Hostel life can be easy and comfortable if you remember to pack beyond the basics. Although I try to keep my backpack as light and compact as possible, there are a few “extras” I always bring with me.
Here’s my list of seven things that you shouldn’t leave home without, whether you’re backpacking for a week or a year.
Locks: This is essential for staying in dorm rooms. Most provide lockers, but you are normally expected to bring your own lock. I prefer using a combination lock so I don’t have to carry around a key, but sometimes the lockers won’t fit a regular combination lock, so my small padlock that I use to lock my suitcase comes in handy. If you have room for the extra weight, a cable lock is a good tool for the solo traveler in case you need to momentarily leave your baggage unattended. (Which I don’t recommend, but sometimes you may leave your bag in a bus agency office or something while waiting for a bus. If you do this, always make sure all of the zippers are locked.
Imagine you are sitting on a grassy slope, staring up at the night sky. The moon plays hide-and-seek, but it doesn’t matter – the heavens glow. You count shooting stars and listen to the gurgle of the river that snakes along the belly of the valley. The mountain gods slumber around you, blocking out everything you’ve come to escape: traffic jams, overflowing inboxes, work deadlines… life. You trace an imaginary line up the shadowy peaks, searching for a path worn by 500-year-old footprints, a path trodden by Inca messengers, peasants, anthropologists, and now, by you.
The “Classic Inca Trail,” or “Camino Inca,” is the most famous section of a network of Inca highways that once stretched a total of 40,000 km between modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. The four-day, 43 km trek is open to the general public, and many travelers consider it an essential rite of passage on their way to visit Machu Picchu. Here is what you should know before embarking on the Inca Trail.
Booking Your Trek
With several hundred tour operators in Cusco, choosing a reputable agency can be overwhelming. Here are some things to consider:
Booking in Advance: If you want to hike the “classic” trail, you will need to book three to six months in advance, during low and high season, respectively. Did you arrive in Peru without a reservation? Don’t panic – there are other last-minute (and much cheaper) multi-day treks to Machu Picchu, such as Lares, Salkantay, and Inca Jungle.
Time of Year: High season is June-August. This is the most expensive and busy time of year, but it’s also dry season, offering good trekking conditions. Prepare for cold nights. Low season is the rainy period. The trails are quieter, but heavy rainfall can leave some parts of the trail damaged, and slightly dangerous. The trail is closed each February for maintenance.
Reputable Agencies: I highly recommend either Chaska Tours or Camping Tours. I booked with Chaska, but, because our group was so small, we ended up merging with a Camping Tours group, so I’ve experienced the excellent, professional service of both. Our combined group consisted of seven people. If you are looking for a bigger group dynamic with a young demographic, I’ve heard great things about G Adventures, a Canadian-run company. (Although it is a much more expensive option).
Environmental sustainability and Treatment of Porters: Government regulations are constantly improving the conditions for the porters, who are each responsible for carrying 20 kg of weight on their backs. However, it is still important to check out your company’s policies with respect to the treatment of both the porters and the environment before booking anything. Here is a list of licensed Inca Trail tour operators to get you started.
What you pack will vary depending on the season, but there are a few staples you will need year-round.
Layers: During peak season, nights are freezing and mornings are crisp. Bring one or two heavy sweaters, a couple of light, long-sleeve shirts (a base layer, like this), and some t-shirts or tank tops. Don’t forget a pair of gloves (even those thin, stretchy ones would do), and a toque.
Large Poncho: A raincoat/windbreaker are useful, but one of the most important things to carry is an extra-large poncho, one that can fit over both you and your daypack.
Footwear: Although sturdy footwear is important, I did the hike in running shoes and was comfortable. Hiking boots would be great, but aren’t essential.
Camera Batteries: You will not have any electricity during the four days, so make sure you bring an extra camera battery. You can find most brands in the camera shops in Cusco (however, I couldn’t find an extra for my Sony).
Headlamp: I found out the hard way that a headlamp is much more useful than a flashlight, especially when trying to change in the dark.
Altitude Sickness Remedies: Altitude Sickness, or soroche, affects many (non-acclimatized) travelers who arrive in Cusco, a city 3400 m above sea level. To be safe, try taking a preventative altitude sickness pill such as Diamox in the 24 hours prior to arrival and then keep taking these pills for another 48 hours. A natural remedy for soroche is the coca leaf, so bring some to suck on. You will also be offered coca tea with every meal.
Budgeting Your Trek
The Inca Trail is not cheap. It’s more than double the price of some of the alternative treks, and there are still some additional costs you need to keep in mind. Here is how my budget looked: (Prices in $USD)
Chaska Tours 4-Day Trek: $550. Expect to pay at least $500. This includes three breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks.
Personal Porter: $130. I was a bit embarrassed about this, but I soon realized that 85% of the trekkers I passed on the trail had hired one too. Because of the heavy camera and lens I carry, a personal porter was a worthwhile investment. The porter carries your sleeping bag and up to 7 kg of luggage.
Sleeping Bag Rental: $18. You can find cheaper ones in the rental shops by the Plaza de Armas. Make sure it is good to -15°C.
Walking Sticks: I couldn’t decide whether or not to rent these, and used them intermittently. However, most people in my group used them constantly. I rented mine from Speedy Gonzalez for around $6.
Tips: On the final night, your guides will remind you about a tip for the porters. Our guides recommended a total of 30 soles ($10) per porter, and a bit more for the head porter, cook, and assistant cook. We also included a $50 tip for each guide. After pooling our resources, each of the seven people in my group paid around $80 in tips. Of course, the amount you tip is ultimately up to the members of each group. Just remember, the porters work extremely hard for you!
In total, my trek cost around $780, not including some extra snacks and supplies that I bought specifically for it. It seems like a lot – so was it worth it? Before I left for the trek, I was almost regretting choosing the most expensive route, but that changed completely once I began it. On the Inca Trail, the scenery is stunning, the food is delicious, the trek is rewarding, and the memories are some of the best you will ever make.
To get an even better idea of what to expect, take a look at some of my photos below:
If any country has tested my five-shirt backpacking wardrobe, it’s been Argentina. Over the past six weeks, Lauren (one of my best friends) and I spent a total of 117.5 hours in buses crossing Argentina and Chile. Shivering in the pouring rain on top of a glacier near Antarctica, I had no choice but to shed my naive preconception that South America was a “tropical” continent and that it had been a good idea to leave my sweaters at home.
Although this trip-within-a-trip forced me to bulk up my wardrobe (I even bought a hat, and I’m anything but a hat person), the drastic changes in climate were accompanied by a myriad of scenery which brought us from cities, to mountains, to beach, to deserts, to waterfalls, and everything in between.
Over the next week, I will be posting photos and short reflections on the different stops on our trip, beginning with Buenos Aires, the city of tango, sophistication, and for us, salsa.