How hard is the Inca Trail trek? How many days is the Inca Trail walk? Is the Inca Trail worth it? If you’re not a hiker and thinking of coming to Peru, here are some honest tips for hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The man made wonder of Machu Picchu is an absolute must if visiting Peru but there are a few ways of doing it. You can take the train, hike the Lares or Salkantay trail or take the ancient path of the Incas on the Inca Trail.
What is the Inca Trail?
The Inca trail is renowned among travellers and fitness enthusiasts alike for being “the” hike in South America and amongst the top five most beautiful hikes in the world. At 26 miles long, reaching altitudes of above 4000 meters, it’s no walk in the park, but is something anyone who’s reasonably fit can achieve. The more preparation the better, after all “nothing great ever came that easy”. The altitude of the Inca trail is the biggest challenge, during the four day hike. No one knows how they will react to the altitude of the Inca trail but as long as you are prepared and give yourself time to acclimatise it shouldn’t be a problem, everything just takes a little more effort. For more details read the full guide on how to get to Machu Picchu or how to buy tickets for Machu Picchu.
When to book the Inca Trail, Peru
The Inca trail is open year round with the exception of February when the trail is closed for maintenance. visitors are limited to 400 per day and must have permits and porters. March is the best time to visit the Inca Trail, just after the trail reopens from the February maintenance closure. It’s wise to book the trail permits in advance as limited spaces get booked up fast. Now I’m the type of person that would have been quite happy taking the train, but my brother and his girlfriend had convinced me to do the hike and I’m glad they did. The couple of weeks before exploring the surrounding area had given us time to acclimatise and get a good insight into history on the Inca Empire. The sheer scale of this man-made path through high mountain passes and subtropical forest beggars belief. How this vast ancient civilization moved huge blocks of stone from miles around to create a mountain top hideaway rivals the Egyptians building legacy. It’s something that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
How hard is the Inca Trail? An honest account from a non-hiker
Day one of the Inca Trail
Quickly the heat and pace started to make me regret my choice of my brand new walking boots over comfy old trainers. There is an ongoing debate online for which is best, with the 6kg packing limit you’d be hard pushed to bring both. The best advice is to take the comfiest pair you own but make sure they have good grip for the downhill sections. And don’t forget a pair of flip-flops to give your feet a break in the evenings. There are lots of rivers and picturesque picnic spots in this section to cool off and relax by. Passing through tiny villages and the odd ancient ruin you will arrive in the late afternoon to the first campsite with scenic views over the surrounding mountains. A little hummingbird buzzed though the hedges and we chowed down on some delicious food and we got to know our porters a little better. On a short walk from the campsite we saw what the next day had in store for us. Dead Woman’s Pass, what is the highest point of the Inca Trail at 4215m.
Day Two of the Inca Trail
Day two started in the lush green fields of the campsite and worked upwards for 1000meters. Zigzagging through subtropical forests and grassy plateaus, becoming increasingly difficult not to stop for a breather. Soon you are in the clouds, the damp air offering some relief, the fitness levels of fellow hikers now becoming more obvious. Some striking off into the distance without so much as a glance at the view, some taking a bit more time to “appreciate the scenery” (code for needing a break). By the time you reach the 4000m mark you are physically drained, lungs heavy from the lack of oxygen. Do you have to be fit to do the Inca Trail? No, but it sure does help when the air gets thin. The last 200 meters or so are the toughest. One step after another until you eventually reach to the top, and the view from Dead Woman’s Pass, usually non existent as it’s high up in the clouds!
Next comes heading down the other side. A lot of fitter people tend to find this part the most difficult, navigating huge slippery Inca steps at a steep angle affects different muscles, particularly people with weak knees. Here the poles that you were wondering why you’ve been carrying around for two days become quite useful. With gravity and good shoes the descent can be quite fast. You may even spot a few orchids, hummingbirds and waterfalls along the way. Camp number two is a welcome site by early afternoon. Perched in a valley next to a large river, tents and dinner waiting next to smiling porters cheering your arrival. Porters who had just done what you have with quadruple the weight on their backs in a quarter of the time; maybe coca leaves aren’t such a bad idea!
Day 3 – Cake
Recovered from the dreaded day two, set off on day 3 in high spirits. And what a day it is; fantastic trails, stunning views and somehow a freshly baked cake! Literally in the middle of nowhere, all the Inca Trail porters had was a simple gas stove, to this day I have no idea how they managed it, but it was highly appreciated either way! Stopping at another Inca site at the last viewpoint of the day and look back at how far you’ve come. Make your way back down into the trees to the final campsite. Now three days of hiking, drop toilets and camping leaves you with a certain aroma no matter how many wet wipes or buckets of water you get through. Camp number three doesn’t have the views of camp one, or the joyous relief of camp number two, but what it does have is a shower! Only the hardcore brave this due to the fact it’s pretty much a pipe plumbed into the freezing river and no one has space to pack a towel. Nevertheless the single best shower of my life (narrowly beating a cowshed in New Zealand)!
Day four means starting at silly o’clock in the morning fumbling around in the dark to get to the final permit check before the crowds. The premise for this abhorrent time of day is to make it to the sun gate for sunrise. The last push, bleary eyed, physically exhausted and rushing for the view in pitch black. I hit my ‘wall’. I let the group go ahead and gathered myself together. The unexpected low point of the trip was only confirmed when we got to the eponymous Sun Gate: mist, cloud and no view. This wasn’t just an issue for me, in the months before my brother had been planning his proposal to his girlfriend at that very sunrise. It was in fact the main purpose of our trip.
Disheartened we stumbled down the hill to where our Machu Picchu guide was waiting. And slowly out if the mist began to appear the most amazing ancient structures. Huge stone walls, imposing temples and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Suddenly the hike made sense. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this undertaking by the Incas you have to hike the Inca Trail. The building materials, livestock and whole families once came along the same path carved out by hugely successful and ingenuitive civilisation. The craftsmanship and the fact it still remains today is testament to that culture and their ability to thrive in such remoteness.
The sun, now beaming, unveiled the true magnitude of the settlement. After the obligatory selfies most of the group hiked back up to the sun gate for a better view. My brother, the most nervous I’ve ever seen him, and his girlfriend joined them for surely one of the best proposals ever! I wished him luck but couldn’t face another hill so wandered alone around the ruins. The trainloads of tourists had not yet made it on to the ruins (thank the early morning I was moaning about) and many people were sitting around just soaking in the view.
I wandered in and out of passageways and temples occasionally bumping into the odd llama, taking in every magnificent view that appeared. Truly one of the most awe-inspiring days of my life that had started out so badly. It’s often the way with travel and life in general, some of the best experiences are intertwined with some of the hardest and most challenging. I met back up with the group getting the final stamp in the passport. My brother and his now fiancé, ring on finger, sat elated and exhausted. Is the Inca Trial worth it? I’d say so.
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