The trek to Machu Picchu was something that I’ve wanted to do for 15 years. I saw pictures of Machu Picchu and immediately wished to see it for myself. I had to wait a long time because it was always an issue of either time or money. When I had the time, I had no money (poor graduate student). When I had the money, I had no time (working). Last year Ben and I were planning on going to Machu Picchu. In fact we started to do the research and some preliminary planning, when I got an opportunity to work in Russia for three weeks over the summer. We decided to table Peru for 2014 and to go to Russia for 2013.
When to go to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is open all-year round. The Inca Trail is open all year, except for the month of February when it is closed for repairs. The high season is the summer months of June, July, and August and are the most popular months to visit. It might be tempting to go during the low season because there should be fewer tourists, but the guides I spoke to said that Peru had a steady stream of tourists all year round and there was no down time. In addition the best weather is found during the summer because it’s the dry season, where it’s less likely to rain. And when it rains on the Inca Trail, my guide said, “It rains llamas and alpacas. Cats and dogs are nothing.” The idea of hiking and camping while sopping wet didn’t sound appealing to me, so I wanted to go during the summer.
Starting from 2002, UGM (Unidad de Gestión Machu Picchu) has required that all tourists to be accompanied by a licensed guide to ensure the safety of the tourists and to help preserve the rapidly deteriorating Inca Trail. Everyone who is on the trail (including the guides and porters) must have a permit. Only 500 permits are given each day. As such these permits sell out fast and months in advance. People who are interested in hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu during the high season (June-August) are recommended to make their reservations 5-6 months in advance. This meant that if we wanted to go in either June or July, we had to make our plans in January.
With which company to do the trek?
There are several companies that offer treks on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The standard trek is the 4-day/3-night and costs around $600 (for 2014). I wanted to make sure I booked a good company, which meant 1) takes good care of us, 2) takes good care of their porters, and 3) is locally owned. If you do a search online, you can find a list of reputable companies. Peru Treks and Llama Path frequently show up on these lists and we were ready to book with one of them, but it wasn’t quite working out with them. Peru Treks operated on a strict schedule (you had to show up in Cusco two days prior to your departure and this did not work with our tight traveling schedule) and we got the sense that they operated like a well-run cookie-cutter factory. They had only certain departure dates and unfortunately because of our travel schedule, the dates were less than ideal for us. While we were researching Llama Path, I remembered that T-Rex Runner (if you’re not following her blog, you should. She’s hysterical and often writes interesting things about running. But more importantly I learned quite a bit about eating disorders from her own insights.) planned on going to Machu Picchu in the spring. I tweeted her and asked which company she planned on using. She immediately tweeted back Alpaca Expeditions. Knowing how vigilant she is, I knew they would be a good company and we would be in good hands. It took only a couple seconds of looking at their website to know that we were also going with Alpaca Expeditions.
Not only where they the cheapest out of the companies that we were considering (Alpaca Expeditions appears slightly more expensive at first, but when you realize that they include a personal porter for that price, whereas the personal porter is extra for the other companies), but they were the most flexible and easiest to work with. We were able to select our most desired date. We weren’t required to show up a couple days before our departure date.
Alpaca Expeditions also offered private tours that were not all that much more expensive than the usual group tours. While the group tour for the 4-day/3-night Inca Trail tour was $635, the private 7-day/6-night Salkantay/Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was only $1150. Considering that we would have had to pay for hotel, food, and entertainment anyway while in Peru, the longer private tour really wasn’t all that much more expensive and we would get so much more in terms of our experience. It was a no-brainer to book this tour. One of the things that Ben and I worried about in a group tour was being stuck with very slow hikers. We like moving pretty fast. The private tour ensured that we would get to do the hike at our pace.
The staff who runs the office all speak very good English and they very patiently answered all of our neurotic questions of making sure it really was a private tour. In all of our dealings with Alpaca, they were fantastic and I highly recommend them.
What to pack for a week-long trek
All the companies provide tents and they can rent sleeping bags,sleeping mats, and hiking poles to you if you don’t already own them. It’s also possible to rent these at Speedy Gonzales (Calle Procuradores 393) more cheaply. Also if you discover that if you forgot some camping equipment or you need to replace it, Speedy Gonzales is the place to go.
- Sleeping bag (make sure you get 3-weather if traveling in high season, get 4-weather if you’re going in the low season)
- Sleeping mat
- Hiking poles if you have knee problems
- Toiletry (toothbrush, toothpaste, contact lens solution, Cetaphil face wash, hairbrush, hair ties)
- Quick dry camping towel
- Sunglasses/wide-brim hat/visor (I brought Headsweats for myself)
- Bugspray (we used 98% DEET. I know DEET is awful, but being swollen head to toe because of constant mosquito attacks is even MORE AWFUL. We both attract mosquitoes like nobody’s business. Also we hadn’t used DEET for years before and we haven’t used DEET since, so we were willing to soak ourselves in it for a few days.)
- Diamox (altitude sickness medicine is precious)
- Ibuprofin (good for general soreness)
- Cash (soles or crisp US bills. We found that if the dollars were marred in any way, the Peruvian banks were unlikely to take them or exchange them for soles at a worse rate).
- Liquid skin (in case you get blisters)
- Plastic raincoat (the cheap thin one will do for high season, get the thicker better quality rain ponchos if you’re going during the rainy season)
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Safety pins (very useful for fixing things, including a lost zipper and button)
- A pair of long underwear (this doubled as my sleeping clothes. If you’re hiking during the rainy season or when it’s a lot colder, I suggest bringing two pairs, one to wear during the day and one to wear at night)
- Sleeping clothes
- 7 pairs of hiking socks
- 7 pairs of underwear
- 3-4 pairs of sports bra
- 7 technical t-shirts (finally got to wear all of my race shirts)
- 3 long-sleeve technical shirts
- 2 pairs of zip off hiking pants (Ben and I each only had one, but we really wished we had another pair to change into because things get so dusty and dirty)
- Camera (bring an extra battery I went through two batteries on a week long trip, if you’re doing the 4-day one, you can get by on one battery if you’re not using your camera excessively)
- Daypack (I used Camelpak with a bladder. Ben used a regular backpack with some water bottles.)
- Warm hat
- Warm gloves
- Warm jacket (Ben had a thick down jacket and I used a thin wind jacket and a thicker ski jacket).
- A few snacks
- Toilet paper (a must on the trail)
- Headlamps or flashlight (headlamps are more useful)
Nice to haves
- Small sleeping pillow (we stole the airplane pillows)
- Camp shoes (I didn’t have any, but I wish I did).
- Body wipes (I used Comfort Bath, the extra thick washcloth was great)
- No Rinse Shampoo and Conditioner (I really hate having greasy hair. When given the opportunity to shower with limited water, this stuff does the trick.)
- Fanny pack (I found it useful to use the fanny pack to keep our passports, cash, little things that could easily get lost, my glasses)
- Journal (I wished I brought a small journal so I could have written notes about what we did)
- Ziplock bags (great to stuffing stinky clothes so they don’t get clean clothes dirty and organizing)
One of the things that I learned from various runners’ experiences with Ragnar was to organize clothes into heavy duty ziplock bags. I packed a pair of socks, underwear, and a t shirt into seven ziplock bags. This worked out fantastically because every day I quickly and easily found the clothes I had to change into. I didn’t spend a lot of time digging around for things.
Waterproof boots are a MUST if you’re doing the Salkantay trek. Portions of the trail require you to wade through icy streams. Ben wanted to do the hike in his old beat up trail shoes, but our guide made him get hiking boots. I’m glad he did because Ben’s feet and shoes would not have survived the trip otherwise. They would have gotten wet and then frozen because of the cold temperature. It’s possible to hike Machu Picchu without the waterproof boots if you do not get heavy rains while trekking. Even during the dry season, there are occasional rain showers. If it doesn’t rain, you’re fine. If it does rain heavily, you’re screwed.
You’re out in the sun all day. Get good sunblock AND some sort of head cover for yourself. Ben wore a hat and I wore sunglasses and my Headsweats visor because I hate wearing hats. This worked out perfectly for the both of us.
I really loved having body wipes. Everyone gets really dirty and dusty being out on the trail. There’s no shower until the guide jury-rigs a water cooler and hose. I detest feeling sticky and dirty, so the body wipes kept us fresh until we got a proper shower. The Comfort Bath brand that I got worked super well. It did a great job of getting rid of foul body order (stinky feet). While in hot weather, the body wipe is cool and refreshing, it’s way too cold as is in cold temperature. I dipped it in warm water before using it. The thick cloth was comfortable and did not break down in water.
Knowing that water was going to be a bit of an issue, I deliberately brought no rinse shampoo and conditioner with me. No rinse shampoo and conditioner work by dousing hair with the stuff and then toweling the hair dry. No water needed. I already use Cetaphil as my face wash. It’s a great camp face wash too because you can use it even when you don’t have water. Just rub your face with it and then wipe away with a towel. I’ve also used it as a shampoo in a pinch. It works wonders. Originally I intended to use the no rinse shampoo and conditioner each night because I hate greasy hair and my hair gets greasy really quickly. I nixed that plan right away because it’s freezing on top of a mountain at night. The last thing I want then is wet hair. The shampoo and conditioner were useful because water for the hot (well, warm) shower is limited and I didn’t have to worry about getting all the shampoo and conditioner out of my hair the way I would if I had the regular stuff. The products did the job well enough. It was good enough for camping, but by no means is it a replacement for actual shampoo and conditioner.
We were, for better or worse, ready to trek.