The anticipated Inca Trail. Like most people who enjoy traveling, going to Machu Picchu has been on my wish list for a long time. At a younger age I never thought I would be able to handle the Inca Trail. However, maybe 10 or so years ago I started hiking more and more, and gradually fell in love with it. The more I hiked, the more it became my main hobby and workout. I have had a few hikes where I have truly hated every second, tons of hikes where I could not wait to be done, and many, many others where I was just apathetic. On the flip side some of the greatest feelings of joy in my life have been hiking – such as reaching Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin in Maine (see slide 2 in the link), reaching the top of Looking Glass Rock on the first vacation I had ever taken alone, and and climbing the ridge of Angel’s Landing on Zion National Park. I’m always chasing those feelings now.
At the top of Baxter Peak, Mt Katahdin, Maine. Knife’s Edge ridgeline hike is in the background… I did not do it …. still on my bucket list!
I’m disappointed to write that I did not enjoy most of my time on the Inca Trail. To say I’m sad about that doesn’t quite explain how it feels. To have had such a lack of joy during one of the most amazing treks in the world, despite the scenery, gigantic peaks, deep valleys, and historical archaeological sites you can’t see anywhere else in the world, is a feeling I can’t come up with a word for.
I just want to say up front that this is my own personal account. There are countless blogs and tons of information out there about traveling and about this trek, and mostly it’s all about the amazingness. Travel writing is good at just showing the positives. (Here’s an example…. but this blog also gives a lot of great information about the trail as well.) My point here is to give my honest, very personal story and account for how I felt at various points of the trip, while also showcasing what it’s like along the way.
Everyone is different. Different hikers, different expectations, different attitudes, different hopes and most importantly, different reactions to the altitude. I think that every person who wants to do this, should do it. I actually want to do it again in a lot of ways (even though I told myself I would never do it again). I also was firmly convinced I wanted a break from hiking when I got home, and I was back on the trails two weeks after I got back home.
The main problem was the altitude kicked my rear end. I did not get sick in any way, but I had to go very slow. The hiking itself was all stuff I could handle no problem, even though I’d never done four days of hiking before. However the altitude made my heart race if I pushed myself, and it was not an option to go at my normal pace. The whole four days took every single ounce of my energy just to get through it. In addition to the above difficulties, the slower digestion, the cold nights, the fact that I felt isolated from my group, and the strict schedule we were on drained me. When you’re this drained, it’s hard to be excited about anything. The pleasure chemicals in my brain that dance and sing when I hike somewhere amazing were too tired to go to work.
The trail is part of the Inca civilization which dates back over 500 years. Cusco was the Inca people’s main city, and the archaeological sites all had purposes. It seemed most of them served in part as residences. The sites had all sorts of other purposes such as storage, agriculture and worship. The Incas saw their leader as a living God, and the people also worshiped nature – the sun, stars, moon. The trail was a religious pilgrimage leading to this city, purposely difficult for people to get to. Some of the sites along the way also require climbing some very steep stairs and are on the edges of cliffs.
The night before the trail, we had an orientation. (David, my Peruvian travel companion couldn’t come along on the Inca Trail.) I got my duffel bag that I would pack for the porters to carry, containing sleeping bag, clothes, and everything I knew I wouldn’t need in a day pack. (The porters do all of the work – carrying, cooking, setting up tents. For our small group of 6, there was 1 guide.) We learned how the trek would go. Included are water, tents and three meals a day while actually on the trail. I woke up in Cusco around 3:30am, got ready and walked to one of the city squares to catch our bus. The bus stops in Ollantaytambo for an overpriced and sorry looking buffet breakfast, which I did not partake in. I would recommend bringing breakfast this first day if you do the trail. We chit chatted a little bit, and the bus continued to the start of the Inca Trail.
Some companies do things differently in terms of how far to go each day. Our first day was 10 miles of relatively flat terrain, with some incline towards the end. Day 1 was not bad for me at all, though at the end I got a taste of what the incline was doing to me. We happened upon our first ruins and saw beautiful scenery.
The porters getting ready; they hike separately from us, and have to go through a checkpoint where it’s ensured that the total weight limit is adhered to.
Early in the first day
The site called Patallacta (or Llactapata). It was used for storage and growing food.
Wild horses – at the same spot where the ruins in the previous picture are visible.
My own plate for lunch to accommodate for my dietary restrictions
Now would probably be a good time to talk about the FOOD! The food was absolutely insane. Ridiculous. Delicious, and came in very large quantities, buffet style mostly. As grateful I was for it, it was actually too much. Partly due to slowed digestion and partly because of the constant activity level, I wasn’t that hungry at meals after the first day. And I didn’t want to look at a carrot or a piece of broccoli…. I just wanted carbohydrates. I think most tour companies would have great food like this, and I’m sure in your research you would find out.
Every day we had a great setup like this for all three meals. They had boiled water and gave us warm buckets of water to wash our hands before every meal. They also met us with some sort of juice or water. In the mornings they had small snacks for us to carry. After each day was complete and we arrived at the campsite, the porters were there and had set up everything. Cook tent, sleep tents, everything. After dinner, we went to bed around 7pm. This was average, with 10 hours of sleep.
The second day is known to be the hardest. This was when we would climb two huge peaks and go over the famous Dead Woman’s Pass – the highest point on the trek, apparently named because once you cross and look back up, the terrain looks like a woman lying on her back. The cover photo from my blog is the approach to this pass. I’ve read different elevations, but our tour company said 13,779′.
During this part of the trek you’re basically walking on the side of a mountain, with a valley below you and mountains on the other side. The mountains are a V-shape, and you’re on a trail that was carved into the side of one of them.
The bottom of the V up above is Dead Woman’s Pass. If you follow the trail on the left with your eyes, you can see where the green trees stop on the mountain and if you look SUPER close you can see a yellow speck. That is a porter from another company on the trail.
Looking backwards during the climb to Dead Woman’s Pass
The classic photo at the top of Dead Woman’s pass, with the background being where we came from
Some quick side notes. To clarify how the guided hike worked, some of the time the guide would be leading us. He would make periodic stops, explaining things. The rest of the time, he would let us all go at our own pace and hang back behind for a while. On the end of the first day, I started to get behind my group when the uphill sections started. The second day, it seemed to be that while I was behind, everyone assumed I was fine and didn’t need anyone to hike with.
I don’t have a memory of a moment where this started to bother me, but it did. I thoroughly enjoy hiking alone; I do it ALL the time. In this case though, I was relying on a group. I didn’t have a plan, a map, a way to control the situation or my own transportation at the end of the day. I was left behind, isolated. In the middle of the Andes Mountains in Peru, I would never have let anyone hike alone if they didn’t want to – I would at least ask them if they wanted a companion. This was not a consideration given to me by any of my group members. I did not want someone to make small talk with or to take care of me, I just wanted to feel like I existed as part of a team. This was the norm for the whole entire rest of the hike. While it was only a piece of the puzzle, I absolutely would have enjoyed the experience much more if I had a friend or a cohesive group.
(I also want to clarify, that I could have asked my guide to be with me if I needed it. The above scenario was NOT his fault. A couple of times he did catch up and hike with me. Otherwise, I chose not to wait for him or ask him to hike with me. He was a bit chatty which I didn’t want to be around, and there were probably other factors going on such as feeling spiteful for being left behind.)
The second half of the second day came the rain. It was a likely occurrence, given that it’s the mountains, and given that it was the end of their winter and the rainy season would start soon. It started slow but the rain gained strength. We had to all stop hiking to put our rain gear on. Stupidly, I did not have a pack cover; I had never even seen one before (how??). So we got wet, and a lot of the things in my day pack were wet or damp. At day’s end we were able to get changed and dry before it got too cold, but some things were wet until days after the trek was over.
It was sometime this day that I started fantasizing about sitting in the Museo del Cafe in Cusco, looking at my pictures, reviewing the trip, and just relaxing in a warm inviting place with endless amounts of coffee. (I am not an every day coffee drinker, but I do love it, especially while traveling. I had been going very light on coffee and alcohol since I arrived in Peru in order to stay hydrated at the altitude.)
I have to say, though – look at those pictures. Just, wow. That was the most beautiful part of the trek.
Day 3: Cloud Forest
Day three is probably the most blurry in my mind. We had actually entered the jungle – the cloud forest – the day before. The plants were different, and it was very interesting. It was completely foggy for most of the day in the mountains (not so much on the trails themselves) so scenery was non-existent. It was a shorter day for us, and the first day that I remember feeling soreness in my legs. My memory of this day consists of stairs. Stairs, stairs, and more STAIRS. We went through a site called Phuyupatamarca, and then descended what was estimated to be about 3,000 stairs. Some of this was very steep. I went slow and utilized my hiking poles. I had moments on this section of sadness and isolation. It was a bit of a rough day. Coffee was calling my name.
Llamas along the trail on day 3. You can see how the vegetation has changed.
The site called Intipata seen on the third day.
Gives an idea of what we were dealing with in terms of being able to see the sites that day.
We went to another site called Intipata, went to camp for lunch (we were done hiking for the day), and then went to a great site called Winay Wayna. I was having some moments of clarity and really enjoyed this site. It was super steep and made for some great pictures.
The stairs we had to come down through Intipata. After already climbing down 3000 stairs that day. 🙂
This was one of the coolest sites we saw.
Fog cleared up a bit for some scenery.
Day 4: Machu Picchu
We went to bed fairly early as usual and the next morning was the (relatively) short hike to Machu Picchu. We had to get up at 3:30am, and camp was very close to a waiting area. At this point of the hike, there is another checkpoint for tickets, and they don’t open that gate until about 5:30am. There was a bench and a small covering; we got there early and were the second or third group. So we sat and waited. It started lightly raining at this point.
By the time we were good to go, the rain was pretty steady. It was a single file line of lots of people on a rocky, relatively flat path. This first part of the hike was about an hour, and the sun started coming up. Because of the rain and wetness, it was mostly people concentrating on their feet and focusing on the walking.
This part of the hike takes you to the Sun Gate. This is a famous landmark of the Inca Trail, where you can see Machu Picchu in the distance if you have a clear day. Needless to say we saw nothing but fog. It was disappointing in a heart wrenching way. Not only because of no view here, but because this meant visibility down at MP would be similar. I had worked SO hard for this, waited for so long, and spent too much money on it, and this is what I got.
We continued another 45 minutes or so down to Machu Picchu. We saw some people along this path who were going up from Machu Picchu to the Sun Gate and they looked WAY too happy and optimistic. We were all soaked by this time. My boots didn’t stand a chance and rain gear only got us so far. We didn’t get dry until about 2 or 3 that afternoon.
This is the culmination of the hike; this is the main reason why you have just spent three days and a miserable wet morning on this journey. In other circumstances I may have felt overwhelmed with awe, happiness and an adrenaline rush when I arrived at MP. This day, it was a bit anti-climactic.
Okay, Machu Picchu was still super cool. I’m glad to say I truly enjoyed being there, exploring and learning despite the circumstances. All we could see was the site; almost no mountains or peaks in the background. It was a little hard to care at that point, I was just happy to be there.
The best, clearest pic that was snapped of me in the classic photo spot.
At this part of the site, the earth is shifting and part of it is sinking, accounting for the slanted rock on the left side.
The lonely little peak
I love the construction of the walls with the different sized rocks.
Another example of the amazing and beautiful craftsmanship of the Incas.
The round building at the top is the Torreon – a famous landmark in MP. It is the Sun Temple. They aligned the windows directly with the sun on the solstice, and our guide explained that it was a way of keeping track of the months.
The Incas were found to be brilliant at engineering and other skills. They had tools to make the stone constructions like what you see above, they figured out how to have runners go from place to place in order to communicate across huge distances (some of the small sites you see early in the trek were for refueling and resting), and they even figured out how to take crops and get them accustomed to different elevations so they could grow agriculture where they needed to. Every website I read, the tour guide, and the book Turn Right at Machu Picchu all give different sets of information from different perspectives on history and significance of this region. It’s a bit hard to sort out.
I managed to stay with my group as we explored on our own, after our tour was over. We had to wait a long time for the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the bottom of the mountains. It’s cute but a tourist trap. We had an overpriced bland meal in that town, got our stuff, and made our way to the train to Ollantaytambo. From there the tour company picked us up and brought us back to Cusco. I said quick, thoughtless goodbyes to my group members.
A lady on the train to Ollantaytambo accidentally grabbed my duffel back that I had packed for the porters to carry, because we were with the same company, just different days. I tracked her down after the train ride, when everyone was making the walk to find their bus company. She was so apologetic, we switched bags, we chatted. Her and her husband were lovely. It turned out they started the Inca Trail one day earlier, and just stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes after the trail instead of going straight to Cusco. They had perfect weather on MP day (I also heard this from more people I met on Lake Titicaca), and this was the date I originally wanted. I was just too late to book that date. Sometimes the universe works in strange ways.
Inca Trail Travel Tips
A few things you truly must do if you’re planning to do the trail:
- Use sunscreen and don’t scrimp on it.
- Bring rain gear, wet wipes, hat, gloves, scarf, clothing to be hot and cold, two pairs of shoes/boots, and whatever else they may recommend. I was able to rent rain-proof pants from a gear shop in Cusco.
- I use a water bladder for hiking and this was very helpful – absolutely stay hydrated.
- I brought electrolyte tablets; electrolytes are useful for feeling well in altitude.
- Something to keep your passport and money/valuable dry, I just put all that in a plastic bag.
- Cash to tip the porters and guide – you don’t have to, but I was very, very happy to by the end.
A few words about the porters – I loved these guys. I respect the hell out of them. Not one of them was as tall as me, and they were all locals from the Andean highlands. They carry 50 pounds on their back, hike super fast, and treated us so great. The youngest was 20 and the oldest was 60!!! (I do wonder how much they were making fun of us in Spanish and/or Quechua.) It was recommended they be tipped at the end, and I was very happy to do so. David was confused about this, because he said that Peru is not a tipping culture. I never asked or found out why this was different in that way.
I was hoping that writing an introspective piece about the trail would provide some clarity on my experience. I am grappling with the experience and probably will for a long time. I can absolutely see why people do the trails and go to MP multiple times. It’s a lot of history and a lot to understand, and doing the trail a second time would be worlds different. I want to see as much of the world as I can, but I would not be surprised if MP or perhaps even the Inca Trail ended up in my travel plans again someday.