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21 June, 2013

Inca Trail Preparation and Packing List

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Peru
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Many people dream of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, arriving the last day before sunrise at Inti Punku the Sun Gate and seeing the mysterious ruins of the "lost city" Machu Picchu appear beneath them. It has been on my bucket list as well for ages ... till I finally decided to just go for it. I started planning my trip in January 2013 and hiked the Inca Trail in May 2013. It was the trip of a lifetime. I hope my tips and info will help you to have your own amazing Inca Trail experience.


Part of the original Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Part of the original Inca Trail

Getting a Permit

Since 2002, a permit is obligatory to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, many people get confused about what part of the Inca Trail this relates to as there is an extensive network of Inca Trails. The part known as the "Inca trail to Machu Picchuusually starts at Km 82 or Km 88, takes most of the time 4 days, passes the Patallacta also called the Llactapata ruins, crosses Death Woman's pass and passes the ruins of Runkurakay, Sayaqmarka, Phuyupatamarka and Winay Wayna. On the 4th day before sunrise, you'll arrive at Inti Punku the Sun Gate from where you descent to Machu Picchu. Check the itinerary before you book, if it doesn't include all of the above than you might be looking at a totally different trek.

Before the introduction of the permit, trekkers camped all over the trail leaving rubbish behind and damaging the trail. The permit - including a limit on the number of people allowed on the trail each day - was introduced to protect the trail and the ecosystem. There are now only 500 people a day allowed on the Trail including guides and porters, so it will be probably around 200 trekkers a day. The trail is strictly controlled and there are several check points, so it's impossible to get on the trail without a permit. Only licensed authorized companies can sell this trek. 

Best time of the year to book this trek is from April till October, in November and December there is a high chance of rain and from January till March it's rain season in Peru. The Inca Trail is closed each year during the month of February. It is best to book at least 3 months up-front and in the high season June till August even at least 4 months up-front to ensure permits for your desired dates. 


Inca Trail check point for porters
Inca Trail Check Point for Porters

Selecting a Trekking Company

I usually ask advise from friends, colleagues or acquaintances and I also search for reviews on the internet. Of course my priorities might be very different than somebody else's priorities therefore I always make a list of what I find most important when selecting a tour company for a specific trip. My short list for selecting a tour company for this trip turned out to be as follows:
  • Hike in a small group
  • English speaking guide
  • Good food
  • Responsible company
  • Supporting local development
  • Correct porter treatment

There are many good licensed authorized companies that meet those conditions! 

Unfortunately there are also a few companies that do not. I heard from some people that they got sick from the food ... not a nice experience if you ask me especially since there are hardly toilets on the trail. An important point for me is that the porters who carry my bag and look after me on the trail are treated correctly. Porters carry the tents, dining tent, food ... as mules are not allowed on the trail. You can also hire a porter for your personal items including your sleeping bag and hike with a day pack only. Porters are allowed to carry maximum 20kg including their personal items, they get weighted at the check points and if they carry more than 20kg the company will get a fine. I read quite some trip reviews where trekkers - that hired an extra porter for their personal items - were asked to carry their own stuff through the check points. On my own Inca Trail trek I also saw porters from other groups carrying nearly double. Do not allow this to happen and report this or any other bad treatment of porters immediately !

Show your appreciation by tipping your porters at the end of the trip. Usually the group will put money together for the tip, make sure to bring enough small notes so you can give each porter his share directly. Guidance here is that the group tips each porter 30 to 50 Soles. The cooks and guide are tipped separately and the size of their tip will of course depend on how happy you were with their services. 

I booked with Andina Travel and I was happy with their services, of course I cannot compare with other companies and as mentioned above there are many good responsible tour companies offering this trip. It's difficult to know which companies from the licensed authorized companies for the Inca Trail are responsible ones but if you search the internet, browse through the companies sites, read lots of reviews ... you have a good chance to find one. If you book with your own tour operator - often not mentioned on the list - they will always have to go through one of these companies. 


Inca Trail to Machu Picchu landscape
Inca Trail landscape

Inca Trail Training & Acclimatization 

Usually any fit person can complete the Inca Trail. The problem very often is that people are not sufficiently acclimatized before starting their trek and consequently can suffer from altitude sickness. Another problem might be that people try to put to much in their program and are already exhausted before starting the Inca Trail. 

It is recommended to hike regularly and preferably in mountains. Once I decided to hike the Inca Trail, I got really nervous cause I was not sure that I could actually make it. I'm not the most active person, sure I hike regularly but that's about it and in addition there are no high mountains in Belgium to practice properly... 

After an impulsive attempt to climb Mount Jbel Toubkal in Morocco as training, I adapted my Peru itinerary to have sufficient time to prepare and acclimatize before starting the trek. We first stayed a couple of days in Urubamba - centrally located in the Sacred Valley - followed by a few days in Cusco. We combined hiking with visiting the beautiful archeological sites for which most people do not take the time:
  1. Day 1: we visited the impressive Inca Fortress in Ollantaytambo and climbed to the Pinkullyuna ruins, the climb up and down took less than 2 hours
  2. Day 2: we visited Pisac the entrance to the Sacred Valley and hiked up to Inca Pisac, visited this archeological site and hiked back down. The entire hike including visit took about 4 hours
  3. Day 3: from the colonial town Maras we hiked up to the Circular Inca Terraces in Moray, back to Maras to the famous Salt Mines and down to the Urubamba river. This day hike from Moray to the Salt Pans in Maras including visits took about 7 hours
  4. Day 4: a relaxing day, we went to Cusco the heart of the Inca Empire and visited part of this beautiful town
  5. Day 5: we hiked to all the Inca Ruins around Cusco, first we hiked up to the Sacsayhuaman ruins, further to Qenqo, followed by the Temple of the Moon after which we hiked up steeply to Puca Pucara and ended our hike in Tambo Machay. This day hike including visits took about 6 hours
  6. Day 6: a relaxing day while visiting another part of Cusco
  7. Day 7: start of the Inca Trail trekking
Even for a not very active person like myself, this preparation allowed me to complete and enjoy the Inca Trail without any issues. So make sure to prepare and acclimatize well, I saw quite some people turning around on day 1 and even on day 2 which is really a shame. 


Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Peru
Inca Trail Packing List

Packing List

My suggestion of a packing list for the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek:
  • underwear / thermals
  • trekking pants
  • shorts for when it's nicer weather
  • 4 t-shirts
  • 2 sweaters
  • rain gear (especially from November till March), take a poncho as this will not take much space in your backpack
  • good hiking socks (try to take 2 pair a day)
  • hiking boots: waterproof, anti-slip and supporting your ankle. Make sure your boots are not to heavy as you will need to climb a lot of steps
  • comfortable shoes or sandals to wear around the camp site
  • flash light and extra batteries
  • sunscreen and hat 
  • tooth brush and toothpaste 
  • hair brush
  • insect repellent 
  • bottle or bag which can contain 1,5 to 2 liters water
  • thermal sleeping bag and liner, you can eventually rent the sleeping bag with the tour company
  • walking poles with rubber tips, also these you can rent with the tour company
  • day backpack 
  • personal medical kit, the guide will have a first aid kit and oxygen bottles but you need to take your own personal medication as well as Diamox agains altitude sickness (although the only way to really prevent altitude sickness is proper acclimatization, Diamox will help as well)
  • enough toilet paper
  • dry shampoo
  • wet wipes
  • lip gloss !
I recommend to hire a porter for your personal items and only hike with a day backpack as you will be giving an additional porter work. It is a win-win situation cause you will enjoy the trail and scenery a lot more without a heavy backpack. 


Arrival at Machu Picchu Peru
Arrival at Machu Picchu

Arrival at Machu Picchu 

The first day of the trail is quite relaxing. The second day is challenging with a steep climb to Dead Woman's pass, drinking lots of coca thee and water will get you through. The third day is the longest but also the most beautiful day. The fourth and last day - before sunrise - you'll arrive at Inti Punku the Sun Gate from where you start the descent to Machu Picchu. A guided tour around Machu Picchu is usually included in the package. It is an incredible feeling walking around in Machu Picchu and you really feel like you have earned the right to be there after such an achievement. When you are well prepared and properly acclimatized, I'm sure you will enjoy the trail and scenery without any issues as well. I look forward hearing all about your trip of a lifetime experience. 

In the meantime, you might be interested in my Inca Trail experience:

Freya - Holiday Nomad, a Travel and Photo blog


47 comments:

  1. Excellent suggestions for acclimating. Machu Picchu has been on my list ever since working at Mesa Verde. Just not too sure I'd hike in.

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    1. Hi Gaelyn, Machu PIcchu is so worth it on its own but of course the trail adds an extra dimension to the experience.

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  2. Wow this post is a great resource for anyone contemplating such a trip. Maybe one day I'll do it :)

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    1. Hi Matthew you definitely should, it is an amazing experience.

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  3. I think the dry shampoo is the best tip... ;-)

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    1. haha I agree, I was very happy to have it with me :)

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  4. Very helpful tips, Freya. Have bookmarked this page for when we go to Peru. And that picture of the "Arrival at Machu Pichhu" - Amazing. This must have been quite an experience :)

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  5. I agree with Matthew - Freya this post is an excellent resource. All the bases are covered! Definitely one to bookmark :-)

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  6. This is such a great comprehensive guide. One of my biggest travel regrets was that I didn't hike the Inca trail when I had a chance in 2010.

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    1. Hi Samuel, there will always be a next time

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  7. Your packing list is just great. Not too much, not too little. All necessary stuff there. I need to be more organized!

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  8. So glad you posted a packing list. I love a good packing list. Sad, I know, but I am somewhat obsessed with them. :-)

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    1. Hi Tammy thanks :) On the Inca Trail the weight you can bring is quite limited so no other option than going with a strict packing list.

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  9. What a great resource for anyone thinking of hiking the Inca Trail. You're definitely right about "practicing" with hikes and I'd definitely do some training myself before attempting the trail.

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    1. I love to hear about your Inca Trail experience

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  10. Great tips! This is one hike you definitely want to be well-prepared for. I found this to be one of my most challenging travel experiences.

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    1. I agree and when you go well-prepared it will be a lot more manageable, I'm not sure whether I could have done it without the practice.

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  11. Really great tips on acclimatizing. Alot of people just don't do that anymore.

    And I hate when the porters are not treated well. I haven't done a hike where porters are needed, but I have read alot about it and seen it on docs.

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    1. You are right a lot of people fly into Cusco the night before and then they are surprised it is so hard. Acclimatizing is key.

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  12. Fantastic post. As they say, just what the doctor ordered :) Machu Picchu is on my must see list and Inca Trail is just the way to go about it. Going through your post, I realize I'll need to wait for sometime so that I get an extended time to enjoy it properly. The acclimatization routine you followed sounds really good with lots of treasures for photographers. I'll remember to stop by and check this post again when I finalize my trip.

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    1. Hi Ramakant I would love to hear about your experience when you get there.

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  13. I'm one of those people who's dreaming to take the Inca Trail, Freya. So this is a great informative post.

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  14. Freya, you should consider taking all of these Inca Trail posts and writing a book. You've created such a great resource of intel here for anyone who might consider a similar trip.

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  15. I envy you - I'd love to take to the Inca Trail. Looking forward to seeing more!

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    1. HI Amy thanks ! You definitely should one day the Inca Trail is an amazing experience

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  16. Wow that looks amazing! I'd love to do this one day!! :)

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    1. It has been on my bucket list for ages as well and I'm so glad I finally did it.

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  17. So refreshing to see someone mention wet wipes :) I've been talking about those as a staple piece of travel gear for years and a lot of people still laugh at me for wanting to include them. SO many uses for them!

    Still haven't made it down there myself; tucking this one away for future use. Thanks, Freya!

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    1. haha yes I was very happy to have those with me :-)

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  18. I took the pills that help with the altitude...they really helped me. Not sure if I could have done it without them...

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    1. Hi Andrea, yes they can help. Taking some time to acclimatize helps as well.

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  19. I hope to do this in the next year or two. These are some really helpful tips (pinned for later). I love that you explored the area beyond Machu Picchu.

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    1. Hi Katherine thanks for stopping by. Yes there are lots more stunning archeological sites in the Sacred Valley besides Machu Picchu.

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  20. Did you see any kids along the trail? I'm wondering if this would be an appropriate trip to take as a family in a few years when the kids are around 10? We are a pretty active family, but would that be too hard on them?

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    1. Hi Margaret, I did not see that many kids but I heard from some people they took the trip with their kids. Maybe it would be better to wait till they are a bit older as it might be too hard on them at the age of 10. Then again it all depends on how much hiking a day your kids are used to.

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  21. It must be one-heck-of an adventure to hike the Inca Trail...
    Those who hike get to see the more hidden valleys, the parts where the train and the big masses don't go through...
    I'd love to take this trip one day... and take lots and lots of photographs!

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    1. It was one of my favorite hikes so far, an amazing experience

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  22. I have the 4 day Inca trail booked for July 2015. I am very excited and have been thinking about doing this for years... I do have a question that I can not find the answer to. I take all my photos with my phone. I don't own a camera. My phone won't hold a charge, with taking photos, for 4 days. I am told by my photographer friends that a camera will also not hold a charge for 4 days. I don't want to miss the opportunity of the great photos and I wonder how this is best managed. What type of camera should I get and would I just bring extra batteries with me? How many?

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    1. Hi,
      I did not use my phone to take pictures, I kept my phone out most of the time (as no connection most of the time anyhow) and only used it to call once I arrived in Machu Picchu. So I had no issues at all with the phone battery.

      For my photos I just used a digital camera (panasonic lumix) and I was very happy with the quality of the photos. I had 2 full batteries with me and had no issues at all. I even had most of my second battery still left. Just some tips to save your battery: don't preview your photos continuously, try to avoid taking videos, only put your camera on when you are actually taking a photo.

      Enjoy your Inca Trail, I'm sure you will have an amazing experience.

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    2. Thank you Freya, I have my trek booked, my Cuzco hotels booked for both ends and today I will go camera shopping! I appreciate all of your advice.

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Freya - Holiday Nomad