Preparing to hike the Inca Trail: Everything you need to know

In March, I had the opportunity to hike the Inca trail with two of my friends. We researched and planned for several months leading up to the trip. This blog includes helpful information for anyone considering or preparing to hike the Inca Trail. 

Travel buddies: Jordan (me), Reagan, and Samantha 

Travel buddies: Jordan (me), Reagan, and Samantha 

Hiking the Inca Trail or taking the train to Machu Picchu?

My decision to hike the Inca Trail was based off doing something adventurous on the way to Machu Picchu. Reaching Machu Picchu was the mission, but the highlight of the trip was the trek itself. I’d only recommend taking the train to Machu Picchu if you are physically unable to complete the hike or you absolutely despise hiking and camping. Spending days in the remarkable scenery of the Andes mountains, jungle, and highlands does something to your soul that I can't quite articulate. 

Tour Operator vs Private guide

Making this decision is critical to your overall experience on the Inca Trail. You can’t hike the trail without a certified guide. Although it may be cheaper to go with only a guide, there are many other factors to consider such as carrying large packs, making your own food, setting up camp, etc. Unless you have experience doing multiple day backpacking, then I recommend using a tour operator. It takes a lot of weight off (literally), planning, and responsibility. In my opinion, it makes the experience all the more enjoyable to have someone else be responsible for carrying your belongings, cooking meals, setting up/tearing down camp, and the many more logistics that come into play. 

Choosing a Tour Operator

When I started my initial research on Inca Trail tour operators, I was able to narrow the companies down to SAS, Llama Path, and Alpaca Expeditions. Each of these companies included our preferred services (equipment rentals, porters, cooked meals, etc.). 

Why I chose Alpaca Expeditions

The deciding factor came down to reviews and price. I read so many reviews. I found their price and services reflected what we wanted and needed most of the trip. It is one of the only companies that don’t charge extra for carrying up to 7kg of your things. I also recommend Alpaca for their above and beyond customer service and organization. Read my detailed review of the company on Trip Advisor

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Preparing for the hike

Altitude sickness and physical fitness. Thinking about these stressed me out the most. Everything I read about altitude sickness said that you can’t predict if you will be susceptible to it. The best way to prepare is either arrive in Cusco a few days early to let your body acclimate to the altitude or take Diamox. My friends and I only had one day in Cusco before the trek, so we got a prescription of Diamox and took it every day. None of us showed symptoms of altitude sickness. Crisis averted. 

As for physical fitness, I prepared by running 2-3 miles 3x/week combined with weightlifting for several weeks leading up to the trek. Days 1-2 I hiked between the middle and front of the group. Days 3-4 I was very sore, but was able to keep pace with the rest of the group. 

We had members of our group who admittedly didn’t prepare much and completed the trek just fine. I’m sure they were very sore, but they never fell too far behind. 

Based on my experience, I recommend preparing physically by doing cardio training and walking stairs or hills if possible. But if your trip sneaks up on you and you didn't take the time to prepare, then stay strong mentally and expect to be very sore. 

A set of stairs at one of the Inca sites. Not all of the hike looked like this. ;) But be prepared to walk up and down stairs for days! Photo credit: Sakib Alam.

A set of stairs at one of the Inca sites. Not all of the hike looked like this. ;) But be prepared to walk up and down stairs for days! Photo credit: Sakib Alam.

What to Pack

Apart from being physically prepared for the hike, trying to figure out what to pack also stressed me out. Alpaca Expeditions has a packing list that I followed, then I packed a little extra. The little extra was a bad idea because I definitely overpacked. Stick to packing the absolute essentials. 

Check out the packing list made by Alpaca Expeditions. Here are some notes on some of the critical items: 

Wicking-shirts- Both t-shirts and tank tops. I hiked at the end of rainy season and I didn’t anticipate sweating so much. These will keep you cool. 

  • Sunscreen- People got BURNT. 
  • Baby wipes- Just pack them. You’ll be glad. 
  • Hiking socks- Prob the only reason I didn’t get blisters (I had a fresh pair every day). 
  • Headlamp: It's dark at night!

THE YELLOW FEVER DISCLAIMER

Depending on where you are flying to Peru from, you might need your yellow fever shot. Yellow fever is a concern near the Amazon River, not on the Inca trail. However, the airline might not care whether you are planning to visit the Amazon or not. 

You see, my friends and I flew to Peru from Honduras on Avianca airlines. We were asked to present our yellow fever immunization cards at check-in. This was all news to us. Thankfully, we had enough time to go to a private hospital and get our shots and back to the airport to make our flight. This might only be an issue if you are flying to Peru from another Latin American country. Either way, do your research! 

I hope this blog is helpful for you Inca Trail hikers. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions! 

 

Smiling through the pain on Day 4. Photo cred: Sakib Alam.

Smiling through the pain on Day 4. Photo cred: Sakib Alam.