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Travel Talk – Plan ahead for Machu Pichu (Jan. 7, 2015 issue)

By Mary Beth Shults
As we start off a new year, many of you may have exciting goals and plans. Perhaps, this year, you want to travel more and cross something new off your bucket list. While you’re motivated to do something unexpected in 2015, now is the perfect time to start planning your trek to Machu Picchu. This will be the first of a few articles in order to help one plan this trip. This first article will focus on how to start planning and how to get there.
Machu Picchu, known as the Lost City of the Incas, sits on a mountain in the heart of the jungle of Peru. Hiram Bingham receives most of the credit for discovering the ruins in the early 20th century. Locals and looters had known about the existence of it for years, but Bingham was the first to bring worldwide attention to the site.
When he came upon Machu Picchu, the jungle had claimed it, and it took multiple attempts for all of the ruins to be discovered and understood. When looking down on Machu Picchu from above this is easy to see, since the ruins of the city are still surrounded by trees and wildlife. For that matter, no one really knows just how important Machu Picchu was for the Inca Empire. Many believe that it was an estate for the emperor or that it was a convent for the special girls dedicated to the sun god. Because of its shape and location, it’s thought to have been a sacred city. It is accessible by a bus from the closest town, Aguas Calientes, or from the Inca Trail.
If you wish to see the Lost City, there are a number of ways for a tourist to get there. Though the most well-known is the Inca Trail, there are other trekking options as well as a train. If you want the more relaxing route to Machu Picchu, the easiest option is to first make your way to Cusco and then to take a train to Aguas Calientes using either Peru Rail or Inca Rail. You should stay a night in Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu Town) where you can take a bus to Machu Picchu starting at 5 AM. Many tour groups organize these trips, so you can more fully enjoy your adventure with a guide and without having to arrange for the accommodations.
If you want something more strenuous, there are a number of different trekking options, varying in difficulty, comfort and length. The 4-day Inca Trail is the most famous, and the last day is devoted to exploring Machu Picchu. On the last day of the trek, hikers usually wake before sunrise to arrive at Machu Picchu with the sun and see it in the early morning light as the fog starts to lift from the mountains. You’ll enter the city from the Sun Gate where you will get your first view of Machu Picchu. Since large parts of the trail consist of old Incan roads, only a limited number of hikers are allowed each day on the Inca Trail, and they must have government-issued permits.
Therefore, if you want to do the Inca Trail, you must book it advance. You’ll need to start planning your trek 6 months in advance if you go during peak tourist season (typically June-September). This is the best option for seeing the most Incan ruins.
For a greater challenge, the Salcantay trail is a five day trek that truly takes you through the biodiversity of Peru, from snow-capped mountains to warm jungles. Near the end, you’ll follow an old Incan highway which takes you to a more recently discovered Incan city where you can also get a glimpse of Machu Picchu. The walk will end at a train station from where you will go to Aguas Calientes and then continue on to Machu Picchu the final day.
A less-challenging but still rigorous trek is the four-day Lares Route. This is the most comparable to the Inca trail in distance and difficulty and is great option if you cannot get a permit for the more well-known Trail. As I personally learned, this trek is quite easy to book a month or two in advance. The Lares trail will take you to the top of the Lares Mountain and down through remote villages. You’ll get to take a break in the relaxing hot springs of Lares. Your trek will also end in Aguas Calientes with a bus to Machu Picchu.
Those are the most popular treks; however, there are a few other options. There is a one-day Inca Trail if you’re pressed for time and still want to fit in a trek. For the truly adventurous, there is a Vilcabamba route that will take you through other ancient cities. If you want to hike during the day and have complete luxuries at night, there is the Lodge route. Lastly, there is Chaski route that follow some of the same routes that the famed foot-messengers of the Incan Empire.
No matter which route you choose to get to Machu Picchu, you will have to make some important decisions first, namely when to go and who to go with. When traveling in South America, bear in mind that the seasons in the southern hemisphere will be reversed for us in the north. If you want to go from June to early September, you will go in the dead of winter and will quite possibly see snow-covered mountains during your hike. However, if you go in October to March, it will be the rainy season and you could hike in the rain most days. I went during mid-September and was told that it can be one of the best times of the year to go because the weather is starting to warm up but the rains have not yet started, and it’s less crowded than the peak season.
Secondly, I highly recommend researching different tour groups before making a decision. While there are ways to do an independent trek, it is a good idea to go with a group for a few reasons. You will not only have a guide who can speak your language and show you the way, but you will also more than likely be accompanied by mule-drivers who will take care of your tents and sleeping bags as well as a cook.
There are several different tour groups. While they all have guides for the Inca trail, not all groups have guides for the other trails. It is a good idea to read traveler’s blogs and reviews before booking with a group in order to reduce any stress and difficulties that could arise. Personally, I had a wonderful experience with the group Llama Path and would recommend them for any future treks.
While you are in the planning stages of your trip, you should also remember that parts of each trail will be at a very high altitude and many people experience altitude sickness.
Before beginning the trek, it is best to spend about 2 days in Cusco in order for your body to adjust. During that time, most people need to take it easy. You can talk to your doctor in advance about ordering altitude sickness medicine. Many people simply rely on the ancient Incan custom of using coca leaves. The leaves are usually brewed in a tea or can be chewed directly, though it simply tastes better as a tea. You can also find a coca candy which is supposed to help with the altitude and has a bit of a caramel-like texture. However, don’t look for any in the US or try to bring it across the border with you since it is illegal in many countries.
All of these steps and options should help you start planning one of the most truly incredible adventures of a lifetime. You will see sites on the trail that will take your breath away, at times quite literally, and will create memories like no others. Next week, I’ll discuss more of my trek to Machu Picchu and give you a better idea of what to expect.