Peru is a gorgeous, biodiverse nation located along the western coast of South America. Made world famous by the incredible Inca Ruins of Machu Picchu, I’ve found there’s much more to discover in this wonderful country. Peru is home to a wide range of geographical regions, from the tropical Amazon rain forest to the Atacama desert to the world’s deepest canyons near Arequipa. But the Andes mountains are what drew me to Peru. I knew I had to go trekking and my time spent in the stunning Andes was hands down the highlight of my trip. Here’s why I think everyone should experience trekking in Peru and some tips to help you prepare!
Why Trek In Peru?
Peru was made for trekking. Like Nepal and Patagonia, Peru is one of the top places in the world to strap on your hikers and get outside to explore. The mighty Andes Mountains travel right through the center of Peru and those snow capped peaks are truly a sight to see. Walking through alpaca filled pastures and maybe even coming across an Inca Ruin is something purely Peruvian. Trekking in Peru is world class and there are so many areas and hikes to choose from. It’s never a question of should you trek, it’s simply a question of where.
On my recent trip to Peru I managed to squeeze in a 2 day trek to Ausungate Mountain and Rainbow Mountain near Cusco (but I would have loved to do a longer trek). Though I only did a short trek I learned a lot of about trekking in Peru vs. the Canadian Rockies and the Adirondacks (USA) where I normally hike (hello altitude!). Here are some things to consider when booking your trek and tips on what to do before, during and after your trek.
Choosing a Trekking Company
Since Peru is such a popular place to trek, there are hundreds of companies out there willing to be your guide. Be choosy with your company and look for reviews (I use Trip Advisor). If you’re already in Peru, ask around and see what other travelers have to say.
Pay attention to what camping gear is included and what your expected to bring (or rent). And as always, money matters so keep in mind you get what you pay for. A really cheap trek might sound great for your wallet but do you really want to be in the Andes with an old worn out sleeping bag and a tent that keeps falling over?
I did all my research from home in Canada and found an excellent company called Flaskpacker Connect. The tour that I chose was on the slightly more expensive side, BUT we had an incredible experience and were well taken care of. From the guides to the gear to the food, it was worth every penny.
Be sure to inquire about first aid training and oxygen. Every guide should carry oxygen with them during the trek at all times given the high altitude. This is basic mountain first aid and your guide should have some medical training/first aid knowledge.
Before Your Trek
Altitude & Acclimatization
Altitude can affect anyone, regardless of your physical fitness. It really just depends on the person. I’ve never done any sort of physical activity above 2300 m so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Cusco sits at a lofty 3400 m and my tour company strongly suggested you give yourself minimum 3 days to acclimatize before the trek. This was good advice as it does take some time for your body to adjust.
My boyfriend K felt mild altitude sickness when we arrived in Cusco. He experienced frequent (but mild) headaches and felt out of breath when walking up hills that shouldn’t have affected him at all. But by the 3rd day, he was feeling much better as his body adjusted to new elevation. Luckily I didn’t feel any difference until the start of the trek at 4100 m. There I noticed how easily out of breath I would get by just walking around.
If it’s your first time experiencing high altitude I would strongly suggest giving yourself time to acclimatize in a city like Cusco (if that’s the region you’re trekking in) prior to hiking. Most companies will advise you of this and how long you should give yourself. Some longer tours (ones that take care of you from airport back to airport) will usually build in acclimatization days.
Be familiar with symptoms of altitude sickness so you can gauge how you’re doing at high elevation. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, headache, feeling tired, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, nausea and dizziness. You may experience these to varying degrees or not at all.
K and I visited a travel clinic prior to departing on our trip and the doctor prescribed us Diamox (Acetazolamide), a common altitude sickness medication. It’s used to prevent altitude sickness so you start taking it before you even arrive at a higher altitude. Diamox works my increasing your respiration rate, therefore increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood. I can’t say if it helped or not because I don’t have anything to compare it to but none the less, I was glad to have it.
During the trek, when we reached our highest point at 5000 m, I did develop a mild headache. Later that afternoon while at camp, it turned into a pounding headache. I tried breathing deeper to get more oxygen in my body and drank a few cups of coca tea. But what really helped and completely resolved my headache was Advil (Ibuprofen). I had brought some along with me in my travel first aid kit and I was so glad I did. In the middle of the night both K and I woke with a headache but again, Advil came to the rescue.
Gravol is a brand name for Dimenhydrinate which is a anti-nausea medication. It’s mostly used for motion sickness and nausea. It was a 3 hr drive to the trailhead for my hike, half of that being on a winding dirt road. I usually don’t get motion sick in cars but occasionally I do, and this was one of those times. I had to take Gravol on both the drive in and out. If you ever get motion sick, I suggest bringing some Gravol just in case!
I am not a doctor nor do I have sufficient medical training to make recommendations on what medications you should take. I’ve mentioned them to simply share information on the medication that worked for me. Consult your doctor for recommendations on what the right medication is for you.
What To Wear/Bring
It’s All About Layers
This tip isn’t necessarily specific to Peru but to hiking in general. Mountain weather can change quickly and what might start out as a beautiful sunny day can suddenly change into a torrential downpour. Check the weather ahead of time to get a general feel for the daily highs and night time lows and ask your trekking company what type of weather you can expect. Bring layers that you can easily take on and off as the temperatures change.
On my trek, I started out in a t-shirt but by the time I arrived at camp a few hours later, I was also wearing my mid-layer jacket and Gortex shell. By nightfall I had put on my long underwear, warm hat and gloves as the temperatures dropped to just above freezing.
Wear synthetic or wool clothing, never cotton. Synthetic and wool clothing are generally better at wicking sweat, keeping you warm even when wet and dry fast once damp. Marino wool is one of the best types out there and has the added bonus of not smelling, even after wearing the same top for multiple days!
One thing I never leave at home when hiking in any mountains is my Gortex jacket and pants. They keep me dry in the rain and also block out the wind. Although I never had to use my rain pants on my trek, I was happy to carry them with me just in case. This is a piece of clothing that when you need it, you really need it!
I strongly suggest wearing comfortable, broken in hikers if you’re doing anything longer than 1 day. This is not the place for running shoes! Low or high top hikers are fine, it really depends on your preference. I prefer high top hikers as they offer more support for my ankles and protect them from rocks and vegetation. Gortex hikers are an added bonus and will prevent your feet from getting wet if it rains (or if you encounter snow).
Depending on your trek, you may be required to carry all your own gear or just what you need for the day. Either way you will be carrying a backpack so make sure its the appropriate size and it fits well. You want good, sturdy waist straps so the weight of the bag will rest on your hips, not your shoulders. Make sure the back is the right height for you and bring a rain cover for it.
During Your Trek
Slow & Steady
When trekking at high altitude, slow and steady will definitely win the race. Take small steps and move slowly to keep your breathing even and regular. Take breaks often. There’s no point in racing, getting out of breath and then having to stop for half an hour to get your breathing back under control. Even when you’re hiking slow and steady you’ll need to stop for breaks but it won’t take you very long to recover. Breaks are also a great time to take in the amazing views around you and snap a few pictures!
Bring Lots Of Snacks
I was surprised at how much more I ate while at a higher altitude, even when I was in Cusco! As a new arrival to higher elevation, your body will be working much harder, even when at rest. Just think about it, you need more oxygen so you breath faster and your heart pumps faster in an effort to deliver more oxygen throughout the body. This all burns calories at a much faster rate than if you were at sea level.
I brought extra snacks with me on my trek, although we were well fed and I didn’t end up using much of my own stash. High calorie snacks such as chocolate bars and power bars are a good option as they provide quick easy energy for your body.
After Your Trek
Be sure to tip your guides and cooks! In Peru it’s customary to tip after being guided through an activity. The topic was brought up during my pre-trip briefing and I asked my guide what the customary amount was. Another trekker mentioned to me that they had been told $5 USD/day is a standard rate. If you feel that your guide went above and beyond, maybe tip a bit more.
Plan For An Easy Day
The day after you return from your trek plan on having a chill day. Give yourself some time before heading out on your next adventure. Maybe book a massage or just laze around your hotel. You’ll be tired so give your body a chance to recover!
Exploring Peru’s incredible Andes mountains should definitely be at the top of your bucket list. Peru is a mecca for the outdoors and trekking is one of the best ways the explore, if you’re prepared. Spend a few days getting acclimatized and do your research ahead of time. Find a great trekking company that will give you the experience you’re after. Packing the appropriate clothing could make or break your trek so follow the advice of your guides on what to bring. But most of all, be ready for an incredible journey and a once-in-a-lifetime experience!