THE very idea of hiking in the Andes may send some unadventurous types running for the nearest beachfront chaise longue. But though this trip is harder than a walk in your local woods, it may be easier than you think. Companies that offer ``adventure travel'' vacations plan trips at different levels of difficulty, depending on terrain, weather, and length of stay. Though most treks require some physical conditioning, many require not much more preparation than vigorous weekend day hikes or jogging after work.
Peru is one of the most popular trekking destinations. Roads have yet to intrude upon the bucolic beauty of the Andes; one valley is linked to the next by footpaths used by the highlanders for the last 600 years. The treks offer spectacular views of the Vilcabamba Range or the Cordillera Blanca, which includes 27 peaks over 20,000 feet.
The actual trek begins when you rendezvous with the camp crew and pack animals at the trail head. As many as 30 porters can accompany 17 hikers, and lines of trekkers loaded with gear are familiar sights to the people in the highlands. You know you've left the city behind when you surrender the path you're on to men on burros and women herding sheep.
Our first nights on the trail were spent in tents pitched by a rushing stream under the shadow of a gleaming 19,000-foot, snow-covered mountain, the first days, walking up hills and through valleys, past an occasional adobe home. Quietness, space, and light, were everywhere.
Our hiking brought us closer to the 15,000-foot pass we will have to cross to join the Inca Trail several valleys below. As we climbed on the third morning, the rain that had begun the night before turned to snow. The trail was steep, and our trekking progress was winding and slow. The porters were nowhere to be seen. We happily reached the 15,500-foot summit at midmorning, during a steady snowfall. There, we learned that the porters had gone ahead, running up the mountain in sandals with our packs on their backs, and were waiting on the other side of the pass, where it was warm and green.
The routine of the next several days included easy-to-strenuous hiking six hours a day. We bathed in waterfalls, learned to spot wild orchids, explored ruins overgrown with grass, and met many more grazing steer on the trail than we did other hikers.
The 30-mile Inca Trail, part of the miles of stone-paved walkways built during the Inca Empire, leads straight to Machu Picchu. We glimpsed it on the morning of the seventh day, an abandoned city of stone perched on a 9,000-foot mountain.
After a hot morning on the trail, we climbed to Intipunkti, once the most important guard post of the city. Machu Picchu lay below us, a stone maze on the top of a mountain, surrounded by steep cliffs and a raging brown river below.
As we descended the mile-long ridge trail and Machu Picchu came more clearly into focus, it was a traveler's dream come true, worth every step of the 40-mile, seven-day trek to reach it. Walking toward the towering main archway of this old city, down a 100-step stairway hand carved from granite, I was happy my beachfront chaise longue was in storage.
Treks usually start from Cuzco, a city large enough to interest a tourist, yet small enough to cover on foot. Cuzco is only a one-hour flight from Lima. But Lima lies at sea level, and Cuzco is at 11,500 feet. When you arrive in Cuzco, the air is noticeably thinner.
Cuzco was one of the great cities of the world from 1430 to 1530, the height of the Inca Empire. It was inhabited by the imperial family, their court, and the administrators. The city and surrounding country contain remains of stone palaces, temples, and baths that show the engineering skill of the Incas.
The size of a trekking tour is usually 10 to 16 people. There are no age restrictions; some recent trekking veterans have been in their 70s. The adventure-travel companies that offer treks in Peru take care of everything, from plane reservations to the foam pad that lines your tent. Porters and pack animals carry your gear; so you hike with just a day pack.
Treks last anywhere from four days on up. I found seven days just long enough to get away from it all without becoming uncomfortable with the rustic conditions on the trail. The whole tour was 18 days, which allowed for traveling to and from Peru, sightseeing before and after the trek (including stays in comfortable first-class hotels), and altitude acclimatization.
If you go
These companies offer treks to Peru:
Overseas Adventure Travel, 349 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139; phone 800-221-0814 or, from inside Massachusetts, (617) 876-0533.
Wilderness Travel, 801 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94710; phone 800-247-6700 or, from inside California, (415) 548-0420.
Mountain Travel, 1398 Solano Ave., Albany, CA 94706; phone 800-227-2384 or from inside California, (415) 527-8100.