Is the Inca Trail dangerous? And how can you hike the Inca Trail safely?
Because the Inca Trail is so popular, most visitors do not even consider these questions. But as with any adventurous activity, you should. Being informed and prepared will allow you to hike the Inca Trail safely. Ignorance is not bliss.
A porter was killed by a landslide on the Inca Trail last month
On January 23rd 2020, a landslide occurred on the 4 Day Inca Trail at Pacamayo campsite.
One porter was killed and a porter and a cook were injured. Not from our company I hasten to add.
The trail was immediately closed and will remain closed throughout February, which happens each year anyway for maintenance. The authorities have said the Inca Trail will reopen on 16th March. They had originally announced that it would reopen on the 1st March as normal, but they later delayed it.
While we did not have any groups on the Inca Trail at the time – it did make us think.
Is the Inca Trail dangerous?
Like anything in life, the Inca Trail does have risk. But you are far more likely to have an accident on the roads back home, than trekking on the Inca Trail.
There is always a risk of landslides in any mountains. The lifecycle of a mountain involves it gradually eroding and making its way downhill to the sea via the rivers. It is what mountains do. But some parts of a mountain are more prone to landslides than others. In the same way that you are more likely to get mugged in certain areas of London or New York than others, the key lies in understanding and managing the risks.
Part of managing the risk is making sure everyone involved is aware of the risks, including you our clients. You can read more about our Risk and Safety policies here. And at the bottom of each tour on our websites, is an “Is it for me” section, with further details about the risks involved in a particular trip.
Is this the first time someone has died on the Inca Trail or Machu Picchu?
No, this is not the first time someone has died either on the Inca Trail or Machu Picchu. But the figures are very low when you consider up to 7000 people per day visit Machu Picchu and 750 per day trek the Inca Trail (500 on the complete Inca Trail, 250 on the one day Inca Trail).
2004 A tourist was struck by lightning on Huayna Picchu and died
2010 2 people died in a landslide at Wiñay Wayna campsite
2013 A tourist fell and died, on a lower part of Machu Picchu
2016 A tourist fell from Machu Picchu Mountain, having crossed the safety barrier to take a jumping selfie
2020 A porter was killed in a landslide at Pacamayo campsite
Could any of these deaths have been avoided?
So looking at these incidents, two could have been easily avoided. You should not be on Huayna Picchu, the highest point for miles, when the weather looks stormy. Storms in the area build gradually, they do not come out of the blue.
Falling to your death while crossing a safety barrier to take a jumping selfie is totally avoidable.
But what about the 2 Inca Trail landslides?
Could the 2 deaths in landslides have been avoided?
We will all die somewhere at some time. Luck is a significant factor in the where and when. Clearly the people that died were unlucky. But when news of the landslide came, a lot of people working in tourism in Cusco, who know the Inca Trail well, were not surprised.
What factors do the 2 Inca Trail landslides share?
Both occurred at 4 Day Inca Trail campsites known to be susceptible to landslides
Both occurred after particularly heavy rains
Both occurred late January (23rd and 26th)
Part of the reason we carry out risk assessments at Amazonas Explorer is to spot patterns. Our guides are required to report any incidents or near misses that happen, however minor. By compiling the information we can see patterns emerging and make a decision to change a route, or change the way we do something before something more serious happens.
Should you be trekking the 4 Day Inca Trail in January?
No. We don`t think you should trek the Inca Trail in January. As a company, in the interests of safety, we have taken the decision to not sell the Inca Trail in January. In order to protect our visitors and our staff.
Let me explain:
Winay Wayña campsite and Pacamayo campsites- both on the 4 Day Inca Trail, are known to be more exposed to landslides than other areas. In fact, the authorities had announced that they would close Wiñay Wayna campsite in 2020 because the slope is known to be unstable in places. Whether they were planning to close it for good or to improve stability, is not clear. And in the end, the proposed closure never happened. The landslides are most likely in the rainy season.
There have been calls for years to bypass Pacamayo campsite, by reopening a part of original Inca Trail which is visible above Pacamayo, to bypass that campsite. But to date, the authorities have refused.
Even though we avoid these campsites by doing the 5 Day Inca Trail, there is still an increased risk of landslides in general if trekking in January. And besides, we want you to enjoy your trek as much as possible which is best done in other months.
Is there crime on the Inca Trail?
There have been 2 robberies on the Inca Trail. One to a group in 2005 and another to some members of a group in early 2019. But they were very much one-off incidents. Remember there is a lot of security along the trail, with various checkpoints along the route. And after the 2019 incident, police were stationed at some of the control points along the trail. These control points also have radio contact with the valley below. You are far less likely to be robbed on the Inca Trail than in most cities in the world.
As with anywhere, do not carry excess valuables or money. And leave the diamond-encrusted tiara at home.
Are there venomous snakes on the Inca Trail?
Yes, there are venomous snakes on the Inca Trail, but you are very unlikely to see them. They prefer to keep out of people`s way. However they have been seen sunning themselves on the trail, but usually close to the start of the One Day Inca Trail, which is lower and warmer
Are there any other dangerous wild animals on the Inca Trail?
There are no dangerous animals on the Inca Trail that you need to worry about.
Pumas would have once roamed the area, but their population has reduced drastically over time and they have been pushed further away into remoter areas. Even in the areas where they are still found they would rarely attack a human. I do not know of any reports of pumas on the Inca Trail.
Spectacled Bears can very occasionally be seen on the Inca Trail but they do not attack people. They are mainly vegetarian. You are only likely to see them from a distance, although there is video footage from 15 years ago of them walking around inside the ruins of Machu Picchu one morning.
Most wild animals are scared of humans as they consider us a danger. To see one is a privilege rather than something to be worried about.
Dogs while not a wild animal, are something you do need to be aware of. There a various ones along the first 2 days of the Inca Trail and why they may look cute, they can be unpredictable. You are far more likely to get bitten by trying to stroke a dog than eaten by a puma or vegetarian bear or stung by a snake.
How can you hike the Inca Trail more safely?
Choose the 5 Day Inca Trail vs the 4 Day hike
You have more time to hike the trail. You have more time to relax and recover. You will feel less tired and better able to concentrate on where you place your feet. And as mentioned above, your campsites are less prone to landslide in heavy rain. There are many other reasons we recommend the 5 Day Inca Trail vs the 4 Day Inca Trail.
Travel at a drier time of year
So we recommend, and will only sell you, the Inca Trail between March and December.
The rains generally tail off through March and April. May to September are the driest months, but also the busiest. October and November can be great months with slightly fewer people too. The chance of rain increases gradually and you should definitely expect rain at some point if trekking in November and more so in December. But you can also have some great weather with fewer people. Many people really enjoy Christmas on the Inca Trail.
There can be rain at any time of year on the trail and sometimes hail too. As with most mountains, the weather cannot be completely predicted. But by avoiding January and February, you are avoiding the point when the rains are heaviest and where most rainwater will have accumulated in the soil making them more prone to a landslide
Never hike the Inca Trail in the dark
This is a big one.
If you choose the 4 Day Inca Trail, most companies will have y0u walking on the last day by 4 am or so, to try and be the first to the Sun Gate. This is downright dangerous and irresponsible. Walking on a narrow path, above big drops, in the dark, is an easy way to make the Inca Trail dangerous. You cannot see the path as well in the dark, and you are probably not yet wide awake. Again, if you choose the 5 Day Inca Trail- you should never have to walk in the dark.
Make sure you are in adequate physical conditions
Getting into camp late, because you are not as fit as you hoped, leads you to be more tired and more likely to have to walk in the dark. If you would struggle to do this trek at sea level back home, you will struggle even more here. So get fit before you come.
If you have any doubt about your heart or anything else which could show itself on the hike, get checked by your doctor before you come. And be truthful with your insurance company, otherwise, you may invalidate a claim, if they find a pre-existing condition.
Get acclimatised before you hike the Inca Trail
You will trek over a high pass of 4212 metres/ 13,818 feet on the Inca Trail. Make sure you are well acclimatised, ideally spending 3 nights in Cusco first. The 5 Day Inca Trail gains altitude more gradually than the 4 Day Trail, so is a great choice if you are worried about the altitude or simply want to make your life easier and enjoy the trek more.
Hike slowly and carefully
It only takes one small slip, when you are tired and not concentrating properly to fall over. And there are some steep drops on parts of the trail. You have dreamed about trekking to Machu Picchu for years, so why make the Inca Trail dangerous by rushing it? Not only will walking at a steady pace make the Inca Trail safer, it will also make it more enjoyable.
Stop if you want to take a photo
Taking photos while walking along means you are not concentrating on the path. Again, the 5 Day Inca Trail gives you more time to stop and take photos than the 4 Day Inca Trail.
Warn the person behind you if you are going to stop
Do not suddenly stop if you have someone on your heels. Warn them, otherwise, they may run into the back of you, causing one of you to fall.
Be careful with trekking poles, and ideally practice with them beforehand
Used correctly, trekking poles can make trekking the Inca Trail safer. They give you 2 extra points of contact with the ground and they reduce the shock on your legs, meaning you get less tired. But used incorrectly, trekking poles can be dangerous to you and others.
Used incorrectly you can trip someone else up with trekking poles, you can trip yourself up with them and you can sprain or break your wrist if you use the straps incorrectly. You can also poke someone else with them, causing injury, especially when you have them tied onto your rucksack. So learn to use them well, and where possible practice with them at home before you come. Not everyone will like trekking poles. For some people, it is one too many things to worry about.
Note: you must use rubber bungs on the end of the trekking pole tips to preserve the Inca stonework.
Bring and wear appropriate shoes and clothing
Always carry waterproofs
Ideally a jacket and trousers, as when it rains you can get wet and cold quickly. Some guides prefer ponchos, but be aware that they can obscure your vision of where you are putting your feet. If you do prefer a poncho, make sure you have walked in it before and buy a rubberised one, not a disposable plastic one. Many guides insist you need one of these cheap plastic ponchos over your waterproofs but this is not true and this only creates plastic waste.
Always carry a warm layer
Always bring a fleece/ jumper. Even on a hot day, you can chill quickly at breaks or if the weather turns, which it often does. Hypothermia can be a risk on the Inca Trail, especially when the weather is wet and windy if you are underprepared. But it is easy to ensure you have adequate warm clothing. You are not going to the Artic either, so no need to overdo it.
Use sun protection
The sun is very strong in the mountains even on a cloudy day. Remember you are a mile closer to the sun. Hats, sunglasses and suncream are a must.
Wear suitable footwear
Your shoes must have a good grip. Footwear is one of the most important factors in hiking the Inca Trail safely. The wrong footwear can lead to a nasty fall. Some say you must wear boots for ankle protection. But many people prefer hiking/running trainers or approach shoes. I stopped wearing boots 20 years ago, and always hike everywhere in trail running shoes. They weigh less than boots, so are less tiring on your legs, and you are more nimble and sensitive to the ground. Also, your ankle is freer to flex, so you can react quicker to uneven steps, whereas in a heavy boot you are more rigid. But the choice is personal. Whichever option you choose, make sure the tread on the sole is in good condition.
Do not carry too much in your pack
The more you carry, the more tired you will be at the end of the day. Which increases the chance of a slip or bad foot placement. Take what is needed and no more. A 30-litre backpack is more than adequate. Check where you can refill with water. Check if snacks are provided. Check what meals are provided. And avoid all those little gadgets which look cool in the outdoors shop but only add weight to your pack. If you are buying things like waterproofs or rucksacks especially for the trips, make sure you consider the weight. That cool looking jacket to keep you dry as you scale Mt Everest is overkill for the Inca Trail and will only take up extra space and weight.
Pay for a porter to carry your overnight things
We include a porter to carry 6 kilos of your personal gear in the price of your Inca Trail. Many companies do not, so you end up carrying things like your sleeping bag, wash kit and changes of clothes, all of which weigh you down and mean you will be more tired whilst trekking. If trekking with a company who does not include it, you may be able to pay extra at the time of booking to have one do so. Besides, having porters carry your kit is a way of providing employment and contributing to the local economy.
Trek to Machu Picchu in a small group
The more people in your group, the more people the guides have to keep an eye on, and the more likely the group will get split due to differing abilities. Trekking in a smaller group, you get more personal attention from the guide. Large groups can also lead to a lot of waiting around due to different paces. Some get frustrated waiting and others get frustrated at feeling pressured to go faster. So a small group is better for all.
Pay the extra for a more experienced and professional trekking operator
Cheaper companies use less experienced guides and reduce their prices by taking bigger groups. Some companies do not even operate the trek themselves but combine you with trekkers from another company. When trouble hits is when the experience and training of a guide and their company really come into play and there is a big difference between how some companies and guides handle problems to others.
Amazonas Explorer was recently recognised with a Certificate of Excellence in Trekking from the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism, scoring 100% in their assessment. All our guides take a first aid course each year. This year it was the Wilderness First Responder course. In addition, all guides come to us with years of experience in the field and are brought together each year for additional training.
So is the Inca Trail dangerous?
While the Inca Trail carries some risk, there is no need for the Inca Trail to be dangerous if you do it right. Done well, following our advice above, you can hike the Inca Trail safely and it will be a highlight of your trip to Peru. And for many of you, a highlight of your life.
To find out more about trekking the 5 Day Inca Trail with us, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out the contact from here.