Macchu Pichu

Everything you need to know about hiking the Inca Trail in Peru

Introduction

A new trip to a new continent. I feel very very fortunate to be able to make this trip. I’m on the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Lima which is a 12 ½ hour long haul flight and yes I am a little bit nervous. Am I fit enough? Will the Machu Picchu altitude be bothering me? This was me solo traveller back in 2011.

Read HERE about another Solo travel Adventure to Bali

I’m going on a 12 day trip with G Adventures who organise Inca Trail Tours and run their own operations at the start of the hike. ‘The Amazon to Andes Classic Tour’, includes 2 highlights: hiking the Inca trail and visiting the Amazon jungle in Peru. Hiking the Inca Trail with the Machu Picchu mountain as finishing point has been one of my dreams and now this dream was becoming reality. Normally I wouldn’t be the person to go on an organized group trip but this offer was just too good to be true so I am very grateful to be on this plane to Lima.

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Where is Peru, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail?

Machu Picchu is situated in Peru, high in the Andes Mountains, above the Urubamba River Valley. Aguas Calientes is the nearest town. It takes about 20 minutes by bus to drive the zigzag road to Machu Picchu. You usually fly in to Lima, the capital of Peru and from there you take a local flight to Cuzco. Cuzco is 3350 m elevated above sea level so most travelers overnight here for 1 or 2 nights to get accustomed to the altitude.

What to pack to when you’re hiking the Inca Trail in Peru?

So besides your clothes and what you usually pack to go on a trip find below some suggestions of things that you might not have in your cupboard yet and might need to purchase before your trip.

The most important item you need to pack and don’t forget is of course your HIKING BOOTS. Good reliable brands are Salomon and Merrell hiking boots. I suggest to buy new ones in time so that you an practice and walk on them already for quite a bit before the actual hike. It will be more comfortable and less chance to get blisters. Oh and if you already have hiking boots, check that they’re in a good condition a few weeks before the actual trip. I found out that mine needed to be fixed 2 days before hopping on the plane so that was a bit stressful.

Another absolute necessity is a RAIN PONCHO. There are often clouds that you walk through and you don’t want to get wet. A rain poncho is easily tucked away in your day pack so that you can take it out quickly when needed. A lot of people hike in shorts for that reason so that they don’t get wet trousers, which makes sense.

Enough clean HIKING SOCKS. You don’t want to skim on these. Since you probably won’t shower for a few days it will be good for your feet to at least put on clean socks in the morning, so have a clean pair for each day.

A hiking stick in case you’re a bit nervous about the route. The route is perfectly fine but a walking stick takes away about 30% on the pressure which helps you to be more stable and comfortable. You can take one or even choose to take 2. I had one of those collapsible hiking sticks so that it was easy to include in my luggage.

A warm sleeping bag. It can get very cold at night and you want to make sure that you sleep so bring a warm sleeping bag and a sleeping bag liner which is like a sheet that goes inside your sleeping bag (keeps things a little fresh you know…).

A comfortable DAY PACK. You main luggage will be carried by the porters who will set up lunch, dinner and your tents (yes, this is a TRULY glamping experience and all the honour has to go to the amazing porters who carry EVERYTHING). What you want to have in your day pack is:

a water bottle, lip balm, a beanie, your rain poncho, some coca leaves to chew on so you don’t get altitude sickness and any personal medication that you may need to carry with you. Oh also have some blister plasters. They’re really the best thing you can pack. Hopefully you don’t need them but if you do they will sort you out big time.

A head torch. This must be my favourite gadget of all times and you will need it at night in your tent or in case you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

30 March, Arrival in Lima, Peru

I arrived around 6pm in Lima and a G Adventures representative was welcoming me in the Arrivals Hall. Immediately I noticed that this was a very well organized airport. Somehow I expected South America to be extremely unorganised. I guess something like when people come the first time to South Africa. They normally are also amazed by the level of facilities (jeez, you have real toilets!). The trip to the hotel was about 45 minutes. I couldn’t see much of the city because it was dark and misty. 3 hours later my friend arrived from Cape Town. We shared a glass of wine and then off to bed to be able to explore Lima the next day.

Things to do in Lima, the capital of Peru

We didn’t think Lima was a particular beautiful city but as in any city, there’s always stuff to do, places to go and of course we will always find a nice place to eat. We took a 3 hour city sightseeing tour and enjoyed sitting on top, departing from Kennedy Park in the area called Miraflores (5 minute walk from our hotel La Castellana Hotel.

We did see some beautiful plazas and there was a visit to the cathedral. It was mostly just a HUGE city with way too much traffic. However, we were very interested in tasting the local dish called ‘Ceviche’ (= raw fish marinated in lime and coriander mixed with red onion and bell pepper) and found a stunning place near the sea to enjoy lunch, Punta Sal. What could have been a stunning view was just mist so unfortunately we didn’t see the sea. The food was wonderful. We tried as many local dishes as possible and also had a go at Pisco Sour, the local drink which tastes very much like Tequila. Great stuff!

In the evening we had a briefing by a G Adventure representative at the hotel where we met part of the group. The next morning we had to catch a flight to Cuzco, the old Inca capital and now tourism centre of Peru. Then, the adventure of the Machu Picchu hike would really start!

31 March, Cuzco

We arrived in Cuzco which is an incredibly busy place. NOTHING like I had imagined. I thought it would be much smaller, picturesque and intimate and a lot less cars. I was a little disappointed to be completely honest….We stayed in a small hotel, centrally located hotel, in walking distance of the Plaza de Armas and the market,Prisma Hotel

We met our guide who took us on a little walk around the city centre. Cuzco is situated at 3450 m so it’s very important to get used to the altitude slowly and one shouldn’t do too much on the day of arrival. Our guide did that very well, walking slowly, showing us Cuzco. What we didn’t like, was that he took us to a very American style restaurant with Norah Jones music in the background and hamburgers!! We always like to try local things so in the evening we didn’t join the group anymore (there would be many days to come that we’d spend with the group).

My friend has this eye for spotting incredible local eateries so we find this tiny little restaurant near the hotel that looked really cute and neat. It was like entering a family’s living room. In the back there was a mother helping her child with homework and the dad made the most delicious chicken soup for us while the son, who spoke a little bit of English, was serving us. Really lovely! And we couldn’t believe that the place was so empty but maybe we were a bit too early. So if you go to Cuzco, please do explore the local eateries that are not directly around the Plaza de Armas. Peruvian food is delicious and healthy. Did you know their staple food is Quinoa and that the potato originates from Peru?

By the way, for me it is GREAT to be in a Spanish speaking country again after so many years. I can practice my Spanish again and really take any opportunity to chat with the locals.

In the afternoon I had a meeting with a South African who was currently setting up as a tour organiser in Peru. As you know, I always love to meet up with interesting people and combine business and pleasure.

1 April, We loooooved Ollantaytambo, Peru

I just saw the most unbelievable thing in a flash: a guy sitting at the back of a motorbike, talking on his cell phone while having a Bible in his hand and making a cross. And all this at an incredible speed! It’s always a pity that these moments are gone before you know it and there’s no time to point it out to my friend.

We are in the cutest village ever! Now this is how I had imagined Cuzco but we’re in Ollantaytambo. I call it a dollhouse village. Colorful houses, even more colorful people. Not much traffic. People are super chilled and friendly everywhere so far. Another assumption I made before I came here: oh dear, South America, it’s going to be a mission being blond! But no, nobody hassles me and everybody is just super friendly and in general interested.

Today was a beautiful day anyway. We started visiting a weaving project that is supported by Planeterra, the foundation by G Adventures to ensure sustainable tourism and give back to the local communities. That’s why I really can’t recommend G Adventures enough. They put their money where their mouth is and do amazing work in communities all around the world.
I went a bit overboard buying Alpaca socks and an Alpaca Poncho. But at least I know for sure that I won’t be cold on the trail. Alpaca wool is the wool from the local Alpacas. The animal looks like a mix breed of a camel, goat and cow.

The ladies of the weaving projects (the wives of the porters who we will meet tomorrow) showed us how they used nothing but local plants and herbs to make the most beautiful colors.

After the project we visited the first Inca ruins of this trip, the ruins of Pisac and we also visited Pisac market. My friend and I we both loved Pisac. Ollantaytambo is also base of an important Inca ruin. We walked up, very slowly, 250 steps. The Inca Trail is about 10.000 steps so this was a good exercise. And now we’re sitting in lovely Ollantaytambo, drinking coffee, while writing in our diaries. Tomorrow is the big day: Day 1 of the Inca Trail. We want to get a good night’s rest and go to bed early because we probably won’t get much sleep when we’re camping with 500 other people.

2 April, Hiking the Inca Trail Day 1, what you need to know

What a beautiful day it was!! I don’t really have the right words to describe it but I got totally emotional this morning when I was overlooking the Andes. I have to say that G Adventures really is a fantastic company, everything is superbly organized, it is quite unbelievable.
Ok, let’s start with the beginning and give you some practical tips as well for in case you’d like to do this trail yourself.
Start of the Inca Trail, this cute dog wanted also in the picture..

When hiking the Inca Trail with G Adventures, which is one of the biggest operators in this area, you will be well taken care of and know for sure that they also take good care of their staff like porters and guides. G Adventures was actually chosen Best Inca Trail Tour Operator. The porters are not allowed to carry more than 25 kg (we saw other porters really struggling with much much more which is horrible and really slave work to be honest).
We were a group of 16 hikers and had a total of 21 porters, 1 chef, 1 assistant-chef, 1 guide and 1 assistant-guide so there are a LOT of people looking after you. Each hiker is allowed 5 kg of luggage (which includes your sleeping bag). If you’d like to take more (which you really don’t need) you will have to carry it in your day pack. At the beginning of the trail, so this morning, all duffle bags (provided by G Adventures) are weighted and if you have too much it will be taken out.

On the trail there’s a maximum of 500 people (yes, that’s a LOT) allowed per day of which are about 200 hikers and 300 staff. That’s why you would always have to book via an operator who will get you the permit (my friend and I decided: we want to come and hike the lesser known trails like the Lares trek, where there are less people and no permits required).
To be honest we were a bit blown away by the amount of people. Anyway, today was the first day and it was fantastic. For lunch the porters had set up tents and we sat at REAL tables to have our lunch! Wow! BUT, even more incredible was that they were welcoming us with applause when we arrived at the lunch spot. We also were all given a bowl of lukewarm water and soap to refresh ourselves. WoW! This was 5 star camping to me!

Lunch time

After lunch, which was a 3 course affair, we still had a couple of hours to hike so off we went again. Sometimes I struggle a bit with the altitude but we have embraced drinking Coca tea and chewing the Coca leaves. Just like the locals. What works for them, works for us so we refrained from buying expensive pills. Important is to really stop when you’re out of breath and when you’re feeling your heart pounding in your throat and relax until your breathing is normal again before you start walking again.

Arrival in the afternoon

Arriving at the camp site, all the tents were pitched and the duffle bags were already put inside. This crew was totally amazing! After dinner time we were all introduced to the entire team and we introduced ourselves to the team as well. The group is quite mixed with people from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and of course us from South Africa (Germany & Holland originally).

3 April, day 2 of hiking the Inca Trail

Today was definitely the toughest day. We had to climb for about 4 hours to 4.250 m and that after a night of almost no sleep. We do suggest you rent the extra comfortable mattress….We didn’t. We thought we would rough it.. Since you go to bed very early, your rhythm gets very confused. At 11h30pm we thought it was 5am. OH NO!! Still so many hours to go…We were woken up by the staff at 5h30 and they brought us a cup of tea in our tent. Another WoW moment!! Around 7am we started hiking and like I said it was tough BUT it did seem as if we had more energy than yesterday so we didn’t struggle too much and the weather was good hiking weather, bit cloudy, not too hot.
Again starting off with Coca tea in the morning and chewing the leaves helps a lot. Apparently the oxygen gets better or faster absorbed by taking Coca. And yes, those are the same leaves of which they make cocaine and you’re not allowed to take any in your luggage although they look like bay leaves… We didn’t try..

4 April

I didn’t write anything on this day… Just some pictures for you. It rained most of the day. We walked through a beautiful cloud forest. Hiking was mostly downhill today

5 April , Arriving at Machu Picchu

We arrived! After walking, almost running for about 1.5 hour this morning we arrived at the sun gate and saw……NOTHING!!! OH NO!! It was misty and Machu Picchu had disappeared in the mist. But then it slowly started to clear up and we started to see this unbelievably beautiful place, built by the Incas. 1 picture says more than a 1000 words so here we go:
From the Sun Gate it’s still about an hour walk until you get to the entrance of Machu Picchu. This is where you have to mingle with the visitors that arrived by train or bus, smell nicely and wear high heels. Hiking the Inca Trail is a MUCH better way though..

A bit of history of Machu Picchu

On the 24th of July 2011, it’s 100 years ago that an 11-year old boy led the American historian Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu and the rest of the world became aware of its existence. Machu Picchu, which means Old Mountain, is now the most famous and popular tourist site of Peru and perhaps even of South America. The trail is closed for maintenance each year in the month of February. Closures may also take place due to inclement weather or other conditions.

What did I think of hiking the Inca trail?

Like I said in the beginning, a dream came true by doing this trail. The traditional Inca Trail is the iconic trail that everybody has heard of and you just HAVE to do it I guess, if you’re a hiker. BUT, I was really looking forward to enjoy quiet time in nature and that is something you shouldn’t expect while hiking the Inca Trail because there are simply too many people and lots of them make a lot of noise.
If I ever go back, I would choose to do some other hikes in the area and stay a couple of nights in a little guesthouse in Ollantaytambo or Pisac. Those villages were a lot more authentic than busy Cuzco and would offer me an experience that fit my needs more.

Like I said the services of G Adventures were incredible. It makes sense to select your operator carefully and choose one that supports sustainable tourism and that looks after the environment. Don’t expect anything from the facilities at the camp site. They’re basic and very dirty. This is something that I find hard to understand because it’s such a big tourist attraction.
On the last day, there’s the possibility for a hot shower but the other days there are mostly no showers. Toilets are French style toilets: hang above it and then make sure you don’t get flooded when you flush it….Not my thing… So you mustn’t be too worried about those things for a couple of days if you’d like to experience hiking the Inca Trail.

About the level of fitness

I’m quite a keen hiker in South Africa. I’ve hiked Fish River Canyon in Namibia, Whale Trail, Otter Trail, Drakensberg, Wild Coast and many hikes around Cape Town. So far I still think Otter Trail was the most hectic hike and the Inca Trail is definitely easier, especially because the weather is colder and you don’t need to worry about carrying all your stuff, preparing dinner and cleaning up.