Iconic Hiking Trail (part 1)

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by beckyX on November 15, 2009

During the peak of the Inca Empire, many steep paved routes were built as a system of highways throughout the empire for the chasqui runners of its ruler (the eponymous Inca) to travel on. If people mention "the" Inca trail, they are referring to the most famous one of all - the paved path leading to the famous Machu Picchu, an Incan city perched on a mountain top high in the Peruvian Andes.

Since I was a child and heard of Machu Picchu, I wanted to hike along its famous and difficult trail. The city has a mysterious appeal to it - having remained hidden from the Spanish conquistadores, it was unknown to Europeans (though not to locals!) until 1911 when Hiram Bingham "discovered" it. Even today, the city (and its neighbouring modern town Aguas Calientes) are extremely isolated - you arrive there by train or on foot, not by road. Finally, a couple of years ago, I was able to achieve my lifelong ambition. This was an amazing trip, but it was a good few months after I got back before I even wanted to climb a set of stairs ever again! My journey was in November, which is the start of the rainy season in Peru (which is in the tropics of the Southern hemisphere) - we certainly managed to get a lot of rain on our walk!

===The Classic Inca trail===
There are several variants of the Inca trail that take a varying amount of time from one to five days. The one I did was the most popular variant called the classic trail, which takes four days and can be started from either the km 88 or the km 82 marker. These markers refer to the distance out on the railway from Cuzco, a Peruvian city which was once the capital of the Inca empire. The Inca trail takes you over several passes, the highest of which is 4200m high - plenty high enough for bad altitude sickness, but we had spent a week acclimatizing by that point, so most of us had got over the worst of the altitude sickness.

We took the 42km long route from km 82, which lasts four days. That might not sound far, but that represents four long days of extremely arduous hiking.

The trail itself is paved for most of the route with stones ranging in size from small brick-sized stones to large slabs. Much of this is the original Inca work. For the most part can only be travelled on foot, with no pack animals available (the wheel was not invented in the Americas and only llamas were used for pack animals). Erosion is a serious problem on the trail; because of this, only a restricted number of permits are issued each year. Only about one third to one half that number of tourists can go on that route, plus porters and guides. This means you have to travel with an organised tour, who arrange the permit and all the accommodation and food on your behalf.

Make no mistake - although you are completely taken care of (almost to the point of being pampered), hiking the trail is not an easy experience - even the most independent of my group were extremely glad of being looked after by the end of a long day's hike!

===The preparation===
As the trail is at very high altitude, the oxygen levels are much less than at sea level, meaning that the level of exertion is much higher than an equivalent route at sea level. So it is definitely worth while trying to improve fitness levels! In preparation for the trail, I took up jogging six months beforehand and went three or four times a week, building gradually up to 5km each time. This level of activity strengthens the lungs and helps you to get used to the intense levels of activity which you experience on the trail. To give you an idea of the intensity, imagine how out of breath you feel sprinting as fast as you can. That's how you feel just putting one foot in front of the other! Now remember the route is very steep, and you'll realise how a 42km walk can take four long days!

People do find it differently difficult - being in my twenties, I was one of the younger travellers in my group, but that was counterbalanced by my having asthma, so I was about midway in ability and so probably represent a fairly "typical" level of fitness.

===Meeting the porters===
After breakfast following the first night, we had an introduction session with the porters, with a fair bit of translation going on for those who know no Spanish. Up to a certain age (40ish), the porters look much older than they actually are, because of exposure to the elements ageing their skin, but the older porters looked much younger than their years (keeping fit appears to be good for you!).

The porters carried all of our luggage (limited to 7kg!) and our tents, meaning we had only to carry our small day packs containing our waterproofs, sweaters, water bottles and chocolate. The packs were bundled up into enormous packages that the porters would lift onto their back and shoulders as if they weighed nothing; then they would run along the trail and overtake us as we slowly shuffled along. This meant that although we set off first, the porters still beat us to the next rest stop and had tea and hot food prepared, in spite of the fact that they had to put all the tents down and pack up after we left.

===The food===
The food was plentiful and tasty and every meal featured a selection of teas and powdered milk. Every meal had a vegetarian option, although it did have a tendency to feature eggs nearly every single meal. We had hot food for breakfast, elevenses, lunch and dinner and a cold afternoon tea and trail mix and other snacks for the journey. We were given as much boiled water as we could carry each day - the local water is generally considered safe only once it has been boiled and sterilised.

===The toilets===
One of the questions people regularly asked me is what were the toilets like on the trail. There are generally toilet facilities at all of the camp sites en route, but not necessarily ones you would want to use - some of them were filthy and others were "footprint" style holes in the floor. In addition, our group had use of two chemical portaloos during the frequent rest stops, which the porters carried with the rest of the luggage. Other than that, if you can't hold it, there are always convenient bushes along the route. Never did I think I would find a chemical toilet a great luxury until I hiked the trail!

===The accommodation===
The accommodation on the hike was at camp sites along the route, staying in three person tents shared between two people. The tents were put up for us in our camp site each evening by the porters. We had thermarests - padded air mattresses which made the ground a little more comfortable; these helped to reflect your body heat to keep you warm. Beware though - it still gets very cold, even through a four season sleeping bag! My tip is to take a metal water flask with a screw top - that doubles as a hot water bottle at night. When we arrived at the camp site at the end of a hard day's hike, we got a washing up bowl of hot water to wash in and soak our aching feet - which was bliss and a wonderful little luxury! Sadly, there were no showers at the camp sites we were staying in.

...Part two yet to come! Review cross-posted
Inca Trail
Andes Mountains
Cusco, Peru


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