With a guide’s help, the Sheaffers were prepared for trek challenges. // © 2015 Cindy D. Sheaffer
Feature image (above): The family reached Machu Picchu on day four of their journey. // © 2015 Cindy D. Sheaffer
"Get ready for ‘wow.’”
That was my favorite line that I would hear from our guide as my family and I hiked the Inca Trail, Peru’s famous 26-mile route that links Cusco and Machu Picchu. Those words meant that something spectacular would present itself once we turned a corner or crested a ridge.
We had many such moments along the way, but of course the biggest “wow” came when we finally reached Machu Picchu on day four.
Our journey turned out to be the perfect vacation for the entire family, an ideal combination of culture, outdoor activity, adventure and endless photo opportunities. The trip was a gift from me and my husband to our two children, ages 18 and 21 — one was graduating from high school, the other from college.
According to David Moore, president of Dallas-based tour operator Adventure Associates, trekking the Inca Trail is a magical bonding experience for families. He recommends the trip to outdoorsy groups who are relatively fit. Teens are the perfect age, he said, so long as they are willing to disconnect from their electronic devices.
Our tour with Adventure Associates began in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Moore recommends travelers stay here at least two days in order to acclimate to the altitude.
For most trekkers, the Inca Trail takes a total of four days. I read about the journey before we went, but that didn’t truly prepare me for the challenges — and magnificence — we experienced. Photos and words cannot capture the splendor of what you see, or the breathlessness you feel when you’ve climbed to above 8,000 feet.
A good guide is essential to the trek — and required. Ours was knowledgeable, cheerful, compassionate and an all-around perfect leader. He seemed to always have what we needed. If our energy was falling, he would offer a chocolate bar; if someone had a sore throat, a throat lozenge appeared.
Adventure Associates contracts with regional operator Metropolitan Touring to arrange guides, and client satisfaction is high. When I noted that our guide was top-notch, Moore said that all of his clients say the same about their guides.
Our porters were equally critical, as they carried our belongings from campsite to campsite, except for what we needed for each day’s hike. They also set up the campsites — since they moved faster than us, they arrived to each location before we did, and often everything was ready by the time we got there. Before our trip, our son thought it was cheating to have someone else carry his gear; he quickly changed his mind when he experienced the challenges of hiking at such high altitudes.
Only 500 people are allowed on the trail each day, so it rarely feels crowded. For the most part, it was just our family of four, our guide and all that Andean grandeur. When we finally arrived at Machu Picchu, it was exactly as we had imagined: nothing short of breathtaking. And we were proud that we arrived by foot, the way the Incas did.
Families not quite up to a four-day hike can take an alternative one-day hike from Chachabamba to Machu Picchu. The trail is about 6 miles long and at a more moderate elevation. The one-day hike is suitable for children as young as 8 years old, according to Moore. But remember, no matter what trek a family selects, reserving a permit is best done at least six months before the trip.