Peru’s Inca Trail: No horsing around

IMG_4990The heroes of Machu Picchu are the porters, descendants of the peoples who were part of the Inca empire.

The Inca made up the largest civilization in South America, which dominated what is now Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and into the mountains of Bolivia and Argentina from about 1300 until the Spanish conquest in 1532.

After thousands of years in the Andes, the indigenous peoples adapted by developing one-third greater lung capacity and 10 per cent more blood, making it possible to live and work in higher altitudes. They developed a small stature and stocky build. Many of the porters—who carry trekkers’ backpacks, tents, tables, benches, cooking gear, propane, water and food—are farmers in the Andes.

On our tour, they were paid the equivalent of $66 to $70 U.S. for the four-day trek, not including tips of up to $38.They carry a maximum of 30 kilos each, halved from a decade ago. They seem to carry their burdens with little difficulty, wearing rubber sandles and often running as they chew energy-giving coca leaves.

Almost 70 and retired, I started enthusiastically. As I tackled slopes of 35 to 45 degrees in the high altitude, I realized I wasn’t in shape to tackle the more challenging second day.

On Day 2, I was offered a horse for the 12.5-kilometre return trip, but one horse owner wanted a 25-per-cent surcharge because of my 88-kilo weight; a second told me I would have to dismount on downhill sections because it was “dangerous.”

No way. I walked for six hours back to the start of the Inca Trail, accompanied by a porter and a guide.

The moral of the story: Anyone over 50 should be in top physical shape before tackling the four-day hike. The one-day trek makes more sense. Also, the high altitude can limit your mobility. Even when taking the train to get to the base, people face challenging walks to get to the site.

It is well worth the effort. The scenery is spectacular, the ruins of this once-sacred city a reminder that even powerful and advanced civilizations like the Inca can fall into ruin.

There is a limit of 500 people on the trail a day, about 300 of whom are porters and guides. At the site, the limit is 2,500 a day. Travellers should do their research and book well in advance. The four-day, three-night option with private tent booked through South America Exotic Travel costs $625 for an adult, $567 for a student.

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