"The challenge will make you feel an incredible sense of achievement once you step on top of the hill overlooking the ruins while the sun is rising"
Mention the Inca Trail to anyone and pictures of mountains flown over by mighty condors, thick jungles and impressive blocks of rock bathing in a misty background will pop into any travellers mind; travellers, the occasional llama, pan flute and stripy colourful pants might also appear travellers having read a little bit about Peru.
At the pinnacle of the Inca empire, a complex road system linked together about 40,000 kilometers (25,000 mi) of roadway and provided access to over 3,000,000 square kilometers (1,200,000 sq mi) of territory, from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Today, what is commonly called hiking the Inca Trail is in fact a 42 km stretch going from the outsides of Ollantaytambo (some 60km out of Cuzco, Peru) to the ruins of Machu Picchu (literally, Old Peak or Aged Mountain), generally hiked in 4 to 5 days with a 2 day trek option. There are a few things that one needs to know.
1 - The trek is absolutely worth it. Landscapes are beautiful; the challenge will make you feel an incredible sense of achievement once you step on top of the hill overlooking the ruins while the sun is rising after 4 days of intense effort. It is the only trek ending right in the ruins of Machu Picchu. Others end in Aguas Callientes, further down the mountain and require a bus trip up to the entrance.
2- The trek itself is not a difficult trek but it has its challenges that should not be overlooked. High altitude, appropriate diet and rest are aspects to consider for travelers wanting to enjoy the ride. The vast majority of hikers, from different shapes and age, will finish the trek. The occasional serious altitude sickness, lack of rest and general low fitness level will prevent a minority to finish it or enjoy it to its fullest. A few simple tips: - Weeks before leaving, consult with your health professional and agree on a fitness plan (Aerobics, Walking, jogging, swimming or riding a bike), and discuss high altitude symptoms to be able to recognize them. - Once in Peru, become acclimatized by spending at least 24 to 48 hours at high altitude. Cusco, located at 3400 meters (11200 feet) is a great place to do this. - Drink a lot of water while you're becoming acclimatized and while hiking the trail. Doctors recommend up to 4 liters per day. - Don't drink alcohol for at least 48 hours before starting the trek. - Avoid salt any medication containing codeine. These can cause dehydration and/or affect your breathing. - Avoid tobacco. - Eat light meals. Heavy or greasy foods will put pressure on your digestive system and can cause insomnia. - A high carbohydrate diet will aid ventilation efficient use of oxygen. - Take it easy, this is not a race. I once did it with a 92 year old woman who made it and enjoyed it, despite leaving earlier and arriving a bit later at camp every day. - As soon as you think you are experiencing symptoms of High Altitude Sickness, tell your guide. Some serious accidents have happened because of hikers not wanting to report them.
3 - You need a permit. The local Inca Trail administration has many rules but is the strictest one is no more than 500 people starting the trek every day. This includes guides, assistant guides and porters, leaving about 200-220 permits for hikers. This means that anyone wanting to hike the Inca Trail must book ahead (usually 6 to 8 months in advance). In order to be purchased, the agency will require your full name and passport number. Make sure you book your permit with the passport you will use to travel as it is almost impossible to change information on the permit and you might be denied entrance to the Inca Trail. The permits can be purchased through a local operator or through any travel agency that works with a local Inca Trail operator.
4- Which brings me to the Inca Trail operators situation. In this highly competitive yet lucrative market, there are about 200 Inca Trail operators in Cusco and unfortunately only a handful of them follow proper safety guidelines and treat their porters well. Prices range from 310USD to 450USD for the traditional 4 day / 3 night hike, and generallyinclude food, tent, transport from/ back to Cusco, guide and porters. When an agency offers it at less than 380-400USD, there is a high probability that corners are being cut somewhere and it usually means a lesser quality of tents and sleeping bags or less experienced guides. It can also mean they are not paying their staff up to the law requirements, including their porters. Porters are descendants of Incas, they are Quechua people who live in the Sacred Valley around Ollantaytambo and work as porters to complement their income that usually comes from farming. While working on the trail, they carry up to 20 Kg of equipment on their backs.They are by nature incredibly humble, some of them only speak Quechua and unfortunately are often taken advantage of. An unscrupulous agency would require them to carry up to 25-30 kg, discount their salary for any reason and would limit their food budget by relying on left overs from the hikers; often they would not offer their porters insurance, breakfast or transport from their community on the first day. It is your responsibility to make sure whoever is booking your Inca Trail is using an agency that respects their porters. Ask them what are their policies regarding the points mentioned above. Be an informed customer. Agencies usually mentioned in highly recommended guidebooks are a good place to start. Also, tour operators with a proven track record of sustainable practices will be helpful.
5 - You will hear everything about tipping the staff. The rule is: tip according to the service you received. Porters will almost always exceed expectations; make sure they get 30-35 Soles (local Peruvian currency) each, 12-13USD approx. If the guide is good, a 50-60 Soles tip and about another 50 Soles for guide assistant and cooks. 6- Usual group sizes are 12-14 people (max 16) + 2 guides + 1.5 porters per hiker.
7- When to go? The trail is closed in February for a well needed clean up (up to 400 kg of trash collected every year don't be those guys). December to March is rainy season, expect a lot of rain and less probability to have a clear view of the ruins from atop. June to September is high season, expect more people on the trail and colder weather (2-4 celsius at night 35-39 Fahrenheit). A good time to go would be in between those months, so April-May and October-November.
8 - What to bring? You will be given a small duffle bag to pack your clothes for the next four days. Your weight allowance with most agencies is strictly 6 kg max. While you hike, the bulk of your luggage will be stored at your hotel. You will not have access to your items in the duffle bag until the end of each day, as the porters will always be ahead of the group. For during the trek, you need a day pack big enough to carry personal belongings such as a warm jacket, a rain jacket, your camera, sun cream, snacks, water. - Sleeping bags can be hired locally for approximately US$18. - Hiking poles can be hired locally for approximately US$14 - Rain ponchos can be purchased in Cuzco for a couple of dollars but arent very resistant: if you're going to be hiking in the rainy season it would be wise to invest in a decent poncho or rain gear. - While trekking, boiled or safe water is available for drinking. However, you should also carry a water purification method (purification tablets are available from camping stores or pharmacies).
9- Connect with your guide, cooks and porters. Learn a few words of Spanish and Quechua, you will certainly get a few laughs from your Inca trail team. Break the ice and start a conversation by sharing pictures of where you live, your friends, your family, your pet. There is so much you can learn from simple interactions.
10- If the Inca Trail is fully booked and/or you are looking for an alternative, there are plenty of other treks around Cusco: Salkantay (5-7 day: end in Aguas Callentes, then bus up Machu Picchu), Lares (2-3 day: end in Ollantaytambo, then train to Aguas Callentes and bus up Machu Picchu). Other treks that dont end up in Machu Picchu are Choquekirao (5-6 day: the next Machu Picchu, impressive ruins in the jungle and no one around but yourself), Ausangate (7 day - exceptional views and local interactions with communities).