Solo Travel | 10 Must Visit Destinations for Independent Travel

Best Places for Solo Travel

As great as a travel companion can be, sometimes it’s hard to find the perfect one. Other times, your normal travel companion is busy with work, her boyfriend/girlfriend, or she just has a different country on her bucket list. Whatever your reason may be for hitting the road alone, here are the top ten best places for solo travel in my books. 

1. Cambodia for temple exploration, beach days, and history

Having lived here, I may be a bit biased, but Cambodia is one of my favourite countries for solo travel. Cambodian people are so warm that you never really feel like you’re on your own. It also has enough of a traveller circuit that it’s easy to choose activities or places to stay where you can meet people you really click with.

Bayon Temple in Cambodia's Siem Reap

What to do in Cambodia:

Start off by exploring the temples of Angkor Wat while you base yourself in the town of Siem Reap. If you’re into adventuring and going at it alone, rent a bike and get your exercise sweating your way through these 12th century ruins. Alternatively, sign up with one of the hostel tours to get a feel for the temples and meet some other wannabe Indiana Jones travellers along the way. From Siem Reap, don’t miss out on Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to learn about the country’s difficult history in the 1970s through a visit its jarring museums, S21 and the Killing Fields. There are plenty of great cafes and restaurants in the city that were made for solo travellers just like you! Then get your water fix by heading down to the islands off of Sihanoukville for some serious beach time and partying, or to the riverside haven of Kampot for kayaking and great coffee. If you’re looking for further trip ideas, check out the 50 best things to do in Cambodia for some more inspiration. 

Safety in Cambodia:

Safety isn’t a major concern in Cambodia, however, phone and bag snatchings are increasingly common, particularly in Phnom Penh. Wear a backpack with both straps on, keep your phone hidden when you’re walking on the street, and just be generally aware of what’s going on around you.

2. Myanmar for solo sunsets, getting off the beaten path, and meeting new friends

Myanmar was my first big solo trip, which could be why it ranks so high in my books. The country is a happy medium of being more removed from the well-worn Banana Pancake Trail but still visited enough that you can easily meet a lot of new friends, particularly a number of other solo travellers. People tend to travel around Myanmar in a loop. This means you’ll often meet people who are travelling the same direction as you, allowing you to have your independence with some familiarity along the way. Myanmar has some pretty incredible temples and off-the-beaten-path adventures to experience either solo or with new travel friends. 

Myanmar Bagan

What to do in Myanmar:

Head to the most famous place in Myanmar, Bagan, where you can rent out an e-bike (solo or with a group from your hostel) to explore over 2,000 temples and pagodas. You can also hop in some shared transport to visit the nearby Mount Popa, a monastery perched on top of an extinct volcano with 777 stairs to climb and maybe even more monkeys to get past. From Bagan you can head to Hsipaw or Kalaw that act as starting points for multi-day treks to see Myanmar’s countryside and rest your head in homestays along the way. Treks are also a great way to meet new travel friends. And if you’re craving a bit of reflective solo time? You can visit places like the enchanting Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon or Mandalay’s U Bein Bridge where flocks of people congregate every sunrise and sunset. Both are magical places to explore solo, although you’re likely to get invited to join a local family for a snack at both.

Safety in Myanmar:

Personal safety isn’t an issue in Myanmar. However, do inform yourself on what’s going on in the country. There are grave human rights atrocities happening in Myanmar currently. Do your research to educate yourself on the ethics of travelling to Myanmar and make an informed decision for yourself on whether or not to visit. This article from BBC provides a good basis for assessing if your trip passes the human rights test. 

3. Colombia for mesmerizing cities, nightlife, and nature

Colombia might not be one you expected to see on this list, but once again the people make this place wonderful for solo travel. I unfortunately don’t speak a lick of Spanish, which made travelling solo in Colombia a bit harder than travelling in Myanmar or Cambodia where English is more frequently spoken. However, the people were so lovely and it’s a relatively easy country to navigate even with limited knowledge of Spanish. It also boasts the most incredible cities I’ve ever been to and one of my favourite treks.

Cartagena Colombia Buildings

What to do in Colombia:

Colombia has something for every solo traveller. Bogota’s amazing street art scene, cafes and cobblestone streets are captivating and the perfect place for a solo traveller to wander around. Heading up north, stop at Salento in the Cocora Valley to see the country’s famous national tree the Quindío wax palm, then head up to cool Medellin. Take Medellin’s incredible free walking tour, head up the city’s gondola, and enjoy the nightlife. Then visit and wander the bright streets of storybook Cartagena. Finally, get your nature fix in Tayrona National Park on the beaches or test your endurance on the Lost City Trek. The gruelling 4-6 day jungle trek is sure to help you bond with the other travellers in your group – even if it is about just how badly your clothes smell by the end.

Safety in Colombia:

I had one unfortunate taxi scare when I was alone in Colombia and overall I did have to be much more on guard as a female traveller than I did in most other countries I had previously travelled to, save maybe India. But as long as you’re smart, Colombia isn’t as dangerous as you would be led to believe. Be careful, keep your valuables at your hostel in a safe where possible, and make smart choices. You can’t prevent everything bad that could happen, but you can take steps to protect yourself. 

4. Peru for geographic diversity, mountain treks, and amazing food

The diversity that Peru offers may be unmatched by any other country on this list. Peru is home to the Andes mountains, lush Amazon rainforest and incredible Colca canyon. Beyond geographic diversity, the country is also full of ancient civilizations and history to discover. From lost cities to mysterious lines carved in the desert, and cuisine unlike anywhere in the world, Peru should only be missed at your own peril. It’s also incredibly easy to navigate the country as a solo traveller.

Corillera Blanca mountains in Peru

What to do in Peru:

If time allows, spend a week surfing and beaching at Mancora. Then trek the lesser known parts of Peru by basing yourself in Huaraz, located in the breathtaking heights of the Andes. From here you can take a multi-day trek through the Santa Cruz Valley or Cordillera Huayhuash. Move south and experience the chaos of Lima and its delicious (and numerous!) Michelin-Star restaurants (for the flashpackers in the crowd). From Lima, head south to experience the famous sand boarding in Ica or the moonscape of Paracas. You can also take a day trip to the incredible Islas Ballestas, often referred to as the poor man’s Galapagos. From there it’s south to Nazca for a nausea-inducing flight over the mysterious Nazca lines, famous geoglyphs that stretch hundreds of kilometers wide. Continue southward by bus to Arequipa and walk along the gorgeous colonial gem known as the white city before heading to Colca Canyon where the fortunate may catch a glimpse of the giant Andean condor. Once you’ve had your fill of canyon country, head to the bustling city of Cuzco to experience Peru’s cultural juxtaposition first hand. Spanish colonial buildings mesh with ancient Inca walls in a dizzying array of cultural fusion. Next head to the unmissable Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail, Salkantay, or Lares treks, or take the train. If you’re a solo traveller looking for something more off the beaten path, venture to the other less famous lost city of the Inca’s, Choquequirao. Once you’ve drank your fill of the Cuzco region, catch a flight to Iquitos the jumping off point of the Amazon or head to Lake Titicaca. 

Safety in Peru:

Peru is generally very safe to travel in, but exercise caution and avoid walking alone late at night in Lima, Cuzco or on the beaches of Mancora. 

5. Vietnam for mountains, motorbike rides, and tailored clothes

Vietnam is one of my repeat favourites for solo trips. When I was based in Cambodia I loved sneaking in a weekend away by myself to Ho Chi Minh City for amazing Vietnamese food, awesome coffee shops and the stimulating buzz of a big and increasingly modern city. Vietnam is equally amazing for longer trips, spending a full month going from South to North, or vice versa. Perhaps even more evident in Vietnam than Myanmar, because everyone heads either South or North, it’s easy to adopt travel friends going the same route as you. This makes Vietnam one of the easiest countries to make friends on the road if you’re travelling solo.

Motorbike Ha Giang

What to do in Vietnam:

Even scratching the surface of what Vietnam has to offer is hard to put into one paragraph. Starting in the motorbike chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, visit the War Remnants Museum and indulge in some incredible food across the city. Then head north to the “honeymoon capital” of Vietnam in Dalat, which contrary to its name, is actually really nice for solo travellers. Dalat is full of adventure activities like canyoning and mountain biking, not to mention great Vietnamese coffee shops. Carrying on north you can stop at the beaches of Mui Ne and Nha Trang, then visit the charming (albeit touristic) town of Hoi An to have any clothes you would like tailor made for an affordable price. Travel further north to visit charming Hanoi with its quaint egg coffee shops and water puppet shows. Then take in Ninh Binh or Halong Bay’s iconic limestone formations. If you don’t mind some colder weather, head up north to Sapa to do some trekking or go further afield to Ha Giang’s motorbike loop (where you can rent a bike on your own or get behind an experienced driver) and the impressive border waterfalls in Cao Bang province. All of these places have great group tour options or are perfect for solo exploration.

Safety in Vietnam:

Vietnam is another place I always feel really safe in travelling as a solo female. Again, watch for bag and phone snatchings, especially in Ho Chi Minh City. 

6. Thailand for beach parties, diving, and cooking courses

If you’re looking for a great first solo trip, Thailand is probably at the top of the list. The beaches are incredible, the cities (Bangkok in particular) are a whirlwind, the people are friendly, the food is to die for, and the culture is fascinating. While you might be forced to share a large portion of the backpacker trail with hundreds of other tank top-clad backpackers, there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path spots to be discovered. 

Thailand Beaches and boats

What to do in Thailand:

Spend a few days getting acquainted with the chaos of Bangkok by visiting the iconic Grand Palace and Wat Pho, or take a backwaters boat cruise through the city’s remaining canals.  Party the night away along the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road or get upmarket along the many nightclubs of Th Sukhumvit. Once you’ve had your fill of the big city, head north to Chiang Mai and the surrounding hill country for trekking, cooking courses, and waterfall adventures. If you’re craving some time in the sun, make your way south to experience Thailand’s islands, including our personal favourite Koh Lanta, and the plethora of diving, beaching, and (full, half, blue, etc.) moon partying that awaits. 

Safety in Thailand:

Thailand is an extremely safe country to travel solo in and few streets or areas are dangerous to walk through at any time of the day. Keep an eye on your cash and valuables for unwanted hands and read up on common scams before you go.  

7. Canada for mountains, water activities, and charming cities (Montreal)

Too often we forget about our own backyard. Particularly now as we become increasingly aware of the impact our flights have on the climate crisis, choosing trips close to home is a great option!  From charming cafes and top notch nightlife in Montreal, to the countless mountain and water adventures in the Canadian Rockies, Canada has something for every solo traveller. 

West Coast Trail Canada

What to do in Canada:

If you’re the type of solo traveller who loves a good cafe, museum, restaurant or cocktail bar, look no further than Montreal. Brimming with culture, this charming city is the perfect mix of North America and Europe. If you’re in the East anyways, pair this trip with a journey up to Toronto or maybe even down to New York City in the USA. If you prefer the wild outdoors, start in Vancouver or Calgary to visit the incredible Canadian Rockies. There are fantastic one day to multi-day hikes to get your fill of nature, not to mention kayak trips and whale-watching if you head over to Vancouver Island. 

Safety in Canada:

Canada is generally very safe and a great place to go as a solo female traveller. That being said, be aware of wildlife that may cross your path. If you’re planning to hit some hiking trails, try to group up with other travellers or locals and be sure to pack bear spray in case you meet a grizzly or black bear en route. 

8. Taiwan for street food, hot springs, and waterfalls

Taiwan is surprisingly underrated, particularly for solo travellers. The people here are unbelievably friendly and helpful, so even if you stop for a moment on the street I can guarantee someone will come up to you and ask if you need help. It’s also full of incredible nature, including some of the best hot springs around. 

taipei 101 from elephant mountain

What to do in Taiwan:

Taipei is a mecca for any solo traveller who loves sampling different street foods with markets galore. You can also easily get around the city by public transit to access the zoo, the city’s gondola, and its beautiful temples. Take a quick jaunt up Elephant Rock to see the sun set over Taipei 101 – while you may be a solo traveller, you certainly won’t be alone for this view. Taiwan is such a small country, that it’s easy to base yourself in Taipei and do plenty of day trips to the incredible Taroko Gorge, hot springs in Beitou, and beautiful waterfalls in Pingxi. Overall Taiwan is a great solo trip, whether you base yourself in Taipei or travel around the country. 

Safety in Taiwan:

Taiwan is another generally very safe option. I never had any issues here and would highly recommend Taiwan as a solo female traveller.

9. Indonesia for volcanoes, rice paddies and yoga

Indonesia is one of my favourites for diverse adventures on a solo trip. If you’re looking to do some serious solo relaxation time, you can head to Bali for all of the smoothie bowls, yoga classes, rice field walks and massages your heart desires. If you’re looking for a bit more of an adventure, travel over to one of the neighbouring islands for some rougher travel with lower tourist numbers.

Rice Fields in Bali Indonesia

What to do in Indonesia:

Indonesia, home to some 18,000 islands, has no shortage of travel options. Bali is obviously the most popular place to go, and if you’re getting your toes wet with solo travel, it might be a great starting point for you. Head to Ubud for yoga classes galore and smoothie bowls in the rice fields, visit the waterfalls up at Munduk, and maybe try a surf lesson in Kuta. If you’re looking to try a bit less polished of a trip, head to the island of Flores where you can see the amazing volcanic lakes of Mount Kelimutu. Flores also serves as the jumping off point to see the incredible Komodo dragons. If you’re more of a great apes fan, travel to the island of Sumatra where you can see Sumatran orangutans in their natural habitat from Bukit Lawang. Overall, the options are endless in Indonesia, and can suit any kind of solo traveller.

Safety in Indonesia:

With such a vast array of islands, all unique to themselves, it’s hard to put one safety rating on the entire country. Overall, Indonesia is a very safe place to go, and whenever I have visited solo I haven’t had any issues. However, do be mindful of the laws here and, again, use common sense.

10. Sri Lanka for train rides, spicy food, and beaches

Sri Lanka has continued to soar in popularity for travellers. With its magical train rides, incredible surf, and delicious spicy food, Sri Lanka is deservedly popular. It’s a slightly more relaxed place to travel than India, which makes it a good option for solo female travellers looking to get their feet wet exploring South Asia. 

Sri Lanka Train Ride

What to do in Sri Lanka:

After getting settled in and spending a day or two acquainting yourself with the country’s largest city, Colombo, venture inland via train to Kandy to experience the cultural heart of the country. From Kandy take the iconic train (yes, the one you’ve seen all over Instagram) further through stunning countryside and make the sacred pilgrimage up Adam’s Peak. Alternatively, spend several days exploring the tea country of Nuwara Eliya or Ella. If beaches are more your thing, head south for the best of Sri Lanka’s beaches. Be sure to experience the white sand of Talalla Bay and catch the waves at Weligama or Hiriketiya. To take a break a break from the sun, interrupt your beach days with a day trip to the old forte at Galle. If you have time, venture further afield to Sigiriya (Lion Rock), north to the cultural melting pot that is Jaffna, or east to the surfing mecca of Arugam Bay. 

Safety in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka is a safe country to travel in, but subject to cultural and religious clashes. Check security warnings before heading out. 

Inca Trail | What to Expect on the Hike to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

The Inca trail occupied the top spot on my travel bucket list for years. if you’re thinking about, or already planning a hike to Machu Picchu my first hand account will give you an idea of what to expect. From the lung searing climb to Dead woman’s pass, to the final race through Macchu Picchu’s Sungate, I’ll walk you through the day-to-day experience of hiking the Inca Trail.  First lets cover a few of the basics:

How long does it take to hike the Inca Trail?

It takes 4 days and 3 nights to hike the 38km Inca trail. The first day is a half day. The second day is typically quite long. 3rd day is more moderate and the final day typically involves a short (but very early) hike to the Sungate at Machu Picchu.

Can a beginner hike the Inca Trail?

If you’re in decent shape and feel comfortable hiking up to 16 km in a day, you can do the Inca Trail!  This hike is a great option for those new to overnight hiking, you’ll have an experienced guide and you don’t have to carry a heavy pack. If you have the right attitude and prepare adequately, hiking the Inca Trail can be a fantastic way to determine whether overnight hiking is something you’ll enjoy doing more of.  

Can I hike the Inca Trail without a guide?

For any trekkers/hikers desiring a self-sustained trek, you’re out of luck. You must hike with a guide or tour company.  

Is the Inca Trail busy?

Yes, despite the Peruvian government limiting permits to 500 people per day (200 hikers , 300 porters. guides. and cooks) the Inca Trail still feels quite busy and solitude is elusive.  That said, apparently this quota system has reduced the daily number of people on the trail by about a third since its implementation in 2002. 

What is the best time of year to hike the Inca Trail?

The trail closes annual in February for maintenance and remains quite wet through April. May tends to be warm and dry. June, July, August, September are warm and dry, but are also the busiest months and will require permit bookings the furthest in advance. October remains dry with lower permit demand (fewer crowds). November is hit or miss. I hiked the trail at this time and had great weather, but your approaching the rainy season (December, January) so you may experience far more rain and cloudier days. 

Are there toilets on the Inca Trail?

Yes. All the established camping places feature some sort of established facilities. You will not have to dig a cathole or seek out a private spot to do your business. They can be rustic though, so don’t expect flush toilets.

Where do you sleep on the Inca Trail?

During your three nights on the Inca Trail you’ll be staying in a tent. Tent’s are typically provided by the tour operator and the porter set. up and take down your tent. All you have to do is pack up your sleeping gear and clothes. Luxury! 

How much does the Inca Trail cost?

Expect to spend over $600 USD for the classic 4 day 3 night Inca Trail.  Anything dramatically cheaper will typically mean that Porter welfare is not being considered or other major shortcuts are being taken. If you’d like to go on a private tour expect to spend about $1000 USD per person for a 2 person trip with the per person price falling as the party size increases.  In addition the cost of your trip you can also expect add ons for the following: 

  • Porter to carry extra items:
    •  8kg of personal items US$ 95.00 (half porter)
    • 16kg of personal items US$190.00 (full porter)
  • Single Tent extra cost US$35
    • Machu Picchu Mountain Hike Permit:  USD 85.00 
    • Huayna Picchu Mountain Hike Permit: USD 85.00 (highly recommended if you have the energy it’s hard but worth it). 

Should you hire an extra Porter on the Inca Trail?

Most operators include enough porters to carry tents, food etc. for the group. However, you are expected to carry your personal items including your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow. and any clothing. If you’d like to carry a smaller pack you can pay an additional amount (typically $100 to $200) for a porter to carry any stuff you don’t thing you’ll need during the day. Most hikers view this as a worthwhile investment, as it allows you to carry a smaller pack on the trail. 

Is the Inca Trail hard to hike? How should I prepare?

The Inca trail features one longish day at ~16Km which features 2 high passes and an elevation highpoint of 4200m (13780ft). Fortunately, the assistance of guides and porters makes the Inca trail very accomplishable as you’re not required to lug all your gear yourself. That said, you should take the Inca trail seriously. Get out for a number of hikes before your trip make sure you’re comfortable hiking for 16+ KM over varying terrain.  As the trip gets closer, plan back to back long hiking days to ensure both your body and your gear are working at the level you expect before your trip to Machu Picchu. 

What about the elevation? Should I acclimatize?

Absolutely. Like much of Peru, the Inca trail is high elevation and altitude sickness is not uncommon. Spend at least 2-3 days in Cuzco prior to your trail start date. Walk up to Saksaywayman and use that as a quick and easy acclimatization walk. If you’re coming from sea level try to take the bus to Cusco as opposed to flying to help with process. Consider getting a prescription for altitude pills from your heath care professional to bring along just in case you react adversely. 

view on day 2 of the inca trail

Things to remember for the Inca Trail

Travel Insurance

Make sure you have high quality travel insurance that covers evacuation. From elevation sickness to ankle injuries, medical emergencies happen here and  you’ll rest easier knowing that you’re protected if something goes wrong.  Check out World Nomads for comprehensive coverage for this type of adventure. 

Break in your boots / try out your shoes

Make sure to break in your hiking boots or test out your shoes before your trip. The last thing you want is a huge blister after the first 3 hours of hiking. 

My Inca Trail trip report

After several days of acclimatization in Cusco and exploring all the local sites, including Saksaywaman, the Koricancha, Ollantaytambo, and the rest of the sacred valley, it was time for my pre-hiking brief at the Llama Path office!

I’d decided to hike with Llama Path based on their bang up job on sustainability and porter welfare. 

A note on porter welfare

Porter welfare is a very important consideration when choosing an operator. No donkeys or mules are allowed on the hike to Machu Picchu (unlike the other popular treks in Peru) and everything is carried by incredibly hardworking and motivated porters. The Peruvian government has imposed formal weigh-ins and standards that have improved conditions in recent years. Unfortunately, it is still common to see many porters, employed by less responsible operators, making the 38km trek in sandals and bearing backpacks clearly not suited to the task. 

porters on the inca trail
Porters climbing the steps

Orientation and hiking companion introduction

After parting with the second half of my payment, I was ready to get to the briefing and meet my trek mates. 

We were a small group of trekkers, 5 total. Mike from Canada (me), Ontario (Canada) girl, and Washington State family (mom and 2 adult daughters). After the customary introduction formalities, I had learnt the following:

    1. Ontario (Canada) girl had decided to stick with her Peru trip despite a bad breakup, that had ended her ex-boyfriend’s participation in the pilgrimage. She replaced his presence in Peru with that of her parents (who would be sticking around in Cusco).  An interesting, yet resourceful substitution (when viewed in the light of individual financial preservation).
    2. Washington State Family had come to Peru to do the Inca Trail, see Machu Picchu, and GTFO. Flying back with a multi-day stop in NYC to decompress from Peru… before recompressing to life north of Seattle.

After meeting the other travellers, we were introduced to our charming guide, John. An excitable young Peruvian and experienced guid with the endearing trait of using the word “guys” as his filler word.

Following Llama Path’s thrilling introduction video, we were given our instructions for pickup early the next morning and sent on our merry way!

KM82 and the start | Day 1

The Llama Path luxury bus picked us up bright and early at 4 or maybe 5 am, too early for me to remember. After another stimulating introduction video, introducing the features of the bus including the onboard oxygen masks, we were bouncing down the road toward KM 82, the official starting point of our pilgrimage. The trek is frequently referred to as a pilgrimage because the Incas built their incredibly complex road system to connect their empire while simultaneously finding their way closer to the Apus (sacred mountain gods). This ethos for design resulted in a road network that at its peak connected Colombia to Chile. Allowing for rapid communication across an empire and tragically a very accessible path for the conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, and his gang of pillaging compadres.

KM 82 sign on the inca trail
Ready to go at KM 82!

KM 82 serves as the point where you first get acquainted with other hikers beyond the realm of your own group. People unload from various forms of transportation, purchase last minute supplies (bandanas, drinks, or coca leaves for elevation) and chat gaily amongst themselves. For many, this is a pilgrimage that has been years in the making. It was at this point that John first pointed out the green team to us… an ominously foreboding event that would haunt us through the duration of our journey to Machu Picchu…

After a customary photo under the KM 82 sign, we were off! Or for at least 100m… until we were stopped at the permit booth to verify passport information and permits.  After passing through a small queue, I was finally on my way.

Minding the motorbikes for the first few miles!

The gentle and dusty uphill slope proved to be a nice, tame re-introduction to walking at altitude, after my several week break following the Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blance. The only interruptions to my rhythm came courtesy of “local traffic only” motorbikes that would occasionally crash and bang their way up the dusty slope. Apparently, the first several kilometres provides town access for local residents. Before we knew it, our group had been stopped to check out our first Inca archaeological site, Llactapata.  John invited us closer, loudly proclaiming “Guys! Here guys! Is the first tale guys! About guys! Who guys? THE INCAS GUYS!”    

John spoke of the Inca Trail as a fully functioning people highway complete with inns and food storage facilities. His tale served as a fantastic re-introduction to the material covered in my university class on the Incas, but without the pain of the test at the end. Furthermore, John concluded his story with a cliff-hanging question we would become very accustomed to over the next several days, “So guys…. How do we know this guys?” The chronicles guys!” (A reference to the Spanish chronicles, a series of documents that the first Spanish visitors left behind and tragically one of the only formal records of Inca culture, as the Incas had no formal written language).

Just as we were about to depart and continue our way up the trail, the loud chanting, singing, and cheering of the green team troupe cracked the silence of the high Andean air.  “Who are we? The Green Team! Where are we going! Machu Picchu!”… Whether that is exactly how the chant went I cannot recall, but the ruckus broke the silence like a wine glass shattering in the middle of Central (one of Lima’s finest restaurants). As the green team leader silenced his zealots, he began his narrative of the story John had just rendered. Naturally, he began with a joke… informing his troupe excitedly that they had reached Machu Picchu! To which one of the troupe answered, “Really? What are we to do for the next 4 days?!”. To which a large well-muscled gentleman replied in all seriousness, “Steve only brought 1 bottle of Pisco! (Peruvian liquor)”  It was at that moment, that I made a resolute promise to myself: The next four days I would find solitude on this sacred pilgrimage through the strength of my legs and the steel of my lungs (fingers crossed no altitude sickness…).

Pushing onwards I was able to carve out my first individual piece of solitude, before halting for a delicious multi-course lunch.  The meal was highlighted by ceviche and prepared by our amazing chef, Caesar. Did I forget to mention we had a chef? The experience of hiking to Machu Picchu isn’t cheap, but it certainly does include a few luxuries not included with self-sustained trekking.

Inti’s last light of the day!

After gorging myself on Caesar’s meal, we pass the last small hamlet of Wayllabamba. The final checkpoint now behind us we begin to make our way upwards steeply before finding reprieve at our first night’s camp, Ayapata.  Enchanted by the views, I was able to relax and meditate on the beams of light that Inti (sun) casts over the majestic peaks. After settling into camp, Caesar presented another magnificent feast, which more than made up for the surface level dinner conversations between our team. With a full stomach, warmed up legs, and the peace of the mountains in my heart, I retired to my tent at the ripe hour of 8 pm. After tucking into my sleeping bag, I’m soothed to sleep by the chanting of the green team, camped uncomfortably close by.

Dead Woman's Pass | Day 2

The dawn was already beginning to crack as I rose and poked my head out of the front of my tent.  Our team of llama path porters were already busy bustling around and preparing our small expedition for departure. They greeted me cordially, bringing me a delicious mug of hot coca tea and my daily shower in the form of a warm bucket of water to splash on my face.  After a satisfying breakfast and a customary 4th cup of Nescafe (it grows on you), we were ready for liftoff. Day 2 is frequently considered to be the biggest test with two high passes and approximately 16km of hiking. The highest of the passes, Dead Woman’s Pass, reaches 4250m. As John completed our briefing for the day he concluded with the an ominous question, “Soooo guys, why is it called the Dead Woman’s Pass guys?” Not knowing the answer, I took a moment to glance around at my Llama Path teammates. Ontario girl had the look of casual neutrality, a perfect blend between interest and disinterest, equivocal in nature. She would continue to perfect this look for the duration of our pilgrimage. Washington family was ready to rock. Brand new hiking gear glistened in the high alpine sun. Their image would have fit perfectly in the latest edition of Outside magazine or perhaps a Patagonia ad, had it not been for fearful glances they exchanged at the ominous question about Dead Woman’s Pass. After briefly indulging these distractions, I returned my attention to John who explained that the Dead Woman’s Pass received it’s name due to the shape of the pass, which at distance, appeared to resemble a deceased female. This news was well received by Washington family, and taken with the usual degree of stoicism from Ontario Girl. 

As the green team began their morning chants, we were ready to begin our day and exit camp. I knew that to stay true to my promise of finding some peace and quiet on this well-trodden trail, I’d have to push myself hard to get ahead of the majority of the groups. After setting out, it didn’t take long before the path transformed into the series of massive steps and stones that the Incas meticulously placed hundreds of years before. To the un-indoctrinated, the Inca Trail is a 1.5 m wide cobblestone road that transforms into stairs the minute an elevation gain is required. The trail continues in this fashion all the way to Machu Picchu. We were treated to our first taste of Inca Up (full on climbing) as we make the ascent through wooded areas, along the never ending staircase. I passed other trekking groups and was passed by gangs of porters, with massive bags and seemingly indefatigable endurance. The porters continued onward to the lunch stop with limited rest and as such inflicted limited damage on my desire for solitude. After several hours of walking, I am the first of the non-porters to arrive at rest stop number one, Llulluchapampa (3800m). My hasty ascent afforded me the opportunity to enjoy several minutes of solitude with  the company of two llamas who glance over at me with the typical camelid look of disinterest. Once John and the rest of the team arrived, we are treated to further relaxation and a small snack. To my dismay, this rest afforded the other groups, including the green team, the opportunity to catch up. It is clear that my battle for solitude would be ongoing. Summoning up my strength once again and taking a big gulp of the ever thinning air, we continued upwards towards the Dead Woman’s Pass. Noting my cadence, John was kind enough to advise me to wait at the top of the pass for the rest of the group. Permission slip in hand, I raced for my independence. Once in the comfort of solitude, I allowed myself to stop and savour the incredible scenery that the thinning trees provided. Deep valleys and high Andean peaks, Amazing! I drunk in small gasps of air as my legs pushed me onwards. My lungs felt like I was sprinting, but my eyes confirmed that, no, I was in fact still walking. No matter, I was not about to sacrifice my position of solitude when the Dead Woman’s Pass lay so close ahead. Fighting on through the final 500m ascent, I reached the summit of the Dead Woman’s Pass at 4250 meters above sea level. Several porters casually acknowledged my summit, but I am pleased to find the top hiker free. I take the time to meditate on the views afforded in both directions, and pay homage to the feeling of stillness that the Andes afford. Before long, the top is swarming with fellow hikers clambering over one another in frenzied panic for the ultimate piece of photographic evidence to share with their social networks.   

 
Approaching dead woman's pass on the inka trail
Final stretch to Dead Woman’s Pass.

Once customary summit formalities (awkward group photo, etc.) were completed, we commenced our descent towards lunch at Pacaymayu. Word of advice for any future trekkers with knee-related issues, bring walking poles to help with the bone-rattling descents down the Inca steps. The descent took us past alpine grassland and beside bubbling creeks, until at last the red uniforms of the Llama Path porters greeted us with our next multi-course meal (despite the constant walking/exercise, weight loss should not be a problem on this journey).  

llama path lunch on the Inca Trail
Llama Path meals sure beat a sandwich!

Our stomachs bulging once more, our team set out to triumph over the second summit of the day. Setting out for the shorter afternoon portion, I was immediately greeted by the chanting members of the green team singing their best rendition of “We’re on our way to Machu Picchu”. They lumbered slowly towards the second summit, undoubtedly weighed down by the Pisco in their daypacks, and the after effects from consumption at elevation the night before. Fortunately, my non-hungover legs skipped rapidly past these green obstacles and I found myself enjoying the majestic views of Runkurakay in no time. From this egg-like building I was able to peer back down the valley from whence we came and back up at the Dead Woman’s Pass. As John, Ontario, and Washington family arrived, John was eager to point out that we were now able to see the full figure of the dead woman transpire in the distance.  In observing the image of the woman in the pass, I thought to myself that it could probably be called the sleeping woman pass. This renaming of the pass would save many future trekkers a great deal of unnecessary grief and dread. I couldn’t help but think that John was having the same thought as he finished another gripping rendition of “How do we know this guys?” “The chronicles guys!” After a bit more climbing we reached the second pass of the day with stunning views back towards the valley from which we came and into a new, lusher valley. We are about to enter into the realm of the cloud forest.

View from a pass on the inka trail
An egg building and a sleeping woman! Who can spot her?

As the scenery greened up and we descended downwards, we were left to explore the remarkable ruin of Sayaqmarka in the fading sunlight. The ruin lies perched nearby the camp, and as such, afforded me the opportunity to sit in silence and watch the sun fade behind the peaks. After satisfying my desire to embrace this mountain sanctuary, I skipped down the remaining distance to our camp Chaquicocha. 

Once my belongings were properly placed within my tent and I had changed out of the clothes that so graciously carried me through the tribulations of the day, I was ready to eat. Fortunately, another elaborate spread awaited. Dinner conversation was no more lively today. Fortunately, John was there to break the ice and squeeze the conversational orange of our group for all it was worth! After enjoying the multi-course meal (including dessert) it was tent time again! Fortunately, no soothing melodies are heard from the green team camp this evening! Here’s to the joys of high elevation trekking! 

Less hiking, more solitude | Day 3

Tap Tap Tap! Is that an Andean grizzly bear? Nope, just one of the friendly porters waking me up for Day 3. After relieving my overfull bladder and gulping back a few Nescafes, it was time for our morning briefing. John informed us that today will be predominately Inca Flat (gentle ups and downs) and we should make camp by early afternoon, allowing for plenty of time to explore some substantial Inca ruins near our final night’s camp.

We were treated to spectacular views of the nearby Salkantay Mountain (6271M) as cloud cover dissipated. Salkantay translates to savage mountain and speaks to the ferocity of the avalanches that rain down from its slopes. The peak is magnificent in its enormity and rivals the titans found in the Cordillera Blanca in Northern Peru. Taking a few moments, I sat on a rock in silence observing the beauty and majesty of the mountain. The scenery was so breathtaking with its juxtaposition of snowy peaks on cloud forest, that I became oblivious to the whereabouts of my group, John, or the chanting green team. After allowing my thoughts to wash away into nothingness for several moments, I allowed myself to return to the present just as Salkantay was swept behind cloud cover once more.  

I continued the journey along the Inca Flat, meandering along the intricate placed stones and passing through an Inca tunnel, before reaching the final pass of the pilgrimage. It is at this point that our team reunited in entirety: John, The Porters, Ontario Gal, and Washington family.  We were all there and jubilantly bathed in the exhilaration of our accomplishment. Photographs were taken and we were encouraged to make a Llama hand gesture in each one, a clever deviation of the rock-on gesture. Once we had our fill of producing marketing material, the porters continued on to camp and we wandered down slightly to the beautiful ruin  Phuyupatamarca.

Phuyupatamarca amongst the clouds.

The chronicles once again served as the source of John’s inspiration for our tune-up on Inca history and cosmology at this beautiful site. Following the lesson, we continued another bone-jarring descent down Inca steps. Eventually, we reached the site of Intipata, a miraculous set of terraces, where we are treated to spectacular views of the Rio Urubamba below. After savouring the views at this site, we wander into our final camp having concluding the majority of the trekking the classic Inca Trail had to offer.

Can you spot the Rio Urubamba?

The afternoon afforded the amazing opportunity to explore the nearby site of Winay Wayna and a small waterfall. Look closely and you’ll pass the ruins of the Winay Wayna pub along the way, the former centre of debauchery on the Inca Trail. The pub served its last Cusqueña (Peruvian beer) in 2012, but many tales remain of when the final night’s campsite was a little less peaceful than it is today. 

Thanks to John we were able to time our visit to Winay Wayna perfectly. We avoided the dreaded green team and were able to experience the majestic sites in total isolation. The countless terraces, archaeological ruins and nearby waterfall provided me with the perfect means to completely envelop myself with the enormity of the environment the Incas called home.

After our final night’s dinner, John ushered in the llama path porters and the chef so we could formally thank them and reward them (monetarily) for their outstanding work. The cumbersome train schedule dictates that the porters depart to the train station shortly after 4 am, forcing last goodbye formalities (tipping) to be scheduled for the last night. Side note: If planning a trek on the Inca Trail in the future, bring many small bills; a master of change is always a welcome addition to any trekking group!

Once we finished thanking the porters, I retired to my tent for the evening.  

Machu Picchu | Day 4

Rustle! Rustle! Rustle! What’s going on? It must be the Andean Grizzly this time! Nope, just another llama path porter wake up call. I’d almost forgotten that the cumbersome porter train schedule dictates that we’d be waking up at 4:00 am with them. We’d surrender our tents and gear to the porters, before waiting at the final ticket checkpoint until it opened at 5:30 and allowed us to complete the final hour to the sun gate.

As ticket wicket came to life, I felt myself rearing to go. John nodded to me approvingly as if sensing my excitement. He then told me to wait at the sungate and with a last word of encouragement looked me in the eyes as if to say, “Beat the green team!”. I looked back at him and nodded. No words were needed on this day as his look said it all, “I wish I could be there with you my friend, but I have to stay behind with the troops”. Like any good leader, he was ready to sacrifice his own glory for those he had sworn to protect (or at least guide safely to Machu Picchu).  

Inca Trail

Formal entry ticket in hand and checkpoint completed, I surged forward like a bat out of hell. Prime queue position had put the green team well in front of me. Nonetheless, I continued to push my pace (brisk hiking/walking pace) knowing in my heart that I would catch them. As I sped along the final stretch, I found encouragement in the smiles of the other hikers I passed along the way. Many of these fellow pilgrims I had come to know and love over the previous three days on the trail (okay maybe just know). I was pleased to see California Dad and his son devouring the last leg of the trail. A feat all the more spectacular, given that not two mornings before I had witnessed California Dad’s violent trail-side vomit attack. Further down the trail, I encountered the Canadian couple who at the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass had very politely asked me to take their photograph. They smiled their greetings to me as well, spurring me onward.  

Suddenly, disaster struck!  I rounded another corner, only to see the green team guide facing me and blocking the path. As I attempted to skirt around him, he held out his staff (hiking pole) and yelled, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”. What was the holdup? Why was he doing this? Were they onto my plan? Did the success of their Trip Advisor account ride on testimonials saying “first to the sungate”? So many questions and so few answers. That was until I saw one of the green team’s female compadres emerging from next to a tree, pulling up her pants. Gandalf had been protecting a private pee, simultaneously foiling my plan for victory. Lumbering along the final stretches of the Inca Trail, I caught the green team and fell into line with them  just as we passed through the sungate. Them in first and me, the sole Llama Path representative, in second.  An eerie silence fell over the group as 3 days of hiking and months/years of planning culminated in the first view of Machu Picchu… or in this case, clouds. Lots of clouds. Also some fog. In fact, nothing but white. We stood in the sungate and peered out towards the whiteness, doing our best to squint to make out any sign of the lost city. Nothing. I took this as a great excuse to hang out and wait for the rest of my Llama Path companions to show up. Once they arrived, they smiled and greeted me with a level of cordiality that could only be built after trekking and eating together for three and a half long days, while simultaneously still managing to not really care.

sun gate at michu picchu
Not much sun at the sun gate

When John arrived bringing up the rear of the group, he nodded to me as if he knew without me telling him that I hadn’t been successful in my mission. At the same time, his look said it didn’t matter and we’d have an awesome time at Machu Picchu nonetheless. He also said the clouds and fog would clear out soon. Third bonus, he chose this moment to hook us all up with awesome Llama Path t-shirts. The tees not only showed the route we took (elevations and all), but also proudly displayed the Llama Path logo.

Pumped on the high of my new T-Shirt, we wandered down from the sun gate to Machu Picchu itself and the clouds and fog slowly began to clear. When we reached the entrance, we were greeted by a view our eyes had seen in countless images and videos, but never before in real life. Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

The reality of the majestic lost city was everything I could have imagined.  I found myself staring, awestruck, at the ruins that appeared to levitate between mountain and cloud. 

What to pack for the Inca Trail

Your Passport

You need this for picking up your permit and at the final checkpoint.  Don’t forget it. 

Money for Tips

Follow the guidance provided by your trekking company for amounts to tip your guide and the porters. Bring small bills.

Backpack

All you need for Inca Trail is typically a great daypack. If you’re hiring a porter 15-25L should be sufficient. For an adaptable travel day daypack check out the customizable Kiri pack which is perfect for this hike and any other day adventures on your trip! 

If you’re carrying all your personal clothing, sleeping bag, mat, and pillow consider a 35-45L pack. 

Sleeping Mat

I used to have terrible sleeps in the backcountry until I switched to the Therm-a-Rest. It’s incredibly lightweight, comfortable, and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. This is probably one of my favorite backpacking items! Try it out. You won’t regret it. Sleep well!

Backpacking Pillow

Yes, you can sleep with a pillow not made of bunched up clothes in the backcountry. Check out the Big Agnes Q-Core Deluxe Pillow It packs down ultra small and provides a new level of comfort after long days on the trail.

Sleeping Bag

Patagonia’s sleeping bags are 5 star!!  I received one as a gift several years ago and wish I’d had for the Inca Trail. It’s unbelievably lightweight and packs down small. I found the 30°F / -1°C to be perfect for most outings – if it gets colder you can always layer up! Like all Patagonia products, it’s not cheap, but they stand behind their gear and the quality matches the price point. If you spend a lot of time in colder environments they also make a 20°F / -7°C version.  These bags are a worthwhile splurge!

Water Purification

Guides provide you with purified water on the Inca trail, but for added flexibility consider bringing a Steripen or tablets as well. The Steripen is light, portable and only takes minutes to purify a liter of water in a Nalgene. Press the button, place the pen in your bottle, and stir for a couple minutes!  

Water Bottle or Reservoir

Nalgenes are great for the Inca Trail. At night get your guide to fill it up with hot water. It’s   the perfect hot water bottle for warming your sleeping bag! Just double check it totally sealed! 

First Aid Kit

From blisters, to scrapes, and cuts. A first aid kit is an essential item to have.  The pre-built kits from Adventure Medical Kits have served me well on many adventurers. At the end of your trip write down any items you used and replace them so they’re ready for your next adventure.

Hiking Poles

For the grueling ascents and descents of the Inca Trail poles make a big difference!  I resisted getting them for years, but take it from a former skeptic, poles are incredible at reducing the strain of long, gruelling descents and providing extra stability on exposed sections. Do yourself a favor and get a pair of poles. For a reliable entry-level option try these Black Diamond Poles or consider upgrading to the carbon fiber to save extra weight.

Headlamp

The Spot 350 is the way to go with 6 modes including the night vision saving red light! Red light mode takes a minute to get used to, but once you do it’s a total game changer trust me! 

GPS, Compass & Map

Download the GAIA app for maps and gps. It’s an easy trail to follow and you have a guide, but it’s nice to see your progress as you go!

Battery Back-up & Charging Cable

Keep your phone charged for photos and gps. 

Clothing & Accessories

Shell Jacket

An essential piece for wind, rain, and snow. I’ve had great luck with an older version of the MEC Flash Cloud. Also check out the Patagonia Torrentshell  (or Women’s version).

Sun Hat & Winter Hat/Toque

A ball cap or tilly hat keeps your face protected from the intense mountain sun. A toque is great for warming up during chilly mornings or evenings.  Here are a bunch of great options.

Sunglasses

Pack your favorite pair!

Rainpants

Rain pants are an absolute lifesaver to have in your backpacking kit. Many have the functionality for quickly taking them on and off without removing your shoes/boots and allowing you to stay comfortable even if you get caught in a sudden downpour. If you need a pair, check out the Patagonia Torrentshell in men’s or women’s.  

Convertible Hiking Pants 1-2 Pairs

I never thought I’d see the day I embraced the zip-off. But hey, they’re really the best of both worlds for quickly changing mountain conditions and keeping warm in the evening when the temperature drops. Check out the Quandary Pant for a great option. 

Puff Jacket

I’ve had the Patagonia Men’s Nano Puff® Hoody for years. It’s a perfect multi-functional item for everyday, backpacking, and pretty much anything where you might need a bit of warmth. I’m still looking for an activity it doesn’t work for. They also make the Nano Puff in a women’s version.

Sun Hoodie

When I went hiking in the Grand Canyon a few years back, I was shocked to see throngs of Arizona Trail thru-hikers wearing hoodies in the 100 degree (40 C) heat. Turns out they were onto something! A sun hoodie has been one of the best items I’ve added to my hiking kit and is perfect for the high elevation on the Inca Trail. The Sahara Sun Hoodie (men’s/women’s) from REI has served me well.  Or check out these ones from Outdoor Research (men’s / women’s).

Base Layer Top x 2

These Capilene Cool shirts work well for me, but pretty much any athletic quick-dry top will work fine.

Base Layer Bottom

A merino bottom baselayer is perfect for warming up at night or during chilly mornings.

Underwear

Patagonia makes fantastic underwear with quality, durability, and comfort far exceeding Lululemon, and Saxx (I’ve tried both). You decide how many or how few you bring…

They also make women’s underwear, but I am unable to advise on fit, form, function, or durability on this front.

Hiking Socks 3 Pairs

Darn Tough Vermont makes the best hiking socks hands down. They’re guaranteed for life/replaced free of charge. Really!

Gloves

A thin weatherproof pair.

Camp Shoes

Crocs are back! Well for camp shoes they never left… They’re lightweight and ugly as ever. The perfect camp shoe for resting sore feet after a long day in boots/shoes.

Trail Runners or Hiking Boots

I’ve had great luck with the La Sportiva Bushido II.  If you’re looking for a more traditional hiking boot, check out the Scarpa Kailash.

Tooth Brush & Toothpaste

Final Thoughts

Despite the crowds, the Inca Trail is a remarkable hike and unquestionably the best way to visit Machu Picchu! Happy trails!

Question about hiking the Inca Trail? Have you hiked the Inca Trail? Flip me a line in the comments. I’m happy to help in any way I can! 

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