The 4-day Inca Trail in Peru inspires adventurous trekkers to follow in the footsteps of the original Incas through the Andean mountains, to finally reach the mysterious sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
Problems in the past with overuse and damage to the trail have led authorities to impose a 500 person per day limit on the trail, and to require that trekkers travel with approved agencies. Most Inca Trail agencies will include tents, three hot meals a day, paid trail fees and entry to Machu Picchu, as well as guides and porters. In the “high season” of travel — June, July and August — treks should be booked at least five months in advance.
ALTITUDE is the first problem trekkers face. Over the years, many well-conditioned athletes have had to had to turn back from the trek — or even be carried out — due to altitude sickness. The trail starts at approximately 8,400ft. elevation, not too bad. Then trekkers climb uphill until they reach Dead Woman’s pass on midday of Day 2, at about 13,800ft. This tremendous increase in altitude over a short period of time can be a recipe for disaster. Many trekkers are faced with symptoms of altitude sickness, becoming very short of breath and fatigued, with headaches, loss of appetite and maybe other symptoms. The best advice is to spend several days at gradually increasing altitudes, and in fact, many trek agencies require their clients to spend at least two days in Cusco (11,000ft.) before starting the trek. And even better, is spending a few days at a lower (but still high) altitude before arriving in Cusco. For many, this means staying in the Sacred Valley of Peru, between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Some trekkers take the prescription medication Diamox (acetazolamide), which helps speed up the body’s adjustment to altitude. Some also advocate drinking coca tea, which will be available all over Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
STEPS are the second problem trekkers face. A lot of that trail is stone steps (both up and down) built by the original Incas into the mountainsides. Training for the trek should include a lot of work on the quads — hill running, stair steppers, squats, or even real stairs (think office building or parking garage). Hiking poles definitely help, and they ease the stress on knees. Training should also include walking or running. However, hikers in less than outstanding physical condition have successfully completed the trek. And age is not a factor, just condition (and the altitude adjustment, of course). Some hardy children of 10 or so have done the trek, as well as spry 70-year-olds.
CAMPING is an issue for some trekkers. You will definitely be camping out on the Inca Trail — there is no lodging at all, no fancy hotels, no quaint B&Bs, not even any barebones hostels. You will be sleeping on the ground, in a tent. A silk cocoon sleeping bag liner adds a few extra degrees of warmth and makes turning over in the bag much easier, plus it feels so luxurious. Most trek agencies will give you a 4-person tent for only two people, and the porters will carry the tent. With most agencies, porters will carry sleeping bags, mats and personal gear only if they added at the time of booking, with extra fees.
FOOD & WATER are concerns for many. Most trek agencies provide three hot meals a day (cooked on a propane stove carried by a porter!), plus several snacks. Water is always of concern in Peru. Tap water is not potable, and stream water in the wild may carry parasites, bacteria or viruses. Many agencies will boil extra water at each meal and then cool it for drinking. Bring your own reusable water bottle or Camel-Bak to refill. If the trek agency does not boil water for drinking, you can bring water purification tablets or use a Steri-pen, which effectively purifies your water with UV light.
CLOTHING for the trek is often a question for trekkers. The best solution is to wear layers. Regardless of the time of year, mornings will be chilly, midday may be warm (especially if the weather is sunny), and evenings will cool off a lot. You need to be able to adjust the layers according to temperature. A wicking t-shirt is a good base layer, followed by a synthetic hiking shirt, lightweight fleece and shell jacket. Synthetic hiking pants are preferable to jeans (which take a very long time to dry if they get wet). You should always bring rain gear, but even a lightweight plastic poncho will do. Hiking boots will provide good grip in wet conditions, and can possibly prevent a sprain, although some hikers wear trail runners or even running shoes. Always bring a hat and sunglasses for sun protection.
ALSO BRING: sunblock lotion, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (yes!), insect repellent (“Off” towelettes work & are easy to carry), a headlamp (toilet blocks have no electricity), money to tip porters & guides and lastly, your camera!
Hiking the Inca Trail gives memories of a lifetime. With a little planning, you can have a great trek. Just do it — you know you want to!