Inca Trail Hiking with Zephyr Adventures

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    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

    Machu Picchu is the ancient Incan city known for its intriguing architectural and archeological sites and is even one of the New 7 Wonders of the world, but it is also known for its other longtime residents — llamas!

    Llamas of Machu PicchuLlamas were a treasured staple of Incan culture for their ability to survive on small amounts of water and poor-quality plants found at 3,000-5,000 feet, while still providing wool and meat.  They also have the ability to carry heavy loads over the rocky terrain.  Their poop is even said to be one of the secrets to the Incas’ success, as it was a very effective fertilizer for maize, the Inca’s main food source!  Llama herders were held in such high esteem that they were considered members of nobility back in the day.

    The people of the Andes domesticated llamas around 4,000 B.C. The fact that they are still roaming freely around the grounds of Machu Picchu today (along with their cousins, the alpacas) adds to the historical experience while visiting the ruins.  These fuzzy, adorable ungulates are quite gentle and are accustomed to humans stopping by to visit their home. And with Machu Picchu being one of the most photographed tourist attractions, the photogenic llamas who call it home are also quite used to striking a pose for you, or even photobombing your epic shot.

    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!

    TripbaseThe Inca Trail Hiking Blog won the 2011 Best Peru Blog from the TripBase Travel Blog Awards!

    To quote the TripBase website: “In the Peru category of our Travel Awards for this year, Our Tripbase judging panel very carefully evaluated hundreds of Peruvian blogs, selecting just the choicest examples using criteria like accuracy, update frequency, tone and inclusion of pictures. We’re very proud to flaunt these examples of excellent blogging, which you will find below.”

    We are happy to accept the award!

    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.

    As you might know, the train to Machu Picchu was wiped out in half a dozen places due to rains and flooding in early February. Because there are only two real ways to reach Machu Picchu – the train and the Inca Trail – the Peruvian government has closed Machu Picchu temporarily.

    Peru RailHowever, the national rail system, Peru Rail, that runs the train line has now indicated the train will be open on March 29th. In response, the Peruvian government has announced that Machu Picchu will be open for business on April 1st and the Inca Trail will again be open to hikers.

    There will be a few restrictions. First, there will be no Backpacker Trains, the cheap seats that many trekkers use. These trains are apparently much heavier (90 tons) than the nicer Vistadome trains (28 tons) and the track has not been approved for them yet. The Hiram Bingham train, a very fancy tourist train, will also not be available. Our advice? The Vistadome train is our favorite anyway. It is much faster and more comfortable at a reasonable price – our group tours always use the Vistadome.

    Second, the train route between Cusco and Piscacucho is not yet repaired. This means travelers hiking the Inca Trail will take the train back from Aguas Calientes (near Machu Picchu) to Piscacucho, Kilometer 82 of the train line and the start of the Inca Trail hike. From there, they will take a bus 10 kilometers on a dirt road to Ollantaytambo and the rest of the way on a paved road to Cusco. This, too, is not a big deal. The train is quite slow reaching Cusco anyway as it has to climb a hill and go through many switchbacks. Because the bus is faster, our groups already return by bus from Ollantaytambo to Cusco.

    In short, although it is not quite back to normal, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail will again be open for business on April 1st.

    On our previous post, we wrote about the damage the recent floods caused to our friends in Cachiccata, Peru.

    Zephyr Inca Trail group - photo by Doreen Teoh

    Zephyr Inca Trail group - photo by Doreen Teoh

    We made an appeal to readers of this blog. We are proud to say the following people donated a total of $1000 to the citizens of Cachiccata. All of them are Zephyr Alumni but, in a very generous gesture by a few individuals, some of them have not (yet) even traveled with us to Peru! With Zephyr’s $750 contribution, we will be able to purchase a new water pump for the village and have $250 extra to fund some other needed improvement.

    Consider joining us this coming July for a Spiritual Trek to Machu Picchu or October for a trek on the Royal Inca Trail. You’ll meet these folks from Cachiccata who will be your porters, cooks, and camp staff! Thank you to:

    Ann & David George
    Kathryn Moe
    Steve Gorman
    Rick Otis
    Cathy Erixon & Chad Krueger
    Chris Binger
    Chao-Ching Wu
    Kelley Keogh
    Janet Hoffman
    Doreen Teoh
    Marianne Dill
    Ron & Madelyn Spencer
    Marvonne Adams

    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?

    homeincatrailWe at Zephyr Adventures have been planning for months to start a new blog connected to our site. Because of heavy rains and flooding earlier this month in the Cusco and Machu Picchu areas, we felt that now is the time.

    Heavy rains caused massive flooding along the Vilcabamba River (also known as the Urubamba River), which runs down the Sacred Valley, past Ollantaytambo and the start of the Inca Trail, and ultimately past Machu Picchu. The event that made front pages of newspapers here in the United States was the stranding of almost 1000 tourists at Aguas Calientes (now called Machu Picchu Pueblo), the small town at the base of the historic ruins.

    That situation was solved several weeks ago when the Peruvian government helicoptered the tourists back to Cusco. However, the stranding occurred because Machu Picchu’s only real transit link, a railroad running to Cusco, was washed out in half a dozen sections. The railroad company, under intense pressure to repair the railroad, is working quickly to do so.

    What does all this mean? First, Machu Picchu is essentially closed because no one can get in or out except by helicopter or on foot via the Inca Trail. (There is a road that runs to the area but it is also impassable.) The railroad is expected to be repaired by the end of March, meaning Machu Picchu should be open on April 1st.

    Second, the Classic Inca Trail, which runs high up in the mountains away from the river, was not affected. However, the Trail is currently closed and won’t reopen until the railroad does, since this is how trekkers return to Cusco once they reach Machu Picchu.

    Third, the Royal Inca Trail, which is the original (and easier) trail along the river, also was flooded in several places and will need to be repaired. Because this trail gets few visitors, the repair will not take high priority. We expect this trail to be repaired sometime in April or May, although it is probably passable now.

    Finally, the real damage to the area occurred outside the tourist areas of Machu Picchu and the railroad. The Sacred Valley is an agricultural area; many fields were flooded and crops destroyed. As our Peruvian friends tell us, the best thing we as potential travelers to Peru can do to help is not to cancel our travel plans. At Zephyr Adventures, we had to cancel our April tour, since we were unable to be certain the railroad would be functioning in time. Our July and October group tours will run. And as an individual traveler, you can still book your own Inca Trail private trip at any time you wish – we just suggest you wait until April 15th, to give the railroad authorities a couple weeks to spare!

    Our thoughts and best wishes are with our Peruvian friends.