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What is the Inca Trail anyway?
The Inca Trail is the name given to a walking route that partially follows the course of an old Inca roadway leading to the city of Machu Picchu. For most people, the trail begins at Km82 on the railway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu and ends at Machu Picchu itself.
The Inca Trail is not the name of a particular travel company's itinerary, although many travel companies offer Inca Trail tours.
Do you need a guide or porters? Do you have to join an organized tour?
In practical terms, there's no need for a guide as the trail is fairly clear and well signposted where necessary. However, new regulations are now in force which make it mandatory to travel with either a licensed guide or an organized tour.
You're not obliged to join an organized tour, but if you want to travel independently, you'll need to get some other walkers together and hire a guide jointly. Solo walking no longer seems to be an option.
As far as porters are concerned, if you're fit and accustomed to hiking with a heavy backpack, you can do without them. If you are unsure about your ability to carry everything you need over rough terrain, or you are in a hurry, then porters may be a good idea.
How hard is it?
That will depend on you and what you're used to. It's generally reckoned to be a strenuous hike, but there's no rock-climbing or glacier-walking involved, so no technical expertise is required. The difficulty comes largely from the repeated steep ascents and descents, and from the high altitude. The climb to the first pass takes you up from around 2000m (6500ft) to more than 4000m (13,000ft) in a relatively short space, followed by a descent of around 1500m (5000ft). After the second pass at 3500m (11,500ft), things generally become easier.
You should remember also that unless you go with an organized tour or hire porters you will need to carry camping and cooking equipment, clothing and food for three or four days, all of which makes for a fairly heavy pack.
How fit do I need to be?
The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy it. Conversely, the less fit you are, the less you'll enjoy it. If you're extremely unfit, you may even fail to enjoy it to the point of collapsing in a lifeless heap somewhere along the way and having to be buried on the spot by your fitter companions.
In the absence of any agreed universal measure of fitness, consider that for a somewhat unfit twenty-two year-old (me) it was difficult but manageable. I found the first day very tough indeed, but thereafter things became easier. However, don't be deceived. It is very hard work in places (I wanted to give up on the first day, and had to take extended rest breaks every half-kilometer or so during some of the steeper parts) and you are likely to be carrying a heavier pack than you are normally used to. A better than average standard of fitness is probably highly desirable, if not absolutely required.
If you want to prepare yourself, hiking is the most obviously appropriate activity, but anything that builds stamina such as running or swimming is also useful. Stamina is more important than strength or speed; being able to bench-press five hundred pounds will probably not help unless you intend to walk the Trail on your hands.
What about altitude?
The altitude on the Inca Trail Varies from under 9000 ft to nearly 14,000 ft.
The Inca Trail is high enough that some people do have problems with the altitude. Being short of breath is relatively common and is not, by itself, cause for concern. On the other hand, severe dizziness, loss of coordination and concentration, severely irregular (Cheyne-Stokes) breathing, and death from pulmonary or cerebral odoema are generally regarded as more serious symptoms of mountain sickness.
If you, or someone with you, does start to show any of the symptoms of severe mountain sickness - severe breathlessness, noisy breathing, blue lips, frothing at the mouth, confusion or unconsciousness - you should descend to a lower altitude as quickly as possible and seek medical advice.
The chances are that you won't experience any ill-effects from the altitude, but it is definitely worth spending some time acclimatizing before you set out, with Cuzco being the obvious place to do this. If you go straight from sea-level to the Inca Trail you are much more likely to have problems. It's been suggested to me that 3-4 days acclimatization, including day-hikes in the Cuzco region, should be considered a minimum. Again, getting fit beforehand will also make life easier.
Coca tea is also popular in Cusco for relief from the symptoms of high altitude.
What's the weather like?
The driest months are from May to September, the winter months in the Southern hemisphere. Temperatures can fall below freezing above 4500m, and it may be windy from August onward. During the spring, September to December, there are likely to be early afternoon showers (sometimes accompanied by electrical storms) of short duration, and it may be cloudy and overcast. Nights during this season are clear (which means cold at high altitude).
The rainy season is from December to May. There is likely to be heavy rain for two to three hours every afternoon, as well as the possibility of light showers that continue over a longer period. Walking conditions are difficult, and streams may become impassable.
Note that just as anywhere else in the world, these are general tendencies. You could have a dry day in December, you could get rained on in July. Note also that there's a wide variation in temperature, dependent on altitude and time of day. Some guidebooks report that it can vary by up to 25 degrees Celsius, so it can be quite warm during the day at low altitudes and below freezing higher up during the night. My own memories from a trip in August run from sweating in shorts and a T-shirt during the day to shivering fully-clothed - T-shirt, shirt, and heavy wool sweater - in a three-season sleeping bag at the Pacamayo campsite at night.
I've heard something about new regulations for the Trail - what can you tell me about these?
The new regulations reportedly came into force on 1st January 2001. Among other things, they increase the fee for walking the Trail, limit the number of walkers as 500 per day, and make it mandatory to go as part of a guided group.
Is it true that the Trail is going to be closed?
It's periodically reported that the Trail will be closed temporarily or permanently. I think that a permanent closure is very unlikely, especially now that new regulations are in force to help preserve the Trail. On the other hand, temporary closures for maintenance are likely. It's hard to get definite information, the Trail will be closed for all of February of each year, and this has also been reported by other sources.
Is The Inca Trail dangerous?
Not especially. It's a three or four day walk in a fairly remote area. There are places where you could fall and hurt yourself, or even kill yourself if you really work at it, but unless you're very careless or clumsy it's not very likely.
On the other hand, it's not a good place to have a medical emergency. If you have a tendency towards cardiac arrest, passing suddenly into a diabetic coma, epileptic fits or whatever, try to arrange for it to happen somewhere else.
I'm scared of heights - will I be able to walk the Trail?
If the words 'Inca Trail' call up images of swaying rope bridges over deep ravines and narrow paths carved into the faces of sheer precipices, relax. There's nothing like that. And it's a walking trail, so you don't need to do any mountaineering.
There are a few steep descents, and there are some places where there is a drop-off on one side of the roadway. However, even people who don't like heights should be able to walk these stretches quite comfortably.
The stairway to Sayacmarca is a little intimidating, as it's quite narrow, overhung, and there's a steep drop on one side. However, Sayacmarca is optional: anyone who really can't handle the stairs can just sit by the main trail and wait while their friends explore the site.
What about theft?
In Latin America in general has a bad reputation for thefts from travellers. Given the fact that it is a poor country, and the average backpacker carries money and possessions which could probably feed a large family for the better part of a year, this is understandable. However, if you don't want to subsidize the local economy involuntarily, you should pay close attention to your belongings at all times.
Basic precautions include:
- Don't flash money, jewellery or expensive watches around.
- When carrying a shoulder bag or camera, carry it in front of you. Put the strap across your body, not just over one shoulder.
- Be sure that you are in a Hotel with security box or Don't leave valuables in hotel rooms .
- Don't leave your luggage unattended. If you put it on the roof of a bus or in storage compartments, watch closely to make sure it doesn't get unloaded before the bus leaves.
- When sitting in cafes or restaurants, make it difficult for someone to snatch your bag or camera by putting the leg of your chair through the strap (and sitting in such a way as to make it difficult for thieves to get at it).
- Watch out for pickpockets in a crowd, or for any attempt to distract you by bumping into you, or thrusting something - a newspaper, a piece of cardboard with something written on it, etc. - into your line of vision. Another favorite trick is to spray you with something unpleasant - grease, excrement and so forth. While 'helpful' passers-by try to clean you up, their friends are busy cleaning you out.
- Women alone should be especially careful, as women seem to be considered easier targets than men.
- Don't go to isolated areas alone. Be very careful after dark. If you have doubts, ask locals, other tourists or the police if an area you intend to go to is safe.
One consolation is that the Peruvians mostly seem to favour guile rather than violence. However, there have been reports of tourists in Peru being robbed and worse at knife or gun point, and of 'strangle muggings' (where the victim is choked unconscious and then robbed) in Cuzco. The chances are that it won't happen to you, but you should pay attention to any warnings you hear or read, and take sensible precautions.
With respect to the Inca Trail specifically, thefts from tents, particularly in the region of Huayllabamba, are unfortunately fairly common. Don't leave your tent unattended, and don't leave valuables in your tent. At night, bring everything - including your boots - inside the tent and keep it close to you.
There are occasional reports of walkers on the trail being stripped of their possessions by armed men. These incidents seem to be very rare. Travelling as part of an organized group may further reduce the likelihood of this happening to you.
What about wild animals?
One section of the trail is optimistically marked "Zona de Osos" ("Bear Zone"), but your chances of stumbling across a bear are probably very slight. Making noise as you walk and staying on the trail will reduce them still further. Predatory wildlife on the Inca Trail consists mainly of the local pigs and dogs around Huayllabamba (who will eat anything that you leave outside, including boots, rucksacks and plastic garbage bags) and biting flies, which will eat you. The insects, particularly around the Pacamayo, are extremely fierce. There have also been reports of chiggers and other pests near Huayllabamba.
A good insect repellent is a necessity. An American brand called Cutters worked particularly well for me. The active ingredient in that is apparently diethyl meta-toluamide ('deet'), so other deet-based repellents (which is to say most of them, nowadays) might also work well. You might want to consider carrying a second repellent based on a different main ingredient, as a reserve, in case the flies have grown to like deet.
Is the Trail crowded?
In 1987, we met about five or six people a day. The campsites were nearly empty. However, according to the last figures I saw, something in the region of thirty to forty thousand people now walk it every year. (Hey, and you want us to believe your poxy Web site with this stupid FAQ is something special? Which planet are you from?) The latest reports I've had suggest that you're likely to meet about 200 other people per day on the trail, including large groups with guides and porters. The crowding appears to be particularly bad during the popular summer months. This has an inevitable impact, both on the facilities and the environment.
Whatever the conditions on the Trail, Machu Picchu is usually the tourist Central
What about ... ahem ... you know ...Toilet facilities?
They're scarce. Apparently there are now pit latrines at the campsites, but the rest of the time you're on your own. What this means above all else is that you need to be a good citizen of the wilderness and obey the rules. Since it's impractical to backpack your crap out of the region along with the rest of your rubbish, this means that when you have to go, you should go a long way away from the Trail, and bury your excrement properly after you're done. This is not an especially pleasant task, but it must be done. And when you're at the campsites, use the facilities available: stepping or even sleeping in someone else's business is less than pleasant.
Also be sure to bring toilet paper. This is not provided in bathrooms on the trail.
What should I take?
Among the things I would suggest as essential are:
- Camping gear, including a tent and a good sleeping bag
- Cooking gear, including a stove and saucepans
- Food for three to four days or more
- Water bottle (1.5 litre or better)
- Waterproof clothing
- Sturdy, comfortable footwear
- Light clothes for warm weather
- Heavy clothes for cold weather, including a windproof jacket and a sweater or fleece
- Insect repellent and 'sting relief'
- Sterilizing tablets (iodine/chlorine-based)
- A guidebook
- A good backpack to hold it all
Add to this the usual traveller's staples such as toilet paper, a flashlight, a knife and a basic first-aid kit, plus money (in a money belt or neckpouch hidden inside your clothes) and anything you need to record the trip - camera, film, sketch pads and notebooks etc.
If you're going on an organized tour, the tour operators may provide some of these items and porters to carry them.
Everything you don't need should be left behind. Many hostels and hotels in Cuzco will let you leave stuff with them. Your pack will already be uncomfortably heavy with just the essentials or just Check the Essentials Things for inca trail
What kind of clothing and footwear should I take?
See the weather section for more information, but in general it is good to have layers. A tshirt and comfortable pants for walking, plus a long sleeve shirt/sweater/jacket for when it cools off are essential. It's important to have a poncho or rain jacket even if it is not rainy season because it's always possible it will rain here. Because of the altitude, nights are cold in any season, so be sure to bring layers for the evening.
- Clothing comfortable for walking in
- Hiking pants, not jeans
- Comfortable hiking shoes or boots and socks
- A hat for the sun
- A beanie or warm hat for the night
- Gloves are useful for cold nights
Can I rent or buy equipment locally?
Yes. There are shops in Cuzco which will rent or sell equipment. However, bear in mind that shops may not have everything you want and that the stuff they offer to rent may be old, broken, heavy or have parts missing. Check everything before you leave the store. Whether you're renting or buying, you're likely to find it expensive.
Or Just Contact us To Buy for you!
What about food and fuel? Can I buy food anywhere on the Trail?
You can buy food and fuel in Cuzco. Don't count on being able to buy any food on the Trail. You may possibly be able to buy some food in Huayllabamba but it will be relatively expensive. There are also tourist facilities at the far end of the trail, but it's unwise to rely on either.
You mean there isn't a McDonalds or Burger King or Bembos?
Yes there are McDonalds in the main square of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas,but not Burger King. Also, Bembos is Great!! However, these places are in the center of Cusco, nowhere near the trail.
What about water?
It's possible to purchase bottled water along some of the trails (on the Inca Trail until day 3). If you're going with an agency, they will boil water for you. If you're hiring a guide and carrying your own equipment, it should generally be possible to fill your water bottle from streams and rivers along the Trail. You must use sterilizing tablets or boil the water (remember that water boils at lower temperatures at high altitude, so you must boil drinking water longer to ensure it's fully sterilized). Take water from streams in preference to standing water, and filter it if in doubt. Be careful when taking water from fast-flowing rivers; by inconsiderately falling in and drowning you risk polluting the water supply for everyone else.