You may only hike Machu Picchu once in your life so you should try to plan for the best experience. Here is everything you need to know before hiking Machu Picchu:
1. It’s exclusive.
On pictures, Machu Picchu seems out in the open and available to all, but that’s not the case at all — this Inca Trail hike is very exclusive and in demand. You’ll want to book your tour at least 6 months in advance to get a coveted spot on a Machu Picchu hike.
The 500-people per day rule is strictly enforced to ensure that you get the most amazing experience. The exclusivity allows you to feel a sense of isolation and it protects the site from rowdy tourists.
2. You’ll need a permit.
If you choose to book directly from the official website, you can view dates currently available and how many slots are open (click the British flag if you don’t speak Spanish).
3. Choose your day wisely.
High season is June through August so, during this time, you’ll likely have larger crowds. If you like seclusion, you may choose to hike Machu Picchu during the low season, i.e. from September to January and from March to May (the trails are closed in February for maintenance).
Note that only seasoned hikers should attempt a low-season hike — this is the rainy season in Peru so the trails will be slick and unsteady and you may endure bouts of heavy downpours and flooding.
If you choose to hike during that time, wear your waterproof boots, water-wicking wool socks, and a rain poncho for optimal comfort.
4. Stay healthy.
Elevation sickness is tricky — some people won’t feel a thing when others may feel miserable. Even if you’re an avid hiker, you’re likely not commonly hiking at these elevations, so be careful not to let elevation sickness take the spring out of your step. Symptoms include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Trouble breathing
Fortunately, it’s totally preventable if you take these steps:
- Plan to stay at least 2 days in Cusco before attempting the Inca Trail. This will allow your body to properly acclimate to thinner air.
- Get plenty of sleep before your hike — the night before isn’t the time for an all-nighter. It’s not a waste of your time and money to plan for an extra few hours sleep each night leading up to the Machu Picchu hike. You’ll get more out of the experience if you’re well-rested.
- Bring medication. Water pills, anti-nausea, and coca tea (legal in Peru and not addictive) will help prevent and reduce symptoms.
- Drink lots of water both before and during the hike. Drink even if you’re not thirsty.
- Get a massage. It sounds a little weird, but getting a massage before your Machu Picchu hike will loosen your muscles and improve circulation so that your body can do more with less oxygen.
- Eat carbs and minimize protein/fat. If you never eat donuts, you can eat them guilt-free on this hike. Because your body has limited oxygen, it has fewer resources to put toward digestion and that’s why you may feel sick. Simple sugars take less effort to digest.
- Don’t push it. Regardless of your experience, you will need to take breaks and slow down.
5. Pack smart.
Like all major hikes, packing smart and light is key to getting the most out of the experience. Here’s a quick checklist for smart packing:
- Extra batteries for devices. Don’t miss out on breathtaking images and candid shots of your hiking companions.
- A device with ample room for photos. Clean up your iPhone or camera before you go. You may take over 1000 pictures and videos on a Machu Picchu hike and you’ll need room for them. If this means bringing an extra camera or GoPro, do it.
- The right clothes for every occasion. In one day, you’ll likely encounter hot, cold, windy and rainy weather. You may even want to bring two sets of boots. A rain jacket, base layers, sunglasses and a hat are essentials.
- A flashlight
- Your passport
- Peruvian Soles (the local currency). There will likely be vendors selling food and drinks on your way up.
- Hiking food
- First aid kit. Altitude medicine, knee brace, compression stalkings, blister pads, band-aids
- Insect repellant
- Tent, sleeping bag, etc. if staying overnight
6. Hire a porter.
Given how much you need to have with you, having someone else carry your bag can greatly enhance the experience. Not only will you taking the weight off your back, you’ll also be investing money in the local community by providing work.
But the choice is up to you. Many feel that part of the experience is “pulling your own weight”. If that’s how you feel, and you’re able to do it, then go for it.