Inca Trail Hiking with Zephyr Adventures

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    Huayna-Picchu-over-Machu-PicchuHuayna Picchu is the mountain that rises above Machu Picchu and appears in the background of many photos of the ruins. It is about 1,200 feet higher than Machu Picchu and the Incas built a trail up the hill and temples on the summit.

    Huayna Picchu is a very popular hike for some visitors to Machu Picchu. So popular, in fact, that the Peruvian government has recently instituted a fee-based reservation system for hikers. The hike is limited to 400 tourists per day and you must purchase a ticket in advance, which can easily be done via local tour operators or online on the Machu Picchu official website.

    You must first, however, determine if this is something you wish to do. The hike is not super difficult in terms of elevation gain. However, there are sections that are seriously exposed on cliffs and others that have very narrow steps you must negotiate. The hike is not recommended for those with a fear of heights or balance issues.

    In addition, most people have limited time at Machu Picchu and any time spent climbing Huayna Picchu takes away from time you will spend visiting the ruins.

    Our advice? If you are one of those people who always wants to climb the nearby mountain or take the adventurous route, this is for you. If you are more interested in the Incan history and Machu Picchu ruins, you will be very content to enjoy one of the greatest ruins on earth instead.

    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.

    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.

    homephotoMachu Picchu, Peru’s most famous historical and tourist site, reopened today, April 1st. This is good news for our Inca Trail travelers and our friends in Peru.

    The Peruvian government is celebrating with a reopening festival of sorts, complete with local music and a visit by American movie star Susan Sarandon. What she has to do with Peru and Machu Picchu besides bringing star appeal, we don’t know.

    The historical site itself was not damaged by the flooding in early February. However, the railroad to the citadel, which is the transportation method used by almost everyone visiting the area, was washed out in several places and closed for almost two months. Because of that, Peru’s government also closed Machu Picchu to visitors.

    The railroad is now open, although only from Piscacucho (the start of the Inca Trail) to Machu Picchu. The railroad section from Cusco to Piscacucho is still closed, meaning travelers will need to use a combination of buses and the train to reach Machu Picchu. This is no problem and any of you traveling on our Machu Picchu treks will be taken care of by our local staff.

    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.

    homeincatrailWe at Zephyr Adventures have been planning for months to start a new blog connected to our IncaTrailHiking.com 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.