Machu Picchu Treks

Tips For Hiking To Machu Picchu

Tips For Hiking To Machu Picchu
By Maureen Santucci

Whatever trail you choose, hiking or trekking to Machu Picchu is a vigorous endeavour that should be treated with the respect it deserves.

That said, thousands of people – of all ages and ability – complete these treks each year. There are no special skills required, just determination and thorough preparation.

Huayna Picchu looking on Machu Picchu

A hiker at the top of Huayna Picchu

Any adventure activity in an unpredictable climate demands careful preparation and sensible packing. Use the climate advice above as a guide but be prepared for rapid changes in weather and hiking conditions.

Check what camping equipment is provided by your operator. Tents and foam mats are usually provided, but you’ll probably need to bring your own sleeping bag–a three-season rating is recommended. Some operators will rent these, check when you book.

Machu Picchu trekking safety


You don’t need to be exceptionally fit and strong to complete a trek – moderate fitness is fine, although it won’t hurt to prepare with some cardio exercise in the weeks and months before you travel.

Book with a credible, well-established operator for the reassurance of a professional, safety-conscious guide who will anticipate any problems before they arise.

Aside from the Inca Trail, many trekking routes follow faint or even non-existent trails, sometimes alongside sheer drops with no guardrails. It’s safe provided you heed your guide’s advice and pay attention to where you’re walking. It’s a good idea to use hiking poles here, even if you are typically sure-footed.

Avoiding altitude sickness

By far the most important factor to keep in mind is the altitude. Machu Picchu is situated at 2,430m above sea level and Cusco at an incredible 3,400m. Arriving here from Lima or elsewhere you’ll immediately notice the thin air, with reactions ranging from mild breathlessness to headaches and nausea. Severity varies by person and is usually more pronounced for younger and older travellers.

It’s essential that you acclimatise before beginning your trek – a minimum of 3 days is ideal. During that time drink plenty of coca tea (the Inca’s secret remedy for altitude sickness), stay hydrated, avoid alcohol and heavy meals, and generally just go easy on yourself.

Trekking tip

Upon arrival to Cusco, it’s worth immediately heading to the lower altitudes of the Sacred Valley to acclimatise for a few days before heading back to explore Cusco. After this your body should be well adjusted to begin trekking.

Medical conditions

Be sure to disclose any pre-existing conditions to your trekking operator at the time of booking so that they can be forewarned and prepared. If you have any heart or respiratory conditions it’s particularly important to get your doctor’s clearance before travelling at altitude.

Managing stomach issues

Foreign travel always carries a slight risk of picking up new stomach bugs. What’s usually a mild inconvenience in the comfort of a hotel can easily derail your trekking experience when you’re halfway up a mountain. Nausea and diarrhoea make it difficult for your body to stay hydrated and absorb sufficient nutrients from your food, which can make you feel weaker and less steady on your feet.

Bring whatever medication works best for you, and in the days prior to beginning your trek follow common-sense eating and drinking rules: avoid tap water, raw foods washed in untreated water and anything else that might risk a stomach upset.

Travel insurance

This should go without saying but it’s astonishing how many people travel without proper insurance. The vast majority of claims are for transport delays but still double check that your policy covers trekking and full medical evacuation. Buy your policy in your country of residence before you travel. Don’t assume that your credit card provides comprehensive travel cover–it probably doesn’t!

Nutrition

All food and drink will be provided, including three square meals and plenty of water and energy-dense fruit and snacks to keep you going through the day. Follow your guide’s advice and eat and drink plenty–it’s essential you remain well hydrated.

Emergency procedures

Ask about your operator’s emergency procedures and first-aid equipment and training before you book. Horses and mules are not allowed on the Inca Trail but on other routes, there should be an “emergency horse” for exhausted or sick trekkers.

Tourist looking over Machu Picchu Peru

Backpacker looking over Machu Picchu

What to pack to hike to Machu Picchu

Gear
  • Backpack to carry all your gear: Depending on the trek this may be carried by porter or horse. There may be weight restrictions. You can leave excess baggage with your operator HQ in Cusco.
  • Waterproof backpack cover: Essential during the rainy season.
  • Daypack: This is what you’ll carry yourself while hiking–layers, snacks, water, camera, etc.
  • 1-litre water bottle.
Footwear
  • Hiking boots: Quality boots for uneven, rocky and sometimes slippery surfaces. Be sure to wear them in before you start hiking.
  • Hiking socks: Four pairs of synthetic or wool hiking socks.
Outerwear
  • Waterproof, breathable rain jacket (Gore-Tex or similar). Waterproof rain pants for rainy season.
Layers
  • Synthetic or wool (no cotton), long-sleeve top.
  • Synthetic trekking pants.
Headwear
  • Warm hat: Beanie or similar.
Around camp
  • Sleeping Bag: Synthetic or down sleeping bag.
  • Two waterproof compression sacks, one for your sleeping bag, the other to fit your extra layers.
  • Sleeping pad: Closed-cell foam pad or inflatable air mattress.
  • Headlamp.
  • Heavyweight synthetic top: For staying warm around camp.
  • Thick fleece or wool gloves.
  • Sandals: For around camp and crossing streams and rivers.
  • Sacred socks: Heavy, warm pair of socks to put on at night. Keep dry at all costs!
Personal items
  • Sunglasses with case
Toiletries
  • Personal medications
  • Sunscreen/lip protection
  • Pack towel
  • Book/Kindle
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Insect repellent
Optional items
  • Hiking poles: Important–metal tipped poles are not allowed on the Inca Trail.
  • Bandana
  • Accessory carabiners
  • Synthetic liner socks
  • Gore-Tex or Lightweight Neoprene Socks
  • Waterproof gaiters (for rainy season)

Responsible trekking

Part of the joy of travel is discovering the social context of your destination. It’s important to understand the background of the place you’re visiting, and the impact your presence will inevitably have. This is especially important in a largely indigenous area such as the Cusco region, where a long and often turbulent political and cultural history has reverberations that still echo today.

Peru’s problematic industry

Like much of the Andes, Cusco is a relatively poor region with significant poverty in its rural areas. Livelihoods, food security and basic healthcare and education are all in short supply. In this context, a booming tourism industry can have a pronounced impact, both for the good and the bad. On the plus side, it means new employment opportunities: more trekking means more demand for porters and guides, as well as hotels, restaurants and other services in the city.

The downside is that much of this new employment is low-level service work for international companies, with little wealth remaining in the surrounding area. It can also mean disruption for traditional livelihoods and farming, as people leave rural areas for more lucrative tourism work – causing a further knock-on effect on agricultural production, traditional livelihoods and the fragile economic balance within families and villages.

By asking the right questions you can understand – and mitigate – your role in this complex picture.

Find out how many locals are employed by your operator, and whether it has any employee-ownership structures. The best tourism businesses are ones that give local people a stake in their success.

Ask about responsible recruitment practices; trekking outfitters should have longstanding relationships with the villages they recruit from and should be aware of the impact that their recruitment has on rural communities.

Ask to see your operator’s porter welfare policy. There should be a strictly enforced maximum load and they should receive adequate accommodation, food and equipment (especially hiking boots) while on the trail. They should receive fair wages, be paid on time and have full life/accident insurance.

Ask about their wildlife and environmental practices. There should be a zero litter policy–all litter should be packed off the trail and toilet waste should be properly buried.

The best operators all proactively support community welfare, education and employment projects in the Cusco region. Ask your operator if and how they support and give back to their local community.

Ollantaytambo Peru

Women and children in traditional Peruvian clothes at Ollantaytambo

Be a respectful visitor

If your trekking operator is involved with community or education projects in the Cusco region they may appreciate gifts or donations to help support their work.

Some trekking routes wind their way through Andean communities and you may even spend a night in a local village. They’ll be well accustomed to gringos passing through and you’re bound to catch a friendly smile or two. Many trekkers enjoy bringing gifts to hand out to the local kids–try to think about what would be most beneficial. Avoid teeth-rotting sweets and opt for educational toys, pens, paper, colouring books, etc. Less tasty but much more useful in the long run!

Keep in mind that you’re visiting a socially conservative and reserved part of the world. Be mindful of your attire and how much skin you’re revealing (although you’ll usually be too wrapped up to worry about that!). Ask for permission before taking photos of people or their children, show courtesy and respect for your hosts, and generally aim to behave in a way that you’d expect from visitors to your own turf.

Tipping guides and porters

There’s no doubt that portering is an arduous occupation but, with a good employer and proper welfare policies, it can also be an enjoyable and financially rewarding job. Andean people are tough and purpose-built to thrive in a harsh environment–you’ll be amazed by their physical strength and stamina!

One of the many highlights of your trek will be getting to know your guide, cook and porters. You’ll be astonished by the minor miracles they work each day to get your gear, equipment and provisions up and down those mountain passes, with camp and a hot meal always ready and waiting for your arrival.

Showing your gratitude for their superhuman efforts is an important element to the overall experience. Towards the end of the journey, your guide will probably organise a group gathering to give you an opportunity to say thanks and present the support staff with a tip.

The suggested range is $8-12 per guide/porter per day. You can pool your tips as a group and they’ll split it out between them.

The tip isn’t considered mandatory, especially if service has been below expectations, but it is highly expected and makes a huge impact on the take-home pay for a group of extremely dedicated workers.

Tips For Hiking To Machu Picchu

Maureen Santucci

Maureen is based in the ancient Peruvian capital of Cusco, where she works as a travel advisor and journalist covering Peru for Fodors Travel Guides and a variety of other publications.

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