To round off the Cuzco/Machu Picchu section of this blog, I’m going to now talk about the (in)famous Inka Trail Hike; what you need to know about it, helpful tips, and miscellaneous advice, all based on my actual experience.
I first went to Peru in February 2014, it was a just for short 12 day holiday. I didn’t have any plans of doing the Inka Trail hike at that time, not only is it closed for the whole month of February for maintenance and upkeep, but also because I knew I was not physically, and let’s be honest, financially prepared for it. While there I met several people who were scheduled to do the hike as soon as it opens in March. I got to see firsthand what kind of gear and clothes people were bringing, both experienced hikers as well as beginners. My roommate in Lima, who I became good friends with, was scheduled to do the hike at the first of March. I was quite overwhelmed with the sheer amount of clothes and gear he had. It completely put me off wanting to do the hike. He later told me, after he finished the hike, that he had in fact over packed, and told me to make sure I don’t make the same mistake he did. He also spoke very highly of the tour group he went with; and when he came down to Chicago later on that year, he graciously walked me through his preparation process and shared with me what he learned himsef during the hike, as well as tips from the other hikers he met. Between his experience and mine, this should cover a fair amount of topics and should be fairly inclusive. He is an avid hiker, and has spent quite some time hiking and climbing volcanoes in South and Central America, and I am a city girl whose definition of a good hike is walking the two miles home from downtown Chicago because the bus is late yet again.
For starters, once you decide that you are in fact going to hike the 46KM Inka Trail Hike, and know that you are committed to making sure your body is fit to handle the hike, the first thing you need to decide on is the tour operator you are going with. A quick Google search for Inka Trail Hike will return hundreds of results, some sites are flashy and shiny, others more simple, and others just downright suspect. There are several things you need to consider first, how much are you willing to spend? Are you willing to spend more for more reputable firm? Or does cheaper mean better for you? Are you able to carry your backpack and gear the entire way? Or are you willing to pay an extra $60-$90 to hire half a porter? (I’ll explain the half porter comment in a bit.) The classic 4-day Inka Trail hike costs anywhere from $650 to $800. The difference in cost depends on how many porters the tour company hires, what kind of tent and gear they have for their guests, what kinds of food and services the offer, and how they treat their guides and porters.
All tour operators provide you with a tent with tarp underneath, double occupancy, unless you pay the single traveler supplement, a mattress pad to put under your sleeping bag, meals beginning with breakfast on the first day until lunch on the fourth day after you’ve gone down from Machu Picchu. The fee also covers the transportation to the beginning of the trail, usually a van that fits 15-20 people, your train ticket from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town) to Cuzco, the entrance fee to Inka Trail, your ticket to Machu Picchu itself, and the porters and guide’s salaries. What is not covered is your sleeping bag, walking poles, private porter, and the separate entrance fee to Huayna Picchu.
You are expected to carry your own backpack and gear including your sleeping bag, mattress pad, water, and other personal effects. Most companies offer sleeping bags and walking poles to rent. If you do decide to forgo bringing your own sleeping bag opting instead to rent, make sure to at least bring a sleeping bag liner. The bags are cleaned after every person rents them, but better to err on the safe side and bring your own liner. The walking poles I recommend you rent there, it usually costs around $15-$20 but you have them for the duration of the hike. Walking poles are a pain to bring with especially through airport security, but they are also very much a necessity on the hike, so renting one from the tour company provides the best option.
Another expense which I feel is very much worth it is hiring half a porter to carry your backpack. No, we are not talking about slicing the poor man in half, or him carrying your bag only halfway through. The tourism office in Peru has set strict limits on how much each porter can carry. As of last 2002, they are allowed only 20 kg. The same porters who you hire to carry your backpack are the same ones who carry the gear, and set up and break camp every single meal/night. Each porter who carries a hiker’s backpack is allotted 16kg total. The rest of their allowable load is for carrying the camp gear like the tents and stove and groceries and their personal effects. The tour company then lets a porter carry 2 hikers’ backpack, which breaks down to 8kg per hiker, or half a porter. Unless you are crazy fit, or you enjoy the additional challenge of having to carry a heavy backpack while ascending 600 to 900 feet everyday, I highly recommend hiring a porter. You will still need to carry a smaller bag/pack with your personal effects like your sunblock, camera, additional layers, snacks, and water supply. The porters often stay behind to break up and clean up the camp after we’re done, they then hurry to the next campsite to setup. You will not have the chance to grab stuff from your backpack mid-hike, even if you do know which porter has your bag, which is very unlikely since they stuff everything they carry in this giant rucksacks. They also move fast, really fast.
RESPONSIBLE AND ETHICAL TOURISM
Speaking of porters, their welfare, and their overall treatment by the tour company should be your next consideration when choosing a tour company. As I mentioned earlier, there are strict limits to how much each porter is allowed to carry, and this is strictly enforced by the government. At the beginning of the hike in Piscacucho you go through a checkpoint where officers check the tour company’s manifesto for that day and double check it against the passports of each and every single hiker in that group. When you book your spot and pay the deposit for the hike, the tour operators forward your information to the tourism office to buy your permit. Nobody without a pre-arranged permit is allowed to go on the trail. This goes for the hikers, guides, and porters. There is a checkpoint the group has to go through every morning of the hike, and it’s the same process of vetting the list of permits versus the hikers passing through. The porters will have to show their permits/license every time there is a checkpoint, and in addition to that, they are being weighed. All checkpoints have a scale the porters need to get on before they are allowed to proceed. If a porter is carrying more weight than allowed, the company could potentially be fined or lose their license. They usually end up reshuffling the load amongst themselves until all of them are compliant and cleared to proceed.
The tour companies that run the Inka Trail Hikes make a lot of money from the thousands of tourists who do the hike each year. The better companies will pass along their success and earnings to their porters by providing them a good salary, and decent gear to use during the hikes. The shitty companies pay their porters shit and barely treat them like human beings. It is not hard to see which companies are good to their people versus those who aren’t. Some companies provide their porters with proper shoes such as sneakers or hand me down hiking shoes. Others do not give a fuck and it is not uncommon to see porters working the trail wearing nothing more than rubber flip flops. At one point during the hike, I even saw a porter wearing a flip flop that was being held in place by a rolled up plastic bag. These men often do the hike at least half a dozen times in a month, some barely get a day in between the four day hikes. Please be a responsible tourist/traveler and only book with companies who respect and treat their porters with respect and dignity. A list of recommended operators is provided at the end of this article.
PACKING AND WHAT TO BRING
JC, my roommate from Lima, and I have very different views on packing. He is from the Boy Scout school of always be prepared, while I’m from the “meh, I’m sure the guides have this so I’ll pack as little as possible” school of thought. Both sides have their pros and cons, and at the end of my hike I realized which things are non -negotiable regardless of which school of packing and prepping you subscribe to. The clear downside of being overly prepared is you bring way too much stuff, a lot of which you won’t even use during the hike. If you paid for a porter, you’ll have to carry anything over the 9kg limit, if you didn’t, then you just signed up to carry all your crap for four days across mountain passes and deep valleys and two thousand step stone stairs. On the upside, you have answers/solutions for every contingency. The lazy packer, on the other hand, don’t have to worry about breaking the 9kg limit or breaking their own backs on the hike. They will however are more likely to ask the other people in their group for provisions ranging from extra toilet paper to Advil. I say do whatever makes you happy, and bring whatever you need. That being said, you do not need to bring half a dozen shirts, 4 pairs of pants, separate rain jacket and rain pants, poncho, and a winter puffer coat to protect you from the elements. The hike is four days and three nights, there is only one opportunity to take a shower and that’s not until the third and last night. I also doubt you actually want to take a shower in the bathrooms at camp. Trust me on this. What you need instead is 2-3 really good base shirts, or tanks for women, a warm and durable fleece jacket, a poncho, and depending on the month, either a lightweight parka or packable down coat. The temperature varies wildly during the day, it can be cool and slightly wet in the early morning, hot and muggy later on, heavy showers in the afternoon, and down to 40s at night. The key to staying protected and comfortable is to layer your clothes. Wear moisture wicking shirts closest to your body and keep your fleece and poncho on your person at all times. Do not give it to the porters! When it gets cooler or it starts raining, you can start wearing more layers. Rain jackets and pants for me are not really a necessity. When it rains on the hike, it is often quick cloudbursts, and putting a poncho on is so much quicker than a rain jacket and pants. The poncho also covers your backpack, and camera if you have it hanging down your neck. It is easy to take off and roll to stuff back in your bag, and takes less space. Unless you are traveling in the middle of the South American winter, June to August, you do not need a heavy winter coat. The sleeping bag and your packable down coat over your day clothes, including fleece jacket, should be sufficient enough to keep you warm at night when the temperature drops down to the 40s. The temperature over the trail does not vary greatly over the year. It is usually in the 70s during the day, give or take a few degrees depending on the season. During the day, you want to be as comfortable and as unencumbered as possible, hiking pants that zip off to shorts are a good investment for the hike, and I think you only need one for the entire hike. Do have an extra pair of pants with you in case you get your hiking pants wet. This could double as your sleeping pants.
What is non-negotiable on this hike is a good quality sleeping bag. If bringing your own, invest in one that goes to minus 8 degree C or about 20F. This makes a huge difference in the quality of your sleep. The other items you should never be without are a wool hat and wool socks. Pick some up in the markets of Cuzco before the hike. The alpaca hats and socks they make are both warm and stylish.
Lastly, make sure to bring some protein bars, chocolates, and other little snacks with you. While the tour company provides more food that you can possibly need, meals and snacks are scheduled and may not necessarily fit your stomach’s schedule. It’s always better to have access to food whenever hungry strikes.
The Inka Trail Hike is one of the most rewarding things you can do, and also have on the most challenging. Once you decide to embark on the journey, do your due diligence and prepare yourself as much as you can; physically, emotionally, and financially. Preparation determines whether your experience is a total nightmare, or the adventure of a lifetime that you can’t stop raving about.
Have fun, and happy trails!