I was disappointed by Machu Picchu.
After three days, three nights and half a painful morning of walking the 43 kilometres of the Inca Trail, I ascended the final steps and looked out over the lost city of the Incas.
With at least a hundred other tourists.
A massive group of bolshie girls from New Zealand were slapping on makeup and posing for selfies. Huge groups of Japanese, Chinese, Russian and American tourists were hustling for the best photo angles. It was all a mad dash to capture a fleeting moment for posterity (and Facebook) rather than a moment to pause and reflect; take in the majesty of such a cool place that we had worked so hard to reach.
From the moment we got our tickets and went inside to the moment we exited through the turnstiles we were hustled from one picture point to the next with barely a minute to spare.
Looking back on my Inca Trail/Machu Picchu experience, I’ve come to realise that the journey, not the destination, is the thing I cherish.
Walking the Inca Trail is awesome.
Check out our video below!
It was a great challenge to get up before the crack of dawn and spend an entire day rambling along an ancient path through some of the most stunning countryside I have ever seen. It’s on the trail where you get time to take in the majesty of what you are seeing, where you can find yourself alone, far from the madding crowd.
It’s on the Inca Trail where you can make friends with your fellow hikers and share the experience rather than worry about taking snaps to show off to your mates. (Your camera battery will probably die at some point anyway, ensuring you get this chance.) Plus, you see Inca ruins that, to me anyway, were far more interesting than the lost city at the end of the trail.
If I could do it again, I’d just do the Inca Trail, have a glance at Machu Picchu and then go back again!
Each to their own though; Machu Picchu may just blow your mind. Anyway, if you are planning to go I’d like to share a handful of tips for hiking the Inca Trail that will definitely make your days easier and more enjoyable. There’s no need to be intimidated by the Inca Trail – it’s not Everest! But forewarned is forearmed…
Tips for hiking the Inca Trail
1. Hit the pavement before you hit the trail
We traveled to Cuzco, the city of the Incas, the gateway to the Inca Trail… without having booked a place on a trek.
Granted, it was in March, not the high season. So it was a gamble that paid off.
We walked all around the city and popped in to scores of travel agencies to find the best price for a four day, three night Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. You can read more about saving on your Inca Trail hike here. The bottom line is that we found a tour for US$355 each.
We had been advised many times not to pay less than $400 to ensure a good time but the trek we went on was brilliant. English speaking guide, all meals, excellent tents and good camp sites. Frankly, I fail to see how paying more gets you anything better. Perhaps some smoked salmon with your morning eggs!
Inca Trail treks can be expensive so shop around. If you can get to Cuzco and have time to spare and it’s not the high season (which is May to September) then you can arrive without a booking and get one. You may have to wait, but Cuzco is a fascinating place to kill time.
2. Get good shoes
I know this may sound like a no-brainer. But I saw quite a few people hiking the trail in shoes that were definitely below par for the task. Tennis shoes or runners may seem like a good light weight option but trust me, once you are on the trail the only way out is through, so a twisted ankle could be your companion with those kinds of zapatos.
The best shoes for the trail are hiking boots, something with ankle support. Carmen and I bought very good pairs of boots in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, before we went to Peru to hike the Inca Trail. Shoes in Bolivia are quite cheap (they are expensive in Peru and in Ecuador though) and we ended up getting a cash discount at the store.
Unfortunately, the tax police nabbed us on the street and made us go back and get a receipt from the shop owner – who then had to pay a fine because he charged cash! Bad situation, but at least we got some good boots.
The Inca Trail itself is quite well maintained and you will often see porters running along it with massive 30 pound packs on their backs. But slow and steady wins the race for the hikers and on the downhill sections (there are many) you will see the value of having some gorilla grip on your feet.
But perhaps the best reason to bring good shoes on the Inca Trail is to protect your feet from the dreaded camp site toilets…
3. Bring three Ts – torch, toilet paper & tips
The best description I’ve heard of Inca Trail dunnies is ‘third day of a rock festival’.
Sure, you can bring a pair of flip-flops to bum around the camp sites in. It’s nice to take off your boots and let your feet breathe after a hard day’s hike. But put them back on when you go to the loo. I forgot once and had to spend a great deal of energy tip toeing around puddles of I don’t know what.
Toilet paper is probably the most essential thing on the Inca Trail; I’d put it above food, shelter and water actually. The altitude may affect your bowels in interesting ways, or the food may not agree with you, delicious as it is. So stock up on bog roll. Grab what you think you’ll need for four days and then double it.
It’s vital that you bring a torch.
Head lamp, maglite, hurricane lamp with a candle, whatever. At night-time a number one can very easily be done in the bushes around the camp site (everyone does it) but number two is a different story altogether when the sun goes down. You need light to navigate the tricky paths and avoid the puddles.
Plus, on the very last morning of the hike you will tackle what’s known as ‘the gringo killer’. It’s a huge stairway that’s almost vertical in a few places that you will have to navigate in the dark. We got up at 3am to walk it and be at Machu Picchu in time to beat the crowds. A good torch on the gringo killer will save your bones!
Last in our T list, tips are a must.
For our group of 12 people we had 12 porters humping the gear – tents, cooking equipment, medical supplies, tables, chairs, backpacks, you name it they carried it. They are truly superhuman men and on the final night it is traditional to gather everyone together and say thank you. By law in Peru, porters are paid a minimum of US$15 a day so you can pass the hat around the group and pool together to send them home with a bit extra. We gave $50 to the porters and $50 to our guide.
4. Pack light
I thought we did. I was wrong.
We took enough changes of clothes for four days, two sleeping bags, two sleeping mats and our cameras. It weighed in at 15 kilograms total. I carried a big backpack with the clothes and sleeping stuff while Carmen took the cameras and water and snacks in a day bag. It may not seem like much but those kilos added up and by the end of the first day we were both pretty sore and searching through our stuff for things we could ditch!
The smart thing is to hire a porter on the second day, the uphill day. I paid about $35 cash and a porter lugged our gear to the next check point. It may seem kind of high and mighty colonial to pass on your burden for cash but the porters need the work and appreciate the extra money. I had a great second day just walking and enjoying the scenery. Days three and four are mostly downhill so I just strapped on the pack again and took the pain.
If you can pack even lighter than we did you will be able to skip along!
5. Get some booze
The thing I enjoyed the most about hiking the Inca Trail was the people. We had a fantastic guide who called us ‘the champions’ and ‘my family’ whenever he addressed us. In the beginning it was just hyperbole, but by the end I thought it was a very apt description of us!
Our group was made up of couple from Poland, three buddies from Montana, USA, an American volunteer from Chicago, an Australian volunteer from Melbourne, two pals from Brazil, a couple from Argentina, an Italian living in Colombia and of course me and Carmen from Australia. Great mix.
We ate every meal together in a long tent lit with lamps and spent time getting to know each other as we shared the challenge of the hike. To make our mix even tighter a few of us bought bottles of whisky and at the end of the first and second days we all shared a drink, relaxing in each other’s company, swapping jokes and stories and comparing scars. Even if you don’t drink, pooling something like a soft drink can get the party started.
In the end Machu Picchu is a deserted city from a time long ago. It is impressive and inspiring and fires your imagination. But the walk to get there is filled with flesh and blood, sweat and tears and joy and is a piece of history that you can write yourself.
Be prepared and you will prevail!
What you need to know – final tips for hiking the Inca Trail
Cost – We paid US$355 for a 4 day, 3 night Inca Trail Trek. Meals, porters, tents and entry to Macchu Picchu were included.
How to get there – Hop on a plane, catch a bus or hitch hike to Cuzco, Peru. From there, all roads lead to the Inca Trail, and there’s a railway direct to Machu Picchu.
When to go – The Inca Trail is closed for maintenance every February so of course don’t go then! May to September is the dry season so that’s when every man and his dog goes. The wet season is still a good time to go, just pack a rain jacket and a sense of humour! We went in March and it didn’t rain all that much.