By Allie E. Almario
1. Pick the right time of the year.
Almost any time of the year is a great time to head out on the Inca Trail. The only months to really avoid are January and February, when summer rains can be torrential and have been known to wipe out trails, even disrupting train service from Cusco.
The shoulder seasons, such as April and May or September and October, provide a nice balance of dry weather and lush, green scenery. But Mother Nature can be tough, so be prepared for rain any time of the year.
Remember in the southern hemisphere, seasons are opposite from ours, so our fall is springtime in Peru. Starting in October, you’ll find less crowds and more beautiful wildflowers.
2. Wear the right trekking shoes
Never, ever wear brand new hiking boots on the Inca Trail. Only bring shoes that you’ve broken in for at least three to six months. There is nothing worse than spending four painful days in boots that give you blisters or rub your skin raw. Thick socks help cushion your feet and keep them dry and clean, especially those made of wicking material.
3. Choose the right touring operator
There are many companies that offer the Inca Trail to travelers from all over the world. But the adage, “You get what you pay for” truly matters here. Please work only with operators who are experienced hiking providers, who provide clean, safe, new gear, and most importantly, treat all of their staff well. Do they pay fair wages? Do they have a big turnover with their crew? Good tour operators pay their staff a decent living salary – and the pay off is dedicated, loyal staff who work hard to provide their guests with the best experience possible on the trail.
Environmentally responsible operators will share “best practices” at your pre-trek orientation so that your impact on the trail is as low-impact as possible.
4. Give yourself time to acclimatize
From the moment you arrive in Cusco to while you are on the Inca Trail, most of your trip will occur at elevations ranging from 8,500 ft. to 13,000 ft. Some hikers will take Diamox, prescribed by physicians to help you adjust to the Andes. We also recommend drinking lots of the local tea (pronounced “mah tay”), a derivative of the coca leaf, which Incans have used for years.
But your best bet is to build in at least two or three days prior to the trek exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The valuable time you’ll spend before the trek on hiking forays to beautiful sites like Moras and Moray will eventually pay off on the trail. You’ll be more rested and your physical activity prior to the trek will have kept you limber and stretched for the miles you’ll soon cover.
5. Get physical
Of course, we highly recommend that you see a physician before your trip to make sure you’re in prime shape to take on the trek. In addition, you should begin to prep your body for the trek by keeping active well before your departure. If you belong to the gym, the two best machines are the elliptical and the stair master. In your free time, challenge yourself to uphill hikes that cover a few miles. By the time you are ready to depart, you should feel comfortable hiking for up to six or seven hours at a stretch over a four or five day period. The biggest elevation gain on the trek is about 4,000 feet on one day, though frankly, most people feel more challenged by downhill treks that use a whole different set of muscles!