If trekking the Inca Trail is firmly on your gap year to-do list, you'll no doubt be excited about the prospect of visiting the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. It's not quite as simple as turning up and walking, though, so here are some tips to help you prepare for your gap year adventure.
One of the best ways to make sure you fully enjoy the experience of trekking in the Andes is to build up your fitness levels before you go. You'll need to book your tour on the Inca Trail well in advance of your trip, so you'll have several months in which to prepare.
Firstly, you don't need to be super-fit in order to enjoy the hike; as long as you have a moderate level of fitness you'll be fine. But what is a "moderate level of fitness" I hear you ask? Well, one of the best ways to see whether you'll struggle with the route is to embark on a reasonably long, hilly walk in the UK.
If you're struggling to reach the top of hills without stopping and if you ache a lot in the days afterwards, it's probably advisable to do some training. This doesn't mean spending hours in the gym, though, it can be as simple as tackling one reasonably challenging hike each weekend, making sure you also do two or three consecutive days walking once or twice in the weeks before you jet off.
Booking your trek
You cannot simply turn up in Peru and organise to trek the Inca Trail in a matter of days. The number of travellers who can follow the route is limited to 500 per day, so spots fill up quickly! The best time to tackle the hike is between April and October, although in the peak season (June to August) you'll need to book at least three months in advance.
Bear this in mind when you're planning your other travelling and make sure you organise your flights and itinerary accordingly.
There is no way to tell how your body will deal with being at altitude, so it's one of those things you just have to wait and find out once you arrive. Cusco, where the Inca Trail begins, is already at 3,400 m above sea level, so spending a few days in this vibrant city is an excellent way to acclimatise.
Don't do too much when you first get there - allow yourself at least two days between arriving in Cusco and setting off on your trek. Being well hydrated can also prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness setting in, so drink lots of water. You should also avoid alcohol before your trek, as this dehydrates your body.
The locals will offer you coca leaf tea - also called mate de coca - which is believed to help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. Try it and see if it helps you - it doesn't taste too bad, kind of similar to green tea!
While the weather along the Inca Trail can be quite varied and you need to be prepared for cold, hot, wet and sunny conditions, don't fill your bag with unnecessary items! The average trek only lasts four days, so you won't need dozens of changes of clothes. Taking layers is advisable to help deal with the changing temperatures between day and night, while a waterproof coat is a must.
Even though you'll have porters to carry your main luggage, spare a thought for them! They don't need to cart hairdryers, multiple pairs of shoes or other souvenirs you've collected on your travels up the mountains. If you have a lot of excess luggage in your backpack, see if you can buy a spare, cheap bag and arrange to leave it at your hostel or hotel until you get back.
Don't worry if you suddenly realise you've forgotten something important like your sleeping bag - most of the items you need for the trek can either be bought or hired in Cusco before you set off.