How to plan the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru
Ever since we traveled to Machu Picchu and trekked the Inca Trail back in November 2012, many of our friends and acquaintances have asked us about it and what are the things that one should consider while planning this trip. In this post we provide a quick run-down of all the things you need to keep in mind while planning the Inca Trail.
Before you start
- There are different types of treks in the Sacred Valley. We did the Classic Inca Trail which is a 4 Day, 3 Night trek. You can read about some of the alternate routes on this National Geographic post
- The Inca Trail has a limit of 500 people (including porters) who can start the trek on any given day. Considering it has become so popular now, you need to plan your trek months in advance since you need to buy a permit for the trek
- It is mandatory to take one of the registered trekking guides with you in order to do this trek. Trekking guides are a necessity since this is a grueling 4 day trek. So look for trek operators and register with them for your desired dates. They will help you acquire the permits for the Inca Trail as well. Some of the good trek operators are: United Mice, SAS, Apus Peru, G Adventures and Llama Path. We used United Mice which is a smaller trek operator. The advantage of using a smaller operator is that you get personalized guides and you are not in a crowd. For example, during our trek it was only the two of us with the guide. The disadvantage is that you may not have all the comforts of a large group. In a larger group, the operators are able to afford a larger number of porters who carry things like sleeping pads to keep you more comfortable
- Update: Best time to visit (One of our friends asked about the best time to do the Inca trail, so we thought we should add that information here):
Best time of the year to visit is between May and September as it is the dry season. However, it can get pretty busy in July and August. These are also the cold months since Peru is in the southern hemisphere
We usually try and go during the edge of the peak season. We went in the first week of November. It was slightly rainy, but we enjoyed it! We recommend mid-October to first week of November if you want to avoid the crowds and can bear slight showers.
Once your reach Cusco
- The closest city for the Inca Trail is Cusco and this is where most of the trekkers are based. It is a beautiful town and you can read about it in our blog on Peru
- Flying into Cusco would land you directly at an altitude of 3400 meters above mean sea level. It is advisable to plan on spending at least 2-3 days in Cusco to get yourself acclimatized to the altitude before you start the trek
- Try avoiding alcohol on your first day at Cusco as it could cause or aggravate altitude sickness. Of course different people have different tendencies so you would be the best judge for this. I, however, learnt it the hard way when I had a bout of shortness of breath after drinking my first beer at Cusco, the same evening we reached there
- Have smaller more frequent meals instead of fewer heavy meals. At that altitude levels, digestion isn’t our body’s best play. Drink a lot of fluids; the local Coca tea is a delicious and cheap means to keep you hydrated. It also makes you feel very Peruvian!
What to pack?
Poncho: In the mountains the weather is always a little whimsical. Always carry a poncho with you. There are two types of ponchos available in Cusco, the cheap ones which are made of flimsy plastic ($ 3-5 each) and the slightly expensive ones ($10-15 each). We bought the more expensive ones and were thankful we did since the cheap ones can get caught up in branches and twigs and get torn. Ponchos are lifesavers when it rains, since it can actually cover you up completely including your backpack. At the end of a long day of trek, having dry clothes in your backpack is a thing of joy!
- Flashlight: There will be times when you might reach your campsite a little later depending on your pace and flashlight will serve you well in that case. A head-mounted LED light would also be great since it would mean both your hands are free for support or carrying other things. Use whatever you find comfortable
- Water sipper: You will need to keep hydrated while trekking and a water sipper will be very handy as it is not recommended to drink large quantities of water at one go
- Wind-breaker: At high altitudes, it can get very windy and cold. In addition to your scarf and sweater, you might also need a wind-breaker that can save you from rain as well as the cold winds
- Woollen socks and warm clothes: The tent gets really cold at night and covering your feet in thick socks will make you feel a lot more comfortable. We bought ours by the roadside in Cusco (there are sellers in the evening opposite the famous Pacha Papa restaurant). They are beautiful, made in Peruvian designs and cover the legs up to the knees. You might also want to pack some warm clothes depending on the time of the year you are visiting. In November, it got pretty cold at night and warm clothes were necessary
- Sugar Rush!: You occasionally need a sugar rush when you are tired after 6-7 hours of constant climbing. Carry a few chocolate bars with you for an instant sugar rush. This was a real lifesaver for us!
- Sunglasses: Many a times we trekked with the sun staring into our eyes, especially on the last day on the way to Inti Punku (The Sun Gate). Wearing sunglasses will make sure you don’t find your way into the valley 🙂
- Decent pair of shoes: You don’t need to invest in heavy duty or expensive trekking shoes, but make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes with a decent grip. Slippery shoes will make it unsafe and uncomfortable to trek if it rains and will just slow you down.
- A lot of people choose to go with a personal porter for which you have to pay extra. If you are not in the best of physical shape it would be advisable to go with one as this will make your trek more enjoyable
- The trek overall is difficult and tiring. Some amount of preparation such as running 30 minutes a day or climbing 8-10 floors every day for a month or two before the trek would help. We didn’t do any of these, but we wished later that we had 🙂
- Make sure you carry your passport on the trek as they require it while entering the trail. You can also get the passport stamped before Inti Punku (optional) to have a memory of the Inca Trail!
How much will it cost?
- The trekking companies charge around USD 500-600 per person which generally includes:
- Trail entrance fees
- Transportation from Cusco to the trail head
- Meals during the trek
- Shared porter
- Drinking water
- If you decide to rent the sleeping bag from the tour company expect to pay around USD 25-30 for the whole trek
- You can choose to go for a personal porter which will cost you around USD 100-150 – the personal porter will pick up all your backpacks and sleeping bags which means you will be free to trek without any load on your back – if you are not very fit, then we would suggest to go for this option
- Huyana Pichu is a separate trek up a series of steps and costs an additional USD 61 as entrance fees – we did not do this since we were too tired by the time we reached Inti Punku
- In addition to all this, be prepared to spend USD 50-100 on meals at Aguas Calientes which is the town from where you will take the train back to Cusco at the end of the trek
Above all, enjoy the trek! Do not forget to have a good time walking the steps of the Incas. Breathe the history, look around, and ask questions to your guide. Make the most of this trek because it truly is nothing like you have ever done before.