The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the most beautiful (and most famous) multi-day hikes in the world. But you have to arrange a couple of things before you go. How to get a permit and what do you need to bring? I will answer all of your questions in this article.
All over South America, you can find ancient trails. Those trails were used by the Incas to get around the empire (especially around Cuzco). The most famous (and most used) part of these trails is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This trail is about 43 kilometers (27 miles) long and starts close to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.
The trail follows the Urubamba river, goes to high mountain passes (the highest point is 4200 meters, 14000 feet), through the jungle to Machu Picchu. During this 4-day trek, you will see lots of ancient Inca ruins. There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu, and hiking the famous Inca Trail is one of them. You can also go by train, hike the Salkantay Trek, or visit Machu Picchu on your own.
Best time to hike the Inca Trail
You can walk the Inca Trail 11 months a year (there is trail maintenance in February). The wet season is usually from December till March, so I wouldn’t recommend hiking the Inca Trail in those months. It’s better to go hiking during the dry season, in the months of May till October. But there is always a chance of rain, so make sure to bring a rain jacket or a poncho (you can buy them everywhere in Cuzco).
How to get a permit
Every day, 500 people are allowed to start the Inca Trail. This sounds like much, but this number includes guides and porters. In our group of 13 tourists, we had 20 porters, 2 cooks, and 2 guides. So you can imagine, there are not many permits for tourists. Book as soon as you know when you want to walk the Inca Trail. Especially in the months of July and August, permits are popular and will be sold out quickly. They usually start giving out permits for next year in October, and when you make a reservation right away, you have a good chance of getting one. You can only get a permit by booking a 2- or 4-day trek with a company, so you can’t just show up and hike the Inca Trail by yourself.
Which company should you pick?
When you Google “Inca Trail reservation”, you will notice there are many tour operators. Every operator starts at different dates, so check your date before asking for a quotation. The best thing is to email several companies with your dates and ask if there is something available. I used the list on this website, which I thought was very useful. I emailed about five companies, but not all of them were available on my dates, which made picking one easier.
The prices seem to be very different with every company, but don’t just book the cheapest one. With some tours, porters are included (they will carry everything you won’t need during the day) and with other companies, you have to rent a porter if you’d like to use one (which I highly recommend, with all the steep steps on the trail). You also have to check if every meal is included and the prices for renting a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a tent.
I ended up booking with Alpaca Expeditions, which looked like one of the most expensive companies, but everything was included. They have a good website and customer service is great. You can chat with them or just send an email, they’ll respond very quickly. The best thing about Alpaca Expeditions is that they take good care of the porters, which are the most important people on the trail.
What to bring
Clothing: layers, layers, layers. During my trek, I wore multiple layers of sweaters in the morning and just a tank top in the afternoon. Temperatures are different every hour. And don’t forget your raincoat.
Other stuff you need to bring is bug spray (you’re in the jungle most of the time), sunscreen and band-aids (for blisters). The best things I brought were my hiking poles, they saved my knees multiple times on the trail. It’s also good to bring a couple of snacks, like fruits or granola bars (although Alpaca Expeditions provided plenty of snacks), in case you get hungry. Last but not least, bring enough batteries for your camera and a power bank to charge your phone, because you don’t want to run out of battery before reaching Machu Picchu. Check out this Ultimate packing list for your trek to Machu Picchu.
How to prepare
Hike as much as you can. You’ll have to walk about 10 to 17 kilometers (7 to 11 miles) a day on the Inca Trail. This doesn’t look much, but because of the high altitude, you will be exhausted quickly. It’s also good to walk a lot of stairs before you leave because you will encounter a lot of steps on the trail. You’re probably going to stay a couple of days in the city of Cusco before you start the trail. Make sure to acclimate to the altitude before starting the trail and take it slow for a day or two.
Some extra tips
Hygiene: surprisingly, you will find quite some bathrooms on the trail (especially during the first two days). Sometimes you’ll use a bathroom of a local family, and they will charge you about 1 sol. So make sure to bring some coins.
Porters: I can’t say it enough: the porters are absolutely fantastic. They carry your stuff, your food, your tent, and even a toilet. They each carry about 25 kilos (more than 55 pounds!) and they walk way faster than you do. They make camp before you arrive, and when you arrive they’ll give you applause for making it to the camp. It’s so awesome! Please don’t ignore them and greet them every single day with a big smile. They will love it.
Get used to the altitude: a great part of the Inca Trail is at an altitude above 2500 meters (8200 feet) and you might get altitude sickness. Most people will start in Cuzco (at 3600 meters or 11150 feet). Make sure to acclimatize in Cuzco for at least two days before starting any big trek. Other things you can do to prevent altitude sickness are: avoiding alcoholic drinks, drinks lots of water en take it slow.
Tips: during the last night on the Inca Trail, there will be a big moment to thank the porters by giving them a tip. This can be a bit awkward if you’re not used to giving tips, but they really deserve it. You tip with the full group, and you can pick the amount yourself, by putting money in a closed envelope. If you’d like to tip the guides as well, you can do it during the last lunch in Aguas Calientes.
Do you like to know some more about the Inca Trail? Drop me a question in the comment section below.
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