Hiking the Inca Trail
The best time to visit the Inca Trail is the dry season (May to September). The Inca Trail is notoriously dangerous during the wet season, and the trail is closed in February due to inclement weather. While this period will also be peak season for the trek and Machu Picchu, the limited number of trekkers allowed on the trail each day means that encountering other hikers along the trail was relatively rare, save for at fixed campsites.
Since 2001, in order to ensure preservation of the Inca Trail, the Peruvian government has established a quota system on how many travellers can embark on the trail on a given day. These permits are usually reserved months in advance, and are only available to authorised trek organisers; I would suggest making the reservation for the Inca Trail about six months before your travel date. Ensure that you are free during this time period, and if you wish to hike the Inca Trail, plan the remainder of your trip around the trek.
It is important to choose your tour organiser diligently. While booking, check online reviews and ask questions regarding hiking logistics. Not all organisers offer treks beginning every day; ensure that they have the starting date you have planned. Once you have chosen your tour organiser, you will have to decide both the actual trek and the type of service provided. There are numerous Inca Trail options ranging from two to seven days, which also vary in trek difficulty. Choose the itinerary which is best suited to your fitness levels, allocated time, and interests. The other choice is whether or not you’d like to join a group or private trek. A group trek will pool you with other travellers in groups of 12-16. However, the itinerary will often be less flexible, and progress will largely be determined by group members. A private trek, on the other hand, will provide more flexibility but will inevitably be more expensive.
A four-day, three-night classic Inca Trail trek, including food and accommodation as well as the entrance fee to the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, and a return train ticket to Cuzco, costs about 700 USD. You will be expected to pay in full prior to the start of the trek. Tips at the end of the trek for the staff, including porters, cooks, and tour guides, are expected.
While the trek is only 43 km, the equivalent distance to a marathon, undulations of 1000 metres at a time along the trek, combined with the difficulties of physical exertion at high altitude, mean that the entire trek takes three days to complete. The trek itself takes place mostly at high altitudes; at its highest point, the trail reaches 4200 m above sea level. The majority of the first two days is spent ascending; following that, the trail descends to Machu Picchu at 2430 m. To prevent symptoms of altitude sickness during the physically tolling trek, you should acclimatise prior to your trek. It is a difficult hike, but anyone with decent physical fitness should be able to complete it. Go at your own pace; even if you are the slowest member of the group, there will be a guide at the back to make sure you are taken care of.
Packing for a multi-day trek is always difficult, but some essentials can be rented in Cuzco and picked up before your trek, including hiking boots, sunscreen, and a rain poncho. Hiking poles and inflatable mattresses are optional but can increase comfort and reduce injury. The tour groups usually provide sleeping bags for an additional cost, but check that this is the case before booking.
The below itinerary details the route taken on a classic four-day Inca Trail Trek with Enigma Tours (http://www.enigmaperu.com/en/program/971/classic-inca-trail-to-machupicchu). While more expensive in comparison with other tour agencies, we did not regret paying extra to secure a high-quality experience. Enigma Tours happily catered for our various food needs, and provided a wake-up coffee, afternoon tea and snacks every day on the trek. Our campsites were often situated at the most scenic viewpoints. Our tour guides, Jamie and Marco, were encouraging and in high spirits throughout the trek, and were enthusiastic about Incan archaeology and history.
For the three nights on the Inca Trail, we stayed in relatively comfortable and spacious two-person tents. Nonetheless, be sure to either bring or rent warm sleeping bags, as the tents provide little insulation at night. Because you will otherwise be sleeping on uncomfortable areas, consider renting Thermarests, inflatable mattresses which provide sufficient cushioning to prevent back pain. Our campsites were very well chosen, as they would often be situated at the most scenic viewpoints. Enigma Tours were also able to provide a very basic portable toilet.
The food throughout our trek was excellent, and Enigma Tours were happy to cater for those who had special dietary requirements. It was a minor miracle how the chef was able to conjure up wonderful dishes over nothing more than an open fire, and at 3000 m no less. It is often recommended to increase caloric intake during periods of physical exertion at high altitudes, and Enigma Tours certainly provided meals containing ample carbohydrates and protein for the trek. The tour agency also provided a wake-up coffee or tea, as well as snacks along the trek and an afternoon tea once we had reached the campsite.
There are numerous other trails of similar duration and difficulty offered by local tours if you are unable to hike the Inca Trail. These include the Lares Valley trek from the Sacred Valley, which is at lower altitude and easier; the Salkantay trek, which takes five days, is higher, and somewhat more demanding; or the seven-day Choquequirao trek, which takes you to Choquequirao, one of the largest and best preserved Incan ruins. The advantage of these alternatives is that booking months in advance of the trekking date is not required.