The Inca Trail

The wonder of Machu Picchu has been well documented over the years. Equally impressive is the centuries-old Inca Trail that winds its way from the Sacred Valley near Ollantaytambo, taking three to four days. What makes this hike so special is the stunning combination of Inca ruins, unforgettable views, magnificent mountains, exotic vegetation and extraordinary ecological variety. The government acknowledged all this in 1981 by including the trail in a 325 sq-km national park, the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. Machu Picchu itself cannot be understood without the Inca Trail. Its principal sites are ceremonial in character, apparently in ascending hierarchical order. This Inca province was a unique area of elite access. The trail is essentially a work of spiritual art, like a Gothic cathedral, and walking it was formerly an act of devoted pilgrimmage.

Entrance tickets and tours

An entrance ticket for the trail or its variations must be bought at the
Instituto Nacional de Cultura
(
INC
) office in Cuzco; no tickets are sold at the entrance gates. Furthermore, tickets are only sold on presentation of a letter from a licensed tour operator on behalf of the visitor. There is a 50% discount for students, but note that officials are very strict, only an ISIC card will be accepted as proof of status. Tickets are checked at Km 82, Huayllabamba and Wiñay-Wayna.

Travel agencies in Cuzco arrange transport to the start, equipment, food, etc, for an all-in price. Remember that you get what you pay for and bear in mind that prices lower than those above suggest that corners are being cut, with less attention paid to the environment and the porters.

There is a quota for agencies and groups to use the Trail, but some agencies make block bookings way in advance of departure dates. This makes it much harder for other agencies to guarantee their clients places on the Trail. Consequently, current advice is to book your preferred dates as early as possible, between two months and a year in advance depending on the season you want to go, then confirm nearer the time. There have been many instances of disappointed trekkers whose bookings did not materialize: don't wait till the last minute and always check your operator's cancellation charges.

You can save a bit of money by arranging your own transport back to Ollantaytambo in advance, either for the last day of your tour, or by staying an extra night in Aguas Calientes and taking the early morning train, then a bus back to Cuzco. If you take your own tent and sleeping gear, some agencies give a discount. Make sure your return ticket for the tourist train to Cuzco has your name on it, otherwise you have to pay for any changes.

Advice and information

Although security has improved in recent years, it's still best to leave all your valuables in Cuzco and keep everything else inside your tent, even your shoes. Avoid the July/August high season and the rainy season from November to April (note that this can change, so check in advance). In the wet it is cloudy and the paths are very muddy and difficult. Also watch out for coral snakes in this area (black, red, yellow bands). Please remove all your rubbish, including toilet paper, or use the pits provided. Do not light open fires as they can get out of control.

Guidelines for the treatment of porters can be found on the website of the now defunct
Inka Porter Project
, www.peruweb.org/porters/ (the website also has sound environmental information).

Equipment

It is cold at night and weather conditions change rapidly, so it is important to take strong footwear, rain gear and warm clothing (this includes long johns if you want to sleep rather than freeze at night): dress in layers. Also take food, water, water purification tablets, insect repellent, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses, a supply of plastic bags, coverings, a good sleeping bag, a torch and a stove for preparing hot food and drink to ward off the cold at night. It is worth paying extra to hire a down sleeping bag if you haven't brought your own. A paraffin (kerosene) stove is preferable, as fuel can be bought in small quantities in markets.

A tent is essential, but if you're hiring one in Cuzco, check carefully for leaks. Caves marked on some maps are little better than overhangs and are not sufficient shelter to sleep in. You could also take a first-aid kit; if you don't need it, the porters probably will, given their rather basic footwear. It is forbidden to use trekking poles because the metal tips are damaging the trail. Instead, buy a carved wooden stick on sale in the main plaza in Ollantaytambo or at the trail head. Many will need this for the steep descents on the path.

All the necessary equipment can be rented in Cuzco . Good maps of the trail and area can be bought from
South American Explorers
in Lima or Cuzco. If you have any doubts about carrying your own pack, porters/guides are available through Cuzco agencies. Always carry a day-pack, though, with water and snacks, in case you walk at a faster or slower pace than the porters. Take enough cash to ensure that your group tips per porter, plus the tips for the guides and cook, and for your purchases at the end of the trail.

The trek

Day 1

The trek to the sacred site begins either at Km 82,
Piscacucho
, or at Km 88,
Qorihuayrachina
, at 2600 m. In order to reach Km 82, hikers are transported by their tour operator in a minibus on the road that goes to Quillabamba. From Piri onwards the road follows the riverbank and ends at Km 82, where there is a bridge. You can depart as early as you like and arrive at Km 82 faster than going by train. The Inca Trail equipment, food, fuel and field personnel reach Km 82 (depending on the tour operator's logistics) for the Inrena staff to weigh each bundle before the group arrives. When several groups are leaving on the same day, it is more convenient to arrive early.

Km 88 can only be reached by train, subject to schedule and baggage limitations. The train goes slower than a bus, but you start your walk nearer to Llaqtapata and Huayllabamba.

The first ruin is
Llaqtapata
, near Km 88, the utilitarian centre of a large settlement of farming terraces that probably supplied the other Inca Trail sites. From here, it is a relatively easy three-hour walk to the village of
Huayllabamba
. Note that the route from Km 82 goes via
Cusichaca
, the valley in which Ann Kendall worked, rather than Llaqtapata.

A series of gentle climbs and descents leads along the Río Cusichaca, the ideal introduction to the trail. The village is a popular camping spot for tour groups, so it's a better idea to continue for about an hour up to the next site,
Llulluchayoc
- 'three white stones' - which is a patch of green beside a fast-flowing stream. It's a steep climb but you're pretty much guaranteed a decent pitch for the night. If you're feeling really energetic, you can go on to the next camping spot, a perfectly flat meadow, called
Llulluchapampa
. This means a punishing 1½-hour ascent through cloudforest, but it does leave you with a much easier second day. There's also the advantage of relative isolation and a magnificent view back down the valley.

Day 2

For most people the second day is by far the toughest. It's a steep climb to the meadow, followed by an exhausting 2½-hour haul up to the first pass - aptly named
Warmiwañusqa
(Dead Woman) - at 4200 m. The feeling of relief on reaching the top is immense. After a well-earned break it's a sharp descent on a treacherous path down to the Pacamayo Valley, where there are a few flat camping spots near a stream if you're too weary to continue.

Day 2/3

If you're feeling energetic, you can proceed to the second pass. Halfway up comes the ruin of
Runkuracay
, which was probably an Inca
tambo
(post-house). Camping is no longer permitted here. A steep climb up an Inca staircase leads to the next pass, at 3850 m, with spectacular views of Pumasillo (6246 m) and the Vilcabamba range. The trail descends to
Sayacmarca
(Inaccessible town), a spectacular site over the Aobamba Valley. Just below Sayacmarca lies
Conchamarca
(Shell town), a small group of buildings standing on rounded terraces.

Day 3

A blissfully gentle two-hour climb on a stone highway, leads through an Inca tunnel and along the enchanted fringes of the cloudforest, to the third pass. This is the most rewarding part of the trail, with spectacular views of the entire Vilcabamba range. Then it's down to the extensive ruins of
Phuyupatamarca
(Cloud-level town), at 3650 m, where Inca observation platforms offer awesome views of nearby Salkantay (6270 m) and surrounding peaks. There is a 'tourist bathroom' here, where water can be collected, but do purify it before drinking.

From here, an Inca stairway of white granite plunges more than 1000 m to the spectacularly sited and impressive ruins of
Wiñay-Wayna
(Forever Young), offering views of agricultural terraces at
Intipata
(Sun place). A trail, not easily visible, goes from Wiñay-Wayna to the terracing. There is a youth hostel at Wiñay-Wayna and there are spaces for a few tents, but they get snapped up quickly. After Wiñay-Wayna there is no water, and no place to camp, until Machu Picchu. A gate by Wiñay-Wayna is locked between 1530 and 0500, preventing access to the path to Machu Picchu at night.

Day 4

From Wiñay-Wayna it is a gentle hour's walk through another type of forest, with larger trees and giant ferns, to a steep Inca staircase that leads up to
Intipunku
(Sun Gate), where you look down, at last, upon Machu Picchu, basking in all her glory. Your aching muscles will be quickly forgotten and even the presence of the functional hotel building cannot detract from one of the most magical sights in all the Americas.

Camino Real de los Inkas

The Inca Trail from Km 104

This short Inca Trail is used by those who don't want to endure the full hike. It starts at Km 104, where a footbridge gives access to the ruins of
Chachabamba
and the trail ascends to the main trail at Wiñay-Wayna. Half way up is a good view of the ruins of
Choquesuysuy
. The first part is a steady, continuous three-hour ascent (take water) and the trail is narrow and exposed in parts. About 15 minutes before Wiñay-Wayna is a waterfall where fresh water can be obtained (best to purify it before drinking).

Salkantay treks

Four hours' drive west of Cuzco is
Mollepata
, starting point for two major alternatives to the 'classic' Inca Trail. The road from Cuzco is good-quality tarmac until the turn off just beyond Limatambo, in the Río Colorado valley floor. A dirt road then winds steeply up to Mollepata. Both treks pass beneath the magnificent glacial bulk of
Salkantay
, at 6271 m the loftiest peak of the Vilcabamba range.

Santa Teresa trek

The first four-day trek takes the northwestern pass under Salkantay, leading into the high jungles of the Santa Teresa valley and eventually down to the town of Santa Teresa itself at the confluence with the Río Urubamba, from where Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are accessible.
Cruzpata
(3100 m) is the starting point for the trek, which goes via
Soraypampa
and
Salkantay Pampa
, the 4500-m
Huamantay Pass
, the villages of
Chaullay
and
Colcanpampa
and the meeting of the Río Totora with the Quebrada Chalán to form the
Río Santa Teresa
. After the village of
La Playa
you can choose to go to the Hidroeléctrica railway station, via the ruins of
Patallacta
, or to the village of Santa Teresa. The restrictions on the Inca Trail quickly turned the Santa Teresa Trek into the most popular alternative to the 'classic' Trail, but the
INC
has ruled that this trek may only be done with an agency and trekkers are charged US$45.20 when they pass through Soraypampa.

High Inca Trail

The second route, often referred to as the High Inca Trail, follows the same route up to the base of Salkantay before turning east across the
Inca
Chiriasca Pass
at approximately 4900 m. This route then descends via
Sisaypampa
, from where you trek to
Pampacahuana
, an outstanding Inca ruin. The remains of an Inca road then go down to the singular Inca ruins of
Paucarcancha
. Paucarcancha is also an important camping site on the Ancascocha trek, described below. On the third day you join the 'classic' Inca Trail at
Huayllabamba
, before continuing to Machu Picchu. Because the route follows the Km 88 trail in its second half, permits are required and thus booking in advance is highly recommended. It is not possible to trek this route without a registered Peruvian guide. There is also an obligatory change from animals to porters before you reach Huayllabamba.

If you don't want to join up with the classic Inca Trail, an alternative is to go to Huayllabamba, then down to Km 88, from where you can take the train to Aguas Calientes, or back to Cuzco. It is also possible to walk the 30 km from Km 88 to Aguas Calientes, but the authorities are not keen on this, especially from Aguas Calientes to Km 88.

Ancascocha

Named after a tiny but beautifully situated community in the Cordillera Vilcabamba's remote eastern fringe, this is a little-known, but worthy addition to the growing list of alternative Inca trails. It starts in the village of Huarocondo (near the Cuzco-Aguas Calientes railway line). Crossing three fairly steep passes, it offers fabulous views of some of the region's best-known snow peaks, Salkantay and La Verónica foremost among them. An added bonus is the impressive Nevado Huayanay, which towers above a landscape laced with icy lakes and cascades. Along with the natural attractions you'll pass interesting ruins, fragmented sections of Inca trail and friendly pastoral communities. Ancascocha can easily be combined with the classic Inca Trail (given the timely reservation of permits), or longer routes into the heart of the Vilcabamba range. For those with more limited time, transport direct to either Aguas Calientes or Cuzco can be obtained from the trail's end. The Ancascocha trail finishes at several points: you can link up with the Salkantay treks at Paucarcancha; you can link up with the Inca Trail at Huayllabamba and continue to Machu Picchu; or you can end up at Km 88 or Km 82 on the railway line.

Inca Jungle Trail

This is offered by several tour operators in Cuzco: on the first day you cycle downhill from Abra Málaga to Santa María, four to five hours of beautiful, easy riding. The second day is a hard seven-hour trek from Santa María to Santa Teresa. It involves crossing three adventurous bridges and bathing in the beautifully refurbished hot springs at Santa Teresa. The third day is a six-hour trek from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes and the final day is a guided tour of Machu Picchu.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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