Thinking of trekking Peru's Inca Trail? Find out how to prepare, what to pack and how to cope - and help maximise your chances of reaching Machu Picchu alive, healthy and (hopefully) smiling!
“The Inca Trail? Well, the second day is absolute hell!”
So advised my acquaintance who’d run the London marathon, completed the Three Peaks Challenge and visited the gym multiple times every week.
Yikes, I thought. Could it really be that tough?
This and countless other questions buzzed around my head long before I flew to Peru, but satisfactory answers weren’t always forthcoming. Now, having followed in the footsteps of the Incas (not to mention the footsteps of thousands of tourists) to Machu Picchu and lived to tell the tale, I’m able to offer the honest advice I wish I’d received!
* Please note: some details may vary depending on the travel company running your trip. Mine was organised by GAP Adventures (www.gapadventures.com)
How does the trek work?
In the case of GAP Adventures, groups normally consist of 12-16 trekkers accompanied by a team of porters, two chefs and two guides, one at the front of the group with the ‘fast’ trekkers, one at the back with the slower ones.
The porters do a remarkable job, each carrying up to 25kg of the group’s camping equipment, including up to 6kg of personal belongings for each trekker. Bearing their towering loads, they hurry ahead of the group in order to set up a camp for lunch, later repeating the procedure to prepare an overnight camp.
Trekkers themselves carry a daypack containing camera, water, suncream and any other essentials that might be needed during the day.
Inca Trail food and water
The drinking water situation is probably the first thing that springs to mind for most trekkers. Will drinking water be provided? Is it safe? How much should be carried with you?
GAP Adventures did indeed supply boiled drinking water at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and, as far as I'm aware, nobody in my group suffered untoward consequences. It’s therefore unlikely you’ll need to carry more than 1.5 litres at a time.
As for food, a great deal of effort has recently been made to improve the menu from what allegedly used to involve pasta twice a day, every day. Now you can expect omelettes, apple oatmeal, pancakes, soups, chicken, fish, rice… We were even presented with a delicious, impressively decorated cake on our final evening!
How tough is the Inca Trail? Physical preparation and altitude sickness
The trail is generally rated as ‘moderate’, but obviously the answer is largely subjective. Your personal experience will depend on factors such as physical fitness, how you cope with altitude and your mental attitude (determination and a positive frame of mind make all the difference!).
Physically, leg muscles – along with aerobic fitness – are probably the most important things to work on. The trail comprises both ascending and descending staircases (a total of 8,000 steps, according to our guide), so step-based exercising, cycling and hiking or hill-walking are probably the most useful ways in which to prepare.
Physical fitness, however, is no indicator of susceptibility to altitude sickness, which is believed to be genetically determined. There’s no way to predict how or even whether someone will be affected, but with the highest point of the Inca Trail (Dead Woman’s Pass) at 4,200 metres above sea level, there’s a strong possibility of experiencing some effects. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, feeling weak and short of breath, nausea, insomnia and constipation or diarrhoea.
So how to cope? A day or so relaxing in Cuzco, approximately 3,249m above sea level, beforehand is often recommended in order to allow your body time to acclimatize. I stayed at the Cuzco Plaza II. During the trek itself, drink plenty of water, eat sweets or chew coca leaves for energy and don’t feel embarrassed if you frequently feel out of breath and need to rest.
Needless to say, if you feel particularly unwell or if your symptoms worsen, inform your guide; they’re there to take care of you after all.
What to pack for the Inca Trail
Aside from the obvious items of clothing (t-shirts, lightweight trousers, broken-in walking boots etc), I’d highly recommend the following:
• Sleeping bag - at least a three-season one. These can be hired for around $15, but those who did so complained about the zips coming undone during the night. Take your own if possible, so you know exactly what you’re getting.
• Sleeping mat - hire one for a few dollars. A sleeping bag laid straight on the tent floor will make the inevitable aches and pains worse.
• Walking poles - these too can be hired for a modest sum, but don’t expect them to be in immaculate condition. When guides refer to certain parts of the trail as ‘ankle-breakers’ or ‘knee-destroyers’, you soon realise how invaluable a pair of poles are, particularly when descending steep, slippery steps in the rain. They certainly saved me from taking the quick way down on at least one occasion!
• Knee supports - as previously mentioned, the trail involves what soon feels like interminable steps, both ascending and descending. The repetitive toil can take its toll on less than healthy knees, so if you’ve suffered any kind of knee affliction in the past, these are great for reducing the risk of further damage.
• Fleece - keep a good fleece with you all the time. The weather changes suddenly, particularly with increasing altitude, so don’t be caught out!
• Poncho - don’t be deterred by the prospect of looking like an idiot, as I was. Making do with a cagoule, I remained dry but my daypack certainly didn’t. Handing over mouldy, still-damp Soles notes to cashiers days later is embarrassing. Plus they often don’t accept money that doesn’t look like it slid gleaming from a printer five minutes previously.
• A hat or cap - sunburn will (literally!) be a pain, while sunstroke could wreck the whole experience.
• Thermals - forget pride, these are a must during those cold nights when temperatures can drop below freezing!
• A good torch - essential, not only for trying to locate belongings in your tent and getting changed, but for making what could potentially be perilous trips to the toilet after dark (about 6pm in my case). Said trips often involve a lengthy walk up and down steps and/or uneven muddy banks. Furthermore, the chemical toilets are usually perched precariously on slopes. Let’s just say you really wouldn’t want to knock one over…
• Antibacterial handwash - you’re bound to encounter some unpleasant conditions with nowhere to wash your hands.
• Suncream - don’t be fooled; at high altitude the sun can be strong, even when it doesn’t feel particularly hot.
• Insect repellent - the critters feasted on some of us, even though we were smothered in 50 per cent Deet. What would have happened without it doesn’t bear thinking about…
• Toilet paper - there often isn’t any, so go prepared.
• Immodium - or similar. Better to be safe than sorry!
• Water bottle sling -a much more convenient way of carrying a water bottle than having to stop and fish around in your daypack for it.
• Ear plugs - let’s say there was a down-side to buying a bottle of rum for the porters…
• Snacks - stock up on treats to keep you going, such as chocolate bars or biscuits. Climbing the long, hard stairway to Dead Woman’s Pass, I visualised the Snickers bar I planned to reward myself with on reaching the top. Never has a chocolate bar tasted so good!
Inca Trail: general advice
• Don’t immediately rule out any possibility of trekking the Inca Trail due to age. Be sensible and consult your doctor first, but our guide told us of a couple aged 83 who completed the trek (albeit in 5 days) earlier this year.
• Carry as little as possible – the altitude makes everything feel significantly heavier. But don’t omit the items recommended above.
• Always walk on the inside of the path, close to the mountainside. Get knocked over a cliff as porters hurry past and you might not live to see Machu Picchu!
• Take several layers of clothing so you’re prepared for a range of temperatures. Shivering during the first night, I resorted to wearing everything I had with me on subsequent evenings.
• On arrival at your overnight camp, prepare as much as possible before it gets dark. Find out where the toilets are, locate your torch and ideally lay out your sleeping mat, bag and have to hand any clothing you’ll need for the night. It’s easy to head straight for the porters’ tent for hot tea and snacks, and before you know it, it’ll be black outside. Then you’ll realise how we take electric light for granted at home!
• Give your porters, cooks and guides a generous tip – as you’ll discover, they do an amazing job and really deserve it!
So is the second day – or indeed any of it - absolute hell?
No. It can be challenging, but the effort you put in makes the reward of seeing Machu Picchu in all its glory all the more worthwhile!
You – tired, dirty and bedraggled - have achieved something that the immaculately-groomed hordes of day-trippers haven’t: you’ve walked in the footsteps of the Incas. They arrived in a coach…