Inca Trail Hiking with Zephyr Adventures

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    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.

    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.

    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!

    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.