It was some time around the middle of day two of the Inca Trail when I could see the top of Dead Woman’s Pass – so close, but still so high up – that with sweat running down my back and my legs aching I thought, “Why didn’t I just take the train?”
Why? Well, because my Peru Panorama tour with Gap Adventures included the Inca Trail. And when I booked the tour that was actually the part that I was most excited about. Apparently it slipped my mind at the time that I’d only ever slept in a tent twice before in my life (in the Australian Outback, which was fantastic), and that I’ve never hiked more than maybe 10km in my life, and that was on really flat ground. It was more of a stroll than a hike. There might have been ducks and ice cream.
Now that it’s over and I’ve had time to rest and enjoy indoor plumbing again I can say that it was a fantastic experience that took me to gorgeous places and introduced me to some lovely people, but it wasn’t easy.
So here are the things I think you should know before you start to hike 40km over three and a half days, mostly at an angle.
Tip #1: Book early. Like at least three months early. You can’t just show up one morning with your backpack and say, “Hello, I’d like to hike the Inca Trail.” Oh no.
In order to make sure the trail isn’t overrun, only 500 people are allowed to start the trail each day. That sounds like a lot, but only licensed tour operators can hit the trail (you can’t go it alone) and they have to obey regulations about what they take and how much their porters are allowed to carry, so it works out to something like 200 tourists and 300 support staff (guides, cooks and porters) a day.
Gap Adventures will book your spot on the trail once you book your Gap tour, but if the Inca Trail is already sold out for the time you want to go, there’s nothing Gap can do about it. Luckily, when you go to their website and select the dates you want to go (using the purple box on the right), it will tell you right there if the Trail is available or sold out.
If it is sold out, the alternative route is the Lares Trek, which about half of our group did, or you can always choose to hang out in Cuzco and Aguas Calientes for a few days, if you prefer.
Tip #2: Be physically prepared. To answer most people’s first question: Yes, it’s hard. The trail is steep going up and steep going down (and almost none of it is flat) and it’s hot and sometimes rainy and the altitude doesn’t help you catch your breath at all. But it’s also beautiful and wild and you’ll meet some great people along the way.
As far as whether you’re fit enough to do it, all I can say is that I did it – although not as quickly as some people in my group – and while I do a lot of walking and aerobics at home, I also spend most of my day sitting, and I don’t consider myself athletic at all.
If you want to do it, you’ll do it (because once you start, not finishing isn’t really an option – it’s not like there’s an emergency exit back to civilization), it’s just a matter of how much you’ll enjoy it. If in the months before your trip you make a habit of taking the stairs and take frequent walks up and down hills, that will help.
No matter how fit you are though, don’t expect to keep up with the porters. Even with 25 kilos of tents and food or their backs, and just leather sandals on their feet, they’ll still hustle by you. Just stay out of their way.
Tip #3: Be mentally prepared. The best way to do this is to know what to expect. For example:
- There are no toilets on the trail. This was the one thing I didn’t really think about beforehand, and the one thing you can’t really prepare for, but I wish I’d known because then I would have read up on the best techniques for squatting over a hole, in the dark, while holding a flashlight in one hand and toilet paper in the other. The last toilet you’ll see is at lunch on the first day (depending on where you lunch) and then it’s all holes in the ground until the campsite on evening three, where there’s a restaurant/bar that has real bathrooms (for free) and hot showers (for 5 soles – it’s another 5 to rent a towel).
- No matter how hot it is during the day, it can still get very, very cold at night at high altitudes. Pack a hat and gloves and maybe a scarf.
- The days start extra early, but finish early, too. You’ll be getting up around 5:00 a.m. each day, and closer to 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. the last day. If that sounds crazy, consider that you’re done hiking by 3 or 4:00 each day, and after it gets dark there’s not much to do but go to sleep, so you can still get in a good eight hours of sleep each night.
- You will be very well fed. I was a little afraid we’d be eating rice for every meal, “Survivor”-style, but that wasn’t the case at all. We had pancakes, fruit, soups, chicken, fish, pasta, cookies and cake at our sit-down meals and each day we were also given a little bag of snacks to munch on during the hike. I brought granola bars with me, but only had a couple, so don’t waste space or weight in your bag with extra food unless there’s something you can’t live without.
- Drink the coca tea, but not before bed. A nice selection of teas was offered to us after all our meals. The coca tea can help with the altitude, but it’s also a stimulant, and you don’t want to be up all night before a 7-hour hike.
Tip #4: Pack smart. Your Gap Adventures tour guide is a great resource and can give you packing tips in Cuzco, where you leave the bulk of your stuff and take just what you need in a small duffle bag that Gap provides.
Porters can only carry 25 kilos each, so each hiker has a weight limit of 6 kilos that you can give them to carry. If you rent a sleeping bag and air mattress, they’ll take up about 3 kilos, which leave you 3 kilos for your clothes and toiletries. You can carry as much as you want in your daypack, since you’ll be carrying that yourself, but you’ll still want to keep it light.
Here’s what you should have in your daypack:
- Passport (You have to show it to begin the trail, but you can also get it stamped at a checkpoint each day, which makes for a cool souvenir)
- Camera (Unless you’re a professional photographer, leave the DSLR in Cuzco and just bring a little point and shoot. I hauled my DSLR with me, and I did get some nice shots, but man did it get heavy after a while. And really, you can’t take a bad picture on the Inca Trail, anyway.)
- Walking sticks (*Very* useful when going down steep, uneven steps. You can bring your own if you want, but you can rent a pair from Gap for $12 and they’re really sturdy and adjustable.)
- Wet wipes (Great for the bathroom or for after meals)
- Hand sanitizer (ditto)
- 1-2 rolls of toilet paper
- Lip balm
- Water bottle
Tip #5: Ask your guide everything, because they have all the answers.
Daniel, my Gap guide up to this point, didn’t come with us on the Inca Trail. We all missed him, but there’s just too much demand for spots on the trail to waste one on a guide who’s done it all before, and besides, he had to stay in Cuzco for the three members of our group who weren’t well enough to do the hike.
Instead we had David and Naptali, two Peruvians who lead groups on the trail 3-4 times a month. That means they know every bend and curve along the way, as well as just about every flower and tree and all of the history of the trail. And where you can buy one last Gatorade. I drank a lot of freaking Gatorade on this trip.
Our trail guides were really good about giving us an hour-by-hour breakdown of the trail the night before, again in the morning, and then during our breaks (for example: “It’s two hours straight up, then we’ll take a snack break, then we head down for an hour and a half, then lunch, then down for another two hours and we’re done.”)
Tip #6: Only do it if it’s right for you! Should you include the Inca Trail in your plans? If you’re the outdoorsy type, or if hiking the Inca Trail is something you really want to be able to say you’ve done, then go for it. You’ll love it.
If you’re a more casual traveler who doesn’t need to scratch this particular thing off your Bucket List, or if sleeping outdoors really isn’t your thing, then consider taking the train for a day at Machu Picchu and using your extra days to go white water rafting in Cuzco.
The Inca Trail is a pretty cool thing to be able to say you’ve done, and I’m very grateful that I had the chance to hike, and occasionally hobble along, it. But only you can design your perfect trip, and if you’d rather be shopping or horseback riding or hang gliding, then that’s what you should do.
Talk to your travel agent or a Gap Adventures agent about your tour options so that whatever you do, you’ll love it.
Next: It’s an Inca Trail Photo Tour!