Most travelers to Peru think there is just one option for trekking to Machu Picchu—the four-day Inca Trail hike—but now there are at least four ways to hike to the Inca citadel. The following treks are the best ways to make a pilgrimage to the lost city of the Inca.
Planning the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is the only trek in Peru where all trekkers must hike with a licensed guide and where there is a limit of 500 people per day. These rules are a result of the Inca Trail’s popularity and the impact that tens of thousands of trekkers have had on its stone trail and the surrounding ecosystem. For the Inca Trail, your only option is to sign up with a licensed agency—and sign up early, as the Inca Trail fills up six months or more ahead of time.
As a result of these new rules, Inca Trail prices have increased from as low as US$90 in 2000 to a minimum of US$500 today. Local agencies no longer offer last-minute Inca Trail trips; bookings are now done almost exclusively online as the trail’s licensed operators have to confirm all reservations several months in advance. Check the official departure availability. If a date you want is already booked, it’s still worth checking with agencies, as they often have cancellations.
Planning Other Treks
Any other trek in Peru, including the Salcantay alternative route to Machu Picchu, has a couple of planning options. The easiest, and most expensive, is to sign up with a reputable agency and let it take care of all the details. But you can also custom-design a trip and then hire an agency to take care of logistics such as transport, food, lodging, porters, cooks, and certified guides.
If you can find a reliable trekking or climbing guide, available for US$80-110 per day, he or she can organize all these details for you for an extra fee. Or you can do it all on your own, which is complicated to negotiate properly but possible if you speak Spanish and are experienced at trekking.
When to Go
The traditional trekking season in Peru is May-August, but the best weather is June and July. Avoid the last week in July, when Peru’s hotels are often booked solid for the Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) celebration around July 28.
On the Inca Trail, you will encounter fewer people during the months of April, May, September, and October. These shoulder months are the best times to trek in Peru, as they are outside of both the rainiest months (November-March) and the busiest tourist months (June-August). April and May, and even March if you don’t mind an occasional rainstorm, are especially scenic because the rainy season has just ended and the highlands are lush and green.
Plan for at least 3-4 days to acclimatize before heading out on a trek anywhere in Andean Peru. The Inca Trail has two passes of approximately 4,000 meters, and you will tackle these far better if you are physically ready to do so.
Acclimatize by sleeping low and hiking high. A great way to acclimatize in the Cusco area is to spend your first few days in the Sacred Valley and then hike up out of the valley floor from places like Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo.
Agencies and Guides
The motto “you get what you pay for” is especially true when it comes to hiring a trekking agency or guide. Go with an established, well-recommended agency. If you skimp on an agency, you can be guaranteed the agency will either skimp on you (poor food, no bathroom tent), the porters (low wages, no health care), or the environment (pit latrines, no regard for Leave No Trace principles).
On Your Own
There are other reasons to hire a porter: It is a great cultural experience, helps the local economy, and makes your trip safer.Because of the altitude, most groups end up hiring a porter (mule driver) who carries loads on donkeys or llamas. It’s hard to enjoy the scenery while hiking with a full pack at Peru’s altitudes, no matter how fit you are. There are other reasons to hire a porter: It is a great cultural experience, helps the local economy, and makes your trip safer—porters often know the routes as well (or better) than a mountain guide, provide evacuation support, and can serve as camp guards.
Porters will expect you to pay their wages the day that they return to the main town, usually the day after the end of your trek. This means that for a four-day trek, you will pay the porter five days of wages.
Groups usually hire a cook, too. Peru’s cooks pack in fruit, vegetables, sacks of rice, and often a live chicken or two. Pay the people you hire fairly and treat them with respect. You are their employer, so you are ultimately responsible for their health and safety. These are some standard daily wages: US$10 for a porter and US$8 for every mule, US$15 for camp guardian, US$25 for a porter, and US$25-30 for a cook. Also, you are expected to provide shelter and food for your cook and porters.
If you are on your own, you will have to negotiate the entry and grazing fees that Andean communities increasingly charge trekking groups that pass through their lands. The fees change rapidly and, in general, are relatively minor. Grazing fees are generally around US$2-5 per horse. Enquire with an agency about fees ahead of time.
Maps and Gear
The best place to get maps is the South American Explorers Club in Cusco (Pardo 847, tel. 084/24-5484) or in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima (Enrique Palacios 956, tel. 01/444-2150).
Most people who are trekking or climbing on their own bring all their own gear, but high-quality equipment can be rented for affordable prices in Cusco and Huaraz. Email agencies ahead of time for reservations and prices.
Peru’s tropical sun is intense, so bring strong sunscreen, a sun hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and a long-sleeved shirt. Most trekkers use trekking poles for descending the scree slopes and steep trails. The weather is cold, but extreme storms are rare in the dry months from May to September. Bringing plenty of layers, including waterproof ones, is essential. On most Peru treks, sleeping bags rated for 0°F and thermal long underwear or fleece pants are fine.
Pretty much all supplies, with the exception of freeze-dried food, are available in markets in Cusco. You’ll find pasta, powdered soup, cheese, powdered milk, beef jerky, dried fruit, and more. White gas (bencina blanca) is sold at hardware stores along Calle Plateros in Cusco and at numerous places in Huaraz and Caraz. Get a shop recommendation from an agency or gear store to ensure you find the highest quality gas, and fire up your stove before you go to make sure everything works. Remember that airlines sometimes reject travelers with camp stoves and fuel bottles that have been previously used. It’s best to travel with a new stove and bottles, if at all possible.
Hazards and Precautions
While the vast majority of trekkers to the Cusco and Huaraz areas never encounter any safety threats, the more popular trekking areas have seen an increase in theft. If you leave your camp for a day hike, make sure to leave behind a camp guardian, such as a porter. Minimize the impact of theft by bringing the minimum of valuables and only enough cash for the duration of your trek.
The main hazards of trekking in Peru, however, are straightforward: sun, altitude, and cold. If you protect yourself from the sun, acclimatize properly, and have the right gear, you will have a great time.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Machu Picchu.