1.Prepare for the Elevation
Plan to arrive in Cusco at least 4 or 5 days before you visit Machu Picchu to truly acclimate to the elevation. Cusco sits at 11,200 ft. (approx. 3,400 meters.) The human body responds to the elevation gain by going through physical changes. More red blood cells need to be grown because there is a lower amount of oxygen in the air. No one can predict who will become ill with elevation sickness. There are 80-year-old women who have no troubles and 25-year-old triathletes who are rendered unable to get out of bed until their bodies adjust.
Most people feel some sort of impact, which typically passes within 2 or 3 days. Trekkers want to be in top physical shape before heading out on the trail. There are Diamox tablets available to help ease the symptoms. Alcohol intensifies the impact of the elevation so avoid the booze until acclimated.
2. Hire Porters
This tip may make or break your experience on the Inca Trail. The hike is strenuous enough and transitions into hardly bearable if you neglect to hire porters. I can hear all the tough guys out there who love backpacking and camping muttering to themselves “I can do this on my own.” The reality is, if you were just going on a typical hike you likely could. Things look a little different when you must be equipped for four days.
Our porters carried nearly 12 meals (per person) and snacks. You eat and drink more than normal because of the rigorous exercise. Add on to the food and water your tent, mattress pad, sleeping bag and the load starts to get heavy. If you hire a porter you still carry your own daypack with raingear, snacks and water for that day.
The reality is that hiring porters is really not that expensive considering the larger investment of the trip. The tours average about $600 to hike the Inca Trail. This includes permits, tickets, transportation from Cusco, food and more. Add in the flights and hotel accommodations before and after the trek and you are looking at a few thousand dollars. In the end, the porters cost about $50 and we tipped them another $50. It’s such a nominal cost if you have already made the commitment to conquer the Inca Trail.
3. Use Walking Poles
I’d never used trekking poles before this journey, but they were strongly recommended by friends familiar with the terrain. The hike consists of extremely steep ups and downs, which can be brutal on your knees and joints. It’s particularly critical for the downhill portion because the poles absorb much of the impact your body would normally sustain. Another benefit is that the poles help stabilize you when there is loose or wet rocks near river crossings. You can rent them from tour operators for a small cost.
4. Pack Appropriate Gear
No kidding right? I was shocked by the number of people on the trail didn’t have the appropriate gear for our trek. Information is easily accessible online and the tour company provides a detailed list of exactly what you should pack for each time of the year. Regardless of when you hike make sure all your gear is waterproof. Bring a waterproof cover for your backpack along with many layers. The weather changes very quickly and layers are the best way to truly be prepared for any climate. Lastly, make sure your hiking shoes or boots are worn in before starting the trek.
5. Plan to Unwind Post Trek
Unfortunately, Aguas Calientes isn’t overflowing with fabulous accommodations. The exception to this is the Inkaterra hotel on 12 acres of nature reserve. This place has wonderfully hot spa-like showers, luxurious beds, a tranquil ambience and the best spa in the area to help undo trail damage. Andean hot stone massage or foot therapy for achy bodies?
You might get peddled by massage solicitors in the streets of Aguas Calentes for extremely cheap prices but proceed with caution. Most are not licensed and may be offering more than you are looking for.