Newest Review: ... lack of sleep and a little from the hike so I headed to bed as day 2 was said to be the heardest day and I wanted to feel as fresh as po... more
An Inca Trail through the Inca Heartland
The Inca Trail (South America)
Member Name: silverbird44
The Inca Trail (South America)
Advantages: Beautiful scenery, interesting history, a lovely experience
Disadvantages: Busy, and bears some scars from former misuse
The kingdom of the Incas, one of the great ancient kingdoms of South America, sprawled over a vast part of that continent between 1200 and the mid 1400s. Like any large country, infrastructure and communication were crucial for the Inca rulers in maintaining control - a problem exacerbated by the mountainous nature of much of the Inca terrain. To solve this problem, the Incas built a huge network of trails, over which chasquis (messengers) would carry information or goods. These chains of chasquis could cover incredible distances - it is claimed that fish from the port of Nazca could travel the 250 mountainous kilometres to Cusco in under 24 hours. It is the remains of one of these famous track, running from Wayllabamba to the famous Machu Picchu, that forms the basis of the modern Inca Trail trekking route.
The Inca Trail is in the high Andes of southern Peru. The nearest major city is Cusco: from talking to other walkers on the trek, it seems that those coming specifically to walk the trail will first fly into Lima and subsequently take an internal flight to Cusco airport. Depending on your tour company, there are connections into Cusco from such places as Lake Titicaca or from Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon (our own route), or for the very brave it is possible to travel into Cusco overland, although you will need to be with a recognised group to access the trail itself. The trail is approximately 40km long, or three and a half days.
The attraction that has made the Inca Trail such a famous walk is Machu Picchu, the so called 'lost city of the Incas'. 'Lost' in this respect is a subjective term, as the city was known to the local people long before explorer Hiram Bingham returned it to the attention of the outside world. The remoteness of this site, the scale, the majesty and the beauty of the surrounding mountains, all combine to make it worth walking four days for, especially if as we did you are travelling with a knowledgeable guide.
A word of warning, however, so that you do not experience the culture shock that I did. Arrival at Machu Picchu is a wonderful moment - the tourist brochure version is that you will reach the Sun Gate above the city and look down on it as the sun rises, but even if like us you walk through an hour of Peruvian down pour and see it grow eerily out of the morning clouds, it is still a joyous moment. However, once the day settles on to Machu Picchu, so do the rest of the tourists. There are those on the short Inca trail, and those who have come by train and bus, and although it would be deeply hypocritical of me to complain about other tourists (!), walkers should be prepared for the sudden crowds after the comparative loneliness of the trail. Still, this is a bad point to do with people, and not to do with the spectacle itself.
The Other Inca Sites
As well as Machu Picchu there are several other well preserved Inca sites along the route. I won't give too much information, as part of the pleasure is the surprise of an ancient ruin creeping up on you out of the cloud forest: enough is to give a few tasters of what you could expect. There is a valley entirely full of terraced fields: an ancient temple looking up into the glaciated mountains above (where our tour guide mock sacrificed my sister - all good fun!): and a building cut into a mountain, with a staircase so steep that you feel as though you are falling even when standing still.
What else can you see?
History is wonderful, but it is an interest that some do not share and that is best taken in small doses. Because of this, it is good that the Inca Trail also offers many other aspects. The first of these is the mountain scenery. You travel in the course of your walk through rainforest, cloud forest and high mountain ridges with panoramic views tumbling away on all sides. There is one moment (I'm afraid I can't remember the exact location) where you can stand on the edge of a spit of land, not another step's worth of ground before you, and feel us though you are flying into the forested mountains beyond.
Of course, as a zoology student my reviews would not be complete without a mention of wildlife, and here the Peruvian Andes have incredible richness. We were told that such zoological giants as Spectacled Bears and Condors have been seen in the region, but for me the first brightly jewelled hummingbird flying past our camp was quite kick enough. Over the next few days, we saw many more hummingbirds and the special treat of a mountain caracara, one of the most charismatic birds of prey. I'm afraid I have no expertise in plants, but one of my fellow walkers told me that the orchids were beautiful, and the moss lined cloud forests were unforgettable.
This is not what I would describe as a hard walk: but then, it is also not what I would describe as an easy one. The second day has an ascent equivalent to climbing Ben Nevis from sea level, and there is a second reasonably sized ascent on the third day. However, path quality is good and it is pretty impossible to get lost. Difficulty also depends on how you chose to walk. Those carrying their own tents will obviously need better fitness that softies like us who have porters! (The porters, by the way, are some of the most incredible people you will ever meet). I would say that if you are an experienced walker, or if you believe yourself to have a good level of fitness, then you should have no problems completing this walk.
The only factor that could scupper even the fittest of walkers is the altitude at Dead Woman's Pass, which is 4200 and over the altitude sickness threshold. My advice would be the same as that of all good tour companies: acclimatise in Cusco for a few days, and do not linger too long on the high point. Unless you are very unlucky, then you should have no problems.
A few bad points
Most of the above consists of the benefits of the trail. However, the Inca Trail is not Utopia - where there are large amounts of people, there will always a few problems. Until a few years ago the trail had been so mismanaged that there was a risk of permanent damage to the ecosystems, and traces of this damage are still evident. Also, even with quotes imposed on tourists, the trail is still frighteningly busy for those used to quieter treks. It is very difficult to catch a moment alone. Walk this trail expecting to share your experience with a lot of others.
How do I start?
Should this have persuaded you that you do want to walk the trail, I would suggest first looking around for tour operators, as you will need their support to begin the trail. Our own company, Llama Travel, were very good, even if the groups were a little large, and should you wish to visit other parts of Peru at the same time they were helpful in building a personal package. However, I can only speak for the one group, and it is always best to look around as much as possible.
In conclusion, I would definitely suggest that you walk the Inca Trail should you have the opportunity. I hope to go back to the region as soon as possible: but if I do manage to return, then I would like to look at some of the quieter trails in the region. I don't know that I would choose to walk this trail again - it was perhaps a little too busy. But for an introduction to the Andes, and to the Incas, I would definitely recommend the Inca Trail. It is an experience that you will not forget.
Summary: A beautiful introduction to the Peruvian Andes