9 tips to Survive the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I know, I have been on a blog hiatus for a while. The reason? I took a break from Chicago and travelled to Peru, my home country. The objective? Challenge myself by doing my first trek ever: the 4-day Inca Trail to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas and one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Despite being my fourth time going there, I knew this time would be something special. The Inca Trail (also known as Camino Inca) is the most famous trek in South America and one of the most beautiful treks in the world.

 

INCA TRAIL

This trail is part of a vast network of stone-paved roads that connected all corners of the Inca empire. Walking the 26 miles of this portion of the trail entails going up and down infinite, narrow and steep stone steps (climbing up and down stairs takes on a whole new meaning!), walking through valleys, mountain passes that can go as high as 4300 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level, precipices, rivers, gorgeous snow peaked mountains, lush cloud forests, tropical vegetation (including orchids) and amazing Inca ruins.

INCA TRAIL MAP

Yes, the trek is challenging, but it is also magical. Walking the trail feels like walking with the Incas through history.

INCA SITE AT INCA TRAIL

I kept thinking about the time and effort they must have spent to build it and of the harmony with its natural surroundings. This talks volumes about Inca cosmology. Andean people thought that “in order to maintain some sort of peace, they had both to maintain a careful equilibrium between themselves and their environment” . And they definitely followed this principle when building this trail: I was in awe of the beauty of it all!  After arriving in Machu Picchu and hearing the incredible stories from our guide, I felt a strong connection with a part of me that had been submerged by the colonial mentality that is so prevalent in Peruvian society since the arrival of the Spaniards to Peru: my Andean roots.

MACHU PICCHU

As we were leaving Machu Picchu, an intense emotion overcame me. It was a great feeling of accomplishment, but also a mixed feeling of nostalgia and rage. I felt the weight of history in my heart right then. It was the end of an incredible journey that challenged me physically, emotionally and spiritually…but the challenge was totally worth it! I would suggest adding this trek to your bucket list, especially if you have Peruvian roots. Sadly, only very few us do it. Here is a nice video that really brings back how I felt walking the trail:.

If you are ready to go, then keep in mind the following tips:

  1. Book in advance. The Peruvian government has limited the access to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to 500 people per day (including porters), so it is recommended to book at least six months in advance, especially if you are planning on going during the peak season (June-August). I would be careful doing the Inca Trail during the rainy season (November-March) as it can get even more challenging. Also, it is required to be part of a tour group, so you need to contact a travel agency to make arrangements. Hiring a good one will make your experience a pleasant one. I took this tour with Peru Experience, and the service was great. They took care of everything. Our guide, Jose Sotelo, was excellent and enhanced our experience with his love and deep knowledge of Andean culture.
  2. Arrive to Qosqo (The Quechua word for Cusco) at least 2 days before starting the trail to get used to the altitude. Once you get to Qosqo, you should take it easy, very easy. Drink lots of muña tea (the Andean mint) or coca leaf tea to help you acclimatize (don’t worry, coca leaves are legal in Peru. Chewing the leaves or drinking the tea does not have narcotic effects, but will help with altitude sickness. In fact, the coca plant was sacred during Inca times and is still widely consumed in the Andes. Our hotel offered it for free along with coffee in the lobby.) You may also get sorojchi pills for the altitude.
  3. Bring a book that will help you immerse into Andean culture. I brought Los Comentarios Reales by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a 16th century chronicle of The Incan Empire written by the child of a noble Spaniard and an Incan princess (he is considered the first Peruvian ever because of his Inca and Spaniard blood).
  4. Bring money to buy snacks and water (or to use the toilet) along the road. I was surprised to find people living along the trail during the first segment of the trip (there is even a small cemetery that we passed. And no, it is not a cemetery for Inca Trail trekkers). Save some cash for the third night to tip the porters and the cook. Tips are optional, but it is expected to tip if you are happy with the service.  By the way, I have the utmost admiration for the porters. These guys had to walk the same trail but with huge bundles on their backs and had everything ready for us ahead of time. You should also tip the guide at the end of the trip.
  5. Buy a portable charger for the road for any necessary batteries and charge them up before you start the trek. I forgot to bring one so I could not take as many pics as I would have liked.
  6. Pack lightly. Yes, I know, it is hard for some of us to wear the same clothes twice in a row. But trust me, you will be thankful you did. When packing, keep in mind the following:
  • Bring a day backpack . There is no need for a big camping backpack. The porters will carry everything for you except your clothes, water, and necessities. Bring a headlight or a lamp/flashlight.
  • Bring repellent, sunblock, water, long underwear, toilet paper, wipes, soap, and a towel.
  • Toilets during the trek are not the best. Avoid them if you can and use the “Inca bathroom” for number one.
  • Bring rainproof gear, particularly during the rainy season. The second night is the coldest, so bring a fleece sweater, hat, gloves and long undies. You will also need some of these for the second day, when you reach the highest pass of the trek. Remember to wear layers as temperature changes frequently

7.Once you start trekking, be aware of how you walk. The steeper the slope, the slower and shorter your steps should be. When going down, keep your weight in the front half of your feet. Don’t place all your weight on them. Walk as if you were stepping on eggs and step down sideways when the steps are narrow. Remember to breathe slowly, deeply and steadily all the time.
8. This trail can be challenging for people who are afraid of heights. You will pass a lot of cliffs through while going down narrow roads that have steep steps (which makes me wonder: were the Incas giants? Did they have long legs that were fit for these high steps? Did they just like the challenge?). The third day was the hardest day for me because of that. We descended thousands of steps along these narrow roads next to precipices. My knees were in pain, and I felt exhausted. I was ready to quit and take the next bus to Machu Picchu out of my fear of heights. If you feel like that: don’t quit! Keep going. Take an ibuprofen for the pain, rest and pat yourself on the back for having survived a day of hard trekking. Let me tell you: by the fourth day I was a trooper! We did the last day of the trek to Machu Picchu in less time than what it normally takes.

9. Try to learn some words in Quechua and talk to the porters (ask your guide or click here for some words). It will enhance your experience and the porters will appreciate your interest in their culture.

5 Replies to “9 tips to Survive the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu”

  1. Hello! Thanks for the great post! I am considering to do it with my mum who is 65 (but in good shape). During your experience have you seen any group/agency of similar age? I don’t want to end up in a group not suited for our conditions… I heard that there are groups with very young crowds and other with less…

    1. Hi Belinda! Thanks! About your question, I heard of people in their 70s doing the trail. My group had from teenagers to people in their 50s. I also saw groups with only young people. This is something you should talk with your tour operator. Generally, the guides won’t leave anyone behind. You are supposed to walk at your own pace, it is not meant to be a race, so people walking faster than others should not be an issue.Hope this helps 🙂

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