One of the most iconic treks on our planet, the Machu Picchu hike along the Inca Trail draws millions of travelers every year.
The ancient ruins, deep rainforest and perfectly sculptured stone continue to amaze and delight visitors from all over the world.
Machu Picchu Hike: Everything You Need to Know
For myself, Machu Picchu was the highlight of my South American journey. Yes it’s busy, and yes, it feels like a tourist trap, but there is still no escaping the magic that one feels when standing among the ancient stones. This feeling is only enhanced by trekking up the original pilgrimage route to reach the site, the route we now call the Inca Trail.
To help you prepare for your perfect Inca Trail experience, I have written my top 8 tips to help you on your Machu Picchu hike.
1. Best time to hike Machu Picchu
In the Peruvian Andes you generally get two seasons. From April till October is considered the dry season and November through to March is considered the wet season (although warmer).
Whilst May to September is considered the best time to trek because of the dry days, I would not necessarily agree. As I mentioned above, tourists literally flock to Machu Picchu during the dry season and this can be somewhat off-putting.
Yes, the wet season is wet, but if you can get past that, then you’ll have a far more tranquil experience hiking to Machu Picchu than you would during the peak season. My favorite time is late March when the days are getting drier and the place isn't swarming with tourists – perfect!
Unless you enjoy getting soaked, I would avoid trekking in December, January and February (in fact, the trail closes in the latter month).
2. Book your Machu Picchu hike early
Book early, seriously. I really can’t stress this enough.
Whilst Machu Picchu allows thousands in a day, the Inca Trail does not. A strict amount of tourists are allowed on the trail to Machu Picchu each day. To make sure you get your ticket, you’re going to want to book 6 months in advance if you’re planning on trekking during the peak season.
Even if you plan on going during the wet season you’ll need to book at least 3 months in advance. The last time I trekked the trail I witnessed a Dutch couple in floods of tears because they hadn't booked in advance.
If worst comes to worst, you can always trek another route to Machu Picchu such as the Inca Jungle Trek or the Lares Trail. Only the Inca Trail requires you to book early.
3. Get training before y our trek
The classic Machu Picchu trek takes only 3 days. However, you’ll be trekking for nearly 7 hours each day which does take it out of you.
On top off this you need to cross Dead Woman's Pass, which stands at 4,215m (13,828 ft). I’m a fairly fit young chap, but that pass had me breathing so hard I had to stop several times.
No, you don’t need to be superman to complete the trek, but having a decent fitness level will increase your enjoyment that much more. I would advise doing as many day treks as you can in the months leading up to your trek to build up your cardio level.
4. Acclimatise properly to the elevation
Landing in Cusco I felt absolutely nothing. I took a taxi to my hostel, I had a nice dinner and I went to sleep.
The next morning however was another story.
I awoke with a splitting headache and stayed in bed for most of the day. The kind lady who ran the hostel made me some nice coco leaf tea, which apparently wards away altitude sickness. Although it didn't cure me, I did feel a little better.
If I was to go back I would have taken a bus down into the Sacred Valley, stayed in the beautiful town of Ollantaytambo, and acclimatised properly over a few days before tackling the Inca Trail.
5. Get the right gear
The temperature actually stays fairly level throughout the year, hanging around the 20 degree mark during the day and 4/5 degrees at night. If you’re trekking during the dry season I would still bring a lightweight poncho, and if you’re trekking during the wet season then it’s a must.
On top of this you need to avoid cotton clothing and bring trekking clothes that are made from a high-wicking material. I remember feeling constantly damp in the muggy atmosphere and was super relieved not to be wearing jeans or cotton shirts.
Make sure you bring a good fleece, a warm jacket and base layer for the cold nights and mornings.
6. Bring insect repellent
I made the serious mistake of not bringing insect repellent on my trek to Machu Picchu.
The flies on the trek are big, bad and annoying. The bites I obtained on the trek became itchy and quite painful and did not disappear for a few months! Make sure to get a reliable repellent brand that has a high Deet content – greater than 90% is ideal.
Chuck a fresh coating on twice a day and stay vigilant.
7. Get comfy at night
Having a good night’s sleep on the Inca Trail is a must.
Walking for 7 hours a day requires all your strength and you seriously don’t want a sleepless or uncomfortable night during the trail. I chose to bring my own warm sleeping bag, blow up pillow and Thermarest mat.
Having my own sleeping bag was a great feeling and the others in my group looked longingly at my Thermarest mat, which kept me nicely comfortable on the hard ground.
I can’t stress how important it is to choose the right sleeping gear to keep you comfortable, whether it’s an inflatable pad or a high-quality air mattress, one that’s small and light enough not to be too much of a burden on the trail.
Warning – you may get jealous onlookers.
8. Enjoy the Machu Picchu trail
It may sound obvious, but I saw so many people huffing and puffing and generally looking down at their feet as they walked.
Remember where you are, remember to stop and take in the views, and remember to enjoy the Machu Picchu hike.
Yes, you may get tired, yes, you may get wet and uncomfortable, but you will probably only do this amazing experience once – so make the most of it.
About the author: Mark Whitman is a high altitude adventure junkie. He has trekked some of the most epic trails in the world. He has extensive knowledge of the famous trekking trails in Nepal – Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit – and spent two months in Peru trekking all the Inca trails to Machu Picchu.
Mark’s favorite adventures to date are climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and climbing Island Peak in Nepal. Through his adventures Mark has written some of the most popular online guides to all these destinations, including Climb Kilimanjaro Guide, Machu Picchu Trek Guide. He’s also an expert contributor on outdoor sleep at TheSleepStudies.com.
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