How to make the most of your Machu Picchu Inca Trail
There is no better, more adventurous way to fully experience the ancient Inca culture of Peru other than doing the official Inca trail. This is the only way through which you will be able to walk on the sacred Inca ground, to visit sites that are otherwise not accessible to travellers, and to view the sunrise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku. The other hikes may be great, hard, you may get to see amazing landscapes too. But nothing can compare to the experience you will have when puffing and struggling on the only real Camino Inca to Machu Picchu. This is definitely among the best things to do in Peru.
Best things to do in Peru – viewing Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku
Places to visit in Peru: one of the many hidden sites, only accessible via the official Inca Trail
Doing the Inca trail is no easy thing, so here are a few tips to fully enjoy it.
Do your research: Various companies can organise your trekking to Machu Picchu. Among the most recommended ones there are Llama Path and SAS. A Lima based agency which is also highly recommended is Peru Tourist Information, whose chief is a real superstar. Prices vary, depending the company you pick and on what you want to include in your trail. They can vary from 450 US dollars for the vary basic, to 800 US dollars for the most pricey company and including a number of extra services.
Do plan ahead: there is no such thing as showing up at an agency in Cusco and asking to do the official Camino Inca. The most it will be able to offer you are alternative routes, such as the very challenging 5 to 7 days Salcantay Trek, or the 3 days Jungle Trek. If you think hiking the Inca Trail is one of the things to do in Peru, you should know that the official Inca Trail permits are issued by the Peruvian government each January, and they are sold out very fast. Only 180 visitors per day are admitted, so if you think this is an experience you want to live, plan ahead, make your reservations well in advance. To give you an idea, I did my trail in April and I had it booked by the end of December. In April, everything was sold out until October.
Top things to do in Peru: hike the Camino Inka-Inka Trail
Do pick a date and stick to it: Inca Trail permits are not refundable – once you pick a date, you have to stick to it and arrange the rest of your travel itinerary accordingly. So, think well before deciding. What I can say is that, no matter the season, you will at some point get the typical inca train weather: rain and extreme chill. April and May are the best months for nature lovers – flowers (especially orchids); September to November are less crowded and December to March rainy, and the trail may be very slippery (but, really, it does rain in any season).
Lush nature on the Inca Trail
Do arrive fit: the Inca trek is challenging for anybody. The altitude, the long walks, the fatigue and the little rest you may be able to get sleeping in a tent will eventually hit anybody. So, do train yourself by exercising and eating healthy food well before you embark on this adventure.
Do arrive in Cusco a few days before the starting date: this will allow you to get adjusted to the altitude. Cusco is located at 3300 meters above sea level and the trail starts at around 2800 meters. Being adjusted to the altitude will give you a good advantage. Not to mention, Cusco is a lovely city to hang out, there are numerous interesting sites to see and things to do in Cusco and in its surroundings, great restaurants and an amazing vibe.
Do wear appropriate gear: good hiking shoes, technical pants, and a good rain coat are a must; carry along some thermic sweaters and t-shirts against the chill. Paths get slippery because of the rain, and you will surely want to avoid slipping down and breaking a leg: hiking shoes give you extra support; plain running shoes may be comfortable but are not geared to support your feet and ankles in hard conditions. The same goes for the rain coat: it does rain at some point or another and the last thing you want is getting wet and catch a cold, as it would ruin your experience. A good sleeping bag will save you from the freezing night of day 2, when you reach the highest point on the trail.
The Inca tunnel
Inca weather at the back!
Do carry medications, especially prescriptions: there is no easy way out once you are on the trail. You can walk back after day 1; from day 2, the closest emergency centre would be in Aguas Calientes, and if you do get sick you will have to be carried by porters along the trail and down to the village (this actually happened to somebody in my group). It is definitely not pleasant to be sick while there, and not pleasant for the porters either. Remember that helicopters can’t access the trail as there is no landing point.
Do pack light: whether you decide to carry your own stuff or hire the services of half a porter, do not carry more than 7 kg. Should you chose to give your stuff to the porters, your bag will be weighted. If you want to carry your own stuff, you will want to keep the weight to a minimum. Days are long, and carrying around a heavy backpack will increase your fatigue, especially on day 2 when you will have to walk uphill most of the day and reach the peak of 4200 meters above sea level. All you need is a small bag with a change of clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, a small towel, prescription medications and a headlamp
Read my guide on what to pack for long distance hikes.
Do carry some snacks: food is provided on the trail. You will have 3 main meals per day, plus two snacks. However, you will need some extra energy and having that bar of chocolate or that bag of peanuts will help you to keep walking.
Do carry some cash: you will use it to buy drinks on day one and two of the trail, and to tip the porters at the end of the trail. This is a sort of tradition: remember those porters are the last part of the chain and any extra help matters to them; besides you will want to reward them for their help!
Do be prepared for the “rustic” accommodation: tents are comfortable but they still are tents, and even if you have a mattress, you will still feel like you are sleeping on the floor. Dining tents are tight: you will be sitting elbow to elbow with your companions. Bathrooms are challenging, to say the least: expect filth, terrible smell, and freezing cold water.
Campsite on day 2
Do expext amazing views and spectacular sites: mountains, glaciars, nature, waterfalls, clouds, flowers, jungle and hidden sites you didn’t even know existed. You will get to see all of this, and much more.
Glaciar views on day 3
Could it be any better?
Another breathtaking view from the Inca Trail
Do make new friends: this is a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world, share anecdotes, cheer each other up when it is really hard to walk, when the food is not as good as you would have wanted and when all you want is to rest.
Tired but happy, we reached the Inti Punku just in time to see the sunrise!
Do consider your extra options: you can add an extra hike to Huayna Picchu, and enjoy yet another spectacular view of Machu Picchu. You have to book this in advance too, as only 180 visitors are admitted, twice per day.
Do book a dorm bed in Aguas Calientes for the day when you terminate the trek: you will be exhausted and the last thing you will want will be to walk around looking for a place to stay. Denny’s House has decent bed and great showers.
Tired but happy, I finally reached Huayna Picchu
Don’t forget your camera: you most certainly want to take pictures of the views, of the sites, and with your new friends.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty: it is hard, really hard. While day one is relatively easy (you will be rested after having slept on a proper bed in your hostel), day two is challenging as you will reach extreme altitude and will be going uphill most of the day. Day three is the longest day – 16 km: guides will tell you that you will be going through “inca planes”, which, you will discover, consist of continuous going up and downhill. By day four, you will be exhausted. This is when you will have to wake up at 3 to start walking towards Machu Picchu to get to see the sunrise from the Inti Punku.
Intipunku is reached before dawn on day 4 of the hike
The highest peak, reached on day 2
By all means, do not despair if it seems too hard: following my advice, you will make it till the end and will feel a huge sense of achievement.
Don’t worry if you stink on the trail: everybody eventually will stink. You will sweat just like anybody else!
Don’t expect to shower: Showers are out of the equation until day two, but don’t get too excited: they are only cold, freezing cold. Do not shower unless you are ready to risk pneumonia.
Don’t forget to have fun: this is a once in a lifetime experience, and you must fully enjoy it!
If you are interested to find out about more things to do in Peru, click here.
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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”.
Things to do in Peru? No doubt, hiking the Inka Trail!
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.
Hiking the Inca Trail is one of the things to do in Peru: what an amazing view!
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.
What to do in Peru? Visit one of the many archelogical sites on the Inka Trail
Inca trail weather behind!
Mountains and clouds – spectacular views!
Places to visit in Peru: Runkurakay
Slippery, steep Inka steps
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.
The sacred camino inca is among the best things to do in Peru
Entering the Inka tunnel
Spectacular view on the way to the base camp
The andes – view from the inca trail
Glaciars – view from the inca trail
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.
Day 3 – finally at Inti Punku
Seeing the sunrise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku is one of the best things to do in Peru
A spectacular view of Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku
The sun has finally settled over Machu Picchu
View of Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu
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.
Base camp on day 2
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).
Finally on top of Wayna Picchu!
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.