By Briana Stello
(Editors note: Brianna is a U.S. citizen who walked Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in March 1999, on a break from her semester abroad and her internship in Santiago with the Chile Information Project. She’s now back in the States finishing her studies).
Despite National Geographic coverage of its mystical sights and Discovery’s reports on its adventurous pathways — calling it one of the wonders of the world — Machu Picchu remains impossible to describe. No photo or explanation can possibly give justice to this wonder like your own eyes can. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is simply something that you must not miss.
Your schedule, optional guides, food, entertainment and tickets can all be planned ahead of time, affording you a relatively worry-free adventure. Council Travel in the United States offers excellent packages and great discounts to Peru, especially for students.
I recommended flying to Lima, Peru’s capital and largest city, then directly to Cuzco, a compact and enchanting city built on top of the Inca capital and holy city at nearly 11,000 feet high. There are tons of options for cheap overnights in Cuzco. We stayed at Carlos V, an accommodating place where under thick wool blankets you’ll be able to enjoy a satisfying night’s sleep before your four-day walk on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Set up a meeting with your guide for the evening before the hike to go over a trail map and iron out last minute details.
The adventure begins at 6 a.m., the latest you’ll ever get up for the next four mornings. Have breakfast and depart, leaving excess clothing, toiletries and anything else that will weigh you down on the hike. You can trust the innkeepers at your hotel — they’ll give you a number or a key to pick up your things upon your return. You will soon learn to appreciate fewer pounds weighing down on your back.
After a three-hour ride northeast of Cuzco, the packed bus drops you off at a river crossing where in March the bridge was temporarily out of order. Another bus awaits you, and the guides and the others in your group prepare for the start of the journey into the mountains of Peru.
Observe the brightly colored flowers and smells the fresh mountain air that immediately hit your senses. The sky is crystal clear as you hike the trail, and the Cusichaca — and later the Urubamba — River sings to you from below.
You’re surrounded by sun shining from every angle. With luck you’ll have the same experience as long as you don’t make the trek in the rainy season — May to September is the recommended time to visit this magical land, but I went at the end of March and had great weather.
Be sure to prepare for the cold no matter what season you’re in. The mountains are always chilly, especially when the sun goes down, and Machu Picchu is at 7,900 feet. Rain is likely, so a good pair of waterproof, broken-in boots as well as all-weather socks are intelligent investments. Bring clothing made of materials such as Gortex and mesh that will keep you warm even when wet and will dry quickly. A poncho is a must to protect your pack from the intemperate weather, as well as a lightweight rain jacket.
Sunscreen as well as trash bags are also useful, for trash, wet clothes, dirty boots and for everything you don’t think of. Bring chocolate, M&M’s and snacks like granola bars for energy revival on the hike.
It’s optional to hire a guide for your hike on the Inca Trail, especially for you experienced hikers. However, I highly recommend you hire one regardless. I passed many hikers who later asked me questions about the ruins and the history, things they had missed out on. Employ a guide: they have fascinating information and a native’s insight into this mysterious gateway to the ancient city of Machu Picchu. They are experienced, and who knows, you may be able to pick up some words about the Pachamama (motherland) in the Quechua language.
You don’t have to be in the best shape to hike the Inca Trail, but I guarantee that you will be when you return. Most importantly, you have to be determined mentally to hike this three to four day, 31-mile hike. At the end of your journey, you will not be disappointed! The reward is one that will last forever. The feeling of accomplishment in seeing the same sight as Hiram Bingham, the American who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, will be recorded in your memory forever.
A couple of interesting sources for more info:
Hiking guide: Hilary Bradt’s Backpacking and Trekking in Peru and Bolivia (Bradt Publications, 7th edition, 1997)