“You’ll hike for three days and then the next morning, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. It’s an incredible view, so you need to do it!” I would wager a guess that anyone who has “hiking the Inca Trail” on their to-do list has heard someone summarize the trip in this way. That’s what I had heard before I left. I read several books and researched blogs, but only one of them gave a glimpse into the challenge that is the hike to Machu Picchu. Thank goodness I read that blog post (which I, unfortunately, didn’t save!) to prepare myself that it wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
Because I was surprised, I wanted to share those things that I think every Inca Trail adventurer should know before going.
1. You are going to Be dirty
For anyone who has been camping for multiple days in a row, this may seem obvious. I knew I wasn’t going to have a shower, but nothing could prepare me for how gross I was going to feel after strenuous hiking for three days. That’s why a hat is important and the porters bringing water to wash is a godsend. Not sure what you can do to prep for this…
2. Altitude can affect you even if you run
I knew altitude sickness was a possibility. When we met our group in Lima, our guide gave us a suggestion for a medication to help with altitude sickness. We got this at the drug store and took it just in case. The last thing we wanted was to ruin our trip because we were sick from this!
Before we left, I wasn’t worried because I had been to Tibet (around 12,000 feet). I was one of the only people in my group who didn’t feel ill – winded yes, but not ill. Well, that’s what happened this time, but with a lot more physical activity. I thought I was in better shape and had done a good job training for the Dopey Challenge. Needless to say, it didn’t help. I was still incredibly winded, which leads me to #3.
3. Dead Woman’s Pass is 13,828 feet high
That’s very high and it is not the same as hiking the same distance at a lower altitude. It is not a stroll in the park; it is challenging and you need to go slowly. I was one of the last in my group to finish, but our guide said we still made good time. It took us about 6 hours to make it up! The advantage is you have an incredible view from the top and then it really is “all downhill from there!” The better your endurance, the easier this should be, so just make sure you are exercising a lot before your hike.
4. You Won’t lose weight because the food is so good
When I pictured this trip, I thought this would be a great, healthy trip and that I would lose weight because of all of the activity. I also thought the food would be simple, but instead, we have gourmet camping food that would have been impressive if it was made in a proper kitchen. I was also hungry from all the walking, but I always left the table wishing I hadn’t eaten so much!
5. sleeping in a tent is hard
My assumption is that many Incan Trail hikers are not used to camping. I don’t think many people in our group camped regularly, so it was hard for most people to sleep in a tent. Personally, I didn’t sleep a wink. I didn’t think I would have a problem with this, but I did. No idea why. I suggest bringing Benadryl or something. I took this after our hike over Dead Woman’s Pass, and it was critical to my getting some sleep that night.
6. You can’t pack very much
You see people posting really cute pictures of themselves at the Sun Gate and along the trail. I have absolutely no idea how they do this. Maybe different tour companies have different packing limits, but porters have to carry all of the gear, so I can’t imagine there isn’t some type of restriction. Maybe some people are just normal and naturally cute. I give them kudos but there is no way I would be able to do that. I packed a variety of my long-sleeved running shirts and hiking pants. It really is all you need, and I don’t think anyone was judging us for our appearance! If they were, I really didn’t care.
I hope these tips are helpful for your trip to Machu Picchu! I hope it gives a little advice in resetting your expectations for the trip to make it even better.
The fact that I am writing a post about the food on our Inca Trail hike should be proof of how impressed I was! I’m not someone who camps, but I expected our food to be sandwiches, granola bars, smores, hot dogs, or something. In fact, I called G Adventures before the trip because I am a vegetarian, and I wanted to make sure they had options for me to eat. The nice girl who answered the phone assured me I would have more than enough options…
Most of this post will be pictures since I took pictures of almost every meal we had along the way!
We had lunch at a stop about halfway between the trail start and our first campsite. When we arrived, the porters had drinks for us while they finished preparing the three-course meal.
Our team had a good first day and were excited to get to our campsite. We always had tea time before dinner which consisted of crackers, butter, jam, and popcorn. The popcorn was always the star of the show. They had a variety of teas (green, black, orange), hot chocolate, and, of course, had coca leaves to make coca tea.
We woke early to get breakfast to prepare us for our long, grueling hike ahead. It was so much food! We all complained about how full we were, but once we realized how much energy we needed to complete the hike, I think we all appreciated the large breakfast.
We finished our hike before lunch, which is a good thing because there is no way I would have been able to eat on the way! By the time we had lunch, we were all insanely hungry!
Tea Time and Dinner
After we took naps, we reconvened for tea time and dinner. Even though we were still full from our large lunch, we ate it anyway. It was delicious. It was now time for bed.
This was probably the best meal, as it was a lot of food, but they made us a cake! I cannot understand how you can bake and ice a cake after carrying everything from our campsite, beating us to our lunch site, and doing all of that before we arrive. There are no words to express how impressed I was about this! What a surprise!
Tea Time and Dinner
I didn’t take a picture of my cheese sandwich on our way to Machu Picchu, but even that wasn’t bad! What I find most impressive was that the chefs made all of this food in a tent! I could barely make some of this in my fully-stocked kitchen, but they did it with items they had to lug from campsite to campsite.
Hands down, the food we had on our hike was the best food I had our entire time in Peru! I’m not sure if all tour companies have food this great, but I would say that is one reason to hike Machu Picchu with G Adventures.
Trekking to Machu Picchu is an adventure many people want to complete at some point in their lives. It was on my bucket list for a long time (can’t quite remember when I added it!), but it was more strenuous than I expected. Because so many people do it, I assumed it was easy, but as you’ll see, day 2 was a challenge for me!
My friend, Ursula, and I went with a travel company called G Adventures (full itinerary), and I can’t say enough good things about the trip. This company was recommended to us by several friends who traveled with them in the past. Communication prior to embarking could be better, but the actual hike surpassed my expectations. Packing is an important component to making any trip go well, and this hike is no exception. It is best to be prepared and pack light!
Day 1 – 2: Solo in Lima
Since this was our first visit to Peru, we thought it was important to spend time exploring the capital city, Lima. To save on costs, we booked an Airbnb where we could walk to Miraflores, which from my reading, was a safe place that was popular with tourists. The Airbnb was very affordable – only $118 USD for two nights! It was a nice apartment just outside of Miraflores. The host was very nice and helpful.
To get around Lima we either walked or took an Uber. We would go somewhere with Wifi then order an Uber on our phone. Our Uber trips were usually $3 or less because of the exchange rate, and I read it was safer to use this than getting ripped off in a local taxi. One day, we took a bus tour to see more of the city. The tour was enjoyable, and I would recommend it. The roads were just too crazy for our comfort level, and since I had not heard many positive things about Lima, I didn’t feel comfortable exploring the city.
You can read more details about our Lima explorations [here].
Day 3: Lima to Cusco
We met up with our tour group in Lima and flew together to Cusco. We spent a day touring Cusco together. Cusco is a big city. I expected it to be a small town, but it is massive! I think I thought it was small because it doesn’t have an international airport. We learned that Cusco wants an international airport, but the government will only let Lima have international flights.
After visiting both cities, I understand their concern. Cusco is much better than Lima, so if they had an airport, no one would visit Lima. Since that is the capital, they need people to visit there. I would suggest forgoing Lima if they ever have a flight to Cusco. Some people in our group booked a flight straight through Lima, which is another option. We changed our plans after the hike and stayed in Cusco because we enjoyed it more than Lima.
We stayed at Hotel Prisma and left most of our luggage here since we could only bring a light load on the hike. It’s really important that you pack correctly. Our tour company gave us a bag to use that the porters would carry. Everything else had to stay in Cusco!
Day 4: Sacred Valley & Ollantaytambo
The next day, we took a [tour of the Sacred Valley] and stayed overnight in Ollantaytambo. I loved Ollantaytambo. It’s an outpost town filled with adventurers going to or coming from the Inca Trail. A few of us hiked to Incan storehouses, and then we met our group at a pub before going to dinner. Just like in Lima, service at a restaurant is very, very slow. It took well over an hour to get our food. For an American, this is very annoying because we are used to servers trying to get you in and out. For some reason, I was always the very last person to get my food. Everyone was done eating before I got my dinner!
We stayed at a hotel called Hotel Inka Paradise, which was really nice and had a beautiful garden in the middle courtyard.
Day 5: Inca Trail – day 1
We took a 45-minute bus ride early in the morning to the start of the trail. We left our Scared Valley souvenirs at the hotel since we could only fill a small bag of 8 kg for the porters to carry. I had a daypack with important things and my raincoat. I was so incredibly excited! A few years ago, I recently started going “hiking” which I classify as an outdoor walk not in a neighborhood. I really enjoy doing that, but this would be real hiking! I was so excited!
We hiked for about 5 – 6 hours on the first day to our first campsite (I think about 9 miles). We stopped at a nice spot for a formal lunch that the chefs prepared for us. The meals were not at all what I would have expected. I would have thought they would give us a sandwich or a protein bar. Nope, it was a full out meal with three courses!
The Day 1 hike is very simple. There are no dramatic inclines or anything. It starts in a very desert-like landscape. It is very dusty, and there were lots of nats. You’re in the Andes, so you see the mountains all around you, as we walked along the river in the valley. There was a beautiful snowcapped mountain behind us the whole time.
Once we made it to our campsite, it was green and lush. We actually camped on someone’s farm, so there were all types of farm animals: chickens, dogs, horses, donkeys, and more. It was an idyllic place to stay. The porters had our tents set up when we arrived, so we went inside to change, and they brought us hot water to rinse off and coca tea. It was amazing!
After we changed, we had all of our team introduce themselves – both the travelers and the porters. It was really interesting to hear about where they were from. This is a very hard job, but it pays well compared to other things in the area. They do this week-in and week-out. They are away from their families, and some of them do this for years! I can’t say enough great things about these men and what they did to make our journey wonderful.
After our picture, it was time for tea. We had tea time after each day’s hike, and then we had dinner. This was a fun time to engage and get to know our fellow travelers. I was the only American, so it was really neat to hear from the others on the trip and their perspective and thoughts! We had an amazing group. After a wonderful dinner we retired to bed.
Day 6: Inca Trail – Day 2
This was the first time I slept in a tent since I was a child, and to say it went poorly is an understatement. I didn’t sleep at all! This did not set me up well for the hardest day – the hike to Warmiwañusca (or Dead Woman’s Pass). Essentially, we started our hike early around 6 am after a delicious and hearty breakfast. The hike started through the beautiful jungle with lots of greenery and flowing water as we ascended the highest peak of the excursion.
We hiked up, and up, and up. My friend, Ursula, did a wonderful job! She was speedy, though she said it was challenging. I was surprised by how difficult it was for me. Luckily, one of my new Canadian friends was moving at my pace, so we struggled together. At times, I had a very hard time catching my breath! I was really surprised since my Dopey training was going very well at that point. Luckily, our guide, Victor had “llama pee” with him to help. Essentially, this is a perfume that has lemongrass and other fragrances. You pour some on your hands, rub them together, clap your hands twice, put your hands over our nose and mouth, and then breathe in deeply. It helps to clear your nose and allows you to breathe better.
Getting to the top was a real struggle. We would take five steps then stop to break. Towards the top, I put some music on my phone so Tea and I could dance our way to the top. It’s the only time on the trip I listened to anything on my phone, but it was required! I felt rude, but I don’t think I would have made it without some country party songs. But we did it – we made it to the top which was 13,769 feet! That was the hardest part, but it was done!
We had a two-hour hike down, which was great. It wasn’t difficult at all. Around 2 pm, we found our campsite and were welcomed with cheers from our porter team. They let us change, gave us hot water, and then we had lunch. We had the rest of the afternoon to relax before tea time. I took a little bit of a nap and wrote in my journal where I wrote “Wow. We just finished Dead Woman’s Pass, and I’m about to become a dead woman!” Tea and dinner were nice (as usual), but then I took a Benedryl to help me sleep and went back to the tent for bed.
Day 7: Inca Tail – DAy 3
That Benedryl was a huge help and allowed me to sleep a little bit. We woke for breakfast (quiche) and then set out for what our guide said would be a beautiful day. He was quite right! Day 3 was my favorite day of our journey. Throughout the other days, we saw Inca sites (a lot of them!) in the distance, but we didn’t stop at them. This day, we stopped at several and saw many more. It’s amazing how vast the Incan empire was since I thought it was mostly just Machu Picchu before I arrived. Day 3 was the longest hike, but it didn’t have the altitude challenge Day 2 had. We hiked for about 9 hours and covered over 9 miles.
The views were just spectacular and we had a lot of pictures! At midday, we stopped for lunch and had a [feast]! On top of the feast, the chefs prepared a cake for us that they made in the tent. Then we kept on hiking where we stopped at another beautiful ruin with an amazing view of the valley.
Our campsite was very busy, as lots of groups camp in the area. We had a more simple dinner, decided we would have cheese sandwiches for breakfast so we could have more sleep, and then went to bed. It would be an even earlier morning…
Day 8: Arrival at Machu Picchu
We had to wake up at 3 am so the porters could pack up everything and move quickly to get the first train home. The trail doesn’t open until 5 or 5:30, so we had to wait for this. All of the groups lined up – I thought we were moving quickly, but it turns out there were lots of groups up even before we were! We were all hoping to get to the Sun Gate at sunrise!
It was dark for most of the hike, so you had to be careful about where you stepped and make sure you didn’t get to close to the edge. There are no railings on the trail – it’s every man for himself, and if you fall, that could be a very bad end. We hiked between 2-3 hours (about 3 miles) through the beautiful jungle. We had one spot that was basically climbing straight up a rock, but otherwise, it was an easy hike. Alas, we finally made it!
It was very cloudy when we got to the Sun Gate, and I was sad. We waited for the rest of our group to get there and was patient. At last, the clouds parted and we could see Machu Picchu in the distance. We made it! Another life goal was completed! We were tired and smelly, but it didn’t matter.
We took a lot of pictures and took our time getting down the mountain to the actual site. Once we got there, it was a madhouse! Since there is a train directly to Machu Picchu, many people come to the ruins through the town instead of on the trail. It is very touristy when you get there, so there was a cafe with food and, most importantly, coffee. All I wanted was a cappuccino, and I got it! It was glorious. I was smelly, but at least I had some caffeine.
There are lots of stray dogs at Machu Picchu, and we saw many dogs on the Inca Trail. As a dog lover, I wanted to be friends with them and take them home. Victor explained to us that tourists feed the dogs, so the dogs will follow them to Machu Picchu, and then they can’t get home. This is really bad because if they make their way into town, they will be killed since there are so many strays and not enough homes for them. It’s awful. He warned us at the beginning of the trip – do not feed the dogs. For anyone visiting, please make sure not to feed them; make sure they stay near their home.
Once we got ourselves together, we met with Victor and he gave us a tour of Machu Picchu. There are many theories of what Machu Picchu was – a religious site, a retreat for the Incan Emperor, and other theories. Before coming, I read a few books that said there is really no way of knowing what this place was, but it is important in the system because of its location and because the Spanish never found it. Victor believes that it is a vacation retreat for the emperor.
Once we saw everything, we endured the crowds and made our way to a bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes, the neighboring town. This was the scariest bus ride of my life! You go down a curvy mountain on a narrow road with no guardrails. The Peruvians don’t have the same safety standards as America, so all I could do was pray for our safe arrival.
Thankfully, we made it down okay and went to a restaurant for a sitdown dinner and to say goodbye to our guides. The town was very lively – full of tourist and tourist attractions. They had a lot of restaurants, a large market, and the train station to take you back to Ollantaytambo.
The train was incredibly comfortable and had amazing views of the river! It was a 2-3 hour train ride. We got off the train and followed Victor through a busy area to our bus. The bus took us to our original hotel (Inka Paradise) to get our souvenirs. We loaded up quickly for the two-hour trip back to Cusco. We survived, and we made it! Most importantly, our hotel was comfortable and had showers waiting for us!
Once I finished the most amazing shower of my life, I got dressed and met up with several of our groupmates to go out for dinner and hanging out in Cusco to say goodbye. Several people were flying home the next morning, so we probably wouldn’t get to see each other again. In typical Peruvian fashion, it took FORVER to get our food. Four others and I finally left around 10 pm because we decided to embark on another very early morning excursion.
Day 9: Rainbow Mountain and Recovery
At 3 am the next morning, I went with five other group members to Rainbow Mountain. We took a four-hour bus ride to the start and then began our hike to see this amazing view.
We arrived back in Cusco in the early afternoon exhausted! I arrived back at the room to see Ursula lounging in bed reading. She looked comfortable and content. She said she had a great day visiting the markets and got a fantastic massage for under $30. There are massage parlors on every corner in Cusco (you need it after all of that hiking!), but with all of the choices, how do you know which ones are good and which ones may be a little seedy? Ursula found Relaxing Time Massage on Trip Advisor from its good reviews. I needed to know the details, so she walked me to the “spa,” and I was able to get a massage on the spot. This was absolutely the best massage I’ve ever had.
In the States, you make a reservation for a massage by type and time. You can have a deep tissue massage for 60 minutes or something – not in Cusco! It is possible it is because I can’t speak Spanish, but I said I wanted a massage and a girl took me to the private room.
I think I was there for almost 2 hours, and she worked out every knot in my body. It was absolutely amazing! The massage was 80PEN which is about $20 USD. I only had 100PEN cash, so I gave the full amount to include a tip since she did such a good job. I wish I had more because it was only $5 USD. What happened next topped that experience since tipping isn’t common in Peru. The masseuse was called out so I could give her the tip and she started crying. I wished so badly I had more cash because I don’t know how this impacted her life. It was very little to me, yet it meant so much to her. I will never forget that.
Ursula and I met up with our new friends Sarah and Jen for our last dinner in Cusco. We had dinner at Rucula, a fancy restaurant with vegetarian options. It again had wonderful, well-deserved reviews on Trip Advisor. After enjoying some girl time, it was time to head back and get a well-deserved good night’s sleep.
Day 10: Sightseeing in Cusco
On our final day in town, Ursula and I woke up naturally before heading downstairs for breakfast. We then walked around the city to take pictures, see the architecture, and visit the markets. I’m not a fan of markets, but we tried to find Pisco as souvenirs but then decided we probably wouldn’t drink it. Cusco is a lively, (I think) safe city. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or nervous like I did in Lima. Cusco has a lot of tourists, but it is also a big city where Peruvians live. We saw children going to and from school, people going to work, and just living their lives in general.
Around midday, we stopped at a coffee shop to people watch and sat in the square. Randomly, we ended up seeing a parade where people were dancing and playing instruments. We don’t know what it was for, but it was a really neat thing to see. After an okay lunch, we got our bags and ordered an Uber to the airport. It was time to go home.
We had a long time to wait in Cusco for our flight to Lima, and once we got to Lima, we couldn’t check our bags for our flights home. We sat at a food court until the 3-hour time window started. I had a flight from Lima to Toronto. It was interesting because I went through US customs in Toronto and then flew back to Charlotte.
This was an amazing experience, and I am so happy I had the opportunity to take this adventure. While I won’t plan to return anytime soon, it was a wonderful experience. I would recommend the Inca Trail to anyone who enjoys hard, physical challenges. If you don’t enjoy or are not in somewhat decent physical shape, you can always take the bus to Machu Picchu, if you are passionate about visiting it. Personally, I think the three-day hike is what made the arrival so magical, so I think arriving via the bus wouldn’t be as exciting.
Machu Picchu is not the type of destination where you can throw stuff in a bag and buy something you forget when you arrive. Instead of packing the morning of (my usual practice), I started a packing list when I booked the trip about 6 months before we left. I read a number of blogs, travel sites, and G Adventures‘s suggested packing list for the Machu Picchu hike.
Still, somehow, it wasn’t until my friend pointed it out a week before, that I realize that it would be cold! Yes, I knew the southern hemisphere had winter during our summer, but for some reason, it didn’t click with me that it would be cold. We were going to be in the Andes Mountains at high altitude; Machu Picchu is not at the beach! Somehow I thought the suggested winter hat and warm clothes were suggestions for a trip at a different time of the year. Who knows what’s wrong with me, but thank goodness for smart friends!
I wanted to put together a list of the items that I thought were important to pack (and the ones I didn’t see a lot of value to). Essentially, you have to pack for 3 trips: to Lima (if you plan to stay there), Cuzco (a city), and then the actual hike to Machu Picchu.
When I was reading lists, I thought I would need to pack a bag for the porters to carry. I bought a new duffle from REI specifically for this purpose only to find out it wasn’t necessary. The tour company provides you a very small bag for your hiking items. It was much smaller than I expected, so I ended up not taking everything I originally planned – including my sleeping mat that I dragged all the way from the States.
The Must Brings You May Forget
Sunscreen. Thankfully, our group was very friendly so I was able to borrow some from fellow travelers. I would have been miserable! Even though it’s cold, you can still get sunburned because you are at a high elevation and there is little shade. I am 34 and still haven’t learned that lesson.
Bug spray. There were so many nats on days 1 and 2; it was annoying. There was also some type of mosquito that bit people. I am usually attacked by mosquitos, but I was lucky. Those who were bitten said they were extremely itchy and bug spay helped keep them away. A cream or Benedryl would also be helpful.
Medication. I packed Benedryl, Alieve, Immodium, and nausea medicine. I’m glad I packed all of them. I used the Benedryl to sleep the second night, but it would have a lot of uses. We also took medication for altitude sickness in Lima to prep for our time in Cusco since it was suggested by our travel guide.
A lightweight water bottle (at least 1 liter). I brought my Artic bottle with me for the overall trip because I take it everywhere. I was nervous about bringing it on the hike because it is too small to fit on the side of my backpack. Since I didn’t want to lose it or add that much additional weight, I bought two plastic water bottles at the market before we left and used those as refillable bottles. It worked okay, but I would have rather had a real water bottle. Bring one from home but make sure it is light (plastic) and seals well.
A hat. I was literally sitting in the car ready to leave for the airport when I went back inside and grabbed a ballcap. I am so glad I made that decision. This was a lifesaver for me because it was sunny and helped block the sun from my face. It was also helpful to wear a hat when you didn’t get to shower for 4 days…
Sunglasses. These were not only helpful for the sun, but also because the beginning of the trail is very dusty. Your sunglasses will block getting dust in your eyes.
First Aid Kit. I travel with this most of the time, but I was surprised that many people didn’t have one. You never know when you’ll need to use it, and I used it for one of my fellow travelers.
When in Doubt, Bring These…
Hiking Poles. On most lists, it said there were optional and my friend hiked without them, but there is no way I would have made it to Machu Picchu without my hiking poles. I had never used them before and thought they were kind of gimmicky. They are not. There is a purpose and you won’t regret them. A few people on the trip rented one pole and wished they would have gotten two. If you’re an experienced hiker and no you can do without, then don’t. But if you’re a novice like me, I think they are incredibly handy.
Hiking Pants. I personally didn’t know there was such a thing until my friend mentioned she bought some the night before we left. I made a last-minute trip to REI right before closing and picked up a pair because I was so nervous. Originally, I was going to wear my workout pants. These probably would have been fine, but I am so glad I had my hiking pants. It was easier to brush off dirt and (I felt) were cleaner than my workout pants would have been after 4 days. I overpacked on pants, so I ended up only bringing my hiking pants all four days and my pajama bottoms. This actually served me well, even though I packed two extra pairs of pants. That being said, it’s always good to wear your clothes before a trip like this. If I did that, I would have learned…
Belt. You need a belt (or at least I did). My pants stretched out a lot, so it left me constantly pulling up my pants which was difficult to do hiking and using my hiking poles. Luckily, my friend had one that she let me use, but that is the last time I forget one.
At least 3-4 sports bras. I didn’t bring enough and had to rotate between 2. Unfortunately, it is hard to dry out your clothes because it is cold and damp at camp. I would take the extra space and pack extra to help you feel cleaner.
Necessities that are on Your List
Daypack or on Your person
Passport and Important Documents
Journal (I actually used the one on my iPhone)
Headlamp / flashlight
Snacks – they give you snacks when you start, but I also bought some gummy candy in town and brought Nuun from home for electrolytes and caffeine.
Portable power pack to recharge your phone
Hat and gloves for cold weather
In Your Porter bag
Pajamas – 1 pair
Shirts (layers are a must!) – 4 base layers
Sweatshirt / zip-up
Short-sleeved shirt (depends on you as a person, but I never wore mine)
Helpful to have the quick-dry material. I brought 4 long-sleeve running shirts.
Pants – 1-2 pairs
Socks – 4 pairs. Since you have to pack conservatively to fit in the bag, bringing 4 pairs of socks allows you to hike the first day, change into your second pair when you get to camp and wear those same socks on the day 2 hike. Make sure these socks are hiking socks or a good-quality pair of running socks. A blister could make the trip very painful.