Category Archives: Guide to Peru

Guide to Lake Titicaca: Activities

There is plenty to do in and around Lake Titicaca. On the shores of the lake near the town of Puno are the floating reed islands and the rather more permanent weavers’ islands. The chaotic city of Juliaca also lies on the lake shore though you are unlikely to do much here except go to the airport.

What to do on Lake Titicaca

Uros Reed Islands

The floating reed islands are a ‘must see’, situated on the reed beds within Puno bay itself.

Basically fresh reeds are harvested then laid on top of anchored but floating platforms of rotting reeds.

It is a never-ending process of resurfacing with the bottommost layers deep in the lake eventually rotting away to nothing.

The communities actually only moved out here in the 1950s so this is not any form of ancient way of life but a convenience for some fishing communities.

Each island consists of around half a dozen reed houses set on a platform about 50m in diameter.

Underfoot the islands feel like you are walking over a bed of reeds – they are soft and spongy and you can feel the island move gently on the water.

Your feet don’t get wet but it feels as if they are about to.

Not all of the communities allow visitors so you will be taken to one of a handful of sites.

The islands are a big tourist attraction so it feels fairly ‘packaged’ out here.

Having said that, we are careful only to visit islands which are actually permanently inhabited.

There are rather less scrupulous people who come across each morning from Puno in their boats, change into traditional dress and sit out to welcome the tourists.

You can tell the difference if you take a sneaky peek inside the houses.

Those that are inhabited show all the signs one would expect of the clutter of day to day life.

Many of the islands now have solar panels to fire up their lights and the occasional telly.

Taquile Island

Taquile Island is out in the main lake, beyond the reed islands.

It is known as the weavers island.

The island is divided into four communities, we visit the quieter of these.

There is no electricity or running water on the island yet though there is some solar power.

Children walk to school in the main village, which involves a one to two hour walk each way.

The men knit, women weave. Women really only talk in whispers. It is very traditional.

You are likely to see a display of weaving, traditional harvesting and a formal dance.

Suasi Island you will only visit if you are staying here. It is on the far side of the lake from Puno, very close to the lakeshore.

The only thing on the island is the lodge with beautiful gardens tumbling down the hillside to the waterfront.

The waters are wonderfully clear, and quite cold.

There is a guide at the lodge permanently who is available to lead excursions (included in the price).

Please note that the atmosphere is very relaxed here so you may well need to go off to find them and tell them what you want to do and when.

There is a ‘menu’ of excursions at reception.

For instance, you can paddle one of their kayaks around the island or be taken around on the lodge zodiac.

If you do kayak around the island please go with the lodge guide and seek advice before setting off. It is often windy in the afternoon and the waters can become treacherous.

On a calm morning it takes about an hour to paddle round the whole island watching out for birds and vicuna along the way.

There are also walks here on the island and across on the mainland.

At night you can go star gazing as there is no light pollution at all.

There is limited electricity here so there is not much to do other than relax, enjoy the silence and relax some more.

Having said that there is now wireless internet and, strangely, mobile phone coverage on the island.

The Andean Sauna is a treat. You need to advise them about four hours ahead of time if you want a sauna.

You then go into this rather cool, damp stone room and they release the hot water into a pool which is jammed full of eucalyptus branches.

As the hot water hits the leaves, a lovely smell rises up.

When I went to look for the controls to the sauna (the water was a little cool) my search didn’t reveal any likely looking buttons or dials.

Then I saw a door leading outside to more or less the back of the sauna.

There, sitting outside, was a member of staff fanning a bonfire to heat the water for the sauna. It is that high tech!

You can also have a massage on Suasi island for around US$30 per half hour.

Once you are fully relaxed, you can face the drive back around the lake to Juliaca.

This is a four-hour drive of which three hours are on rough and very rough dirt roads.

Don’t take on too much liquid the morning of your departure and go to the loo just before you leave, there is nothing by way of facilities along the way.

Depending on group size you will either be in a 4×4 or in a beefed up mini-bus but there is no way of ignoring the state of the road.

Please bear in mind that the first section is very bumpy but then it gets incredibly bumpy so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

On the plus side, you pass through some very remote agricultural communities so there is lots to see.

What to do in Puno

Puno is a city of around 160,000 inhabitants set around a sweeping bay of Lake Titicaca with mountains behind.

The bay looks big, it is big, but it is a mere pocket of the main lake as you will see if you are crossing over to Suasi Island or visiting Taquile.

Most people stay in Puno just for one or two nights. If you are on your way to Suasi Island then it will be a one night stay, if you are doing a day trip onto the lake then you may have two nights in Puno.

There is little of much interest here truth be told, the setting is lovely but the town itself a tad grim.

In its defence, they have pedestrianised the main street running up from the central square and this has lots of restaurants and bars and small shops.

It is actually a very pleasant place for a stroll and to feel like you are in a bit of authentic Peru.

As civilised and safe as Cusco is, it is nice to be in a town such as Puno where you feel like you are fitting in around the locals and not the other way round.

You should take care when in Puno, stay in the pedestrianised central area unless you are accompanied by someone trustworthy.

What to do in Juliaca

Leave.

This may sound harsh but it’s the truth, the only reason to be in Juliaca really is to fly on somewhere else.

You will cross through Juliaca if you are coming on the train from Cusco to Puno or vice versa.

You will also pass through on your way back overland from Suasi Island.

However, there really is nowhere you are going to want to stay in this chaotic city of around 250,000 people.

What you do want to do in Juliaca is just look – it is absolutely fascinating.

Tricycle rickshaws race cars and buses and lorries down bumpy roads which are punctuated by piles of dirt made into chicanes.

Note the lack of roofs in the city – almost every building has metal reinforcing rods sticking out of the top.

This is because you pay only land tax, not the higher property tax, if your house is still under construction.
For this reason about 95% of houses in both Juliaca and Puno are ostensibly ‘under construction’, and have been for generations.

The city is a massive funnel of goods into Peru from Bolivia and beyond into Argentina, Brazil, etc. It is a crossroads in the most literal sense.

Look out for the market which runs along the railway tracks and see if there is anything you can’t see.

My favourites were some barber chairs completely out in the open about two metres from the train tracks operating a full barber service.

Pool tables, again completely out in the open on the side of the railway lines with people playing pool as you might see in your local pub.

Great fun, fascinating to watch but really not a place to consider exploring on foot!

Guide to Lake Titicaca: Activities

There is plenty to do in and around Lake Titicaca. On the shores of the lake near the town of Puno are the floating reed islands and the rather more permanent weavers’ islands. The chaotic city of Juliaca also lies on the lake shore though you are unlikely to do much here except go to the airport.

What to do on Lake Titicaca

Uros Reed Islands

The floating reed islands are a ‘must see’, situated on the reed beds within Puno bay itself.

Basically fresh reeds are harvested then laid on top of anchored but floating platforms of rotting reeds.

It is a never-ending process of resurfacing with the bottommost layers deep in the lake eventually rotting away to nothing.

The communities actually only moved out here in the 1950s so this is not any form of ancient way of life but a convenience for some fishing communities.

Each island consists of around half a dozen reed houses set on a platform about 50m in diameter.

Underfoot the islands feel like you are walking over a bed of reeds – they are soft and spongy and you can feel the island move gently on the water.

Your feet don’t get wet but it feels as if they are about to.

Not all of the communities allow visitors so you will be taken to one of a handful of sites.

The islands are a big tourist attraction so it feels fairly ‘packaged’ out here.

Having said that, we are careful only to visit islands which are actually permanently inhabited.

There are rather less scrupulous people who come across each morning from Puno in their boats, change into traditional dress and sit out to welcome the tourists.

You can tell the difference if you take a sneaky peek inside the houses.

Those that are inhabited show all the signs one would expect of the clutter of day to day life.

Many of the islands now have solar panels to fire up their lights and the occasional telly.

Taquile Island

Taquile Island is out in the main lake, beyond the reed islands.

It is known as the weavers island.

The island is divided into four communities, we visit the quieter of these.

There is no electricity or running water on the island yet though there is some solar power.

Children walk to school in the main village, which involves a one to two hour walk each way.

The men knit, women weave. Women really only talk in whispers. It is very traditional.

You are likely to see a display of weaving, traditional harvesting and a formal dance.

Suasi Island you will only visit if you are staying here. It is on the far side of the lake from Puno, very close to the lakeshore.

The only thing on the island is the lodge with beautiful gardens tumbling down the hillside to the waterfront.

The waters are wonderfully clear, and quite cold.

There is a guide at the lodge permanently who is available to lead excursions (included in the price).

Please note that the atmosphere is very relaxed here so you may well need to go off to find them and tell them what you want to do and when.

There is a ‘menu’ of excursions at reception.

For instance, you can paddle one of their kayaks around the island or be taken around on the lodge zodiac.

If you do kayak around the island please go with the lodge guide and seek advice before setting off. It is often windy in the afternoon and the waters can become treacherous.

On a calm morning it takes about an hour to paddle round the whole island watching out for birds and vicuna along the way.

There are also walks here on the island and across on the mainland.

At night you can go star gazing as there is no light pollution at all.

There is limited electricity here so there is not much to do other than relax, enjoy the silence and relax some more.

Having said that there is now wireless internet and, strangely, mobile phone coverage on the island.

The Andean Sauna is a treat. You need to advise them about four hours ahead of time if you want a sauna.

You then go into this rather cool, damp stone room and they release the hot water into a pool which is jammed full of eucalyptus branches.

As the hot water hits the leaves, a lovely smell rises up.

When I went to look for the controls to the sauna (the water was a little cool) my search didn’t reveal any likely looking buttons or dials.

Then I saw a door leading outside to more or less the back of the sauna.

There, sitting outside, was a member of staff fanning a bonfire to heat the water for the sauna. It is that high tech!

You can also have a massage on Suasi island for around US$30 per half hour.

Once you are fully relaxed, you can face the drive back around the lake to Juliaca.

This is a four-hour drive of which three hours are on rough and very rough dirt roads.

Don’t take on too much liquid the morning of your departure and go to the loo just before you leave, there is nothing by way of facilities along the way.

Depending on group size you will either be in a 4×4 or in a beefed up mini-bus but there is no way of ignoring the state of the road.

Please bear in mind that the first section is very bumpy but then it gets incredibly bumpy so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

On the plus side, you pass through some very remote agricultural communities so there is lots to see.

What to do in Puno

Puno is a city of around 160,000 inhabitants set around a sweeping bay of Lake Titicaca with mountains behind.

The bay looks big, it is big, but it is a mere pocket of the main lake as you will see if you are crossing over to Suasi Island or visiting Taquile.

Most people stay in Puno just for one or two nights. If you are on your way to Suasi Island then it will be a one night stay, if you are doing a day trip onto the lake then you may have two nights in Puno.

There is little of much interest here truth be told, the setting is lovely but the town itself a tad grim.

In its defence, they have pedestrianised the main street running up from the central square and this has lots of restaurants and bars and small shops.

It is actually a very pleasant place for a stroll and to feel like you are in a bit of authentic Peru.

As civilised and safe as Cusco is, it is nice to be in a town such as Puno where you feel like you are fitting in around the locals and not the other way round.

You should take care when in Puno, stay in the pedestrianised central area unless you are accompanied by someone trustworthy.

What to do in Juliaca

Leave.

This may sound harsh but it’s the truth, the only reason to be in Juliaca really is to fly on somewhere else.

You will cross through Juliaca if you are coming on the train from Cusco to Puno or vice versa.

You will also pass through on your way back overland from Suasi Island.

However, there really is nowhere you are going to want to stay in this chaotic city of around 250,000 people.

What you do want to do in Juliaca is just look – it is absolutely fascinating.

Tricycle rickshaws race cars and buses and lorries down bumpy roads which are punctuated by piles of dirt made into chicanes.

Note the lack of roofs in the city – almost every building has metal reinforcing rods sticking out of the top.

This is because you pay only land tax, not the higher property tax, if your house is still under construction.
For this reason about 95% of houses in both Juliaca and Puno are ostensibly ‘under construction’, and have been for generations.

The city is a massive funnel of goods into Peru from Bolivia and beyond into Argentina, Brazil, etc. It is a crossroads in the most literal sense.

Look out for the market which runs along the railway tracks and see if there is anything you can’t see.

My favourites were some barber chairs completely out in the open about two metres from the train tracks operating a full barber service.

Pool tables, again completely out in the open on the side of the railway lines with people playing pool as you might see in your local pub.

Great fun, fascinating to watch but really not a place to consider exploring on foot!

Guide to Machu Picchu: The Inca Trail

There are a few ways for you to get to Machu Picchu, from walking the Inca Trail to taking the train. Here we cover the various options and give an insight into what you can expect from each of them.

Train to Machu Picchu

There are various trains every day from Cusco, these range from the backpacker service to the super deluxe Hiram Bingham train.

The trains stop in Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu pueblo, which is the incredibly ramshackle village in the Urubamba river valley beneath Machu Picchu.

From the village you take a minibus up the switchbacks to the main entrance of Machu Picchu.

The main entrance has the ticket office, cafes and snack bars, a terrace with seats and the Sanctuary Lodge hotel.

All in all it isn’t the most calm way to enter Machu Picchu.

If you are going to visit Machu Picchu by train then we strongly recommend that you include a night in Aguas Calientes, that way you can get a later train up the valley and try to time your arrival at Machu Picchu for the quiet of the mid-afternoon.

Return the next day early morning to enjoy the quiet dawn period.

Walking to Machu Picchu

There is only one way to walk into Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate and that is to arrive on the Inca Trail. That is the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Whether you choose the one-day ‘royal’ trail or the four day full trail, you arrive at the Sun Gate which looks down over the citadel and come into Machu Picchu itself via what is effectively the back door.

There are plenty of ‘alternative’ Inca Trails which are often beautiful walks in their own right. However, they all arrive in Aguas Calientes, leaving you entering Machu Picchu via the front door.

The reason for these alternatives is that entrance to the Inca Trail is now very tightly regulated by the Peruvian government.

At Pura Aventura we only operate our own dedicated Inca Trail walks. By doing this we can be sure that you will get the most from your walk to Machu Picchu. Below you can see why this makes such a big difference.

Inca Trail Permits

Each day the Peruvian Government allows 500 people onto the trail.

This includes all guides and porters so actually equates to about 200 hikers each day.

If this sounds like a lot, frankly it is, but there are ways to avoid the crowds.

Classic Inca Trail

The vast majority of those 200 walkers do the three day trail which aims to arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise.

Once they arrive, they visit Machu Picchu and catch that afternoon’s train back to Cusco.

Those going at this pace on the Inca Trail suffer a couple of disadvantages.

Firstly, you have less time to acclimatise as you tackle the highest point of the trail on only the second day.

Secondly, the campsites are very busy, particularly the last night in Winaywayna which can have over 300 people spending the night.

That equates to a lot of tents, a lot of noise and some fairly unpleasant sanitary conditions.

Thirdly, your first views of Machu Picchu can be rather compromised as people jostle for a perch in a small viewing area at the Sun Gate.

This a quote from one, very good, operator “Almost every group wants to be at the sun gate for sunrise. Sheer numbers require an early start to make sure people are in place for the sunrise.”

Lastly, since Machu Picchu is in a cloudforest, sunrise happens probably around 30% of the time. More normal is that the clouds gradually drift clear later.

If the weather isn’t good, they will not get to see the site in all its glory as they will be on a train back to Cusco that same afternoon.

Pura’s Inca Trail

Meanwhile…Pura Aventura clients are half a day behind the main group of walkers as you set off in the afternoon of day one.

Because you do not cross the highest pass until day three, you have an extra day to acclimatise.

Our guides work hard to make sure that you walk in the peaceful conditions at any time of year. You enjoy a quiet, often empty, trail ahead of you. The places we camp are very peaceful.

 

You arrive in Machu Picchu in the twilight when the site is at its prettiest and quietest.

That afternoon you stroll down through the site to soak up the atmosphere before spending a welcome night in a hotel nearby.

The following morning you come back up to the citadel – early enough to catch sunrise if you like. You have your full guided tour before returning to Cusco by train that afternoon.

In all you have about 24 hours at Machu Picchu spread over two days, giving you the best possible opportunity to see the site at its best.

“Jake (our guide) and the porters always found us wonderfully quiet spots to camp and Pura’s method of taking plenty of time for the trail and not using the busy sites made the trail very special.”

Royal Inca Trail

A half way house between walking the full trail and taking the train to Machu Picchu is the one-day or Royal Inca Trail.

You still need a permit for this route so it counts as being part of the 500 people daily allocation.

Basically you get the train almost all of the way up to Aguas Calientes then hop off with your guide at km104 and start to walk up the steep side of the valley.

The Urubamba River Valley is quite sheer sided at this point so the walk is a zig-zag up the hillside gaining about 700m of altitude.

The uphill part takes a good couple of hours before you emerge onto the main trail at Winaywayna, the last major Inca site before Machu Picchu.

From this point on you follow the main trail through some of its prettiest surroundings. At around 3pm you come to the Sun Gate for your first views of Machu Picchu, hopefully bathed in warm afternoon light.

From Sun Gate you walk another 4km to Machu Picchu itself, wander through the site, overnight in Aguas Calientes and then return to do a formal visit of the site the following day.

This is a great option for anyone who appreciates the idea of ‘earning’ that first view of Machu Picchu without having to commit to the full trail.

What is certain is that whichever way you choose to travel to Machu Picchu, it will be a special moment.

Inca Trail Practicalities

The night before your trail, we hold an Inca Trail briefing which will cover any important aspects of the walk but here is a sneak preview.

Inca Trail Permits

Each day the Peruvian Government allows 500 people onto the trail.

Permits are bought ahead of time, in fact they generally sell out up to 6 months in advance.

For all Pura Aventura holidays including the Inca Trail, we buy your permits at the time of booking and they form part of your Peru holiday price.

To get onto the trail you need to produce your passport for the Inca Trail by guards who tally your information with that on the permit.

There is no means of avoiding the permit system, you must be sure to be travelling on the same passport as the one used to purchase your permit.

When to walk to Machu Picchu

The season for the Inca Trail runs from March through November. Because Machu Picchu is 1,000m lower than Cusco it tends to be milder and wetter.

This is the drier part of the year but it is winter so you can also expect it to be colder. This is true as much of Cusco as for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.

How hard is the Inca Trail?

The full Inca Trail covers 40km over 4 days. However, it is at altitudes of up to 4,215m. The going can be slow and fairly tough on your joints. You must be used to hill walking to enjoy the trail.

The following is the pacing used on Pura Aventura’s version of the Inca Trail with the artwork courtesy of our guide Joaquin.

Day one is a short walk on easy terrain at lower altitude than Cusco so you should find this quite easy.

Walk 4km, 2 hours, up 50m

Day two is a longer walk, mostly uphill on good paths with some paved sections. This is the day where you will really start to feel the altitude.

Walk 10km, 6.5hrs, up 850m

Day three is the hardest day as you go over the highest pass on the trail, down then up over a second pass and finally down and over a small third pass.

Walk 15km, 8hrs, up 650m, down 850m

Day four is relatively long but you are losing altitude and walking down for most of the day. The path becomes much more structured with long sections of narrow steps and paved stretches. It can therefore be the toughest day for your knees.

Walk 11km, 6hrs, down 700m

The above breakdown relates to Pura Aventura’s pacing of the Inca Trail and is not representative of the daily distances on the ‘sunrise’ trail.

The normal pacing on the trail is to walk further on day one, cross Dead Woman’s pass on day two and then make it all the way to Winaywayna on day three. This leaves just a short hop for the early morning of day four.

Sleeping

You are going camp out for three consecutive nights.

The first night will be relatively mild as you are starting at about 2,600m.

The second two nights are spent camping at over 3,500m so you can expect very cold nighttime and early morning temperatures – below freezing is normal.

You sleep two people to a tent. Tents are generally three or four person size so fairly spacious and comfortable for two people.

Tents are pitched for you by the porters.

Pura provides thermal sleeping mats but not sleeping bags. We recommend that you rent these from our team in Cusco. Expect to pay around US$20.

These bags are cleaned between uses and are suitable, four season rated. You may want to take a cotton, silk or fleece sleeping bag liner to make them a little bit warmer and for hygiene reasons though again, bags are washed between each use.

Eating and drinking

Food on the Inca Trail is freshly and cleanly prepared by Pura’s highly experienced team of cooks.

Expect three course meals at lunch and dinner with hearty breakfasts.

Purified water is provided for you each day though you must bring your own bottle.

Hygiene

Pura groups carry a toilet tent with a portable loo which is pitched at a discreet distance from the group.

Each morning your porters wake you with a bowl of warm water with which to have a ‘bird bath’.

Luggage

The majority of your bags will be left in Cusco at the hotel. You will rejoin your stuff after the trail.

What you do take on the trail can weigh up to 7kg, including the sleeping bag.

It is therefore safest to assume that you have a 6kg allowance which will be carried for you by your porter.

When you set off on the trail you need to decant your 6kg into a sturdy bag (usually a bin liner is ideal).

The porters then load these into their duffel bags to strap on their backs, porters do not generally use backpacks.

Our porters

Walking the Inca Trail is made much, much easier by your team of porters. We are particularly proud of the work they do for us.

By the end of day one you are likely to really appreciate the work your porters are doing for you.

In the mornings they are there to wake you for breakfast with a cup of tea and warm water for a wash.

As you set off walking for the day, they pull up camp, overtaking you a while later fully laden with all of the gear.

A couple of hours later you come across them again and they will have prepared a three-course lunch for you on the side of the trail.

After this, you waddle onwards and upwards only to be overtaken again soon afterwards.

By the time you get to the day’s stopping point, the team will have set up the campsite, have supper on the go and greet you with a cup of tea!

Pura Aventura adheres strictly to the Porter Protection Policies in place on the Inca Trail.

In fact our porters are from the community of Chacllanca, about 45km from Cusco.

Generally they are subsistence farmers who supplement their earnings by working on the Inca Trail. Our two head chefs, Virgilio and Herlin are in charge of getting the teams together and are therefore the bosses.

Your team of porters is usually therefore made up of friends, family and neighbours who respect one another and work well together.

Tipping

On the Inca Trail it is customary to tip the guide as well as any cooks or porters.

The rule of thumb is that each porter/cook should receive around US$20 so the amount you give does rather depend on the group size.

A reasonable guideline is US$10 per passenger per day for the four days of the Inca Trail hike to go to the porters and cooks.

For the guide, who is usually with you for a full week US$10 per day per passenger is reasonable.

Guide to Machu Picchu: The Inca Trail

There are a few ways for you to get to Machu Picchu, from walking the Inca Trail to taking the train. Here we cover the various options and give an insight into what you can expect from each of them.

Train to Machu Picchu

There are various trains every day from Cusco, these range from the backpacker service to the super deluxe Hiram Bingham train.

The trains stop in Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu pueblo, which is the incredibly ramshackle village in the Urubamba river valley beneath Machu Picchu.

From the village you take a minibus up the switchbacks to the main entrance of Machu Picchu.

The main entrance has the ticket office, cafes and snack bars, a terrace with seats and the Sanctuary Lodge hotel.

All in all it isn’t the most calm way to enter Machu Picchu.

If you are going to visit Machu Picchu by train then we strongly recommend that you include a night in Aguas Calientes, that way you can get a later train up the valley and try to time your arrival at Machu Picchu for the quiet of the mid-afternoon.

Return the next day early morning to enjoy the quiet dawn period.

Walking to Machu Picchu

There is only one way to walk into Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate and that is to arrive on the Inca Trail. That is the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Whether you choose the one-day ‘royal’ trail or the four day full trail, you arrive at the Sun Gate which looks down over the citadel and come into Machu Picchu itself via what is effectively the back door.

There are plenty of ‘alternative’ Inca Trails which are often beautiful walks in their own right. However, they all arrive in Aguas Calientes, leaving you entering Machu Picchu via the front door.

The reason for these alternatives is that entrance to the Inca Trail is now very tightly regulated by the Peruvian government.

At Pura Aventura we only operate our own dedicated Inca Trail walks. By doing this we can be sure that you will get the most from your walk to Machu Picchu. Below you can see why this makes such a big difference.

Inca Trail Permits

Each day the Peruvian Government allows 500 people onto the trail.

This includes all guides and porters so actually equates to about 200 hikers each day.

If this sounds like a lot, frankly it is, but there are ways to avoid the crowds.

Classic Inca Trail

The vast majority of those 200 walkers do the three day trail which aims to arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise.

Once they arrive, they visit Machu Picchu and catch that afternoon’s train back to Cusco.

Those going at this pace on the Inca Trail suffer a couple of disadvantages.

Firstly, you have less time to acclimatise as you tackle the highest point of the trail on only the second day.

Secondly, the campsites are very busy, particularly the last night in Winaywayna which can have over 300 people spending the night.

That equates to a lot of tents, a lot of noise and some fairly unpleasant sanitary conditions.

Thirdly, your first views of Machu Picchu can be rather compromised as people jostle for a perch in a small viewing area at the Sun Gate.

This a quote from one, very good, operator “Almost every group wants to be at the sun gate for sunrise. Sheer numbers require an early start to make sure people are in place for the sunrise.”

Lastly, since Machu Picchu is in a cloudforest, sunrise happens probably around 30% of the time. More normal is that the clouds gradually drift clear later.

If the weather isn’t good, they will not get to see the site in all its glory as they will be on a train back to Cusco that same afternoon.

Pura’s Inca Trail

Meanwhile…Pura Aventura clients are half a day behind the main group of walkers as you set off in the afternoon of day one.

Because you do not cross the highest pass until day three, you have an extra day to acclimatise.

Our guides work hard to make sure that you walk in the peaceful conditions at any time of year. You enjoy a quiet, often empty, trail ahead of you. The places we camp are very peaceful.

 

You arrive in Machu Picchu in the twilight when the site is at its prettiest and quietest.

That afternoon you stroll down through the site to soak up the atmosphere before spending a welcome night in a hotel nearby.

The following morning you come back up to the citadel – early enough to catch sunrise if you like. You have your full guided tour before returning to Cusco by train that afternoon.

In all you have about 24 hours at Machu Picchu spread over two days, giving you the best possible opportunity to see the site at its best.

“Jake (our guide) and the porters always found us wonderfully quiet spots to camp and Pura’s method of taking plenty of time for the trail and not using the busy sites made the trail very special.”

Royal Inca Trail

A half way house between walking the full trail and taking the train to Machu Picchu is the one-day or Royal Inca Trail.

You still need a permit for this route so it counts as being part of the 500 people daily allocation.

Basically you get the train almost all of the way up to Aguas Calientes then hop off with your guide at km104 and start to walk up the steep side of the valley.

The Urubamba River Valley is quite sheer sided at this point so the walk is a zig-zag up the hillside gaining about 700m of altitude.

The uphill part takes a good couple of hours before you emerge onto the main trail at Winaywayna, the last major Inca site before Machu Picchu.

From this point on you follow the main trail through some of its prettiest surroundings. At around 3pm you come to the Sun Gate for your first views of Machu Picchu, hopefully bathed in warm afternoon light.

From Sun Gate you walk another 4km to Machu Picchu itself, wander through the site, overnight in Aguas Calientes and then return to do a formal visit of the site the following day.

This is a great option for anyone who appreciates the idea of ‘earning’ that first view of Machu Picchu without having to commit to the full trail.

What is certain is that whichever way you choose to travel to Machu Picchu, it will be a special moment.

Inca Trail Practicalities

The night before your trail, we hold an Inca Trail briefing which will cover any important aspects of the walk but here is a sneak preview.

Inca Trail Permits

Each day the Peruvian Government allows 500 people onto the trail.

Permits are bought ahead of time, in fact they generally sell out up to 6 months in advance.

For all Pura Aventura holidays including the Inca Trail, we buy your permits at the time of booking and they form part of your Peru holiday price.

To get onto the trail you need to produce your passport for the Inca Trail by guards who tally your information with that on the permit.

There is no means of avoiding the permit system, you must be sure to be travelling on the same passport as the one used to purchase your permit.

When to walk to Machu Picchu

The season for the Inca Trail runs from March through November. Because Machu Picchu is 1,000m lower than Cusco it tends to be milder and wetter.

This is the drier part of the year but it is winter so you can also expect it to be colder. This is true as much of Cusco as for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.

How hard is the Inca Trail?

The full Inca Trail covers 40km over 4 days. However, it is at altitudes of up to 4,215m. The going can be slow and fairly tough on your joints. You must be used to hill walking to enjoy the trail.

The following is the pacing used on Pura Aventura’s version of the Inca Trail with the artwork courtesy of our guide Joaquin.

Day one is a short walk on easy terrain at lower altitude than Cusco so you should find this quite easy.

Walk 4km, 2 hours, up 50m

Day two is a longer walk, mostly uphill on good paths with some paved sections. This is the day where you will really start to feel the altitude.

Walk 10km, 6.5hrs, up 850m

Day three is the hardest day as you go over the highest pass on the trail, down then up over a second pass and finally down and over a small third pass.

Walk 15km, 8hrs, up 650m, down 850m

Day four is relatively long but you are losing altitude and walking down for most of the day. The path becomes much more structured with long sections of narrow steps and paved stretches. It can therefore be the toughest day for your knees.

Walk 11km, 6hrs, down 700m

The above breakdown relates to Pura Aventura’s pacing of the Inca Trail and is not representative of the daily distances on the ‘sunrise’ trail.

The normal pacing on the trail is to walk further on day one, cross Dead Woman’s pass on day two and then make it all the way to Winaywayna on day three. This leaves just a short hop for the early morning of day four.

Sleeping

You are going camp out for three consecutive nights.

The first night will be relatively mild as you are starting at about 2,600m.

The second two nights are spent camping at over 3,500m so you can expect very cold nighttime and early morning temperatures – below freezing is normal.

You sleep two people to a tent. Tents are generally three or four person size so fairly spacious and comfortable for two people.

Tents are pitched for you by the porters.

Pura provides thermal sleeping mats but not sleeping bags. We recommend that you rent these from our team in Cusco. Expect to pay around US$20.

These bags are cleaned between uses and are suitable, four season rated. You may want to take a cotton, silk or fleece sleeping bag liner to make them a little bit warmer and for hygiene reasons though again, bags are washed between each use.

Eating and drinking

Food on the Inca Trail is freshly and cleanly prepared by Pura’s highly experienced team of cooks.

Expect three course meals at lunch and dinner with hearty breakfasts.

Purified water is provided for you each day though you must bring your own bottle.

Hygiene

Pura groups carry a toilet tent with a portable loo which is pitched at a discreet distance from the group.

Each morning your porters wake you with a bowl of warm water with which to have a ‘bird bath’.

Luggage

The majority of your bags will be left in Cusco at the hotel. You will rejoin your stuff after the trail.

What you do take on the trail can weigh up to 7kg, including the sleeping bag.

It is therefore safest to assume that you have a 6kg allowance which will be carried for you by your porter.

When you set off on the trail you need to decant your 6kg into a sturdy bag (usually a bin liner is ideal).

The porters then load these into their duffel bags to strap on their backs, porters do not generally use backpacks.

Our porters

Walking the Inca Trail is made much, much easier by your team of porters. We are particularly proud of the work they do for us.

By the end of day one you are likely to really appreciate the work your porters are doing for you.

In the mornings they are there to wake you for breakfast with a cup of tea and warm water for a wash.

As you set off walking for the day, they pull up camp, overtaking you a while later fully laden with all of the gear.

A couple of hours later you come across them again and they will have prepared a three-course lunch for you on the side of the trail.

After this, you waddle onwards and upwards only to be overtaken again soon afterwards.

By the time you get to the day’s stopping point, the team will have set up the campsite, have supper on the go and greet you with a cup of tea!

Pura Aventura adheres strictly to the Porter Protection Policies in place on the Inca Trail.

In fact our porters are from the community of Chacllanca, about 45km from Cusco.

Generally they are subsistence farmers who supplement their earnings by working on the Inca Trail. Our two head chefs, Virgilio and Herlin are in charge of getting the teams together and are therefore the bosses.

Your team of porters is usually therefore made up of friends, family and neighbours who respect one another and work well together.

Tipping

On the Inca Trail it is customary to tip the guide as well as any cooks or porters.

The rule of thumb is that each porter/cook should receive around US$20 so the amount you give does rather depend on the group size.

A reasonable guideline is US$10 per passenger per day for the four days of the Inca Trail hike to go to the porters and cooks.

For the guide, who is usually with you for a full week US$10 per day per passenger is reasonable.

Guide to Peru: Machu Picchu

It isn’t surprising that so much has been written about Machu Picchu, it is a truly inspiring place. It is also a place about which almost nothing can be known with certainty. For this reason stories and theories abound.  Here we look at some of them and ultimately consider why Machu Picchu was built.

‘Discovery’ of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is spectacularly perched on a ridge between two mountains 500m above a dramatic curve in the Urubamba River valley.

The myth: the dashing American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, set off into the mountains of Peru to unearth the mythical lost city of the Inca.

The truth: Hiram Bingham was an explorer, neither he, nor any member of his 1911 party were archaeologists. He headed down to Peru as an adventurer, came to Cusco and decided to follow the newly opened road from Cusco to the Amazon.

Along the way a local family told him of a large ruin on a hillside. Melchor Arteaga led him up there and that’s how Machu Picchu was ‘discovered’.

You have to give the man credit – he could spin a yarn and his panache ensured that he was famous throughout his life, became a professor and even a senator.

Bingham returned to Machu Picchu in 1912 and 1915. Over the course of those three visits, pretty much everything of archaeological interest was stripped from the site and made its way to the museum at Yale.

There are currently moves afoot to have the estimated 40,000 artefacts returned to Peru.

Incredibly, Bingham’s stripping of Machu Picchu was so thorough that there have been no major archaeological digs at the site since 1915.

Myths of Machu Picchu

1911 happened to be the year Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’ was published creating an incredible buzz about the extraordinary and exotic continent of South America.

The discovery of a mystical city in the depths of Peru therefore hit the zeitgeist perfectly.

Bearing in mind the epoch and Bingham’s fertile imagination, really any old nonsense could be pedalled and absorbed as fact.

Some of the most stubborn myths persist. To this day you can hear guides at Machu Picchu talking about the princess tomb and sacrificial altars.

The human skulls found by Bingham’s expedition were measured and it was deemed that all of them were women. This led to the wilder theories about the virgin sacrifice.

Years later someone returned to the skeletons to establish the gender of the bodies by measuring their pelvic bones instead of their skulls – a rather more reliable indicator.

It turned out that there was an even split between male and female, rather putting paid to the virgin temple theories. And yet, they still persist.

The truth is that the “”Tomb of the Princess”" was thus named by Bingham because the stonework is amongst the finest in Machu Picchu and therefore would have been a tomb fit for a princess.

At no point has any evidence been produced to say that anyone’s remains were found there, let alone a princess.

In fact there are no indications of any ceremonial burials at Machu Picchu.

How was Machu Picchu built?

With difficulty.

The tools available to the Inca were fairly basic. Hammer stones as well as some small silver and bronze tools are all that have been found.

Bearing in mind that Machu Picchu is made of granite – one of the hardest rocks in nature – the building of Machu Picchu becomes an even more incredible achievement than is at first apparent.

In the quarry section of Machu Picchu you can see how they worked small holes in large rocks into which they poured water, leaving it to freeze overnight.

Over time a crack would appear in the rock and it could be split and worked.

Look at the scale of the building works and imagine the amount of people hours involved in building Machu Picchu.

Now look again because it is reckoned that around 60% of the structure of Machu Picchu is underground.

The terraces which drop off on either side of the central esplanade are in fact performing a vital engineering function.

The stone chippings were used to underpin and drain the central esplanade.

Despite being in an earthquake zone and despite receiving something like 1,900mm of rain a year, Machu Picchu is pretty much as good as new.

In the places where thatched rooves have been put onto the buildings, they appear habitable.

The water channel which was built to bring water from the nearest spring travels over the best part of 1km at a steady 3% gradient. In 1911 Hiram Bingham found only two places the canal had failed.

Whatever else is said about Machu Picchu, it is certainly an enormously impressive feat of engineering.

Why was Machu Picchu built?

This brings us on to the most controversial of all Machu Picchu topics – why?

Holy site theory

The most common theory is that it was a shrine, a holy site of permanent importance to the Inca. Machu Picchu was therefore simply a citadel built to protect the shrine.

The trouble with this theory is that there is only one archaeological strata at Machu Picchu which implies that it was occupied for a very limited period.

Inca holy sites (most obviously the temple of Koriakancha in Cusco) are never abandoned. There is layer upon layer of history with evidence of visitors and habitation throughout their history.

If Machu Picchu was an Inca shrine or specifically holy site then one would expect to see greater evidence of consistent activity. It is also unlikely that the whole site would have been allowed to become quite so overgrown.

Machu Picchu was already abandonded before the Spanish arrived, for this reason it was never discovered by them.

Finally, the 170 or so bodies found at Machu Picchu were buried in shallow, unmarked, unadorned graves so no people of importance either died or were buried here implying that it held no specific ceremonial importance.

The defensive theory

Machu Picchu was an outpost to guard against the Amazonian tribes, part of the defensive limits of the Inca empire.

However, Machu Picchu actually isn’t very well defended. It can be secured at the front very easily but coming in from behind (via the Sun Gate) would be apparently relatively easy.

Generally, the architecture of the place does not denote a primarily defensive or military function. Bear in mind that Ollantaytambo was built also during the reign of Pachacuti. This stands as testament to the fact that when the Inca wanted to build an impregnable fortress, they did so.

At Machu Picchu the water comes in from a spring several kilometres up the hill. If you are looking for a strong defensive position then you need a safe water supply.

The Agricultural theory

Machu Picchu is significantly lower than Cusco and therefore has a different climate in which one can grow different crops.

The terraces at Machu Picchu are actually quite small and the evidence found does point towards speciality crops such as herbs, flowers and maize having been grown.

However, the ecosystem at Machu Picchu is no different to that at nearby Winaywayna, a far larger and more accessible set of terraces.

There is no reason for the Inca to have constructed something as complex as Machu Picchu at the same time as constructing Winaywayna.

The Summer Palace theory

The most plausible of all theories is that it was simply a summer palace, a hunting lodge, a place of retreat and pleasure for the emporer Pachacuti and his entourage.

The scale of the terracing at Machu Picchu would feed a population of only around 50 people. If you add in the terraces in the river valley below then a permanent population of 300 becomes sustainable.

This would seem like a realistic permanent caretaker community and would be consistent with the number of bodies buried on the site and the fact that burials were non-ceremonial.

When the full royal entourage was in residence, foods would presumably have been brought in from nearby Winaywanyna, up from the Amazon and also from Llactapaca (lower terraces near the start of the Inca Trail hike).

What is known about the Inca is that the mountains were sacred. Therefore the setting of Machu Picchu mattered not necessarily for some strategic reason but quite simply because it was prettier.

In practical terms, Machu Picchu would have been easier to build and more secure with more extensive terracing if it had been built up the hill a ways. It just wouldn’t have looked as good.

Maybe the answer to Machu Picchu, the reason that it is so breathtaking is that the Inca placed it as beautifully as they knew how. Aesthetics taken to a higher, almost formally religious level.

Look closer and you really do begin to notice that Machu Picchu doesn’t so much sit on the mountain as grow out of it. There are places where it is hard to see where the natural rocks end and the stonework begins.

Look again and you will see the surrounding mountains quite deliberately reflected in the structures and the shapes of the stonework and buildings.

It is as if Machu Picchu is a reflection of the surrounding mountains, a homage to nature.

When an Inca emporer died, his legacy died with him and was preserved in his memory. That is to say that his palace in Cusco was placed under the supervision of caretakers but his successor had to build himself a new palace.

In some cases, an incoming emporer would also have to construct new roads. A perfectly good road leading from A to B already existed, having been built by their predecessor. However, on their death, the existing road became part of their heavenly estate and therefore a new road would have to be built – albeit right next to the old.

Machu Picchu was built in the reign of Pachacuti. Nearby you have the ruins of Choquequirao, very similar in style and conception to Machu Picchu. Choquequirao is attributed to Pachacuti’s son, Topa Inca.

When Pachacuti died then, Machu Picchu was effectively mothballed, a small caretaker population would have been sent to tend the place in his memory.

By the time the Spaniards arrived, that population would have dwindled and died out, leaving the cloudforest to gradually encroach on the once magnificent site.

It’s just one theory amongst many, but it certainly seems to have fewer inconsistencies than any of the others.