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Outdoor Destinations

5 Tips for Hiking the Inca Trail

August 27, 2014
Machu Picchu

Since my nephews could walk, I’ve been dragging them along on adventures whenever they visited. As a self-professed adrenaline junkie, I’ve considered it an honor to teach all three how to ride their bikes, sea kayak, knee board, zip line and whatever else I could coerce them in to trying. Having no children of our own, my wife and I made a commitment years ago to give our nephews memorable and life enhancing high school graduation gifts. After much contemplation, we decided an international trip to a historically and culturally rich destination would be perfect. Machu Picchu, or the lost city of the Incas, has always been on my short list of must see places. So, I decided to share the experience with them. I have been backpacking for over 30 years. Much to my dismay, I realized that I had neglected to share this type of adventure with them. Our motto is ‘go hard or go home’, so appropriately their first backpacking experience would take them high into the Andes!

All packed and ready to go!

The idea was hatched six years ago when I came to the realization that my three nephews were growing up fast and I wanted to be able to share a once-in-a-lifetime experience with them.  My nephews are athletic (all three having played high school football, and the oldest having played two years of college football). However, they suffered from adventure deficiency.  I had my work cut out for me! We arrived in Cusco three days before our planned departure on the Inca Trail to allow ourselves ample time to acclimate to the altitude.  The former capital of the Incan Empire sits around 10,000 feet above sea level and is a good base camp in preparation for elevations approaching 14,000 feet. After spending a few days exploring the nearby ruins, markets and the city’s beautiful architecture, we were ready to begin our 4-day journey to the mythical citadel of Machu Picchu.  We researched multiple outfitters before deciding to go with Peru Treks, which had come highly recommended by Lonely Planet and some personal friends. As I was traveling with my three athletic nephews, I opted to NOT enlist the assistance of a personal porter, as this was their initiation into the world of backpacking. We were responsible for carrying all of our personal gear and apparel with exception of tents, which were carried by the porters.  The outfitter also provided sleeping pads that we were responsible for carrying. In addition to what we wore on the trail, our packs contained the following:

  • Down sleeping bag (20-degree)
  • 1-pair of convertible pants
  • Underwear (3 pair)
  • T-shirts (2)
  • Socks (3 pair)
  • Long-sleeved base layer
  • Down jacket
  • Wool cap, gloves and Buff
  • Trail running shoes
  • Rain jacket and pants
  • First Aid Kit (for our group)
  • Suncreen and insect repellant
  • Personal toiletries
  • Sunglasses
  • Goal Zero solar panel and battery pack
  • DeLorme inReach
  • Camera
  • Water bottles (2)
  • Iodine tablets (we never used these)
  • Snacks

Patallacta – Large agricultural settlement that provided food for Machu Picchu

Day 1:   Our guide picked us up at the hostel at 5:30am for a 90-minute bus ride to Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast and then proceeded to the trailhead to begin our trek.  After some last minute packing, we were on our way down the trail. The number of people on the trail at any given time is monitored via a series of controls that each hiker, guide and porter must pass through before continuing.  It is essential that you provide your passport at each of these control points along with your ‘ticket’ (our guide held on to these throughout the trek). Our first trail meal was a pleasant surprise.  I was expecting typical backpacker fare and yet it consisted of 3 courses:  appetizer, soup, trout, rice and vegetables. We got our first sight of Inca ruins from a scenic vista overlooking what was once a large city that cultivated, harvested and transported food to neighboring villages, cities and outposts within the empire.

Day 2: Our wake up call came in the form of one of the guides standing outside the tent and asking us if we wanted any coca tea.  The guides encouraged each of us to drink the tea as they believe that the leaves help eliminate the affects of altitude on the body. This day was all about covering distance and gaining altitude.  After reaching Dead Woman’s Pass at just under 14,000 feet, it was all down hill from there to our camp for the night.

Climbing up Dead Woman’s Pass

Day 3: Aside from the final day, this would prove to be the most scenic day of the trek.  We crossed two passes over 13,000 feet, saw multiple Inca ruins and passed through multiple microclimates along the trail (including high altitude rain forest). At the conclusion of the day’s trek, we were only an hour from the Sun Gate and the highlight of our journey.

Hiking through the Inca ruins

Day 4: This day began as the earliest day as all of the groups were eager to line up promptly at the last control to assure an early arrival (before sunrise) at Machu Picchu. Our planning had brought us to this day on the winter solstice, and we arrived at the ruins as the sun’s rays slowly creeped over the mountain shadowing the citadel.

We all made it!

Tips

  1. Carry a lightweight down sleeping bag.  I recommend a 20-degree model as we were the only people in our group of sixteen that remained warm throughout the entire trek.
  2. Select a good pair of lightweight boots for the trail.  Spend the time necessary to get accustomed to the boots while wearing a weighted pack and putting in the miles so your experience is positive.
  3. Visit your doctor prior to the trip and get any required vaccinations and inquire about other medications that might be of benefit for intestinal issues, altitude sickness, etc…
  4. Make sure that any snacks that you take on the trail have been tested prior to departure.  There is nothing worse than getting on the trail and finding out that the ‘trail bars’ that you purchased are not very palatable.  Prior to our trip, our group carefully tasted and selected an assortment of bars and chews from Honey Stinger, Clif and Kate’s Bars.
  5. Carry layers that allow you to scale back easily on the trail.  Temperatures in the early morning are typically in the low 30s and while it may be seem cold to begin with…the sun is intense and will heat up quickly as you head down the trail.  I started each morning wearing shorts (part of my convertible pants) t-shirt and arm sleeves.  This was an ideal combination as I had my pant legs readily accessible when we got to camp each day.

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