The best and most affordable tours in this hugely popular market, from novices to hard-core trekkers
Are you a "closet" walker? While others jog on their vacations, or go bicycling or white-water rafting, do you simply sneak off to walk, in utter bliss, for miles and miles?
If so, you're one of a growing number of Americans who go away to walk--even to places thousands of miles from home. They believe, along with the American Heart Association, that brisk walking is the most healthful holiday sport, as aerobic as running (and far easier on the joints), and the best possible way to approach the life and people of an unfamiliar destination. The popularity of walking has resulted in the emergence of a surprising number of walking-tour operators covering every part of the globe.
With some operators, you walk inn to inn while a van carries your gear ahead or brings you lunch. With others, you remain three or four days at a time in one base--a country hotel or a cluster of B&Bs--and walk from there. While England is clearly the most popular destination for walking vacations, few of the world's flatlands are spared attention by walking-tour operators.
Because not everyone walks to the beat of the same drummer (nor at the same pace), we've divided up these "pedestrian" packages into three major categories: trekking (usually longer journeys that involve walking in exotic locations), country walking (casual strolls over fairly easy terrain in quaint country settings), and hiking (for serious outdoor enthusiasts). Many of these groupings overlap, so please forgive us for generalizing.
An introduction to traveling by foot
Though only the barest handful of travel agents understand the term--and some misuse it horribly--international trekking has become a substantial travel activity for at least 20,000 Americans each year, and is currently marketed by upward of five major nationwide organizations. In oversimplified terms, trekking is walking--the healthiest sport on earth--but walking of a special nature, elevated to a high art and mental adventure. Unlike the hiking and backpacking pursued by individuals, trekking is an intricate, organized, group activity in which porters or pack animals carry your camping gear, cooking utensils, and food from one overnight campsite to another. Relieved of that weight, you're able to go where roads and paths aren't, through the most exotic of nations, over breathtaking terrain, but without performing feats of endurance or possessing mountaineering skills. Persons in their middle age are a familiar sight on treks, as are families and even seniors into their seventies.
That's not to say that minimal vigor isn't required--it is. Yet hundreds of perfectly ordinary, normally sedentary (even chubby) Americans are today found in such unlikely locations as the historic, 18,000-foot-high base camp in Nepal used by intrepid climbers for the assault on Mount Everest. They get there by trekking--organized walking--without setting a single metal wedge into stone or tugging a single rope.
I used the examples of Nepal and Peru advisedly. For reasons not entirely clear to me, almost all international treks are operated to mountain areas of the world: the Himalayas, the Andes, the Swiss Alps in particular. (While you don't go atop them, you walk along their easy lower slopes, usually at elevations of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.) Though it is theoretically possible to trek through lowland valleys supplied with roads, it is apparently felt inappropriate and uninspiring to do so.
The mountain kingdom of Nepal, at the northern border of India, is the chief trekking destination, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all treks. The associated Indian states of Sikkim, and Ladakh, and portions of Bhutan, Pakistan, and Tibet, draw another 10% of all trekkers. Together these areas flank the full length of the most remarkable geographical feature on earth--the 1,500-mile-long chain of the Himalayas, the world's tallest mountains.
It was Nepal, almost entirely covered by mountains, that set off the trend to trekking. A country with scarcely any roads at all, isolated from the outside world until the 1950s, its widely scattered mountainside villages harbor 35 different ethnic groups, whose ways of life have been scarcely touched by outside influences.
The people of Nepal have a particular tradition of hospitality to strangers. As you trek the trails from village to village along the south slope of the Himalayas, you are invited to tea in small council chambers, sometimes to stay the night in the homes of villagers or in monasteries.
With unlimited access to the world's greatest mountains, in this peaceful Shangri-La whose half-Hindu, half-Buddhist population coexists without conflict, your own near-spiritual reactions are almost too intimate to describe. You awake at 6:30 a.m., when a cup of steaming tea or coffee is thrust through the flaps of your tent by a member of the cooking staff. Accompanied by experienced Sherpa guides, you take to the trails, trekking seven to ten miles a day at your own pace. The trip starts and ends in the other-worldly capital of Kathmandu, reached by air via New Delhi or Bangkok.