Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is truly a bucket list experience. The Inca Trail has been on my shortlist for the past five years or so. Last May I finally did it, and it was even better than expected! When booking an Inca Trail trek, you want to pick a tour provider that will make sure you have a great experience, and Alpaca Expeditions did just that. Here’s everything you need to know about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and my review of Alpaca Expeditions Classic Inca Trail Trek.
Before the Inca Trail
When Is the Best Time to Hike the Inca Trail?
When deciding to hike the Inca Trail, the first thing you need to decide is what time of year to visit. While the Inca Trail is open every month except February, the best time to hike the Inca Trail is during the dry season which spans from May through October. However, May and October are the best times for the Inca Trail since it’s dry and warmer than June, July, and August. We did our trek in May and were able to hike in t-shirts at times. Even in the dry season, expect some rain. We got lucky and had only one afternoon of light showers.
During the high season, crowds on the trail should not be a concern since only 500 Inca Trail permits are available each day. If you want to experience Machu Picchu with fewer crowds and don’t mind the rain, November through January may be more suitable. Also, if you visit during these winter months, you likely won’t have to make your Inca Trail reservation as far in advance.
Why I Chose Alpaca Expeditions for the Inca Trail
If you want to hike the Inca Trail, you have no choice but to use a tour company since you are not allowed on the trail without one. You’ll find a wide array of tour sizes and lengths with varying prices. I found Alpaca Expeditions through another blog and decided to give them a shot. Things that set Alpaca Expeditions apart from other providers include:
- Straightforward booking process
- Porters included in the price
- A satellite phone on the Inca Trail in case of emergency
- Amazing food with a dedicated chef
- A hiking schedule that put us ahead of other tour groups each night
- An emphasis on treating employees right
I have nothing but good things to say about Alpaca Expeditions. I’ll explain more as I discuss the actual trek below. Here’s a link to the 4 day/3 night Classic Inca Trail trek.
Is the Inca Trail Hard?
The 4 day/3 night Inca Trail hike isn’t all that difficult. The trail does go up to almost 14,000 feet at Dead Woman’s Pass, but if you take it easy, this part really isn’t too bad. A good portion of the trail is flat, and aside from a few tough uphills on Day 2, it is not very challenging. I would recommend the Inca Trail for even beginner hikers. If you have bad knees, you may struggle on the Inca Trail since there is a good amount of downhill. Hiking poles can help but are not necessary. Everyone in our group used hiking poles expect us and we were totally fine without them.
Planning Your Trip to the Inca Trail
Booking the Inca Trail
The first thing you’ll want to do is submit your reservation for the Inca Trail with Alpaca Expeditions. I recommend booking early if you plan to hike the Inca Trail during peak season. We booked our May 2019 trek back in July 2018. We promptly received an email from Alpaca Expeditions confirming our preferred and back-up dates. The trek cost about $700 per person including sleeping bag and sleeping pad rentals. We paid a deposit at the time of booking and the remainder before the trek.
Since Inca Trail permits are not released until October, we had to wait a few months for confirmation. I was happy to receive an email from Alpaca Expeditions a few days after the permits were released confirming our preferred dates.
Booking Flights to Cusco
Even before our Inca Trail reservation was confirmed, I booked our flights to Peru. I figured if for some reason we couldn’t hike the trail, we could still visit Machu Picchu the old fashioned way. Since this is a points and miles blog, you can read more about how we booked our trip to Peru using points and miles here.
When deciding when to arrive in Cusco, you will want to give yourself some time to acclimate. Cusco is just over 11,000 feet which is perfect for acclimating since the first two camping sites are around a similar elevation. The highest elevation of 13,779 feet is on the second day but you don’t stay at this altitude for long. It is recommended that you spend 2-3 days in Cusco before hiking the Inca Trail. This is also a good time to visit other sights in the Sacred Valley. We arrived early on a Saturday and started our trek on Monday morning without issue. I took Diamox until the start of the trek and it seemed to help, but who knows, I might have been fine without it! A quick note on Diamox: if you’re like me and are scared to leave the tent to pee at night while camping, discontinue Diamox before hitting the Inca Trail since it makes you pee A LOT.
Preparing for the Inca Trail
The night before the trek, you will have a briefing at the Alpaca Expeditions office. Here you will meet your tour guide and the other members of the groups. At the meeting, the guide will confirm dietary restrictions, go over items you plan to rent from Alpaca, and lay out the logistics for the morning. If you didn’t pay the balance via credit card online, you can pay in cash at the meeting. They will also distribute duffle bags that you will use to pack your clothes and other belongings.
The following items are essential for hiking the Inca Trail:
- Passport: Your passport will be checked before you are allowed on the Inca Trail and it must match the information on your Inca Trail permit. Funny story (not so funny at the time) – on the way to Peru, my husband left his passport in the seatback pocket of the airplane during our layover in El Salvador. Lucky for us, the layover was only 45 minutes so he noticed when trying to board our flight to Peru. Thank goodness our original plane was still at the gate!
- Day pack: We carried only one day pack between the two of us. It was a little heavy due to the water but I think one pack was fine. We kept a rain jacket and one warmer layer in the day pack. On Day 2 when hiking Dead Woman’s Pass, you may need more layers and gloves since it’s cold at the top.
- Water bottle: It can get hot on the trail and filtered water is only available when stopping for lunch or for the night. We were fine with a 32-ounce bottle each, but you might want a little more water than that.
- Hiking boots: Our guide wore sneakers but for the average hiker, a proper hiking boot or shoe is recommended!
For the rest of your items, you will pack up to 7 kg (15 lbs) of stuff in a duffel bag that the porter will carry. You will only have access to this bag at the end of each day when you stop to camp for the night. This weight includes your sleeping bag and air mattress so pack light! I recommend packing everything in a large plastic bag and then sticking it in your duffel to ensure that it stays dry in case of rain. The duffle bags are not waterproof.
Check out exactly what you need to pack for the Inca Trail here.
Hiking the Inca Trail
What to Expect on the Inca Trail
Here are a few things I wish I knew before the trek:
- Bathrooms: Alpaca Expeditions sets up a pop-up toilet stall at the campsite each night. In addition to this option, all of the campsites have government-provided toilets. They are all squat toilets and some of the bathroom floors were completely flooded with toilet water among other things. I tended to prefer the government toilets (despite the flooding!) since there was more privacy.
- Showers: A few of the campsites have cold showers. I opted to not use them but most of our group showered on the last night. If you plan on showering, bring a quick-dry towel.
- Food: The food on the trek is so impressive. They also provide snacks during the day. You will definitely not need any extra food.
- Downtime: There is a good amount of downtime. The trail is 26 miles hiked over 4 days so you’ll have several hours in the afternoon and evening with nothing to do. Bring a book!
- Incan Ruins: There are some really cool Inca ruins scattered along the trail. You will make stops along the way and your guide will give a tour of each.
- Photo Ops: I’ve never been in more photographs than on this trip! Our guide was so good about taking pictures at each stop, and he knew the best spot for photos at Machu Picchu.
We were picked up at 4:30am on Day 1 of our Inca Trail hike. Our group consisted of my husband and me, an older couple from Australia, a father and daughter from the UK, and two friends from the US. Our group was on the small side which is definitely preferable as we were more or less able to stick together on the trail. After about two hours of driving, we arrived at the beginning of the trail: Kilometer 82. The Alpaca Expeditions crew immediately got to work preparing a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and cereal.
A little before 9am, we hit the trail, but not before taking our picture with the Inca Trail sign.
Day 1 is not very difficult. At one point, the porters sprinted past us. This would become a recurring theme as we would depart the camp before them and they would always manage to race past us and set up before we arrived at the next stop. The porters on the Inca Trail are truly amazing.
If we thought breakfast was impressive, we couldn’t believe what we were having for lunch! We started with a bowl of fresh guacamole and chips before diving into quinoa soup, rainbow trout, fried rice, and salad for the main course. Each day after lunch we had 30-45 minutes to digest while the porters packed up.
We had a couple more hours of hiking before arriving at the campsite. The porters clapped for us which was somewhat embarrassing since they’re the real MVPs. Four tents were set up with our duffel bags placed in each.
The tour guides asked the porters to line up for formal introductions. Each person from our group gave a quick introduction and then we were introduced to each of the porters and their job for the trek. Most were native Quechua speakers so our guide translated. We then were tested on each of the 16 porters/chefs’ names. While it was hard to keep track of who was who, I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction and hearing more about the men who were supporting us on the Inca Trail.
For dinner, there was a dining tent set up with a heat lamp. We had tea and popcorn in the tent while the chefs prepared dinner. Again, the food was outstanding. And I thought I would lose weight on the Inca Trail!
The next morning we were woken up early by two of the porters. They handed us mugs of coca tea and set out warm buckets of water for us to freshen up. We packed our duffles and ate breakfast while the porters struck the camp.
Day 2 is the most challenging day. Alpaca slates it at 11 hours of hiking, but our group did it much faster than this. The morning consisted of summiting Dead Woman’s Pass.
We all went at our own pace but generally finished within 30 minutes of each other. It was chilly waiting at the top, but we quickly descended the other side for a well-deserved lunch.
I ended up eating too much at lunch and then fell asleep in the sun for 30 minutes which is a recipe for disaster when you have another pass to summit. While the second pass is at a lower altitude, I felt super sluggish and really struggled after lunch. Before reaching the campsite, we had a tour of the Inca ruins of Sayacmarca. It was about 100 steps up to reach the sight which is nothing after today’s hike.
By the time we got to camp, I had a massive headache. Maybe the altitude did get to me after all. I took another nap before dinner and woke up feeling much better.
The second campsite was my favorite. We were in what they called a Cloud Forest and at one point, the entire campsite was enveloped by a cloud! At dinner, our guide told us some stories from the trail including a few ghost stories.
Day 3 is pretty chill with lots of downhill. There were several places where you had to walk between the rocks. Prepare for lots of steps on the downhills!
On the way to the final campsite, we stopped at the ruins of Intipata, or Sun Terraces. While at Intipata, it started to rain.
Soon after, we made it to our campsite where we were able to take a nap while it rained. Later that afternoon, we hiked to Wiñay Huayna which is like a mini Machu Picchu.
We spent over an hour exploring Wiñay Huayna. The ruins were beautiful, but the surrounding area was even more impressive.
On our last night, the group organized our tips and presented them to the porters. The guide gives guidance on how much to tip, but Alpaca Expeditions generally recommends that each porter receives 60 soles, the cook receives 120 soles, and each guide receives 50 soles per person. Make sure to have lots of bills so it’s easy to give the amount you want when pooling money with your group. Our group ended up tipping above the recommended amount since our trip was going so well.
At dinner on the last night, the chef made a cake and we pretended it was for whoever’s birthday was next, which happened to be mine! Can you believe someone could make and decorate a cake like this on the Inca Trail? The Alpaca Expeditions team never ceases to amaze!
The logistics of Day 4 are kind of silly. We had to get up at 3:30am even though you can’t hike past the Machu Picchu checkpoint until 5:30am. The reason is that the porters have to strike the camp and rush down to make their train back home as this is the only train that’s discounted! We were the second group to make it to the checkpoint and we sat in darkness and ate our boxed breakfasts.
After the checkpoint opened, our group hiked through to the Sun Gate for our first views of Machu Picchu.
It really does feel like an accomplishment once you get there. The group hiked even faster than normal due to the excitement. We had plenty of time for pictures before descending to Machu Picchu.
Once we were done taking pictures of Machu Picchu from above, we walked down to the main entrance.
Now we were just like everyone else who took the bus from Aguas Calientes. Our guide gave a wonderful tour of Machu Picchu. Again, the ruins were cool but the view from Machu Picchu was even cooler. Two people from our group had booked Huayna Picchu, so they left the tour early for that hike.
After the Inca Trail
Visiting Aguas Calientes
After the tour, we took the bus down to Aguas Calientes We enjoyed one last lunch as a group. The two people that hiked Huayna Picchu joined us later and said it wasn’t really worth the extra hiking as the view was similar to what we saw that morning.
After lunch, we had about an hour to explore Aguas Calientes before catching our train. The town isn’t very big, but there is a marketplace that is good for souvenirs.
Train from Aguas Calientes to Cusco
Our group convened once more for the train ride back to Cusco. Aguas Calientes is only 40 miles or so from Poroy Station in Cusco but the train ride takes over three hours! Our train got stuck and it ended up taking six hours. I was never more excited to see a familiar face than when our assistant tour guide Humberto greeted us at the train station. The van dropped us off at our hotels, but unfortunately, we got into too late to enjoy one last pisco sour at the JW Marriott bar.
Aside from the train mishap, our Inca Trail hike with Alpaca Expeditions exceeded our expectations. Everything on the Inca Trail went off without a hitch. If you’re considering hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Alpaca Expeditions is a great choice for tour companies. If you’re nervous about the difficulty of the trek or camping accommodations, there’s no need to be. Alpaca Expeditions has it all covered!
Have you or do you plan on hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Comment with your experience below!