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THE INCA TRAIL FAQS

  1. What is the Inca Trail anyway?

     

The Inca Trail is the name given to a walking route that partially follows the course of an old Inca roadway leading to the city of Machu Picchu. For most people, the trail begins at Km.88 on the railway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu and ends at Machu Picchu itself.

 

The Inca Trail is not the name of a particular travel company’s itinerary, although many travel companies offer Inca Trail tours.

  1. How long is it?

     

The figures I’ve seen suggest that from Km.88 to Machu Picchu along the trail is about 33-40 km (20-25 miles).

  1. How long does it take to walk?

     

Most guidebooks estimate between two and six days for the section of the Trail that most people walk (from Huayllabamba to Machu Picchu), and the average time seems to be three to four days. When I walked the Trail, we took the midday train from Cusco which left us at Km.88 in the late afternoon. We walked for not much more than an hour before making camp, then walked two full days, and finally arrived at Machu Picchu in the early afternoon of the third day (and would probably have arrived sooner if it hadn’t been for a lengthy and exhausting wrong turning caused by some ambiguous sign-posting). Our time seems to have been slightly faster than the average, due probably to the fact that my companions were both fairly fit and set a fast pace. When planning your trip, remember to allow for travel to and from the ends of the Trail (taking into account the fact that the local train has its own timetable which may not exactly match yours), several days of acclimatization in Cusco beforehand (essential) and time spent exploring the ruins at the end.

  1. How hard is it?

     

That will depend on you and what you’re used to. It’s generally reckoned to be a strenuous hike, but there’s no rock-climbing or glacier-walking involved, so no technical expertise is required. The difficulty comes largely from the repeated steep ascents and descents, and from the high altitude. The climb to the first pass takes you up from around 2000m (6500ft) to more than 4000m (13000ft) in a relatively short space, followed by a descent of around 1500m (5000ft). After the second pass at 3500m (11500ft), things generally become easier.

  1. How fit do I need to be?

     

The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy it. Conversely, the less fit you are, the less you’ll enjoy it. If you’re extremely unfit, you may even fail to enjoy it to the point of collapsing in a lifeless heap somewhere along the way and having to be buried on the spot by your fitter companions.

 

In the absence of any agreed universal measure of fitness, consider that for a somewhat unfit twenty-two year-old (me) it was difficult but manageable. I found the first day very tough indeed, but thereafter things became easier. However, don’t be deceived. It is very hard work in places (I wanted to give up on the first day, and had to take extended rest breaks every half-kilometer or so during some of the steeper parts) and you are likely to be carrying a heavier pack than you are normally used to. A better than average standard of fitness is probably highly desirable, if not absolutely required.

If you want to prepare yourself, hiking is the most obviously appropriate activity, but anything that builds stamina such as running or swimming is also useful. Stamina is more important than strength or speed; being able to bench-press five hundred pounds will probably not help unless you intend to walk the Trail on your hands.

  1. What about altitude?

     

The Inca Trail is high enough that some people do have problems with the altitude. Being short of breath is relatively common and is not, by itself, cause for concern. On the other hand, severe dizziness, loss of coordination and concentration, severely irregular (Cheyne-Stokes) breathing, and death from pulmonary or cerebral odoema are generally regarded as more serious symptoms of mountain sickness.

 

If you, or someone with you, does start to show any of the symptoms of severe mountain sickness – severe breathlessness, noisy breathing, blue lips, frothing at the mouth, confusion or unconsciousness – you should descend to a lower altitude as quickly as possible and seek medical advice. The chances are that you won’t experience any ill-effects from the altitude, but it is definitely worth spending some time acclimatizing before you set out, with Cuzco being the obvious place to do this. If you go straight from sea-level to the Inca Trail you are much more likely to have problems. It’s been suggested to me that 2-3 days acclimatization, including day-hikes in the Cuzco region, should be considered a minimum. Again, getting fit beforehand will also make life easier.

  1. What is the best time of year to go?

     

Around the “dry” season from April to November seems to be generally considered preferable, at least as far as weather is concerned.

  1. What’s the weather like?

     

According to Promperú, the driest months are from May to September, the winter months in the Southern hemisphere. Temperatures can fall below freezing above 4500m, and it may be windy from August onwards. During the spring, September to December, there are likely to be early afternoon showers (sometimes accompanied by electrical storms) of short duration, and it may be cloudy and overcast. Nights during this season are clear (which means cold at high altitude).

The rainy season is from December to May. There is likely to be heavy rain for two to three hours every afternoon, as well as the possibility of light showers that continue over a longer period. Walking conditions are difficult, and streams may become impassable.

 

Note that just as anywhere else in the world, these are general tendencies. You could have a dry day in December; you could get rained on in July. Note also that there’s a wide variation in temperature, dependent on altitude and time of day. Some guidebooks report that it can vary by up to 25 degrees Celsius, so it can be quite warm during the day at low altitudes and below freezing higher up during the night. My own memories from a trip in August run from sweating in shorts and a T-shirt during the day to shivering fully-clothed – T-shirt, shirt, and heavy wool sweater – in a three-season sleeping bag at the Pacaymayo campsite at night.

  1. Is it dangerous?

     

Not especially. It’s a three or four day walk in a fairly remote area. There are places where you could fall and hurt yourself or even kill yourself if you really work at it, but unless you’re very careless or clumsy it’s not very likely.

 

On the other hand, it’s not a good place to have a medical emergency. If you have a tendency towards cardiac arrest, passing suddenly into a diabetic coma, epileptic fits or whatever, try to arrange for it to happen somewhere else.

  1. I’m scared of heights – will I be able to walk the Trail?

     

If the words ‘Inca Trail’ call up images of swaying rope bridges over deep ravines and narrow paths carved into the faces of sheer precipices, relax. There’s nothing like that. And it’s a walking trail, so you don’t need to do any mountaineering.

 

There are a few steep descents, and there are some places where there is a drop-off on one side of the roadway. However, even people who don’t like heights should be able to walk these stretches quite comfortably.

 

The stairway to Sayacmarca is a little intimidating, as it’s quite narrow, overhung, and there’s a steep drop on one side. However, Sayacmarca is optional: anyone who really can’t handle the stairs can just sit by the main trail and wait while their friends explore the site.

  1. What about theft?

     

Peru in general has a bad reputation for thefts from travellers. Given the fact that it is a poor country, and the average backpacker carries money and possessions which could probably feed a large family for the better part of a year, this is understandable. However, if you don’t want to subsidize the local economy involuntarily, you should pay close attention to your belongings at all times.

 

Basic precautions include:

 

  • Don’t flash money, jewellery or expensive watches around.
  • When carrying a shoulder bag or camera, carry it in front of you. Put the strap across your body, not just over one shoulder.
  • Don’t leave valuables in hotel rooms.
  • Don’t leave your luggage unattended. If you put it on the roof of a bus or in storage compartments, watch closely to make sure it doesn’t get unloaded before the bus leaves.
  • When sitting in cafes or restaurants, make it difficult for someone to snatch your bag or camera by putting the leg of your chair through the strap (and sitting in such a way as to make it difficult for thieves to get at it).
  • Watch out for pickpockets in a crowd, or for any attempt to distract you by bumping into you, or thrusting something – a newspaper, a piece of cardboard with something written on it, etc. – into your line of vision. Another favorite trick is to spray you with something unpleasant – grease, excrement and so forth. While ‘helpful’ passers-by try to clean you up, their friends are busy cleaning you out.
  • Women alone should be especially careful, as women seem to be considered easier targets than men.
  • Don’t go to isolated areas alone. Be very careful after dark. If you have doubts, ask locals, other tourists or the police if an area you intend to go to is safe.

 

One consolation is that the Peruvians mostly seem to favour guile rather than violence. However, there have been reports of tourists in Peru being robbed and worse at knife or gun point and of ‘strangle muggings’ (where the victim is choked unconscious and then robbed) in Cuzco. The chances are that it won’t happen to you, but you should pay attention to any warnings you hear or read, and take sensible precautions.

 

On the Inca Trail there is not problem as you will be accompanied by the crew Travel Company.

 

  1. What about wild animals?

     

One section of the trail is optimistically marked “Zona de Osos” (“Bear Zone”), but your chances of stumbling across a bear are probably very slight. Making noise as you walk and staying on the trail will reduce them still further. Predatory wildlife on the Inca Trail consists mainly of the local pigs and dogs around Huayllabamba (who will eat anything that you leave outside, including boots, rucksacks and plastic garbage bags) and biting flies, which will eat you. The insects, particularly around the Pacamayo, are extremely fierce. There have also been reports of chiggers and other pests near Huayllabamba.

 

A good insect repellent is a necessity. An American brand called Cutters worked particularly well for me. The active ingredient in that is apparently diethyl Meta toluamide (“deet”), so other deet-based repellents (which are to say most of them, nowadays) might also work well. You might want to consider carrying a second repellent based on a different main ingredient, as a reserve, in case the flies have grown to like deet.

  1. Is the Trail crowded?

     

In 1987, we met about five or six people a day. The campsites were nearly empty. However, according to the last figures I saw, something in the region of thirty to forty thousand people now walk it every year. The latest reports I’ve had suggest that you’re likely to meet about 200 other people per day on the trail, including large groups with guides and porters. The crowding appears to be particularly bad during the popular summer months. This has an inevitable impact, both on the facilities and the environment.

 

Whatever the conditions on the Trail, Machu Picchu is usually Tourist Central.

  1. What about … ahem … you know…

     

Toilet facilities? They’re scarce. Apparently there are now pit latrines at the campsites, but the rest of the time you’re on your own. What this means above all else is that you need to be a good citizen of the wilderness and obey the rules. Since it’s impractical to backpack your crap out of the region along with the rest of your rubbish, this means that when you have to go, you should go a long way away from the Trail, and bury your excrement properly after you’re done. This is not an especially pleasant task, but it must be done. And when you are at the campsites, use the facilities available.