The Inca Trail

There are mountains and then there are mountains. The Andes are a fairly serious set of mountains – steep and high enough that altitude sickness can occur. The Incas built over 40,000 kms of stone foot paths in the Andes, which as I was gasping for breath and trying to put one foot in front of the other made me think that they must have been insane. We were here because our friends, Geoff and Hwee, had suggested it and because when we in turn mentioned to two nephews, Luc and Thom, they immediately jumped on board. Routinely topping various lists of the best hiking trails in the world I was initially skeptical. I tend to focus on the negative – you can’t hike it independently, it wasn’t in the wilderness, there were reports of the trail being overcrowded and the toilets being terrible, it was in steep mountains (because of fitness issues I prefer any mountains to be small or, preferably, non-existent), you could get altitude sickness and you were a long way from any good medical care. It is certainly true that it is not in the wilderness and you can’t hike the trail without seeing other people, sometimes lots of other people. But it more than makes up for this with the scenery, the unique bird life and the history that permeates every inch of the trail. And, to top it all off, you finish at Machu Picchu, which is as stunning as it appears in the tourist brochures.

Best time of year

You will often see claims that the best time of year to do the Inca Trail is May to September, which although it is winter it is also the dry season in Peru. This also happens to be the busiest time of year on the trail with a consequential effect on camp sites and toilets. We did the trail in December, which is in the rainy season. It did not, however, rain during the day, except for the last day when there was a fine drizzle. Most of the rain occurred in the late afternoon and at night and we were told that this was a typical pattern during the rainy season. The trail itself was relatively free of other hikers and there were long periods where Rob and I could walk by ourselves and just soak up the atmosphere (whilst gasping for air). The risk that you run in November to January and March (the trail is closed for all of February) is that mudslides may occur resulting in the closure of the trail (and in 2010, tragically, a hiker and guide died). Our guide advised that his favourite time of year was April and September because the skies were usually clear and the crowds were not as bad as the May to August period.

Private or Group Trek

The Inca Trail cannot be hiked independently and so, whether you like it or not, you will have to join up on some form of organised tour. Whether you take a private or group trek is really a matter of personal taste. The maximum size of group treks on the Inca Trail is 16 people. Private groups can be as small as you like, albeit the smaller you get the more expensive it will be. The success or otherwise of a group trek can of course depend largely on the people with whom you end up sharing the trek – most of whom you won’t know until you get there. I have been on hiking group tours where the group has been fabulous and on other tours where I could have cheerfully killed some of the members because I found them so annoying (that said, I am probably more easily annoyed than others). While it can be more expensive (although not prohibitively so in Peru) it can be worth the extra money to take the risk out of the exercise and organise a private trek.  We organised a private trek for 6 of us, which resulted in a support team of 13 (guide, cook and porters). This meant we got more attention from the guide than would otherwise be the case and I could go at my pace without worrying whether that was slowing the group down too much (friends and family are used to me being slow).

Four day or five day trek

Some companies offer a five day alternative to the four day classic trek. This, unfortunately, does not mean that on the five day trek you can walk smaller distances each day. The five day trek spends the same amount of time in actual hiking as the four day trek. The differences are as follows:

  • on the first day you start later in the morning and have a short day walking only as far as the Llactapata ruins, instead of to Wayllabamba. On the plus side this is a gentle introduction and you camp adjacent to the ruins with a full afternoon to explore. On the day of our trek we were the only group to use this campsite. The four day trekkers do not visit these ruins;
  • on day two you have to walk up to where other groups start that days trek – Wayllabamba. From there the climb up to Warmiwanusca pass starts. On the five day trek you stop at Llulluchupampa (400m below the pass at 3800m), whilst the four day trek goes over the pass and descends to Pacamayo in the valley below;
  • day three is the long day for 5 day trekkers – you have to ascend 400m to go over the pass, descend down to the valley, go up the mountain on the other side with another descent and then proceed on to Phuyupatamarca where you camp.  Four day trekkers already have the first part covered and proceed past Phuyupatamarca to Winay Wayna.
  • on day four 5 day trekkers spend the morning getting to Winay Wayna and explore those ruins over lunch before proceeding on to the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) before arriving at Machu Picchu in the afternoon. You don’t visit the ruins that afternoon, instead returning the next morning. Four day trekkers leave Winay Wayna in the dark and arrive at the Sun Gate to the see the sun rise (assuming it is not clouded out) and then descend to Machu Picchu to explore the ruins.

For some people missing out on seeing the sun rise at Inti Punku would be a big thing. It wasn’t for me, particularly given that I didn’t like the idea of hiking on the trail in the dark. The big advantage of doing the 5 day trek was that the campsites were not as crowded (with the result that the toilets were in a better state) and were in fantastic positions. The first night’s camp was right next to the Llactapata  ruins which are not visited by the four day trekkers. Both Llulluchampa and Phuyupatamarca sit above the clouds and provide fantastic views (they were, however, also pretty cold).

Choosing a tour company

We decided to book directly with a company based in Peru, rather than one of the large international companies, mainly because it is less expensive and in my experience a lot of the international groups simply subcontract to locally based companies.  We didn’t go with the cheapest group but instead read lots of reviews to check other traveller’s experiences and any comments that were made about porter welfare. Following that process we chose Llamapath and I could not fault the service or the price ($850 each). The porters appeared to be treated well – the company had specially built accommodation for the porters in Cusco, all porters had boots and there was no attempt to circumvent the carrying weight limits. They also seemed to pay attention to what the porters wanted and not just accommodate the wishes of tourists – when I asked the guide why they did not have a chemical toilet like some tour companies he responded that they used to, but the porters didn’t like it as it was demeaning for the unlucky porter who had to carry it.  We also looked at some companies who claimed to do works to benefit of the community. There did not seem, however, to be any way of checking these claims and when I raised the issue with our guide he expressed some scepticism.

The hike itself

Whilst I had undertaken the Oxfam trailwalker  (a charity walk where you hike 100km within 48 hours) a couple of months earlier, under no stretch of the imagination would you describe me as an athlete. Coupled with the bad cold that Rob and I had picked up in Cusco, the altitude and the steepness of the stone steps on days 2 and 3 made for a difficult, but doable hike. The trail passes though villages, a variety of terrain and there are Inca ruins everywhere – its not just about Machu Picchu. Indeed there are so many ruins there is a risk that you may feel all ruined out, at least until Machu Picchu, which is in a league of its own.

Day One.  The bus collected us in Cusco and drove out to Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast. From there the bus proceeded down some dirt roads to Kilometer 82 and the start of the Inca Trail. After proceeding through the check point and crossing the Urabamba river the trail has a short ascent and follows along the river. After passing through several small villages those on the five day trek diverge from the main trail and descend down and back up a small gorge to a plateau which overlooks the valley where Llactapata is located. You descend down into the valley to a small farm where you camp for the night. The distance is only about 5km, but it takes a couple of hours – I suspect mainly to give the porters time to get ahead and set up camp.

Day Two. There is a steep ascent out of the Llactapata valley, the trail then flattens out and passes through a valley created by the Kusichaca river, gradually ascending to the village of Wayllabamba. The terrain is mainly farmland and we passed a few farmers leading mules heading in the opposite direction (I did have the good idea of hiring them to cart me up the mountain but apparently they are not allowed past the checkpoint). We stopped at Wayllabamba for a quick lunch and it is possible to purchase additional refreshments in the village, albeit according to our guide the prices are set to take advantage of tourists. After the village you pass the campgrounds where most 4 day trekkers stay and reach another check point. Once through the checkpoint the steep ascent commences, you leave the farms and villages behind and it is not long before you enter the forest. After hiking ever upwards you eventually get out above the tree line and a short time later arrive at the Llulluchapampa campsite located at a height of 3800m.  The distance travelled was about 12km with an 1100m elevation gain.

Day three. An early start in the morning for a big day. A slow tramp up, gaining an additional 400m in height to reach Warmihuañusca (Dead Woman’s Pass) where we had time to take the obligatory highest point of the trail photo. After the pass you descend down stone steps – not good for anyone with dodgy knees and a bit slippery, losing 600m in height until you reach the busy Pacaymayo campsite (located at 3600m). At that point our porters had set up camp for lunch. After lunch we began the second ascent for the day (on the theory that if you go down you have to go back up again).  About half way up we had a rest in the ruins of what was thought to have been an Incan watch tower (3800m) before proceeding to the Runcuraccay pass. I was struggling on this day, the full force of the head cold taking effect, and it took us a bit under two hours to get from Pacamayo to the pass (which is really slow). The view back from the pass showing the 2 mountain passes that we had struggled up that day, however, made it all worth it. From the Runcuraccay pass to the campsite at Phuyupatamarca is apparently nearly every guides’ favourite section of the trail. Near the bottom of the descent are the Sayacmarca ruins, which we skipped (I know that sounds like sacrilege, but at this point I really wasn’t up to a detour from the trail and the nephews were like “another Inca ruin – meh”). From the bottom of the descent you work your way up the third pass (that sounds bad but there is only a 100m elevation gain) passing through the Inca tunnel (a small section where you walk between rocks) finally reaching the Phuyupatamarca campsite. Total distance was about 15 km with about 800m ascent and 700m descent.

Day four. The map of the trail indicates that most of the morning is spent with Inca steps. This seemed odd because I thought that we had done very little but go up and down stone steps for most of the trail, none of which had been marked as such of the map. You soon figure out why it had been so labelled – these are some serious steps. Shortly after leaving the campsite you arrive at the Phuyupatamarca ruins, which at 3670m is known as the city above the clouds. It is a site which obviously gets a fair bit of rain – the forest is thick and green and the ruins even contain ritual baths. The steps continue until you have the option of diverting to another site, Intipata (mainly Inca agricultural terraces) and from that point most of the steps stop and the path becomes a series of switchbacks until you reach the Winay Wayna campsite (again a very busy campsite). In total you lose about 900m in elevation between the two sites, so get those knees ready. Lunch was at the campsite, followed by an exploration of the Winay Wanay ruins, a 10 minute walk away. These ruins are built into a steep hillside and are like a mini Machu Picchu. In our guide’s view they are most beautiful ruins on the trail. From there it took us about an hour and a half to walk along the trail cut into the mountain to the Sun Gate. Mainly undulating until the last section up to the Sun Gate, there were many sections with fairly sheer drops – which our guide described as the short way down, whilst at the same time instructing us to stay mountain side. At the Sun Gate you get your first views of Machu Picchu, with lots of others most of whom have walked up from Machu Picchu. From there it is short walk down a relatively gentle slope to Machu Picchu itself. It does, however, take some time because of the number of photo opportunities (that and general exhaustion from hiking the rest of the trail). Once at Machu Picchu we had the option of continuing the walk down the mountain (more steep steps) or taking the bus. We were by this point all stepped out (even the nephews were a bit sore in the thighs) and were more than willing to pay the relatively expensive bus fare to get to our campsite just outside of Aguas Calientes, with the first showers of the trip. Total distance was about 11km, most of it descending (which is harder than it sounds).

Day five. An incredibly early rise and walk into Aguas Calientes in the dark so that the porters can pack up and make it in time for the local train (tip – take the option of accommodation in Aguas Calientes for the last night rather than camping to avoid this early morning start and to give the porters a break). We had breakfast in town and then caught the first bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu, spending several hours exploring the ruins in a relatively crowd free environment. We then headed back to Aguas Calientes for lunch before catching the afternoon train to Poroy, from where it is a short bus ride to Cusco. The train was surprisingly slow and took about 40 minutes longer than the schedule indicated. We opted for the Vistadome, which served an evening meal and was supposed to be designed for better views of the countryside. Unfortunately, within half an hour of leaving  Aguas Calientes the condensation on the windows made it impossible to see much at all – so consider taking the cheaper option.

Words and phrases

Inca flat. There are no flat parts on the Inca Trail, just degrees of steepness. Inca flat is the term the guide uses to indicate a part of the trail which isn’t as steep as other parts (i.e. its not vertical).

Gringo – you and me.

Gringo Killers – just when you think you are going to make it there is one last set of steps heading up to the Sun Gate. They are near vertical and to get up I was instructed by the guide to “crawl like a baby”. The guide seemed amused at the effect that these steps have on gringos (I may have used the WTF expression, but it was better than sobbing), hence the name.

Solpayki – thank you in Quechua, the language most of the porters speak. The porters are not superhuman, but do undertake superhuman tasks – carrying 20kg, taking down the camp each morning, passing you on the trail so they can set things up for lunch, taking it down after lunch and passing you again to set up for the night. At the end of the trail they are visibly exhausted – the games of soccer they had played on the first couple of nights were nowhere to be seen. Many of them won’t have long careers, their ability to carry the loads affected by bad knees and varicose veins. There is a reason you don’t see to many old porters on the trail – it’s a young man’s game. In contrast you do very little – it is all taken care of for you. Solpayki – a word that you will need to use again and again.

Tipping

This brings me to the all important tipping. The porters are generally from villages in the high Andes, where the farming is subsistence at best. Most of the money they earn through tips is sent back to their families. Our group followed the recommendation of the tour company on the amount to tip – 70 soles for each porter, 140 soles for the cook and 280 soles for the guide. We felt like giving more but there are apparently good reasons why this amount is  recommended. We handed the tips to each porter in separate envelopes in a thank you ceremony at the end of the trail. Whilst this is a bit awkward for those with Western sensibilities, we understood that it was important and welcomed by the porters. As spokesperson for our group, Hwee did an excellent job of saying something personal to each porter which reflected their personalities and our interaction with them on the trail (far better, I hate to say it, than I would have done).

Health and Safety

This can be an issue for the Inca Trail, mainly because of the altitude, the fact that you are long way from medical assistance and that a few people attempt the trail when they probably shouldn’t.  Tragically there were two deaths when we were on the trail. One person had a heart attack shortly after the Warmiwanusca pass and another two people fell when one of them accidentally bumped the other, resulting in the death of one and severe injuries to the other.

The above is not stated to scare you or to suggest that you shouldn’t do the trail unless you are in peak physical condition – I am a prime example of someone who clearly does not fit that category who still managed the trail.  Just apply common sense and consider the following suggestions:

  • get as fit as you can before you leave. At the least this will mean the trail is more enjoyable;
  • see your doctor before you leave and discuss any medical conditions which would affect you doing the trail. I have high blood pressure and there are some suggestions on the net that people who have high blood pressure shouldn’t do the trail because of the effects of altitude. I discussed the issue with both my doctor and a specialist travel doctor who were of the view that I would be alright provided I took my blood pressure tablets and diamox;
  • consult your doctor about taking diamox. In my view it really helped with the altitude, albeit that it had a side effect of causing me to have to get up several times a night for a wee (strangely enough, however, I was the only one of our group affected in this way). According to our guide about 70% of people doing the Inca Trail take diamox;
  • fill out the form the tour company provides asking for details of medical conditions honestly. Our guide insisted that, notwithstanding the events on the trail when we were there, deaths were fairly uncommon and in his experience usually occurred when people who desperately wanted to d the trail tried to hide their medical conditions;
  • acclimatise at Cusco for at least 2-3 days (we had 4 days in Cusco);
  • hike at your pace, don’t go faster than you are comfortable with just to keep up with the group;
  • keep mountain side when being passed, particularly by the porters – who are travelling fast and are a hell of a lot more agile and balanced than you, even when carrying an additional 20kg;
  • take your own medical kit and discuss with a travel specialist what should be in it. We had two kits between the 6 of us, each of which was generally more comprehensive than that carried by the guide (save for the fact that he had oxygen and dex).

Nearly everyone will also suggest chewing coca leaves to assist in dealing with altitude and my guide promised that chewing coca would fill me with energy. Being generally bereft of energy, I gave it a go (I was the only one of our group to do so) and while it numbed my mouth I can’t say that there was any discernible increase in energy levels. Maybe I didn’t chew enough to make a difference, but frankly it doesn’t have that great a taste. Various studies have been undertaken on its effects and the results have been equivocal.  Make your own mind up and enjoy the trail.

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