Opting for the official Camino Inca is the only way to get to walk on the sacred Inca trail, to visit sites that are otherwise not accessible, and to see the sun rise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku. Alternative treks may be great, hard, one may get to see amazing landscapes too. But nothing can compare to the experience of walking on Inca ground. That’s why, when I had to choose on the things to do in Peru, I knew I would opt for the “real thing”.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: tips advice and recommendations for backpackers on a budget
Among the things to do in Peru, this is by far the most amazing, exhilarating experience. But it is one people have to think about carefully and for which they need to do some planning ahead – for concise information on how to organise everything click here. The official inca trail permit is issued by the government of Peru each January, and it always sells out very fast. Only 180 visitors per day are admitted. I knew this was an experience I wanted to live, so I made sure to plan ahead, I did my research and made my reservations well in advance. I did my hike in April and I had it booked by the end of December. In April, everything was sold out until October, leaving last minute travellers to alternative routes such as the very challenging 5 to 7 days Salcantay Trek, or the 3 days Jungle Trek.
Once I picked a date, I had to stick to it. Permits are not refundable. So, I had to think well before deciding. What I can say is that, no matter the season, at some point it gets wet, cold, it rains and fatigue hits the hikers. April and May are the lushest months in terms of nature – flowers (especially orchids); September to November are less crowded and December to March the wettest months, and the trail may be very slippery (but, as I have said, it does rain in any season).
Arrive fit: spend a few days in Cusco to adjust to the altitude before the start, and stay healthy and exercise. I did not regret it, as there are many things to do in Cusco.
Carry snacks: I got so hungry along the way. Snacks were provided but all the exercise and the walking, as well as the cold temperatures made me starve, so before leaving I bought energetic cereal bars, chocolates, nuts etc.
Pack light and wear appropriate gear: I recommend hiring a porter, especially for the second day of the hike which is all uphill and goes up to 4200 meters above sea level. Porters costs normally around $25 per day, per person and carry no more than 7 kg per person (bags are actually weighted on the first day). Pack as little as possible in terms of clothes. Tshirts, socks, warm sweaters, a hat a scarf and even gloves will be useful. Carry a good rain coat, wear hiking pants and by all means hiking boots. It is slippery on the trail and it is always recommended to wear good shoes that give good support to the feet and ankles. Carry an extra (empty) small backpack: whatever the porters carry, stays with the porters all day till reaching the base camp. I did need an extra bag to carry anything I may need for the day – camera, water, medicines, documents, snacks etc.
Consider that it really is impossible to wash for the duration of the hike. Toilets (or better, latrines) are a disgrace, sinks only have freezing cold water that made me reluctant to even wash my face, and even showers (available from day 2) are only cold: not really an option when it is cold outside and in the tents. I carried wet wipes instead to keep my hygiene to a decent level.
Carry prescription medicines and any other medicine you may need along the trail. There is no easy way out once on the trail. It is possible walk back after day 1; from day 2, the closest emergency centre would be in Aguas Calientes, and if one does get sick porters will have to carry him or her along the trail and down to the village (this actually happened to somebody in my group). Not pleasant for somebody sick, and not pleasant for the porters. Remember that helicopters can’t access and there is no landing for them anywhere along the trail!
Carry some cash: it is needed to buy things such as water along the way (up till day 2), and most importantly it is necessary in the end as it is a custom to leave a tip to the porters, cooks and guides.
What to expect:
Day one is relatively easy. Depending on the company that organises the Inca Trail, people will start walking between 8 am and 11 am, stop for lunch and then walk till they reach their camp where they will stop for the night.
On day two, guides will wake people up at around 5:30 am and they will leave soon after breakfast. Many consider this to be the hardest day, as it mostly is uphill and it reaches 4200 meters above sea level. On this day I experienced the typical inca trail weather: it was cold, rainy, and once we passed the highest point and start going downhill, even slippery. This is also the coldest night, as the base camp is at 3600 meters above sea level.
On day three, hikers will be waken up again at around 5:30 am. This is the longest day: a 16 km walk on “Inca plains”, that is along a path that goes up and down continuously until a certain point when it just goes downhill on slippery tight steps. To me, this was by far the hardest day.
On the final day, the wake up call is at 3:00 am, in order to start walking towards the Inti Punku and get to enjoy the sunrise on Machu Picchu. I have been to Peru twice, and of all the things to do in Peru, this is my favourite one and would consider going just to experience it again! After the sun rises, we walked towards the site and have a guided tour, after which we were finally on our own.
Tents are relatively comfortable: a tent for 4 persons sleeps two. Sure, no matter how good the matresses and the sleeping bags are I did feel I was sleeping on the ground, but by the end of the day I would be tired enough that even that would feel comfortable.
It does get cold, especially at night. Having good hiking clothes and a good sleeping bag is a must, unless wanting to challenge the chill. It also rains on the path, eventually every day at some point. I wanted to be extra sure to enjoy the sunrise from the Inti Punku so I picked a date during the dry season, but I was aware that inca trail weather can be temperamental year round!
Meals can be either very good or very bad, depending also on your personal taste. Either way, it is somewhat amazing to see what the cooks manage to put together in those conditions. Any special requests can and should be communicated in advance (allergies, intolerances, vegetarian options). Expect to have breakfast (which varies every day, and in any case always provides hot drinks), a snack, lunch (consisting of soup, a main course and fruits plus hot drinks), a merenda (usually pop corn and bisquits and hot drinks) and dinner (similar to lunch). By the end of each day, I was normally so hungry that I was thankful for whatever food was provided.
By the time I got to Machu Picchu, I was so exhausted, I was definitely filthy and probably stinky too. I was not ashamed however, but rather proud! This is not something that anybody does, and I had actually achieved it.
By all means, I got what I expected: I saw spectacular landscapes, amazing archeological sites, incredible nature; I made some really good friends in my group and meal times were always fun and chilled. This was a unique experience!
Prices vary, depending on what is included in the trail and on the company picked. They can vary from 450 US dollars for the very basic, to 800 US dollars for the most pricey company and including a number of extra services.
Extras include: service of half porter to carry 7 kg of weight ($25 per day); sleeping bag rental ($25); entrance fee to Huayna Picchu, the steep sided mountain right behind Machu Picchu, a good hour trek uphill along a steep path, offering an amazing view over Machu Picchu ($75, normally done on the day after the you finish the Inca Trek, and the fee includes the entrance to the site so that visitors get to spend more time there).
Various companies organise the trail. Among the most recommended ones there are Llama Path and SAS. I had everything organised by Peru Tourist Information, which is a local agency based in Lima, and I really enjoyed the services and care.
Almost any company that organises the Inca Trail also offers other tours, such as that of the Sacred Valley. Buying the Inca Trail, often means getting a good discount on other tours. Also watch out for discount or special rates for large groups.
If buying the Inca Trail and Sacred Valley together, my recommendation is to first do the Sacred Valley tour, get dropped off at Ollantaytambo, where it is possible to spend 2 extra days exploring the surroundings (included the sites of Moray and Salinas), and then get picked up from there to start the Inca Trail.
Alternatively, you can take the train or bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and back by yourself, and just join the group there.
For transportation from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, click here.
Remember that there is NO WAY to get into Machu Picchu for free. It is a UNESCO site – a World Heritage Site, and as such it is constantly under surveillance. The only trek that finishes in Machu Picchu directly is the official Camino Inca and this includes the entrance fee to the site. The Salkantay includes a visit of Machu Picchu but what it implies is that on the last day of the trek people go back down to Aguas Calientes, spend a night there, then go back up to enter via the main gates. Furthermore, the Salkantay is a difficult hike – trekkers need appropriate gear, a good guide, etc. It reaches peaks of over 5000 meters so it is important to be safe in those conditions. Remember that it is illegal to enter the site without paying (and, as I have said, impossible), furthermore, it is disrespectful to Peruvians and to all the other travellers who actually pay a fee. Those who can’t afford it, or that don’t think it is worth the money, simply should not go.
I have been to Machu Picchu three times, I hiked the Inca Trail once, and I think it is worth every cent I paid. So much so that I would be eager to do it again.
For more places to visit in Peru click here.