to the hiking boots and the walking poles, there are a few other things that will come in handy during the trek.
Normally, your tour operator sends you in advance a detailed list of things to bring on the trail. So you will have a checklist at hand when packing for the trip. But here are a few tips based on my own experience:
- A good waterproof adjustable backpack designed to transfer the weight from your back to the hips so that your shoulders do not get sore during the trek.
When it comes to clothing, in the mountains, you will hear a lot about the so-called layering system that allows changing clothes from hot to cold and vice versa depending on the weather conditions. The Andean mountains are famous for their unpredictable weather which can go from scorching heat to pouring rain and cold in a matter of minutes. Besides, the trek runs through different climate zones: from cold high altitude mountain passes to a warm tropical jungle around Machu Picchu.
Ideally, all the clothes you wear on the trail should be specifically designed for trekking and made of synthetic fibers for better ventilation. Waterproof is another useful quality as there can be rainy outbreaks even during the dry season. Let alone, the rainy one when you have showers almost on a daily basis. So your set of clothes for the trek should include the following:
- 2 pairs of comfy hiking trousers (ideally they should be convertible into shorts);
- 3-4 trekking t-shirts as the first layer;
- 1 long-sleeved shirt or a fleece jacket as the second layer;
- 1 water-resistant and windproof jacket with a hood as the shell layer;
- 1 pair of thermal underwear for sleeping as it can get rather cold at nights;
- 1 good rain poncho/coat made of some durable material (not the cheap flimsy one they sell for 5 sols in Cusco);
- 1 headlamp (as there is no electricity on the Inca Trail and you find yourself in complete darkness from 6 pm until 5 am)
- Baby wipes, anti-bacterial wet wipes, and gel sanitizers are extremely important for your personal hygiene, as the toilets that you find on the Inca Trail are not the ones you are, normally, used to. They are dirty, slimy, and hardly ever cleaned. Besides, you will not see hot water, let alone, soap or other washing liquids in the bathrooms from the moment you step on the trail until you get to Machu Picchu. So use the anti-bacterial wipes and gel hand sanitizers to clean yourself and keep off the germs!
- Personal medication (such as painkillers, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, digestive, antidiarrheal medicines, band-aids, soothing/moisturizing creams, and other medicines for your personal conditions, if you have any, as you never know what you might need on the road);
- A refillable water bottle. Normally, you buy your own water supply from the local people on the first and second day of the trek. But once you cross the Dead Woman’s Pass in the afternoon of the second day, it is not possible to buy anything. Your tour operator provides you with potable water until the end of the trek. But you need your own bottle to refill.
- Sleeping bags can normally be rented from your local tour operator so that you do not carry extra weight on the plane. However, if you are too squeamish, bring your own one. Alternatively, you can buy a sleeping bag liner which is much lighter to carry and provides extra insulation and cleanliness for the sleeping bag you rent;
- Sunglasses, a sun hat, and a sunscreen because high up in the Andes the sun is merciless even when it’s cold;
- A warm beanie to keep your head warm when there are strong winds.
This is the stuff that I would call indispensable on the trail. Apart from that, you will not need much. It is in your best interest to stick to this minimum because every extra thing adds up to the weight of your backpack and when ascending to the height of 4200 m, you would feel at least the double weight of each kg you carry. If you hire a porter to carry your stuff, there is still a limit of 9 kg they can carry for you (including the sleeping bag and mattress which weigh about 3-4 kg).
My advice for you would be not to spare the money and hire a personal porter that can at least carry your sleeping bag and mattress. The lighter the weight you carry on your shoulders, the easier it is for you to mount the never-ending steps of the Dead Woman’s Pass.
The best time to do the Inca Trail
Now that we have visited the Peruvian Andes in the low season (well, relatively low, as Cusco seems to be full of tourists all year round) we know why the high season is the best time to go there.
Because what really matters is the dry sunny weather that is more likely to happen during the high winter season from May to August. In this period, nights and early mornings can be rather cold. But it gets pretty warm during the day. And, believe me, it is much nicer to walk around the historical Inca ruins and take beautiful photos when the sun is out and the sky is clear blue.
It stands to reason that the low season from November to March is called rainy. During this period, it can rain almost on a daily basis. We arrived in Cusco at the end of March, which is the end of the low season, and were greeted with a heavy shower on our arrival. All in all, we spent there 11 days, including the Inca Trail. Most of them were grey and cloudy, even when it didn't rain. Luckily, the first two days of the Inca Trail were pretty warm and sunny. Yet, once we entered the cloud forest, the weather changed for the worse, and in the morning of the 4th day, we had to march our last 6 km to Machu Picchu under heavy rain, arriving at the view of the Sun Gate completely shrouded in fog. That moment was a bit frustrating, even though the rest of the day at Machu Picchu made up for the first disappointment in full.
As you, probably, already know, according to the regulations introduced by the government of Peru, only 500 people per day can enter the Inca Trail. Of these, the majority are local guides and porters. In the end, only 200 tourists a day are allowed to set out on the trek. That is why if you want to do it in high season, you have to rush and book your permit as soon as possible. Once they come out at the beginning of January, they sell out like hot pies.
On the other hand, it is much easier and even cheaper to book your permit in low season because there are fewer people eager to trek in the rain. We booked our permits for the last day of March two months in advance because all other dates from April 1st till the end of August were already sold out. But when we were in Cusco we asked around and some tour agencies were ready to sell their Inca Trail Package for the unsold dates in March with a significant discount. However, you get a good price at the expense of good weather. So you need to weigh for yourself all pros and cons: to look for a cheaper bargain in the low season with bad rainy weather or pay the full price in the high season when good weather is guaranteed.
Classic Inca Trail: History and Present
Why do I talk in this article about the Classic Inca Trail? And what exactly does the Inca Trail stand for?
First of all, when you look for the Inca Trail Tours online, you find different options available. Some of them offer 1 or 2-day tours, which in reality cover only a very small and relatively easy section of the real Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu. You don’t really get the full camping/trekking experience because you sleep at a hotel in Aguas Calientes instead of a campsite and you get to Machu Picchu through standard bus route instead of entering the Sacred City of the Incas through the majestic Sun Gate. Yet, if you have limited time and want to have a more varied experience of visiting Machu Picchu, it might just as well be an option.
However, for those who want to have a real adventure packed with historical sites and spectacular scenery, the Classic 4-day Inca Trail is the right choice. This route covers the last 46 km of the old road leading from Cusco, the former Incas’ capital, to Machu Picchu. Yet, it might be interesting for you to know that this trail itself is only a small part of a much more extensive and developed road system built by Incas throughout South America in the heyday of their empire. This system connected residential settlements, fortresses, storage houses, agricultural terraces across all the territories ruled by Incas at the time of the Spanish conquest. It ran for thousands of kilometers from Southern Colombia to Central Chile. These roads still exist in the Andes today, but most of the time they are hard to access.
The 46-km section of the trail we follow today to get to Machu Picchu is exactly the same one the Inca King used to take to reach, what is believed to have been his Winter Residence and a Sacred Place of Worship. On the way, you visit the same places where he, probably, himself used to stop, rest, pray and conduct sacrificial ceremonies. When you think about it, it does give you some goosebumps, doesn’t it? You can also see other ruins that Incas used for agricultural or military purposes and get a much deeper insight into their state organization and their daily lives. It all adds up to the number of discoveries you are to make at Machu Picchu, which itself is considered to be one of the modern wonders of the world.
What is more, all these sites are set against the most awe-inspiring and picturesque views of the Peruvian Andes. You get to see the monumental landscapes which can be appreciated at their best when you stand alone high up in the middle of the giant mountains and realize how tiny you are. At this moment, you understand that all the physical effort you have made to reach this place was worthwhile, that you would have never gotten the same overwhelming feeling while riding in a comfortable train.
Classic Inca Trail Itinerary
All tour operators offer more or less the same Inca Trail itinerary that starts at km 82 in Piscacucho and culminates at Machu Picchu. Only the number of kilometers that you walk during the day and the location of campsites can vary slightly depending on the arrangements each travel company has made. Most of the time, everyone is allowed to walk at their own pace and stop to rest as many times as they need. Nobody rushes you or sets unrealistic targets for you. The most important thing is to move forward and reach Machu Picchu at the end of the trail. So everyone advances according to their own physical abilities, and the guides are always there to support and help you. For large groups of more than 6 people, there are usually two guides: one at the front and the other follows the slowest members at the end. The guides adjust daily plans to the average pace of their tourist groups. But, of course, the faster you move, the more archaeological sites you can visit on the way.
Since you will have your detailed Inca Trail itinerary sent to you by your travel agent, I will give only a brief overview of what it is like.
The 1st day is considered to be the easiest. The guides test your hiking skills. They pick you up at the hotel in Cusco early in the morning and bring to the famous 82 km by minibus. You enter the Trail through an official control point, walk through the Andean Forest while enjoying some incredibly beautiful views, learn about the local flora and visit an ancient Inca site of Llaqtapata. The road is not exactly flat but it’s a rather gentle climb uphill most of the time. Compared to what expects you on the next day, it is indeed very easy. The altitude is not very high yet. You sleep at a campsite at 3000 m restoring the energy for a steep ascent awaiting you on the next day.
The 2nd day is considered to be the most difficult. You wake up at 5 am in the morning to the challenge of mounting the steep rise of 1200 m to get to the famous Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmiwañusca in Quechua) and discover that you have to make a steep descent of 600 m along some very narrow and broken stairs right after that. It is here, where the altitude begins to take its toll. You need a double effort for every step you make. However, this is rewarded with some magnificent views of the surrounding glaciers which you can enjoy as much as you like during the many stops you make on your way. Once you are at the top of the Dead Woman’s Pass, you feel very proud of yourself to have accomplished what is supposed to be the most challenging part of the route. It is also what they call the point of no return. Once you cross Warmiwañusca Pass there is no way back to Cusco. You can only move forward towards Machu Picchu.
The 3d day is supposed to be the longest and most enjoyable. You hike for about 16 km through a variety of archeological Inca sites and the cloud forest. You walk the original (unrestored) section of the Inca Trail. You pass through some narrow caves, meet some llamas, observe the slopes of the towering mountains overgrown with a maze of intertwining trees and look in awe at the ravine covered with thick jungle below. The everchanging scenery takes your breath away and tickles your nerves. You see the looming Machu Picchu Mountain in the far distance and realize with relief that you are approaching the end of your journey.
At the same time, for me personally, the 3d day was physically the toughest. At the beginning of the day, there were a few uphills, which were not as bad as the Dead Woman’s Pass. However, by the afternoon the overall fatigue had accumulated and the last steep and uneven downhill to the Intipata ruins, the locals justly call the gringo killer, nearly killed my knees. When I arrived at the camp I felt as if I could hardly bend them anymore. They were so sore. So if your knees are prone to aching, you’d rather wear special knee braces to support them throughout the whole trek.
The 4th day is the culmination point of your whole adventure. You wake up at 3 am eager to embrace the remaining part of the trail leading you to the Sacred City of the Incas. You walk for about 2-2,5 hours before reaching the last steep climb to the Sun Gate (Inti Punku in Quechua) which used to be the main entrance to Machu Picchu. Only a few selected elite people, close to the king, were allowed to get inside the city. And when you finally get to the top early at dawn you suddenly feel like being one of them. This can be true, in a way, since one cannot get to the Sun Gate other than by trekking the Inca Trail.
From the top of the Sun Gate, you look down at the whole town of Machu Picchu and marvel at its beauty. Well, I have to own it up. In our case, the whole scenery below was hidden by a thick fog so we couldn’t really admire it. But once we started descending to the terraces, the sky began to clear and the stunning view of the ancient citadel was revealed to our eyes.
This was a "mission accomplished" moment. We finally reached one of the most enigmatic places on earth. A survival city that has carried the wisdom and the secrets of an ancient civilization through centuries of brutal oppression and disowning of the local cultural roots. Furthermore, we did it through a hard physical effort, walking the same route the Incas used to take 600 years ago and visiting the same places they would stop at on the way. Somehow, this made me realize a much stronger connection to the past and gave me a certain sense of achievement that I wouldn’t have gotten if we had gone to Machu Picchu by train.
I will not go into details about our day at Machu Picchu here. It deserves a separate story and I will save it for the next article.
Nevertheless, I hope, in this article, I have given you enough reasons to put all your doubts aside and experience the Inca Trail yourself. Yes, it’s not exactly a luxury kind of travel or a leisurely walk through a city park. Yet, the adventure that expects you and the discoveries that you are sure to make will fully reward you for all your efforts. The four eventful days on the trail will give you memories of a lifetime that cannot be replaced by anything else.