Inca Trail trek group at Machu Picchu in Peru

22 quick things to know before trekking the Inca Trail

Oct 31, 2023
Reading time: 16 minutes

This blog post is for anyone in the early stages of planning to trek the Inca Trail. It introduces important topics and details like which months have the best weather to how to keep clean on the trail, and much more besides! So let's get started ...

1. The Inca Trail is moderately difficult

When it comes to pinpointing the difficulty of the Inca Trail, it's classed as moderately hard.

This is because it's not as long nor as high as many of the world's other famous high-altitude treks. That said, it's still a real challenge and nobody should attempt it unless they've some decent hiking fitness under their belt.

You can see the trail route below.

Map of the Classic Inca Trail in Peru

Map of the Classic Inca Trail route

The Inca Trail is the most introductory of all the high-altitude treks offered by Follow Alice.

If you'd like to know more about the physical demands of the Inca Trail, please read How should I train for trekking to Machu Picchu?

2. You can do the trail over 4 or 5 days

There are two options for trekking the Inca Trail:

  • 4 days and 3 nights.
  • 5 days and 4 nights.
Sunset over forest and Inca ruins on Inca Trail, Cusco, Peru

Sunset on the Inca Trail

The shorter version of the Inca Trail involves a super early wakeup (around 4 am) on the final day of trekking so that you can arrive early at Machu Picchu to avoid the crowds and still catch the train back to Cusco in the afternoon.

The longer version offers a more leisurely ending. You have a later wake-up time and spend a night in Machu Picchu Town after the trek, only visiting the Machu Picchu ruins the next day. This option is a little less demanding on the body and is particularly suited to newer trekkers.

3. The 'dry' season also gets rain

The best months for trekking the Inca Trail are April through to early October.

This is the so-called dry season. We say so-called because the region can and does get rain throughout the year. So it's more accurate to think of the period from April to October as being the drier season.

Anja on Inca Trail trek with view and thin band of mist

Our client Anja trekking the Inca Trail in late September

In the wetter season (November to March), the trails can be treacherous. It's even possible for the path to get washed out in places. So think carefully before booking a trek during this period. Also note that the trail is closed every February for maintenance.

For more detail on the different seasons, and our suggestion of the very best months, please read When is the best time to trek the Inca Trail?

4. You must book your trek early

It's almost impossible to book a last-minute Inca Trail trek. This is because you cannot do the trek without a permit, and only 500 permits are allowed to be sold for each day. This is done to protect the trail and the surrounding habitat.

Silhouette of group of Inca Trail trekkers standing with Andes mountains behind them and clouds below

One of the trail's many epic viewpoints

While 500 may seem a large number (and in many respects it is), note that it includes mountain crew members. It takes a small village to launch an Inca Trail trek (more on that in a moment), so every trek group that books a spot on the trail gobbles up a big number of those precious 500 daily permits.

5. You must trek with a tour operator

You're not allowed to trek the Inca Trail on your own. There are various advantages to this policy, including ensuring every trek provides work for locals.

So when we said in the previous point that you must book your trek early, what we mean is that you must select a tour operator early so that they can book your permit for you. You cannot buy the permit yourself.

Man serving food in mess tent on Inca Trail in Peru

Your tour operator cooks hot and tasty food for you on the trek

Your tour operator also provides a mountain crew for your trekking group. This crew consists of folks who mostly speak Quechua as their mother tongue and live in the Cusco region of the Andes.

The porters in your mountain crew will carry not only the communal things like tents and food, but also most of your personal luggage for you. This means you only need to carry a backpack containing the items you need for that day, such as water, snacks, your rain gear and a camera.

6. It takes a village to stage every trek

It takes a pretty large mountain crew to stage every trek, as you need guides, cooks and porters.

What's lovely about this setup is that you and your fellow trekkers will get to know your mountain crew really well over the few days you spend together. You become a tightly knit community with a strong bond. ๐Ÿ˜Š

 

 

7. Camping is the only accommodation

Unlike other nearby routes (such as the Salkantay Trek) where you can camp or stay in varied types of accommodations, the Inca Trail is a camping-only affair.

This is one of the big reasons why so many porters are needed for each trek. Think about it: they need to carry tents, mattresses, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, and more. Every Inca Trail trek is a truly impressive logistical and physical undertaking!

Follow Alice accommodation tent with sleeping bags and coffee and tea station in front

A Follow Alice tent on the Inca Trail with a tea and coffee station

8. Forget about showering on the Inca Trail

Personal hygiene takes a dip on the Inca Trail. This is because there are no showers along most of the trail, let alone running water. But remember that everyone is in the same boat.

Most mountain crews give each trekker a bowl of water at the end of each day's hiking. You should be strategic with how you use it, however, as it will quickly get too soapy and dirty to be of further use.

We recommend that you pack good deodorant as well as some helpful personal hygiene products like wet wipes, dry shampoo and waterless body wash.

Trek group leader guide steps Inca Trail, Peru

Everyone's a little scruffy by trek's end!

9. Some operators provide a private toilet (you want this!)

The public toilets available on the Inca Trail are used by many and can't be cleaned as often as anyone would like. They're also squat toilets, which not everyone is comfortable using.

Follow Alice Toilet Tent on Inca Trail, Peru

Our little toilet tent, set away from the camp for privacy

Some tour operators provide their clients with a private chemical toilet housed in a little tent. Such a toilet lets you sit down if you wish. It's also much cleaner and less whiffy than the communal ablutions.

If you travel with a tour operator that provides this facility, you're going to be so super happy about it on the trail! So do consider shopping around for a tour operator that offers this extra luxury.

10. You need to be waterproof from top to toe

Rain and mist are frequent on the Inca Trail. So you need to come prepared, both mentally and practically.

We say mentally because we don't want you to be overly frustrated if you arrive at certain landmarks or lookout spots and don't have the clear views you wanted or expected.

Male trekker on Inca Trail at viewpoint with bits of mist, Peru in September 2023

A somewhat misty September scene on the Inca Trail

Practically, you need to come to the trail with waterproof boots as well as waterproof gear. Either bring a poncho that covers you and your backpack, or pack a rain jacket and a backpack rain cover (or use a backpack with its own built-in rain cover).

You should also pack waterproof trousers (pants) that you can slip on and off without having to remove your boots.

11. You should dress in layers

As is often the case in mountainous terrain, the weather can be very changeable along the Inca Trail. It's therefore important to be able to easily add or strip off layers throughout the day.

Man on Inca Trail, Peru

Our videographer Daniel on the Inca Trail

Note that conditions along the Inca Trail can be hot and sticky one moment and then bitingly cold and windy the next.

That said, if the changes in warmth in your layers becomes too extreme, you're likely to remain too hot or too cold at certain points. This can be uncomfortable at best, and could even lead to you becoming sick at worst. So please be sure to pack clothing that lets you add and remove layers of warmth incrementally.

For a full guide on what clothing to pack, please read Your complete packing list for trekking to Machu Picchu.

12. You need a strategy for mosquitoes

Insects โ€“ and especially mosquitoes โ€“ can be a real nuisance on the Inca Trail. This is because you spend a good deal of your time in moist cloud forest.

We therefore recommend that you:

  • Use an eco-friendly insect-repellent spray (aka bug spray).
  • Use an eco-friendly soap containing insect-repellent essential oils like rosemary, thyme, citronella and buchu.
  • Keep your tent flap (or mesh flap) zipped up at all times.
  • Use the red light on your headlamp as white or bluish light is more attractive to insects.
Inca Trail tent accommodation beds Follow Alice, Peru

Note that white light attracts insects at night

13. The trail can get slick

You want to be careful when trekking the Inca Trail in wet and muddy conditions. Some of those steps are really steep and you could really hurt yourself if you fall.

The main ways to avoid slipping and maybe even taking a tumble on the Inca Trail are to:

  • Wear proper hiking boots that have deep lugs for good traction.
  • Watch where you place your feet (just stop walking for a moment when you want to admire the view).
  • Not step or place your trekking poles' tips in the centre of rocks, but rather where two or more rocks meet.
  • Use trekking pole tips made from rubber as rubber has good grip.
 A hiker in a red poncho walking in the mist and wet conditions on the Inca trail near the Puyupatamarca archaeological site, Peru

You need to be prepared to walk in wet conditions

14. Trekking poles are vital

Speaking of trekking poles, they're an absolute must on the Inca Trail. We say this because they:

  • Provide extra stability all round.
  • Are especially useful on downhills to help mitigate the chances you fall.
  • Help to reduce the impact on your knees on declines.
  • Help transfer a little of the work from your lower body to your upper body on inclines.
Trekkers hiking in the Andes in Inca Trail en route to Machu Picchu in Peru

Everyone on the Inca Trail uses trekking poles or at least a walking stick

Please note that you can't use trekking poles on the Inca Trail that have uncovered steel tips as these cause damage to the historic stones. You must put bungs (covers) on them.

15. You can rent or buy gear in Cusco

You can rent or buy pretty much any of the trekking gear you might need for the Inca Trail in the city of Cusco.

Buying or renting is an especially useful strategy if you're travelling elsewhere before or after your trek and don't want to lug certain heavy or bulky items around with you. (We're looking at you, trekking poles and winter jackets.)

Plaza de Armas in sunset at historic center of Cusco Peru

The Plaza de Armas in central Cusco

Note that if you're a bargain hunter, you can save yourself money by hopping in a taxi and taking the 10-minute drive to the shopping mall outside of the city. Here you can find some particularly good deals.

Finally, before you pack or rent anything, check in with your tour operator to see what, if anything, they include in your package fee or can rent you themselves. Often tour operators have a stockpile of sleeping mats, sleeping bags, duffel bags, winter jackets and trekking poles.

16. Cash is useful for snacks and toilets

It's useful to carry some soles (the local currency) with you on the Inca Trail. This is because there are opportunities on the first two days of the trail to buy snacks and cold drinks, as well as use toilets.

peruvian-sol-banknotes-and-coins

Peruvian soles

Just be sure to carry small denominations โ€“ coins are best โ€“ as locals are unlikely to be able to make change for big banknotes. Usually, you must pay about one sole if you want to use one of the toilets alongside the trail.

On the topic of cash, you might this blog post useful: What to know about money when travelling in Peru.

17. The high altitude can be a challenge

High altitude can lead to altitude sickness, which is an illness caused by your body reacting badly to being made to ascend too high too quickly. The symptoms of altitude sickness include nausea, headaches, dizziness and insomnia.

Follow Alice Inca-trail-elevation-map

 

Altitude sickness usually kicks in from around 3,000 m above sea level (asl). If you look at the elevation map of the Inca Trail above, you'll see that you climb above 4,000 m on the trek.

To avoid feeling yucky on the Inca Trail itself, it's important to acclimatise (acclimate) before you start the trek.

Cusco city houses dry season, Peru

Visitors to Cusco city need to adjust slowly to its high altitude

Since almost everyone doing the Inca Trail flies into Cusco โ€“ a city that's a whopping 3,399 m (11,152 ft) asl โ€“ your acclimatisation begins the moment you step off the plane. Note that the gentler you are on your body, the quicker you'll acclimatise. So we suggest spending two leisurely days and two nights in Cusco before starting the trek.

We recommend spending at least two nights in Cusco before heading off on Inca Trail in order to acclimatise before your trek.

You can learn more on this important topic in 7 important safety tips for anyone hiking the Inca Trail.

18. Day 3 is just as hard as Day 2

You cross the highest point on the Inca Trail โ€“ Dead Woman's Pass (4,215 m / 13,828 ft asl) โ€“ on Day 2 of the trek. So naturally many first-timers think they've put the toughest part of the trail behind them after that.

Day Three of the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu

A section of the Inca Trail on Day 3

Yet Day 3 of the trek is equally tough, and perhaps even more so for those whose bodies are now weary or whose minds aren't adequately prepared for the challenge.

Please note that Day 3 has some very long and steep ascents and descents, so it's best to be mentally prepared for this!

If you'd like to learn more about the trail day by day, please read The Classic Inca Trail โ€“ what the route looks like.

19. Tour operators vary in quality

Your choice of tour operator matters a great deal. You want to ensure you're using a good tour operator who ticks all of the important boxes, like knowing how to keep you safe and looking after its staff well.

Follow Alice cook and assistant in tent on Inca Trail in Peru

You want a tour operator who pays and treats its staff fairly

Here are some questions you might like to ask a potential Inca Trail tour operator:

  • What's the experience and training of the lead guide?
  • What safety measures are in place?
  • What type of sleeping tents are provided? (Remember the rain!)
  • Are the mountain crew given travel stipends for getting to and from the trail?
  • Is the company a member of any recognised trekking oversight organisation?

For all of these questions and more, a good starting point is looking at the company's website for information. Another great source of insight is independent online reviews from past clients.

20. It's customary to tip your crew

While Peru doesn't have a tipping culture in general, tipping is very much customary on the Inca Trail. This means your mountain crew will be hoping for and expecting tips at the end of the trek.

The folks who make up your mountain crew invariably work incredibly hard. Trekkers are often in awe of the effort that goes into making their adventure safe, comfortable and enjoyable. So believe us when we say that you're going to want to tip them at the end of the trek! And tip them well.

Inca Trail trek group and mountain crew campsite, Peru

Your mountain crew work super hard to make your trek comfortable

The amount you tip is entirely up to you. That said, most trekkers want guidelines, and you can ask your tour operator for these figures when your departure date draws near. The amount you'll personally contribute towards the overall tip will depend on how many trekkers are in your group.

Finally, please be aware that you'll need to draw cash for the tips before heading off on the Inca Trail. This is because you tip your crew in camp on the last day of the trek.

21. A few Quechua phrases go a long way

Whenever you travel to a new destination, it's amazing how much locals appreciate you making the effort to say a few phrases in their language.

While many of the folks working the Inca Trail speak Spanish, most speak Quechua as their mother tongue.

Follow Alice mountain crew by cooking tent on Inca Trail in Peru

You'll hear your mountain crew chatting in Quechua

We suggest learning to say the usual pleasantries like "hello", "nice to meet you" and "thank you" in Quechua before travelling to Peru. These small phrases not only help to break the ice with people you'll be hanging out with for days, but they're also powerful little indicators of respect and humility.

The best way to learn some Quechua phrases is to watch a video on YouTube or download a language app like Duolingo so that you can learn the correct pronunciations.

The origins of the Quechua language are a mystery, as it wasn't transcribed until after the Spanish conquest. But scholars believe it's been around in some form since roughly 500 AD.

22. Machu Picchu could be covered in cloud

Finally, we feel it's good to manage your expectations when it comes to your visit to Machu Picchu at the end of the trek. Admittedly this is hard to do, as most of us have been poring over pictures of the site since our personal year dot!

Clouds and mist surrounding Machu Picchu ruins, Peru

Machu Picchu is often partially or wholly covered in cloud

The ruins of Machu Picchu sit perched atop a mountain โ€“ a favourite setting of fog. So please bear in mind that sometimes the ruins will be completely cloaked, at other times obscured with swirls and ribbons of mist. So when you explore the site, you might also only see it bit by bit.

Also, your much-anticipated first view of the ruins from Sun Gate might be no view at all.

Fog and sunrise at Machu Picchu, Peru

A foggy sunrise at Machu Picchu

As a general rule of thumb, mornings at Machu Picchu tend to be foggier, with conditions clearing up later in the day. But not always.

If you want to hedge your bets, you might choose to do the five-day Inca Trail itinerary since you visit the site in the afternoon. Another idea is to spend a night in Machu Picchu Town after your trek so that you have a second day to return to the ruins.

What we can say is that the ruins actually have a certain magic to them when explored under the hush and secrecy of fog. You might also take comfort in remembering that this is how the Incas themselves would've experienced life there on many days.

So the best thing you can do is to bring a carefree attitude to the Inca Trail, knowing that you're in for a truly memorable experience whatever the weather decides to do!