Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Top 10 Inca Trail insights

Since I returned from my fabulous South American adventure, I've had several requests from people considering doing the same trip and asking for hints, tips and advice.  So to save myself a few emails, here 'tis :)

Language
My Inca Trail tour was booked for me by a travel agency, via a company called Lima Tours.  No complaints, the tour went off without a hitch, guides were great, fellow trekkers were lovely, food good, etc. and I made it to Machu Picchu in one piece, which was the desired end-result. :)

However - I was in a tour group of 16 people, 15 of whom spoke Spanish... and me (who does not).  Two of the guides were English-speaking so I did get full explanations of all of the sites, and a few of my fellow trekkers also spoke some English so it wasn't BAD... just a bit lonely at times. I got translations all the way and there was a lot of sign language, and I did pick up some Spanish along the way too so it was all quite fun. But when you're eating lunch, and someone tells what is obviously a joke and 15 people laugh, and someone translates, you can't exactly start laughing 30 seconds later.  So my first tip would be:

1. Ask about the language. "English-speaking guide" does not necessarily mean the entire group speaks English, or that English is the "first" language of the tour.  If you're travelling alone, this may be a factor.

Best Time of Year
I can't speak with experience about every time of year but there are plenty of resources around where people discuss stuff like this. I can say that I was on the Inca Trail mid-October and the weather was pretty good. We had maybe 10 minutes of rain during two of the 4 days, and a couple of downpours at night, but for trekking it was great, not too hot and not too cold.  Having said that, you still need sunblock for altitude because you're so high up.  I missed sunblock on part of one hand one morning, and ended up with practically a 2nd degree burn that blistered quite painfully in the following 2 weeks.  So:

2.  Choose the time of year carefully.  Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet.

Altitude Sickness & other Health Considerations
Reaching the top of WarmiwaƱusca, altitude 4200m
Plan to be in Cusco for at least 48 hours before you start the Inca Trail.  And when you're seeing your doctor to get all the immunisations you'll need, consider asking for something like Diamox too.  On reflection, I probably could have done with 72 hours in Cusco before I set off, rather than 48.  I didn't get altitude sickness, probably because I took Diamox, but I did struggle with the altitude.  It's just SO hard to get your breath!  I remember being out of breath walking from my hotel to where the bus picked us up on the first day - less than a kilometre from my hotel! So I was freaking out a bit when I first got on the bus.

There's no way of telling who'll get altitude sickness and who won't, but you can take precautions to try to avoid it.  Time to acclimatise, and Diamox, did the trick for me.  The slight downside of Diamox was that I experienced one of the side effects, numb/pins-and-needles fingers and toes for a week.  However, someone else I spoke to also took it and didn't get that at all so it's not guaranteed.

Also - don't try to keep up with anybody else while you're on the Trail.  Going out too hard is a good way to succumb to altitude sickness. Just go at your own pace. There has to be a guide behind the last person at all times, so it may as well be you. :)

3.  This is likely a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Take as many precautions as you can to try to avoid altitude sickness and other health problems.

Downhill for a change!
Clothing
There are lists all over the place for what to take, just Google.  But the main thing is good boots.  You can get just about everything else in Cusco if you forget something, but aim to get some decent boots at least 6 months before you go, and wear them in properly.  I wore mine once a week for a year and they were well worn in, and I still got a big blister on day 2. Walking 42km in 4 days on rocky paths can take it's toll.

4.  Two words - good boots!

Fitness
How fit do you need to be?  Well, I won't re-write what's written here because it's good advice.  But the answer is - As Fit As You Can Be.  You climb up a mountain, at altitude, to 4200m.  What would take 1/2 an hour at sea level, will take several hours at altitude.  You could try to do that while unfit, but I'd suggest you'd be just a tiny bit insane. :)

You can't easily train for altitude if you live in Melbourne like I do, but if you can find a decent mountain or set of steps, use them.  I did the 1000 Steps at Mount Dandenong every week for 6 months, plus a personal trainer once a week, plus gym & swimming once a week.  And I was still the last one up every hill, every time. :)  (I was also one of the first down every hill - good leg strength, so that was a bonus).

5.  The fitter you are, the more you'll enjoy the experience.

Water
All of the locals I met in Cusco advised me not to drink the tap water, so I bought bottled water. On the first 2 days of the Inca Trail, you can buy bottled water. After that, no.  Every morning, the guides boiled up a big kettle so you could fill up your drink bottle, if you wanted to.  HOWEVER... I watched the process, particularly the part where the boiled water was poured into jugs, which had just been rinsed out with tap water straight out of taps situated at the toilet blocks!!

6.  Two water bottles, and water purification tablets. Many people online say they bought them and didn't use them. Better to have them than not, I'd suggest.

Hygiene
Hmm... how can I say this nicely...  Toilets - you can't put toilet paper down the toilet, anywhere in Peru. On the Inca Trail, you need to take your own toilet paper. And the toilets are never, ever cleaned.  And sometimes there are, shall we say, rather visible results of not being careful with drinking water (see above).

Showers - on the 2nd night there is a toilet block with a single, cold shower (which I bravely faced).  On the 3rd night, a similar setup but we got there so late and it was so dark that nobody bothered. I'd been buoyed by rumours of a hot shower available on the 3rd night, but was informed that it had been in a restaurant which closed down more than a year earlier.

So - don't expect to reach Machu Picchu smelling of roses!

7.  Take antibacterial hand-wipes. Lots of them.
8.  Invest in a good head torch.
9.  Put string through your toilet roll so you can hang it around your neck in the dark.

Internet access
Well, I'm a geek so naturally people ask me this. :)  South America in general has free wi-fi everywhere, better than Australia.  But not on the Inca Trail.  I had no mobile or data access for 4 days, until we reached Machu Picchu.

10.  Free wi-fi is everywhere, in the cities. But take spare batteries for your camera.

Where are the rest of your photos??

Flickr
Facebook
There are also a couple of videos on YouTube

Good luck!  If anybody has questions feel free to post them, and I'll update this post. :)

Cheers,
Nicky