My husband and I just completed the Machu Picchu Inca trek this week. For months leading up to it, I was feeling anxious and scared that it would be too hard. A lot of people who have completed the trek tell you it’s doable, but difficult. Most people warn about the altitude and the infamous second day, where you climb uphill for 6 hours and reach 4,200 meters. So, of course I went into the trek terrified and wondering if I would survive. I’m here to tell you I did and it was due to several factors that helped me prepare.
1. The altitude: all trip agencies suggest arriving in Cusco 2-3 days before the trek. Take their advice! Maybe even arrive 4 days early. We had an upper hand though. First, we came from Bolivia, which has higher elevation than Cusco and Machu Picchu. We also did the Rainbow Mountain trek that goes to 5,200 meters, two days before. So, the Inca Trek felt low for us. Having the altitude advantage helps so much. So prepare yourself properly!!
2. Physical Fitness: If we started our trip with The Inca Trek, this would be a different blog entry. Luckily, we didn’t. For the past two months we trekked in Patagonia. We challenged ourselves physically almost every other day, climbing to the highest peaks in Chile and Argentina. As a result, our muscles were prepared for the steep uphill climbs and descents of the Inca trail. Unfortunately, most people don’t get this practice and show up fresh off their office chairs. My suggestion: start going to the gym regularly. Work the stair stepper until your legs burn. Go for runs if you like running. Pack a heavy pack and hike up the nearest mountains or hills in your town if possible. Don’t come unprepared or you will suffer and regret it! This is an individual effort as much as it is a team effort and you don’t want to be a liability to your team and hold everyone back. I’m really not meaning to be rude, but you need to be physically prepared or you will just end up miserable the whole time and more prone to injury along the trail. There are no doctors or ways to leave the trail, so you don’t want to hurt yourself.
3. If you don’t pay extra for a personal porter, on the second day they will offer you an unofficial porter for the day- take it! It costs 120 soles ($40), but is totally worth it so you don’t suffer climbing all the steps uphill and downhill in what they deem the hardest day. You may also feel fine carrying your pack that day, but then really feel exhausted when the third and longest day comes. So take my advice and give yourself a break on the second day by getting an unofficial porter. I felt so light and free without my bag, that I practically ran up the hills.
4. Don’t expect luxury. We were a bit more prepared for the conditions due to being in South America for two months already, so nothing shocked us. If you are coming from your home country and haven’t been to a 3rd world country before, just be prepared to have very basic facilities that are oftentimes gross. The toilets are holes in the ground and surrounded by what you hope is mud. There’s also never toilet paper. If you are lucky you get a toilet bowl with no seat and those toilets cost 1-2 soles to use and come with toilet paper. There’s usually not a sink to wash your hands. The bathrooms are also usually hard to reach in the dark at night. So be prepared to use the woods. The facilities are spaced out along the trail, but usually at least two hours a part. It’s also extremely unpleasant if you happen to get sick while up there. Bring lots of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. You will also not shower for four days and will sweat through all of your clothing. Bring warm clean layers just to wear at night.
5. Water is key! Hydrate often. The first two days you can buy water and the third and fourth day they boil water for you. Bring empty water bottles or even better bring a water bladder (camelback)! This way you don’t need to stop to take out your water bottle to hydrate, you can keep the straw in your mouth constantly. I had one, but not the proper pack for it and was regretting not having it all four days.
6. Pace yourself and take the shortest easiest route. The group stops every two hours for a break and to regather. This helps a lot! Sometimes it even feels excessive, but it’s good to take breaks. Also, you will be climbing lots of stone stairs. Instead of taking the largest steps and causing more work for yourself, search for the shortest and easiest route. I normally walked the first path on the side of the stones if it existed and looked for the rocks with the shortest distance between them. This way I never took huge exhausting steps. Just go at your own pace and don’t try to keep up with those ahead of you. That being said, you don’t want to fall completely behind and should make it in the allotted time for each check point.
7. Pack smart to be prepared, but don’t overpack. Bring two outfits- one for the first two days and one for the next two days. Then a clean outfit for when you’re done (I forgot this and regretted it). Also be prepared for the temperature to change constantly throughout the day. The mornings are cold, then you heat up hiking and sweating, but then you stop at high elevation for lunch and are freezing. So make sure your two outfits have layers. Most importantly, if you trek from late October to January, bring rain gear. A poncho is great to cover you and your pack. Or a rain cover for your pack and a thick rain jacket and even rain pants. I was miserable when I got caught in a downpour and my thin rain jacket soaked through. Being warm and dry are so important for your sanity on the trek. So pack warm layers and rain gear in the rainy season. You’re going to experience every season in one day.
8. Bring lots of snacks. You get fed three course, delicious meals, but sometimes they are far a part and you’re starving on the trail in between. We didn’t have enough snacks and were very hungry. Some tour companies provide snacks each morning, but those trips cost more. Ours did provide a “happy hour” around 5pm each night that held us over until dinner. We mostly craved snacks between breakfast and lunch. The first two days you can purchase snacks and water at the checkpoints, but it’s expensive.
9. Bring sunscreen and bug spray. We got super sunburnt even after applying lots of sunscreen throughout the day. The high elevation just makes the sun a lot stronger. So make sure you are constantly applying it to your exposed skin. As for bug spray, I rarely used it, because my legs were always covered so they didn’t bother me. Those with exposed limbs though were bit a lot. The rainy season is when mosquitoes are more of a problem. If you tend to get bit, bring lots of bug spray.
10. Do your research and choose a good tour agency. You don’t want the cheapest, because that means crappy meals and that they don’t pay their porters and guides well. You also don’t want the $1,000 trip that goes through an American or European company that pockets most of the money and it barely trickles back to the local community. They may provide a little extra comfort, but that price is absurd and goes to the wrong people. We found a company that is locally based, pays their porters and guides well, and runs community improvement projects for the people in the area. They are called Peru Treks and only cost $650/person. Here’s their website: http://www.perutreks.com. We loved our guides Manuel and Ronaldo and the chef and porters. *make sure to book any trek at least 6 months in advance as they only sell 500 tickets a day. Also Machu Picchu now only allows people to visit for for the morning or afternoon and you have to purchase to tickets to get a full day visit. The hours are 6am-12pm and 12-6pm each day.
Please message me if you have any questions about packing or preparing for the Inca Trek!