The DOs and DON'Ts of Planning Your Trek to Machu Picchu

03 August 2015

Peru has been on my shortlist of places to visit ever since Caileigh came back from her trip with G Adventures, but it wasn't until I was chatting up my co-worker (and friend) that this dream became a reality. She had her heart set on hiking the Inca Trail, and I took this as a once in a lifetime opportunity and got on board.

This was my first overnight trek, so in full transparency, I had no idea what I was doing. In fact, I became somewhat of an authority on what NOT to do while preparing for my trek. Learn from my mistakes, people, and use this little guide.

DO Plan Months in Advance
Six months! That's how far in advance you need to book the Classic Inca Trail. Why? There are only 500 passes per day, with just over half of them going to tour companies. We were late bloomers, so to our dismay, tickets had already sold out for our travel dates. Instead, we settled on the 4-day/3-night Lares Trek. But that's not your only option if you decide to drag your feet about it. There are six common alternative routes to the Inca Trail to choose from.

DO Research Tour Companies
There are many options for tour companies, but this was going to be my first trekking experience, so I sought out personal recommendations. We heard about Alpaca Expeditions, a company local to Cusco, Peru, from a friend of a friend. We wanted to prioritize a company committed to responsible travel, and we were impressed by Alpaca's dedication to its employees and the local communities in the region. The founder of Alpaca Expeditions was once a porter himself and created a company that would provide appropriate gear and better working conditions to its employees. 

We had exchanged a few emails with members of their team, and they were very responsive, kind and helpful. They even sent us a very thorough description of how they handle emergency situations to calm any fears my mom had about me going with asthma (hi, mom!). And they're really active on social media, so we liked that we could get a glimpse of what trekking with them would be like before our trip. 

I bet my tour company is nicer than yours. I strained the arch of my foot while hiking a volcano in Costa Rica, and it was struggling to heal before my trek. I had reached out to Alpaca to confirm whether I could switch into one of the train tours to Machu Picchu instead. The staff was incredibly helpful and sincerely wanted me to enjoy my time in Peru, so they were willing to rebook me on another tour at no extra cost, even up to two days before our trek! I ultimately decided to suck it up, but it was awesome knowing I had their support and help. 

DON'T Put Off Training
I had never done anything like this before, and truthfully, I had always planned to train for it, but life got away from me. Big mistake. If you are looking into a trek of any kind, I recommend considering your fitness level. You will be among a group with varying athletic abilities, and while you don't have to be a seasoned trekker, you should be aware that should you choose to move forward, and you struggle to keep up, you are committed. There isn't exactly an easy way of backing out, and depending on your guide, the group may venture on ahead of you. Question your physical ability before booking your trek, and make training a priority. I happily struggled through in the back, but a friend of mine totally killed it and was simultaneously training for a marathon. Perspective.

DON'T Skimp on Traveler's Insurance
Alpaca required that we had traveler's insurance in order to book our trek, so we had originally purchased ours through Delta Allianz when we booked our flights without thinking through it much. However, after reading a tip from our friends at Two Scots Abroad, I was surprised to find that our policy wouldn't cover us at the altitude at which we'd be trekking. Luckily, Allianz has great customer service and refunded my policy despite being far beyond the cancellation date. I rebooked with World Nomads who covered me at roughly the same cost. World Nomads is great for both short and long-term travel, and you can purchase packages based on the type of activities you'll be doing.

DO Make Sure You Have the Right Gear
Be sure to keep an eye out for our upcoming packing list. However, should you forget anything, there are plenty of places to purchase last-minute items in Cusco. You can find real The North Face stores as well as The North "Fake" jackets at shops and markets all over the city. I ended up picking one up for about $30 and was really glad I did.

Be aware of what pieces of gear your tour company will provide at no extra cost. Alpaca took care of our tents, sleeping mats, duffel bags, rain ponchos and daypack covers. We also had the option to rent a fancier sleeping mat, sleeping bags and walking sticks. I was fine with the standard mat, but I highly recommend the other two. A few of my travel companions opted out of walking sticks and quickly regretted it, and the sleeping bags are high quality by The North Face. 

The night before your trek, you'll need to pack everything you need in your daypack and duffel bag, which will likely have a weight restriction (ours was 7kg). The rest of your belongings can usually be stored at your hostel, but make sure you confirm before booking. 

When selecting a daypack, keep in mind the things you'll need to carry all day, every day. For me, it was quite a list because I was unaware of a few things that would be provided by the tour company, and my pack was definitely overloaded:
  • 3L hydration reservoir
  • Baseball cap
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug Spray
  • Toilet Paper
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Sunglasses
  • Meds (Diamox for altitude sickness, tylenol and Imodium)
  • Dry bag for camera in case of rain
  • Daypack rain cover (provided by Alpaca)
  • Poncho (provided by Alpaca)
  • Towel for washing hands (provided by Alpaca)
  • Snacks (Epic bars I brought and some provided by Alpaca)
  • Gifts for the local Quechua children

DO Budget Accordingly
I'm not going to lie, this trek is a decent splurge at $555 per person, not including any additional rentals like sleeping bags or walking sticks. There are certainly cheaper tour operators, however, we felt very strongly about selecting a company that came not only highly recommended but also promoted responsible tourism. We wanted to be well cared for. And despite some unexpected challenges that made it a bit more costly, I think going with a company that you feel most comfortable with is always worth the price, especially if it's your first trek like it was for us.

In addition to the trek price, you'll also want to account for tipping your team. Alpaca Expeditions has a guide on its website, but I recommend asking because this will likely need to be paid for in cash, and there aren't exactly ATMs along the trail. Even with the company's suggestion on what to tip, we still found the process to be rather confusing. We were required to pool tips as a group, and our guide convinced us the recommendation was in USD, not soles as it was listed on the website. Afraid of being disrespectful, we all threw in whatever money we had left, which ended up being very costly for a few of us on a tight budget. Whatever you decide to tip, use your own discretion.

Once you have your budget set, taking into account trek fees, tips and any extra cash you might want to carry just in case (this is recommended), keep in mind that ATMs in Cusco only let you take out $200 per day, so you may need to make a few trips. Your company may let you pay with credit card, but Alpaca required an additional 5% service charge to do so, which adds up.

DON'T Forget to Visit Your Doctor
The CDC recommends travelers have certain vaccines before visiting Peru. You'll also need to consult your doctor for altitude sickness meds, should you decide to take them along. I knew the trek was going to be hard enough for me as it was, so I opted for the pills. It's my understanding that in the United States, you need a prescription to get these. Consult your doctor.

You can get similar meds in Peru, however, keep in mind that you may need to start taking your pills a certain period of time before you reach altitude. We stopped in a pharmacy in Lima and spoke all sorts of Spanglish to get some for my friends. 

DO Make Time for Acclimatizing 
Because you'll be at such a high altitude, it is recommended that you arrive at Cusco a few days before your trek to acclimatize. We had planned for three days before our trek, and with the meds we took, none of us had any issues. Drink a lot of water and take it easy for a few days in Cusco. We decided to take another day tour with Alpaca to the Sacred Valley, and it proved to be a great experience. 

Read about my first two days of the Lares Trek!

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