How to Trek the Inca Trail

Macchu PichuFour days, 26 miles, 14,000 steps (an American woman once counted), 4,200m altitude, and a journey of jaw-dropping terrain culminating in the ‘Lost City’ of Machu Picchu: the Inca Trail is one of the most demanding but rewarding experiences of your life. But with high altitudes playing havoc with your digestion, improvised hygiene and a gruelling trek to contend with, this isn’t just any old walk in the park. If you’re planning an escorted tour to Peru, here are my tips on trekking the Inca trail in comfort, straight from the horse’s mouth…

1. It’s all about the Gatorade

You’re in a foreign environment, eating different food and hygiene isn’t up to the usual sparkling standards (think 4 walls with a hole in the floor, or the nearest concealed bush). It’s little wonder that the dreaded ‘D’ word wreaks fear in most trekkers (our group even had a diarrhoea sweepstake to hedge bets on who’d get it first). One of the most frequently cited reasons for not completing the Inca Trail is altitude sickness, however this is often mistaken for what is really just diarrhoea and extreme exhaustion, both of which can be combatted. If you do come down with an upset stomach on the Inca Trail, the last thing you want to do is harbour any nasty bugs by plugging everything in with an anti-diarrhoea tablet. If you get ill, flush everything out by alternating water and Gatorade to ensure that whatever you have doesn’t come back to haunt you with a vengeance further into the trek.

2. Marathon Mentality

To complete the Inca Trail in one comfortable piece, you’ll need to adopt a marathon mentality – think tortoise, not hare. Remember that you have 26 miles and 4 days of trekking to complete at high altitude, so you’ll need to keep a steady pace and conserve your energy over the entire course. Just like a marathon, many make the mistake of tearing out of the blocks on Day 1, only to find that they’ve burned out later down the line. This won’t be a good idea for Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2, which is a 5 hour uphill hike of endless steps followed by 2 hours back to camp. The general rule of thumb is that if you’re breathing heavily, you’re pushing too hard and need to slow it down. Just like a marathon runner too, try not to stop, as once you do your muscles will seize up and you’ll have to work twice as hard to get going again. Instead, limit breaks to the dedicated water stops and try not to stay stationary for too long. Also just like a marathon, take a few boiled sweets to suck on which will slowly release energy.

3. Diet is Key

Unless you’re going it alone, the chances are that you’ll be with a tour group who will take care of your bedding, welfare and meals. Diet is an important part of the trek as the altitude will slow down your digestion, meaning that you should have a big breakfast and lunch followed by a small dinner. A typical Inca Trail diet when you’re in the hands of a tour group might consist of a selection of breakfast and fruit teas and toast for breakfast, pizza, soup and a main course with chips for lunch, and soup followed by rice and chicken for dinner. You should also be given snack packs of Oreo cookies, boiled sweets and fruit to nibble on along the way. After Day 2 facing the never-ending steps of Dead Woman’s Pass, we even got treated to a slice of freshly baked cake!

4. It’s Your Trek – enjoy i

Above all else, this is your trek to savour. Unless you plan on coming back, it’s your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy stunning sights you’ll only be taking in once, so make the most of it. Not everyone goes at the same pace, so find your own rhythm and stick with it. It’s nigh on impossible to get lost on the trail as the path is clear, plus your tour guide won’t leave you and there are plenty of trekkers on the trail in sight, so don’t worry about going slowly. Find your rhythm, take it in your stride, take plenty of pictures and don’t rush. As the trek unravels, the scenery simply gets more stunning. The journey will unveil cloud forest, rain forest, Inca ruins and camaraderie like you’ve never known before. By the time you reach the Sungate on the fourth day, you’ll already have an experience just as memorable as glimpsing Machu Picchu at sunrise for the first time.

5. Look at the stars, see how they shine for you

One last, personal tip which I would recommend to anyone. At night, take a few minutes to look up at the stars. On a clear night, you’d be hard pushed to find the Milky Way looking any more amazing.

Did you know…? The porters have a race every now and again where they race to complete the trail in the fastest time. One porter completed the trail in 3 hours 45 minutes – pretty impressive given the tough inclines and number of steps! 

What to pack:

With just a 3kg general items allowance (this doesn’t include your bedding) you’ll need to pack carefully. Make sure you don’t overlook these essentials:

Toilet roll and hand sanitizer – as you can imagine, flushable sit down toilets will be few and far between. Woe betide anyone who forgets these!
Waterproof trousers – pick up a cheap pair in Cuzco, as inclement weather is almost a given
Ibuprofen – keep joint inflammation at bay and nip any aches and pains from a hard day’s walking in the bud. If the altitude is getting to your breathing, taking two before bed will also help to relax you
Camera – be prepared to capture some AMAZING sights
Insect repellent – because even at 4,200m, pests that bite exist!
Sun cream – at 4,200m high you’re closer to the sun, so (sweat-proof) sun cream is a must
Layers and a complete change of clothes – you’ll go from hot to cold a lot on the trail but a complete change will come in handy in the event that you get soaked
Boiled sweets – they’ll slowly release energy as you go and make great thank yous for the hardworking porters at the end of the trek. Try to avoid chocolate as it will sit heavily on your stomach
Light, breathable walking shoes – unless you’re a size 3 or less, you’ll struggle to buy shoes that fit in Cuzco. Make sure they’re supportive on the ankle, as the path is often uneven.
Hat, gloves and warm socks – you’ll work up a sweat during the day, but by night the high altitude means that temperatures can plummet
Dry shampoo – as an extra special treat, you’ll get a cold shower on the final night, but prior to that it will be a morning bowl of hot water and bar of soap left outside your tent
Baby wipes or flannel – pick either depending on how you prefer to have your morning wash
A pack of cards – your group will be eternally grateful for something to keep them entertained in the hours after reaching camp
Passport – take your passport along to get it stamped at every checkpoint. What better bragging rights for your return?!

Unless you’re going alone, your tour group will offer you the chance to hire special walking poles (metal tipped poles are banned from the Inca Trail), a good quality sleeping bag and inflatable mattress. Check out our coach holidays for our full selection of escorted tours to Peru!