Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hiking to Machu Picchu: My Top 5 Tips

1. Book Early

Although more than 70,000 tourists visit Machu Picchu every year, only 500 permits are issued for hikers on the Inca Trail each day—two-thirds of which are reserved for porters and guides. Don’t show up in Cusco expecting to book your trek a few days before you leave; this is the kind of trip that is going to take booking four to six months in advance.

Hiking with a local company should cost around $500 (cost breakdown here), while North American companies will charge up to $1200 for the same service.

2. Hire a Porter

There’s no need to be a hero on your vacation. For the extra $50 to $100 it costs to hire a porter, it's well worth it to enjoy the view instead of staring at your shoes for 42 kilometres. 

A word about porters: I'm definitely an advocate of responsible tourism, but I am by no means an expert on porter welfare. Choosing a tour operator that meets Peru’s porters law, including providing proper equipment and limiting load weights, is obviously the right thing to do.

However, while it’s important to be aware of porter welfare issues, it’s equally important to put ethnocentric assumptions aside. Let’s face it—ergonomics are not a global concept. Many tour operators provide their employees with proper hiking boots and bags, but you’ll still see porters on the trail carrying flour sacks and hiking in sandals. It's easy to assume they're being maltreated, but it's equally possible that hiking in leather thongs is their preference. 

It's worth reading this entire thread as a reference point.

3. And. . . lunge!

If you hate doing squats and lunges at the gym, you’ll hate the Inca Trail. Don’t think of it as a "trek"—think of it as 12,000 successive lunges in a row. Sounds like fun, right?

Although the classic four-day/three-night trek is often advertised as a “moderate” hike that can be completed by any age or fitness level, it’s far from easy. Start training now by doing a ton of lunges and squats. Focus on your lower body and back muscles, particularly if you’re carrying your own pack. (Added bonus: the squats will make your legs well-equipped to hold you up over the Andean toilets.)

Cardiovascular activities will also help your body’s ability to deal with the altitude upon arrival. Chloé and I basically flew directly from Toronto to Cusco, with only one night to acclimatize. Apart from some tingling limbs, we were both fine. I credit this to the months we spent on the ellipticals at her gym before our departure.**

4. Before you depart for your trek, store your luggage in Cusco.

It’s standard practice for many hostels and hotels in Cusco to store luggage—usually free of charge—until you return from your hike.

Bring a second bag that you can store extra clothing in and just pack the necessities for your trek. If you've hired a porter, follow any weight restrictions carefully. (Bags carried by porters are weighed at various check-points on the trail, so if you’re hiking with an ethical company, they’ll be quite strict about this.)

You’ll only need two sets of clothes—one set to wear for the first three days (you’ll be soaked in rain or sweat every day anyway) and the second to wear upon arrival at Machu Picchu. (It’s kind of like school picture day.) I wore my two outfits in rotation and would strap them to the outside of my daypack during the day to air out.

Don't forgot to pack the following: a head lamp, altitude sickness medication (just in case), toilet paper (at least one roll per person) and warm weather gear including a toque and mittens.

5. Walking sticks are for poltroons.

Yup, I sure did just find the word "poltroon" on my thesaurus widget. (I was looking up a nicer way to say that walking sticks are for pussies. Turns out, there really aren’t any.) Unless you have a knee problem, are above the age of 60, suffer from vertigo, are generally uncoordinated, or just want a pole to use as a weapon so you can reach the Sun Gate roughly 30 seconds before everyone else, you probably don’t need a walking stick.

But if you’re really worried about it, while you’re doing all those squats and lunges, consider adding in some core exercises and you should be good to go.

Bonus tip! Do get a cheap post-trek massage in Cusco. But don't get so distracted by the thought of said massage that your camera gets stolen. The heartache will never end.

**Edit: Since originally posting this, I have consulted with some health professionals and medical journals about level of athletic ability and altitude sickness. Turns out that the two are not correlated. Regardless, I still stand by my original point; it doesn't hurt to train in advance.


  1. Can´t believe you advise against a walking stick,

    I´d bring one especially If I was doing this trip.

  2. Hi, I am agree with you book early your travel when you decide to go. I always check all major point before going about my destination. i think it is a safe and a good way to enjoy trip. I appreciate your an others tips also.

  3. Agree with your all tips. You did very well job. Keep doing it

  4. necessary experience for long journeys

  5. Toilet paper - yes, important reminder. The squat toilets were horrible with dirt all over the floor. I preferred to visit the bushes along the trail (for #1 as well as #2). This was quite simple when I had my own toilet paper, even though I found it a bit embarrasing just pulling the shorts down. I guess a squatting middle aged woman would have been a terrible sight for most others. But it went well.


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