Which Way to the Inca Trail?

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Machu Picchu, The Sacred Valley, Peru
By Jared Johnsen

They built a rail, but you persist in your need to take that ancient trail. You want to make your pilgrimage, in a journey like the Incas of yore, and gaze at the unique ruins along the Urubamba river valley, hiking though gorgeous mountainscapes. And you want all of this as a prelude to your fourth day at sunrise, when you reach Intipunku, the sun gate, and first set eyes on the awe-inspiring citadel perched atop towering curtains of green mountain wall. You have made a great choice. Unfortunately, you are not alone. This may be an adventure with the ability to amaze and inspire unlike any other, but it attracts many, and will have to be planned in advance. This is not to say, it is not worth it. Quite the contrary, this ruin is perhaps the most astounding in the all the Americas. But making this epic journey will require some pre-departure legwork as well. Here are some things you’ll want to know.

Costs and Companies

This is – if you haven’t already heard – a necessary component of your journey. In 2000, authorities decided that due to excessive trail degradation, there ought to be limits on the number of people passing through. Thus, today there is no independent hiking of the trail permitted and a maximum of 500 people a day may embark on the journey – a limit that is more than met during the summer months. Booking your trip with one of the agencies in Cusco in advance is a must (the details are discussed below). You must also obtain a permit for use of the trail, which is $50 for adults and $25 for children under 15 and students able to produce the magic ISIC card. This also covers the entrance fee to Machu Picchu and is usually arranged by your tour company.

There are a number of agencies to choose from. Most of them charge between $200 and $300 for the 4-day trek. To research and choose a company, there are a couple of possibilities. If you are in South America and are a member of South American Explorer (SAE), they have many trip reports from travelers about the quality of many companies. They are a valuable resource in South America and have clubhouses in Lima or Cusco. You’ll find their website at www.saexplorers.org. If you are researching from home, check out the website www.andeantravelweb.com, which lists and has links to the major tour companies in Cusco that offer the Inca trail. If you want a recommendation, one of the most commonly cited places for quality service is a tour company called SAS. They will probably be closer to the $300 mark for their services, but you must keep in mind that what you pay for your tour makes a difference in many ways.

Companies that offer cheaper tours sometimes feed less desirable food, use lower quality gear, or poorly trained guides. In addition to your personal experience, the lower cost charged often encourages them to pay less respect to the environment and their porters. Some of these supply-carrying employees might be given shabby gear that is not rain proof or required to carry more weight than they ought to. If these things mean something to you, perhaps the little extra money is money well spent.

When to Go…When to Book

Between the months of June and August, Cusco is inundated with tourists, all of which have secured their space on the trail with the licensed companies permitted to issue tickets. Translation: Backpackers are unintentionally thwarted. Unfortunately, hiking the Inca trail has little in common these days with the capricious, uncommitted freedom afforded by lightweight traveling. The only legal way to get yourself on the ancient pathway is to book with one of the several companies in Cusco offering a guided Inca trail tour to Machu Picchu. Therefore, the most important thing to consider for hiking the trail is when to book.

If you decide to go during high season (forewarned fool you are), I recommend booking with a company 6 to 8 weeks in advance. Any less time than this will be pushing it. If you are going during May or September, 4 or 5 weeks should be sufficient. During most other times it should be possible to arrange within a week or so in Cusco. That being said, I must also include the caveat that it is the official regulation that all REDs (the tickets issued by the National Institute of Culture to be on the trail) must be solicited at least 30 days in advance, no matter the season. If you want this kind of last-minute flexibility, my advice is to correspond with a respected tour operator through email as you are traveling. They will know if this regulation is being strictly enforced in the low season, a time when this rule is often sidestepped.

The Trail

Your journey on the trail will most likely last 3 nights and 4 days, arriving the morning of the forth day to the breathtaking citadel for sunrise. Of course, there are options to shorten the hike to 2 nights or lengthen it to 9, but 4 days is the one most commonly done. During these days of the trek you will do more than sweat and approach exhaustion. I promise. You will make your way through fascinating Incan ruins and misty cloud forests with amazing mountain vistas. This is an unforgettable experience. The fact remains, however, you will gain a few thousand meters on foot. So, acclimatized you must be, and with good hiking shoes too. I would also bring the usual necessities like rain gear, warm clothes, sun block, brimmed hat, as well as a day pack for water. Many companies offer discounts to those carrying their own gear and willing to cook their own food. If this is you, bring water purification tablets and a kerosene burning stove to cook with in addition to your bag and tent. It is also possible to rent or purchase these things in Cusco if you like.

Everything else speaks for itself on the trail. When you come over the ridge and see the misty Incan city struck with the first sheets of sunlight slanting their way in, you will know why you have not arrived by rail.

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