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Richard McColl has trekked the Inca Trail five times. In this guide, he tells you exactly what you need to know.

THE FABLE OF AN EL DORADO shrouded in early morning mists draws hundreds of Patagonia-clad pilgrims of all shapes, sizes, and ages to Machu Picchu every day.

Machu Picchu is the most oversubscribed trek in the Andes, and for good reason. You need a little physical conditioning, the right gear, some enthusiastic guides and the solidarity of the other hikers to get through it, but with preparation and good humor, the trek to Machu Picchu is one of the most rewarding journeys in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, this trek is not all peaches and cream. The Inca Trail requires crossing summits of 4200m and descending over unequal Incan paving. You would be well advised to hit the gym for at least a few weeks before your trip.

What to Expect

Given the popularity of the Inca Trail, a pathway dating back to the 13th century, the Peruvian authorities have come up with novel ways of trying to spread some of the wealth of tourism to the local highland communities.

Put simply, even on the most no-frills tour you will be waited on hand and foot by obliging and friendly Quechua-speaking locals who make up the Peruvian government’s solution to rural poverty and unemployment in the Urubamba valley.

Of the 500 locals permitted onto the trail every day, roughly half of these are working. So, should you sign up with one of the plethora of agencies offering the trip you will find that the number of guides, porters, chef, assistant chefs all pretty much match the number of foreigners in your group.

“Porters” I Hear You Say?!

Yes, since 2000 it has been impossible to do the Inca Trail as a solo traveler.

Don’t scoff: The first day is easy, and the gradients are mild, but by halfway through the second day you will be grateful for your coca leaf-chewing, sandal-clad friend as you see him sprint into the distance ahead of you with your belongings.

As you fall into camp having bettered “Dead Woman’s Pass” at 4200 meters, you’ll see your tent already set up for you with your sleeping bag laid out and you new best friend offering you a hot beverage, and you will be thanking the Peruvian authorities for this most excellent regulation.

Getting There

Generally speaking you need to have booked yourself onto the trek at least three months in advance, otherwise, unless you are a lucky solo traveler who manages to sneak onto a last minute space, you will be pushed onto an “alternative” trail such as the Salkantay.

Your next step after dusting off your hiking boots and outdoors equipment and going for a few runs around the block is to secure those flights to Cusco.

You will start in Cusco, ancient capital of the Incan empire. You may remember in “The Motorcycle Diaries” movie when a small indigenous guide, Nestor, points out to the Che Guevara character the differences in the building capabilities of the Incans and the Spaniards: Nestor tells Che that one set of stones was built by the Incas, and the other by the Incapaces (or the “Incapables”).

Cusco is everything from a party town to a cultural mecca. It has both ayahuasca-toting shamans and baroque Spanish colonial churches. The town has something for everyone including many camping shops where you can stock up on last minute supplies.

The Trek Itself

At kilometer 82 in the town of Ollantaytambo on the railway line from Cusco, you’ll show your passport and entry ticket for the trail, and then you are off. This first day consists of a mere 11km with some rises and some falls, but for the most part is very manageable.

Passing the Incan levels and ruins at Llactapata will give you a flavor of the delights in store.

Day Two is the most difficult portion of the trek: the main ascent takes you up to 4200m and Warmiwañusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass – so called because the silhouette of the valley supposedly resembles that of a naked woman lying on her back. (I have hiked the trail five times and have only ever made out the nipple).

At the top of the pass, views of one valley turn into the views of another and it becomes hard to imagine the stamina of the old Incan chaskis (“messengers”) who ran the trail delivering urgent messages between the Tambos (“rest-points”). Perhaps at one time they delivered the news of the arrival of the Spanish.

Snap your photos, cheer on the others in your team and those about you and then descend rapidly to get out of the whipping cold winds thrown up at this altitude and head down into the verdant cornucopia of the cloud forest.

The Pacamayu campsite, 600 meters lower, will make the second night a cold one, but by Day Three the worst is over.

Day Three begins with an hour and a half ascent up through to another pass to Sayaqmarka and while your humor might have reached critically low levels you can take some solace in the fact that, now that you have completed this, you are well on your way to completing the Inca Trail.

Here the trail hugs the outside of the mountain wall and orchids of varying colors will lighten your grey mood.

Just past Wiñay Wayna, where the Incas used extreme engineering to place cultivation terraces up a mountain wall and experiment to see which crop would grow best at which altitude, you will finish the third day and meet up with those trekkers only doing the 1 day course.

You will be able to tell who the one-day trekkers are: being clean-shaven and perfume-scented is a dead giveaway by this point.

Day Four is not a day’s hike in the slightest. It is a study in human behavior: during a two hour run to make it to Inti Punku or the Sun Gate, guides will be zealously blocking others from passing their groups. Some eager hikers arise well before 5.30am when the checkpoint opens to ensure their place at the front, and the feeling is nothing short of competitive.

Everyone strives for that award-winning photo of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate without any day-trippers spoiling the shot.

But You’ve Arrived!

Machu Picchu has been reached and any feeling of bitterness towards those unhelpful souls ahead of you gives way to a certain euphoria. Head now to the ruins, take your tour and quickly scramble to the top of Wayna Picchu (“Young Mountain”) for breathtaking views from the other side.

You’ll need to hustle as only 400 people per day are permitted up this steep upright promontory and not only are you competing with your fellow four day veterans but also the one-dayers and day-trippers!

This article was first published on May 29, 2008.

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