"Only 200 hikers per day are permitted to walk the Inca Trail. We’d hiked 39 kms to reach this point, there was no rush. Machu Picchu was built in the 15th Century, it would continue to wait patiently for us to arrive."
Put Machu Picchu on your bucket list,
and not just a train trip to the ruins, the whole 4 day trek.
But I wanted to finish our 5 month trip of a lifetime with something truly epic. Ticking the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu off our bucket list seemed like the perfect adventure. I loved Aztec and Inca history at school and getting as far out of my comfort zone as possible before returning to reality/work in New Zealand sounded fantastic.
We were not disappointed, it was the top highlight of our trip. What was surprising was not just how breath-taking the scenery was, but how much the experience taught me but how much I learned about myself personally. The physical challenge I expected, but the self-discovery is what changed me.
I must admit we booked our tour in the midst of quitting our jobs and booking 5 months travel across Africa, Europe and South America. I read over all the information and then shelved in the back of my brain for a “much later date”. Occasionally while consuming too many pastries in France or beer in Germany we joked about the number of steps we’d be walking as the ultimate anecdote.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Our group was friendly and welcoming but their first questions were 1) how are you finding the altitude sickness pills? and 2) how much training have you done? We had a sickening realisation that we’d been too casual about our preparation. We managed to divert our attention and keep our mild panic hidden for the rest of the meeting. Turned out most of the people we would be travelling with had run marathons, hiked extensively or in one case, trained in an altitude gym. Cue regret about all the pastries I’d consumed in France!
By the end of the briefing meeting I was terrified. I’d gone from excited to paralysed. We’d paid the non-refundable fees and were set to depart the next morning. I couldn’t do anything about the lack of preparation but I did find a chemist to stock up on what I hoped was altitude sickness pills.
In my mind I turned over the possibilities. Trying in vain to create a plausible escape option or somehow turn back time and prepare better.
The fear of anticipation is always worse than reality
I was resigned to the fact that I would probably endure pain, exhaustion and mental barriers across the next four days, but I sucked it up and told myself it would all be worth it.
Over the coming days I learnt an important lesson, our brains can be powerful enemies, and often we’re stronger than we realise.
Day 1: Training day
Distance: 11 km
Elevation: 350 m
Arriving into our first campsite was amazing, our porters welcomed us warmly. I had survived day one and was starting to feel better about my prospects of completing this mission.
Over dinner we found out one of our travellers had a cold that had turned into a chest infection. She had struggled with the training day hike and there was concern her breathing at altitude would be dangerous. She would be returning home in the morning. Only one day in and we’d already lost a comrade!
Day 2: The never-ending stairs Distance: 12 km
Elevation: 1115 m
Our guide, Victor, joked about the day ahead, warning that it would be the hardest of our lives. But he also reminded us that it was not a race, we had many stops ahead and no set time to reach camp. Our instructions were to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep being positive.
As we set off I wondered if I looked as nervous as I felt. I’m sure my companions felt the same as we tried to make light of the mountain ahead of us. Thankfully we had a great group, everyone was supportive and encouraging. This combined with Victor’s never failing support and encouragement quietened my doubts.
Every few minutes a porter would run by and disappear up the hill, carrying 20+ kgs and grinning from ear to ear. Whenever we were passed by porters in G Adventure’s signature purple tops we stopped and cheered, thanking them for making our passage possible. It was impossible to feel too sorry for myself as I strolled along with a tiny day pack and climbing poles. It was a welcome reality check.
We walked up countless steps on our way to the highest point of Day 2 “Dead Woman’s Pass”. From time to time we stopped to take photos back towards the morning’s campsite. We ascended quickly and before long it was a small dot far away in the valley below. A sense of progress and accomplishment grew inside me.
As we climbed higher the temperature plummeted and the air grew thin. I was out of breath and my legs ached. I trudged on slowly but steadily. The group around me was always positive and encouraging. We walked at our own pace which meant we caught each other on mini-breaks.
It wasn’t until I was 50 metres from the summit that I realised my worries had been unfounded. I could hardly believe I’d made it. I hadn’t felt like quitting once. The final few steps took me to 4,215 metres in altitude. Higher than I’d ever walked and higher than New Zealand’s tallest mountain Mt Cook.
While the wind was bitterly cold, the view was spectacular. Dead Woman’s Pass sits on the bridge between our 1115 metre ascent and a 300 metre descent. Our campsite looked an impossible distance away but with the “hard part” done I was filled with a new confidence.
The descent was deceptively hard. The steps were steep and tall. It took all our remaining leg strength to balance and not trip.
Each of our group found Day 2 difficult in different ways. One of our fittest members, a half-marathon runner, suffered badly from altitude sickness on the descent leg. She had to have oxygen and collapsed. Others on in group found the downhill partially difficult on past knee injuries. We all took it slowly and made it to our camp in one piece.
Day 2 was hard, and I wouldn’t volunteer to walk it again soon, but it was also spectacularly rewarding. I remember lying in my tent, exhausted at just 8pm. Every muscle in my body felt heavy but I was bursting with pride. This was the hardest challenge I’d ever set myself, and I wasn’t just coping, I was loving it.
Day 3: The Gringo killer (a day of reflection)
Distance: 16 km
Elevation: -1000 m
But with the hardest day behind us, we were in high spirits. Anything we faced would be easier than yesterday. The group was tightly bonded by the previous day’s struggles. As we hiked by lakes, tussocks, Inca ruins and through the cloud jungle we chatted about what the previous day had taught us. One person in our group had taken 12 years to book her trip. She reflected that she’d learnt to seize the moment and was already mentally planning her next adventure, climbing to Everest base camp.
For myself, I realised that my inner voices had been wrong. I was stronger than I’d realised, both mentally and physically.
Day 4: The promised land
Elevation: 100 m
Because all groups on the trail start at the same time it creates a bottleneck. Unlike other days the trail felt crowded as other hikers hurried towards Machu Picchu. After days of walking in isolation, getting lost in our own thoughts and the scenery around us it felt chaotic. Some of the groups were jogging along the track trying to pass others and reach Machu Picchu earlier.
Our group continued how we’d approached the last few days, not rushing but enjoying the experience. Victor our guide reminded us to take our time and be conscious of where we were. We soaked in the last precious kilometres, remembering that the stones we treaded upon were laid over 600 years ago.
Only 200 hikers per day are permitted to walk the Inca Trail. We’d hiked 39 kms to reach this point, there was no rush. Machu Picchu was built in the 15th Century, it would continue to wait patiently for us to arrive.
When we finally reached the Sun Gate and saw our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, it was amazing but tinged with sadness. The journey to our destination had been unbelievable. I found myself wishing it would last a little longer, even if that meant more steps. While it is a well-worn cliche, in this case the journey was more than the destination.
As we descended towards Machu Picchu we felt like we’d emerged from a grand adventure. The showered and cleanly dressed tourists we encountered could not understand. I felt claustrophobic as surrounded by jostling crowds trying to get the perfect travel selfie. I wondered if any of them stopped to appreciate the hand polished stones or windows aligned with the rising sun. The smallest details of Machu Picchu tell the best stories of Inca culture. None of our group managed to stay at Machu Picchu very long.
While Machu Picchu is the promised land you will seek for four days, it is not the real highlight of this journey. You will see scenery and ruins that very few have the opportunity to visit. You will be undoubtedly moved by the stunning scenery and the warmth of the Peruvian people. You will experience extraordinary gratitude as you realise despite the physical challenge you have accomplished it is tiny compared to what the porters and guides achieve. This adventure would not be possible without their efforts.
The discomfort you felt will be temporary compared to the lifetime of memories you will carry away from Peru.
I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced this and I’m glad I ignored my inner voices!
Tips for hiking the Inca Trail
What to pack
You’ll only have 2.5 kgs of luggage for the entire trip so the key is to pack smartly.
- Breathable tops that can be layered - you’ll be switching from hot to cold several times a day as you move between the mountains, differing altitude and fast moving fog. You will break a sweat climbing the stairs only to be shivering if you stop for a break. I packed a couple of tee shirts for base layers and then layered long sleeved thermals, a warm fleece hoodie and a raincoat.
- Breathable hiking pants that are mosquito resistant. Ones that zip off into shorts aren’t the “coolest” but you’ll love them when you’re bouncing between being too hot and too cold!
- Walking poles - these don’t cost much to hire in Cusco and they’re absolute life savers especially when going downhill
- Comfortable and supportive hiking boots - if you’re buying new ones make sure you break them in before your trip
- Strapping tape - if you have ankle or knees problems it’s a good idea to preventively strap your joints. I had my ankle firmly strapped to prevent twisting it and it was a real lifesaver.
- Thick socks - clean socks don’t take up much space and they’ll make you feel human again even if you haven’t showered for days! Take a pair just for sleeping too
- Bandanas - handy for covering dirty hair, protecting neck from sunburn and insect bites
- Also check out this great post explaining what to pack in more detail
Dealing with altitude sickness
- Drink lots of water and coco tea - we carried 4 Litres of water in our packs and refilled whenever possible, keeping hydrated keeps the headaches at bay
- Get altitude sickness pills - I’m still not sure if these worked but having seen how bad altitude sickness can affect you I wouldn’t be keen to try my luck!
- Eat even if you’re not hungry! This was difficult for me but you’re burning a lot of energy each day so snack often and force yourself to refuel
Book your ticket early
As there’s limited entry passes for the Inca Trail sell-out 5-6 months out especially over the high season. August/September is a great time to go as it’s mostly dry. You can only book through tour groups, we went with G Adventures who were great. We booked the Amazon to Andes tour which also included time in Lima and the Amazon jungle.
Hiking the Inca Trail is an epic challenge and you’ll likely feel like you could have done more, but embrace the nerves and remember you can do it!
Author - Nicole Williams
Nicole Williams is a New Zealander currently travelling the world for five months with her husband, Luke. Nicole quit the real-world to get travel "out of her system" but found it's had the opposite effect. You can see more from her at https://medium.com/@envycollect