A trek along an ancient stone path weaving through towering mountains to reach a once-lost city – the Inca Trail is the stuff travel legends are made of.
While Machu Picchu is one of the world's most spectacular sights and an icon on every adventurer's bucket list, the classic hike that leads you there is just as travel goal-worthy.
The Inca Trail is a 43km (26 mile) trek through the Peruvian Andes where you'll hike for five to seven hours each day at high altitude over challenging terrain.
The trail winds its way through a sacred valley, past a raging river, massive mountains, lush jungle and fascinating ruins before Machu Picchu finally reveals itself through the fabled Sun Gate.
Trekking the Inca Trail is one of the most life-changing experiences you'll ever have. While it's no walk in the park, the trek is certainly doable even for inexperienced hikers. Here are some tips on how to conquer it.
1. Book early
Many travelers turn up to Peru each year thinking they can hike the trail whenever they want. Nope, they can't. The Peruvian government has put strict limits on the number of people permitted on the Inca Trail (only 500 permits are issued per day), and the trek is booked out months in advance. It's recommended to book your tour at least six months in advance during high season (May to October) and three months during low season (November to April). The classic 4-day trail costs from 600USD upwards.
2. Get a bird's eye view of Machu Picchu
There are two treks you can take within the Machu Picchu sanctuary to get superb views from above - Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. Both are tough, steep treks of around three hours and need to be booked before you go. Huayna Picchu, which allows 400 trekkers per day, is hugely popular and is usually sold out months in advance.
3. Pack for four seasons
During the trail you might experience everything from freezing temperatures to steamy days to relentless rain, so pack for all seasons. Layers will be your best friend – take singlets or t-shirts, a fleece jumper and a jacket. A pair or two of hiking pants which zip off to shorts is also a good idea. Bring wet weather gear including a rain coat, a poncho to cover your entire body and bag, a beanie, gloves, extra pairs of socks, a hat and flip flops for getting around camp at night.
Don't forget plastic bags to put dirty clothes in, a basic first aid kit, insect repellent, wet wipes (this is how you will ‘shower' every night), toilet paper, a towel, earplugs, lip balm, sunblock and a headlamp. You must bring your passport with you – it will be inspected at checkpoints along the Inca Trail and at the entrance to Machu Picchu.
Your tour will provide you with a bag where you can place up to 7kg of personal items (including your sleeping bag) for a porter to carry. Don't over pack - anything over that limit you will need to carry yourself.
4. Carry only essentials in your daypack
Your porter won't be hiking near you with your gear, so it's important to have everything you need in your daypack. Fill it with essentials such as your passport, camera, water bottle, jacket, rain gear, hat, lip balm, sunblock, sunglasses and toilet paper. Resist the temptation to pack the kitchen sink. If your bag is heavy, you will seriously regret it.
5. Bring the right shoes
Whether you prefer hiking boots with ankle support or a pair of running shoes, both are fine for the trek, just make sure your footwear is comfortable and broken in. The last thing you want to deal with is sore feet and blisters. Also ensure your shoes have good grip and are preferably waterproof.
6. Stock up on snacks
Don't worry, you will be fed extraordinarily well (think pancakes for breakfast, rice and meat for lunch and snacks like hot chocolate and cookies). But it's a good idea to bring some extra sustenance like chocolate and energy bars. Also, if your guide or a porter offers you some cocoa leaves to chew on, give it a try. Although not the most pleasant tasting thing, they'll give you an energy boost as well as alleviate any altitude sickness you may be feeling.
7. Don't skip the add-ons
You might want to save a dollar or two, but reconsider skipping add-ons such as a hiking pole – your knees will thank you for it. A pole will especially help you descend the steep steps after notorious Dead Woman's Pass on the second day, and other slippery sections. Most tours will include a sleeping bag and mattress. Consider renting a thermal liner for extra warmth as temperatures can hit sub zero at night. Thermal liners and hiking poles will set you back about 10-15USD.
8. Bring cash
There are some opportunities to buy snacks in villages along the way. On the final day of the trek, you will also need money to tip your guide, porters and cooks for their tremendous work. The suggested tipping rate is between 6-8USD a day, so make sure you have enough.
9. Invest in good camera gear
If you've been toying with the idea of getting a DSLR, or a GoPro to make your own movies, now is the time to do it. Machu Picchu will be one of the most eye-achingly beautiful sites you'll ever see and you'll want to capture it with the best quality pictures possible. Also bring spare batteries for your camera as you can't charge your gear along the way.
10. Get in shape, mentally and physically
The trek reaches its highest peak at 4200m. On the second day you'll ascend 1200m and spend hours trudging relentlessly upwards. Don't kid yourself, the Inca Trail is tough. Beforehand, prepare physically for at least a few weeks and spend two or three days in Cusco (altitude 3400m) for acclimatization. At times the trek is a mental game and you'll need a positive attitude to win. Just keep going, no matter how long it takes you to get there. The reward at the end is more than worth it.
Are you planning on conquering the Inca Trail? Let us know your plans or questions in the comments section. If you enjoyed reading this article, spread the love and use the share buttons below!