Who would’ve dreamed an abandoned Inca city nestled high in the Peruvian Andes would become one of the top “bucket list” locations in the world? Tips for hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu for older adults and retirees explores the challenges and rewards of experiencing this amazing culture and site.
For some, there is nothing better than the gauntlet being thrown down. You know, testing your own personal limits to see if you have still got it. Well if you want a challenge, this is a doozy for sure. Adventure, here we come!
Things to Know Before Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Who hasn’t heard of Machu Picchu?
Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983, it’s perched high between Andean mountain peaks in Peru. In 2007, it was voted as one of the new seven wonders of the world. In 2019, over half a million visitors from throughout the world visited the site.
An engineering marvel considering how the Incas were able to perfectly shape and assemble massive blocks of granite. It was constructed in the 15th century for their emperor and aristocracy. Then abandoned with the arrival of the Spaniards, left untouched for centuries. Only to be rediscovered in 1911 by archaeologist Hiram Bingham.
To preserve the site, only 2,500 tickets are sold per day.
How It All Began
As for my friends, Betty and Barney (not their real names ), Machu Picchu has always been on their “bucket list” of places to see. That fateful evening, at an informal gathering of friends, the seed to hike the trail was planted.
The previous year, they had the time of their lives on a Danube river cruise. An entire group of couples from their 55+ complex went. If they hadn’t downsized and relocated, these great memories would never have come to pass.
It really shouldn’t have been a surprise when Doug announced “who wanted to see Machu Picchu?”. And then the kicker, “let’s do the 4-day trek and see it”! That’s how it all began.
"In mere hours, the camp would break for the final leg of the trek. Sleep eluded Barney as his mind replayed the past three days. So incredible, really, a dream come. There’s something empowering about climbing through the heavens and following the footsteps of the Inca of old. Seeing and exploring buildings untouched after 500+ years.
Yet, every part of his body groaned in pain and discomfort. The first day was perfect leaving him full of pride and confidence. The second day, everything started to unravel. The pace was grueling. His breathing became labored and his legs turned to rubber. It was all he could do to keep the group in sight.
The third day even worse with the all-consuming heat and his last vestiges of energy dwindling. Recklessly plunging over craggy rocks still trying to keep the group in sight. Then came the unannounced bouts of diarrhea, further slowing him.
Frantically struggling to keep up this insane pace, he knew he was almost beaten. He felt shame after limping into camp so late. He was thankful tomorrow was the last day."
1. Know Your Limits
This trail is a challenge like no other. The highest point climbs to 13,828 ft (4,215 m) at Dead Woman’s Pass. During the 25 m (40 km) hike, there are incredibly steep ascents and descents, not to mention dealing with possible altitude sickness. One moment it can be blistering hot, then turn into a down burst soaking you to your skin.
Trekking across the high Andes is not for the faint of heart. While this might be the adventure of a lifetime, it could also end in disaster. People have died and countless numbers forced to turn back. Several questions to ask yourself:
When our friends first shared their experience, we were captivated by the sheer beauty and their sense of accomplishment. Barney shared stories of their trials and tribulations. He was obviously proud they completed the challenging route.
As much as I enjoyed hearing of their adventures, personally I wondered if it was worth it. Besides seeming expensive, it sounded more like a survival trek battling the elements. Perhaps sensing my dilemma, Barney spoke of the wonderous untouched ruins they explored. And the morning of their fourth day. The crowning moment, watching the sun rise illuminating the ancient city of Machu Picchu.
Is this something we could do?
Darn it, this would be an adventure of a lifetime!
Descending into the city and how they had it completely to themselves. At least for several hours, until the hordes of tourists arrived. Now I’m confused, what tourists? That’s when he took us completely by surprise. “and that’s when we took the train back”.
In the midst of taking a sip of her drink, Debbie almost spewed it across the table! Without thinking, she exclaimed “there’s a #$@%! train?!”. Her unspoken intent, why hike when you could take a perfectly good train!
As it turns out, you can purchase a train ticket and visit Machu Picchu in comfort, if you so desire. Also be aware there are many other options to see other sites through day hikes or guided bus tours. That’s why it’s important to understand your limitations and what you really desire.
2. Choosing Your Tour Operator
For preservation reasons, the government restricts the number of permits for hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. As these fill up quickly, you may need to book up to six months in advance.
Each tour group is limited to a maximum of 12 guests, 2 guides, and 20 porters. With only 500 permits per day, 300 are reserved for the porters and guides.
As you can see, there’s lots of companies offering tours. Your decision shouldn’t be based on cost alone as they provide varying levels of service. Take your time to research and evaluate the reviews to find which one best meets your needs. Some factors to consider include:
3. Get in Shape
Just because you’re in your mid-sixties doesn’t mean you should shy away from such an experience. Having said that, preparation is key. Getting in top-notch shape became a priority for Betty, Barney, and other couples.
They began their own walking group, soon walking several miles with each outing. To track progress and monitor their conditioning, soon everyone was sporting a Fitbit watch. Besides getting in better shape, they explored walk ways and paths previously unknown to them.
In addition, they got a gym membership for some more intensive workouts and leg strengthening. Whether or not you’re planning a mountaintop trek, getting in good shape is something we should all be doing.
Not surprisingly, everyone felt better and had more energy. They paid more attention to eating healthier and Barney had lost almost 20 lbs. by the end of the summer. The best part, their new lifestyle was sustainable and they loved feeling healthy and active!
4. Comfortable Hiking Boots/Shoes
Comfortable footwear is the most critical piece of your gear for your trek. Hiking ten or more hours in a day, a blister or sore becomes debilitating. Factors to consider when purchasing hiking footwear include:
With these thoughts in mind, Betty and Barney tried on dozens of boots before selecting ones that were best for them. And no, they didn’t get matching boots! Their long walks over the next six-months were the perfect opportunity to break them in.
5. Pack for The Elements
The dichotomy is you need to pack light while still not forgetting anything you might need. Packing becomes a balancing act at best.
While on the route, it might be sweltering hot. Then, almost without warning, the heavens can open up. At these high elevations, the UV rays are much stronger. At a minimum, you’ll want a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and light weight clothing. Of course, for those sudden rain squalls, a water proof jacket or poncho needs to be on hand.
Once you arrive in camp, the evenings can get downright chilly. Besides changing out of your sweaty hiking gear, you’ll need something warmer. This might include a light weight fleece or down jacket, sweat pants or leggings, long sleeved shirt, and extra socks. The key is to dress in layers to maintain comfort.
6. Expect You'll Get Altitude Sickness
Even spending a few days in Peru is no guarantee you won’t suffer some degree of altitude sickness. Especially when climbing to almost 14,000 feet at Dead Woman’s Pass. This is due to the air being thin at high elevations.
Coupled with the physical exertion of the climb, it’s common to experience shortness of breath and feeling somewhat lightheaded. Expect your energy level to drop and feel fatigued.
In more severe cases, you may experience headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. These can also lead to loss of appetite and disrupted sleep.
The best prevention is acclimatization and allowing your body to adapt to high elevations. Other ways to minimize altitude sickness include:
7. Get Acclimatized
Sage advice before attempting the trail is to get acclimated to higher elevation. It’s suggested you spend at least 24 hours, and preferably more to allow your body to get used to the thinner air. The highest point is Dead Woman’s Pass, almost 14,000 feet in elevation.
"As no one had been to Peru before, it’d be fun to arrive and see the sights of Cusco for three days. Lots of time to take it easy after a long flight and experience the Peruvian culture. Plus, there was lots of things to see and do in this historical city at a 7,500 feet elevation."
Cusco is, also, a UNESCO Heritage site, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas! In fact, many of the stone walls lining the street were built by the Incas. Some of the sights they planned included:
8. Stay Hydrated
You should try to drink 67 to 100 ounces (2-3 liters) of water each day. Especially when you’re sweating, you become at greater risk of dehydration. We also know that drinking lots of water helps minimize altitude symptoms.
That might seem like a lot of water and how to best manage it? The best advice is to carry two smaller water bottles in your day pack side pockets. Easily accessible and small enough you can carry in your hand when desired.
Your trekking crew will provide safe water at the beginning of each day and at lunchtime. They will either have boiled the water or added water purification tablets. Make sure you refill your bottles and stay hydrated.
9. Bring a Headlamp
Typically, the sun sets around 6 pm and everything becomes pitch black. While a flashlight is handy, a quality headlamp becomes invaluable.
After a long day of walking, it’s only natural to chit chat after dinner and swap stories. You may not feel like going to bed. However, it’s unfair to stay up as this is when the porters sleep. A better option might be to retire to your tent and either play some cards or read a book. That’s when a flashlight just doesn’t cut it.
Another situation could be the need to conduct your “business” during the middle of the night. When the toilet facilities are primitive, having both hands free becomes a blessing.
10. Bring Cash for Tips
For the trek, tipping is not mandatory. However, it is accepted and, generally, expected. Remember, the tips are not included in the overall cost of your tour.
Make sure you take enough cash with you to cover this expense. There are no ATM’s . After you see how hard the guides, porters and chefs all work to make your trip the best it can be you will, most likely, agree.
Unfortunately, no standard amount has been set out. It varies depending on the size of the group. The New Peruvian did a breakdown after conversing with several tour operators.
For a typical 4-day/3-night trek and group size of 10, the tipping for 2020 is:
Therefore, each member of your group should expect to contribute $75 - $100 US (250 - 335 soles). US cash is accepted however the chefs and porters prefer to receive their tips in Peruvian money, soles. Smaller bills are, also, recommended.
Ways of tipping vary. One way is all the money goes into a pot and, then, split among the crew. Another way is to give the total tip to the head of each area for distribution.
For example, if you have cooks and assistant cooks, the head cook would get the tip for his group to distribute. Some discourage giving individual tips as it can cause problems within the staff.
Finally, the tips are given to the chefs and porters on night 3 after your last meal. After the guided tour and lunch on day 4 at the city, the guides are given their tips.
Different tour operators have different guidelines. The best thing to do is to talk to your specific tour operator for their suggestions and recommendations.
If hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu is on your “bucket list”, the above tips may help make this the experience of a lifetime. Everything you won’t see on the “tourist train”, comes into full color when trekking the trail.
As so much in life, “the journey” is more rewarding than the destination. In many respects, the city fades in comparison to the perspectives gained when following in the Inca’s footsteps. That’s something you won’t get on the tourist train.
Here's a taste of what it will be like. If you’re up for the challenge, you won’t regret it!!