There are tons of articles and blog posts about hiking the legendary Inca Trail to Machu Picchu:
What to expect.
What should I pack?
What is the bathroom situation?
Is it easy?
Is it challenging?
What is the best time of year to go?
How much is it?
When should I book my spot?
What’s the best company to go with?
TONS. OF. INFORMATION.
I’m not going to cover ALL of this information because it’s been covered a million times before by a million different people. What I will cover are a few things I personally learned on this famous 4-day trek.
1. Quechua sounds like Japanese
There are two types of trekkers on the Inca Trail: Tourists and Porters. I dive into Porter Culture a bit more below, but these folks are super important because they are the ones carrying all of your stuff: the tents, the food, the tables, the chairs…everything. The majority speak Spanish, but all speak Quechua.
I heard a lot of conversations in Quechua while hiking the Inca Trail, and I couldn’t help but to think the sound and pronunciation of Quechua has a striking similarity to Japanese. After doing some research on Google, I found a few hypotheses that Japanese and Quechua languages evolved from a common ancestor. While they are just theories, you never know!
2. There are little parasites you can squish to use as warrior paint
Our guide was very informed when it came to endemic flora and fauna. On the our first day hiking he painted our cheeks with cochineal dye to put each of us in a badass inca-warrior mindset. What is cochineal? It’s a parasitic insect that lives on cacti. The bug is native to South America and is widely used to dye fabrics, cosmetics and is even used as food coloring. Our guide scraped them off of a cacti and squished them with his fingers.
The result? A bright, scarlet-colored paste.
3. Don’t bring too much water
The porters carry the big stuff, but you have to carry your clothes and water. On Day 1 and Day 2, there are local ladies selling water and snacks on the side of trail. Yes, it’s more expensive, but I think it’s worth the extra $1-2 not to carry extra liters of water.
On Day 3 there are no local vendors but my tour staff boiled water from the river in the evenings and filled up our water bottles in the morning. Day 4 is Machu Picchu day so you definitely will be able to buy water.
Lesson learned: the lighter your pack, the better. Buy water or fill up along the way.
4. A motivational playlist is key
The second day on the Inca Trail is a doozy. It’s the day you hike up to Warmiwañusca or Dead Woman’s Pass which is at an elevation of a whopping 4,215m (13,828ft). To add a bit more perspective, that’s 1,800m (5,905ft) higher than Machu Picchu. It’s practically all uphill and it is challenging, especially when you factor in the altitude gain. A lively, consistent beat is key.
5. Bring a few disposable ponchos
I hiked the Inca Trail in the beginning of January which is the peak of the rainy season. We were incredibly lucky because we got away with only one afternoon of rain pour. That said, a sprinkle or a shower is not uncommon year-round – you should always be prepared.
Raincoats are great but those one-time use plastic ponchos are a super handy addition. They’re cheap, light, and most importantly, disposable. I went through a few of these puppies throughout my trek and simply tossed them out at the end. Easy peasy.
It started raining pretty hard on Day 2 just as we reached the summit, and let me tell you – it’s chilly when you’re wet and at an altitude of 4000m+. Looking back at pictures, I realize how ridiculous I looked in my poncho getup, but at least I was dry.
6. Pop champagne at Dead Woman’s Pass
There’s nothing better than popping some champs at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass to celebrate. Our guide was kind enough to surprise our group with one bottle, but I wish I had brought an extra. It was a challenging feat and I was thirsty!
7. A Slippery Downhill is More Deadly than a Steep Uphill
The second half of Day 3 is all downhill. The Incas built steep stair paths made of stone, and it’s uncomfortably slippery to traverse in the rain. In fact, the Inca Trail is closed down every February (the peak of rainy season) for safety reasons and trail restoration/clean-up initiatives. I thought the downhill parts would be a refreshing relief from all the uphill climbing we were doing, but I found the descent much harder because of the wet rocks. My least favorite part of the whole trek was hiking downhill in the rain.
8. The Showers have the Most Freezing Water I Have Ever Experienced
The campsites on the trail have showers, but the water is FREEZING. I attempted showering twice in the cold water, but it was nearly impossible to subject myself to the glacial temperatures.
One night, the girls in our group convinced the cook to boil some hot water for us. We took turns showering and sharing a small kettle of hot water between the four of us. It was tough.
I honestly don’t know if it’s worth it. I think baby wipe showers are the way to go.
9. Be a Vegetarian for 4 Days
Given we were trekking and camping, our cook prepared some pretty tasty meals for the group. We had boiled potatoes, rice, fish and chicken doused with creamy sauces, pancakes drizzled with chocolate, stuffed avocados… The food was surprisingly really good.
The morning of Day 3, I started feeling sick. By late afternoon, all hell broke loose. I’ll spare you some of the details, but I had a sour stomach, was feverish and felt extremely nauseous. The last day of the trek, there were moments where I honestly thought I was going to be able to make it to Machu Picchu.
I have a theory about all of this.
The porters are carrying all of our food, and the cook served us meat for lunch and dinner every day over the course of the trek. When I started feeling funky the morning of Day 3, I began to think, “How is all this meat being stored?” I asked our guide this question and was told perishable goods were stored and transported in a cooler/icebox. But surely the ice would melt after a day or two, right?
My hypothesis: I got food poisoning from consuming spoiled meat.
All that being said, there were 2 vegetarians and 5 omnivores in our group, and I seemed to be the only who got sick. Compared to the others, I had virtually no problems adjusting to altitude because I had been in La Paz in the days prior, so I can’t imagine it was altitude sickness. The other thing to consider was that all of the kitchen supplies, plates and utensils that were used on the trek were washed with water from the river.
Regardless, I want to believe it was the meat and my stomach was just more sensitive than the others. If I could do it all over again, I would go 100% veggie.
10. The Chasquis were Badass
The Chasquis were the messengers responsible for carrying goods and delivering messages through the Inca Empire. They were incredibly fast and agile runners who would run between 200-250km (125-155 miles) a day!
It was like a big relay race. One chasqui would run and transfer the message to the next chasqui. Can you imagine? I certainly can’t. I just want to drink wine, eat cake, travel the world and take naps.
11. How hard porters work and how important it is to tip them
Unfortunately, the Quechua race is an oppressed and under-represented race. When it comes to the Porters, the labor is physically exhausting, and these workers are frequently underpaid, mistreated and under-appreciated. About 13 years ago, the Peruvian government enacted a Porters’ Law to ensure porters receive a reasonable salary (about 15 USD/day minimum), but many companies cut corners and pay porters inadequately.
At our last dinner together as a group, each porter introduced himself to the group and shared his age. Their ages ranged from 18 years old to 65 years old. This is not a glamorous job. Each porter is carrying up to 45 pounds on his back for 4 days, setting up camp, cooking and catering to us and making sure we are comfortable and happy.
They deserve to be thanked and they deserve to be tipped.
12. You WILL get yelled at for Jumping Shots at Machu Picchu
When I made it Machu Picchu I was so relieved and invigorated that I wanted to JUMP. Well, you’re not allowed to jump. Here is a sad mid-spring snaphot milliseconds before I was scolded by the guards.
13. You can get a cool stamp your passport at the end
14. Once you reach Machu picchu, the first time you use the bathroom will be heaven
There are two types of toilets on the Inca Trail: baño inca and squat toilets. Baño Inca is good ol’ nature. I gotta admit, I’d almost always rather pop a squat in Pachamama’s backyard rather than use the squat toilets on trail. Seeing a regular toilet after 4 days (1.5 of which I was feeling sick) was heaven on earth. I was so relieved.
15. Hiking Huana Picchu is a Must
Huana Picchu is the iconic mountain you see behind Machu Picchu, and it is definitely worth hiking. The summit overlooks the entire Inca citadel of Machu Picchu and it’s stunning.
There is a daily limit of 400 hikers so it’s very important to reserve your spot in advance. This is strictly enforced. When starting the hike, you have to sign in at the warden’s hut, and upon completion, you must sign out. There is a luggage storage where you can store your backpack for up to 3 hours.
16. Hiking poles and Hiking shoes are not crucial
It seems like every blog says poles and sturdy hiking shoes are a must. I didn’t have hiking poles and I hiked the trail in sneakers. I think the key is to be in comfortable closed-toe shoes. If your new and expensive waterproof hiking boots are not broken-in, it’s not worth it.
You know what’s crazy? At least half of the porters didn’t even wear real shoes. They sported worn-down sandals instead. It was pretty shocking, especially considering how rocky and slippery the trail was at times. I guess they are accustomed.
17. I can’t imagine doing it any other way
There are loads of people who experience Machu Picchu by taking the train in for the day, and that’s cool, but you know what’s even cooler? The feeling of reaching Machu Picchu after trekking and camping along the Inca Trail for 4 days.
The views along the trek are breathtaking and diverse; you begin hiking in a more arid climate and then into you’re walking through lush, verdant jungle. And of course you can’t forget the physical aspect of the trek. There are challenging periods on the trail which make it that more rewarding to reach the climax at the end. And if kids are doing it, you can do it.
18. Taking early train back from Aguas Calientes was the right decision
After the trek, everyone was pooped. Some folks in our group already had a night booked in Aguas Clientes and others were planning on relaxing in the thermal baths for a few hours before taking the evening train back. Aguas Calientes seemed cool, but it’s the prime post-Machu Picchu tourist stop so it’s crowded, inauthentic and expensive. Taking the 2:55pm train got me back to Cuzco by 7pm. It’s perfect because you’re not in transit late at night and there are still people walking around as you get a quick bite and make your way back to your hotel/hostel. All I wanted after finsihing the trail was a hot shower and my bed.
19. Get a Massage in Cuenca
Massages in Cuenca are cheap. Like $15-20 for a 60-minute full body massage with hot stones and coconut oil! The day after Machu Picchu, I treated myself to a little massage therapy to relax and recover.
20. Pictures will never be able to do the views justice
I took a handful of pictures and none of them can fully capture the vistas I saw along the trek. Everyone who has the time and opportunity should definitely opt to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Views from Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3:
Views of Machu Picchu:
Views from Huayna Picchu:
When did I make my reservation? | I reserved my spot in October to hike on January 11th. December and January are both during the rainy season. This is something to take into consideration.
What to bring? | I used some of the following links to understand what to bring: click here, here, here, here and here. My personal life-savers: headlamp, a kindle, leg-warmers, gloves, toilet paper, baby wipes, bug repellent, portable phone charger
What company did I reserve with? | Extreme Turbulencia, I paid around $500 for the 4 Day guided trek, the entrance to the Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, sleeping bag rental, transportation to and from my hostel (via train and van), and porters to carry my sleeping bag/tent. I would recommend them.
Trail Alternatives | Many people who I met hiked the 5-Day Salkantay Trail instead. It’s a great alternative to the Inca Trail if you aren’t able to make a reservation in time.
How Challenging is it? | Here is a graphic: