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

    With January 1 just around the corner, it’s never too early to start thinking about what your New Year’s resolutions might be. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is not only on many a globe trotter’s New Year’s resolution list, but their lifetime bucket list as well – and no wonder! It’s a tremendous achievement that includes travel, physical activity, cultural immersion, and mental strength.
    4 Reasons to Add Hiking the Inca Trail To Your Bucket List

    4 reasons to add Hiking the Inca Trail to your bucket list:

     

    • Relive Ancient History: While hiking the Inca Trail, you will be walking on the exact stones that were laid down by thousands of workers more than 500 years ago. As you’re trekking along, you’ll get to explore one of the world’s greatest archeological sites and imagine what everyday life would have been like for the ancient Incans.

     

    • Complete One of the World’s Greatest Hikes: Some of the greatest hikes typically fall into two categories: hikes you do to get to a destination and hikes you do for the journey itself. The Inca Trail is special because it fits into both of these categories. During your trek, you are treated to spectacular views of the mountains and amazing ancient architecture, but you certainly won’t be disappointed when you arrive at the impressive Machu Picchu ruins on the final portion of the hike.

     

    • Visit One of The New 7 Wonders of the World: Declared as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007, Machu Picchu is regarded as a masterpiece of architecture and engineering. For hundreds of years, until the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911, the abandoned citadel’s existence was a secret known only to peasants living in the region. Getting to see this magnificent ancient city first hand is well worth the strenuous hike to get there.

     

    • Feel a Major Sense of Accomplishment: We all need to challenge ourselves every once in awhile to keep life from getting stale. In fact, facing new obstacles can be quite exhilarating! The Inca Trail is a true physical and mental challenge as the hike takes place at high altitude, topping out at around 13,750 feet above sea level. This can make breathing and walking a physical feat of strength in itself. As with most endurance challenges, being mentally prepared for a trek like this is just as important as being physically fit. By training ahead of your trip, you can ensure that you are up for whatever the trail puts in your path.

     

    So what do you say, are you up for the challenge? Join fellow adventurers this April as we make our journey on the Classic Inca Trail or book your own private trek with a date of your choice.

    The Classic Inca Trail, which takes hikers from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu in Peru, is difficult for most people. There is no denying it.

    To start with, most people are simply not accustomed to hiking for four days and sleeping in a tent for three nights. While the daily hiking mileages are not big, porters carry your gear, and the camping is luxurious, this out-of-the-norm experience can still be trying for many people.

    Stone stairs of the Classic Inca TrailPerhaps more importantly, there are some serious climbs and descents on the trail. Day Two of the hike is the most difficult uphill stretch, with an ascent of almost 4,000 feet. This is probably much more than most casual hikers are used to hiking at home! On the downhill, Day Four is the most difficult as the itinerary most hikers use includes a descent of 3,650 feet before the final gradual rise to the Sungate of Machu Picchu. This amount of descent, much of it on hard rock laid down by the Incas, can be very trying, especially for those with knee problems.

    The most difficult aspect of the trail for many people, however, is the altitude. The high point of the trail, Warmihuañusca or “Dead Woman’s Pass”, is at an elevation of approximately 4,200 meters or 13,860 feet. Unless you have trekked in a foreign country such as Nepal, climbed a mountain such as Mt. Rainier, or hiked in Colorado at the very tip of the Rockies, you have probably never been at this altitude. Everyone who hikes the Inca Trail will feel the effects of the altitude in terms of shortness of breath, many will have symptoms such as headache or nausea, and a few will have more serious symptoms.

    Yes, the Inca Trail is difficult but there are things you can do to prepare!

    • Hike at home before you go, specifically focusing on hiking up and down hills. If you don’t have a good hiking trail in your area, create a routine of walking up and down the 10 flights of stairs in your building three times per day!
    • Spend time in the Sacred Valley or Cusco before your hike. Cusco at 11,500 feet is actually a tough place to fly into because of the altitude but if you do spend two days there, it will help you acclimatize. Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley is at about 9,500 feet and is another good place to acclimatize, especially if you do a few hikes to higher elevations when you are there.
    • Consider taking Diamox if you have had previous issues with altitude sickness or are very concerned about it. Diamox has been proven to alleviate some issues with altitude sickness. You should see your doctor or, better yet, a travel clinic if you are considering this.
    • Consider bringing extendable hiking poles if you have knee problems (or issues with balance). Any hiking poles must have rubber tips on the Inca Trail.

    The truth is thousands of people successfully hike the Inca Trail each year and only a few turn around because of the difficulties. Yes, the trip might be difficult but that is part of the challenge and will make it that much more memorable.

    Test your stamina and join us this April 24 – May 1, 2016 for a Peru: Machu Picchu & Classic Inca Trail Trek with Zephyr Adventures!

    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.

    Royal1

    Many of the original stones laid down by the Incas hundreds of years ago are still being used today.

    Most people think there is just one Inca Trail that takes hikers from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu — the “Classic” Inca Trail.  However, there are actually two. The Royal (Alternative) Inca Trail starts and ends in the same place as the Classic Inca Trail but instead of going up and over the mountains, the Royal Trail stays along the Urubamba River.  It is rarely visited, lower altitude, and with much fewer hills than the Classic Inca Trail, making it a fantastic option for many travelers.

    Zephyr Adventures guide Liz Miller guided a past Zephyr trip on the Royal Inca Trail. Here is her summary of this alternative route:

    At nearly 14,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, Dead Woman’s Pass is a rite of passage on the popular Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The prerequisite of puffing over this pass may appeal to the no-pain-no-gain set, but others are intimidated, worrying about altitude sickness, fitness, and how their joints will fare on the route’s famed Inca staircases. If only they knew what I recently learned on my second trek to Machu Picchu: there is a lower, easier, four-day route to the emerald city of the Incas!

    For many people, it is a life’s dream to explore the mystic ruins of Peru’s Machu Picchu. While it’s possible to reach this unburied treasure by train and bus, hiking to the area and getting a first glimpse of the ruins while entering the famed Sun Gate is a magical experience.

    Royal2

    The Royal (Alternative) Inca Trail avoids the high altitude passes and grueling ascents and descents of the Classic Route.

    In 2008, working as the representative of a U.S. travel company, I relished my first hike through the cloud forests and mountain ridges of the Peruvian high country. Our Peruvian guides led us over the same stone-reinforced trail the Incans used centuries ago to connect Machu Picchu and Cusco, the capital of their empire. Known now as the Classic Inca Trail, this is the most frequently traveled route to the famous ruins today. The 4-day Classic Route begins at 9,500 feet in elevation and, at its highest, climbs to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,860 in elevation. It also involves steep and significant declines to get back to Machu Picchu at less than 7,900 feet.

    The Incas’ steep stair steps present a challenge for most hikers and a real trial for those who have difficulty adjusting to the altitude, poor fitness, or bad knees.  Undoubtedly, many would-be hikers are turned off by the expected difficulties.

    Royal3

    The Royal (Alternative) Inca Trail offers views just as stunning as the Classic Route.

    The Royal Inca Trail, also called the Original Inca Trail, was most likely the first trail built by the Incas to connect Cusco to Machu Picchu. It starts in the Sacred Valley at the same departure point of the Classic Inca Trail, follows the Urubamba River canyon, and rejoins the Classic Inca Trail just before the final ascent to Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate.

    The Royal Inca Trail averages 7,500 feet of elevation along the river canyon walls, rising only at the end to approach the ruins of Machu Picchu at just under 8,000 feet. Neither elevation nor killer hills are a usual problem with this route. An added plus is that during the three days we hiked on this trail we did not encounter any other trekking groups (and their many associated porters).

    Royal4

    Similar to the Classic route, the Royal (Alternative) Inca Trail also leads hikers to the ruins of Winay Wayna and Machu Picchu.

    Is a trek to Machu Picchu on your bucket list? The Classic Inca Trail offers spectacular views of mountains peeking above the clouds and will test the endurance of any fit and experienced hiker. The Royal route is still a photographer’s dream, with less altitude exposure, less strenuous hiking, and almost no crowds. Both conclude with a fulfilling sense of personal achievement and a postcard-perfect first sighting of Machu Picchu’s emerald terraces.

    Come join us October 20-28 on a guided trek along the Royal Inca Trail! This trip will also have the option to hike the Classic Inca Trail, which means parties with people of different ability levels can travel together but do two different hikes on the trail. All photos in this article were taken by Liz Miller on the October 2010 guided trek.

    What is your preference for hiking the Inca Trail?  Take our 2-Minute Survey here and you will receive a coupon for $100 off one of our Peru treks.

    This is one of the first questions potential travelers to Peru ask who want to hike the Inca Trail. Although there are a number of considerations as to when one should hike from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu, two are most important: weather and the availability of trail passes.

    Weather is never a sure thing but the smart traveler at least looks at the climate of the area based on past years’ weather. Technical data is available for Cusco, the nearest city to the start of the Inca Trail, which sits at almost 10,700 feet in elevation.

    Average High Temperature (Fahrenheit)

    JAN FEB MAR APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT NOV DEC
    64 64 65 66 67 66 66 66 67 68 67 66

    Average Low Temperature (Fahrenheit)

    JAN FEB MAR APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT NOV DEC
    45 46 46 43 39 35 34 37 41 44 45 45

    Average Precipitation (inches)

    JAN FEB MAR APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT NOV DEC
    5.9 4.5 3.8 1.5 0.3 0.1 0.1 0.3 0.9 1.9 2.7 4.3

    You can learn a few things from this data. First, the average high temperature barely changes from month to month. This is true because Cuzco is only 10 degrees south of the equator (as compared to, say, Seattle which is 47 degrees north of the equator).

    The average overnight low temperature does change a bit more, ranging from 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the high point on the Inca Trail is about 3,000 feet higher than Cusco, temperatures will be about 10-15 degrees colder at that point and perhaps 10 degrees colder at your highest camp. So temperatures at night in the months of June, July, and August are low and you need to be prepared.

    Still, what stands out in the above chart and what is by far the most important is the probability of rain in the area. Cuzco and the area of the Inca Trail has one main dry season and one main rainy season. The dry season runs from about mid-April through October. Travel in May, June, July, or August and you are unlikely to see any precipitation. However, the rains start in October and by December the Inca Trail is closed for the rainy months due to the persistent downpours and washed out trails.

    Unfortunately, the dry season in Peru coincides with the tourist season in North America and Europe, meaning everyone and his brother wants to hike the Inca Trail in July and August. Cuzco and Machu Picchu are simply more crowded in the northern hemisphere’s summer. Can you still hike then? Definitely. The nice thing is the Peruvian government limits trail passes so the trail itself is now never over-crowded.

    The negative thing is that, well, the Peruvian government limits trail passes and so you have to plan well in advance to secure a pass during high season.

    As of today, February 16th, these are the following number of days when any trail passes are available in that month:

    April – 2
    May – 0
    June – 18
    July – 31
    August – 31

    So you can see during the shoulder months of April and May, trail passes are almost sold out (they likely will be by the time you read this). Passes are disappearing for June and will likely be gone for July and August by mid-March.

    So when is the best time to hike the Inca Trail? First off, choose April through October for the best weather. Second, if you are limited to certain months of vacation, perhaps due to school schedules, the weather is excellent in July and August – just be prepared for cold nights and make sure to buy your trail passes six months in advance to secure your preferred date.

    Finally, if you have flexibility in your schedule, consider hiking during the shoulder seasons of April, May, September, and October when nighttime temperatures are not as low, trail passes are not as much in demand, and fewer tourists are swarming the ruins of Machu Picchu and the other Incan sites.

    Zephyr guide Liz Miller recently hiked a special trek set up exclusively by Zephyr Adventures and our local Peruvian partners. This three-day trek goes through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which lies between Cusco and the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. Liz was essentially the first Westerner to ever complete this trek and her writeup below reflects her research. The trek is a great way to add to your Inca Trail experience or choose a less-difficult hiking option.

    SacredValley1Day One

    Santiago, driver Julio, cook-in-training Herman, and I headed first to the weaving town of Chinchero to pick up some groceries for our three days of hiking. This village compares well with Ollantaytambo in Inca foundations, vast terracing, and paved streets with water channels, but with a lot fewer tourists.   A colorful textile market  was setting up as we passed through the town square, which is bordered by two chapels and a uniquely separate bell tower. Chinchero will be the southern start of the Inca trail pre-hike we’re researching these three days.

    With young Hernan leading the way, Santiago and I began an 800 foot off-trail uphill trek from the shore of Huaypo Lake near groves of eucalyptus trees. We admired the view from the 12,400 foot hilltop next to a pair of crosses, then began an easy descent across gently rolling farmland.   Agave plants demarked property lines and a few dusty farm roads.

    SacredValley2With no trees here, we could see all the way across the fields and the Sacred Valley to the snowy Andes, including spectacular views of Mt. Veronica’s brilliant white glaciers. We reached the incredible Incan ruins of Moray, an agricultural laboratory, and our campsite for the night.

    Day Two

    We awoke to sunny skies and perfect light for photos with Veronica in the background. These views would make anybody yearn to camp at Moray! We started on the hike and literally did some bushwhacking until Santiago found the best trail down the deep gorge (there are many to choose from) to the emerald partchwork of the Sacred Valley.

    To avoid SacredValley3cars and trains, we asked permission to pass through the gated yard of a woman at the first corn field on the left, heading up the valley. This canal-side route was exactly what we were looking for: hiking  along scenic terraces with plenty of glimpses of rural life, including encounters with chickens, ducks, cattle, pigs, dogs, donkeys, and of course, friendly local people. Santiago was generous with the snacks Herman had packed for us.

    We continued into the village of Cachiccata and hat night we snacked on popcorn and feasted on Hernan’s best meal yet, including frosted cake! I felt wonderful after my hot shower, which are available at the village campsite.  As I retired to my tent, I couldn’t help but admire the nighttime view from the Cachiccata campsite overlook. The stars twinkled above, a passing train glowed warmly as it passed through the valley below, and the distant lights of Ollantaytambo beamed in amber.

    Day Three

    SacredValley5At 7:30 am under a warming sun, Santiago and I began the switchback climb from Cachiccata to the Incan quarry. This optional side trip will come either on Day Two of the trek after our trekkers have descended the gorge from Moray (for those looking for more distance) or on the morning of Day Three, as I am describing here. We enjoyed sightings of many obviously carved boulders left behind by the Incan workers, hilltop guard houses, and the remains of steep terraces high above the valley floor.

    SacredValley4From the quarry, the route continues across the Urubamba River into Ollantaytambo. Others hiking a longer option will continue along the river toward KM82 and the start of the Inca Trail (Classic and Royal versions).

    —–

    Come take a trek that few other people have ever done, a three-day hike through the Sacred Valley of the Incas! All photos were taken by Liz Miller in the Sacred Valley.

    The four-day Classic Inca Trail is closed each February. This is a regulation imposed by the Peruvian government to allow trail crews to make needed repairs, to pick up any garbage left on the trail, and to allow campsite vegetation to regrow. No one can start the Classic Inca Trail trek on any date from February 1 – 28.

    Clouds over the Andes

    Clouds over the Andes - Zephyr Guide Liz Miller

    We support this regulation as it is good for the trail. Additionally, February is in the heart of the rainy season which runs from about mid-November to mid-March, so most travelers won’t be attempting to trek during this time anyway.

    If you happen to be in Peru in February, you do have alternatives. The alternative Royal Inca Trail is still open, as are the Lares and Cachiccata hikes. Given the likelihood of rain, you might also consider the shorter, closer-to-comfort Sacred Valley Trek. You can find details on our website.

    As the owner of Zephyr Adventures, I have been lucky enough to travel three times to Peru and to do three separate treks on various Inca Trail Routes. As we head into the winter season when many of you will be considering plans for an Inca Trail vacation in 2011, I’d like to give you my thoughts on how to select the trek that is best for you. Continue reading below this great photo by our guide Liz Miller of the Chachabamba ruins on the Royal Inca Trail route.

    Inca ruins at Chachabamba by Liz MillerFirst of all, you should read the pages of this website to familiarize yourself with the concept that there are more than one “Inca Trail” routes. The Classic Inca Trail is the route most travelers are familiar with but it is not for everyone. It has a steep climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, acclimatization issues due to the almost-14,000 foot elevation, and long downhills on stone steps that wreak havoc on knees and other joints.

    As an alternative, the Royal (or Original) Inca Trail is much easier. It runs along the Urubamba River and thus is lower and flatter. It also has many fewer visitors and it is not unusual for our groups to see no other western tourists on this route.

    Finally, there are the Inca Trail options that do not require an official trail pass. These include the Cachiccata, Lares, and Sacred Valley treks. In evaluating all these trekking options, here is what I recommend:

    1. First of all, decide whether you want to join an organized group or travel on your own with your own small party. Joining a group of independent travelers is a great idea if you are traveling solo or if you are interested to interact with other people. Sharing amazing experiences with others can be one of the best parts of traveling but if you are not into it or already have your own travel party, a private trek might be the way to go.

    2. Second, decide whether you want the experience of hiking to Machu Picchu. When many people think of hiking the Inca Trail, what they are really thinking about is replicating the steps of the Incas on a journey to their sacred city, Machu Picchu.  Only the Classic and Royal treks actually end up at the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu and you should join one of these if this is part of your dream. The Lares, Cachiccata, and Sacred Valley treks we offer don’t end up at Machu Picchu. They also don’t require a trail pass, which is important as the passes often sell out.

    3. Third, if you have decided on a trek to Machu Picchu, determine whether you should do the Classic Inca Trail or the Royal Inca Trail. Choose the Classic if you are confident in your ability to handle the altitude, steep climbs, and long downhills. The views you are rewarded with are absolutely amazing. Choose the Royal Inca Trail route if any of these issues are of real concern. The Royal trek is a great alternative that allows you to achieve a similar goal – trekking over four days to Machu Picchu – on a real Inca Trail but without the hardship. Note we have organized group treks going on the Classic Inca Trail (April 15-23) and on the Royal Inca Trail (October 15-23) in 2011.

    4. Finally, talk to your preferred tour operator. Hopefully, that will be us! Although you can read about the Inca Trail for months on end, talking to someone who has been there always helps. In fact, if you want to ask me any questions, just email me directly: allan at zephyradventures dot com.

    Enjoy your adventure!

    Allan Wright
    President, Zephyr Adventures

    trekking along the terracesThis past week I have been communicating with our Cusco-based Peruvian partners about our upcoming Inca Trail tour scheduled for October 17-25. This trip will be our first ever trip that uses the Royal Inca Trail path.

    Most people think the Inca Trail is just that – “the Inca Trail”. In reality, the Inca people built a whole network of trails and the four-day trek commonly called The Inca Trail is just one of those paths.

    Interesting enough, the Inca Trail path that most people use to hike from near Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to the ruins of Machu Picchu is likely not even the original path created by the Inca rulers. This common trail goes high up into the mountains, up and over Dead Woman’s Pass, a long and arduous journey. The original trail built by the Inca was most likely a trail that still exists and follows the Urubamba River, rising only at the end to leave the river and rise to the ruins of Machu Picchu.

    It is this Original or Royal Inca Trail our group will take in October. The altitude is essentially not an issue, the hills are not laborious, and – best of all – there are almost no other tourists on the trail.

    Why then does everyone take the “traditional” route up and over the mountain? Well, the trail itself and the views in particular are spectacular.

    In short, what people don’t know is there are two options to hike from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. One is dramatic and beautiful but also well visited, strenuous, and high in altitude. The other is mostly unknown to tourists, easier on the knees, and a non-issue as far as acclimatization.

    Take your pick.