Photo: Gleb Aitov/Shutterstock

The Inexperienced Hiker's Guide to the Inca Trail

Cusco Insider Guides Hiking
by Leora Novick Apr 13, 2012
From one newbie to another, Leora Novick lines out some valuable tips to read before planning this popular trek to Machu Picchu.

I REACHED THE SUN GATE at the end of a grueling four-day hike through high altitudes and vertical climbs and took my first look at Machu Picchu. As the stone walls pierced the early morning fog, and the entire Inca city unfolded before me, the tiredness melted away.

When I reached that peak on an early morning in January, I joined my hiking group in a series of hugs, high fives, and ear-splitting grins, but then pulled away for a moment of silent reflection. It had not been an easy journey, and there was a definite moment when I’d considered turning back. I’m not an athletic person by anyone’s standards, but I felt that I should still be allowed to experience the Inca Trail.

While being the hardest, most physically challenging thing I have ever completed, the Inca Trail is a very realistic goal, even for inexperienced hikers.

Hire a porter.

There’s no shame in hiring a porter. In fact, I’d say anyone starting the Inca Trail without some training should take advantage of this service. Many people try to push themselves to do the trail on their own and end up burning out after one day. It may not seem like a big deal, but carrying your backpack full of snacks and clothing, with an attached sleeping mat and bag, adds up to a lot more weight than you may think.

My entire experience changed on the morning of the second day, when I decided to take the advice of my guides. “If you don’t hire a porter, you’re not going to make it to Machu Picchu,” they told me. The moment I slipped off that bag and handed it over for 80 soles (~$35), my entire mood lifted and I finally started to enjoy the hike.

Not only was I able to change my personal trail experience, but by hiring a porter I was supporting a local family. Each participant on the Inca Trail is obliged by law to sign up with a guided tour, due to previous overuse. While this includes a set number of porters who carry all of the campsite gear and food, you have the additional option to hire someone to help carry your personal belongings. These porters depend on this fee to help support their families.

While each tour group varies greatly, there are specific companies that pride themselves on their ethical treatment of porters, providing them with clean uniforms and ensuring they receive a fair wage.

Apus Peru is a prime example. Not only do they take care of their porters, but a portion of each tour booked through Apus Peru goes to support their sister brand, Threads of Peru, a nonprofit that supports Quechua women in the weaving industry.

While booking a tour with such companies can cost a bit more (Apus Peru charges $955 for two people on the classic Inca Trail), think about whom that money is going to help.

Select your gear.

The gear you need varies greatly depending on season. I went in January, the peak of the rainy season, so needed to account for that.

Rain gear
Waterproof hiking boots, pants, and a solid raincoat are essential, but what really saved me was the poncho I decided to buy last minute in Cusco. Get an oversized version that fits over your backpack and gear. When you finally reach the campsite after hiking all day at 14,000ft, and your sleeping bag is still dry, you will appreciate that two-dollar plastic poncho.

Walking sticks
Many people choose to purchase walking sticks, especially for the two-hour downhill climb on day 3. I had a solid half hour of deliberation over taking one, but in the end decided against it. While I did have a few moments of “how the hell am I going to make it down that cliff?” I chose to go slow and used the three points of contact rule.

While this meant I was pretty much crawling down a mountain, I found a rhythm after a while and eventually felt pretty confident. If your balance isn’t great, then I’d advise the stick. Otherwise, ask yourself if this is really worth the extra weight. When you’re hiking for eight hours, every pound counts.

After hiking those eight hours, I was happy I had the foresight to dress in layers. Hiking at 5am can be pretty cold, but after a few hours of uphill climbing I was sweating. Bring base layers that are good insulators — Uniqlo’s heattech leggings and shirts are an affordable way to go. Then add a second t-shirt and hiking pants and bring a light jacket or raincoat.

Make sure to add layers for your extremities for nights at camp. My last-minute purchase of an Alpaca hat and gloves earned me a few extra hours of warmth in my tent, and saved me from nights of shivering sleeplessness.

Cusco lives off the tourism industry of Machu Picchu. Its streets are lined with shops offering hiking gear for rental at very fair prices. If you’re not sure you want to commit to an expensive pair of hiking boots or a North Face sleeping bag, save yourself the money (and having to lug those boots around on the rest of your trip) and go the rental route.

The shops are eager for your business, especially during the off-season, so don’t be afraid to bargain. I paid 10 soles a day for my insulated sleeping bag, which totaled just $15 for the entire trip.

Consider food.

Provided meals
The porters accompanying each group are responsible for carrying enough food for each hike, and cooking it as well. I was surprised at how many gourmet chefs double as porters! There were some nights I was so tired from the hike I’d fall asleep in my tent before dinner. Don’t make that mistake.

Your body is burning calories at a much faster rate than normal and needs to be constantly nourished. Plus the meal choices are so delicious, with options like honey-covered pancakes, vegetable soups, and chicken with rice.

It’s also important to bring along some snacks for the road. Nuts and power bars are good to keep energy levels up, but don’t forget to pack some cookies for a rush of sugar and carbohydrates.

On day 2, as I was still a few hours away from the top of the pass, the skies opened and I was drenched before I could reach my poncho. Each step grew heavier and with such thin mountain air, I could barely breathe. I grabbed a packet of cookies from my pocket and quickly ate two. Instantly, I felt a little better. My dizziness grew fainter, and I was able to keep walking towards the campsite.

Plan your costs.

The Inca Trail is not cheap. Yes, you can very easily find tours that may cost $100 less, and you can scrimp on good hiking boots, and take along your sneakers, but these decisions will affect you on the trail. As a newcomer to the world of trekking, do yourself a favor and create the most comfortable and supportive environment that you can. It’s worth the extra money.

Sample budget:

  • Trip fee (guides, permits, etc.): $500
  • Hiking boots: $200 or 50 soles rental
  • Plastic poncho: $2
  • Porter fee: 80 soles per day
  • Sleeping bag: $15 rental
  • Walking sticks: 10 soles
  • Snacks: 20 soles

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