Walking the Inca Trail
Imagine being back in time, climbing toward an ancient city that sits atop one of the world’s longest mountain ranges: the Andes in Peru. Embarking on one of the many escorted tours to the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu is a feat that rewards all who venture there with breathtaking views of mountaintops surrounded by a cloud forest and lush green subtropical jungle.
What to Expect While Hiking to Machu Picchu
Considered the most famous trail in South America – and even worldwide, according to some – the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu comprises a network of ancient highways. The classic four-day Machu Picchu hike to the “Lost City of the Incas,” stretches 26 miles. Along the way, as you trek through Incan tunnels and ruins, you’ll begin to see a story unfold. Named a World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu is widely considered one of the most vital places of archeology. Sitting 2,000 feet above the Urubamba River, the preserved temples and palaces that loom over the Sacred Valley date back more than 500 years.
The home of incredible beauty and fascinating history, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu see some 75,000 visitors each year. Similar to most other hikes of such magnitude, this one requires thoughtful planning and preparation in advance. Before you begin your adventure, consider these four tips for hiking the Inca Trail:
Research and Plan Before the Trip
Before booking any travel destination, it’s always best to know about peak season and best times to visit. June through August is the busiest time to plan a Machu Picchu hike. However, the dry season in Peru lasts from May to September, which provides the most ideal hiking conditions. It should also be noted that the trail is closed completely during February. Prior to visiting this World Heritage Site, it could be beneficial to do your research on sanctuary regulations of the historic site, as well as guidelines and considerations for the trail itself. And though you’ll learn along the way, knowing the rich history of the Incas could make your journey even more exciting.
Though you could once venture the Inca Trail alone, hiking Machu Picchu must be now be done through organized programs or small group tours. Finding a tour providing local guides can give you the best experience – just be sure to book well in advance, especially if you plan to go during peak season.
Prepare Your Body for the Hike
The Machu Picchu hike is considered of moderate difficulty and as such, those who are relatively active should be able to complete the trek. However, each day can include up to eight hours or more of hiking and some parts of the Inca Trail can be quite treacherous. Even for those who consider themselves in good shape, a few practice hikes of good length can be beneficial.
In addition to physical ability preparations, altitude sickness must be considered. It’s very normal to experience altitude sickness – the body’s reaction to the limited oxygen in the air – when trekking so high above sea level. In most cases, people will feel short of breath and a pounding heart. However, there are scenarios when people react poorly, becoming extremely nauseous and tired, yet unable to sleep. This can also result in headaches and loss of appetite. The best ways to decrease your risk of altitude sickness begins when you arrive in Peru:
- Take it slowly and easy when you first arrive in Peru.
- Once settled in your lodging, lay down to allow your body to adjust.
- Drinks lots of fluids.
- Avoid alcohol and cigarettes as they will only heighten your risk.
- Consider natural or prescription remedies.
Remember, these feelings are normal and even if you follow these preventative measures, you may still experience altitude sickness. Even after seven days in upper Peru acclimatizing to the thin air, breathing was taxing. However, if your condition does get worse, it is best to seek medical help.
And note, if you are wary of embarking on a high-altitude, four-day hike, there are other ways to enjoy the beauty of the region. Day hikes or abbreviated two-day treks are also available.
Pack Appropriate Clothing
Packing the right clothing for your trek up this famous trail is extremely important. Typically, you will use a daypack of medium size – something that is not too heavy – to carry the clothing and items needed for the four-day hike. A larger bag or suitcase with the rest of your clothes will be held by your tour company. Here is a general list of what you should pack for the excursion:
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Casual or athletic shoes
- Liner socks
- Synthetic or wool socks
- Hat and sunglasses
- Bathing suit
- Quick-dry, wicking under garments
- Long underwear top and bottoms of medium weight
- Synthetic short- and long-sleeved t-shirts
- Hiking pants
- Fleece jacket
- Rain jacket or poncho
- Fleece or wool gloves and hat
Depending on your chosen tour company, a sleeping bag and other sleeping equipment may be needed. Other items that you may want to bring along include an LED head lamp and extra batteries, pack cover, trekking poles, watch and toiletries. Hand sanitizer, a compact roll of toilet paper and sunscreen are also recommended. The essentials for any hike which include emergency shelter, nutrition, hydration, first-aid kit and the like should be left up to the porters and your local guides for treks on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Packing extra plastic bags may help to keep clothing or other items dry.
Bring Your Camera
Though it may go without saying, having your camera with you for this trip of a lifetime is highly recommended. Though a picture will never be the same as that first glimpse of the ancient ruins just as the sun is rising above the Andes, having that photograph will help you hold on to that memory for years to come. You may consider bringing a waterproof case for your phone and extra protection for your camera.