This trip changed my life.
Yes, I’ll start there.
I decided to hike the Inca Trail with G Adventures a few months ago, when I was invited to the 6-day G Adventures GX Summit in Peru as a Change Maker in the travel industry. (What an honor that experience was!) And I say this to be totally honest with you — the Inca Trail was never really something on my radar until then.
Yes, I love to hike, and I love the outdoors (overnight camping? Well… not so much). But, I am always up for a challenge, and I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to add on a 4-day, 3-night extension to my Peruvian trip invitation — and gain another chance to stretch out of my comfort zone.
…and stretch I did.
Dare I say it? I think the Inca Trail is one of the best group hikes for solo female travelers out there. Read on for my experience, plus, get my packing recommendations for hiking in South America.
But first, did I train for the Inca Trail?
One of the most popular questions I’m sure I’ll get about this hike is, “Can I do it if ___?!” and my answer is this — if it’s something you wanted to do, YES! — you can do it.
- The most difficult thing about this hike is not the hike itself, it is the altitude. Most of us aren’t used to exercising above 10,000 feet. But, this can be treated by taking altitude sickness pills, going slow, taking rests, and, in case of emergency, taking oxygen (the guides are prepared, ya’ll!). Personally, I went on a couple high-altitude, highly-technical hikes in Mexico as part of my “training” for the Inca Trail.
- The hike itself is not terribly technical. The terrain is pretty good, the paths are pretty wide, and you’re rarely on a cliff’s edge.
- If you’re in moderately good shape and go at your own pace — you’ll be fine, even if it’s hard.
- Age is nothing but a number. I saw people in their 70s hiking the trail. (Our group ranged in age from 20s to 50s.)
- Lastly, you can do anything you put your mind to!!
Day one of the Inca Trail: 7.4 miles and a 2,208 foot elevation gain
Starting at 8.8K feet above sea level, from KM 82 to Wayllabamba camp
Day one of my Inca Trail experience had me waking up before 5 a.m. and making my way to the hiking starting point to meet my group (14 amazing people representing the UK, Australia, Austria, USA, Spain and the Netherlands) and G Adventures crew of guides, chefs, and porters.
On the Inca Trail, porters carry hikers’ tents, sleeping bags, camping pads, four days of food, cooking supplies, and personal belongings (up to 6kg per person), while we carry the rest in our day packs. According to government regulations, each porter can carry no more than 22kg on their back. (Back in the day, there were no regulations, and porters carried up to 50kg!)
The group and I started the trek around 9:45 a.m. Along the way, we encountered mostly desert landscapes, the beautiful Incan sites of Llactapata and Tarayoc, as well as villagers speaking Quechua, traveling with their mules, and selling snacks.
It was a nice, gradual hike, which would prepare us for the difficulty of the next few days. There were also a lot of bathrooms along the way for 1 or 2 soles (so bring cash!).
We stopped for a gourmet camping lunch prepared by our chefs at about 2 p.m. Then we continued on to where we would camp, in Wayllabamba, where our tents and spacious campsite awaited us — cheered on upon arrival by our amazing porters!
We all settled in for another impressive camping meal, and settled into our tents to sleep around 8 p.m.
This campsite was my favorite — we had the most space between our tents, running water, and a toilet with a seat that flushed — plus, an incredible view overlooking the valley. Campsite permits are given out by the government on a rotational basis.
Day two of the Inca Trail: 6.8 miles and a 4,265 foot elevation gain
Starting at 9.6K feet above sea level, from Wayllabamba camp to Pacaymayo
This stretch of the Inca Trail is considered the most difficult day, and no wonder because of the intense elevation gain in a short(er) distance.
Our 5 a.m wakeup call came with hot coca tea and a bowl of warm water to wash ourselves (there ARE often showers at the campsites, but they are frigid). We enjoyed crepes and coffee with the sunrise, then set off — while our porters raced ahead again to the next stopping point (so that they could be ready when we arrive!).
There are a few “stairs” portions on this stretch, and the first half was the toughest for me. It was PUNISHING, and the thin air did not help. We split up to go at our individual paces, and MIND OVER MATTER became our mantra. The climate also changed gradually from a desert-scape to jungle/rainforest.
The second stairs portion of the journey was more exposed above the tree line, and a little easier for me. (Or was it that I could accomplish ANYTHING after that first section?!?) We reached Dead Woman’s Pass, or Warmiwañuska, about noon. This is the highest point of the entire hike — 4,215 meters above sea level, or 13.8K feet! And the good news is, none of us died and we all arrived feeling absolutely elated.
The group and I celebrated our achievement with a lunch of mini burgers and a lemon meringue cookie-cake, baked by our chefs at high-altitude by steam-cooking. Wow!
All-in-all, we had great weather all day — being able to add and shed layers is an absolute must on the trail. The turn of September to October is generally just before the really wet season.
Some people had a little difficulty with the altitude, but the trail is not terribly technical or unmanageable. As far as hikes go, the Inca Trail is typically rated on the upper side of moderate and the lower side of challenging. If hiking to Machu Picchu along the ancient Inca path is something that interests you, you WILL be able to do it — ONE STEP AT A TIME!
Day three of the Inca Trail: 10 miles and a 1,771 foot elevation gain
Starting at 11.8K feet above sea level, from Pacaymayo to Winaywarna
Day three’s hike is longer, but considered less difficult because the majority of day three is downhill. But as you can see with the elevation stats, there are still a fair amount of incline stretches scattered throughout the declines!
We woke again at 5 a.m. to rain and mist, and my eyes were puffy and swollen (a symptom of the high altitude). Sadly, I had another poor night of sleep in the tent, trying to find a comfortable position. (Hikers can rent solid sleeping bags and mattress pads from G Adventures for a nominal fee).
We started our hike in the fog after breakfast and packing up, which made for some eerie views, and made frequent stops along the way to visit the Incan sites of Runkuracay, Sayamarca, Phuyupatamarka (the town in the clouds), and Intipata.
It’s been pretty incredible visiting the remains of the thriving Incan empire, which lasted only for about a century, from the early 1400s until the Spanish conquest. Construction is so different compared to the Mayans or Aztecs! And DYK — many of these sites were only “discovered” recently, in the 1900s?! One notable characteristic of the Incas is the terracing — the large, multi-level construction allowed them to cultivate crops and control erosion at high altitudes in the Andes. This civilization’s engineering, agricultural, and architectural prowess is astounding!
We’ve been burning at least 2,000 calories a day, so when it came time for lunch on day three, I had never been so hungry in my life! And you know what? — CAMPING FOOD NEVER TASTED SO GOOD!!
First, I’ll just say this — at mealtimes, we always had plenty of food to eat. Serving sizes were hearty. However, all the physical activity adds up, and hunger has a vengeance.
For day three’s lunch, we had chicken fingers, roast beef, mushroom ceviche, causa (a Peruvian layered potato pie with avocado in the middle), fried rice, and carrot and lima bean salad. Then for dessert, our chefs served us a marble cake with vanilla and caramel frosting, baked for 45 minutes by steam. G Adventures is well known for their amazing food on the trail — it’s something that sets them apart from other tour operators!
We also had two vegans in the group, and if you’re wondering if they suffered, they most certainly did not. The rest of us got food FOMO when we saw Mel & Joe’s plates. Dietary restrictions = no problem.
I have to shout out our chefs, who were able to do incredible things, not only at high-altitude (which makes heating difficult), but without electricity. It’s one of the many reasons why I often appreciate an organized adventure over going-at-it-alone. It’s great to lean on someone else here and there! Still, my advice to anyone starting the trail: BRING A FEW DAYS OF SNACKS. While there were snacks for purchase at little trailside stands in the first day and a half (with the prices steadily increasing!!), I was plumb out by then. While you’ll get a big meal at mealtimes, I felt hungry every two hours after eating.
Day three was the longest day out hiking, as we made it to camp just before sundown for our last night camping on the trail. By the third night, I’m totally exhausted and know I will sleep like a baby — and the “runner’s high” of the last few days has left me with the biggest smile on my face as I turn into my cozy sleeping bag. Tomorrow’s wake up call, 3 a.m. — Machu Picchu awaits!
So much gratitude for our crew. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Final day of the Inca Trail: 3.7 miles and a 918 foot elevation gain
Starting at 8.8K feet above sea level, from Winaywarna to Machu Picchu
I finally got my first GOOD night of sleep — was it the overall exhaustion? — and we all awoke at 3 a.m. to start our hike in the rain. (The reason we had to get up so early was so the porters could pack up and catch the train back.) I’ve never been so glad to have a one-size-fits-all plastic poncho!
BTW, ugh… the toilets over the last day! No, no bueno!
The gate to the park doesn’t open until the first light of day, so hikers have to wait in corrals until allowed to head to the Sun Gate. After about an hour of waiting, we were permitted to enter and begin the length of the hike.
All of us were so hyped up — even though the last day is the “shortest” hike of the trek, and mostly downhill — for some reason it felt longer. I think it was the anticipation of the final leg of the journey, the culmination of all our efforts… Machu Picchu, one of the new seven wonders of the world.
We reached the Sun Gate at about 7 a.m., and we could barely see it through the fog. Continuing on, at about 8:30, we finished the hike and made it to our designated viewing platform for Machu Picchu. By then, the fog had mostly dissipated. TRIUMPH! Surprisingly, I didn’t feel dirty or smelly. I didn’t feel sore. I didn’t even feel very tired (yet). I felt ENERGIZED and YOUTHFUL and CAPABLE and CONFIDENT.
After the hike and a tour of Machu Picchu, the trip ends with a bus down to Aguascalientes (30m), the train to Ollantaytambo (2h), and then a bus/transfer to your final destination (varies, depending on the tour you’re on). I went back to Cusco for some R&R (more on that soon)!
Looking back, now a few days removed… I feel like I saw, and did, and felt, and CHANGED so much on the Inca Trail. I pushed my limits in a way I haven’t before. And I feel different coming back to real life… renewed, with a fresh perspective, caring about different things, and inspired. It was only four days, but I feel it like dog years — in terms of life experience and metamorphosizing moments. Travel is truly transformative.
FYI — the Peruvian government caps the number of visitors on the Inca Trail each year, and when permits are released, they sell out quickly to tour operators.
There are a number of itineraries that G Adventures offers featuring the Inca Trail hike. Browse them all, choose the most appealing and the dates that work for you. Contact me to help you book and/or decide between the various itineraries and dates! 💜
A huge thank you to everyone who shared the trek with me: my group, the crew/porters, and G Adventures. It’s been an incredible journey. If you want even more of my Inca Trail perspectives, check out my docu-style video recap (and buckle in!).
My packing list for the Inca Trail: what I did right, and what I wish I would’ve brought
I had done a little bit of research before the Inca Trail, and I knew that I had to be very choosy about what I brought and packed. And you know what? I just made the limit for the porters, while filling my 40L backpack to the brim. (For example — don’t bother with pajamas, we sleep in our clothes!)
Clothing I packed for the Inca Trail
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Rain jacket. I’ve had one for ages that I got from Target that’s mostly waterproof.
Plastic poncho (in town, I bought a one-size poncho that fit over my entire body and backpack for $1, just before I started the trail. So glad I did since we got caught in the rain, and it kept my backpack fairly dry!)
Insulated vest. I have one from Columbia that I love.
Two lightweight long-sleeved tops.
Three pairs of wool socks. I use the lighter-weight ones to hike with, and a heavier pair to sleep in.
Moisture-wicking T-shirt and tank top for that bottom layer.
Two hats: bucket hat for sun protection (which I bought in Cusco for 20 soles, approximately $5), and a baseball hat (to hide my unwashed hair!)
One scarf, one pair of gloves, and two warm headbands — to guard from wind, rain, and cold!
Trail runners. I long deliberated whether or not to go with trail runners or waterproof hiking boots on this trek. The general advice I’ve seen is to go with waterproof hiking boots (because of the propensity to rain)… but ultimately, I opted for my absolute favorite pair of trail runners because I like the agility and lightweight feel. I have owned two pairs of these and have never had a complaint, and while not technically waterproof, I stayed dry during the rainy stretch of our hike!
Alternatively, had I gone with the heavier waterproof hiking boots with a little ankle support, I would’ve bought another pair of these Oboz ones, which I’ve owned in the past and really liked. Here they are on REI and Moosejaw.
Sandals. Because once you get to your tent for the evening, you’ll want to get out of your hiking shoes — I’ve had these Tevas’ for ages, and I love them! Don’t mind us wearing socks with sandals, K?! Shop at REI and Moosejaw.
You’ll notice I don’t have a puffer/insulated packable jacket. I long debated that too, but ultimately, since September/October is really not that cold of a month, I figured didn’t need it — plus, I think it would have taken up too much space. That’s a decision I’m glad about making. I was really happy with my fleece, insulated vest, and rain jacket for my outer layers!!
And briefly while on the trail, I wished I had a pair of shorts — but that was fleeting, as the weather was very quick to turn!
Personal effects: What I packed
Backpack. Choose your daypack wisely!! I have a 40L size with a chest strap and a padded waist strap. It’s really comfortable and was the perfect size to carry my layers and what I needed daily with me on the trail. Plus, it’s compatible with my hydration reservoir. I’ve had my backpack for almost 10 years, so the exact model is not still available — but here’s one similar. I love this backpack!!
2L camelbak bladder. The porters collect spring water and purify it daily, and two liters would last me almost all day! Plus, I love how camelbaks are hands-free, plus, they’re very durable. I’ve had my bladder for probably about 10 years, and it is still in great shape.
Solar-powered power bank. This size would’ve lasted me all four days charging two devices had I not left it on all night — rookie mistake! It also fits within airline regulations of spare battery sizing for carry-on baggage.
Hiking poles. These were a lifesaver for my knees, and are available for rent from G Adventures if you don’t have your own. Rubber tips are required for the Inca Trail. Remember to pack hiking poles in your checked luggage.
Headlamp (and make it strong!). On the fourth day, we hike in the dark for a little while — plus, you’ll need lighting when you go to the bathroom at night. Having done the trail, I’m so glad I had a headlamp vs. a flashlight.
Facial wipes. While there are showers here and there on the trail, don’t expect to use them, unless you love a cold plunge!! The porters will bring each person a bowl of hot water twice on the daily. I used the facial wipes with the hot water to wash myself in my tent.
Travel towel. You don’t need a big one. I used this to dry myself off in my tent.
A small medical pouch, sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and toiletries. I brought minimal makeup and some essential facial creams. Gotta be mindful of the space and weight limit! I didn’t use anything in my medical pouch, but others took altitude sickness pills and used blister pads. Bug spray is absolutely essential!
Deck of cards. This I didn’t have — but wished I did. There’s a bit of downtime in the evenings and before dinner, so playing cards would’ve been really handy!!
Snacks. Also, I didn’t have enough snacks, but wished I did. Let this be your warning! Shop the day before you start.
Toilet paper. Few bathrooms on the trek will have TP, so you’ll need this in your daypack. Sneaky me, I grabbed a roll from my hotel. 😆
So, are you ready to travel to Peru and hike the Inca Trail? I hope I’ve inspired you to do a little group travel: and maybe even join my next group trip!! Let’s experience something amazing together 😍🌏🎒
Doing more hiking or South America travel? Check out my Amazon storefront. And join my Facebook group, open to anyone traveling or thinking about traveling with me on a mini-sabbatical trip — you’ll find announcements, tips, and can chit-chat with other group participants!