Inca Trail Hiking with Zephyr Adventures

    News about trekking and hiking in Peru

    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.

    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.


    • 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.

    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.

    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