While the Inca Trail is one of the most popular treks in the world, it can be surprisingly hard to find solid information on the logistics, breakdowns of complete costs, and reliable reviews on trekking companies. If you’re panicking about whether to run out and buy hiking boots or how much you’ll need to tip, read on.
We hiked the trail from October 27th, 2013 – October 30th, 2013 with Llama Path. This was the start of the rainy season. High season is June-August, and for treks during this time you’ll need to book at least six months in advance. We booked about three months ahead of time and chose the first dates available. Treks depart from Cusco, Peru — plan to arrive 48 hours ahead of time to take care of last minute arrangements and acclimatize to the altitude.
• Don’t skimp on your trekking company. I saw prices starting from $500 but was happy to pay $600 to go with a company that was personally recommended to me and that had a reputation for excellent porter care. Once you’re paying so much, you might as well pay a bit more for quality.
• Rent sleeping bags and walking sticks independently. Renting through Llama Path would have cost us $38, instead we paid less than $17 by renting from the camping stores on Calle Plateros. However, check thoroughly before agreeing to anything — our sleeping bags were great but our walking sticks were seriously subpar.
• Hire a porter unless you are absolutely sure you can do without. Through Llama Path, hiring an extra porter to carry up to 7kg of your personal belongings cost $70 per person. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to make it without! Out of our group of fifteen, eleven hired porters. Out of the four who didn’t, one had to give up and hire a porter en route for 100 soles per day (about $36).
• If you do hire a porter, remember that about 3kg out of the 7kg allotted will be taken up by your sleeping bag and sleeping mat. The rest is what you have left for clothing and toiletries. Anything you want access to throughout the day (camera, first aid, sunscreen, etc.) will go in your daypack, which you’ll have to haul yourself.
• Dress like an onion, in the words of my guide. Nights are incredibly cold and it will likely be quite chilly when you get started in the morning, but chances are you’ll be sweating by midday. I would wear running shorts under my leggings, a few layers on top, and always have a hat and gloves near.
What to Pack
• A Camelbak for easy hydration. This was the single thing I was most grateful for.
• Newspaper for drying out shoes overnight.
• Plastic bags for dirty and wet clothes.
• Snacks — but not too many. Llama Path kept us well fed and snacked and had I brought too many treats I would have resented the weight. I recommend nuts and protein bars — the latter is impossible to find in Cusco, though, so bring from home.
• Baby wipes — though again, not too many. Llama Path provided us with warm water and wash clothes for “showers” each night.
• Small change for the first and last days. On the first day, there were pay-for-use bathrooms and vendors selling cold drinks and snacks, and on the last day at Machu Picchu there is a charge for everything from using the toilet to storing your bags.
• Flip flips to change into at night — your toes will thank you!
• A headlamp to navigate camp in the evenings and pre-dawn mornings.
• Tissues or toilet paper for the bathroom — they aren’t provided.
• A good daypack. I was so grateful for my Eagle Creek Afar Backpack — I was probably carrying twice the weight of some others who were using less appropriate packs, and felt half the pain.
• Something to read in the evenings. I brought along a Machu Picchu inspired book and it was the perfect thing to drift asleep to in the evenings, and to finish on the train ride back to Cusco.
• A Scottevest. I’m the first to admit I never would have bought this for myself, but I’m so thrilled that I received one at TBEX — it’s the best hiking accessory! I stash my chapstick and face sunscreen stick in one pocket, my iPhone and earbuds in another and my cash somewhere else and boom — I have my most commonly-needed items within arms’ reach.
• A small first-aid bag with blister pads (difficult if not impossible to find in Cusco), pain killers for sore muscles, and coca leafs or coca candies for altitude symptoms.
• A poncho and bag cover. I had a poncho but wished I also had a rain-proof bag cover to stick on my bag when it was just lightly drizzling. In those times I didn’t mind getting a bit wet but I didn’t want my bag to get heavier being weighed down by rain. Simple ponchos cost about 3 soles in Cusco.
• A travel pillow and earplugs. It might seem frivolous to some but I credit the excellent sleep I had on the first few nights to that pillow, and earplugs were necessary due to the different sleep hours of various group members.
• A note on shoes. When I announced I was hiking the Inca Trail in sneakers, it was met with a bit of hand-wringing. I stuck to my guns and in the end I’m so glad. For me, they were the right choice: I was bringing them anyway as I like to run when I travel, and didn’t want to carry an additional pair of heavy hiking boots. Also, I didn’t want to spend the money and I feared I wouldn’t have the time to break them in and blisters would result. Sneakers turned out to be perfectly adequate, though they did get a bit soggier than hiking boots might have on our rainiest day. If you go this route, I recommend always keeping dry socks in your daypack and bringing newspaper to help dry them out at night.
Highlights and Lowlights
• Highlights: Making fantastic friends, completing Dead Woman’s Pass, relaxing at Winay Huayna, each and every meal with Llama Path, the views at Intipata
• Lowlights: The bathrooms (seriously what the heck was going on there), the race to The Sun Gate, the weather on second and fourth days, the crowds at Machu Picchu
What did it cost?
• $600 to Llama Path
• $12 in Paypal fees to send our deposit (this was the lowest-fee option we could choose)
• $40 tip for guides (we were recommended to tip $5 per day to the head guide and half that each to the two assistant guides)
• $37 tip for the porters and cook (we were recommended to give, as a group, 65 soles to each of the 22 porters, and double that to the 1 cook)
• $17 for sleeping bag and walking stick rental (12 soles for walking stick, 35 soles for sleeping bag)
• $70 porter services (Llama Path provided us with complimentary porter services as a media perk, but I have included it here)
Total cost: $776 USD
Other costs not listed here include supplies baby wipes (5 soles), warm clothes purchased in Cusco including as a knock-off North Face fleece, fleece-lined leggings, and a hat (105 soles), snacks (10 soles), breakfast on the first day and lunch on the last.
Did we love Llama Path?
Yes! Choosing a trekking company can be overwhelming. Llama Path was recommended to me by two separate friends who used them during their own Peru treks, and I was impressed with their reputation for having the best porter care among all Inca Trail-licensed agencies.
The biggest plus for Llama Path was the logistics. Camp was set up expertly, sleeping tents were warm, and the food was some of the best I’ve had in Peru. Seriously, I can’t overemphasize how much I looked forward to mealtimes. I was blown away! There were some in our group with special dietary needs and I was amazed how sweetly they were accommodated.
Though this was never confirmed for me, I suspect that Llama Path’s long standing reputation gave us preference when things like campsites were assigned. Other companies were assigned different campsites and therefore had different itineraries, and I was very grateful for our schedule which got the pain out of the way on the second day rather than spreading it out.
The one area where Llama Path could improve is in the quality of guiding. In terms of giving technical trekking advice and motivating the group, our head guide was fantastic. But when it came time to give historical background or answer questions clearly, we were often left scratching our heads. From talking to trekkers in other groups this seemed to be a universal issue and I wonder if it comes down to a language barrier — the Quechua language is incredibly complex and less similar to English than Spanish, the native language of guides I had elsewhere throughout Peru.
Last Words of Wisdom
If there were two things I wish I had known before I started the Inca Trail, they were these:
1. I could do it. I spent a lot of time pre-trek worrying about my physical abilities, probably related to my turn-back from the Rinjani summit earlier this year. I hope this trek has instilled a bit more confidence in me.
2. Train train train! Every second spent preparing will pay off tenfold when you’re on the trail.
3. Cherish the pre-Machu Picchu sites. I was understandably very focused on the final destination, which in a lot of ways was a bit of an anti-climax thanks to insane crowds and crappy weather. In retrospect, our secluded time at the Inca sites along the trail were actually the more memorable moments. Slow down and enjoy having them to yourself!
Any questions? Ask away in the comments and I’ll try my darndest to help!
Llama Path provided me with free porter services as a media courtesy, but otherwise I paid all expenses out of pocket. As always, you receive my most honest and thorough reviews regardless of who footed the bill. Some links in this post are affiliate links, meaning I will make a small percentage of any sale that results from clicking them. Thanks for helping to keep Alex in Wanderland running!