As novices to the world of multiple day trekking we naturally learnt a great deal along the way. In addition to our personal account of the Inca Trail, hopefully the below will be useful if you are planning to do the Inca Trail or taking a trip to Machu Picchu:
We would list the below as absolutely essential and all are available to buy in Cusco if required. Quality isn't necessarily crucial but without the below it would not be a lot of fun:
Jacket that is both waterproof and windproof
Trousers that dry easily (waterproof not essential)
Lots of bags to keep clothes dry inside backpack
Waterproof walking boots
Waterproof cover for backpack-poncho could suffice
40-45 litre backpack- £1 a day to hire in Cusco
Sleeping bag- possible to hire in Cusco or from your tour operator
Foam mattress- normally provided but you may have to carry it
Warm clothes for the evening and sleeping in
Hat and gloves
Insect repellant for Machu Picchu in particular (Sandflies!)
Torch - headtorch ideal
Face wipes for overall wash use
Water purifying tablets- unless you are happy with boiled stream water
Weather Conditions in March:
Something that is guaranteed is that it will rain at some point every day so you need to be prepared for that. You spend the first 3 days over 3000m and in the clouds and although it may be sunny in Cusco it will be different on the trail. A poncho is essential in addition to a waterproof jacket as it will help to keep your backpack dry. If your spare clothes get wet there is no opportunity to dry them out.
It is mostly pleasant during the day at around 15 degrees so with steep hard climbs it is shorts and t-shirt weather. Ensure you use sun lotion when the sun is shining as you are at altitude and will burn very quickly.
It cools at higher altitudes and drops to around 5 degrees in the evenings and feels cold even in a sleeping bag so warm clothes are essential. It is also nice to have warm clothes, hat etc to sit around in during the evenings and at dinner.
What is available to buy on the trail?
The tour buses will stop in Ollantaytambo just before the start of the trail where you can buy ponchos, snacks, drinks, walking sticks (cheap wooden ones) and essentials. On the trail itself you can buy drinks regularly on day 1 and even beers at a reasonable price at the camp ground. Day 2, the break spot at Llullucha Pampa 1 hr from the summit of the pass is the last place to buy anything until the campground on day 3. Note there is no shop at day 2 camp. There should be a shop and bar at camp 3 but at the time of writing this (March 2011) the restaurant/bar was between owners so nothing was available. Day 4 Machu Picchu has a restaurant and shop selling food but expect to pay tourist prices.
Note- the trail information and pass says you are not allowed to take any plastic bottles but this is ignored. Although metal canteens (available in Cusco for around £4) are useful they are not essential and you can just refill plastic bottles. Ensure you dispose of them correctly in ample recycling bins on the trail.
These vary greatly from immaculate toilets at Machu Picchu to squatter toilets with a pile of used paper next to them and no lock on the door or lighting at night. The campground ones are particularly grim due to the number of users at the end of a muddy day on the trail. There are regular toilets on the trail which again vary in standard. Prepare yourself for the worst and you won't find it a problem.
Cost and Availability of the Inca Trail:
We used a company called Inka Trails who have an office in Cusco (3rd floor on the corner of Avenue El Sol & Plaza de Armas) but there are many others.
The official Tourist information office between Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Francisco is very helpful.
Don't buy a tour off anyone in the street and don't believe people who tell you the trail is full. Check online at the below website which is what the tour agencies use and see how many permits are still available per day or ask reputable tour operators.
Expect to pay $500 if booking in advance or around $350 if you book last minute in Cusco. We booked 3 days before the trek and there was a choice of days despite another tour agent at the airport telling us it was full. If you have an international student card you can get an additional $20-30 discount. Check what is included (return train & bus) and what you are expected to carry. E.g Some companies will carry a sleeping bag for you.
Tips are not included but are very much expected so will need to be factored in. For a group size of around 12 people with 12 porters generally 50 soles (£11) per person towards the porters is the norm. This will be given to them as part of an after dinner ceremony at the end of Day 3 as they return to Cusco on day 4.
Obviously this is a voluntary contribution but bear in mind porters work hard for very little basic pay (I can guarantee their efforts will impress you!). Also try not to overtip them too much as this may then be expected from the next group!
Guide- very much up to you depending on your group size and quality of the guide. I'm not sure what the norm is but we tipped our guide a total of 250 soles (approx £55) between us all.
Day 4 Starting Time:
The last day is obviously the biggy visiting Machu Picchu! The gates to the trail are a 2min walk from the camp and open at 5.30am. It is first come first served and to get a good position in line queuing starts at around 4am. We got there at 4.15am and were 2nd group in line. This is important as with 400 odd hikers in line if you are at the back it will be difficult to get to Machu Picchu quickly if you wish to climb Hyana Picchu or walk a relatively clear trail! Also the first 3-4 groups will get to line up with seating and an overhead cover that would protect you from any early morning rain!
Climbing Hyuana Picchu:
Hyuana Pichu is a mountain that overlooks Machu Pichu. It is a steep climb with small tricky steps in places and sheer drops in others. To reach the top you will need to clamber on your hands and knees up steps and even through a very tight tunnel. It is hard work and not for the faint hearted but the views are stunning and well worth the 45 minute climb.
Strictly 200 people are allowed to climb it on a first come first served basis at 7am and a further 200 at 10am. It is free to do once inside Machu Picchu and you will need to go to the base of the climb to sign on. A passport is required. You are not allowed to take large backpacks with you and the only bag drop is outside the main entrance so you will need to drop your bag prior to signing on for the climb. The main entrance is a 10 min walk from the entrance to Hyuana Picchu.
We were able to walk in from the trail arriving around 6.45am, drop our bags and sign on at 7.10am but the 10am was already full. I gather this may not be possible in peak season if you are doing the trail as early arrivals from Agus Calientes will get there first.
Night in Agus Calientes or not?
Depending on what time your return train is from Agus Calientes you may find it easier to stay a night in Agus Calientes. Agus Calientes is where the train from Ollantaytambo drops you and where you pick up the return train. The station is in the centre of the town which is pleasant with a large number of bars, shops, restaurants and all ranges of accommodation. The river is unbelievably torrent like in March!
The cheap trains don't return until around 7pm so you won't arrive in Cusco until around midnight. You will have been up since around 4am which makes it a very long day! If you arrive in Machu Picchu around 7am you will probably be tired and ready to leave mid afternoon.
We would advise you discuss return train times with your tour operator when booking. It will cost extra for an afternoon train.
Book a night stay in Agus Calientes- the tour operator will help with this if you explain your wish to do so. We choose to do this as a backup in case the weather was bad in Machu Picchu but it also means you can take the bus (this should be included as part of your trek) or walk (1 hr 15 downhill) to Agus Calientes whenever you like.
The Demands of the Trek:
It is not easy and will involve walking at least 6 hrs per day depending on the speed of your group. It is very hilly on days 2 & 3 and bear in mind the altitude will make it even harder. If you are unsure of your fitness or carrying an injury etc consider paying for a porter to carry your pack. Ask your tour operator for costs which are roughly $40-50 per backpack for the 4 days!
Return to Cusco:
As mentioned above, your return should be included but if you do decide to stay you may be able to change your train ticket for the following day. Ask at the station in Agus Calientes.
The train takes you as far as Ollantaytambo where you will need to sort out your own transport back to Cusco. There are no buses, just collectivos (shared mini bus taxis). This should cost 10 soles (£2) per person and will take 1 1/2 hrs. The driving is surprisingly sensible.
Preparation and Recovery
Ensure you have at least a couple of days rest in Cusco pre trek as you will need to be physically and mentally rested. It will also help to acclimatise. Coco tea (served on the trail) or anti altitude tablets called 'Sorochi' are available at most Pharmacies in Cusco will help but spending time resting at altitude prior to the trek should suffice.
In all you should allow at least a week including minimum 2 days rest and acclimatisation in Cusco pre trek and at least a day or two afterwards to kick back rest and recover from your adventure. You will find others in your group do the same think so having a couple of days in Cusco post trek will allow you all to meet up (if you wish) on a more social level to relive the tales of your adventure!