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Walking the Inca Trail

In September, my wife and I fulfilled a long-standing bucket list entry of ours and hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Our trip came after more than a year of progressive hiking, and we carefully researched different trekking organizations in order to get the most out of our Andean adventure. That being said, there were a few things we learned once the trip was underway…

Adopt a three-tiered training regimen
The Inca Trail covers a distance of roughly 42 kilometers, or just over 26 miles. Spread out over three and a half days, this is a manageable distance for most experienced hikers. But the mileage is merely one aspect of the trail. Two other important factors should be taken into consideration: altitude and terrain.

As noted by this helpful chart from Peruvian Soul, the elevation of the Inca Trail begins at roughly 6,500 feet, reaches an apex of 13,800 feet (at the site known as Warmihuañusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass) and then descends more than 6,000 feet to Machu Picchu. The second day is very harsh as far as elevation gain and loss goes, and the third day is also tough. Be sure to adopt some steep ascents into your training regimen to complement the long-distance treks.

When it comes to terrain, the only way to adequately prepare for the ruinous stone steps and knee-buckling grades of the Inca Trail is to bring along a boots that are sufficiently broken in. And take your time, especially during the downhill stretches.

Carefully vet your guide outfit for fair practices
Not all Machu Picchu trekking companies are created equal. Without naming names, some have been accused of paying their guides and porters unfair wages, supplying them with substandard equipment, and generally running a shabby, unprofessional program. We managed to secure passage with a company that pays its employees a competitive wage and provides sturdy footwear. Do your research and make sure the company you choose is legitimate.

Hire a personal porter
In addition to the obvious perk of another person sharing the load on your back, there is another, much less selfish benefit to hiring a personal porter during your trek. Hikers will be asked to contribute money to a pool for all of the porters who haul tents, cooking supplies, and other trek provisions. Legitimate guide companies award a separate pool to the porters who haul supplies on behalf of individual hikers. The tip amounts might not seem like a lot to Western tourists, but these sums of money go a long way in Peru and porters can make a tidy supplemental income (most make their primary living as farmers). So if you’re on the fence about hiring a porter, keep in mind that most of these herculean mountain men are more than happy to oblige.

Also, it won’t hurt you to learn a little Quechua, the native language of Andes-dwelling Peruvians (many of whom know sparse Spanish and don’t speak a lick of English). These guys are something else; prepare to be awed at how quickly they ascend and descend these gnarly trails with twice as much weight on their back as the hikers. And if you can speak their language, nighttime conversations with these individuals are equally astounding.

Arrive in Cusco at least two days before the trek begins
Many guide companies will require all trekkers to reach Cusco at least 48 hours before the hike in order to acclimate to the high altitude (the city sits at roughly 13,500 feet above sea level). But even if early arrival isn’t mandatory, you may want to give yourself a few days to adapt. Dizziness, nausea and headaches are all common side effects of the affliction known to Peruvians as ‘soroche.’ Speaking of which…

Learn to love the coca tea
Let’s address a common stigma: many Americans equate the leaves of the coca plant with pure cocaine. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Literally pounds of coca leaves are required to produce just a small amount of cocaine, and munching on the leaves or sipping a cup of coca tea will produce nothing more than a small buzz similar to a jolt of caffeine. Plus, the leaves are widely considered an antidote for soroche. For the price of a candy bar, you’ll be able to buy a bag of coca leaves that will last the entire trek. If you’re at all susceptible to the effects of elevation, then this is a seriously wise investment.

Purchase some heavy-duty bug spray
You won’t find many mosquitoes up in them thar Andes during most times of the year, but the mountains are rife with a certain type of no-see-um known to locals as ‘the puma’s tears’. The bites are unpleasant at first, but the itching can last for weeks. Luckily, any strong bug spray will prevent most of them from reaching your skin.

Change out your large bills
There are lots of things to purchase along the trail–water, candy bars, beer, souvenirs, etc.—and most of the vendors won’t accept anything higher than a 20-sol note (which is roughly equal to $6.50). Meanwhile, most ATM machines in Cusco won’t dispense anything lower than a 50-sole note. So if you want to purchase anything during the hike, be sure to visit a bank and have those big bills changed down. Otherwise you’ll be met with a lot of head-shaking when all you want to do is buy a Gatorade.

Small bills will also be needed when divvying up the different tip pools at the end of the trek. Generally, there will be separate pools for all of the porters, the personal porters, and each guide. Small bills and coins will be eternally helpful during this process.

Pack a comfy pillow
While tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads will either be provided or available to rent through most trek outfits, pillows are harder to come by. Considering the rocky terrain and the general discomfort of sleeping in a tent, you should definitely pack along a small travel pillow.

Bring extra camera batteries and a spare memory card
Even with all of the heavy-duty hiking, there are plenty of photo opportunities on the Inca Trail. Majestic peaks, sweeping valleys, authentic Incan ruins, wild llamas. Not to mention some of the best selfies you’ve ever taken. Make sure you have all your bases covered with your camera, especially since the best photo-worthy moments come at the end of the hike.

Expect the timetable to change
When my wife and I booked our Machu Picchu trek, we were given a fairly rigid itinerary. Three and a half days of hiking, concluded with a brief, early-morning jaunt to Machu Picchu on day four. But roughly one hour into our hike, the dutiful guide informed us that the schedule had changed. Specifically, our campsite for the third night was no longer available. As a result, we were given two options: camp at a different spot and extend our hike on the fourth morning by several hours, or complete the trek in three days. All 15 people in our group chose the latter—and as a result, we were able to visit Machu Picchu on two successive days.

From what I gathered, timetable tweaks are fairly common on the Inca Trail. Rather than obsessing over the details of your trip, it might be wise to approach your trek with a little more flexibility. Campsites change, some portions of the hike take longer than expected, rain can delay everything. But as long as you get to visit Machu Picchu and enjoy the breathtaking scenery along the way, then consider your Inca Trail trek a success.


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