September 30, 2009

Trail of the Incas: a Unique Trial for the Modern Traveler.

So you´ve booked (or are considering) traveling along the Inca Trail, the ancient pathway that leads to the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. But after having searched the internet, talked to friends, read guide books, interrogated travel agents, and looked at the vast amount of conflicting and confusing information about the area, you´re still not entirely sure what you should expect and how you should prepare yourself for this journey. If you´re skeptical about blindly filling a backpack with motion-sickness pills, a spare flashlight bulb, a down-filled jacket, the ever-confusing combination of "lightweight pants" and thermal underwear--and as some websites have suggested, even universal snake-bite antidote--here are some reasonable guidelines to help you finish the hike with your muscles, clothes, and pride intact.
Please note that I´m not a professional hiker, tour guide, or local resident, simply a fellow traveler who wants to share what I´ve learned about this amazing region.

Basic facts about the Inca Trail:

1. Altitude! The trail is at a high altitude, reaching 4200 meters/13780 feet a.s.l. (above sea level) at the highest point. While various recommendations such as drinking a lot of water, sleeping a lot, avoiding Immodium (which is apparently a bad idea at altitude) and imbibing some of the local coca, there is no avoiding the fact that the only way to avoid altitude sickness is to give your body time to acclimatize. This is unfortunate since most travelers don´t have unlimited time, but any days you sacrifice to spend more pre-hike time at altitude letting your body adapt will be well worth it when you´re not panting and desperately gasping for air and strength...on the first day. You may feel completely fine before your hike and not feel any affects of the altitude whatsoever, but you might change your mind once you begin to reach much greater heights. It´s good to visit the surrounding (high altitude) area for a few days by touring Lake Titicaca (3810 m/12500ft a.s.l) or hanging out in nearby Cusco, a really great place and itself an impressive 3291m/10800ft a.s.l.

2. The Inca Trail (along with Machu Picchu) a protected site, and you can not hike it alone. You must hire an appropriately qualified guide to accompany you so if you´re one of those people (such as myself) who would prefer to save money and undertake the adventure of exploring on your own, the Inca Trail is unfortunately (or fortunately, considering that these rules exist for the protection of the area) not a place where independent exploration is possible.

3. You will need documentation and permits well in advance -as early as 6 months in advance, according to some operators- as the trail is very popular and fills up early (the checkpoint officials are quite strict about this, and have apparently been known to refuse hikers entry due to glitches in paperwork). Details on paperwork are apparently almost impossible to change, so don´t book until you know the exact date and group you want to travel with. And please don´t book with anyone who is not clearly reputable - tourism is an appealing place for swindlers to operate, and the Inca Trail is no exception.

4. Hired porters generally carry everything you don´t put into your daypack, but this is usually limited to about 6-8 kilos or so per hiker. This may not seem like much, but most of your items will be needed in your daypack (such as sunscreen, bug repellant, and toilet paper) so your porter-carried duffel bag should just hold some toiletries, a sleeping bag, perhaps a sleeping mat, and possibly an extra pair of shoes and some spare socks. Keep in mind that the porters are also carrying gear such as tents, cooking supplies, food, etc. and while they´re technically limited to carrying 25 kilos each, stories abound of porters carrying 50 kilos or more before the new regulations were put into place - and even now, there is no guarantee that regulations always equal perfect compliance. So when a porter passes by you - often at a shockingly high speed that makes one´s own slow tourist steps seem that much more sluggish - move to the 'mountain' side as they go by (bascially whichever side of the trail is closest to the mountain, rather than the side that faces a cliff or gulley).

5. Coca! Peru loves to share and advocate coca leaves, which can be somewhat shocking to a traveler who is wondering what exactly this is. Here are a few facts about coca leaves.
- Coca leaves are not from the cocoa (chocolate) plant; they are, indeed, the leaves from which cocaine can be produced.
- Chewing coca leaves does not get you high. It has a mildly stimulating effect similar to caffeine, but does not result in the jittery, nervous 'crash' that can result from caffeine, appears to have no side effects, and seems to be entirely non-addictive.
- Coca won´t interact negatively with most medications, but you should check with a doctor before combining with medication if you are concerned about possible negative interactions.
- Little official research exists about coca but its use is widespread in Peru - however, it is illegal in almost every other country in the world (so don´t send or take any home as a souvenir!) and could potentially interfere with the results of drug testing since it does contain cocaine alkaloids.
- I do not condone the consumption of any drug, whether of coca, caffeine or any other substance unless it is within your own personal comfort level; I simply wish to clarify some misconceptions about this very common regional habit and to clarify that coca is not identical to cocaine.
- Coca consumption is a wide topic, and everyone has their own personal techniques and processes for ingesting it (not to mention the vast array of coca toffees, cookies, candies, lollipops available).
A basic description of chewing coca leaves is as follows:
1. Many people begin by offering three of the best leaves to Pachamama (Pachamama can be simplistically described as "Mother Earth") and if this clashes with your religious or spiritual beliefs, understand that the Peruvian people are seeking to respect and honour the earth and give thanks for what it provides. Even if you choose not to participate in this ritual, please respect the sacred nature of this act and its importance to the process for many people (this is similarly demonstrated by Peruvians who offer the first, best drink of their beverage to Pachamama before taking any themselves - although for obvious reasons this usually occurs when they are drinking outdoors).
2. Two or three leaves (for beginners, as long-time coca chewers may take significantly more) are rolled or folded and placed in the cheek, not chewed like gum. [Drier leaves are more inconvenient since they crumble easily, and for this reason I´d personally advise purchasing leaves that are not extremely dry.]
3. These leaves remain there for a few minutes and once they are soft, they are gently crushed between the teeth, the juice is swallowed, and they remain in the cheek as this is repeated as long as they remain somewhat intact.
4. The spiritual nature of chewing dictates that some guidebooks recommend that when you have finished chewing you should "respectfully deposit the remainder on the ground", which I take to mean that you should avoid spitting it out violently or rudely.
5. Many coca chewers use an activator to emphasize the affects, which comes in many forms and can look like a tiny piece of cement, black tar, or a small pebble. A small amount is placed in the center of the leaves as they are chewed, but I have personally found that this simply creates an unpleasant numbing sensation I would rather avoid.
6. Also, as my travel companions have noted with much amusement, chewing a lot of coca can leave a bit of green color on your lips unless you are careful to frequently wipe it off. Be prepared to check your lips every so often - or have a friend do so - if you wish to avoid making an unintentional fashion statement.

I´ve tried to simplify the primary questions you need to ask yourself when packing/preparing for the Inca Trail:

1. Am I going in the dry season, or the wet season? What does it matter?
- The dry season (April to October) has good hiking conditions but can be quite hot (although it still gets very cold at night).
- The wet season (November to May) can be considerably colder and obviously, wetter, and the stonework on the trail can be quite slippery (you may want to consider using trekking poles for this reason, although the tips are not permitted to be sharp at any time of year because they can significantly damage the trail and must consequently be covered).

2. What type of shoes do I need to bring?
- Most people recommend proper hiking shoes with good ankle support. My advice, however, is as follows:
1. Obviously, as with any outdoor activity, do NOT wear new shoes. Break them in as much as possible before you arrive - your feet will thank you later.
2. Get shoes with good traction (grip). Even if you´re hiking in the dry season and the path won´t be really slippery, there are many places where you need to scramble between boulders, move slowly up or down steep steps, or just walk on smooth stones that have been polished by the thousands of feet that have come before yours, and in all these cases you will want to be able to trust that your shoes won´t give out on you.
3. In the dry season, I would recommend shoes that breathe and in the wet season, ones that will keep out water. Whether or not you prefer extra ankle support (I just wore mesh tennis shoes in the dry season and was thrilled with their performance), it is wise not to take heavy, clunky shoes or boots that will feel like lead weights after the first 7 hours of hiking. Comfort is important, particularly when you will have restricted weight limits and probably won´t have too many alternate shoes to switch into, so use your instincts (unless your instincts tell you to take flip-flops or slippers - in that case, select a sensible friend and use their instincts).

3. What kind of clothing do I actually need to take?                
While all your clothing must be comfortable and suited to hiking, your needs will be simple - in the early mornings and at night it is very cold, and in the daytime it is very hot. You either need to bring two complete sets of clothing - one for cold, one for heat - that you can carry in your daypack and switch between when you take a break, or multiple layers you can add or remove whenever appropriate. Personally, what worked for me was to wear a layer of light clothing (since midday, at least in the dry season, you´ll be desperate to cool down), and a bunch of warm layers on top of that. Obviously a lot of people recommend long johns/thermal underwear, but I wouldn´t recommend wearing any warm layers UNDER the cool ones, because changing on the trail isn´t particularly easy (or private), and the hiking is difficult enough that you will soon start to sweat and overheat. And the last thing you want is to stop at the side of the trail and try removing long johns from under light pants - or worse, simply changing on the pathway. You may, however, want to wear these warm pants (fleece is excellent in this capacity) while you sleep since it can be quite cold, and if it´s the wet season you may need a spare pair of pants since it is virtually impossible to dry anything on the trail at any time of year.

4. Do I need a walking stick?
Most groups are solidly split on this question. Walking sticks can provide extra support and traction in rough terrain, but they can also shift your center of gravity (since they´re essentially an extra leg or two) and can be dangerous if they slip or break while you´re leaning on them. You may want them in the wet season for extra support, but please note that the tips must always be soft or covered to avoid damaging the trail.
- If you try out walking sticks at home, try them on a variety of terrian such as on stairs, up and down hills, or even to climb park benches (although if you lack the courage to go hiking at the bus stop, try climbing on to a chair at home). Basically, the more awkward, the better. The vast majority of the trail is one tediously long, slow, upward climb, but there are also a number of steep staircases (both up and down) as well as oddly-placed boulders to scramble over, and a walking stick could be most useful at these moments.
*Quick note - adjustable walking sticks can be helpful because the trail varies so much from place to place. It can be helpful to have a slightly longer stick(s) when walking downhill and slightly shorter when going uphill, and to be able to make other adjustments as conditions present themselves.

**A lot of details depend on whether you book into a tour (and the quality of the tour you choose) or simply hire a guide. If you travel with a tour group you might arrive at each campsite to find tents, inflated sleeping pads, your extra gear, food, and some hot tea waiting for you, or you might be stuck providing a lot of these things yourself. It is important to contact your tour operator or guide to find out the specifics, such as whether you need to bring your own sleeping bag, sleeping pad, or any other gear they don´t supply.

That´s all fairly basic. What other stuff do I absolutely need - and why?
Some things are optional, but here is a list of the things that you will NEED and will probably end up kissing in gratitude (or at least thinking of fondly) before the trip is over.

1. A head lamp/flashlight. I STRONGLY recommend you bring a head lamp, which can either be held in your hand or worn on your head (these are always available in Cusco at relatively reasonable prices). The bathrooms on the trail - although "bathroom" is euphamistically kind and you will undoubtedly soon develop your own private, unkind names for them - are extremly limited at best. They are almost all small buildings comprised of several stalls, but the toilets either consist of a squat toilet (a flat porcelain fixture on the ground with a hole= or a Western-style toilet with no seat. Either way, this is not a place you enter without courage. Even if they flush and the door shuts - perhaps even locks - there are no lights in the stalls, meaning that without your trusty headlamp you must either attempt to attach your flashlight to the wall or ceiling (not recommended) or - even less recommended - try to hold it as you perform various bathroom tasks. It is a challenging enough task without the added problem of lighting - save yourself the hassle and get a headlamp. It is not as simple as running off into the bush instead of using the toilets, either, because at the campsites people spread out over a large area and therefore reaching a private area can prove to be nearly impossible.

2. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and baby wipes.
This leads to the issue of bathroom use in general. First, there are NO showers, soap or toilet paper on the trail. At many points vendors wait by the path to sell you toilet paper and tissue, but I would not advise relying on them alone considering how unpleasant it would be if you didn´t reach them in time or discovered that you had no money. Considering the state of the toilets, you will go through much more paper than you would have ever thought possible, particularly if your stomach is being rebellious (note that as in the majority of Peru, your used paper is put into a garbage bin rather than in the toilet. If this digusts you, consider how much more disgusting it would be to have one of these rarified toilets back up and overflow. So just accept it as an unpleasant reality, and use the garbage rather than the toilet). Hand sanitizer is essential for general handwashing, and baby wipes provide a nice substitute for a shower (and demonstrate with disturbing clarity just how dusty and dirty you have mysteriously become during the day).

3. Hat, sunscreen and bug repellant.
The trail is at a high altitude and the sun is consequently quite powerful, so sunscreen is an obvious necessity (preferably along with a hat). However, the bug repellant is just as important, and must be applied at the beginning of the trail. The mosquitos and other bugs are vicious but inobtrusive, so by the time you feel the bites it´s already too late. Apply early and often, and you should be fine. *A note about sunscreen and bug repellant - sunscreen should be applied first, with a waiting period of about 20 minutes that will allow it to penetrate the skin before repellant is added.*

4. A waterproof bag(s).
Even in the dry season, one good rain can ruin all your hopes of staying dry and warm. And trust me, things do NOT dry out in the tents. While the porters generally keep all your other belongings safe and dry, anything on your person that could get wet should be protected, and if it could possibly rain, put all your belongings into this bag as you sleep so they don´t get pushed toward the tent wall and become wet.

5. Rain protection.
Regardless of the time of year, you will need some kind of rain gear because it can rain at any time and even a short rainfall can soak you remarkably quickly. In the dry season a cheap, plastic poncho should suffice but in the wet season you may want something more substantial (although you may not; many people happily complete the trail in either season with just an inexpensive, compact poncho).

If you´re thinking ¨Help! I´ve never been camping in any way, shape or form ... what is this really going to be like?¨, here are some quick tips on camping etiquette and practices.

1. Remove your shoes/wet pants when you enter the tent. This seems quite obvious, but when you´re exhausted and figuring out how to best maneouver into your tent after a long day of hiking and braving the toilets, your shoes might not be the first thing on your mind. You can then bring them inside and place them on a bag or something similar (which is advisable on the trail since so many people are sharing such a small area), but when you enter your tent you´re essentially stepping/sitting on your bed, so you will want to keep it as clean as possible.

2. When it´s raining-or even drizzling-do not touch your tent walls, and make sure your belongings aren´t leaning against the walls either. Touching them even lightly may allow condensation or rain to seep into your tent, and you might then wake up in a freezing puddle of water. I would advise that you place your personal items into a waterproof bag and place it either at your feet or your head (keeping particularly valuable items inside your sleeping bag with you, since the campsites are full of a large number of people you don´t know) unless there is enough room on either side of you to keep them at least a few inches from the sides of the tent.

3. Hiking - and camping - can be very very dirty. Again, very obvious, but worth repeating. Regardless of how many baby wipes you use, you will likely be very dirty for the entire trip and daily activities such as thoroughly washing your face or putting on makeup (which is not a particularly easy or necessary task at any point on the trail) become monumentally challenging. There are NO facilities where you can wash yourself or your clothes (the little streams on the side of the trail don´t count, and you certainly don´t want to be putting soap or chemicals into them anyway), so just accept that being dusty and grimy is part of the experience - and you can be assured that everyone else around you will be equally unwashed. And hey, it (usually) doesn´t show up in the photos.

4. Obviously, food varies greatly depending on who is providing and preparing it. If you require something specific, such as vegan or gluten-free options, contact your operator to see if this is possible. Aside from vendors selling gatorade, water, snacks and occasionally some shockingly pepto-bismol-pink corn beverage along the trail, expect to eat either what is provided by your group or what you personally bring with you.

You may also be wondering whether or not you are physically capable of completing the hike - particularly as most tour organizers specify that the hike is achievable by anyone who is "reasonably fit". While there are a huge number of steps, stairs and inclines involved in this route, the vast majority of it consists of simply plodding along for a few long days, often slightly uphill, rather than scaling stone fortresses or scrambling up forbidding hillsides. There is a certain amount of tricky footwork involved - it just doesn´t make up the majority of the hike. One unexpectedly challenging element is the large number of long, downhill stairways (comprised of crafted stone steps) that can require careful navigating. Some of them are quite steep (and at many points seem frustratingly endless), so if you have problems hiking downhill you may want to bring trekking poles, a support to lean on (I find that relatives work best, especially siblings), or simply travel with a group that is willing to wait for an incredibly long time as you carefully work your way down.

Keep a good attitude, arrive early enough to acclimatize to the altitude, expect that at some point your personal mantra will become ¨please..  no...  more.....  stairs¨, and don´t forget to tip your guide and porters - they´re making the same trek, but with a huge pack on their backs and usually, a smile on their faces.