Back in 2018, I was lucky enough to walk the Inca Trail high in the Andes, ending up at the famous Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu. I expected the trek to be hard, because of the altitude (more on that later) and the number of stairs I’d seen in pictures – but what I didn’t really appreciate before I got there, was how beautiful it would be. The landscapes are truly stunning and the campsites are often literally in the middle of nowhere, overlooked only by the odd llama or some ancient Inca ruin. It’s a once in a lifetime adventure and I would recommend it to anyone – as long as you make sure you are fairly fit before you go.
Some useful things to know:
The altitude is quite strange. Most tours give you some time in Cusco to acclimatise before you start walking. We had a woman in her 20s who joined us from Lima on the first day of the trek – and she had to drop out due to altitude sickness, so it’s definitely a good idea to give your body some time to get used to being at 3,000 plus metres above sea level before heading onto the trail.
I was fine for the first couple of days but started feeling a bit light-headed on the third and felt quite ill by the time I started walking (ideal timing). The guide suggested this was because of dehydration. You have to drink about three times the amount you usually do, which I thought I was managing – but apparently not. Once I’d taken some rehydration tablets and drunk my own weight in water, I did start feeling better. And by the last full day of walking, I was back to normal. It’s impossible to tell who will have altitude sickness. About a quarter of our group (ranging from their 30s to 60s) suffered symptoms, so it’s just a lottery.
The highest point of the trek is the Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 metres (13,828 feet). The air was quite thin here and for the first couple of days of trekking – especially leading to this point, I was MUCH more out of breath than usual. The trek is not a race though and we were actively encouraged to take it slowly. Going uphill 1,000 metres in stairs is not a walk in the park at the best of times – certainly not at altitude.
Dead Woman’s Pass
Who to go with
Though you can travel around Peru independently, you can’t do the Inca Trail trek without a guide. And it’s obviously cheaper to join a group than hire your own. I’m sure there are plenty of local tour operators in Cusco who you can go with. There are certainly many UK based companies that offer the Inca Trail Trek as part of a tour, like Explore, who I travelled with. The Explore tour I chose allowed 4 nights in Cusco to acclimatise, with some sightseeing trips to a nearby market and the opportunity for llama bothering before the trek started.
On the trail
Packing – I assume this is the same for all tours (but obviously if you’ve booked a trip, be sure to check the notes!) but we were given a bag to put everything we would need for the trek (any bedding, towels, washing stuff, underwear etc) up to a maximum weight of 7kg as all the bags for the group would be carried by the sherpas. We also all had our own day rucksack for water, snacks, sun cream (v important) and layers (also v important). I use walking poles and they were especially handy for going down steep sections of the trail – but you can’t use spiked poles. Mine are spiked, so I just bought some protective tips on Amazon.
Loos/ washing – obviously very important. For the first day or two, there are donkeys trekking up and down and little outposts of civilization with kiosks selling water and snacks and toilets that you can use for a few coins. Once you get higher up, these are gone and it’s fresh air weeing all the way. Until you’re in the campsite of course. We had a toilet sherpa who carried a chemical toilet (with its own tent) on his back between camps. One of the camps we stayed at also had a toilet block – though no showers. In terms of washing, once you arrive at a campsite and settle into your tent (which has been put up for you in advance of your arrival – with your 7kg bag and sleeping bag inside), someone comes along with a bowl of hot water and a mug of tea. The same happens when you wake up in the morning. It’s all extremely civilised.
Our last campsite: Waking up above the clouds
Again, I can only speak for my own experience. But we had a chef. And a separate kitchen and dining tent. All meals were delicious (I could only eat the soup for most of the trek due to feeling ill – but that was very nice – and everything else looked appetizing even if I couldn’t eat it!). Usually, packed lunches were provided for us but sometimes we did stop and have a hot meal if the facilities were available. Coca leaf tea is available in all the hotels and on the trek too. It’s supposed to help with altitude sickness and, though it didn’t seem to help me much in that respect, it was warming and calming.
The Sun Gate
Explore give you a short first day of walking (mainly flat) so that you arrive at the Sun Gate after lunch on the last day rather than at dawn like most groups. I think their theory is that it’s more relaxed to do it this way, and less crowded at the Gate so you can actually see the views, which are pretty phenomenal. It can be quite emotional seeing Machu Picchu for the first time, when you’ve been in a group taking a fairly arduous trek together. I felt very superior to the tourists heading uphill in the opposite direction in their flip flops. We had made a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Incas. These people had taken the bus from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. What a load of losers!
The View from the Sun Gate