Q: I've heard that the Inca Trail in Peru will be closed starting in February for repairs. Despite the fact that this is a world-renowned destination, I can't find out if this is true. Is it? Anything else I should know to plan a hike there? Thanks,
Buzz Burrell, Boulder, Colorado
A: You'd think that a trail walked by thousands of hikers each year would have a reasonably accessible information hub where someone could look for such particulars as, oh I dunno, the announcement of a month-long closure. But the amount of sleuthing it takes to find definitive answers about the Inca Trail can be as awe-inspiring as Machu Picchu itself. For future reference, the fastest way to get information is to ask a reputable outfitter. Tour operators whose existence depends on pestering government officials for trail updates will almost always have the answers you need.
To get to your question: Yes, the trail will be closed the entire month of February. During this time, missing steps will be restored, dead grass will be replanted, and a few much-needed trailside toilets will be installed. The maintenance is geared toward minimizing the impact of the trail's interminable stream of tourists. The closure applies not only to the traditional 25-mile, four-day, three-night route, but also to the three most popular alternates.
The cleanup, scheduled to take place annually, is part of new management plan implemented early last year by the Peruvian government. Other significant changes include a stricter permitting process in which individual hikers are no longer allowed on the trail; only those traveling with a government-certified guide will be given access. And to pay for maintenance costs, permit prices have been raised to $50 (students and children pay $25). The new rules also dictate that plastic water bottles are forbidden, as are pets, fires, and litteringwhat a concept. Also, anyone caught disturbing the "morality or peace" will receive an as-yet-undefined punishment. You can request a copy of the fine print from the government tourist office, PromPerú (011-511-224-9355, firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you simply must hike the trail in February, fear not: Two alternate paths remain open, and several outfitters are willing to take you there. Adventure Life Journeys (www.adventure-life.com, 800-344-6118), for instance, offers custom trips, in addition to eight pre-set Peru itineraries that cover the country from Amazon to Andes. So there's no need to stay home and mope until the masses return in March.