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Have you heard me say enough times yet that hiking the Inca Trail is an incredible experience? Well let me say it once more: it’s so fantastically amazing! And you’ll probably love your experience a little more if you have proper info to prep for your trek. Here’s all you need to know about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, with a review of our trekking company, Alpaca Expeditions, sprinkled throughout.
Because these were all the things I wanted to know before I went or wish I knew.
Choosing a Trek Company for the Inca Trail: Why Alpaca Expeditions
To help preserve the Inca Trail, the Peruvian government mandates that all trekkers go with a licensed trekking company.
In fact, there are only 500 permits for the trail per day. That number includes guides and porters, so the actual number of hikers starting the Inca Trail each day is approximately 170-200.
We wanted to make sure the group size wasn’t too big and the price tag wasn’t too high, and we wanted a company that provided solid communication in English since neither of us really speaks Spanish.
We found Alpaca Expeditions after comparing 12+ potentials, and I’m really glad we went with them.
Not only did we have an incredible time with our guides, porters, and chefs (oh the food! see below), the company was also super communicative and provided impeccable service.
And more importantly, especially after seeing the porters in action, it was so important to know the company is an ethical one. The company’s founder is actually an ex-porter (as were our two guides), which guides them in their philosophy of paying porters fairly, providing them with on-the-job health insurance, and supplying all of their equipment for free.
The classic 4 day/3 night trek costs $690 in 2019 ($665 when we went in 2017) and included absolutely everything from the moment we were picked up to the drop-off, save for one post-trek lunch in Aguas Calientes. There are also costs for equipment and tips, which I’ll cover separately below. Our group had 10 people, but Alpaca will start a hike even if there are only 2 trekkers, and they max out at 16.
Because of the limited permits, you typically have to book Inca Trail treks about 6 months in advance. Since the permits are tied to a specific start date, I’d absolutely plan the rest of your trip around your trekking dates.
What to Expect Each Day on the Inca Trail
Technically this varies from company to company, as it’s up to each company to set their exact itineraries. Here’s a quick rundown though based on our experience with Alpaca Expeditions.
- Where you get all the necessary info about pick-ups, packing, and more. Ours was the evening before our trek.
- This day feels the most like any other day hike. You pass through a number of small villages along the way and visit some Inca ruins. Our Alpaca Expeditions guides were very knowledgeable about these sites and shared tons of information about them. They also parted tons of knowledge about the flora and fauna along the trail.
- Water is available for purchase on day 1 as many villagers sell food and drinks along the path.
- The cleanest bathrooms along the route are the ones privately run by the villagers. Typically costs 1 soles.
- The longest, hardest, highest, and coldest day. You have to clear two passes, including the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass.
- Because the aforementioned pass is at 4215 meters (13,828 feet), day 2 is also the toughest on your lungs. On that note, please take time in Cusco to adjust to the altitude ahead of time.
Related: There are tons of things to do in and around Cusco, including trips to Sacred Valley sites such as Ollantaytambo.
- For us, the third day was fairly short. There are still steep inclines as well as lots of going down on jagged rocks, but you also spend a lot of time visiting Inca sites.
- Every group stays at the same campsite on day 3. There are cold showers available here as well.
- The mosquitoes are vicious here. See below for more.
- You have to wake up super early on the last day (think 2:45, 3 a.m.). Once the control gate opens, you basically race up to the Sun Gate to get a view of Machu Picchu. Don’t despair if there’s fog. It’ll probably lift if you’re patient enough and it makes for some photographic treasures.
- And finally, you head down to Machu Picchu. It is as mind-blowing as you see in the photos, but admittedly, after such an incredible experience on the trail, it sort of came in at second place in our minds. As Alpaca’s slogan says, “the journey is the destination.”
- The trek ends with a guided tour around Machu Picchu and some free time. Those who signed up to hike Huayna Picchu headed there, but we opted out (steep stairs down a mountain are not my favorite thing!).
Am I fit enough? How to prep
You don’t need to be a serious backpacker or intrepid hiker to do the Inca Trail. You should be at least at an average fitness level and be able to walk 8-12 miles without serious issues. Doing some hikes with good incline ahead of time can also help.
The bigger issue for the Inca Trail is typically altitude sickness.
Most of us who live at lower elevations simply don’t have the lung capacity needed at such high elevations. Your best bet is to spend a few days acclimating in Cusco and to have an ample supply of coca leaves, tea, and candies to help alleviate the symptoms.
We spent 3 days in Cusco beforehand, and while running was out of the question, we didn’t really have any altitude sickness symptoms on the trail.
We did not want or need Diamox, but if you’ve experienced serious altitude sickness before or have never gone up very high in elevation, most doctors will prescribe it to you if you tell them you’re headed to Machu Picchu.
The highest I’d ever been before this was ~9,000 feet, which was still ~2,000 feet lower than Cusco and obviously much lower than the highest point on the trail.
Food, toilets, and all that good stuff: what Alpaca Expeditions provides
I’m not sure we really thought about this much beforehand, even though this is all the important daily stuff we all need.
In some ways, the trekking companies and porters make it so that the Inca Trail experience has a glamping feel to it. The porters are carrying and setting up all our stuff, there’s a portable toilet each night at camp (!), water is boiled and cooled for us, and the most surprising part: the food was incredible!
The Alpaca Expeditions chefs (we had super Mario as our head chef) do a mind-blowing job of prepping and cooking fresh meals along the trail. Breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner every day.
How they do it is beyond me, but we had multi-course meals that were some of the best food we had in Peru. Seriously. Those with dietary considerations or food dislikes were accommodated to as well. Just look at this first lunch.
They also perform some magic for the end-of-trek celebration on night 3, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you 😉
I know tipping is technically optional in most circumstances, but tipping is a thing in Peru and honestly so deserved on the Inca Trail. So please, please budget and bring money for tips. Don’t be that person.
You’ll have guides, porters, and chefs working incredibly hard to provide you with a safe and comfortable experience. And believe me, once you experience the roughest parts of the trek and think about how they’re doing it carrying 55 pounds on their back, you’ll understand why thanking them with a tip becomes almost an emotional experience.
The exact amount you’ll need to bring will depend on the size of your group and thus the corresponding size of the staff (per government regulations). Your guide should let you know how many folks are with you during the pre-trek briefing, and you can calculate from there.
Each company has different guidelines, and each person has their own budget, but here’s what we followed:
- 60-80 soles per porter
- 100-160 soles per chef
- 80-100 per guide
Mosquitoes on the Inca Trail
They’re evil. They’re getting an entire section because everyone talked about being prepped for mosquitoes in the Amazon and even at Machu Picchu, but no one mentioned the mosquitoes on the Inca Trail.
I’ll be honest and say that I’m not even sure if they’re technically mosquitoes or some other sort of flying, biting insect, but they are the worst. These buggers are tiny and super quiet. They look like gnats and will prey upon you with quiet precision, leaving you with a drop of blood at the bite mark. Even DEET insect repellent doesn’t fully stop them.
You won’t feel them when they bite you. You won’t even feel itchy initially. But then, in 12-24 hours, the itch descends, and it’s brutal. (The only thing I’ve had similar to it were sand fly bites in Costa Rica.) I took an oral anti-histamine and applied topical anti-itch cream and was still itchy at times.
The worst part of these? They re-itch later. After subsiding a little bit while we were in the Amazon, they started itching again after we got home. Even 3 weeks afterward, a few of the bites were still periodically itchy.
They’re especially bad on day 3 when you’re in the cloud forest, so be prepared.
Packing list for the Inca Trail
The porters have a limited amount they’re allowed to carry on the trail, which means there’s a limited amount for trekkers as well. For us, the total was 7 kg. Once our sleeping bag and foam insulation mattress were inside, there was 3.5 kg left for personal things.
So pack light!
(Keep in mind we were there in August during the dry, colder winter season.)
Things you must have:
- A day pack for your daytime essentials
- You can’t get onto the trail without the passport you booked the trek with
- Hiking boots or shoes, or solid sneakers
- 4 pairs of hiking socks
- 3-4 quick dry t-shirts or tanks
- 3-4 pairs of underwear
- 3-4 sports bras
- 1 pair of (convertible) hiking pants
- Outer layers you can layer: I brought a running jacket and a thicker Patagonia soft shell
- Flip flops or sandals
- Your feet will welcome being out and free when you’re at camp
- It’s super useful in the evenings and at night, especially on the colder nights
- Cold weather sleeping bag
- We rented ours from Alpaca, along with a thin inflatable air mattress
- Gloves, preferably waterproof
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer
- Toiletries, including wet wipes since you likely won’t be showering
- Any medications or personal needs, like contact lens solution for me
- Insect repellent, plus anti-histamines and/or anti-itch cream
- Water bottles
- Bring reusable ones like we did or refill plastic ones you buy on day 1. You’ll need 2-3 liters of capacity. (If you bring reusable ones and have extras you won’t need the rest of your trip, ask your guide on the last night if the porters would appreciate having them. Ours did.)
Things you should have:
- Hiking poles
- While you technically could do the trail without, please do your knees a favor and spend the $15-20 to rent them. The hard, jaggedly rocks are rough on your knees, especially during all the descents.
- Rain jacket
- We didn’t have much use for them but they’re important if you end up getting rain
- At that elevation, the sun is just a bit stronger
- Alpaca Expeditions provided us with two snacks per day, but it’s good to have some others of your own
- External battery pack
- you wouldn’t want to get to Machu Picchu and end up without functioning photographic equipment
Things I wish I had:
- Sweat-wicking underwear. It is about the only thing I’ve ever regretted not bringing on a trip.
Other things I brought:
- 1 pair of leggings so I would have something fresh for Machu Picchu (because pictures and being around people who have actually showered in the past 4 days)
- Sweatshirt to eat dinner and sleep in after I’ve changed out of sweaty clothes and wet wiped down.
Anything I missed or you have questions about? Let me know!
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