Beginner's guide to Machu Picchu
January 11, 2014 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone help me prepare for this hiking trip? What can I expect? What do I need?

My cousin, his friend and I are planning to take a trip to Machu Picchu in March. We're booking a reservation at - It's basically a 4 day and 3 night trip that includes a lot of hiking. We'll be camping outdoors as well. I want this trip to be memorable and I want to be prepared. I've been reading tips online and I'm feeling quite overwhelmed. I'm a beginner when it comes to hiking. I'm in moderate shape and I exercise (run, weights) almost everyday. I don't own anything hiking related so I'll need boots and clothes. I'm already spending a decent amount of money on this trip so I can't afford anything extravagant.

I'm kind of worried about not being able to finish the hike, so I'm going to be preparing myself physically until then. Going on smaller hikes almost every weekend, more exercising. I just need recommendations on what I definitely need to bring with me (as far as what type of clothes) and the places I can find them cheap. I've read that March is the rainy season so I'm wondering whether or not the hike is going to be a lot harder.

My mind's not organized and I really need to get a clear view of what I need to prepare for, so it'd be great to hear other people's experiences.

Can anyone help out?
posted by morning_television to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My fifty-ish year old fit aunt went to Machu Picchu last year with an older friend, and they had a complete blast. Tons of hiking/walking though. They rented cheap ass hostel rooms and sometimes slept in buses. Maybe see if that's an option. My aunt "lost" her passport on the second day and had to get one from the consulate/embassy. lost=stolen.

Bring what you'd think for a four day hike/walk. Pack extra band aids and moleskin in case your new shoes rub your achilles or you get a bunion.

Be careful about the local water, but stay hydrated. Have an emergency pair of shoes. Bring a clipper. Last time I went on a trip that involved a bunch of hiking, I got an ingrown toenail, and that clipper almost saved my life.
posted by Sphinx at 9:20 PM on January 11, 2014

I did this trek in 2012, two weeks after having surgery, so it's doable even if you are not in great shape. If you really want to train for the trek, stop running and walk up hills / stairs, whatever you can find, while carrying a load. The mileage per day is low, but the trails are steep and at altitude, so it will be tougher than normal. If you can walk or run stairs you will be in much better shape. Also work on downhills - there's a lot of steep downhill and if you are not conditioned for it your knees will be in trouble. Take hiking poles - we all used them and they are really helpful going up and coming down. You can usually hire them from the trek company.

Talk to your doctor about Diamox, which helps you acclimatise to the altitude faster. If you can, arrive in Cusco a few days early to get used to the altitude. It's not expensive and it might make a big difference in how you enjoy the hike.

You don't need a lot of gear. You're going to be dirty (no showers on the trail and the toilets are horrible), so taking clean clothes for every day is a bit of a waste. I suggest a pair of shoes you wear just to visit the toilets at the campsites - and throw them away afterwards, you'll never want to see them again. Take good socks and make sure you wear your hiking boots / shoes in before you go, you don't want blisters on the trail. Keep your toenails clipped short as well on the hike, if you don't you might lose them. Nights will be cold, so take warm things to wear at nights and at cold points on the trail - sweater, long johns, hat. Also take something waterproof.

Take snacks - the food that the trek companies prepare is ok, but it's heavily white-carb based and low on fruit, veggies and protein. Nuts and dried fruit will be your friend, you can easily get them in stores in Cusco.

Hope that helps, you sound like you're fit enough to do the hike as it is, so anything else is just icing on the cake. Enjoy!
posted by yogalemon at 9:35 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife and I just did this trip with Peru Treks in November. Here are my suggestions based on our trip:

You will finish. There will be parts that are physically challenging. I am a reasonably experienced backpacker and hiker and probably was not in as good of shape as it sounds like you are. Take training seriously but don't stress. You will be fine. Get to Cusco 3 days early to acclimate if you can.

For gear, Sierra Trading Post. Find coupon codes online: extra 25% off are almost always out there and 40% pop up occasionally. My wife had no gear whatsoever and we got her fully decked out for a reasonable cost. Decent trekking poles are worth their weight in gold.

Also the extra cash for a personal porter was the best money we spent. I probably could have carried my gear but it was a lot more fun not to.

My extravagant expenditure ($40ish) for the trip was a steripen. Our only complaint about Peru Treks is that they didnt provide enough water to keep me fully hydrated (I sweat a lot). With a steripen, every mountain spring meant cold, clean water. The meals are amazing, though. I still dream about the soups.

I'm happy to provide more info. It was the best trip I've ever taken, by far. Ask for Claudio and/or Raul. They are great.

The bathrooms are a nightmare, though.
posted by jtfowl0 at 10:10 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get to Cusco early. Not just because the trip is $@#$@#$ exhausting.

You may not want to take Diamox.

The hike itself is easy. Hiking poles help a lot but you cannot take them into MP anymore.

You will not get to do HP when you get to MP unless your tour assists it.

If Raul is the guy who also does the Salkantay Trek, then yeah, he's great.
posted by rr at 10:21 PM on January 11, 2014

I didn't do the full Inca Trail trek so I can't speak to that, but I did hike up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes (a couple miles). One thing I was not prepared for on that particular hike is that it's all stairs. Yes, extremely steep stairs cut into the side of the mountain. I am a pretty good hiker (though admittedly only in moderately OK shape otherwise), but two straight miles of stairs really took it out of me. Even worse, because going back down felt so much easier, I did too much too quickly and got the worst shin splints I've ever had in my life.

You may want to train on a stair climber or start taking the stairs if you have an office or apartment on a high floor.

Advice about other stuff:

- Spend a few days in Cusco to see the sights and get acclimated to the altitude. It's an amazing city and worth a trip all on its own. I got there a week into my month-long trip to Peru, with the intention of checking it out and maybe moving on to Puno. I ended up spending the whole rest of my trip in Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

- I got a lot of mileage out of a light waterproof jacket like this.

- Get legit boots. I (knowing I wasn't doing a significant trek) only brought Doc Martens and they were not well suited to even the everyday conditions of the city. On the one hand I don't really hike, but if I ever go back I'm bringing at least something with better tread on the soles. (Streets often have stone sidewalks which get slippery on foggy days.)

- Hostels in Peru are great. I would spend more money on tours and gear, and less money on lodgings, for sure.

- YMMV on the perennial question of how to get to Cusco from Lima. I took a couple of overnight buses, using Arequipa as a stopover, which I quite enjoyed and which I feel prepared me a little bit for the altitude. That said, I had a month in Peru and no really firm travel plans. A lot of people fly into Lima and then get on another flight to Cusco, which is also fine. Overnight buses are much better than whatever your mental image of sleeping on a bus is, though. It's really just a time suck.

- I don't really see the point of Diamox unless you fly to Cusco and intend to do the trek the day after you arrive. Given a few days in Cusco before the trek, you will acclimate. It's really not the end of the world unless you already know you're prone to altitude sickness.

- Can't speak to March and rain, but I was there in May and found Arequipa and Cusco to be damp, in general. Aguas Calientes, which is the nearest town to MP, is in the jungle and so humid that my travel towel finally gave up the ghost and mildewed irreparably. I would definitely at least mentally prepare for damp, even if the rain isn't that big a deal in reality.
posted by Sara C. at 11:32 PM on January 11, 2014

I recently did this hike, and have been told that March weather is similar to December weather.

- From what I saw, there can be a lot of variation between different tours. Check how much your porters will carry/how much you need to carry in your day pack. And try to bring as little as possible: every extra kilo will wear you down faster.

- Workout clothes are good. Quick dry shirts are lifesavers. You are going to get sweaty/wet. Cotton feels awful.

- Sunscreen is essential, and some sort of hat. I got burned on my head during a 2 hour period I wasn't wearing my hat. On the flipside, a poncho is a good idea. A cheap plastic one is enough. (you can easily buy one in Cusco for 10 soles)

- Bring snacks. The granola bars I brought were lifesavers.

- Include some room in your budget for tips for the porters, cook, and your guide. This is usually pooled from all of the hiking participants.

- Pace yourself. I am in decent shape, but found it hard to pace myself on the stairs.

- Get a decent nights sleep before you start. I was running on little sleep before the trek started, and slept poorly during the trek, making things a bit more miserable than necessary.

- If you want to save some money, you can hike to/from Aguas Caliente and Machu Picchu. Its about an hour, uphill.
posted by troytroy at 6:42 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

You want wool or synthetic, not cotton, especially if you expect to get wet and then even a bit cold. If you are prone to allergies, UTIs, digestive upset, migraines, whatever- have appropriate preventatives and meds if those fail.

When I went I had bad congestion- I was fine when we went over a pass, but when we would descend into the next valley I would get a nasty headache. Having trekking poles saved not just my knees but also my sanity on those descents.

Sleep is when your body acclimates to altitude, so sleep some at altitude before the hike. Cusco is pretty touristy but walking around the outskirts was beautiful.
posted by nat at 9:51 AM on January 12, 2014

I did the 4-day hike and it sounds like you're in a lot better shape than me (I wasn't a regular exerciser). It is tough, but it's definitely worth it in the end!

The thing that can make it more difficult is altitude. How long are you going to be in the Andes before you start the hike? It's a good idea to spend at least 2 days and ideally 3-4 in Cusco or around the Sacred Valley to acclimatise to the altitude. If your guides offer you coca leaves - take them!

Pack a really good, light, waterproof coat, as when I did it, it absolutely tipped it down and I got soaked through.

Also check how much your porters will be able to carry for you. I had brought a really heavyweight sleeping bag and lugged it all over Peru, before finding out it was too heavy and having to hire one from the company.

I wore hiking trainers rather than full-on, leather hiking boots and was absolutely fine.

Have fun! I absolutely loved my time in Peru - the Sacred Valley is really beautiful if you get a chance to go.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 10:05 AM on January 12, 2014

I put together this site after we did our hike in 2007
posted by maulik at 1:37 PM on January 12, 2014

A few things that some others haven't touched upon (I did this trip in august, I am 50 but a seasoned hiker):
Gaiters: these are waterproof sleeves for your lower legs that keep water off of your supposedly but not really waterproof boots. If it's rainy season you will be glad you have them.
Deet. camp 3 is a misery without deet.

Small bills. cash machines kick out hundreds, but everything there costs in tens or less, and making change is a pain. plan to tip your porters and guides, so save enough cash to do this on the trail. having small bills makes dividing things way easier, trust me.

Booze: the absolute highlight of our trip was the impromptu party we had on day 4 at camp. the hard work was over, in the morning we were going to get up at o-dark-thirty and hike to MP!!! this group of strangers had become quite close over the 4 days on the trail, and when we got a hold of a little booze, just enough to give our weary minds and bodies a pleasant buzz, we broke out in song and did folk dances from each of our respective countries to entertain the porters. other groups, straggling into camp after us thought we were nuts, but we were beyond caring. be the hero, lug a bottle of something up there without telling anyone until the last camp and you will insure friends for life.

Acclimitization. get to Cusco with a few days to spare and hike around the town, which is very hilly, or the sacred valley, or hike up to Saqsaywaman. it's just above the town and will get your legs used to the staircases and your lungs used to the altitude.

You will complete the hike. you will. now just enjoy the experience.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:46 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

You will definitely finish the hike! You may get rained on a bit but rainy season will not likely make the trek significantly more difficult, especially if you take care to keep your things/clothes dry so you're not miserable (pack stuff in plastic grocery bags and ziplocs). Rainy season is in fact incredibly beautiful and my preference for hiking because the vegetation will be lush and glowing, you'll get double rainbows at Machu Picchu and no dusty gusty winds.

I disagree slightly with several folks suggestion to acclimate in Cusco, let me explain: Yes, you should definitely arrive 3-5 days early but it is much more pleasant and effective to acclimate by heading straight to the Sacred Valley because it is several thousand feet lower than Cusco (as is much of the Inca trail and Machu Picchu itself). Ollantaytambo is a really a fantastic place to stay with lots of short day hikes and strolls around the small town (I used to live there, you are more than welcome to MeMail me for suggestions of great hikes around town, food or hostels). I bet you could arrange with your tour operators to meet up with them in Ollanta as your tour will be making a pit stop there anyway (it sounds like from the website). Urubamba is another close-by choice but less quaint. Head to Cusco afterward, it's a great city. (Or if you're short on time, it won't kill you spend your first days in Cusco, just take it easy the first day and drink coca tea. Sleep.)

General suggestions:
--Clothes: lightweight, water resistant but breathable and moisture wicking hiking pants are a must. Similar fabric shirts are great but I would save money by wearing cheap t-shirts plus layers. A synthetic fleece jacket or pullover is lightweight and comfy (and cheaply available). Synthetic long johns are great for layering and pajamas. Cheap poncho will work better than a cheap raincoat.
--Shoes: consider lighter-weight hiking boots, not the all leather kind. Heavy boots make my feet tired and are more expensive. If you can focus on making your pack as light as possible, ankle support becomes less vital and you can get away with lighter, more comfortable shoes. Bring footwear for camp: sandals or lightweight slippers or crocs
-- Wear two pairs of socks. Bring lots, always try to wear clean ones. Wool blend like smartwools work great.
-- Start wearing and breaking in your new boots/hiking shoes at home, don't skimp on this.
-- If you will be carrying a pack on the trail, DEFINITELY start walking/hiking/training with a similar weight pack while at home. Weight on your back makes a huge difference.
-- Definitely consider springing for a personal porter and tip him well (in Peruvian soles). Hiking without a pack is a glorious, luxurious thing.
-- Don't do the optional overnight stay in Aguas Calientes, it's a crap tourist boom town and the hot springs are not nice. If you want to stay in the sacred valley after the trek, arrange with your operators to get you a train ticket to Ollantaytambo and crash there, or go back to Cusco as per their standard itinerary.
--Hiking pole(s) are nice but to save money you can buy a passable and much cheaper one in any touristy area in Cusco or Sacred Valley (inspect for defects, bargain) or rent from the company.
--I shop at REI especially if there is a sale going on. Army surplus or more hunting/fishing type outdoors stores may have good deals on basics like socks and long underwear, or even stuff like shoes.

I haven't done the Inca Trail but I did lots of backpacking and hiking in this region so feel free to MeMail me, or for suggestions of hostels or cheap transport options before/after the trek.
posted by dahliachewswell at 10:04 PM on January 12, 2014

« Older I need your head/sweatband recommendations.   |   Horror movie involving a house that eats people Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.