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Maritza Chacacanta in front of Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Cusco.
I was born in Cusco city, in the south of Peru. I’ve been working in tourism and climbing here for 20 years, and am now working as Intrepid Travel’s deputy operations manager for trekking in Peru. I started trekking in 2000 and have probably completed the Inca Trail more than 500 times, amongst many others. Trekking has always been a way for me to share my love of the mountains with tourists. The mountains are where we live — they’re a part of our culture and are considered sacred. We call them ‘Apus’, which means ‘holy mountains’ — we still believe in the sanctity of Mother Earth as part of our Quechua religion and that the mountains are our protector. Climbing the mountains has helped me connect and learn more about my own culture. I’ve learnt a lot from people here — the ranchers taught me how to chew on cocoa leaves for energy and about conducting sacred ceremonies to say thanks to the mountains. I can pass that on now.
Prepare physically but also psychologically. Get as much information about the trip as you can before going. I’ve had many clients on the Inca Trail who mistakenly thought it was a mostly flat hike, but would then suffer from altitude sickness. While some could physically endure that, it hampered their mental ability to enjoy the whole experience. Some have even had to leave the trail because of it. I’ve met people who didn’t train much at all, but they were mentally prepared and they could push through and finish the trails. It’s important to learn as much as you can about the climbing conditions, allow time to acclimatise to the altitude and get the best equipment for the trip.
Good hiking boots are the most important thing. You need to protect your ankles throughout all the climbs and descents. If they’re a new pair, wear them in at home and do some training in them before setting off on the trail. You can buy the most expensive, high-tech hiking shoes in the world, but if they’re new, you can get blisters that will stop you from enjoying the climb. Make sure you practice the full range of movement in them (down as much as up) to avoid blisters or friction in any places. I’d also recommend proper hiking clothing. The weather in the mountains is very unpredictable, so prepare for all seasons. It can rain or snow even in the dry season, so bring a thermos for the nighttime when the temperature can drop below zero. During the day it can get incredibly hot, so sunscreen, wet wipes, insect repellent and a top-quality water bottle are absolutely essential. Also, get a good sleeping bag made for all seasons, not just one that you would camp on a beach with. You can usually rent these in Cusco, but, even then, make sure to bring a good waterproof liner at the very least. While a good waterproof jacket is essential, you should also get a poncho; they’re extremely useful, especially in a heavy downpour, as they can cover your backpack and help keep the rest of your kit dry. A first aid kit is another must. Your tour guides and porters are likely to have good first aid training and carry basic kits, but it’s worth being extra prepared. Bring along pills to help with altitude sickness, as well as electrolytes. You can get dehydrated quickly up on the mountain, even if you’re drinking two or three litres of water a day. Get a decent backpack — a proper hiking pack that’s big enough to carry all the things you need for your trip, without weighing yourself down too badly. There’s no electricity on mountain summits, and extreme weather can affect your phone battery, so no matter how good your phone is, bring a spare battery pack with multiple charges. You’ll also need a proper torch for hiking; the one on your phone isn’t good enough for a night in the mountains. Finally, one of the most important things to bring along is a positive attitude and a readiness for adaptability. Being able to roll with things like rainy weather in the dry season will help you enjoy the climb more and take the experience for what it is.
The Inca Trail weaves across varied terrain, including old train tracks.
All of the Inca trails are amazing in different ways, and are strongly recommended if you want insights into Incan culture; the Quarry Trail and the Quadra Trail are particularly rewarding. For those more experienced at hiking and climbing, I’d recommend the Akira Trail, which takes about nine days to complete. It can be a bit of a challenge for some people — you won’t shower for most of that time — but it’s so beautiful.
Most of the clients that we have on our expeditions are women, as they can find this kind of thing easier to attempt as part of a group or guided trip. If we have only women on the trail with us, we try to make sure we have a female guide as well, so they can have an added sense of confidence and safety. We’re not taking anyone to unsafe places and everyone is welcome. There will always be some people who are apprehensive because it’s their first time doing a hike or they don’t know if they’ll be able to keep up the same speed as everyone else. But everyone should work within their own rhythm, and not try to keep pace with everyone else. Once your confidence has built up, you can get used to it and enjoy it.
Bring a good water bottle along so you don’t need to buy plastic bottles. Even if rubbish is organic, we ask everyone to keep it with them so that we leave no trace. In the wake of the pandemic, it’s been difficult to get people back into good habits again regarding the enironment — so many good practices have slipped that need to be reintroduced and reaffirmed.
Engage with locals as you encounter them, and ask permission if you want to take photos. Respect the culture, the people and the language of a destination. Buy handicrafts from local craftspeople so that they can better support their families. We also recommend learning a few Spanish phrases to chat with our porters — clients can learn much more about our culture this way.
It depends on what someone is going through. It can be tough on the Inca Trail, where on a given day you could be climbing as much as 3,000ft. If, for example, it’s the second day of a climb and someone is weak and can’t breathe well, we have to make a call on whether that person can continue safely. If people can continue, it’s important to operate within your own limits. Walk slowly and stop often to catch your breath. The advice stays the same if it’s a psychological tough patch: go slow and steady, listening to your own body all the way; don’t try to catch up with the first person and just keep breathing in and breathing out. And enjoy the walk.
1. Arc’teryx Aerios AR Mid GTX These sturdy Arc’teryx boots have been designed for technical treks and climbs that involve moving quickly across challenging terrain and conditions. They’re breathable to help regulate temperature, and finished in Gore-Tex to keep feet dry and protected from the wind. A strong collar is in place to brace the ankle in the event of a slip, while allowing for full freedom of movement. £230.
2. BAM 73 Zero Insulated Jacket BAM’s insulated jacket is made from recycled materials while being high-performance and robust. With a PFC-free Teflon EcoElite finish offering up to 6.5k water repellence and Thermore Ecodown quick-dry polyester insulation, this jacket keeps you warm even when it’s wet and it dries quickly. It has an internal storm cuff and an adjustable cord at the hem for a snug fit. £165.
3. Hydro Flask Lightweight Trail Series 24oz The Lightweight Trail Series of containers is designed for trekking. TempShield double-wall vacuum insulation keeps drinks cold for 24 hours and hot drinks steaming for 12 hours. The 18/8 pro-grade stainless steel walls are thinner to reduce weight while maintaining durability. The perforated strap and aluminum pivots reduce weight, and the top can be clipped to a bag with a carabiner. £47.95.
Published in the 2022 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK) The Lakes and Mountains Collection
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