The Inka trail is no easy feat. We hiked 52 kilometers in 4 days, ascended to a height of 13,828ft (4,215m) and then descended another 5,905ft (1,800m) to Machu Picchu, all on very little sleep. Being physically fit enough to take on this challenge is important. I’m not in the best shape of my life right now but I did condition myself a little bit by doing cardio, walking a lot and hiking.
Wow! The altitude really kicked my ass! We flew into Cusco on a Tuesday and took a bus to Ollantaytambo which rests at 9,160ft. (2,792m) altitude. I had heard that it’s easier to acclimatize at a lower elevation first then move higher. I started taking the altitude sickness pills that night and for a few days afterward. Take caution when taking altitude sickness pills. They are a diuretic, which makes you dehydrate faster. They also accelerate the symptoms of acclimatizing so they make you feel the worst symptoms right away instead of 3 days later. I ended up getting dehydrated which brought on its own set of problems. My best advice is to stay really hydrated, protect yourself from the sun and give yourself plenty of time to acclimate. We spent 4 nights in Ollantaytambo and 2 nights in Cusco before our hike and I still felt some altitude sickness symptoms throughout our hike. I don't know if I could have finished if I didn't give myself plenty of time to adjust.
Hire a Porter (Chasqui)
If you don’t think you are capable of hauling a backpack filled with all your stuff, then I highly suggest hiring a porter. In Quechua, the local Inka language, they are called Chasquis. I hired half a porter, who can carry up to 13kilos and boy was it money well spent! My Chasqui carried my sleeping bag, mat, all my clothes, toiletries and an extra pair of shoes, leaving me free to focus on getting through the hike.
Do your Homework
Since you are reading this blog post, clearly you are doing just that. Keep it up!
Book with a Good Company
I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the company we booked our trek with (Peru Treks) but like I’ve said before, not all tour companies are the same. There are a lot of good trekking companies to choose from in Cuzco. What I really liked about Peru Trek is they were friendly, compassionate, helpful, and our guides were knowledgeable. The food was excellent, they provided good equipment, good campsites, and they take care of their chasquis.
When I started researching the Inka trek in APRIL, the first available dates were mid-October. Everything before that was completely sold out because they only issue 500 hiking permits a day. Seriously start looking at least 6 months in advance.
Toilet paper is scarce on the trail so bring 1-2 rolls.
Having small change is nice for a Gatorade and the roadside toilets. You should also bring some money to tip the porters, cooks, and guides.
It’s nice to have an easy to reach place to store a snack, camera or sunblock.
If you don’t hire a porter, then it’s important to have a backpack with good support. We didn’t bring hiking backpacks on our trip. My husband didn’t hire a chasqui, so he needed to rent a backpack. There are a lot of supply stores and rental shops in Cusco, but we ended up renting a pack from Perk Trek for $20usd.
The weather can be unpredictable because you hike through 6 different microclimates including desert, cloud forest, and jungle. The poncho was perfect because it was lightweight, easy to put on, and fit over my backpack. Ponchos are easily found in many stores in Cusco.
Care for Your Feet
Cut Toe Nails
Do you know how painful it is to have your toenails cutting into your toes or being pushed on by the front of your boot? Cut your toe nails nice and short for a more comfortable hike. You will thank me!
Your feet will love you if you wear a good worn in pair of water-proof hiking boots. Since it rains on and off, it’s important to protect your feet from moisture. If you buy a brand-new pair of boots before your trek, I suggest breaking them in beforehand or buy a pair that doesn't need to be broken in.
Thick hiking socks will help prevent blisters and wet feet.
This is my secret weapon for taking care of my hands, feet and lips. Some parts of the year can get so windy that your skin chaps. Bag Balm is great for healing dry chapped skin and is also great for massaging sore feet at the end of the day.
Protect Your Body
Finding soap & running water along the trail is few and far between, so hand sanitizer is typically your best option for disinfecting.
I probably wouldn't have made it through our trek without my walking poles. We did a one day trek at Torres del Paine without poles and our legs suffered the consequences. On the Inka Trail, at least half the trail is stairs (up and down) and poles were especially helpful descending. The steps are narrow and steep which can be scary at times. The poles kept me steady and help soften the impact on my feet, ankles, and knees. You can either rent really nice ones or buy cheap ones, both for about the same price. We bought the cheap ones and they worked great. I suggest bringing an extra set of rubber tips, we each lost one of our tips and we were glad to have spares.
The sun is strong on the Inka trail. You will burn easily without sunscreen and it will hurt. I was diligent about reapplying and I still missed a few spots including the tops of my ears and the backs of my arms.
Going in October was fantastic because we missed most of the wet season’s bugs & mosquitoes. We only used our bug spray a few times but at other times of the year the bugs are out of control. Our guide told us that June, July, and August, the mosquitoes are ruthless including those who carry malaria, dengue and zika viruses. If you are going that time of year, use a clothing spray and insect repellent like Sawyer.
Did I mention how strong the sun is? I ended up braiding my hair and wearing a baseball hat to protect my scalp, eyes and face. Back in Cusco, we spent a day with Drew's parents hiking throughout the Inka ruins and I didn’t wear a hat. My scalp was literally scorched and scabbed up for about a week. Gross
Another great way to protect your head, neck or chest from the harsh sun.
Tape/Band-Aids – Good for scrapes or rolled ankles.
IB Profin – For headaches and sore muscles
- Travelers diarrhea meds – Nothing worse than uncontrollable bowls on the trail. That was me!
Get Through It
To maintain your nutrition, replenish your body of essential salts and minerals that get depleted when workout and sweat. You can bring Gatorade or get it straight electrolytes in tablet or liquid form. We got electrolyte drops off of Amazon and poured it in with our water bottle.
Agua de Florida
This was used by our guide to help combat altitude sickness symptoms including headaches but also helps with purification, cleansing, and healing. Agua de Florida can be found in Cusco at the San Pedro market. Rub some on your temples and forehead and smell the oil on your hands for fast relief.
Coca is found all over Peru and is used by many for an extra boost. We bought coca leaves and coca candy. You can chew the leaves or make a tea. Chewing the leaves didn't agree with me but I liked the candy and tea.
Cookies are a good snack because they have carbs and sugar, which will keep your energy levels up. I brought some Oreos and fresh chocolate chip cookies.
One of the best ways for me to stay motivated is to listen to music. I pay monthly for Spotify, so that I can listen to my playlists offline. I switched my phone to low battery and airplane mode so that my phone lasted the entire four days.
Good Mental Attitude
Before we started the trek, I almost dropped out. I didn’t handle the altitude sickness well and got dehydrated. I was afraid that I wasn’t strong enough to do it. After talking to my parents and husband, they encouraged me to at least try before quitting. They helped boost my confidence in myself which stayed with me throughout the hike. Being confident in yourself and having a good mental attitude is key to getting through those moments of self-doubt and struggle.