In his epic work The Heights of Machu Picchu, the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote: ‘Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed, through the barbed jungle’s thickets, until I reached you Machu Picchu, high city of stone stairs.’
The lure of that jungle trail and the fabled Inca city continues to attract visitors to Peru every year, but much has changed since Neruda made his pilgrimage in 1943, before the days of large tour groups and Machu Picchu cheeseburgers. With some of the most stunning pre-Columbian architecture and scenery in the Americas, improving infrastructure and relative (if wobbly) stability, Peru now tops the must-see list of many travellers and any first visit to the Andean country inevitably includes the most famous Inca site.
The more adventurous will be lacing their boots in preparation for the Inca Trail, one of the world’s best known and loved treks. For although Machu Picchu can be reached by train and bus, this approach pales in comparison to the exhilarating experience of arriving at Intipunku (the Gate of the Sun) entrance after four days’ trek through the wild mountain scenery of the historical sanctuary.But upwards of 400 people a day tramping the ancient trails has been taking its toll. The Peruvian authorities have recently passed laws to help protect this national treasure, and potential visitors should be aware of how they might be affected and what they should take into consideration when planning a trip. When these rules were first announced in 2001, there was some confusion as to exactly what they were and their application appeared to be rather random, but this year there are new checkpoints and new clampdowns. Fernando Ruiz, who organises the trail arrangements for one Cusco agency, says: “They’re really enforcing the rules now. There are checks everywhere. The agencies that don’t come up to scratch have had to shut down.”
Most importantly, it is now no longer possible to go it alone on the trail – you must join a group with a certified guide. The easy (but more expensive) way to do this is to book a tour from the UK that includes the Inca Trail and have it all organised for you. These tours are usually very reliable, and use the best local support staff, but ensure the tour includes at least three days at altitude before starting the trek in order to acclimatise. This should be at a minimum of 3,000m above sea level – most people spend it in Cusco (3,400m) or at Lake Titicaca (3,800m).
Acclimatisation is crucial; some people who should have been capable of finishing the trek are defeated by altitude because they have flown straight up from Lima and only allowed a day before starting off. It is impossible to know beforehand if you will suffer from altitude sickness or not – I would say at least half of all visitors are mildly affected (headaches, sleeplessness) and about one in ten suffer badly (blinding headaches, sickness). By the third day you should feel like you have returned to planet earth, but bear in mind you still may not be able to tackle those slopes quite as quickly as you do in the Dales.
If you do decide to go independently and book in Cusco, choose your agency carefully. Many of the cheap ’n’ nasty cowboy operators have recently been shut down but quality still varies. Shop around and talk to other travellers who have just completed the trail (you’ll find them in the Cross Keys Bar). Clearly, the cheaper the trail package being offered, the more corners are being cut. Many amateur trekkers do not realise the importance of these ‘frills’ until too late. Check the nationalities of the others in your group and that the guide speaks good English. You may find the idea of sharing your experience with a multinational group appealing; but if the guide has to do each spiel in five different languages, he or she is going to slim down the info somewhat and you’re going to get cold standing around waiting.
Also ask for details of the equipment provided, and consider taking your own – tents and sleeping bags for rent in Cusco tend to be poor quality, which matters up at 4,000m. Bring decent boots – walking in anything other than boots with ankle support is foolish on the rocky and steep paths. Tour company Explore Worldwide recommends wearing your boots on the flight out – “Should your gear go missing...” they explain, “...your well-worn-in pair of boots will be the one thing that is irreplaceable.” Food is generally of a high standard where included, but ask for a detailed breakdown of the meals; a breakfast of crackers and jam isn’t going to get you very far up Dead Woman’s Pass and new restrictions on how much the porters can carry mean food is often rationed.
However, those weight restrictions are there to help the porters, who in the past had accidents from carrying too much – the maximum now is 25kg per porter, still a heavy load. They should be getting paid at least 20 sol per day each (a paltry £4). Check this, and remember that if you’re getting a ‘bargain’ trail it may well be that the agency is saving you money by paying the porters less. The porters are shy of foreigners and most do not speak much Spanish, let alone English, so it is difficult to get to know them but they all speak the international language of football if you have the energy. Tip them well at the end and get a round of the ‘hokey-kokey’ going – now something of a cult hit among the Quechua!
Other new rules include a ban on metal-tipped poles that erode the paths and plastic water bottles that litter them. Put a rubber tip on your pole, or buy a wooden one at the trailhead in Ollantaytambo. Reusable water bottles are widely available in Cusco. This is not always checked but the thinking behind it is sound and a decent guide should insist on it.
Guides are drilled in ways to protect the environment and most, but not all, are scrupulous about following them. Be aware that fires are absolutely forbidden after a campfire got out of control several years ago and camp toilets (at some places a hole in the ground) should be well away from any water source. Do not wash your hair in the streams – you may be drinking that water later on!
It is now against the rules to camp anywhere except designated campsites, but there is a choice of sites and different companies do it in different ways. If possible, avoid the insect-infested Pacamayo site in the valley bottom. Many companies spend the last night at Wiñay Wayna, the last campsite, in order to be able to arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise. As a result, Wiñay Wayna is overcrowded and dirty and the authorities are forcing the overspill to camp back at Phuyupatamarca instead.
This is by no means a bad alternative, as ‘Phuya’ (the aptly-named ‘place in the clouds’) has to be one of South America’s most spectacularly located campsites, with an unparalleled panoramic view. Dawn on a clear morning there is magical, the sacred mountains of the Incas glowing pink all around while mist swirls over the temples and jungle below. The drawback is that, spending the night there, you won’t arrive at Machu Picchu until the afternoon. However, you can get the first bus up from Aguas Calientes at 6am the next day to enjoy the very special experience of the city at first light.
From Phuya, there is an alternative route to Machu Picchu known as the ‘Hiram Bingham trail’. It is slightly longer than the traditional route, but the descent is less sharp, it’s a lot quieter and you will have a rare view of Machu Picchu from a distance. Obviously the final decision is the guide’s, but many will be happy to take the group this way if everyone is in agreement.
The trail itself can be done in anything from one to six days. The one- or two-day shorter version starts from Km104, where the train briefly stops (the number represents the distance in kilometres from Cusco). If pressed for time this is a viable option to get a taste of the trail, but it does omit much of the best scenery and involves a hard slog upwards on an exposed path. Guides are now obligatory even on this one-day option.
The traditional three-day start is at Km88, also a train stop, but packages that start further back at Km77 (Chilca) or Km82 where the road ends, will give you an extra warm-up day on a pleasant little-used track that follows the course of the Urubamba river. Experienced trekkers may prefer the six-day ‘Salcantay’ route, that starts at a different point (Mollepata), skirts the beautiful Salcantay peak, and heads through the high and often snowy Chirisaca pass before joining the traditional trail a little way along.
In organising the practicalities, don’t forget that for many, the beauty and mystery of the area makes the trail something of a spiritual experience. To these, I warmly recommend Nobel prize winning poet Pablo Neruda’s previously quoted The Heights of Machu Picchu, to read in the shadow of snow-capped Mount Veronica in the quieter moments while dinner is cooking. Peruvian writers that have been translated into English include Mario Vargas Llosa and José María Arguedas, but buy copies before you go because, bizarrely, publications other than coffee-table books are hard to find in Cusco.
Nature lovers should take binoculars for condors, mountain eagles and spectacled bears, which, although still rare, seem to be making a comeback – they have been sighted several times this year. There are also plenty of llamas and alpacas wandering the Inca terraces and mountainsides. Beware – they may look cute, but a fellow guide had the singular experience recently of having to punch an alpaca on the nose after it became somewhat over-amorous with one of the trekkers.
One of the most common questions those considering doing the trail ask is: “Will I be able to complete it?” The answer is yes, probably – it is tough but it is well within the capabilities of anyone who is reasonably fit. The key is in the approach, which is why it is so important to consider things like acclimatisation and food.
You don’t need to be an athlete, but if your idea of fitness is, as one generously proportioned passenger put it, “walking from the front door to the car door” then, like him, you will probably spend the entire time groaning and wondering why you didn’t take the train. However, be emboldened by the knowledge that the vast majority of people who start the trail finish it – in the end.
The trick is to take it slowly and steadily. The drag up Dead Woman’s Pass – an ascent of some 2,200m – is often a re-enactment of the tortoise and hare race, with those using tiny, slow steps finishing before the panting tourists who haven’t learnt to pace themselves. Do not feel pressured by fellow walkers who may be faster than you, or by unsympathetic guides who want to get to camp quickly; on the other hand, never walk alone as temperatures drop very quickly after sunset. In any case, there should always be an experienced back marker (usually the assistant guide) behind you.
Regular brisk walks are a good way of getting in shape before setting off; age is not important and the fittest walkers are often the oldest ones. However, the relentlessly steep paths and remoteness of the Inca Trail make it unsuitable for those who are overweight, suffer from vertigo, or who have certain medical conditions.
It is obviously wise to consult a doctor beforehand if in doubt, and always mention the altitude. Unfortunately, many people get struck down by food poisoning, which is hard to avoid in Peru and will weaken you considerably. Any guidebook will detail the usual rules of the kind of foodstuffs to avoid. Even if you usually ignore these and tuck recklessly into salads and seafood, it is a good idea to at least be careful the day before the trail starts.
This may sound obvious, but remember Peru is in the southern hemisphere. When you’re packing on a balmy August evening in the northern hemisphere, it is easy to forget how different it is on the other side of the equator. Invariably, December visitors come packed for Antarctic conditions and, more seriously, those who come in the southern winter do not bring enough warm layers. Shorts may be comfortable when it’s hot but your legs are likely to be ravaged by a type of sand fly that lives in the valleys and leaves extremely itchy bites.
Generally speaking, the ideal time to go is May/June or September/October, which avoids the rains of the southern summer (although it can rain at any time) and the sub-zero temperatures of winter. July and August, although cold, are the least likely to experience rain and the shorter days mean that when the Machu Picchu archaeological site opens at 6.30am, the sun is not yet up and you can watch the first rays hitting the ancient temples.
However, these months are also the most crowded. Authorities are limiting numbers on the Inca Trail now, with a group size limit of 45 including porters, and a daily start limit of 500. As a result the trail is looking a lot cleaner than in previous years, although it also means that the price is jumping up each year well above the rate of inflation and you should book in advance if going in high season. Machu Picchu is fast reaching saturation point and if President Toledo manages to triple tourism, as he has promised, the poetry of the site that inspired Neruda will be gone for good. There has never been a better time to go.
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