4 Days, 3 Nights and a 49km Hike on The Inca Trail.If you think the Inca Trail will be a walk in the park, think again. You are in for a bit of a (read HUGE) shock. It is nothing like a steady stroll. Yes, some parts are easier than others, but by the time I reached Machu Picchu on the fourth day at 8am, after a 3:30am start I could feel pain in parts of my body that previously I hadn’t known existed.
As one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are almost certainly among the top places to see on any South American bucket list. Yes, there is an option to take the train to Machu Picchu, which would be cheaper, quicker and far less physically demanding, but you will miss out the beautiful scenery, and the hidden ruins that you only get to see in the Trail, not to mention, the bragging rights.
Possibly the happiest person in the world, if not the most knackered.
We had arrived in Cusco a few days before the hike to acclimatize a little as recommended by almost every source available, but also to explore the famous centre of the ancient Inca Empire. The town itself is gorgeous, full of tourists and the inevitable touts that come with them, but if you can see past that minor annoyance it really could be one of my favourite places in Peru.
It was recommend that we paid a visit to both the Inca Museum and Machu Picchu Museum before the trek and this was a really good tip. The Inca Museum in particular was brilliant, tracing back the history of the empire to the pre-Inca civilisations. You could get lost in the history there for a good few hours – I think we were there for almost three!
If you have limited time, or are not 'into' museums (apparently some people are not into museums), I would suggest the Machu Picchu Museum which is a little easier to digest with lots of short 3 - 8 minute videos describing the discovery of Machu Picchu and interviews with contemporary scientists and researchers let you know what they have discovered since.
Looking out onto the streets of Cusco.
We had planned to hire hiking poles, and sleeping bags from the tour company at $20 a pair and $25, respectively. It became quickly apparently that if we were prepared to spend a little time haggling in some of the many MANY camping and outdoor shops in the town, that we would be able to buy the equipment we needed for a THIRD of the price the tour operator was offering to hire it to us. We were also able to stock up on a lifetimes supply of cereal bars, coca candy and baby wipes.
The evening before we started the hike we had a briefing with the rest of our team. We met the guides who would accompany us, and were given some more information about the hike, logistics etc.
We would be a group of 10 enthusiastic and excited explorers! Two couples from different parts of the United States, a flying Dutchwomen, a psychologist from Liverpool, a mother and daughter from Cambridge, myself and my 60 year old mother.
SPOILER ALERT! We all made it!
Day 1 - The Walk In The Park.
After packing, unpacking, re-packing six or seven times over the previous few days we had to make the final cut. My Mum and I had hired a 'half-porter' between us for $80 or 8kg although everyone else seemed to have hired a half-porter each, one between the two of us was definitely enough, everything else we stuffed into our daypacks.
We were picked up from our hostel shortly after 6am, drove for a couple of hours and stopped for breakfast, before arriving at KM 82 where we would start our adventure.
Credit where credit is due: When I say everyone hired a half porter each, I mean everyone except the super fit outdoorsy Americans who had opted to carry all their own stuff. Carrie, George, Sam and Em, respect to you guys. Massive respect.
The starting line.
We passed this same point on the fourth day, at 5pm on the train heading back to Cusco. When this photo was taken we were bright eyed, bushy tailed, raring to go and bursting with enthusiasm! Gosh were we naive.
At 5pm no the fourth day as we passed the starting check point, the bubbling enthusiasm that we had at the start of our journey felt a lifetime ago.
The first day was really quite pleasant. Almost a walk in the park, even for me! This was also one of the shorter days, 14km over 6 hours.
We arrived at our camp to find our tents set up, the porters and cooks hurrying around to prepare the evening meal, and most importantly, a little makeshift bar selling cold drinks, snacks and BEER! Yes please!
Talk around the camp turned to how long it had been since we had all camped out, and I must admit this made me feel like a bit of a pro, especially after Roughing It In Patagonia. Atlanta and her daughter Zoe hadn't camped ever it seemed, Sam and Em hadn't camp been camping in the seven years they had been together, and my Mum, well she hadn't slept in a tent since long before my sister was born. My sister is now 20 years old.
Recommended Reading: Roughing It In Patagonia: How I discovered I'm not quite the city girl I once thought I was, and almost froze to death in the mountains.
Day 2 - Dead Woman's Pass
This was the day we were dreading. Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point in our hike. 4200m above sea level and a 1400m climb from where we had camped the previous night, and another 12km along the trail.
This was a killer. Although the name, Dead Woman's Pass comes from the profile figure on the mountainside, there were almost a few dead women left on the mountain that day, myself included.
The view from the top was spectacular and the quickly close knit group waited at the top for the last of us to reach the summit. "Never leave a dead woman behind" was an unofficial team slogan that I mused as some of the others had waited almost an hour for the rest of the team.
On top of the world. I've never been higher.
"It's all down hill from here!" Alexis our guide told us.
"Great!" I thought as it started to rain.
It turns out that "All down hill" doesn't necessarily mean easier when you are talking about descending 2km of wet stone steps some of which are almost 3ft high!
The rain didn't last long, but by the time I reached camp my legs were like jelly! And I was relieved that I had brought a couple of beers at lunchtime as we sat around evaluating the day's hike.
Once it over, it doesn't actually feel like it was too bad.
End of the day debrief, and Team 'Shit Head!'
That evening we played Shit Head! The travellers friend! Up until this point in my travels, or in my life for that matter, I had only ever played Shit Head with a maximum of four players, but usually it's been only a two person game.
As well as playing my own game I was also teaching Shit Head to 9 of the 12 people playing giving special attention to the two players sat on either side of me. Despite all the cards being in my favour, metaphorically, not literally, I still wasn't able to win. My Shit Head Crown is well and truly been taken. (I'm sure you will be pleased to hear, Natalya!)
Recommended Reading: Bolivia By Bus; How Shit Head kept me sane while travelling in Bolivia with my Sister.
Day 3 - The Silent Killer
With the day we were all dreading out of the way, and the sound of "It's all down hill from here" still ringing in our ears, we set out on what promised to be a longer but easier days hike.
This was the day that really put us through our paces. It was more or less ALL down hill, the last part of the day especially and the last kilometre or so as we descended into camp, I moaned and groaned and complained as every little part of my body aching, and the muscle that I had previously been unaware of along the front of my thigh screamed out with each step "what the fuck are you trying to do to me!!!"
We stopped at a terrace about half an hour out of the camp and enjoy the view.
"Do you want to ask the others if they want to stop and have a beer?" - one of the ringleaders suggested.
"Nope!" I replied, "Lets stop for a beer and the others can stop too if they want."
I can be so accommodating sometimes.
It was one of the most spectacular places I've ever cracked open a can.
The third day was hardest on my mum out of all of us. The last three hours took her almost five and a half hours and the sun had long since set when she arrived at the camp looking harrowed. The pressure of walking down hill had taken its toll on her body and her feet in particular. Even taking out her inner soles did little to elevate the pain in her toes and each step was torture for her.
Rewind a couple of days... we met a father and daughter from Australia who had completed the trek a few days before, and gave us a harrowing account of how painful, and awful it all was and how they had almost quit after the first day.
"They must be a bit soft!" We thought, "Did they really have NOTHING good to say?"
My mum had decided it was like childbirth, "You can have your baby and I'll have mine, it's going to be different for every person!"
Now back to the mountain...
Emerson, one of the guides had walked with my mum the whole day, but for the final push two porters doubled back to join him and, as my mum describes it, pretty much carried my mum down the mountain to our tent.
When she arrived at camp she only had energy to lay down, and as me and Emerson washed her feet like Jesus, she declared her undying love for Emerson and the porters, which in all fairness was well earned. She really did need their help and encouragement to make it through those final miles.
"How does it compare to childbirth?" I asked my mum.
She let out a long sigh and said, "Childbirth doesn't last as long... and they give you drugs"
Now, obviously, if you are a professional hiker, or maybe have a decent level of fitness that doesn't come from drinking and smoking everyday for the 9 month previous, the whole hike might not have been so dramatic, but if not, take heed, day three is TOUGH!
The Inca Steps. 8 hours, all down hill.
Day 4 - Machu Picchu
We were woken up at 3:30am to start the final part of our journey. This was the first morning we had woken up to rain, although no one minded as we waited in the downpour to cross the final check point. As the gates opened at 5:30am the clouds cleared and rain stopped, and we were able to enjoy the final kilometres with Mother Nature on our side.
Maybe it was the subtly of the rising sun, or perhaps it was the dreamlike state of the early morning, but the final miles were the most breathtaking.
By the time we reached the Sun Gate, after having to (literally) crawl hand over foot up another set of Inca Stairs, the sun was up and we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Cue tears all round.
We still had quite a walk to the Inca City and by the time we arrived it was busy and bustling with fresh-faced, clean-clothed, deodorant wearing DAY-tourists, who had opted for the few hours it take on the train. Alexis gave out group a 3 hour guided tour of the city, which was informative and interesting, but in the baking sun with 4 days and 49km behind us, I will admit that some of what he told us did fall on deaf ears.
After the tour we were given some time to explore on our own and every single one of us headed straight for the cafe and purchased a round of ice cold beers. They taste so much better when you've really earned it.
A gorgeous end to an amazing few days.
The army of porters and chefs, and the wonderful guide Alexis.
Enjoying the nature en route.
A glimpse of the stunning Machu Picchu.
We did it!!
4-day, 3- nights, 49km and lots and lots of laughs.
I'm always sceptical of organised tours and have tried to avoid them as much as I can on this trip. Having said that the three day Salt Flat Tour, (and escape from Uyuni) was one of the best experience of my South American journey. And I can honestly say that hiking the Inca Trail is up there with the best.
While you cannot control for the group you travel with, or what the weather will be like. There is no guarantee that you will like the food on offer, but we lucked out with everything.
The group were great fun and really supportive of each other; the weather was pretty much perfect the whole time, nothing in excess; not too hot, not too cold and not too much rain. And the food... well, this was probably some of the best food I ate during my stay in Peru. Four courses at lunch and dinner, ceviche, soups, vegetables, chicken, fish, rice, YUMMY! Pancakes, porridge, fruit, and fresh coffee at breakfast.
If I had one complaint about the food it would be that it was TOO nice, although I can only blame myself for the amount I ate and the fact that I was slightly sluggish after each meal as I tried to waddle it off.
The guides and the porters are amazing. It took a team of 15 to get the 10 gringos up the mountain. These guys each carried 25kg and earned every penny of the tips we gave them. We were woken up with hot tea every morning, had a bowl of hot water waiting for us to freshen up when we arrived and camp, and aside from the sleeping in tents, not showering, or changing my clothes, these four days were relative luxury compared to the rest of my South American journey.
A special mention has to go to Emerson though. Aside from being key in helping my mum along the trail, he really did capture everyone's heart and minds.
He was 29 when we went on our hike, and is working on the trail to support his sister though university, because he wants her to have better opportunities then he has. At our final meal together in Aguas Calientes, he raised a toast to congratulate us all on completing the trails and told us: "Thank you for visiting my country. When you visit you are helping to give people like be better opportunities."
What an absolutely lovely young man.
Photography: Some of the pictures in this post were taken by the wonderful George Hofheimer. You will know which ones they are because they are high resolution, super sharp and well focused. The rest were taken by me on my iPhone.