An Inca Trail Guide: Necessities & Advice For A 49k Hike

Although difficult, the Inca Trail is not the death march some may portray it to be.

macchu picchu peru
PHOTO KEVIN MAWHINNEY 

Although difficult, the Inca Trail is not the death march some may portray it to be. With rumors spreading about it’s closure nearing, it may be time to take action on this adventure. It is a challenging four-day hike in which you will summit two mountains, the first and more menacing of which is a peak called Dead Woman’s Pass,” one that hovers 13,776 feet above sea level. With proper preparation and advice, this trail can be an ideal alternative to taking a bus directly to Machu Picchu. The breathtaking views and the vacant ruins that grace the ancient religious trail make this trek well worth the effort.

macchu picchu peru
PHOTO KEVIN MAWHINNEY 

Packing:

PACK LIGHT!!! This cannot be emphasized enough. You will be lugging whatever you decide to bring with you, along with a sleeping bag, water and sleeping pad for 49 kilometers. A jacket, beanie or hat, 2 shirts, rain coat, one pair of pants, socks, sandals, camera, toothbrush, toilet paper, flash light and water bottle are the necessities. Although I opted to carry my own overly packed bag, you can higher a porter to carry your things for about $75 to $100 for the whole trip. The price is based on the weight of your luggage.

Altitude sickness: 

It’s a problem for many people. It’s important to allow yourself some time in Cuzco to acclimate to the climate prior to the trek. The altitude makes it hard to catch your breath and can give many hikers dizziness and headaches. Although they sell pills for altitude sickness at the pharmacy, the medicine of choice is the coca leaf. Yes, the one we have demonized for being the base ingredient to cocaine, but the truth is, it’s a daily staple in Andes. Wake up, drink coca tea and when you have lunch, it’s coca tea. You can chew it, drink it or even eat it as a candy. Some forms are more effective than others, but a healthy clump of this leaf stuck in my gums. But with plenty of sugar during the meals and I felt fine with the altitude.

macchu picchu peru
PHOTO KEVIN MAWHINNEY 

Food and water:

I am hungry all the time. The company will provide breakfast, lunch and dinner. But if you know that you have a bottomless pit for a stomach as I do, pack some candy bars and trail mix. You can put trail mix together extremely cheap at the San Pedro Market in Cuzco.

Water and Gatorade (and even beer) are sold for steep prices along the trail during the first few days. Liquids can be heavy, so don’t stock up on water in the beginning. Buy purification tablets and you can also fill up your water bottle at any clean water source.

Go off the Trail:

Contrary to common sense and the advice any guide gives you; I, a 22-year-old with blatant disregard for boundaries and “do not cross” signs, am suggesting that you take some side trails. Sounds like terrible advice? You’re thinking to yourself, “Why would I listen to some reckless 22 year old?” Here’s why: although the trails are less visited than Machu Picchu. The main sites are very groomed and blemished with visitors and signs of them. Find a side trail, during one of the breaks, or at one of the ruins, you may run into some rarely visited terrain with amazing views. In doing so, I found myself literally alone in in royal ruins and on mountaintops sitting in the middle of religious offerings Peruvians leave for Mother Earth. I found solitude away from the heavy breathing and chatter. In doing so, I was able to truly appreciate the essence of this religious trail. It can easily be missed in the midst of the hike.

macchu picchu peru
PHOTO KEVIN MAWHINNEY 

Machu Picchu arrival:

After three full days of hiking, you will get up around 3am to hike to Machu Picchu. You’ll reach a temple called the Sun Gate right in time to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Climb up the stairs and enjoy this view as long as you can. Enjoy the massive views of nature and the feeling of being submersed in it. Once you arrive in Macchu Picchu, you will be once again integrated into society. The holy city still remains intact and many structures are just as the explorer Bingham found them. But Machu Picchu has become an easily accessible tourist attraction. Tour buses surround the gate and the smell of the concession stand hovers at the entrance.

For these very reasons, many travelers are opting to take the trails to reach it. Not just the classic Inca Trail, but there are several to choose from, each varying in length and difficulty. If a quick visit to the city to witness the amazing architecture and wonder at the very existence of this place is what you are looking for, by all means, it’s a great site and this option can be much more luxurious as you can stay in a hotel in Aguas Calientes and take a bus to Machu Picchu for the day. But, if you are interested in adventure, authenticity and a good decent challenge, take a look into the trail options. Some of the things you will see on the way to Machu Picchu may strike you with more awe than the main attraction.

macchu picchu peru
PHOTO KEVIN MAWHINNEY 

Kevin Mawhinney

Kevin grew up in Santa Rosa, CA. He's lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His travel style is laid back and open to whatever opportunities present themselves. He also can't be without hot sauce. Hot sauce from any culture will suffice.

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