The Inca Trail is easily the most famous trek in South America and is recognisable across the globe. With hundreds of companies that specialise in the trek, why did we choose Llama Path and what can you expect from them?
Llama Path was set up in 2003 by Jose Gongora and Michelle Graham. An ex-porter, Gongora felt it necessary to ensure that porter welfare and fairness was quintessential to the Llama Path experience. The company also has a brilliant track-record and reputation, providing one of the best experiences out there.
Why choose Llama Path?
Llama Path brands itself as a sustainable tour operator. What this means is that they operate with a conscience that minimises impact on the Inca Trail and maximises porter welfare and consumer experience. After having just completed the 4 day 3 night trek with the company, I can vouch for this mentality and can safely say that Llama Path is one of the best tour companies I have ever chosen.
Throughout the tour it was emphasised that as visitors we were not to litter, deface the landscape and damage ruins along the trail. All of our trash was taken back to Cusco city by our porters and our guide Dario was an enforcer of these rules. Thankfully, we were all responsible tourists on the trip so very little needed to be said.
What makes Llama Path so special is that they are the only company which provides accommodation in Cusco for their porters. In fact before we left for the Inca Trail, we visited and picked up the porters at the Llama Path porter house. Albeit basic, the house provided lodgings and lockers for their porters who have to travel hours at a time to get to Cusco city from the highlands. By having a porter house for temporary stay before their shifts, porters didn’t have to splash out on accommodation before the trek.
Porters are also provided with proper uniform (the best on the Inca Trail!), equipment, a fair wage and medical insurance. They were also limited in the amount that they could carry – no more than 25kg and only 7kg of our personal belongings. As a group of 8 trekkers, there were 16 porters. Plus, Llama Path takes their porters on vacation!
A relationship between porters and trekkers was also an essential component of our tour. We were all formally introduced to our porters on day one of the trek and on the last day we had a little ‘ceremony’ thanking them for their incredible work. And believe me, the service was astounding.
Throughout the trek, porters made our food, carried our belongings, boiled us water, made us tea and cheered us on as we arrived at camp. The only thing that the porters did not do, which other companies did, was clean up portable toilets. Llama Path operates a strict policy against using portable toilets, not only for environmental reasons but also for porter welfare.
The Llama Path team from start to finish provided some of the best service I have ever had. From walking into the office in Cusco for a briefing to sitting down for a three-course meal, the Inca Trail experience was seamless.
At the briefing in Cusco, you are given a sack to put your belongings in (no more than 7kg). Throughout the trip, the porters carry this for you (if you’ve paid) and if you’ve hired a sleeping bag and inflatable mattress (included in the 7kg) they carry this for you too. Having a porter carrying your belongings is super handy.
Throughout the trek you are accompanied by a guide who paces you and provides you with information on each Inca ruin and the history of the Inca Empire. Our guide Dario was fantastic and maintained a positive attitude throughout the trek. He also made sure that we took regular breaks, photos and ensured that everyone was feeling happy.
As Matt and I are both vegans, we were pretty anxious about the food aspect of our trek. We can safely say that the food provided by the incredible Llama Path chef Melchor and his team is some of the best we’ve had on our trip. Llama Path caters to all diets and makes an incredible effort to keep every trekker satisfied.
Plus, you will never go hungry. At the crack of dawn the porters make you hot coca tea and at breakfast you’re provided with coffees, teas, hot chocolate, bread and condiments, fruit, porridge and fried banana. Lunch and dinner were also astounding as the porters made soup, salads and a large selection of dishes to choose from. In our case, our main course was already served on a plate, and it never disappointed. Before dinner you were also provided with a tea time, for hot drinks, popcorn, banana pastries and on the last day cake! During the trek, you were given a small snack, usually a piece of fruit and biscuits. Most of this took place in the classic Llama Path red tent, kitted out with a table, chairs, crockery and cutlery.
Friendly staff and group
Our group consisted of 8 people which falls within the average of Llama Path. That way you get to know your group pretty well! Solo travellers also had no problem integrating. And I’d like to think that like attracts like so everyone was friendly, adventurous and enthusiastic. Not to mention, the staff were encouraging and kind, it truly made for an incredible experience.
The Inca Trail Breakdown
The cost and provisions
The cost of the Inca Trail at base level is $675 USD for adults, and for students (with a valid ISIC card) and under-18s this is $635 USD. All tour companies are fairly similar in price and upon completing the Inca Trail you realise that a lot of costs cover the compulsory entrance and transportation fees that everyone has to pay.
The base level cost includes all provisions and services (food, tent, guide, porters), a t-shirt, a plastic poncho, entry to Machu Picchu, transportation services (bus to Ollantaytambo on the first day, bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes, train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and bus from Ollantaytambo to Cusco).
The additional costs include permits to climb Machu Picchu mountain and Huayna Picchu mountain which are $75 USD each. I only climbed the latter (which was well worth it) and given our schedule I doubt I would have been able to climb Machu Picchu mountain. You can also pay an extra $50 USD to take the Vistadome Train which takes you to Cusco from Aguas Calientes (with a change in Ollantaytambo). We didn’t take this train and opted for the bus journey with the Llama Path bus.
Extra costs include $90 USD per person for a personal porter to carry 7kg of belongings (highly recommended). We also rented a sleeping bag ($30 USD), walking poles ($16 USD) and inflatable mattress ($25 USD) – even if you rent these outside of the company, the costs are similar. However, equipment costs are lower when outside peak season (before summer). You can also pay $35 USD for a single tent (or otherwise share).
I must stress, the Inca Trail is expensive, regardless of which company you choose. The trek is limited to 500 people per day (including porters; closed once a year in February for maintenance) so places are limited. Would I say it was worth it? Definitely. What if it’s beyond your budget? Llama Path also offers the Salkantay 5 day trek to Machu Picchu, the 2 day Inca trek to Machu Picchu and the Inca Jungle trek is also available through other companies.
A quick overview of the itinerary
We opted for the 4 day 3 night Inca Trail trek with Llama Path. You do the same route spread over 5 days but in my opinion, the 4 day trek was perfect.
Day 0: The Llama Path office in Cusco
The night before your trek you need finalise your payment in USD and attend the 5:30pm briefing. At the briefing you meet your fellow trekkers, the guide and you are shown a video about Llama Path’s porters. You are also provided with information about the trek (including the time and meeting point for the following day) and given a bag to put your personal belongings in.
Day 1: Cusco to Ayapata
The first day is one of the easiest despite having to meet at 4:30am. From Cusco centre you drive to the porter house, pick up the porters and then continue to the town of Ollantaytambo for breakfast (not included). From there you drive to Kilometre 82, the first checkpoint of the Inca Trail to pack away your belongings into porter bags, have your passport checked and use the toilets.
After this, you finally set off on the trek! You climb up slowly through the Cusichaca Valley to the first Inca site, Llactapata witnessing a variety of flora and fauna, and the 5900m Veronica mountain.
After 2 hours you reach your first lunch spot, refill your water and then hike for a few more hours to your first campsite at Ayapata (3300m). We shared this campsite with four or five other groups. The campsite had toilets and taps but don’t expect luxury!
Day 2: Ayapata to Chaquicocha
Day 2 is renowned for being the toughest day due to the length of the day (nearly 12 hours), the distance (16km), and the sharp ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass (4200m) with another brief ascent after. Despite being tough, our guide Dario paced us really well, and I thoroughly enjoyed the views along the way, including flora, fauna and mountains – in particular the Polylepsis cloud forests. Overall, day 2 was my favourite day!
You also visit two Inca sites, Runcuraccay and Sayacmarca before reaching the campsite at Chaquicocha (3600m) which was quieter and foggier than the first campsite.
Day 3: Chaquicocha to Winay Wayna
On day 3 we were granted an extra hour of sleep and arose at 6 am. In terms of time, distance and ascent, day 3 is considered the easiest day. Having been blessed with incredible weather the past two days, day 3 greeted us with rain which made the descent down steps quite challenging. Nevertheless, the views were spectacular once the fog cleared.
Along the way you visit two sites, Phuyupatamarca and the incredible Winay Wayna where you camp for the evening (2680m) – easily my favourite campsite and Inca ruin.
Day 4: Winay Wayna to Machu Picchu
Our day started at 3 am with a quick pack-up before racing to the nearby checkpoint where we waited for two hours. With the Llama Path team we were the second group to arrive at the checkpoint which ensured that we were able to witness some incredible views at the Sun Gate which overlooks Machu Picchu.
From the Sun Gate it is a gentle descent to Machu Picchu where you have time to grab a coffee and learn about the incredible history of this infamous Incan ruin.
After two hours of exploring Machu Picchu you can climb either Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu mountain (provided you have permits). Matt and I climbed the incredibly steep Huayna Picchu which offered some of the best views of Machu Picchu from the top. Be warned, if you’re clumsy, have vertigo or afraid of confined spaces, maybe this isn’t for you!
After all of this, you take the bus to meet your guide in the town of Aguas Calientes for lunch where you say your goodbyes and eventually board a train back to Ollantaytambo and catch the Llama Path bus back to Cusco.
Most avid hikers won’t need any convincing about why the Inca Trail with Llama Path is worth doing. Other people who are in doubt can rest assured that the company is well-versed in trekking with people of all abilities, requirements and fears. Nevertheless, what are some common concerns and how can they be addressed?
Fitness and altitude
This was a major concern for me as months before the trip I kept telling myself that I would be that person who suffered from altitude sickness. Surprisingly, throughout my time in South America I only really felt tingling in my extremities and short of breath during gentle climbs.
Altitude isn’t really so much of an issue if you spend a few days acclimatising in Cusco. That being said, I packed some diamox which I took at the end of day 1 in order to brace myself for the day 2 ascent. However, the porters make you coca tea every morning and in case of an emergency, your guide has an oxygen tank on them at all times.
As someone who regularly enjoys physical activity and time outdoors I felt quite unfit for my standards. However, I found the trek quite manageable when I went at my own pace and had breaks every so often. I also noticed my fitness levels gradually improving as time went on. Your guide will also make sure to stay at your pace throughout the trek so there is no pressure to speed ahead.
As far as specific diet goes, veganism is the absolute test of catering capabilities of any company. And Llama Path absolutely nailed it. We had amazing vegan food and couldn’t have been more happy with the food provided. However, as we are highly protein conscious we packed some protein shake powder which we bought in Cusco just in case.
Any dietary requirements are catered for, provided you inform the Llama Path team well in advance!
The Llama Path guide is fluent in Spanish and English (and Quechua) so there are generally no problems in terms of communication within the group and between you and the porters (your guide translates for you).
In a more social sense, socialising becomes easy when you spend four whole days with the same people.
This can be an issue for trekkers, especially during the rainy season. I cannot stress how lucky we were to have had the weather we did; sunshine, fog and a bit of rain. However, regardless of what you get, it’s always super important to pack lots of layers, a waterproof jacket, a poncho, a bag cover, hats and gloves. Down below you can find a pack-list for the trek.
To be honest, weather can affect your morale but at the same time, whatever comes of the experience will be truly rewarding. It’s worth the gamble just to do the Inca Trail and visit Machu Picchu which is easily one of the most incredible sites on earth!
The essential pack list
So besides what the porters pack for you, what else should you bring on the trek?
- 4 days hiking clothing (I prefer to have clean clothes everyday)
- 1 pair of sturdy waterproof hiking boots with grip
- 6 pairs of socks (4 small to medium, 2 long)
- 1 pair of flip flops
- 1 long sleeve shirt
- 1 jumper
- 1 fleece
- 1 puffa jacket
- 1 waterproof coat
- 1 poncho (you are given basic plastic poncho but bring a sturdier one)
- 1 pair of comfy trousers for sleeping
- 1 comfy shirt for sleeping
- 1 warm hat
- 1 cap
- Hair ties (for those with long hair!)
- 1 pair of gloves
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Toilet roll (enough to last for four days)
- Bug spray (a must!)
- First-aid kit with altitude sickness pills, painkillers and bandaids (guide has one too)
- Lip balm
- Deodorant (don’t be that person who doesn’t have any)
Admittedly the Llama Path group provides you with a lot of food but I’ve found that while trekking you can never have too many snacks.
- Bring money for food! You can buy snacks from days 1 to 2 along the trek
- Protein powder (for protein conscious veggies)
- Granola/Trek bars
- Chocolate (such a treat post-day 2)
- Water (you need to provide your own water for the first three hours on day 1)
Tech and Kit
- Water bottle
- Phone (if you need a camera but don’t expect signal)
- A camera (and spare battery)
- External battery pack
- Head torch (especially for the last day and nighttime in the tents)
- Hot water bottle (if you’re prone to getting cold like me)
Besides packing the aforementioned things I also highly recommend a few things that will make your Inca Trail trek that much more enjoyable.
- Book with a responsible, reputable company and book way in advance i.e. Llama Path (we booked in December, five months before our trek!)
- Rent hiking poles, especially if you’re not comfortable with steep ascents and descents – they were really helpful.
- Acclimatise beforehand, this is a must.
- Make sure you prioritise your warmth by packing layers but don’t overpack – leave a bag with a reputable hostel before you leave for the trek – we highly recommend Hospidaje Turistico Recoleta.
- Pace yourself and know your limits but also recognise that the hike is meant to be challenging.
- Go with a sense of enthusiasm and optimism! Things may happen along the way e.g. bad weather, an illness etc. but remember the Inca Trail is a once in a lifetime experience, you’ll be so glad you did it afterwards!