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The Inca Trail: A Hiking Novice's Guide

Having taken on the Inca Trail in 2014 with very little hiking experience, here are my tips and suggestions to taking on the incredible trek.

Machu Picchu, Peru © Katy Mason

Sitting at the top of what is affectionately known as “Dead Woman’s Pass”, I had an exhausted yet satisfied moment of calm. Looking back down on the steep and uneven cobbled valley that I’d just travelled through, I was hugely relieved and proud. This was the part I’d been most worried about - the section of the Inca Trail which is often considered the hardest - and though my legs were like jelly, and the wind was bitingly cold, I had done it and it was such a good feeling!

The first thing to note about me is that I'm not a hiker. Don't get me wrong - I love the great outdoors, going for a country ramble and breathing in fresh air, but my holidays growing up were far more tailored towards lazing on a sun lounger or escaping into a good book than getting up at 5am to reach the top of a mountain before breakfast.

However, as a lover of all things ancient, I'd always dreamt of seeing the mysterious Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, so in 2014 I decided to take on the challenge of the four-day hike across the Andes to reach it with my then fiancé, now husband (if we can survive the Inca Trail together, we can survive anything!). Having never done anything like it before, I went into it with almost blissful ignorance and to be honest, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before the hike that it fully hit me what I was about to embark on!

That said, almost five years on, the Inca Trail is still one of my proudest achievements and one of the most incredible thing I’ve ever done. Yes, it is very tough (definitely not one to underestimate!), emotionally draining and exhausting, but the views were magnificent and arriving at Machu Picchu to watch the sun rise on the final day was worth every ache, pain and set of tears.

As I mentioned though, it’s no walk in the park. So here are some tips that are useful for anyone thinking of doing the trek. Some are things I wish I’d known and others are just useful suggestions for making the most out of your trip of a lifetime - which, believe me, it really is!

Wiñay Wayna, Peru © Katy Mason

It’s Not Just About Machu Picchu

Yes, ultimately this is a hike towards the coveted mysterious and beautiful archaeological city of Machu Picchu, but the great thing about doing the Inca Trail is how many amazing sights you see along the way.

Re-discovered by Hiram Bigham in the early 20th century, the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu is believed to have been built in the 1400s during the reign of Inca emperor Pachucuti. The trail itself is understood to have been a pilgrimage route along which the Incas would perform religious ceremonies and rituals to honour the mountains and natural world. As a result, the classic Inca Trail features many important and fascinating archaeological sites including the Inca ruins of Llachtapata, Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, Phuypatamarca and Wiñaywayna, which are all built into the mountain sides along the ancient road.

Passing rivers, valleys, mountain ranges and forests, the landscape itself is also hugely varied and eclectic with plenty to see along the way. This is a classic example of the journey being just as important as the destination so take in every moment!

Inca Trail, Peru © Katy Mason

Coping With Altitude Sickness

From the moment you arrive in Peru you’ll likely to be made more aware of what altitude you’re currently standing at in a way you’d never even thought about before. Do you know how far above sea level you are at home or at work? No, but as soon as you get to Peru, you’ll realise that this is something that is regularly considered.

To put altitude heights into context, London is 14m above sea level, Moscow is 124m and Madrid is 588m, whilst Cusco (where all Inca Trail treks depart from) stands at an impressive 3,400m above sea level. That’s a huge difference and one that most people’s bodies are not attuned to. As a result, most of us tend to experience some form of altitude sickness when we initially get to those lofty heights. The first thing you’re likely to notice is a shortness of breath as the air is much thinner with less oxygen. Just going for a brisk walk can leave the fittest of visitors out of breath. This may consequently result in headaches, fatigue and/or nausea. However, the good news is that this is just your body’s way of learning to cope with it’s new surroundings and whilst it can be unpleasant, it’s usually temporary, tending to last 1 - 2 days maximum.

To cope best with the change in altitude, it’s recommended that you allow for at least 2 days in Cusco to acclimatise before starting the Inca Trail. The highest point on the Trail itself is in fact almost 1,000m higher than Cusco, with Dead Woman’s Pass (yes, that lovely sounding landmark point again!) standing at 4,200m. This altitude makes the trek extra tough, even for more experienced hikers so you need to be physically prepared for it.

Many travellers fly from Lima to Cusco due to limited time, but if you have the luxury of being able to adopt a more leisurely pace, I’d also recommend travelling across land from Lima to Cusco. This not only gives you the opportunity to take in more of this incredible country - the wildlife haven of the Islas Ballestas, the desert oasis of Huacachina, the awe-inspiring Colca Canyon, the mythical Nazca Lines and even the historic city of Arequipa - but also allows you to steadily incline in altitude and work your way up to the heights of Cusco, meaning it’s not such a hit to the system.

To combat any altitude symptoms, stay hydrated, get plenty of rest and take everything as slowly as you can. You’ll notice that alcohol goes to your head much quicker at high altitudes so pace yourself on that front, and avoid doing any strenuous exercise until your body has acclimatised.

Inca Trail, Peru © Katy Mason

The Toilet Situation

OK, let’s discuss with what is probably the worst aspect of the whole experience and just get it out of the way…

There are toilets - the description is a stretch, but that’s what they are - all the way along the route, but they can be fairly few and far between and I expect quite far removed from what you’re likely to be used to. I know I sound like a diva saying this and if I was reading, I’d properly be thinking, “oh, suck it up, how bad can it be?” but believe me, it’s bad.

The best way to describe them is as pits in the ground, which you squat over to do your business, surrounded by a metal shelter. As flushing toilet paper is not allowed throughout Peru, bins are usually provided to dispose your paper into once used. However, on the Inca Trail, these bins are non-existent so used toilet paper is often just left around or next to the pits, leading to a pretty pungent smell when you enter the toilets. With this in mind, make sure you’re always wearing your hiking boots when going to the toilet as you have no idea what you’ll be stepping in, and breathe in before you enter! You won’t be inclined to hang about in there for long.

As toilet roll isn’t provided, make sure you bring plenty of your own and that it stays dry in your backpack. I’d also recommend taking hand sanitiser as there isn’t always somewhere to wash your hands, as well as a headlamp as - unstylish as it looks - there’s no lighting in the toilets, so the moment the sun starts to set, you’re suddenly in a whole lot of darkness. In general, we tended to try to go in pairs or groups as the toilets rarely have a lock, and moral support was always a blessing. You’ll be getting to know these folk on your tour better than you ever imagined!

Talking of moral support - girls, if you can, try to make sure you’re not doing the Inca Trail during your time of the month. With everything I’ve explained above, I’m sure you’ll understand that compounding this with being on your period is not ideal. ‘Nough said.

Alternatively, I wouldn’t blame you if you preferred to just go in a bush. Admittedly this is a lot easier for men, but as I say, you’ll all be getting to know each other more intimately than you would’ve perhaps liked anyway, so just embrace it!

Llactapata, Peru © Katy Mason

The Sherpas Are Amazing

Now back onto some of the most positive aspects of the trek! One of the greatest things about the Inca Trail (after the stunning scenery and awe-inspiring historical sights, of course) is how well it’s organised.

If you’ve booked to do the trek as part of an organised tour, the likelihood is that they will have arranged for the majority of your camping gear and belongings to be carried by local porters or sherpas. These are absolutely incredible, superhuman men and women who run ahead (yes, they run the Inca Trail on a daily basis - I told you they were amazing!) with all of your stuff strapped to their backs, and set up the camps so they’re all ready for you when you arrive hours later. As you can imagine, they’re an absolute God-send as the last thing you’ll feel like doing once you’ve hiked for 8 hours is set up a tent.

The majority of your belongings can be left in Cusco, which can be arranged either with your tour provider or the accommodation you’ve been staying with. You’ll then be given a bag (usually about 6L) in which to put all of your overnight gear, including your tent, sleeping bag, foam mattress, toiletries etc. Most tour providers will arrange your tent, but you may need to provide your own sleeping bag (depending on which tour company you use) and any other sleeping equipment (mattress, ground mat, pillow etc.) you’d like. Just bear in mind that it’ll all need to fit into the bag you give the porters.

Any other equipment that you’ll need during the day can be put into the backpack that you carry. For this, I’d recommend a large water bottle, toilet roll, a torch or headlight, camera and any medication. Try to travel as light as you can!

The sherpas also provide all of your food throughout the trek. Though your appetite is likely to be surprisingly low due to the altitude, there’ll be no shortage of hot food at breakfast, lunch and dinner which - considering you’re in the middle of a mountain range - is amazing.

Inca Trail, Peru © Katy Mason

Going Down Is Often Harder Than Going Up

I realise as I wrote that heading that it sounds like the lead-in to a dirty joke, but whilst you get your mind out of the gutter, I’ll explain a bit better…

I, like many others I’m sure, assumed that the toughest parts of the Inca Trail would be the steep hikes uphill. I also thought a lot of it would be a steady incline upwards towards Machu Picchu, but in actual fact, as the trek is through the valley, it’s a regular mixture of both steep up and downward terrains. Whilst the uphill hiking is hard too, don’t underestimate the strength and mental focus is takes to trek downhill.

The route itself is mainly made up of paved stone on a mixture of flats, slopes and steps and each of the first 3 days you’ll tend to cover between 12 - 16km. This takes most groups between 8 - 9 hours, with a lunch break included. Whilst going up has its own challenges, for me the repetitive motion of going downwards (particularly on the steps) played havoc with my knees as it’s not a motion I was used to on a day-to-day basis. With uneven terrain, cliff edges, valleys and varying weather conditions to contend with, it also takes a fair bit of mental energy to concentrate on where you’re placing your feet each time. I’d certainly recommend anyone training for the trek to prep as much for climbing downwards as you do hiking upwards. Hiking poles are also available for hire and are very useful for those who feel they’d benefit for some support going both up and down.

Dead Woman's Pass, Peru © Katy Mason

Layers Are Your Friend

Whilst temperatures tend to be fairly moderate throughout the year in Peru, you’re likely to experience a wide variety of unpredictable weather conditions on the Inca Trail due to the changing altitudes and landscapes, so it’s best to layer up.

There are relatively early starts on each day of the trek (with the earliest on the final day so you can reach the Sun Gate for sunrise) and the mornings can be very misty and cold and even in the so-called ‘dry’ months of May - September, there’s a high chance you’ll experience some rain up in the mountains. For us, we had a clear, sunny day for the first day of the hike, but then it became very overcast and rainy for the second day when the altitude dramatically increased.

With this in mind, plan for all eventualities and wear removable layers, which can all fit into your daypack if needed. I recommend sun cream, tank tops and a hat for the hot conditions, with a long-sleeved top, hoodie and waterproof coat on hand for when the weather turns. The temperature also significantly drops at night time, so take plenty of warm socks and sleeping clothes.

Sayacmarca, Peru © Katy Mason

It’s Always Good To Be Prepared

As mentioned, there isn’t much light at all once the sun goes down and likelihood is as soon as you’ve finished eating dinner, you’ll want to just crash - and it’ll only be about 8pm! However, it’s always nice to do something to relax, whether that’s playing cards with your fellow hikers or reading a book, particularly in this age where we’re so used to having any form of entertainment constantly available, so do take something with you to wile away the hours.

Although it seems obvious, it’s also worth pointing out that there isn’t electricity or Wi-fi along the trail, so I’d also recommend making sure all of your technology (phones, kindles, cameras) are fully charged and only turned on or used when necessary. Depending on how long your phone / camera battery tends to last, it’s a good idea to bring spares and / or a portable charger. You don’t want to get all the way to Machu Picchu and not be able to take those all-important photos as you’ve run out of battery!

Despite not needing to pay for anything en route, I would also suggest taking some money as tips for the sherpas at the end. Remember those superhumans I told you about? They’ll have earnt their tip by the end and you’ll be so hugely grateful to them.

Machu Picchu, Peru © Katy Mason

It’s As Much To Do With Mental As Physical Strength

My final point here is basically that you can do it! It is tough and extremely hard work, but it’s as much to do with staying positive in the face of unpredictable weather, difficult terrain and challenging altitudes as it is any levels of fitness.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I cried on the third and final days - not due to physical pain as much as emotional exhaustion. But if you can power through that, keep your head up and continue putting one foot in front of the other, there is the most amazing reward at the end and you will have experienced something that very few are lucky enough to do.

It’s a massive achievement and as I say, one I’m still incredibly proud of - so book that tour and seize the day! You won’t regret it!

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