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Weary and wonder-struck on the Inca Trail

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julia dimon/for metro toronto


The view from the top is the ruins of Machu Picchu.





julia dimon/for metro toronto


A hiker takes his time climbing a steep rock face.





Peru’s world famous Inca Trail annually draws thousands of curious hikers looking to retrace the steps of ancient civilizations. I was one of them.


Huffing and puffing, I sweated my way to the top of the famous ruins of Machu Picchu.


The journey along the Inca Trail was awesome. It was a four-day, over 40 km hike that wound along a terrain of multiple personalities: sheer cliffs, misty cloud forests, lush jungles and nosebleed-inducing mountain peaks. The scenery was stunning, the ruins historic but the actual hike, well, it was a real workout.


Armed with a bamboo walking stick, I slowly climbed steep rock faces. Glutes burning, I took frequent breaks, stopping to join clusters of out-of-breath backpackers collapsed along the trail’s sidelines. Beaten by Mother Earth’s natural StairMaster, I was pooped. I guzzled big gulps of water and ate Snickers bars for a quick energy boost.


Roger Salas, a certified guide who has hiked the trail over 100 times, explained that hike difficulty depends on a number of factors: your prior hiking experience, the amount of weight carried on your back and your overall ability to acclimatize to the altitude.


“You never know how your body is going to react in this kind of altitude,” Roger warned. “Some people get sick, so it’s best to take it slow and ease your body into it.”


For hiking inspiration, trekkers looked to the porters. Part super-humans, these amazing and painfully underpaid Peruvian porters are hired to carry all camping equipment, prepare the tents and cook.


Hunched over, a junk pile of camping goods tied to their backs, porters scurry along the trail with incredible speed. Despite worn-out rubber sandals and huge weight strapped to their bodies, porters can whiz past even the most athletic of trekkers.


Once at camp, after a long day of hiking, the weary trekker will be rewarded with a plentiful spread of tasty treats and loose-leaf cocoa tea, a drink that helps with acclimatization.


For those planning a trip to Machu Picchu, here are a few things you’ll need:




  • Charged camera batteries, as there is no electricity along the trail.



  • Quick-dry T-shirts, hiking boots, extra shoes, lots of socks, a flashlight and fleece for those cold early mornings.



  • Money, because even in the wilderness, consum­erism finds a way. Bring cash for necessities: Tips (a suggested group total of $15 per porter, $20 for the head chef and $25 for the guide); an extra porter to carry your personal belongings for the day ($15) and a well-deserved cold Cuscena beer ($2).



  • Passport, as you must present your passport at entry and exit checkpoints along the trail. Use a zip-lock bag to protect valuable documents from moisture.



  • Toilet paper, for the many smelly outhouses.



  • Walking stick, a thin bamboo shoot (sold for $1 at the trail base) helps take the pressure off your knees as you descend thousands of steep steps.



  • Since independent camping along the Inca Trail isn’t allowed, travellers must book a tour with a certified agency. There are many local tour operators located in the quaint city of Cuzco.

    An all-inclusive four-day group treks generally includes: Transportation to and from Cuzco, trail fees, camping equipment (tent and sleeping mat), porter services, food and a guided tour of Machu Picchu. When choosing a tour operator, make sure they treat their cooks and porters fairly.



  • Sleeping bags, backpacks, ponchos and other camping gear can be rented for only a few dollars a day near the Plaza De Armas in Cuzco.



  • Book your trip early! The best but busiest time to hike the Inca Trail is during high season (April-October), when the weather is dry. The trail is closed in February for renovations.



If the Inca Trail is fully booked or if you crave off-the-beaten-track exploration, there are alternative trails in the area that can be hiked independ­ently.





Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an on-line magazine for the young and restless traveller. She can be reached at
www.thetraveljunkie.ca
.

 
 
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