Peru: Trekking 101
Peru is one of the world’s top trekking destinations, and the Inca Trail is Peru’s number one trek. Beginning in the high Andes with vistas of sparkling glaciers, the Inca Trail passes a dozen major Inca ruins before plunging into the cloud forest towards Machu Picchu.
Apart from the Inca Trail, there are dozens, even hundreds, of incredible treks in Peru’s Andes, which are in the same league for trekking as the European Alps, the Alaska Range, or the Himalaya.
Apart from trekking in the Cusco area, the other main trekking area in Peru is the Cordillera Blanca, the second-highest mountain range in the world, and its lesser-known but equally dramatic sister range, the Cordillera Huayhuash.
Planning the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is the only trek in Peru where all trekkers must hike with a licensed guide and where there is a limit of 500 people per day on the trail, including trekkers. These recent rules are a result of the Inca Trail’s popularity and the resulting impact that tens of thousands of trekkers are having on its stone trail and the surrounding ecosystem.
For the Inca Trail, your only option is to sign up with a licensed agency — and sign up early, as the Inca Trail fills up six months or more ahead of time.
As a result of these new rules, Inca Trail prices have increased from as low as US$90 in 2000 to a minimum of US$450 today. Walk-in-off-the-street agencies no longer offer last-minute Inca Trail trips. Inca Trail bookings are now done almost exclusively online as the trail’s licensed operators have to confirm all reservations several months in advance.
To check the official departure availability, visit the website www.nahui.gob.pe. If a date you want is already booked, it’s still worth checking with agencies as they often have cancellations on certain days.
Planning Other Treks
Any other trek in Peru, including the Salcantay alternative route to Machu Picchu, has a couple of planning options. The easiest, and most expensive, is to sign up with a reputable agency and let it take care of all the details. But you can also custom-design a trip and then hire an agency to take care of logistics such as transport, food, lodging, porters, arrieros, cooks, and certified guides.
If you can find a reliable trekking or climbing guide, available for US$80–110 per day, he or she can organize all these details for you for an extra fee. Or you can do it all on your own, which is complicated to negotiate properly but possible if you speak Spanish.
When to Go
The traditional trekking season in Peru is May–August, but the best weather is June and July. Avoid the last week in July when Peru’s hotels are often booked solid for the Fiestas Patrias celebration around July 28.
If you are gunning for a main trekking route, you will encounter fewer people during the months of April, May, September, and October. These “shoulder months” are the best times to trek in Peru as they are outside of the rainiest months (November–March) and also the busiest tourist months (June–August).
April and May, and even March if you don’t mind an occasional rain storm, are especially gorgeous as the rainy season has just ended and the highlands are vibrant green.
Trekking Agencies and Guides
The motto “you get what you pay for” is especially true when it comes to hiring a trekking agency or guide. Go with an established, well-recommended agency. If you skimp on an agency, you can be guaranteed the agency will either skimp on you (poor food, no bathroom tent), the porters (low wages, no health care), or the environment (pit latrines, no regard for Leave No Trace, or LNT, principles).
Plan for at least 3–4 days to acclimatize before heading out on a trek anywhere in Andean Peru. The Cordillera Blanca’s most popular trek, the four- or five-day trek through the Santa Cruz Valley, involves at least one high pass, Punta Unión, at 4,760 meters. And the Inca Trail has two passes of approximately 4,000 meters.
Acclimatize by sleeping low and hiking high. A great way to acclimatize in the Cusco area is to spend your first few days in the Sacred Valley and then hike up out of valley floor in places like Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo. In Huaraz, good options include day hikes in the Cordillera Negra and Quebrada Quilcayhuanca.
On Your Own
Because of the altitude, most parties end up hiring an arriero, who carries loads on burros, donkeys, or llamas. It’s hard to enjoy the scenery while hiking with a full pack at Peru’s altitudes, no matter how fit you are.
There are other reasons to hire an arriero as well: It is a great cultural experience, helps the local economy, and makes your trip safer — arrieros often know the routes as well (or better) than a mountain guide, provide evacuation support, and can serve as camp guards.
Arrieros will expect you to pay their wages the day that they return to the main town, usually the day after the end of your trek. This means that for a four-day trek, you will pay the arriero five days of wages.
Groups usually hire a cook, too. Peru’s cooks pack in fruit, vegetables, sacks of rice, and often a live chicken or two. Pay the people you hire fairly and treat them with respect. You are their employer, so you are ultimately responsible for their health and safety.
These are some standard daily wages: US$10 for an arriero and US$8 for every mule, US$15 for camp guardian, US$25 for a porter, and US$25–30 for a cook. Also, you are expected to provide shelter and food for your arriero, cook, and porters.
If you are on your own, you will have to negotiate the entry and grazing fees that Andean communities increasingly charge trekking groups that pass through their lands. The fees change rapidly and are generally relatively minor. Grazing fees are generally around US$2–5 per horse. Inquire with an agency about fees ahead of time.
Maps and Gear
The best place to get maps is the South American Explorers Club (www.saexplorers.org) in Cusco (Atoqsaykuchi 670, tel. 084/24-5484) or in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima (Piura 135, tel. 084/445-3306).
Most people who are trekking or climbing on their own bring all their own gear, but high-quality equipment can be rented for affordable prices in Cusco and Huaraz. Email agencies ahead of time for reservations and prices.
Peru’s tropical sun is intense, so bring strong sunscreen, a sun hat, dark glacier glasses, and a long-sleeved shirt. Most trekkers use trekking poles for descending the scree slopes and steep trails. The weather is cold, but extreme storms are rare in the dry months from May to September. On most Peru treks, sleeping bags rated for 0°F and thermal long underwear or fleece pants are fine.
Pretty much all supplies, with the exception of freeze-dried food, are available in markets in Cusco. You’ll find pasta, powdered soup, cheese, powdered milk, beef jerky, dried fruit, and more. White gas (bencina blanca) is sold at hardware stores along Calle Plateros in Cusco and at numerous places in Huaraz and Caraz. Get a shop recommendation from an agency or gear store to ensure you find the highest quality gas, and fire up your stove before you go to make sure everything works. Remember that airlines sometimes reject travelers with camp stoves and fuel bottles that have been previously used. It’s best to travel with a new stove and bottles, if at all possible.
Hazards and Precautions
While the vast majority of trekkers to the Cusco and Huaraz areas never encounter any safety threats, the more popular trekking areas have seen an increase in theft. If you leave your camp for a day hike, make sure to leave a camp guardian, such as an arriero, behind. Entire camps of tents have been stolen recently in the Cordillera Blanca while teams were on the mountain.
The main hazards of trekking in Peru, however, are straightforward: sun, altitude, and cold. If you protect yourself from the sun, acclimatize properly, and have the right gear, you will have a great time.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition