It’s best to be well prepared when you head off on one of the world’s most iconic but demanding walks so here are eight tips to get you there and back.
It’s a surprisingly difficult walk
About a day and a half of the four days were, for me, as tough as walking the Kokoda Trail. The time you’ve got to complete the trip in, combined with the need to pre-book campsites and the sheer number of trekkers, means the length of trail walked each day will differ from group to group.
We had distances to complete over the four days of 13km, 16km, 8km and 5km. The last day is always the shortest as they aim to get you to Machu Picchu just on sunrise. There are three major peaks to scale and on day two we did two ascents/descents from about 600m to over 4000m. That partly explained why, at 58, I seemed to be the oldest trekker on the trail. Different companies structure the daily lengths differently, but if you see one suggesting 18km on day three, beware… That means three big ascents/descents in one day, not spread over two as we did.
The Trail is very busy
Don’t expect a wilderness walk. It’s beautiful and spectacular, but there are 400 walkers on the trail at any one time. While it’s not over-crowded, you’ve always got other trekkers in sight… and sometimes overtaking you. The campsites are well laid out but you’ll be sharing them, and the toilets, with several groups.
It’s so popular that the Peruvian Government tightly regulates the numbers of trekkers by means of a permit system. Both local and international operators bid for permits and you can only undertake the walk with one of these companies. This means booking your trip at least six months in advance. Your permit and passport are checked at the beginning of the trail and then a couple of times along the way.
Altitude sickness is real
My wife and I were a bit blasé about altitude sickness warnings, having done a few treks at close to 3000m with no twinges. There’s something about 4000m-plus though, as we discovered. Our company suggested we get to Cusco – at 3310m – at least 36 hours before the trek started to acclimatise. Despite being sceptical, we did… thankfully. We felt as crook as dogs for a day and a bit, despite drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves.
Lethargy, a bit of nausea and a mild headache are the consistent symptoms. There is a local medication available that some swear by – Sorojchi Pills. By the time we started walking we felt OK, other than having a real sense of not enough oxygen getting to the leg muscles on the steep climbs.
Check joining instructions carefully
Because the Inca Trail is heavily regulated by the government, the joining instructions provided by companies do have to reflect the “official” position on what can be taken on the walk. It sounds like you definitely need to carry your own refillable water bottles, water purification tablets and all your track snacks.
In reality, for the first couple of days there are little stalls selling drinks and snacks – even beer. Also instructions are also a bit vague on exactly how cold it might be, what can be rented locally (good sleeping bags and trekking poles) or bought cheaply (rain ponchos).
Double check arrangements
Don’t necessarily assume your agent or the Australian rep for your trekking company has done everything you might think they have. Our scheduled pick up from Cusco airport just wasn’t there and there was no one in the local office to contact.
Luckily we met local budding tourist entrepreneur Alfi at the airport and he drove us to our hotel for a very reasonable 20 soles – about $8. We subsequently “contracted” him to take us on an all-day tour of the Sacred Valley the following day in his venerable Corolla, a great alternative to joining an organised tour. Check your level of accommodation that has been arranged in Cusco. Ours was clean and very friendly, if a touch rustic.
Take suggested weight limits seriously
Your joining instructions will suggest that you limit your day pack weight to four to five kilograms and that you will need to put everything else you need into a duffel bag for a porter to carry. Our “duffel bag limit” was 6kg each, and they’re absolutely scrupulous about you not exceeding this. Porters are only allowed to carry 25kg, so your duffel gets weighed at your hotel and then each porter’s total load gets weighed at a government checking station. Pack accordingly. Hotels in Peru are very happy to store your excess luggage and belongings while you’re off adventuring.
Take the right gear
Don’t skimp on good walking boots. Even when it’s dry – and it’s often not – you need ankle support and non-slip treads not normally associated with joggers. Consider taking lightweight thermal underwear for the challenging chilly nights in your sleeping bag, as temperatures can drop below zero. While the quality of the tents and camping gear supplied is generally very high, think about packing a 2/3 length lightweight self-inflating air mattress and inflatable pillow just to make the nights that bit more comfortable. Don’t forget sunblock and insect repellent.
Keep it clean
The campsites are well laid out and flat. The toilet facilities are of a reasonable standard but because so many trekkers use them, keeping them clean is obviously a challenge not always that well met.Take your own toilet paper, ‘wet-one’ type wipes and anti-bacterial hand cleaner. There are no showers available at all for the first couple of nights, but we were promised hot pay showers on the last. We paid. The shower water was icy-cold snow melt.