The Inca Trail
What is the Inca Trail? The Inca Trail, or the Camino del Inca, is a network of Inca roads that crisscross the Inca empire. While there are thousands of kilometers of roads, a single segment through the Andes Mountains from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, the best restored and most popular hiking route, is usually referred to as the Inca Trail. Ruins are lined up throughout the trail like a connect the dots puzzle. It is the center of the 127 square mile national park, the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. The zone is filled with great views of mountains, cloud forests, wildlife, and Inca ruins. The park is home to the very rare Andean spectacled bear (which you will not likely see), more than four hundred species of birds, and a plethora of orchids and other plants. It is a very scenic trip and the one that the Quechua people took to the ruins as well. It was the highway of sorts to Machu Picchu.
The trail itself is 43km (27miles) of almost continuous stone stairs. More than 70,000 people each year make the trip, making it the most popular trail on the continent and one of the most popular in the world. This has lead to a series of new regulations aimed at preserving the trail and improving the quality of the trek for everyone on it for years to come. The new regulations were established in 2002, to try to combat some of the over use of the trail that had been going on for far too long. Since that has happened, prices gone up and availability has gone down. However, with the added difficulties, many believe it had to be done.
The Latest Inca Trail Regulations
- An increased entrance fee from $50 to $60. Porters must pay $12 each. For the shorter trail the fee is just $25. Students and children also receive a discount.
- There are only 500 permits issued per day for the trail. This equals about 200 trekkers and 300 guides, porters, cooks, etc. Although this seems like a lot, during the high season they are sold out 2 or 3 months in advance. Permits are sold on a first come first serve basis. During the rest of the year it is definitely a good idea to reserve a month or two in advance.
- A licensed guide must now accompany trekkers. The size of the group must be no more than 16 people and for groups with more than 8, there must be 2 guides.
- Pets and pack animals such as llamas and horses are not allowed on the trail.
- In April 2002 a new law was introduced to set a minimum wage for all porters on the Inca Trail after years of mistreatment. This has followed years of exploitation. This wage is about US$10 per day and yet many companies still try and pay less. That is why tipping is absolutely necessary. The maximum weight that a porter can carry is now 25kg (20kg load + 5kg personal items), and this is checked at a weigh station prior to the start of the trail.
- The Trail will be closed each February for conservation projects to be undertaken as well as giving the vegetation a chance to recover. It is also the wettest month of the year. Other treks remain open, however.
- The UGM (Unidad de Gestion Machu Picchu) now requires companies that arrange treks to meet certain basic requirements proving that they have professional guides and good camping equipment, radio communications and emergency first aid including oxygen. Licenses are renewed each year.
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Tipping on the Inca Trail What to tip is a good question to ask on the trail. Considering the porters generally come from very poor areas, and make very little on the trail for very hard work, a tip is important. The new regulations have set a minimum wage for porters, although many companies still get by paying less. With that said, the less you pay for the trek, the less the porters are going to be paid. If you pay something around $250, I can almost assure you your porters are getting the short end of the walking stick. As for tipping, if each person on the trek gives say a few dollars each, to each porter per day which will amount to say $25-35 total, it will make a big differenced in the lives of these individuals, who are going days without seeing their families to carry most of your belongings and equipment. If you are concerned about the treatment of the porters and would like more information, contact the Inka Porter Project or through the SAE clubhouse in Cuzco).
What to Pack on the Inca Trail:
- Bug Spray
- Hiking shoes
- Tent (most likely included)
- Canteen (plastic water bottles are not allowed)
- Sleeping bag
- Plenty of layers of clothes
- Hat, gloves
- Water purification tablets or drops
- Basic First Aid
- High-energy snacks such as candy bars, power bars, etc.
- A little bit of cash for things that can be bought on the trail such as snacks, drinks, and for tips
Tips on Choosing an Inca Trail Tour Operator:
- Always get in writing what your tour includes such as equipment and even the type of food that will be served.
- Check with several agencies to get an idea of prices, and value. Some may vary greatly and agencies sometimes pool their clients together, even if they have paid different amounts.
- See what the company does the help preserve the trail and what precautions they may take.
The Inca Trail Day by Day
Day 1: The Inca Trail begins at the town of Qorihuayrachina, or as is more commonly known and easier said: Km 88 of the Ollantaytambo-Aguas Caliente railroad. Prior, you will have been picked up at your hotel by bus and traveled for 3.5 hours to this point. You will first cross the Vilcanota River and follow the trail as it climbs up. You will pass through a small village and then come to the ruins of the Inca hill fort of Huillca Raccay. From here you walk downhill to the Cusichaca river. The next 7 km follow the left bank of the river to the village of Wayllabamba where you will set up camp. Total Distance: 12 km.
Day 2: From Wayllabamba you climb up for about 3 hours to Llulluchapampa (3,680 meters), a meadow. From here you walk another hour and a half to the Abra de Huarmihuañusca (4200 meters), or Dead Woman's Pass, the highest pass of the trail. This is one of the most difficult legs of the entire trek and is not uncommon to be raining or even snowing down on tired trekkers. The trail descends to the valley floor to Pacamayo (3600 meters) where you will set up camp. Total Distance: 11 Km
Day 3: In the morning you climb for about an hour to the circular ruins of Runkuracay. Another 45 minutes takes you to another pass Abra de Runkuracay (4,000m). An hour later you come to Sayamarca, which means “Inaccesible town” in Quechua. The path descends even lower into the cloud forest. You will notice the flora and fauna become more exotic with orchids, ferns, and mosses becoming more frequent. You will also pass through an Inca made tunnel, carved right into the rock. As expected you must climb back up to the third pass (3700 meters) of the trail where you will have clear views of the mountains of Salkantay and Veronica. Soon after you will come to Phuyupatamarca, which means “town in the clouds” and is the site of an impressive ruin. To see the ruins you must climb down a steep set of stairs, passing a series of Ina baths. To leave you must climb down roughly one thousand steps, which are definitely hard on the knees so take care. Another few hours of walking brings you to Wiñay Wayna, your camping area for the night and also the site of a small hostel, which is always full. Here you can take a shower, grab a bite to eat, use a real toilet, and even sip on a beer. There are some ruins here as well as beer, mainly comprising of agricultural terraces and several stone buildings. Total Distance: 16 Km
Day 4: From here you wake up bright (many leave by 4:30am) and early to begin the trail that will lead to Machu Picchu before sunrise. The sun starts to clear the mountains by 7am, although it begins to lighten by 6am. The final leg is a nearly vertical ascension of 50 stairs to Intipunku, the Sun Gate. After that, the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu will be before you in all of its glory. You can stay the night in the town of Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo in the valley below, or catch a train back to Cuzco that day. Total Distance: 6km.
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