Monday, May 21, 2012

Trekking in Peru: An Introduction

So you want to do some trekking in Peru? Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind. These don’t replace the need to buy a proper trail guide (and maps, if you can find them), but should get you started.
When to Go

The high season is June-August – dry season in the Andes. It’s very busy, however, with major attractions like Machu Picchu often sold out quite early. For this reason, we initially planned on traveling in May. As we researched further, however, it seemed even May is getting busy so we went during the last week of April/first week of May.

This was, mostly, a good decision: Cuzco was quiet on the two April weekends, but it was like someone threw a switch once May 1 rolled around as we noticed a significant uptick in tourist traffic on our final weekend (the only one in May). We saw no other tourists at all on our first trek and only one individual (and one large horse party we saw twice in the distance) during the second trek (until we reached the final stop of Pacchanta). The only drawback is that we had one very wet and muddy day on the Vilcabamba trek our first week.

Please, mountain gods: don't
let me get sick!
The Inevitable Altitude

With Cuzco at 11,000 feet/3400 meters above sea level, and many treks going over mountain passes as high as 13,000-14,000 feet, you are going to feel the altitude! The only question is how it’s going to affect you – and, as they say about investments, “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.” Someone who’s been fine at altitude previously may have a sudden problem; others who’ve had problems before may experience no issues at all. Fitness level doesn’t seem to make a big difference.

You’ll probably be okay, but you will also experience some symptoms from the altitude: headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, etc. In rare cases, you may be incapacitated, at least for awhile. As you move higher, some of the symptoms may worsen – and do so rather suddenly. Your appetite may be affected and you may be nauseous.

There are plenty of things you can do to prepare for altitude and deal with the symptoms when problems happen. Most importantly, acclimatize in Cuzco for at least two days before doing anything strenuous. Avoid alcohol. Drink plenty of water. There’s a medication called Diamox that may help, and we found that coca tea (or chewing coca leaves or candy) also helps. BUT if your symptoms persist and/or worsen, descent may be your only option – particularly if you experience an intense headache, deep coughing or other symptoms of potentially more serious altitude sickness.


The Inca Trail is the most well known hike in Peru. The classic route takes four days and runs 45 km, starting 82 km from Cuzco on the railroad and ending at Machu Picchu. There are also shorter variations of one or two days, as well as a longer route.

We never even considered taking it. The government allows up to 500 people on the trail each day (including guides and porters) – and it’s usually sold out in high season. We had no desire to hike with that many people, especially considering that “the” Inca Trail is just one of dozens of Inca footpaths crisscrossing the Andes. Some smart people just happened to have named and promoted this one first. There are plenty of alternatives that are much less traveled and offer similar or better views, as well as other Incan ruins you can see along the way.

The “unless” applies if 1) you’re intimidated by the idea of travelling in a more remote region (even with a guide), 2) you want to meet plenty of people from countries other than Peru, and/or 3) you’re new to hiking (although you’d better be reasonably fit) and want to stick to the “tried and true.”



This is the trail we initially planned on taking. It’s a 5 day/4 night trek around Salkantay, a beautiful, snow-covered 6200 meter peak south of Machu Picchu. There’s a variation that connects with the Inca Trail but we were planning to take the more traditional route that ends in Aquas Calientes (the gateway town for Machu Picchu). We actually planned on doing it without a guide using this self-guided description we found on the web.
It seems Salkantay is starting to get quite popular as well (about 100 people per day) so we decided to switch to the Choquequirao trek instead. Note that there are rumors that the Peruvian government is going to implement an Inca Trail-like permit system for Salkantay due to overuse.


Choquequirao is an extensive Incan ruin, similar to Machu Picchu but only accessible via foot. We decided to visit this site before it becomes more accessible (the government is talking about a cable car or a train). Until recently, it could only be reached via a difficult two-day “in-and-out”  hike. The difficulty involves a 5,000 foot drop one day and then a 5,000 foot climb the next – which has to be reversed, of course, on the return trip. However, our guiding company – Apus Peru – has developed a new route that loops through an area called Huanipaca instead.

We signed up for this loop, but a landslide at the end of rainy season wiped out the new loop so we planned on doing the old in-and-out route. Then a landslide wiped out the one bridge accessing the Choquequirao area literally the day before we arrived, forcing us to switch to a completely different trek. It could be some time before the bridge is rebuilt, although the local community is working to build a cable car that may help make the area accessible this year. Visit the Apus Peru blog for updates.

Note that this trek doesn’t take you to Machu Picchu. You need to travel by car afterward to get there. Alternatively, you can take a much longer (seven-nine day) trek that winds up in Machu Picchu.

Our first view of Vitcos
Vilcabamba

This is the trek we ended up doing our first week: Vilcabamba to Machu Picchu. Vilcabamba is the Incan site that Hiram Bingham was looking for when he stumbled onto Machu Picchu. It’s where they made their “last stand” in the face of the Spanish conquistadors. It’s a fantastic hike that starts at two Incan ruins – Vitcos (a miniature version of Machu Picchu) and Ñustahispana (a sacred area) – and follows old Inca trails for much of its length over high mountain passes, by gorgeous alpine tarns, through cloud forest and high jungle. It’s four days to get to Aguas Calientes, starting with a long drive (6-7 hours) on the first day, and then a much shorter one-hour drive on the fourth day to get from the village of Yanatili to the hydroelectric plant on the Rio Urubamba, from where we hiked 10 km to Aguas Calientes along the railroad tracks.


This is another alternative we considered, one that appealed to me primarily because it has a strong cultural component. It involves traveling over a high mountain pass into some remote valleys where people live as they have for centuries. You’ll see Incan ruins, traditional markets and alpine flora and fauna.


View from Huaynapicchu
Machu Picchu: A “Can’t Miss”

Machu Picchu is heavily hyped as one of the most spectacular sights in the world – and it deserves every accolade, exceeding our very high expectations. If you go to Peru, you must go to Machu Picchu.

You’ll find tons of advice online so I’ll just give you a few brief pointers:
  • If you take the Inca Trail, you’ll hike into Machu Picchu, but otherwise there’s no reason to walk: take the bus. The only reason to hike is to experience the famous view from the Sun Gate, but all you need to do is walk 20-25 min. up the Inca Trail from Machu Picchu – then turn around!
  • You can hike up from Aguas Calientes, the gateway town below, but you won’t get in any earlier as the gates don’t open until 6 am when the first buses arrive – and it’ll be dark so you won’t see anything. Hiking back down could be fun, especially if there’s a long line for buses.
  • Get there early as the busiest time is the middle of the day (10 am-2 pm), once the first trains arrive from Cuzco. By early, I mean very early. The first bus leaves at 5:30 am. We were there at 5:05 am on a late-April day (i.e. early season) and there were a hundred people in front of us (although there are so many buses that we easily made it as the gates opened at 6 am).
  • Buy your tickets the day before.
  • Bring water (in your own bottle, nothing disposable) and food to avoid outrageous prices. Make sure you go back outside to eat: they don’t allow food on the site. You’ll need to go outside occasionally anyway to go to the bathroom.
  • Hike Huaynapicchu (which requires an extra ticket), the dramatic peak overlooking Machu Picchu in all the photos. The hike is not nearly as steep as it looks from the distance: it’s mostly stone stairs and most sections have hand railings. The top is a little more exposed but the views are extraordinary.
  • Either bring a really good guidebook or hire a guide. We had a guide as part of our trek, but there are official guides waiting at the entrance. I don’t know what they charge and from what I overheard, they seemed a little less knowledgeable than our guide, but there’s so much to learn about Machu Picchu and there is no information on the site itself so having expertise is highly valuable.
  • Take lots of time! We were there for six and a half hours.
  • Spent a bit of time in Aguas Calientes. It’s a kind of ramshackle tourist town but I found it rather charming in its own way, especially with its dozens of market stalls near the train station and the trains themselves running through the middle of town.
Awesome Ausengate
Domingo and I give Ausengate
a full score!

While Machu Picchu was the number one reason why we wanted to go to Peru, a close second was the Ausengate Circuit, based on what we heard (and the pictures we saw) from friends who’d gone a couple of years ago. It’s a spectacular alpine circuit around the sacred mountain of Ausengate (6300m) southeast of Cuzco. It takes five days, starting and ending in the small town of Tinqui, about two and a half hours from Cuzco by generally very good roads.

This is definitely a different beast from the other hikes mentioned above, and not just because it’s nowhere near Machu Picchu. For one, it’s considerably higher: we were generally between 15,500 and 16,000 feet but went through several passes that were higher, including one just over 17,000 feet. Secondly, it’s very remote. Third, the weather is extreme and changes quickly: it was below freezing most nights and we experienced everything from brilliant sun to hail to a snowstorm.

The rewards are amazing: constantly changing views of Ausengate and its associated peaks, glaciers and valleys; incredible geology; local people living the way they’ve lived since Incan times.


If you want to take the Inca Trail, you have no choice: you’re required to hire a guide. These requirements aren’t in place for other trails (yet) so you could, technically, do any hike without a guide. However, based on our experiences, I wouldn’t recommend doing most of these treks on your own. We might have been able to figure out the Vilcabamba trek – there were trail markings here and there – but Ausengate would have been next to impossible: no trail markings, dozens of ancient footpaths and herding trails, fog, snow and other weather issues. Maps are also hard to come by.

Having a guide helps ensure you won’t get lost, and it also gives you an opportunity to learn more about the local culture, environment, flora and fauna, history and archeology, etc. This is especially the case if you hire (as you should) a guide who speaks Quechua (the native language).


We likely would have hired a guide to show us around and carried everything ourselves, except that (as outlined below) we found Apus Peru and went for the full package: a guide, a cook (an assistant joined for our first week since there were five of us – we only had three the second week) and two muleteers with four-five horses. I’m glad we did! Except for my wife, we all ended up sucking wind or feeling crappy at one time or another, and that was with only carrying daypacks with clothes, food and water. It was a great relief knowing that we had an emergency horse available if necessary.

If you want to do a trek with guide only, I would be more than happy to put you in touch with either of the two guides we had through Apus: they were both outstanding and are available separately from Apus.


Finding a guide is easy: there are a gazillion agencies clustered along the side streets near Plaza des Armas in Cuzco. They all seem to offer the same tours, and although I didn’t look closely, I didn’t notice a huge variation in price. So you can potentially just show up and find a tour. Obviously it’s going to be tougher during high season and if I were planning on Machu Picchu/Inca Trail, I’d sure want to book in advance.

However, for the types of remote, high mountain treks we did, I wouldn’t just walk into a storefront kiosk and hire a guide. It’s vital to know something more about them. That requires reading guidebooks and poking around online. And for us, finding a good guiding company proved to be easy. Apus Peru is only four years old but is already recommended in Lonely Planet and gets great reviews online. They pay much more than lip service to the ideals of sustainable tourism. They are not as cheap as some of the other outfits, but they’re very inexpensive by North America or European standards. I’d have no hesitation at all about recommending them.

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