If you asked the average person to name a few fitness-friendly travel destinations, Peru might not be at the top of the list.
But the sheer amount of adrenaline-inducing activities you can do there prove it should be. Peru is the definition of an exotic adventure setting: lush, humid jungles teeming with flora and fauna fade into bone-dry deserts, and, of course, rugged mountain ranges that soar 14,600 feet above sea level. And hundreds of miles of shoreline, you can do pretty much anything—paragliding, sandboarding, hiking, take your pick—on your way toward the ultimate trifecta in adventure travel.
So, naturally, when I was asked to participate in a five-day, four-night escapade called the Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru, I figured it’d be one hell of an opportunity to try all that out. I imagine you’d liken such an opportunity to, say, shagging Halle Berry, or maybe bumping plates with The Rock in some hole-in-the-wall gym, or quitting your job and assuming the identity of some billionaire who owns more private islands than he does shirts. There are some experiences in life that, regardless of the timing or fine print, you throw yourself at with unflinching fervor. You take that golden egg, and you worship the crap out of it.
And to be fair: I didn’t really know what to expect, what challenges I’d face, or exactly how taxing high-altitude mountain climbing would actually be. I learned that fitness doesn’t always prepare you for everything—and that while preparation is great, adaptability is even better.
Here’s everything I took away from my trip to Machu Picchu, and how you can apply it to your own excursion to Peru (or any hiking-centric adventure trip, for that matter).
Before you go
1. Invest in solid hiking boots
Your gear is an extension of your body, and nothing’s more important than the boots carrying your ass over miles of craggy, uneven terrain. Just about any mountainous hiking trip demands boots to provide better traction and balance, protect your feet, and prevent your ankles from snapping.
My suggestion: Invest in trusted brands like The Noth Face, Vasque, Danner, or Garmont to get fitted for a proper pair. (You might have to go up a half size depending on your socks and if you add inserts like arch supports). Talk the salesperson’s ear off. Read a million reviews. See if there’s a return policy that lets you sample a pair with no-questions-asked returns, just in case you absolutely hate them after a week of testing. Do the literal legwork and give your feet plenty of time to adapt, beacuse even though we’re past the are-these-made-of-concrete era of boots that were impossible to break in, many pairs of boots needs a grace period when they’re fresh out of the box.
That’s not always the case, though. There are plenty of lightweight models that don’t even need breaking in, as with my pair of The North Face Ultra Fastpack II Mid Gore-Tex boots. Just remember: Suffering through blisters and bruised shins because you didn’t do your due diligence is almost as bad as the embarrassment and pain of hiking in soggy flip flops.
2. Pack for every season
Peru basically has two seasons: dry (April to October) and wet (December to March). That said, weather doesn’t always comply with that hard-and-fast timeframe. And as of late, Peru’s weather has been fairly unpredictable (thanks, global warming).
Beyond climate, though, mountainous regions often experience wicked temperature swings. You could be baking under a big fat sun one minute, then scrambling for cover in a deluge the next. Temperatures can also fall into the low 20s and teens at night, so plan on wearing layers, and always have rain gear in your pack. I like the supremely light and packable Progressor Insulated Hybrid Hoodie from The North Face for moderate temps, and the Patagonia Men’s Better Sweater Fleece Jacket for chillier drops.
3. Set up an international data plan or global Wi-Fi
In case of emergencies—i.e. you fall in a ditch and break your leg, get rabies from one of the many adorable (albeit stray) Peruvian dogs, or come down with yellow fever—it makes a world of a difference to be able to call for help, tell a loved one, or simply pass the time catching up on some Netflix as you’re being transported along a bumpy, winding road in the back of a van to the nearest clinic. (“Nearest,” by the way, could mean “400 miles away.”) When you’re prepared for emergencies, they won’t happen. Which brings us to…
4. Get travel insurance and/or always carry your health insurance card
Some travel agencies or travel guide companies provide a policy or partner with an insurance company to offer coverage for medical emergencies and treatments. Look into the details to see what’s covered. At the very least, tote your insurance card with you. And if you do end up in a clinic, make sure you have a widely-accepted credit card, like Visa, and that you’ve contacted your credit card provider to let them know you’ll be traveling internationally. Because, no, Venmo is not an option in case your credit card becomes null.
Other credit card companies, like American Express, offer travel insurance on trips. Do some digging to see if your card offers it, and if it may be worthwhile for yours.
5. Research your destination
Sometimes trolling through the glossy pictures on Instagram can ruin an experience.
Our advice: Talk to people who have made the journey before. Read trusted guidebooks. Look up blogs of people who have traveled someplace before. And use Instagram as a source! It’s basically an up-to-date picture book travel guide. Don’t keep yourself in the dark in fear of being underwhelmed. Combined, all of the above can help you get ahold of some unbelievable restaurants, insider tips (like when to visit a certain archaeological site so there are fewer tourists), and unrivaled opportunities. Social media can clue you in on that remote but stunning hot spring locals visit but you’d otherwise never find in traditional brochures and pamphlets. Just be sure you leave some down time here and there. You don’t want everything to be micromanaged because then it stops feeling like a vacation, and more like you’re running errands or crossing things off a to-do list.
6. Determine whether to take a solo trip or join a group tour
With a trip like this tour of Peru and its trek to Machu Picchu, there are so many moving parts and logistical contingencies that going with a service like Mountain Lodges of Peru can mean the best bang for your buck. In a country like Peru, transportation in and out of cities, up mountains, and to Machu Picchu (if you’re not hiking) can be difficult to lock down (especially if you’re not fluent in Peruvian-accented Spanish.)
It can be a huge relief to sit down to pre-made meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner are provided by every lodge), enjoy guided tours worth experiencing, and get passes and tickets rolled in to one package. It’s nice to let go and let someone else take care of you—especially when the lodges offer hot showers, giant, fluffy beds, and unique ammenities like massages, private hot tubs, and backyard llamas. (They had me at llamas.) No one’s going to leave a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag or a chocolate in your tent every night if you camp, but it all depends on what kind of experience you want. Mountain Lodges of Peru also offers a Grand Andean Experience and Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, which are excellent options if you want a more rugged experience.
7. Befriend hiking poles (no, they’re not for ninnies)
If you’ve never used trekking poles or hiking staffs, you’ve probably never gone downhill at an impressive clip at an even more impressive decline. And that, in turn, means you’ve probably never experienced the knee-crushing agony of bracing your every step to keep from careening down that decline.
Trekking poles don’t make you less of a man, they make you a mountain man. The two extra points of stability not only take a load off your joints, but also help you retain your balance on slippery downhills. I liked the Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec DSS folding trekking poles from Leki, which store easily when you’re not using them.
8. Become a portable pharmacy
If you’re going to a drastically different location than you’re used to, expect not to feel quite right. But also be prepared to relieve some of the discomfort: Why suffer through a vacation?
Cover your bases: Pack blister Band-Aids, regular Band-Aids, an anti-chafe stick (they exist and they work), your pain-reliever of choice, something for gastrointestinal distress, and allergy meds. When traveling through Peru, I doled out Excedrin and Claritin like Tic-Tacs. Peru’s elevation ranges from 7,000-14,000 feet, so altitude sickness was a very real part of every day.
9. Learn some of the language
In Peru, the locals mainly speak Spanish, and Quechua, the indigenous language of the Inca Empire. You can imagine how remarkably challenging Quechua is to speak, but Spanish? It’s a breeze to pick up a few vital phrases. Learn how to say “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” “How are you?”, “Do you speak English?”, “How much is this?”, and “Please call a doctor” just in case. Even though English is widely spoken across Europe, Central and South America, and beyond, learning a little bit of the native tongue shows you respect and value the culture of the country you’re visiting enough to learn their language. Or at least try. The effort won’t go unappreciated.
10. Get your mountain legs
So you can squat 400 lbs and probably heave an SUV if you really tried. But if you’re going on a hiking trip and you’ve never really hiked before, do yourself a solid and prep your legs. You can have quads of steel, which’ll definitely help, but your calves, hammies, glutes, and feet muscles also need to get used to the pounding, unrelenting clip of hiking and trekking.
(About the terminology: “Hiking” is more leisurely and done on man-made roads and well-worn trails, while “trekking” is more rigorous and can include plowing through uncharted areas, which takes greater endurance and concentration).
While wearing your pack and approximately all the gear you’ll have in your day pack, hike around your local area, scramble over some rocks, hell, even go on the StairMaster. Wynapicchu (or, Huayna Picchu) is the large, imposing mountain that sits behind the archaeological site of Machu Picchu. I lovingly coined it “The Stairs of Death,” because you climb to nearly 9,000 feet—you guessed it—almost entirely by stairs, some of which are slick with water and mud, others that can barely fit a hiking boot on, and most that jut out at weird angles in the rock face. Combined with the high altitude and thinner oxygen supply, my legs were shaking like a newborn alpaca’s—and that was before I started the descent back down.
11. Improve your cardiovascular fitness
Improving your VO2 max won’t make you better equipped to handle higher altitude (sorry). It is, however, smart to build a stellar baseline of cardiovascular fitness for a trip like this, because you’ll better maintain your physical performance. (Nobody wants to be the mouth-breather huffing and stopping every 10 seconds).
Start by going on some trail runs. The uneven terrain will work your lungs and legs more than trotting on asphalt or a treadmill. Try to focus on keeping your breathing regulated and maintain a steady pace. Take minimal breaks. You can also boost your VO2 max, aka the maximum amount of oxygen your body can consume, with these VO2 max-boosting workouts.
12. Pack tissues and biodegradable body wipes
I know what you’re thinking: I’m a shake-and-go kinda guy. Fine. But let me lay out a couple of scenarios for you:
- You swallowed a little too much tap water when you were brushing your teeth.
- you ate a Guinea pig (a Peruvian staple) that’s just not jivving well with your gut.
- You’re just suffering a bout of the runs because of some other untimely gastrointestinal illness.
Point is, shit happens whether you’re ready for it or not, and being prepared can mean the difference between picking leaves off a bush to clean up your urgent business or having a nice little square of tissue.Also note: Even if you’re in a lodge, hotel, or campsite, Peru (like many other countries) advises you not to flush any paper down toilets to help the septic system. You toss it in a trash bin next to the toilet.
13. Plan to take 2 days to acclimate to the altitude
The best way to prep your body for high altitudes is to get up in high altitudes. Plan to arrive in Cusco a day or two before. This will give you time to adjust, as well as explore the city before your journey begins. There’s a reason high altitudes really f$%^ you up—and why sherpas and native guides are seemingly immune to its effects.
14. Weigh the pros/cons of checking a bag
Flights from the States to Peru are on the pricier side (if you want a direct flight), so generally you have to make one or two layovers. Consequently, ask if your checked luggage/duffel/pack can be sent directly to your final destination (so you don’t have to find it on the belt in, say, Lima, then go through the whole process of checking it again for your connecting flight). Checking a bag is also useful if you’re bringing trekking poles, bug spray, sunscreen, and other items that won’t fly by security in a carry-on. And while it’s nice not having to lug too much through an airport, you definitely want to either wear your hiking boots or pack them in your carry-on bag, keep a pair of warm hike-ready clothes, medication, and essentials with you just in case your checked bag gets lost or takes its own vacation to the Galapagos Islands.
15. Acquaint yourself with airport layouts and the international travel process
Going out of the U.S. is a bit simpler than returning. You check a bag, go through security, and hop on your planes without having to go through immigration or customs. But coming back to the States generally requires you to go through security and immigration/customs at each airport, which can really cut your layover time short—especially if your flights aren’t taking off on time. If you can, ask a flight attendant or crew member right outside your gate to point you in the right direction, whether that’s a gate, terminal, or security. Again, knowing the language comes in handy. Pleading in their language is more effective, too.
When you’re there
16. Take out the native currency in the airport
In Peru, the currency is the Nuevo Sol, which has a terrific exchange rate for Americans (1 sol equals .31 U.S. dollars). Obviously you want to know this before you get to your destination so you’re not baffled by the price of a soda or utterly clueless about how much you realistically need to take out. Now, ATMs are plentiful in most cities around the world, but the reason you want to at least get some currency out before you leave the airport is to be able to tip a cab driver or whoever helps you with your bags. Some cultures aren’t shy about asking for tips for a service, so be prepared. Do some research to see what’s expected and typical of tipping guides and staff wherever you’re staying, and make sure you get small bills and coins as few people will have change handy. Also be aware certain tourist destinations that offer popular picture opportunities can cost you. For example, local women will charge you to take pictures of them and/or their children, to hold a baby llama (which could very well be a sheep), or to pose with an alpaca. It’s only about a sol, but make sure you’ve got some handy.
17. Drink water until you can’t—then drink some more
Altitude sickness can largely be avoided or lessened by staying hydrated. Don’t be cheap about paying for water bottles and by no means should you drink tap water. Try to avoid coffee and alcohol, too, as they can worsen dehydration and the symptoms of altitude sickness. Most locals and guides will tell you altitude sickness medication isn’t recommended. Hydration will do just as good of a job—only without the wonky side effects.
18. Don’t underestimate your need for bug spray and sunscreen
The sun and wind are unbelievably strong in Peru’s highlands. Wear a hat that protects your ears and neck, or be liberal about reapplying sunscreen. Depending on the season, you want to be mindful of mosquitoes, too. Long pants are a must, even during warmer days. At night, if you’re camping, you absolutely need to be sheltered. Don’t fall asleep in a hammock or under the stars with any skin showing either. You’ll wake with mosquito bites covering every square inch of naked flesh. Not ideal.
19. Don’t play down aches or illnesses
If you feel nauseous, say something. If your boots are cutting into your ankle, do something. If you’re puking uncontrollably from what you thought was motion or altitude sickness, get help. Food- and insect-borne infections like salmonella and dengue can happen—the latter is more prevalent closer to Machu Picchu as it’s located near the Amazon Basin. Talk to your guide about everything you’re experiencing. If he/she says your symptoms are normal, and requests you stop depicting every bowel movement, heed their expert advice. If they say you need to be taken to a clinic, listen and do as they say.
20. Take a second to appreciate where you are
With its impossibly intricate architecture and dwarfing natural landscape, Machu Picchu—like Stonehenge—is one of those surreal, spiritual places that seems to boggle the mind and grounds you. In Peru, the people worship “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) and “Apus” (the spirit and religion of nature), and there’s no doubt you will too.
Hiking through Peru to Machu Picchu is the perfect way to test your body, purge your life of unimportant stressors (if only momentarily), and connect with some ancient earth. Pause and relish in these moments, whether you’re mountain biking past local potato farmers, resting at the apex of a hill, or walking along the edge of the Amazon.