Is the Inca Trail worth the expense?
Excellent Inca Trail distance and altitude graphic sign including forts and camping places en route, spotted at Wayllabamba checkpoint by Steve Pastor.
The Inca Trail is an incredible experience but really expensive at $600++ per person for an official package and generally a booking 3 months in advance is needed, though late deals are almost certainly possible to find in Cusco.
Alternatively consider hiking to the ‘new’ ancient site of Choquequirao instead though you should still try to see Machu Picchu via train, perhaps with an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes and a brisk walk along the trail from the MP end, just to see what the fuss is about. Actually a half day walk from MP’s Inti Punku will offer a good feel of the ambience.
Machu Picchu has become so overrun with tourists recently that authorities, with financial assistance from France, are working hard to excavate and improve access to an alternative and even more isolated site.
Acclimatising to the altitude
Due to the vast costs of this trek these days young backpackers are a rare species, mostly replaced by underfit and overweight (and affluent) older folks laden with walking sticks, big cameras and bigger hats, many of them turning back within hours of setting off. Jim passed at least 20 heading for home on the first day. The biggest problem is not levels of fitness, it’s altitude, particularly if you fly into Cusco and hit the trail within a few days before acclimatising properly.
Acclimatising is the key to managing the the Inka Trail. This is not your average long, steepish trek. It’s at 4, 000 metres! Get real, that’s high! Hang out a bit in Arequipa, hike Colca Canyon, walk around the Altiplano near Puno, then spend a few days in Cusco, maybe take a walk around Ollaytaytambo, then head for Km 88/82.