It all started with a poster.

Hiking Machu Picchu had been on my list for a while, but it floated on that level that always got usurped by another destination when it came time to book. Then a few months ago my landlord inexplicably decided to plaster the hallway near my apartment door with a floor-to-ceiling mural of MP. A sign from the Incan gods? Who knows. But there’d be no more putting it off: I’m going to hike the Inca Trail.

The problem is, the best time for me to hike the trail due to work is not the best time to actually go to Machu Picchu.

So I’m starting with the research stage. Main question: Is November (Thanksgiving) an okay time to do the trek? Or, because it’s the start of rainy season, will hiking and camping and lugging my cameras for four days at the end of November be a terrible mistake?

I’ve decided to document my research and the resources I’ve found helpful to plan my trip to Machu Picchu. If you’ve traveled here (especially if it was over Thanksgiving), please share your tips in the comments!

Machu Picchu Trip Planning Resources

…listed in order of when I found/read them, not in order of value.

Notes from People I’ve Talked to

  • Should spend at least 2 days in Cusco to acclimate
  • Salkantay is a longer, harder but apparently less touristy hike
  • A guided group hike should be about $500-600. Plus people recommend a porter, which I’d def do given all my cameras.
  • Since November isn’t high season there’s still time (in June) to book a group. A few people have said its okay to go then, others have said it will be wet.
  • Aguas Calientes is a touristy, but fun town right near Machu Picchu. It feels a bit like a ski resort town.
  • Clilmbing Huayna Picchu is great, but there’s another mountain nearby that isn’t as popular, doesn’t sell out, and overlooks MP and HP to get an often unseen view.
  • Watch what you eat and drink — outside of Lima, a number of people I’ve met have gotten food poisoning (including in Cusco).

Choosing a Tour Operator

Booking a tour operator is the first major step when booking your Machu Picchu trip. All trekkers must go with a group, and tickets sell out up to six months in advance — so don’t wait.

I don’t want to travel with a big international brand; I want something local and Peru-centric. Research and polling friends who’ve done the trek rounded up a healthy menu of options: Llama Path, Andina Travel, Mountain Lodges of Peru, Pachamama Explorers, and SAS Travel. Llama Path, G Adventures, and SAS were the most frequently mentioned, so I settled on SAS, partially because of the company’s stellar online reviews, and partially because it doesn’t seem to offer press trips to bloggers (so the reviews I found seemed more authentic than the glowing accounts from junkets elsewhere).

I’ll be traveling with a friend so in mid-July we booked two spots on the November 22 trek. We opted for the 4-day/5-night trip, which includes a night in Aguas Calientes and a ticket to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain you see in all the MP pics) the next day. Tickets for this climb are very limited and sell out quickly, so it seemed easier to book it all at once and let the tour company take care of organizing and lodging.

Total cost for the 4-day/5-night trek, plus a porter to carry my stuff (I lug a lot of camera gear…): $780.

We booked on a Monday, and that Wednesday sent the info to some friends who were interested in joining. When they looked at the schedule, our trip was gone. Five months out, and not in peak season, and it was still sold out.

Post trip update

While I ended up going with SAS Travel, I had a pretty bad experience with the guide on our trek. Wouldn’t recommend them just because of him and the fact that we were supposed to have two guides but only got one.

Pre- and Post-Trek Travel

With our trek tickets secured, it was time to book flights. This far out there were still plenty of options. Avianca had the lowest fares, and while the price didn’t vary too much between a multi-city DC>Cusco>Lima route, it ended up working better for us to connect in Lima on the way down as well. We started on Kayak but found that Avianca’s website had more options, so booking directly there allowed us to squeeze in an extra day in Lima on the way home. Bonus: Avianca’s Star Alliance, so I’ll be earning United miles on the trip.

Total airfare from D.C. (with connections) to Cusco to Lima to D.C.: $1005.

Next up were hotels. SAS Travel had an arrangement with Hotel Marqueses in Cusco; if you stay here before your trek you can keep your non-hiking gear here while you’re on the Inca Trail. That seemed like a good set-up (and the hotel has good reviews), so we booked a stay here for the 2 nights before our trip. For the return from the trek, we thought we’d treat ourselves with a room at the swanky JW Marriott Cusco, so we booked that. However, once in Cusco we learned that we probably wouldn’t get back from Machu Picchu until 10 or 11 at night, so it seemed like a waste to go big on a fancy hotel. We cancelled the JW Marriott and opted for another night at the Marqueses where our stuff was.

Preparing for the Trip

How do you train to hike the Inca Trail? Stairs. A handful of friends who’d done the trip recommended just getting on the stairmaster and staying there. 

In reality, you can train however works best for you. Stairs will be the most useful; the trail is mostly hiking up and down giant stone stairs. Also practice walking long miles and being on your feet for hours at a time (break in your hiking boots doing this if they’re new). Some days on the trail are like 12-13 hours without many places

What to Pack to Hike the Inca Trail

I updated this list AFTER my trek, so it includes some things that I hadn’t read about but were sanity-savers (Wet wips, febreeze, Princess Gummies…).

  • DEET bug spray
  • SPF
  • Hiking Boots (ones with good ankle support)
  • Rain gear (you can buy cheap ponchos in Cusco — these are better than rain coats because they cover your pack too)
  • Bags to protect cameras from rain
  • Polarized sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Water and sweatproof layers (pants and tops)
  • Good hiking socks, like Smartwool
  • Tissues for toilet paper
  • Wet wipes (aka portable shower)
  • Febreeze spray (aka portable laundry)
  • Headlamp
  • Camelpack backpack (much easier than filling up and lugging individual water bottles)
  • Small flashlight to hang in your tent
  • Sleeping bag (you can rent these, but it grossed me out to sleep in the same bag as a bunch of other unshowered strangers — if you do this, bring a sleeping bag liner)
  • Water purification tablets (your crew will boil water from streams, but better safe than sorry)
  • Gatorade powder (hides the taste of water purification tablets)
  • Anti-diarrhea meds 
  • Altitude medicine like Diamox (this is important! Altitude sickness is no joke!) 
  • Advil
  • String or small clothesline with clips (to hang in your tent)
  • Granola bars/snacks
  • Binoculars (if you’re into birdwatching)
  • Playing cards
  • Extra batteries for your camera, or battery pack for your phone (there won’t be any place to charge en route)
  • Camera gear (optional, but here’s what I packed):
    • Canon DSLR
    • Tripod
    • Polarizing filter
    • 18-250 mm lens (to avoid swapping it mid-hike)
    • GoPro
    • GoPro stick mount (for those llama selfies)
    • GoPro head mount (useful for climbing Huayna Picchu)
    • GoPro remote
    • Canon S120 point-and-shoot
    • iPhone
    • Extra batteries (for every camera)
    • Extra memory cards

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