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Hiking & Biking tours

Hiking the Inca Trail: 8½ tips from a solo traveler

So you want to hike Peru's Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Get some top tips from Helen, our Digital Content Manager, who trekked the trail with a small group.
Written by: Helen Pettitt, Digital Content Manager at Explore
Date published: 18 August 2023

1. No travel buddy, no problem! Join a small group tour and you'll be joined by like-minded travelers

I've always had the Inca Trail on my bucketlist, so when I had some time off come up, I knew where I was going to go. I couldn't persuade anyone to come with me as it's not really my friends' bag, but I was fine with that - I'd often traveled solo before as part of a small group. It's my preferred method of going solo as you've got the security of an expert guide - also great if you're like me and you get FOMO when you travel. With a guide you know you won't miss any best bits. Plus, it's a great way to meet other people who love adventuring like you do.

I was in a group of 13 which was a nice size - with a mix of ages and personalities, I was able to walk and talk with different people along the way. I particularly got on with a trio of girls around my age, but then also had some fascinating conversations with an older couple who'd travelled the world over the decades. That is what I love about small group travel, meeting different people with such rich travel histories and with the same passion for travel that I have.

2. Get ready for a workout! Don't forget your hiking poles for those steep Inca steps

One thing that surprised me when hiking the Inca Trail was that Machu Picchu isn't the only Inca ruins you see, it's just the big one that everyone knows. Actually, you'll visit ancient Inca ruins at several points along the way, each one fascinating in its own right. Many are perched on mountain sides and whilst the incline gives a great view down the valley, it does mean you need to watch your footing. Even though the Inca people were generally much shorter than we are today, they chose to build massive steps! So you'll get a leg workout going up and down them, but having hiking poles will help so you don't stumble and to help take some of the strain off your knees. You'll need to make sure your poles have rubber tips for them to be allowed on the Inca Trail.

3. You won't go hungry - the food's a pleasant surprise

Another thing that I definitely did not expect when hiking and camping along the Inca Trail was the delicious food provided by the amazing porters. With a large communal tent set up for meal times (breakfast, lunch and dinner!), and with multiple courses for each, you'll definitely not go hungry.

All of the food is cooked with local ingredients, so I even got to try different foods to what I'm used to. There was lots of quinoa as it's a staple in Peru, appearing in soups and salads, and lots of hearty vegetable dishes. One of my favorite meals was rainbow trout that was freshly caught and cooked to perfection, something I'd not tried before as I don't normally eat fish but I was a convert. The cooks and porters always went the extra mile, with pancakes personalised with chocolate sauce and they even baked a cake (in the ground!) for a couple in my group who were on their honeymoon!

4. Slow and steady wins the race. Pace yourself to reduce altitude sickness

As soon as you fly into Cusco before your Inca Trail trek you'll likely feel a bit of altitude sickness, as the city sits 3,400m above sea level, and you'll stay at these high altitudes throughout your time in this area of Peru. To help reduce the chance of altitude sickness, it's best to spend a few days in Cusco to acclimatise.

Unfortunately most of my group experienced varying degrees of altitude sickness whilst doing the trek, however I was lucky that I didn't. I think this was due to spending a few days in Cusco getting used to the altitude, but also because of the pace I kept on the hike. Our group naturally split into a faster group and a slower group, and I often found myself in the middle! Reflecting back I wonder if keeping a steady pace may have helped me avoid the altitude sickness, as I found the same thing happened when I climbed Kilimanjaro and again I was one of few not to feel ill. Don't rush yourself on the trail, there's plenty of time. And take advantage of the plentiful supply of coca tea, that helps too!

5. Expect a challenge reaching the peak of Dead Woman's Pass

The first day of the trail is fairly gentle, but don't get lulled into a false sense of security. I made the mistake of not researching much about what to expect on the trail, and it was only on day two that I heard of the 'Dead Woman's Pass' I was about to take on. And typically, the weather was terrible for my hike, making it more difficult thanks to the driving rain.

'Dead Woman's Pass' is a steep mountain pass situated at a height of 4,200 metres, making it the highest point of the Inca Trail. Its official name is Wamiwañusca, but it's nicknamed 'Dead Woman's Pass' because of the shape of the rocks on the peak, which, if you squint, look a bit like the side profile of a woman lying down...apparently!

When you're doing the trek, make sure you pace yourself and don't go too hard on day one, you'll need your energy for day two! And don't forget, what goes up must come down. You'll feel exhilarated reaching the peak of the pass and getting that photo with the sign, but have a rest before you make your way down again as this is also taxing on the knees.

6. Sleep is overrated, don't forget to check out the stars!

The huge bonus of camping up in the mountains is the carpet of stars you'll be treated to if you're lucky enough to get clear nights. Of course the walking is tiring and you'll want to get plenty of sleep but make sure you take the time on at least one of the nights, if it's looking like it'll be clear, to get up and look up. I was blown away by the brightness of the stars above, with no light pollution around us. If you're into night photography and have a DSLR, don't forget to pack a compact tripod to capture the magnificent view on long exposure for your photo book.

7. Don't rush down to Machu Picchu, enjoy the view from above

We had an early morning on the last day of the trek to reach the Sun Gate before it got too busy, which I was told would give us magnificent early morning views. It was a steep climb up there and I remember being a bit disappointed that when I reached the Sun Gate I was greeted with a thick layer of cloud. Many of the group were keen to get down to Machu Picchu so rushed down but I held back and took my time. And how lucky I was! It was worth descending slowly as the cloud started to disappear slowly, with a gap that perfectly revealed the breathtaking Incan site in all its glory, perched on the cliff-side. Obviously I can't promise this for your trek but I'd say that, however tempting it is to hurry down and beat the crowds entering Machu Picchu when you're so close, enjoy these stunning views from further away because it will make the whole trek worth it.

8. Do your research first - You can add on extra climbs at Machu Picchu for an even better view

This is something I actually didn't know about until I was at Machu Picchu and it was too late, but you can pre-book to do an extra climb, up Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu Mountain to look down on the citadel.

Machu Picchu Mountain is higher, at nearly 700 metres above the citadel, and takes longer (2.5-3 hours), but is known to be the less steep, less difficult option. Huayna Picchu Mountain is 350m, half the size of Machu Picchu Mountain, but much steeper and not advised if you've got a fear of heights.

If you'd like to do either of these extra hikes, ask when booking your trip and we can arrange the permit.

8½. You can get a really cool bonus passport stamp at Machu Picchu

A little bonus tip here, but only if you choose it. When you get to Machu Picchu there is the option to get an "unofficial souvenir stamp" for your passport, if you can find the place! It was only after being at the site for a little while that one of my group came and told me there was a little queue at a place near the entrance where you can get a Machu Picchu passport stamp, so I went and joined the line and stamped my own passport with a very cool stamp. This is one of several places worldwide with souvenir stamps; you can also get them in other bucketlist destinations like Easter Island and the Galapagos. Do this at your own risk however, as there has been a small number of reports of people having issues at borders due to the unofficial stamps.


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