Machu Picchu was a once-in-a-lifetime, truly unforgettable experience. (So much so that I’ve written about my experience visiting it as a solo female for Intrepid once before.)
But I didn’t float up to that beautiful site, I hiked there, and it was at times a little painful. Like most painful things, the memories fade with time and I only remember the good bits. However, there are a few things that I wish I had known, ones that would have made those tough moments more manageable.
I’ve listed them below (you’re welcome), so you’ll be able to concentrate on the beautiful views over the blisters, and your new friends over your achy muscles:
1. Stay hydrated and well-fed
Drink lots. Then drink more. And take sachets of hydration salts just in case. When you’re walking you’re going to get sweaty and you need to replace those losses. Also, staying hydrated is an awesome way to reduce your chance of experiencing altitude sickness. So make sure you have a good (reusable!) bottle or a hydration pack to put in your day bag (Platypus and Camelbak are both great brands for hydration packs).
Now, food. Altitude actually slows down your digestion, which might lead to a lack of appetite. If you’re acclimatizing well then this won’t last long, but even if it does, it’s worth eating more than you think you need to.
So, don’t forget to take snacks in your bag – if you have a yummy Snickers or Mars bars tucked away you’re likely to munch on it even if you don’t feel particularly hungry. This isn’t always a good thing in life, but it is when hiking Machu Picchu!
2. Get your passport stamped
This is a great insider tip – you can get your passport stamped at Machu Picchu! Remember to ask at the gates.
3. Be ready for all four seasons
As you gain altitude, temperatures become more extreme. In one day you can experience everything from a freezing chill upon waking, to boiling hot sunshine while you walk. Even without sunshine, the steep ascents will have you sweating. The answer to this? Layers.
For the cold night time take thermal base layers and pick up some Alpaca gloves and a hat in Cusco – stalls line the streets so they won’t be hard to find. Pack t-shirts that will fit over your base layers for when you get started in the morning, a fleece and rain jacket for the wind and rain. As the day progresses and you emerge from the shade into the sunshine, you’ll be peeling everything off. At this point remember sun cream and a sunhat. The sun is stronger up high, so make sure it’s a high SPF. You don’t want to be red and peeling in your photos on Machu Picchu (or in your photos posing with llamas!).
A final tip on what to wear relates to shoes. Of course you will need well broken-in walking boots to support you through the day’s hike (and I mean well broken-in – a friend of mine lost four toenails from wearing boots that she hadn’t worn enough before the hike).
But something I wish I knew was how good it feels to take off those boots when the walking is done so your feet can breathe. Pack flip flops or light sandals for evenings – something you can slip on over socks (yep, sandals with socks, I said it).
Also on the point of socks – take loads. Don’t be thinking that you can wear the same pair more than once because they’ll be stinky, and starting your day with fresh socks is way better than starting stinky. And on the subject of stinky – take plastic bags, because not only your socks but your clothes in general will be wet and smelly from sweat and possibly from rain, and you’ll want to separate these from your nice fresh clothes.
4. Porters are the most badass people you’ll ever meet. Period.
You’ll be huffing and puffing your way along the trail, congratulating the hell out of yourself for reaching the lunch spot without collapsing. All the while, the porters will have woken up before you, cooked you a killer breakfast, taken down your tents, carried all of the tents/food/chairs/etc. and reached the lunch spot before you, AND cooked you a delicious lunch in time for your huffy puffy arrival. They’re super humans.
Remember to take cash along to tip your porters at the end of your trek. Believe me, any apprehension you may have before the trip about shelling out extra dollars will be dispelled when you see how hard they work.
5. Remedies for altitude sickness
“I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes…” No, this isn’t about love or Christmas. A tingling sensation in your fingers and toes is a side effect of Diamox (also known as Acetazolamide), the medication prescribed for soroche (altitude sickness). Make sure to seek the advice of your doctor, as these must be prescribed. If you do use Diamox, you’ll also need to pee much more frequently than usual – so prepare for some midnight dashes.
Talking medication, consider taking anti-diarrhea tablets (Loperamide) along with you too as this is a common side effect of altitude (and being in a foreign country, for some).
Alternatively, the locals swear by coca leaves to relieve the effects of altitude, and in more rural areas you’ll see Peruvians chewing away with blackened teeth. On the trail you may be offered mate de coca (coca leaf tea). It doesn’t taste fabulous so add in some honey, and you’ve got yourself a natural remedy.
6. Do you know what really bugs me…
…forgetting to take insect repellent to Machu Picchu. There are SO MANY mozzies up there. Don’t make the mistake I did in assuming that because you’re so high up there won’t be any. There are.
7. In the words of Scar: “Be prepared…”
Do some training hikes. You don’t have to be an Olympian to do the Inca Trail, but you do have to be fitter than your average couch potato.
As well as training physically, be prepared by booking early. For preservation purposes, the Inca Trail is restricted by how many people can be on it at a time. This means it books up around six months in advance. However, if you miss out on the Inca Trail, remember you can also get onto the Quarry Trail to Machu Picchu with Intrepid. It offers the same magnificent Andean scenery but no crowds, lesser-known archaeological sites and no permits required!
8. Expect the view to be indescribable
This requires little explanation. And it’s not really advice. But do brace yourself to be so in awe at the top that you’ll be lost for words. There really is no sight as breathtaking as Machu Picchu.
What is the Machu Picchu trek difficulty?
The difficulty of the Classic Inca Trail is considered to be a moderate level hike. The classic Inca Trail Route is 43 km (26 mi) long and often steep, you will hike over four days at an elevation nearing 13,828 feet (4,215 meters). Although rated moderate, the relentless uphill (and downhill) hiking is tough. Rule of thumb: the fitter you are, the more you’ll enjoy it.
Ready to book the trek of a lifetime? Check out our wide range of Machu Picchu treks and tours.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Jen Welch, Intrepid Travel, Jen Welch, Intrepid Travel, iStock, Jen Welch)