Hiking the Inca Trail was one of the greatest experiences of my life. As I hiked the trail I was amazed by what I saw; beautiful snow-capped mountains, lush jungles, massive waterfalls and ancient ruins. Never in my life did I think I would ever step foot in this part of the world, yet here I was.
Not being much of an avid hiker, I did some research to prepare us for this hike. Even with all the blog posts I read and the information on the tour company’s website, I’m glad I was able to speak to some locals and the staff at the hostel before the hike. The information I learned from them and the research I had done made the hike that much more enjoyable and comfortable. In this post I will share my best tips of things you should know before hiking the Inca Trail; things that will make your hike more enjoyable and comfortable.
First off, you don’t have to do the hike to see Machu Picchu but in my opinion that’s cheating. Nothing was more disappointing than seeing people coming off of buses, freshly showered, smelling good and looking clean to walk around the ancient city. The people who did the hike, again in my opinion, earned their places there. Many of the guides and porters wholeheartedly agreed with this. You don’t get the full experience if you simply take a train and a bus to Machu Picchu. So if you’re able-bodied and adventurous, I suggest you hike the Inca Trail!
10 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU HIKE THE INCA TRAIL
1. Get Acclimated to the Altitude: I thought all the stories I read were exaggerated. I figured I was reading the blogs/articles of people who were just out of shape; after all I do exercise. Well, I’ll tell you the altitude in Cusco and on the Inca Trail is the real deal. While, neither Laurie or I suffered from altitude sickness, we did struggle with breathing when we first arrived to Cusco and a little on the trail. Everything seems to be set on a hill in Cusco and on the trail you’re constantly moving up and down. While you don’t need to be a super athlete to hike the trail you should arrive to Cusco at least 2 days before your hike in order to let your body get used to the altitude.
2. Book your tour with a Local Company: While there are tons of companies offering tours and hikes on the Inca Trail, booking with a local company will A) Usually be less expensive than a bigger company and B) ensure that you are supporting the local community who rely on tourism. We booked our tour with Alpaca Expeditions (they are known for their bright green t-shirts and packing gear) and we had an amazing experience. Our guide Isaac, who is part Quechua, was very knowledgeable and proud of his heritage. The teams of porters were amazing; passing us on the trail as they hauled all of our gear and setting up our tents and cooking delicious meals before we arrived at camp. Incredible job. There are other companies in Cusco and you should do your research but I feel Alpaca Expeditions went above and beyond and made our experience that much more memorable.
3. Rent Gear: Nobody told us that you could rent all of your gear when we arrived in Cusco. I was going to sacrifice a pair of sneakers I had brought with me and Laurie was going to buy, yet another, rain jacket. However, we found out from the hostel staff at Supertramp Hostel that we could rent everything we needed. Now if you are not an avid hiker and don’t have all the gear necessary or you’re backpacking for a long period of time (like we were) then you should just rent your gear. First, it was convenient. We shopped for our gear the day before our hike and found everything we needed. Hiking poles (necessary – at least one), rain pants and rain jacket, gloves (in case your hands get cold but totally unnecessary because they will get wet and be useless), headlamps (very important when you need to use the bathroom at night and even hiking boots. Ew, you may think? Wearing shoes that others have sweated in? Well, they were already broken in and I didn’t get one blister. Plus, I just gave them back and didn’t have to worry about mud caked boots in my pack. Second, it was inexpensive. I believe Laurie and I spent less than $100 for all our gear. So do yourself a favor, instead of hauling all that gear around and worrying about cleaning it after, just rent it.
4. Rest Up: The night before you go hiking you should spend resting up. Have a good dinner, nothing exotic. This is not the time to introduce your stomach to cuy (Guinea Pig) or alpaca. You don’t want to have an upset stomach on the trail, bathrooms are few and far between. You’re going to want to get some sleep because your guide will pick you up early. Lucky for us (I’m being sarcastic) we were the first ones to be picked up and therefore had to wake up the earliest. But I guess waking up at 3:30AM compared to 4:00AM is not a big difference. Also, this is not the night to go out with your new hostel mates. No matter how nice they are or how cute they are, stay in bed. Trust me. Grab their Facebook info and message them after the trek. Supertramp Hostel Cusco was an excellent choice to stay. It was peaceful and the beds were very comfortable. You can also leave your main luggage with them to hold while you are hiking. Side Note: Don’t be the douchebag hostel mate that decides to pack in the morning waking everyone up. Do everyone a favor and do it the night before.
5. Bring extra batteries for your phone/camera: While there is no reception in the mountains you will still be using your phone (most likely) to snap pictures of the gorgeous scenery. As there are no outlets throughout the trail (obviously), you’re going to want to bring an external battery that can charge your equipment. I brought the Jackery External Battery which gave me almost 3 full charges. More than enough for what I was using it for. Also, bring extra batteries for your camera, if your are not using your phone. You don’t want to have your camera die before you arrive to Machu Picchu.
6. Dress in Layers: This is important! As you ascend and descend through the mountains the temperatures and weather conditions will change. You’ll want to be prepared for these conditions. During the day and in lower altitudes you may be hot and need only a t-shirt and light jacket. At the highest peaks, it will become cold and wet and you will want to be prepared with extra layers and a rain jacket. At night it will be cold. You should have a sleeping bag that is suited for that kind of weather but I found it wasn’t enough. Good thing I brought some extra layers with me and was able to stay warm and comfortable throughout the hike.
7. Bring a Rain Jacket/Poncho: Most companies will provide you with a poncho. But it is plastic and not the most durable material. Ours were torn up by the end of the trail. Laurie had to rent a rain jacket (long story in India) and I had my Columbia waterproof rain jacket. It usually does the trick but with the amount of rain we experienced even that bled through a bit. You will get wet, there’s no getting around it but how wet is up to you and how prepared you are. Don’t skimp out on rain gear.
8. Bring Wet Wipes/Toilet Paper: While the tour company provides toilet paper for use in the portable restroom, they only bring a certain amount. Once it runs out there is no more. Don’t get caught in the Andes with no TP! Also, the bathrooms along the trail DO NOT have toilet paper, so do yourself a favor and bring a small roll. The wet wipes are merely to wipe the important bits (underams and under carriage). You will not shower for 4 days and you will be hiking up and down hills for 43km (26 miles). You’re going to be pretty ripe. Wipe yourself down.
9. Bring Medication: If you have any allergies or conditions, bring your medicine. Last thing you want to do is be sick in the mountains. Bring antibiotics just in case! I caught a stomach bug on the second day and if our guide, Isaac (this man is a saint), didn’t have antibiotics I’d be screwed! The 3rd day of the hike I was coming down with a fever, I was exhausted, sluggish and barely wanted to eat. After I took the antibiotics, I went to sleep for a few hours and by night time I felt pretty good. The next day I was back to my old self and annoying Laurie on the trail. So learn from me, buy medicine! Antibiotics are over-the-counter in Peru so no reason not to get them.
10. Travel Insurance: That brings me to my last point, travel insurance. Did we use ours? No, not during this part of our trip. However, if I didn’t get antibiotics who knows what I would have done. Plus, there are some sketchy parts of the trails where the rocks are slippery and the incline/decline is steep. Like I’ve said before travel insurance is like a condom, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. There were some people that could not finish the trail and had to go back the first day. Guess what? They would have had to pay for a horse to ride back on, lodging for themselves and a porter because they can not be on the trail by themselves and that all adds up. Protect yourself.
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