Hiking the Inca Trail
March 7, 2007 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I have some questions about hiking the Inca Trail?

We're planning to take a 2 week trip to Peru and Argentina in late July / early August. We're thinking of doing the first week in Peru (2 days in Cusco, 4 day hike, train back then fly to Buenos aires). I was wondering if any other mefites had done the hike lately. I think we'd probably prefer a package tour, is this the best way to go about it? What should I know about the hike generally?

Somewhat related question, we don't want to take all of our luggage on the hike, where in Cusco can we leave it for those four days?
posted by subtle-t to Travel & Transportation around Peru (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I just went to Peru last summer, and although I didn't do the hike so I can't give you any specifics on that, I think I can answer some of your other questions.

First, pretty much every hotel I researched in Cusco would store bags for you, so just leave whatever you don't need for the hike in your hotel and pick it up after you return via train. The train back from Machu Picchu arrives at night, so you might want to stay in Cusco an extra night anyway before you fly to Argentina. I would definitely recommend the hotel option.

Second, my wife and I went with a package through these guys, and they were great. Everything was very smooth, our accomodations were excellent, and they were able to help us out when we had a flight delay on the way to Peru and ended up getting there a day later than scheduled. Also, they were willing to work with us to customize our itinerary, so don't think you have to stick with what they advertise. You have to have a guide on the Inca Trail anyway, so the package will have all that arranged for you ahead of time and all you have to do is show up. I know a lot of other people who have done the Trail (all ages too, from college students to some parents' friends in their 60s) and everyone loved it. Peru is a fantastic country and one of the best places I've ever been to. You'll have a blast!
posted by sbrollins at 10:51 AM on March 7, 2007

Best answer: We went to peru and did the 4 day Inca Trail in November, it was awesome. We left our bags at the hostel we stayed at while we were gone, which was free. I'm sure any of the smaller hostels in Cuzco would be more than willing to store as long as you're going to be staying with them when you come back.

Depending on your age/fitness level, you might want to spend some more time in Cuzco to acclimate. We are both 23 and I'm in really excellent shape, so the hike wasn't difficult for me, but I was EXHAUSTED at the end of each day. My girlfriend was lazy about training for the hike and even though she's in naturally good shape, she had a lot of difficulty because of the altitude. You might want to consider hiring a porter for the same reasons. I let my machisimo get in the way and decided that 25-30 lbs was no big deal for us to carry, and it wasn't for me, but I ended up carrying 60 lbs of gear because 30 was way too much for my girlfriend. Lesson learned haha...

To get an idea of what the hike is going to be like, you should take a daytrip from Cuzco to the Pisac ruins, and hike up and down them, that's pretty much what you have to look forward to for the 4 day hike. Also Pisac was one of the best ruins we saw (besides Macchu Piccu).

If you end up doing the hike, don't forget to pack plenty of warm clothing layers, the day you cross the highest pass (Dead Woman's Pass), you're going right up to the snow line, and it gets pretty cold as soon as you stop moving. I did it in shorts, wool socks, a light arcteryx performance jacket, a winter hat and gloves. I was fine when hiking, but freezing when we stopped to take pictures at the top of the pass.

Another little tidbit - the group of people we were with was AWESOME, 16 people total all were very friendly and we had a great time, BUT we were the only Americans in the group, everybody else was british or a colony (australia, new zealand, ireland). At the end of the trip you're expected to thank and tip your guides, cooks, and porters and I think because those countries don't have a custom of tipping like the USA the money we pooled added up to almost the bottom of the average suggested tip. The porters carry EVERYTHING you need, tents, food, cooking supplies, etc... and are payed pretty poorly, tips make up a significant amount of their pay. You should definitely make a point to get everybody to really shell out for the tips. We put $40 each into the tip pool, and everybody else put in around $20. $40 is NOT a lot of money, especially when you're already pay close to $400 for a slot on the hike, and REALLY not a big deal when your native currency (the pound) is worth twice what my dollar is. Feel free to encourage generous tipping to everybody in your party.
posted by youthenrage at 12:37 PM on March 7, 2007

I've not been, but I've done some desultory research because I would like to go, and I'd like to do the hike. My understanding is that Peru changed the regulations several years ago to require that you go with some sort of outfitter. In other words, you can't just walk the trail by yourself.
posted by OmieWise at 1:18 PM on March 7, 2007

I've never done the Inca trail myself, but I've spent quite a bit of time in Peru and I'm definitely planning on doing it when I go back.
You probably know this already, but you're not allowed to hike the trail by yourself, so you'll have to go with a group. If you're not used to being at high altitudes, give yourself three or four days to adapt. Some people get very bad altitude sickness, and it generally has nothing to do with your age and fitness level. If you do get sick, mate de coca (coca leaf herbal tea) is an excellent remedy. If you want to feel even more peruvian, buy a little bag of coca leaves and chew them with some lime juice. You can find it in most stores in Cusco. It will help with the headaches and stomach aches, as well as giving a little boost of energy.
July is winter in Peru, so it'll be cold and rainy in the mountains. Make sure you wear lots of layers and buy yourself a plastic poncho.
If you have time, I reccomend visiting the Sacsayhuaman ruins. Have a great time!
posted by snoogles at 1:18 PM on March 7, 2007

Best answer: I did it about 12 years ago.

I was 25 at the time and in OK shape (thin, but not athletic) and it was extremely difficult. I made it, but my (now) wife and I were always the last in to camp each night. Somehow the group we were with was made up of really athletic types, and European mountain climbers. They were all trying to one-up each other by being fastest. I had no interest in that, we wanted to enjoy our time, not make it a competition.

Keep in mind it is extremely tiring. The air is really thin, and I saw several people in Cuzco get soroche (altitude sickness). This didn't happen to us, but the thin air makes minor exertions feel major.

It really is a hike, and not a climb, but the second day is mostly uphill, and very, very tiring. I actually rode on one of the ponies our guides had for a while that day.

It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I'd never do it again. I recommend you do it if you're in good shape. Keep in mind there is a 2 day hike as an option as well.

The sky at night has more stars than I've ever seen, and probably will never see that many ever again. Seeing the sun rise on Maccu Picchu is unforgettable. I believe most guided trips purposely have you camp very close by the night before, and wake you before dawn so you can see the sunrise from a high vantage point. I'm getting chills remembering this.

Good luck.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:52 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

We stored our bags at a small (and lovely) hotel in Cusco for for several days even though we were not staying there on the way back - it was not a problem.
posted by true at 2:23 PM on March 7, 2007

To reiterate what others have said, if you haven't been at that altitude before, it is very challenging. My wife and I had to wait for the third day to leave because the first was spent vomiting from altitude sickness.
If you are out of shape (like we were) you will look upon inclines with revulsion for about a year afterward.
Fit everything you need to carry in a regular backpack sized pack, buy the walking stick, if the quinoa they serve you on the third day smells bad don't eat it, you may spend a decent portion of your time at Machu Picchu sitting or wanting to sleep, the cheaper the tour operator the more they will press you to hurry, and have extra sympathy for the porters because they have to pack out all human waste now. (In retrospect the trip was all worth it.)
Oh, and in Cuzco don't eat the lemon pie at the place with the pie case in town square or the nachos at the western-style coffee shop. The alpaca is generally good though.
posted by arruns at 2:55 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have a great time! I did the trail with a friend in '04, and thought it was amazing. Here are a few things that might be helpful:

First, if you are big time hikers, there is a 2-3 day extension of the trail you can tack on to the beginning. You start further from Machu Piccu and hike up a pass on Salkantay mountain, the highest mountain in the tropics anywhere. The pass is about 16,000 ft. This part of the trail is not nearly as busy as the standard Inca Trail.

General hiking info:
As the posters above said, beware the altitude. Altitude sickness can basically hit anyone, in shape or not. A few days in Cuzco at the beginning is good, but you may still find yourself hit with it. My hiking partner, who is in much better shape than I am, was basically staggering around for the first few days. I had no problems even on the highest parts of the trail, but had been hit hard by altitude in Colorado only a few weeks before.

Second, don't believe your tour company when they tell you you'll be overlooking Machu Piccu for sunrise the last day. Your group will be assigned campsites along the trail by the Peruvian park service. You may get a site close to Machu Piccu the night before, but you may end up (like we did) with many hours of hiking left to go.

The Inca never invented the wheel except for use in toys, so they never had much use for switchbacks. If you're used to hiking nice gentle grades that wind back and forth to the summit, you'll be quite surprised when you see the path hit a 40 degree slope and go straight up it.

The trail is also all 'paved' with stones from Inca days, so it can be a lot harder on knees than normal dirt trails. If you've ever had knee problems, take a brace with you. The porters will be carrying most everything anyway, so it's a good idea. Also, bring your cold weather sleeping stuff. Even though it's in the tropics in August, you will be cold.

Leaving your bags in Cuzco shouldn't be a problem. I can recommend a great restaurant in the middle of Plaza San Francisco, sitting on an Incan stone foundation, and a great hostel on Calle Concevidayoc. Stay away from using Q'ente as your guide company though. Also, watch your wallet in Cuzco - lots of pickpockets when it gets crowded. Enjoy!
posted by krakedhalo at 4:52 PM on March 7, 2007

Oh, and be sure not to miss the ruins at Sayacmarca the day before you get to Machu Piccu. For my money they were cooler than MP by half.
posted by krakedhalo at 4:53 PM on March 7, 2007

We used Peru Treks and Adventure for our guides, www.perutreks.com They were excellent, and I would definitely recommend them. They are recommended by andeantravelweb.com, all the equipment they brought for us was EXCELLENT, the tents seemed to be brand new, and pretty expensive. The cook was also amazing, we had pizza, pie, tea twice a day, as well as delicious breakfests, lunches, and dinners. Our guide said that he was retiring from the Inca Trail, but maybe he hasn't yet, so if you book through perutreks.com, request Washington as a guide.
posted by youthenrage at 5:56 PM on March 7, 2007

Best answer: I hiked the Inca Trail in 2005.

First, you can't do it without a guide. Guides are now mandatory.

Secondly, because guides are mandatory and the number of hikers is restricted to something like 500/per day including porters, you will need to book AT LEAST two months in advance.

Third, there are all sorts of different hikes to Macchu Picchu. Inca Trail is the most traditional and has the most historical sites. Others are apparently just as beautiful but don't have the cache. If you just arrive in Cuzco without a Inca Trail reservation, you can do one of these hikes.

Fourth, do a four day hike. It is a nice hike but any slower would be painfully slow. (Ok, this depends on your fitness).

Fifth, from observing the different camps, you get what you pay for. Some young backpackers went with the cheapest and they didn't have nice tents, tables, good food, etc. We went with a middle of the road version and it was really great. A key thing for us was to get a guide who spoke decent English and then hike with him at least part of each day. He pointed out cool plants, random historical/mythological tidbits of info and generally informed us about life as a Peruvian (politics, etc).

Sixth, if you speak any Spanish at all, make an effort to speak to your porters when they have some down time. Ours were really friendly and it was a treat to speak to a subsistance farmer who was 30 and had 5 kids. In other words, a totally different existance.

Seventh, of course, you can leave luggage in Cuzco. The porters want you to bring as little as possible.

Peru is great! All the classic tourist stuff is in a guide book so I'll refrain from giving advice on where else to go and where to stay.
posted by FastGorilla at 8:19 PM on March 7, 2007

Just a few more thoughts, in case anyone is still reading:

I hiked the trail with my girlfriend in 2002, and neither of us was in fantastic shape. It's survivable, and even enjoyable, as long as you've given yourself time to adjust to the altitude.

To that end, can I suggest a visit to the city of Arequipa before you arrive in Cusco, if you have the time? Arequipa is slightly less touristy, has a really nice monestary and market, and is also at altitude--though it's not quite as high as Cuzco, so it's a good way to break yourself in easy. We stayed at a place called La Casa de Mi Abuela. My parents stayed there in November and said it was still a great, cheap place.

You can also take an overnight trip to Colca Canyon from Arequipa, to see condors up close. The drive to Colca (briefly) takes you higher than anything you'll reach anywhere in Cusco or the Inca Trail, though you won't be exerting yourself. Again, it's a good way to aclimate. The trip to Colca can be booked with the travel agent at La Casa de Mi Abuela.

Lastly, we did the Inca Trail with a company called SAS. They at least paid lip service to the idea of paying and treating the porters well, and we were very happy with our hike.
posted by owenville at 11:22 AM on March 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

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