Without a doubt, trekking the Inca Trail is the best way to get to Machu Picchu. And while the trail is physically the same for every trekker, the experience of trekking it can vary greatly — from horrible to amazing.
How could that be? There are huge differences in itineraries, guides, service levels, and other details that can make one trip great, and another awful. Read on to learn how to pick the best trek.
Don’t want to read a long guide? Ok, just know that The Ultimate Inca Trail Trek has the best itinerary and top notch guides and support – it is our top recommendation for a great Inca Trail trek.
1. Your Guide Can Make or Break Your Trip – Travel With a World Class Guide
You are required to trek with a licensed guide on the Inca Trail, and your guide will have the greatest influence on your experience and satisfaction of any other factor; if you only follow one tip, make it this one to make sure you have a great guide. All guides can get you from the start of the trek to Machu Picchu, but while some may ignore you and your needs and desires or even annoy you, a great guide cares deeply about you and your experience. They love Peru and the Inca Trail and they want you to love them too. For them the itinerary is just a starting point for ensuring you have a fantastic experience, and they talk about things that interest you, go out of their way to show you things you want to see, and generally work hard to keep you happy and loving the area as much as they do.
So how do you make sure you get a great guide? By traveling with a company that prides themselves on the quality of its guides, whose guides have won international awards for quality, and who understand the importance of good guides.
Our Ultimate Inca Trail Trek is operated by a company founded by guides who understand the importance of quality guides, and who pride themselves on working with the best guides in Peru. Their guides have won international awards, they are knowledgeable, fun, safe, and care deeply about Peru and your experience there. Traveling with them will ensure you have a great trip.
2. Altitude Sickness Can Ruin Your Trip – Take Time to Acclimatize Before Starting The Trek
It is pretty much impossible to have a great trip if you have a crushing headache, have no appetite or can’t hold food down, can’t catch your breath, and can’t sleep at night. These are all symptoms of altitude sickness, which is very common when you travel from low altitudes to the very high altitudes of the Inca Trail too quickly. Trekking the Inca Trail isn’t overly difficult but the altitudes are high, with most traditional itineraries crossing Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,780 feet on Day 2 of the trek. Most trekkers feel terrible that day because it is too soon for them to go that high.
You need to spend at least 2 nights, and preferably more, in Cusco or the Sacred Valley before the trek to allow your body time to adapt to the lack of oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. Additionally it is wise to start the trek slowly so that you don’t cross Dead Woman’s Pass until Day 3 of the trek, giving you even more time to adjust so that you can hike in comfort and possibly even enjoy the achievement of reaching the pass!
The Ultimate Inca Trail Trek starts with 2 nights in Cusco and another night in the Sacred Valley before you start the trek, then once you start the trek itself you camp below 10,000 feet on Day 1 and don’t cross Dead Woman’s Pass until your third day of trekking. People consider crossing the pass a highlight of the trek.
3. The Inca Trail is Crowded – Get Away From the Crowds On the Trail and In Camps By Following an Alternative Itinerary
Each day 500 people start the trek on the Inca Trail, most of them following the same itinerary for the traditional 4 day Trek. They all travel to the trailhead to start the trek at about the same time, they all hike together, they all camp at the same sites together, and they all generally travel as one big group. The trail is crowded, the camps are crowded, and the trek is far from peaceful or serene.
You don’t need to follow this itinerary, so why not avoid the crowds by following a different schedule than everybody else? This way you walk only with other members of your group, you view trailside ruins in peace and quiet, and you camp at uncrowded sites each night, away from the hordes on the traditional itinerary.
Choose a 5 day itinerary such as that on our Ultimate Inca Trail so you are not on the same schedule as the vast majority of other trekkers.
“This was my first guided trip as well as my first trip to Peru. I could not have been more blown away by the quality of care by the outfitter or the beauty of the country and it’s people. Detour has obviously done their homework in regards to tour providers. Amazonas Explorer exceeded all my expectations. . . Most of the time we felt as though we were the only people on the Inca Trail. Especially the way they timed our arrival to Machu Picchu to avoid major crowds. The meals along the trail were simply AMAZING!
Hands down one of the greatest adventures and experiences of my life! THANK YOU DETOUR! Will definitely be going back to Peru with you again!”
– Jeremy, The Ultimate Inca Trail Trek, April 2017
4. Don’t Miss Out On Exploring Ruins Or Spectacular Scenery Along The Inca Trail – Don’t Rush Or Hike in The Dark
This is really why you’ve come – to see Peru, to experience the Inca Trail, to check out ruins and learn about Inca history. Why would you rush this? Traditional 4 day Inca Trail itineraries have to cover a lot of distance quickly so you don’t have time to linger at the various ruins along the way, or to relax in camp in the mornings or evenings. You even have to hike in darkness on the last morning to get to Machu Picchu with enough time for a tour and to catch the train back to Cusco that day, meaning that you hike the most scenic stretch of the Inca Trail in the dark. Do you really want to miss that?
5 day Inca Trail itineraries allow time to explore ruins along the trail, they allow you to relax over coffer or tea in the mornings, and they allow you to hike in the daylight to see the incredible views on the last day of the trek.
The Ultimate Inca Trail’s 5-day itinerary is designed so that you have time to see the sites along the way, you can relax in the mornings, and you hike during daylight to experience all that the Inca Trail has to offer.
5. Don’t Cut Your Time at Machu Picchu Short – Make Sure To Visit Twice
Machu Picchu! You’ve made it. You’ve arrived on foot through Inti Punku, the Gate of the Sun, just as the Incas did centuries ago. Without a doubt exploring this world famous site is the ultimate motivation that brought you to Peru and the Inca Trail.Do you really want just a rushed tour so you can catch your train back to Cusco that same day?
Way better is to arrive in the afternoon when you have time to linger at the Sun Gate and at Machu Picchu itself, secure with the knowledge that you will return the next day when you aren’t groggy from lack of sleep and exhausted from hiking in the dark. Then you can head to town, take a shower, eat a good meal and rest comfortably so you are rested and ready to explore this once in a lifetime destination.
On The Ultimate Inca Trail you arrive to Machu Picchu late in the day after most tourists have already departed allowing you to explore and take photos at the least crowded time of day at Machu Picchu. You return the next day when you can spend the maximum time allowed at the site on your guided tour with extra time to wander around and soak it all in.
6. Don’t Just Focus on Machu Picchu – Make Sure To Experience the Amazing Ruins, History, and Living Culture of Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, and the Sacred Valley, home to Inca towns, history, culture, and spectacular scenery, should not be missed on a trip to Machu Picchu. We’ve never heard anyone say “I wish I hadn’t spent time in Cusco or the Sacred Valley,” but we have heard a lot of people say “I wish I’d spent more time” there.
Many people are so focused on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu that they want to minimize the rest of their time in Peru. Don’t do this! Your trip will not be complete without seeing and soaking in the amazing culture and history of these areas. Besides, as we noted above, you need several days in the area to acclimatize to the altitude before starting you trek. Exploring these areas works perfectly.
The Ultimate Inca Trail allows you to experience the best of Cusco and the Sacred Valley, while avoiding the crowds who travel by large tour buses. You will visit popular sites at different times than the tour buses and thus avoid the crowds and by walking you see so much more in and around these sites.
7. Bad Tourism Is a Problem at Machu Picchu – Travel Responsibly So You Are Part of the Solution
Machu Picchu is the number one tourist destination in South America, and no wonder â€” it is amazing! But while most tourists take only photos, they leave behind a mess of overcrowded roads, water shortages for locals, overflowing garbage, and underpaid and overworked porters and staff.
You should still go – Peru and the Cusco area rely desperately on the income from the tourists who visit – but don’t be part of the problem. In fact, you can be part of the solution. Travel with a responsible tour operator so that you leave behind more good than bad. Traveling with a responsible company ensures that your porters are paid well and well taken care of, that the money you spent on the trip stays in the region to employ people and pay local taxes to pay for infrastructure like road repairs and plumbing, and that rules are followed, garbage and human waste are well taken care of, and the resources are valued and protected.
The operator of our Ultimate Inca Trail Trek is based in Cusco, Peru, they are leaders in APTAE (The Peruvian Association for Adventure and Ecotourism), are the only tour operator in Peru to be certified as a B Corp, they are a member of 1% For the Planet, offset their carbon emissions, are a member of Travelers Against Plastic and have a comprehensive Porter Protection plan in place.
8. Public Toilets On The Inca Trail Are Disgusting – Make Sure Your Tour Operator Provides Clean Portable Toilets and Carries Out All Waste!
Nothing ruins a good trip like a disgusting, smelly, dirty bathroom. The public bathrooms on the Inca Trail get a lot of use every day, and they are located in a remote location far from any town, making it a challenge to keep them operating and clean. Are you surprised to hear that they are pretty nasty? It’s great that they are there, but, using them is unpleasant at best.
Travel with a responsible licensed tour operator who carries a clean and sanitary portable toilet and toilet tent so that you bathroom experiences are pleasant and relaxing, and you don’t add to the sanitary problems from overuse of the public restrooms.
9. Lousy Tents, Sleeping Pads, and Gear Can Ruin Your Trip – Travel With a Tour Operator Who Has Quality Equipment
Sleeping in a cold puddle of water with rain dripping on your face and pointy rocks knifing into your back while lying in your tent is not a recipe to get a lot of sleep. No sleep equals no fun, and it can ruin your trip.
Good equipment can be hard to come by in Peru but it is important so that you can focus on enjoying your trip, not on staying warm or dry. Don’t skimp and travel with a super cheap tour operator who has worn out tents and camping gear. Instead travel with a company that takes pride in providing the best equipment and the best experience possible on the Inca Trail.
10. For the Most Part You Get What You Pay For – What is a Trip of a Lifetime Worth To You?
There are a lot of Inca Trail tour operators out there, and prices are all over the map. Why does one trip cost less than $1,000 while another costs over $4,000 per person?
Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. A cheap trip won’t be the same experience as a more expensive trip. Guide and staff pay is generally better on the more expensive trips (as is health insurance and other necessities), so the best guides and best workers tend to work for higher priced companies that pay them more. On more expensive trips the equipment is better, overall logistics and service are better, guide to trekker ratios are smaller and even total group size is generally smaller. All of this can make a huge difference in your enjoyment of the trip. Paying more, generally buys you a better experience.
There is a point, however, where increased prices don’t increase value, they just go to pay the overhead and for increased profits for foreign owned tour companies.
We feel that The Ultimate Inca Trail Trek hits the sweet spot — quality is as good as it gets and guide quality is unsurpassed, yet you aren’t paying $1,000 or more to cover the office costs of a company based in San Francisco, CA, or similar. Even if you want to upgrade your hotels in Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and at Machu Picchu, this trip costs significantly less than trips that are no better, and most likely not as good, as this one.
see below for our top recommendation for the Inca Trail:
Unique 5-day Inca Trail Trek itinerary gets you away from the crowds and gives more time to explore ruins Acclimatize for the trek with off the beaten path hikes to explore the best ruins and sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley in this 9 day adventure Expert guides, cooks, and equipment make this a truly top-notch experience, starting and ending at the Cusco airport Trip Length: 9 Days Destinations: Machu Picchu, Inca Trail, Sacred Valley, Cusco, Peru Lodging: Comfortable camping, & boutique 3-star plus hotels Activities: Trekking, Inca ruins Dates: Trips depart every Saturday, March - December