Why Backpacking the Inca Trail Is Better Than Machu Picchu Itself

As you may know, the Inca Trail is one of the most famous trails that leads directly to one of the New Seven Wonders of The World, Machu Picchu. While most people opt for the easy route by taking the train and bus to see this wonder, I cannot emphasize enough to you that you should trek one of the trails instead. So full of rich history and beautiful views. It was more inspiring and enjoyable than Machu Picchu itself. Here are my tidbits of information that you will want to know before trekking this specific trail, and why you should hike any of the trails leading to Machu Picchu instead of the train and bus.

By: Katie Y + Save to a List

With the Christmas and NYE holidays this past year falling on weekdays, it was the perfect time for me to take off work for 2 to 3 weeks and go to a new country. I always try to find ways to take advantage of those free days off without dipping into my vacation hours. You'd think it was hard for me choosing backpacker meals and trail mix over the traditional carb-induced comas from the holiday meals, or the sweet and delectable pies Grandma makes. You'd also think it was harder for me to talk my way out of the family gatherings. Lucky for me, my mom knows how much I love backpacking and traveling and was willing to work around the schedule -- Love you, Mom!! :)

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

Nope. It was harder for me to find one of my fellow backpacker friends who would take a trip with me to see Machu Picchu. Why you ask? While a new country and hiking is always appealing to my backpacking friends, dealing with Instagrammers and millennials who have made this wonder of a place into a zoo isn't appealing to adventure-seeking trail lovers. It has made it into a place you go for the "shot." The "do it for the likes!" people. With over 5,000 people a day visiting this place, it seemed like you were at Disney World rather than a historical and memorable place to witness. Peace-seeking, solitude, and the beauty in nature is what my hiking friends want. It was understandable why I was having a hard time finding someone to go with me. After a couple months of being shut down and starting to plan for a different trek to take solo, a friend finally came through with joining me for the Inca Trail. The planning begins!

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

I wrapped my brain around the fact that this could be a highly trafficked trail and started researching what to expect. First, you will find out that as of 2014, you are no longer allowed to legally hike the Inca Trail without a permit and official guide. This is because of the sad fact that some people do not treat the outdoors and ruins with respect as well as the regulations of how many are allowed to enter MP in a day. Climbing the ruins, leaving trash behind, and graffiti are some of the reasons behind these new rules. With the new regulation of needing guides, tour companies began to grow in profit and led to many desperately needed jobs.

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

Each tour company provides porters to help carry weight, if you want to pay for one to carry part of your gear. If you carry your own backpack, they still carry the food and cookware for the meals which is included in the price of the trek. The porters come from all over the mountains to be able to take this job. If you're like me, you prefer to save your money, research on your own, cook your own meals, and carry your own gear. You may shirk at the idea of paying someone to hold your hand to trek through clearly marked trails. Unfortunately, you must book with a company. So just bite the bullet and know, you will fall in love with the trail. It will be worth the money.

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

When booking your tour company, you'll see a huge list of companies that the Peruvian government has acknowledged as being "official" companies. This means they have been approved for leading groups of people on the trails. This also means they have their shit together. You will be impressed to say the least with how you're treated on the trail. You will be spoiled by their knowledge of the history, the food they cook you, and the extra little ways they look out for you. We booked our trek with the company Llama Path. Incredible company, well-spoken English speaking guides, and some of the best food we had in Peru was on this trail. We heard from other hikers that most of the companies had about the same treatment and experience. 

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

Some of the things you'll notice about the tour company is that they will provide you with every single piece of hiking gear you will need besides clothing. My friend and I had all the hiking gear we needed to camp and such, however, the tent is provided by the company regardless if you bring your own. Some of the gear they provide for renting: sleeping bag rated to 0 degrees, sleeping foam pad, trekking poles, and a porter. If you rent a porter, you will be limited to 30lbs for them to carry--and rightly so. You will notice what they carry IN ADDITION to your 30lbs on the day you start the trek. They are carrying 4 days worth of food for their team AND your group, cookware, tents for dining and sleeping, and more. It is crazy.

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

Something you'll learn pretty early on in this farming-focused land is that the people that live in the base of the mountains are considered to be the "rich" people of Peru. Here is where the rain is plentiful from streaming down from the mountain. That rain is gold. Feeding the crops what they need to grow, the farmers and families that own this land have the best of the best...the cream of the crop. The people that live on the mountain sides struggle for production and to find ways to put money in their pocket and food on the table. This is the reason you will see all porters from all over the mountain sides coming to these tour companies to provide a means of transporting food and such through the trails to Machu Picchu for groups. 

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

We were made increasingly aware of the lifestyles and struggles of the porters by our guides to be able to make money from jobs. It is a source of income for them for their families. Seeing the porters running up the mountains with those big backpacks and heavy weight...remember them, and tip them well, even if you carry your own backpack and gear. Don't be stingy. They cook incredible meals and make sure you are taken care of. Boiling water for you and cooling it, so you have fresh and clean water every day of your trek. It is no easy feat carrying all that up a mountain in that elevation. They also bring buckets of boiled warm water for you at the end of each day and in the mornings, so you can bathe parts of your body. There was also other lovely small gestures that I'll leave for them to show you.

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

Another thing you'll learn about the country is that they pride themselves on having 5 star experience for food in the main cities like Lima. Three of the 50 best restaurants in the world are right there in Peru. We had the luxury of having a top chef in Peru as one of our tour company's chef for the trek. We were pampered to delicious breakfasts, snacks for the trail, four or five dishes for lunch, happy hour (specialty non-alcoholic drinks and cakes), and finally a three or four course dinner that includes HUGE dishes that we never could finish. From the first day's meals you'll soon be shocked by how much food these porters are carrying up the mountains. The food ranged from rice, corn, potatoes, quinoa, chicken, beef, vegetables, and so much more. They were delicious meals to say the least. I went to bed every night with a food baby. But guess what...I never got tired or weak on the trails. All those delicious meals kept me going up those high elevations. I never ate any of my trail mix or snacks. I never needed them with the excellent fuel the company cooked for us. 

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

Hiking the trails was an incredible experience. You will pass historical and impressive ruins, vistas overlooking the Andes' snow capped mountain ranges, grasslands with grazing llamas roaming freely, babbling brooks flowing beside the originally paved Incan steps in the midst of the Amazon Jungle, lakes of pooled rain water on mountain sides, huge condors flying high in the sky, and so much more. It is serene, quiet, and peaceful.

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

There were about six other companies with groups hiking the trail, when we were there. There were plenty of times I had solitude to myself on the trail without seeing anyone for at least 20 minutes. You will have both hikers and porters every day in front or behind you. You'll occasionally hear someone yell, "Porter!" from behind you. This lets you know to move to the side, so they can pass you (as you will be pretty embarrassed by how fast they pass you with those huge packs.) Don't fret, many people will tell you that high elevation is no joke. We only passed one person that had bad enough altitude sickness that they had to turn around and be taken to a hospital. 

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

Taking each day steady and slow will help you get acclimated pretty well. Bring warm clothing for when you reach Dead Woman's Pass to sit and enjoy the view of what you've accomplished. Take as many breaks as you want when climbing the "Gringo Killer" before Sun Gate. Don't run past Sun Gate to hurry and get to Machu Picchu. This overlook is probably your best time for photography shots that is guaranteed to have 1,000 less people in your photo. And what a view!

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

In four days, I saw an impressive amount of ruins that had so much history and interesting facts that our tour guides taught us. We were able to learn so much over that hike that I can honestly say it was the highlight of our trip, even over seeing Machu Picchu. Arriving at Machu Picchu, you will be ushered around by your tour guide telling you all kinds of facts and names of each structure. It's all fascinating and worth listening to, but you'll be crowded around your people you hiked with while looking out into the crowd. You'll soon realize how smelly and dirty you are from not showering for four days and how cute those train riders look in their selfies with a llama and Machu Picchu. Don't let that bother you. You got to see the true Peruvian-rich culture in the heart of the Andes mountains and Amazon Jungle without feeling like you were herded cattle. You got to appreciate the lives of the Peruvians who came from all over to help you experience the Inca Trail. 

Photo by: Katie Yarborough

You want a real experience with beautiful and incredible views? Hiking any trail leading to Machu Picchu is worth the trek and more meaningful. Forget about the train. Forget about the hoards of people at Machu Picchu. Experience the trails and take in a true Peruvian Machu Picchu trek.

Photo by: Katie Yarborough
Cover Photo by: Katie Yarborough

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.


The Adventurous Route to Machu Picchu

Madalyne Staab

A New Airport Near Machu Picchu?

Kyle Frost

5 Experiences Every Traveler Should Have While Visiting Peru

Hillary + Matt

Trekking to Machu Picchu Without a Guide

Sean O'Brien

Peru’s Salt Ponds Left Us Drooling

How Far From Home