Inca Trail Hiking with Zephyr Adventures

    News about trekking and hiking in Peru

    Browsing Posts published by Kris Keys

    Dear Inca Trail,

    A love letter to the Inca TrailI will never forget the moment I first laid my eyes on you. Or how you took my breath away, both figuratively and literally, with your countless yet beautiful ancient steps. It was a true case of love at first sight.

    After hours of walking along the trail taking in your majestic mountain scenery and climbing through your lush cloud forest, your charm and splendor continued to grow. What a privilege it was to walk along your paths – dangerous and inviting at the same time.

    Inca Trail, you make it easy to transplant myself to 500 years ago when the Incans were forging their path, and yet it is hard to fathom how those skilled ancient peoples created you without the technology of today. Though we may never truly understand you, it is clear that you were devised for some greater purpose.

    Journeying along your path has deeply changed me and brought me a whole new perspective on beauty, life, love, and achievement. I am forever indebted to you.
    Love always,

    Your fervent wanderer

    We recently conducted a “Two-Minute Survey” and asked potential travelers for their opinions about traveling to Peru.  Our intent was to not only find out how and where people were interested in traveling to and in Peru, but also to find out if we had the information on our Inca Trail Hiking website that people needed to make a decision about their travels.  I was somewhat surprised by some common misconceptions that people had about traveling to Peru and trekking on the Inca Trail.

    1. I can’t go by myself. Not having a travel partner was the most popular reason listed for why somebody hadn’t yet traveled to Peru.  The truth is you can go alone!  Sure, it might be a little daunting to fly to Peru by yourself, but on our Peru treks (both private and group trips) we meet you at the airport upon arrival and are with you every step of the way.  (Note to solo travelers: many of our trips have a good percentage of travelers who come by themselves.  As an example, 100% of the participants on our Kilimanjaro trip this year are solo travelers!)

    A Zephyr trekker contemplates the universe from Inca Trail, above the clouds and peaks.

    A Zephyr trekker contemplates the universe from Inca Trail, above the clouds and peaks.

    2. It is expensive. Travel can be expensive, that’s true.  However, Peru has a couple things going for it that other places don’t.  First, spending 10 days in Peru costs much less than spending 10 days in, for instance, a European country – your dollar goes a lot farther!  Second, it is difficult to put a price on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Trekking on the same stone paths as the Incas did 500 years ago…hiking for four days to reach Machu Picchu by foot…watching from the comfort of your tent as the peaks of the Andes disappear behind the swirling clouds…these are priceless experiences that only a fraction of humans on this earth get to do.  When you look at that way, it isn’t expensive at all – it is just a matter of prioritizing.  (At Zephyr, you might recall that we prioritize adventure!  Incidentally, if you’re curious as to how we stack up against the competition, price-wise, click here.)

    3. I’m not in good enough shape to hike the Inca Trail. The Classic Inca Trail Trek (our most difficult trek) has been completed by hundreds of thousands of people.  Chances are good you can do it too, provided you are not extremely overweight or have other health issues that preclude you.  Mental perseverance also goes a long way in completing the Inca Trail!  The hiking will be challenging for some people and quite moderate for others.  If you are concerned about the steepness or high altitude of the Classic Inca Trail, you might consider trekking the Royal (Alternative) Inca Trail.   The Royal Inca Trail is a lower-altitude option that is perfect if you are worried about your lungs, your knees, or your ability to handle high altitudes and steep terrain. This trek avoids the intense climbs and sharp descents of the Classic Inca Trail.  Click herefor an overview and comparison of all our Peru treks, including difficulty levels.

    visiting-machu-picchu-peru4. I’ll plan my hike once I get to Peru. Many people are unaware that hiking on the Inca Trail requires purchasing a pass to do so.  Even more are unaware that only 500 passes per day are issued (and two-thirds of those passes are for the porters who support trekkers like you).  And even more don’t realize that passes sell out sometimes six months in advance. As I write this, the first available pass is in August.  So, hiking the Inca Trail is not something you can simply show up in Cusco and hope to plan once you get there.

    What’s stopping you from hiking the Inca Trail? Leave your comments below or email us.

    You should plan well in advance to guarantee your spot on the Inca Trail!

    You should plan well in advance to guarantee your spot on the Inca Trail!

    Here it is, still April, and the next available Inca Trail pass is not until late August.  The passes that remain for the peak season (through September) will go quickly.  Let us share with you a scenario that we experience far too frequently, especially this time of year.  We are contacted and asked if we can arrange a trek on the Inca Trail for June or July.  We can hear the hope in the voices of these people, and we know they have already asked other outfitters and have been told the passes are sold out for the dates they want, yet they are still hopeful they will find somebody who has squirreled away a few passes somehow (which is not possible, by the way – spots are reserved only with full payment, passport number and name of each specific trekker and it cannot be changed later to another person).   We are very sad to tell them that even though they have already purchased their flights from another part of the world to go on their dream vacation to Peru and hike the Inca Trail, it won’t be possible for them this time around.  (If you find yourself in this all-too-common situation, you should know that there are alternate treks in the area (such as the Lares Trek, the Cachiccata Trek or our proprietary three-day Sacred Valley Trek) that are equally as nice and don’t require a trail pass.)

    If you look at any website related to the Inca Trail, you will inevitably find a precaution to book your Inca Trail pass three (during the regular season) to six months (in the peak season) in advance.  This is no marketing gimmick – this is the plain truth.  The Inca Trail is a popular destination for adventurous travelers the world over and you cannot just “show up and go” like you can at many other locations.  Passes for the trail are limited to 500 per day, and roughly two-thirds of those passes will be for the guides, porters, cooks and other staff who accompany the trekkers.  This leaves fewer than 200 passes available for actual trekkers.  Think about it: only 200 passes per day, for one of the most sought-after adventures in the world!   This is both bad and good.  Bad, because it does not allow one to be spontaneous in his or her planning.  But ultimately (we think) very good, because a limited number of people on the trail each day helps keep it and its fragile environment as pristine as possible for future travelers.

    Our advice if you are planning to hike part of the Inca Trail that requires a pass: please, don’t leave the planning for the most crucial aspect of your trip until the end!

    MACHU PICCHU.  Huayna Picchu ("young peak") is the large mountain closest to the ruins

    MACHU PICCHU. Huayna Picchu ("young peak") is the large mountain closest to the ruins

    Machu Picchu is on the bucket list of almost every adventure traveler and even jaded travelers will find Machu Picchu one of the most incredible places they’ve ever visited …for good reason!  This “lost city of the Incas” somehow remained hidden from the Spanish conquistadors who overpowered the Incas, and remained virtually hidden until it was “rediscovered” in 1911 and became one of the best-known archeological sites in the world.   The architecture of the buildings and the engineering prowess it took to build them are jaw-dropping.  But the site has a stunning backdrop of steep mountains and swirling clouds that makes it all the more appealing.

    Practicalities.

    • Visit as early in the day as you can.  Why?  First, sunrise at Machu Picchu is something to behold.  Second, clouds (and possibly rain) tend to roll in during the afternoons and early morning offers the best viewing conditions.  Third, and most important, trainloads of day-visitors from Cusco will arrive late in the morning and the place will be crawling with folks shortly thereafter (concentrated between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM).  Alternately, visit late in the day when most people have gotten back on their trains to Cusco.  Sunset can be a great time for taking photos.

      The stonework created by the Incas has withstood the test of time -- centuries later, their finely crafted structures are still standing!

      The stonework created by the Incas has withstood the test of time -- centuries later, their finely crafted structures are still standing!

    • You will not be allowed to bring your trekking poles and backpack into Machu Picchu, so try to fit everything you can into a small fannypack or purse. There are no bathrooms or drinking water once you enter the site – be sure to hold onto your ticket so you can exit and reenter if you have to use the facilities.
    • Plan for all types of weather.  It can be brutally hot sometimes so pack sunscreen, a sun hat and water to make yourself most comfortable.   Weather in the mountains can also change in an instant so you should also pack a rain jacket.   Sturdy shoes are a must.  There are roughly 3000 stone steps in the main site (not including Huanya Picchu): plan on a lot of ups and downs!
    • If you want to climb Huayna Picchu, the steep mountain adjacent to the ruins that you see in most of the photos of Machu Picchu, you need to sign in at the caretaker’s hut.   Get there as early as you can, because they limit the number of people  each day for this hike to 400.  You should allow two hours round-trip.   The view from the top is simply amazing!   It is definitely worth doing but not for the faint of heart.  There is a parade of people going up and down on a narrow trail that sometimes has steep drop-offs to the side.  If you are not in good shape or have a fear of heights you shouldn’t attempt this.
    A Zephyr trekker contemplates the universe from Inca Trail, above the clouds and peaks

    A Zephyr trekker contemplates the universe from Inca Trail, above the clouds and peaks

    The answer to that question, for most people, is no.  Thousands of people hike the Inca Trail each year and most do not have serious issues.  However, you should definitely be prepared for the effects of altitude and know a little bit about altitude sickness ahead of time.

    The highest point we reach on our Classic Inca Trail trek is 13,860 feet.   At this height you will likely have some symptoms of altitude sickness, which affects different people in different ways:  headache, nausea, loss of appetite, trouble with sleep, and lack of energy.   These are manageable effects and will generally go away when you descend to a lower altitude.  (Note: on our Royal (Original) Inca Trail trek, the highest point we reach is 11,220 feet – therefore, you should have much milder effects at this altitude.)

    Why does altitude sickness occur? As you climb higher the air gets thinner.  At 14,000 feet elevation, each lungful of air gives you roughly 60% of the oxygen you would get at sea level.  Your heart and lungs have to work almost twice as hard to maintain a normal oxygen supply to your tissues.  What effect does this have on your body?  You breathe faster and deeper (immediately).  Your heart beats faster, increasing oxygen circulation to your tissues (also immediately).  Your body gets rid of excess fluid (this is why fluid replacement is so important) and creates more red blood cells (this can take up to a week or two, which is why acclimatization is so important).

    If you have symptoms that are more severe (such as vomiting, mental confusion, or being short of breath even when not exercising) this may indicate the development of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and the solution is to get yourself to lower elevation as soon as you can.  However, severe AMS and complications are very unlikely on the Inca Trail if you follow a sensible plan.

    What can you do to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness?   First and foremost, make sure to prepare for your trip by being physically fit.  Always remain well hydrated – because altitude issues are intricately tied to hydration, you should increase your fluid intake and limit alcoholic beverages, caffeine, and aspirin, which tend to dehydrate your system.  While on the trail, plan for three to five liters of fluid per day, most of it in the form of water.  Get plenty of rest.  Gradually expose yourself to higher elevations and go at a slower pace than you normally would.  Most importantly, you should spend at least two days prior to embarking on your trek in Cusco doing easy to moderate activity to begin your acclimatization process.  Some people also have good luck taking the prescription drug acetazolamide (trade name Diamox), which speeds up the acclimatization process and helps prevent AMS.

    Early mornings in camp can be chilly, but a down jacket or vest (and hot coffee!) can keep you comfortable.

    Early mornings in camp can be chilly, but a down jacket or vest (and hot coffee!) can keep you comfortable.

    Perhaps the most important thing to remember when packing for your trek on the Inca Trail is that you will not need as much “stuff” as you think.  The old guideline of laying out all your necessities on your bed at home and then removing two thirds (or realistically, half) is fairly accurate.   Packing light in Peru is especially important because there are weight restrictions for in-country flights as well as on the trail.

    On our Inca Trail treks, we provide group camping gear including tents, stove, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, pads, food, and utensils.  The Peruvian government has placed restrictions on the weight porters can carry on the trail.  You are allowed a total of seven kilograms (16 pounds) of personal gear to give to the porters to carry for you (including your sleeping bag which weighs approximately four pounds).

    Inca Trail Packing List

    In the mountains the weather can change drastically and quickly.  You should be prepared for cold, hot, rain, and sun.  Two theories crucial to your comfort are and “synthetic fibers” and “layering.” Synthetic fibers are vital when at altitude because they help to wick moisture away from your body.  Layering is the system which allows you to add and subtract layers as needed, before you get either too cold or too hot.  For instance, during the day, you might leave camp wearing a polypropylene tank top under a wicking t-shirt, under a long-sleeved fleece and covered with your waterproof and windproof jacket (with a hood) and pants (a material like Gore-Tex is great).  Throughout the day, you might become warm enough to shed three of those layers!  At night, you might be most comfortable with a bottom layer of polypropylene underwear, topping that with a fleece or wool layer, adding a down jacket, and finally your waterproof outer layer.

    When the temperature on the trail rises during the day, you will be happy to have a sun hat and shorts!

    When the temperature on the trail rises during the day, you will be happy to have a sun hat and shorts!

    Comfortable hiking boots are essential.  You should wear your boots in advance to break them in!  Equally important are lightweight and comfortable sandals or shoes (we love Crocs!) to wear once you get to camp.

    Other clothing to pack: hiking pants and shorts (zip-offs are nice because they are pants AND shorts!), fleece pants and top, socks, a down jacket or vest, a couple extra under-layers (these are the ones that will bear the brunt of your sweating, so it is nice to have a clean one each day), a sun hat, fleece gloves and a pair of warm waterproof gloves or mittens.

    What else?  A headlamp with extra batteries is very useful for nighttime bathroom breaks or to illuminate the inside of your tent.   A camp towel or bandana is useful for taking “bird baths” on the trek.  A cheap plastic rain poncho will cover you and your pack in the event of a downpour (you can buy this in Peru right before we depart on the trek).  Although we provide a fleece sleeping bag liner for you, you might consider bringing your own lightweight silk liner.

    Rubber tips on trekking poles help protect the ancient stones of the Inca Trail and also eliminate the sometimes-annoying "clicking" sound when the tips hit the stones.

    Rubber tips on trekking poles help protect the ancient stones of the Inca Trail and also eliminate the sometimes-annoying “clicking” sound when the tips hit the stones.

    We also highly recommend one or two trekking poles!  Studies have shown these reduce muscle wear and knee strain and can help with balance.  You must outfit your pole(s) with rubber tips to bring them on the Inca Trail.

    Finally, you should have a daypack that is comfortable and large enough to carry water, snacks, and extra clothing during the day.  Plan on packing at least 2 one-liter bottles that won’t melt when hot water is added.  Hydration packs (like Camelbaks) also work well.

    There is a tiny village in Peru called Cachiccata that is near and dear to our hearts.

    Our Cachiccata-based cook is recognized by the group as one of the fastest finishers of the Inca Trail Marathon.

    Our Cachiccata-based cook is recognized by the group as one of the fastest finishers of the Inca Trail Marathon.

    It has only a few hundred inhabitants but is the home of all the cooks and porters who assist us on our treks in Peru.  These are some of the hardest-working people we have ever met.

    These are folks who lug mounds of our gear on their backs and zoom by those of us on the steep trails who carry only a light daypack so they can get to camp ahead of us and make it perfect for our arrival.  These are folks who prepare and serve three delicious hot meals a day for us.  These are folks who dig a place for our toilet tent…and then pack out what we dispose!  These are folks who are quick to give us a dazzling smile when we arrive, exhausted, in camp each afternoon even though they have been working much harder than we trekkers have.  In short, these are people who truly make trekking on the Inca Trail such a stupendous experience.

    These people are also, by our standards, dirt poor.  We were distressed to hear from our Peruvian contact last week about what had happened in Cachiccata after the recent heavy rains that have devastated much of the Sacred Valley near Peru.  Here is what he told us:

    This the wonderful young man who brings coffee and tea to our tents each morning
    This the wonderful young man who brings coffee and tea to our tents each morning

    Cachiccata’s main water channel was semi destroyed, so we are seeking a motorized water pump to provide them an alternative water source for the dry season, as almost 250 hectares of land are in risk of droughts and the economy of this comunity is mainly based in agriculture.

    When we learned how much the pump would cost ($1500 US) we thought, “That is not much to keep a village in water!” and quickly decided we could help with this project.   Zephyr will match every dollar donated by our travelers and their friends (up to $750) and purchase that water pump for the village of  Cachiccata!

    Can you help Cachiccata? Please consider donating $50 to $100 and we will match it.  Any additional amounts will go directly to Cachiccata or other nearby deserving communities.  The easiest way to do this is to go to the BOOK A TREK page on Zephyr’s Inca Trail Hiking website and complete the “About You” and “Payment Details” sections of the form.

    A group of cooks and porters from Cachiccata receives an official "thank you" at the end of the trek.

    A group of cooks and porters from Cachiccata receives an official "thank you" at the end of the trek.

    Be sure to put the amount you would like to donate in the “Comments” section.   We will send you a confirmation email so you know we received your donation.

    You can also mail a check to Zephyr Adventures at PO Box 16, Red Lodge, MT  59068 if you prefer.  It is amazing how easy it is for all of us to make a huge difference in people’s lives through such a small act, isn’t it?