Inca Trail dos and donts: tips and tricks for trips to Peru

Inca Trail dos and donts: tips and tricks for trips to Peru

How to make the most of your Machu Picchu Inca Trail

There is no better, more adventurous way to fully experience the ancient Inca culture of Peru other than doing the official Inca trail. This is the only way through which you will be able to walk on the sacred Inca ground, to visit sites that are otherwise not accessible to travellers, and to view the sunrise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku. The other hikes may be great, hard, you may get to see amazing landscapes too. But nothing can compare to the experience you will have when puffing and struggling on the only real Camino Inca to Machu Picchu. This is definitely among the best things to do in Peru.

Best things to do in Peru - viewing Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku

Best things to do in Peru – viewing Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku

Places to visit in Peru: one of the many hidden sites, only accessible via the official Inca Trail

Places to visit in Peru: one of the many hidden sites, only accessible via the official Inca Trail

Doing the Inca trail is no easy thing, so here are a few tips to fully enjoy it.

DOs

Do your research: Various companies can organise your trekking to Machu Picchu. Among the most recommended ones there are Llama Path  and SAS. A Lima based agency which is also highly recommended is Peru Tourist Information, whose chief is a real superstar. Prices vary, depending the company you pick and on what you want to include in your trail. They can vary from 450 US dollars for the vary basic, to 800 US dollars for the most pricey company and including a number of extra services.

Do plan ahead: there is no such thing as showing up at an agency in Cusco and asking to do the official Camino Inca. The most it will be able to offer you are alternative routes, such as the very challenging 5 to 7 days Salcantay Trek, or the 3 days Jungle Trek. If you think hiking the Inca Trail is one of the things to do in Peru, you should know that the official Inca Trail permits are issued by the Peruvian government each January, and they are sold out very fast. Only 180 visitors per day are admitted, so if you think this is an experience you want to live, plan ahead, make your reservations well in advance. To give you an idea, I did my trail in April and I had it booked by the end of December. In April, everything was sold out until October.

Top things to do in Peru: hike the Camino Inka-Inka Trail

Top things to do in Peru: hike the Camino Inka-Inka Trail

Do pick a date and stick to it: Inca Trail permits are not refundable – once you pick a date, you have to stick to it and arrange the rest of your travel itinerary accordingly. So, think well before deciding. What I can say is that, no matter the season, you will at some point get the typical inca train weather: rain and extreme chill. April and May are the best months for nature lovers – flowers (especially orchids); September to November are less crowded and December to March rainy, and the trail may be very slippery (but, really, it does rain in any season).

Lush nature on the Inca Trail

Lush nature on the Inca Trail

Do arrive fit: the Inca trek is challenging for anybody. The altitude, the long walks, the fatigue and the little rest you may be able to get sleeping in a tent will eventually hit anybody. So, do train yourself by exercising and eating healthy food well before you embark on this adventure.

Do arrive in Cusco a few days before the starting date: this will allow you to get adjusted to the altitude. Cusco is located at 3300 meters above sea level and the trail starts at around 2800 meters. Being adjusted to the altitude will give you a good advantage. Not to mention, Cusco is a lovely city to hang out, there are numerous interesting sites to see and things to do in Cusco and in its surroundings, great restaurants and an amazing vibe.

Do wear appropriate gear: good hiking shoes, technical pants and a good rain coat are a must; carry along some thermic sweaters and t-shirts against the chill. Paths get slippery because of the rain, and you will surely want to avoid slipping down and breaking a leg: hiking shoes give you extra support; plain running shoes may be comfortable but are not geared to support your feet and ankles in hard conditions. The same goes for the rain coat: it does rain at some point or another and the last thing you want is getting wet and catch a cold, as it would ruin your experience. A good sleeping bag will save you from the freezing night of day 2, when you reach the highest point on the trail.

The Inca tunnel

The Inca tunnel

Inca weather at the back!

Inca weather at the back!

Do carry medications, especially prescriptions: there is no easy way out once you are on the trail. You can walk back after day 1; from day 2, the closest emergency centre would be in Aguas Calientes, and if you do get sick you will have to be carried by porters along the trail and down to the village (this actually happened to somebody in my group). It is definitely not pleasant to be sick while there, and not pleasant for the porters either. Remember that helicopters can’t access the trail as there is no landing point.

Do pack light: whether you decide to carry your own stuff or hire the services of half a porter, do not carry more than 7 kg. Should you chose to give your stuff to the porters, your bag will be weighted. If you want to carry your own stuff, you will want to keep the weight to a minimum. Days are long, and carrying around a heavy backpack will increase your fatigue, especially on day 2 when you will have to walk uphill most of the day and reach the peak of 4200 meters above sea level. All you need is a small bag with a change of clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, a small towel, prescription medications and a headlamp.

Do carry some snacks: food is provided on the trail. You will have 3 main meals per day, plus two snacks. However, you will need some extra energy and having that bar of chocolate or that bag of peanuts will help you to keep walking.

Do carry some cash: you will use it to buy drinks on day one and two of the trail, and to tip the porters at the end of the trail. This is a sort of tradition: remember those porters are the last part of the chain and any extra help matters to them; besides you will want to reward them for their help!

Do be prepared for the “rustic” accommodation: tents are comfortable but they still are tents, and even if you have a mattress, you will still feel like you are sleeping on the floor. Dining tents are tight: you will be sitting elbow to elbow with your companions. Bathrooms are challenging, to say the least: expect filth, terrible smell, and freezing cold water.

Campsite on day 2

Campsite on day 2

Do expext amazing views and spectacular sites: mountains, glaciars, nature, waterfalls, clouds, flowers, jungle and hidden sites you didn’t even know existed. You will get to see all of this, and much more.

Glaciar views on day 3

Glaciar views on day 3

Could it be any better?

Could it be any better?

Another breathtaking view from the Inca Trail

Another breathtaking view from the Inca Trail

Do make new friends: this is a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world, share anecdotes, cheer each other up when it is really hard to walk, when the food is not as good as you would have wanted and when all you want is to rest.

Tired but happy, we reached the Inti Punku just in time to see the sunrise!

Tired but happy, we reached the Inti Punku just in time to see the sunrise!

Do consider your extra options: you can add an extra hike to Huayna Picchu, and enjoy yet another spectacular view of Machu Picchu. You have to book this in advance too, as only 180 visitors are admitted, twice per day.

Do book a dorm bed in Aguas Calientes for the day when you terminate the trek: you will be exhausted and the last thing you will want will be to walk around looking for a place to stay. Denny’s House has decent bed and great showers.

Tired but happy, I finally reached Huayna Picchu

Tired but happy, I finally reached Huayna Picchu

DONts

Don’t forget your camera: you most certainly want to take pictures of the views, of the sites, and with your new friends.

Don’t underestimate the difficulty: it is hard, really hard. While day one is relatively easy (you will be rested after having slept on a proper bed in your hostel), day two is challenging as you will reach extreme altitude and will be going uphill most of the day. Day three is the longest day – 16 km: guides will tell you that you will be going through “inca planes”, which, you will discover, consist of continuous going up and downhill. By day four, you will be exhausted. This is when you will have to wake up at 3 to start walking towards Machu Picchu to get to see the sunrise from the Inti Punku.

Intipunku is reached before dawn on day 4 of the hike

Intipunku is reached before dawn on day 4 of the hike

The highest peak, reached on day 2

The highest peak, reached on day 2

By all means, do not despair if it seems too hard: following my advice, you will make it till the end and will feel a huge sense of achievement.

Don’t worry if you stink on the trail: everybody eventually will stink. You will sweat just like anybody else!

Don’t expect to shower: Showers are out of the equation until day two, but don’t get too excited: they are only cold, freezing cold. Do not shower unless you are ready to risk pneumonia.

Don’t forget to have fun: this is a once in a lifetime experience, and you must fully enjoy it!

If you are interested to find out about more things to do in Peru, click here.

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Find out some tips on how to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu - via @clautavani

 

Things to do in Cusco: a brief guide

Things to do in Cusco: a brief guide

For as obvious, mainstream, touristy and commercial as it may seem, I believe that trips to Peru can’t be considered complete without visiting Cusco. There are so many things to do in Cusco that it is easy to spend a few days there.

Things to do in Cusco:

The city is a wonderful mixture of inca ruins and colonial buildings. Walking around aimlessly took me to its many pretty squares, its various museums and churches. I did not miss a visit of the cathedral and of the Qorikancha, where an inca site forms the base of the colonial church of Santo Domingo. Compulsive shoppers will also find it that one of the best things to do in Cusco is shopping: it was hard for me to resist the many markets and artesania shops.

Since I had a little extra time to spend there before going on my next adventure to the Inca Trail or Sacred Valley, and I was looking for what to do in Cusco, I found out that there are a number of interesting and well preserved inca sites right outside the city, which include Saqsaywaman, Tambomachay and Pukapukara. A tour of these normally also includes also a guided visit of the Qorikancha, so since I was planning to see all of them, I bought the Cusco City Tour (boleto turistico) to avoid extra costs. The sites can be visited independently, and reached by public transportation (hop on a bus bound to Pisac).

It is possible to walk back (Tambomachay is the furthest away at 8 km from Cusco), but only do so before nightfall (it gets dark at around 6pm) and if in a group, in order to avoid attacks. Going on a guided tour gives the services of a guide, which may make the difference in the overall experience. There are plenty of agencies on the main square or the streets nearby that will try to sell tours. Do negotiate the price, just as with anything else!

Viva el Peru Glorioso!

Viva el Peru Glorioso!

Looking at the view over the city: one of the many things to do in Cusco

Looking at the view over the city: one of the many things to do in Cusco

Things to do in Cusco: visiting the cathedral

Things to do in Cusco: visiting the cathedral

Searching for what to do in Cusco? Visit the Qorikancha

Searching for what to do in Cusco? Visit the Qorikancha

Places to visit in Peru: Sacsaywaman

Places to visit in Peru: Sacsaywaman

How to get there:

Cusco is one of the most important and beautiful cities in Peru, the starting point from where to visit the Sacred Valley of the Inca and Machu Picchu, and to start the Inca Trail. It is well connected to the rest of the country, and can be easily reached via land or by plane. Depending on where one is in the country, on the budget, and on the time available, it is possible to decide what mode of transportation is the most convenient and book in advance.

Buses leave every day from Lima, Arequipa and Puno. The trip from Lima takes roughly 24 hours. Cruz del Sur offers the best bus services, with cama and semi-cama seats, making the journey relatively comfortable. However, keep in mind that flights to Cusco from Lima (usually with LAN) are only slightly more expensive than buses and it may well be worth spending a few extra dollars for the extra comfort of arriving there in just a few hours. Extra tip: those who have a frequent flyer card with American Airlines or British Airways, should remember LAN is a partner and they can get mileage for the flight, all of them going towards a reward ticket eventually.

Where to stay:

Cusco altitude makes it fairly cold. When the sun gets out, it is warm. But thunderstorms are guaranteed in the rainy season (November through April).

There are just about a million budget accommodation. Real backpackers won’t want to make reservations but remember that walking around with a heavy backpack at 3300 meters above sea level may not be so easy, even for those who (like me) are in good shape. The thin air gets to the lungs, breathing gets harder and walking increasingly tiring, even more so on those hills (to fight altitude sickness, drink mate de coca, drink lots of water and little alcohol). One of the best things to do in Cusco may then be making a reservation for a dorm, even if just for one night, and hopping on a cab to get there. My humble advice is to get a fairly decent one. It is a party town, and I do care for a good night’s sleep, so I wanted to make sure to avoid party hostels, as well as hostels that are on main streets (there is a lot of traffic and noise), especially in the area around Plaza de Armas. Opt for one that is up on the hills of San Blas, for example, for a top view of the city. Furthermore, given Cusco weather, I had to look for a room that is properly insulated, with enough blankets on the beds to fight the cold.

Many hostels in Cusco are located in old, humid buildings and they get bone-chilling cold at night. Heating isn’t really an option in budget accommodation, and getting out of the shower in that freezing room won’t be pleasant. Another thing I strongly advise to do is to actually check the showers: the majority of hostels  opt for electric showers, which means that the less powerful the water, the warmer it gets. However, electricity issues often mean that the water hardly gets lukewarm, making showering a torture. My suggestion is to look for gas heated showers. Check, or read reviews online for this. Finally, double check that kitchen use is allowed as many places do not actually permit it.

Piccola Locanda in Calle Resbalosa 520 is a lovely bed and breakfast whose profits go in favour of a local charity. It has charming rooms, some of them with a spectacular view over Plaza de Armas.

Cuscopackers, in Prolongacion Av. Arcopata N° 129, has beautiful views over the hills, it is safe, clean, and the staff is nice and helpful. Beware as rooms are on the small side, quite chilly, and showers temperamental. Breakfast (hot drinks, juice, bread and jam and butter) is included in the price of the room, however kitchen use is not allowed. Dorm beds cost around $9.

Hostal Atlantis, in Avenida Lucrepata D – 1 in San Blas, is more of a hotel than a hostel. Rooms are comfortable, they all have flat screen tv and powerful hot showers. Rooms ($20 per person for a double private room) are not well insulated against the cold, and they overlook a rather busy street, so beware in case you are a light sleeper. Breakfast is included and kitchen use is permitted.

Cheaper options are called hospedaje (family run accommodation).

Eating and drinking:

Eating is a feast in Cusco, whatever the budget. There is anything for any palate, from new age vegan and vegetarian to fusion, from pizza to traditional Peruvian cuisine (including ceviche, alpaca meat and cuy), to burgers and Chinese food.

On the expensive side, Papacho, in Portal de Belen 115 2do Nivel Plaza de Armas, has excellent, huge and juicy burgers. Uchu, in Calle Palacio 135, is a great grill house: meat is served on a hot stone so customers can grill it to their liking. Fallen Angel, in Plazoleta Nazarenas 221, has excellent food and an amazing setting – worth going even just to look around. Bodega 138, in Herrajes 138 Cusco, has good wood oven baked pizza (avoid olives, they are extremely salted!).

In the incredible “mercado” – the central market – it is possible to get all sorts of fresh ingredients to prepare meals at the hostel.

The same goes for drinking: plenty of pubs, bars, coffee shops. At just about any time of day one may stop and have a mate de coca (coca tea) which helps in fighting the altitude sickness.

What to do in Cusco to fight the effects of altitude: drink Mate de coca

What to do in Cusco to fight the effects of altitude: drink Mate de coca