Every year, millions of people flock to Peru to visit Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The two most common ways to see this ancient Inca civilization is by train or by foot. Hiking the Inca Trail has always been high on my bucket list. I was thankful for the opportunity to make this dream a reality.
Unless you’re in peak physical condition, you don’t really just wake up and hike the Inca Trail without any kind of preparation. The distance is not necessarily long. Depending on the tour you book, you cover the full 26 miles over the course of four to five days. Not bad at all. The limiting factor that can make the trail a little difficult is the altitude. At the highest point, the trail is 13,776 feet. In order to prepare myself for the Peru trip, I spent the months leading up it completing several of the high altitude hikes scattered along California. During those months, I not only built up my lungs and endurance, I also read as many books as I could that related to Machu Picchu. I felt strong and ready, and prepared myself both mentally and physically to tackle the Inca Trail!
As one final effort to acclimate my lungs to higher elevations, I visited some friends and did a couple of short hikes in Park City, Utah. The average elevation is about 7,000 feet above sea level, as compared to California’s average of 2,900 feet. I found myself breezing through the hikes without feeling short of breath. It was exciting. I felt prepared. I was ready…
…And then I tried water skiing for the first time.
The flippers were too large for my feet. They kept wobbling in the water from side to side as I struggled to keep them upright. When they were as upright as they were going to get, I signaled to the boat that I was ready to go.
<< Mistake >>
The moment the driver hit the gas, one of my legs split violently. I felt a gush of water drowning me as I was dragged by the boat. The driver stopped, and I managed to collect myself and pull up onto the boat. They asked if I wanted to try again. Normally, the answer would be “heck yeah, I’m going to get this!” However, even though there were no obvious outward signs, I knew I had done some serious damage to one of my legs. I watched everyone else enjoy their turn on the water as I quietly nursed my aching leg.
My injury was apparent the following day. My thigh had turned a deep shade of purple, and you could feel the exact point of muscle separation. It was a grade 2 hamstring tear. This usually takes a few weeks to heal, but I was all set to fly to Peru in just over one week! I consulted two orthopedic surgeons to see if completing the hike would worsen it, or cause lasting damage. They said it would be uncomfortable and would take longer to heal, but I’d be okay in the long run. That’s all I needed to hear. I nursed my leg for a week, then set out to hike the Inca Trail!
The day had come. I arrived in Cusco, which sits at 11,152 feet, and spent the first few days acclimating to the elevation. The hotel left a cute welcome gift in my room. It was a traditional, colorful Peruvian chullo hat! I was so excited to wear it out and about while exploring the sites. (You can’t take yourself too seriously!)
The first historical site on the agenda was Saqsaywaman, an ancient Inca citadel located on the outskirts of Cusco. It was built in the 15th century, and the Inca were incredibly sophisticated in their architectural endeavors! It’s mind boggling! Before tools like pulley systems were even invented, the Inca people built these massive stone structures with brute strength and hard labor. Most stones weigh over 100 tons, and are individually shaped and fitted to perfectly interlock with one another. They are expertly placed and are not held together with mortar. Additionally, the fittings are so precise that a single piece of paper or pin head cannot slip through adjacent stones. The Inca were amazing architects!
Awana Kancha was the next stop on the tour. It is known as the “living museum of the Andes.” The museum is both a weaving center and an alpaca farm. Many native Peruvian women and children raise alpacas and llamas, and make a living by creating beautiful clothing and tapestries from the animal fur. The women demonstrate ancient techniques for spinning, coloring, and weaving the fur to create the most ornate and vibrant products. This was definitely a fun and educational stop on the way to the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley was the last stop on the tour of Cusco. The Inca were skilled beyond their time. The ingenuity that they displayed is absolutely remarkable. The first section of the Sacred Valley leads to the little town of Pisac. This was an agricultural town. Inca farmers built these huge terraces into the side of the mountain! How smart! The terraced hillside is five times the size of Machu Picchu, and when I climbed to the top I was rewarded with spectacular views of the Urubamba Valley. This efficient design and wise use of resources really speaks to me, as I love all things that are organized and well thought out. Seriously, the Inca people were amazing in so many respects!
Hiking the Inca Trail
This was it. It was now time to begin the famous hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. In 2001, the Peruvian government limited the amount of traffic going through Machu Picchu. They did this in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the trail. Since then, permits are now strictly required and the trail is limited to 500 hikers per day. Of these hikers, 300 are porters and guides, and 200 are actual tourists. So if you are thinking of hiking the Inca Trail, be sure to plan ahead and reserve your spot. All hikers must be accompanied by a group or private guide.
We began the trip as a large group of sixteen. During our acclimation tour of Cusco, we spent the first few days exploring and dining together, and getting to know one another. On one of the “open itinerary” days, a father-daughter duo decided to book a scenic horseback riding tour, with a beautiful backdrop of the Peruvian Andes. Sounds lovely! The daughter, who was roughly my age, was an experienced equestrian. However, they quickly learned that these weren’t your typical tame trail horses. Instead, they were more like bucking broncos and incredibly hard to control. Long story short, the father ended up getting kicked in the shin, full force, by his daughter’s horse!
The . day . before . our . hike !
When they returned to the hotel and told their tale, we assessed this man’s ability to continue on with the hike. He was a bit older, but in great shape and had the right “can-do” mindset to get through it. We made sure he had the right bandages and ointment he would need to keep his wound clean and help it heal. That same evening, after dinner the daughter began to feel sick. Perhaps a mild case of food poisoning? Maybe. She wasn’t feeling great, but she was intent on continuing. So there we were: I, with my torn hamstring, he with his open wound, and she with her stomach issues. We were three wounded warriors, determined to successfully complete the four day hike.
Camping in Style
Of our group of sixteen, eight of us chose to hike the Inca Trail, while the remaining eight stayed behind to immerse themselves further into Peruvian culture. They then took the scenic train ride to meet up with us in Machu Picchu on day four. After a pre-hike briefing, we set out by car to Ollantaytambo, the start of the Inca Trail. We met all of our porters and the chef; together with the guide, these are the true heroes of the hike. They carry 50 pounds of our gear on their backs and pretty much run through the trail. Because of this, they have everything ready for us when we arrive. Kudos to these men and women porters!
The first section of the hike led us across the beautiful Urubamba river. The scenery opened up immediately to stunning views as we hiked through the Peruvian Andes. Day one was a fairly easy trek. The beginning portion started with a steep uphill section, but then leveled off to a nice, flat trail the majority of the way. Before we knew it, two hours later it was time for lunch! I was genuinely surprised by the quality of the food. The chef was serving us gourmet meals in a large, comfortable tent set up by the porters. Table linens, and all! They spoiled us, to say the least!
“Strong Like Bull”
The porters and cook then broke down the setup, packed all of our belongings and theirs onto their backs, and ran past us on the trail to reach the next destination. They are seriously amazing! As for me, I wrapped my hamstring before the trek and it was feeling good. A little sore, but that was to be expected. Day 1 was pretty easy. I checked in with my fellow wounded hikers – the father was doing well, but his daughter took a turn for the worse. We suspected she may have eaten food contaminated with Hepatitis A while exploring on her own. Poor girl. She was suffering with lots of stomach issues, but she was determined to push through it. After lunch we continued another 2.5 hours on to our campsite for the evening: Wayllabamba (Is it just me, or are Quechua names so fun to say?!).
I don’t know if you have ever been camping, but there is a certain sense of wonder and amazement that comes with being cut off from civilization. You can leave your worries behind. There is no pressure of having to reply to that email or text. You are completely off the grid, and free to enjoy the peace and solitude. It’s good for the soul. Above all, my favorite part of camping is the complete isolation from city lights. The lack of light pollution brings the full potential of the night sky to the surface. Stars bombarded the night sky. Every evening, I unzipped my tent for a few moments and stood in utter awe and appreciation of the impossibly beautiful night sky.
Drinking the Mystery Juice
At 5:30am, the sun pierced through the tent and gently signaled that I should rise. It was a new day and I was feeling good. The first day’s hike was pretty easy. No aching muscles, no blisters. However, the guide warned us that day 2 would be the hardest day of the trek. I was ready to tackle it with a vengeance. To prepare us for the challenges of the day, our chef served coca tea with our breakfast.
The coca plant is native to South America, and its tea is widely consumed throughout Peru. Locals believe the properties of the leaf enhance performance and prevent altitude sickness. It is a stimulant, and when chemically extracted, forms the base for cocaine. However, the amount of coca in the leaves is not nearly enough to have the same sort of effects of cocaine. Still, it is illegal in the United States. It’s the first and only time I’ve ever tried “drugs,” so I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of guilt as I sipped the mystery juice.
Hiding Amongst the Clouds
Day 2 was all about elevation. In total, we would climb about 4,000 feet to the highest point of the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass. We started early and headed in that direction. On the way, we passed through Inca ruins that were literally built amongst the clouds! Experts believe the Inca used these high towers as lookout points for guards to keep an eye out for impending danger or plan stealthy attacks.
Dead Woman’s Pass
We made our way to Dead Woman’s Pass. When viewed from the valley, the peaks of the mountains are shaped like the profile of a woman laying on her back, hence the name. Although reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass can be daunting, it is completely doable. It consists of a series of steep steps leading up to the summit. I have to give a lot of credit to our guide. He kept the pace extremely slow to ensure no one would be left behind or feel the need to exert themselves to catch up. He broke the climb up with frequent rests, hydration, and lots of great information and conversation.
Not everyone was as lucky. On our way up, we saw two people being carried down by porters in makeshift stretchers. Another man struggled as he carried his ill girlfriend up the steps to higher elevation! We also came across a teenage boy that was pale, sweaty, and in visible distress. We checked on him as he sucked oxygen supplied by his guide. Altitude sickness is a real concern. As for myself, I was completely okay. I asked my doctor for a prescription for Diamox before the trip, which is specifically geared at preventing altitude sickness. That, combined with a steady pace, made the climb to the summit more tolerable. Our guide struck the perfect balance between rest and activity, and we slowly made our way up to successfully conquer Dead Woman’s Pass.
We all felt accomplished. All of us managed to summit Dead Woman’s Pass. No man left behind. The adrenaline rush got to me and I was feeling great. Our guide stopped to check our oxygen saturation at the top of the pass, the highest point of elevation. He wanted to make sure our bodies were keeping up with the high demand for oxygen. In our group, typical oxygen saturations at this elevation ranged from the mid 80s to low 90s. The air was thin. When he got to me, he was surprised to see my reading of 99%. I was stoked and feeling stronger than ever! All of my high elevation preparation, combined with the Diamox, had paid off in a big way.
“The Mountains Are Calling And I Must Go”
Coming off of the high from our ascent, the goal was now to make it a short way down to our next campsite: Paqaymayo. The trek down was fairly easy, and a nice change of pace from all the uphill climbing earlier in the day. Our campsite for day 2 was perfectly situated amongst the beautiful mountains. What a breathtaking place (…see what I did there?) to spend the night – sleeping amongst the mountains! We arrived pretty early and spent the remainder of the day playing cards, chatting, and celebrating our little victory! It was a relaxing evening and we caught up on some well deserved rest.
We all turned in early last night. Not only did we need the rest, but we also had plans to wake up before dawn and watch the sun kiss the mountains of the Peruvian Andes. Our timing to be at this particular campsite on this day was perfect, as it happened to be a nearly full moon, adding to the beauty of the scene. So we donned our headlamps and made our way to the tallest peak at our campsite. There we sipped coca tea and waited for the spectacular scene to unfold.
It’s All Downhill From Here
Day 3 marked the beginning of a very steep descent. The many environments we encountered all along the trail varied so greatly. We started out on Day 1 through a high desert forest with stunning views of the Urubamba mountains. We then walked through a jungle area before ascending high up into a cloud forest on Day 2. Our descent down now took us through hidden caves and another beautiful section of jungle flora.
Can I Swap My Knees Out For New Ones?
Leg check: Torn hamstring? Totally okay. Knees? Dying a slow death! This experience is going to be different for each hiker. Personally, the downhill was way more brutal on my body than the uphill. Years of dancing had done a number on my knees, and this long steep downhill trek did it no favors. However, we were nearing the end of our trek and I was determined to make it to the campsite. It couldn’t come soon enough. We passed Phuyupatamarca and camped at Wiñay Wayna, an ancient Inca farming town. I was more than happy to give my aching knees a break. I stretched my quads through the evening and pulled out my knee brace to help me get through the final leg of the trail.
Rise and Shine
Day 4 began bright and early, at 4:00am. Today was the day we would reach Machu Picchu. It was at this point that we parted ways with our amazing porters and chef. These hardworking men and women made our hiking experience incredibly pleasant. We thanked them in the morning, and laid out hiking gear that we were willing to donate. At the time, I was in the market for a newer, lighter sleeping bag, so I happily gifted my sleeping bag to them. They were so appreciative. If you ever choose to hike the Inca Trail, be kind to your porters. They are salt of the Earth hardworking people, and deserve every last dollar you can spare.
Intipata was our last stop before reaching Machu Picchu. It was a quick 20 minute walk from the campsite, and provided sweeping views of the beautiful Urubamba Valley. The amazing terraced landscape gives a lot of insight into the ingenuity of the Inca people. They used the land as efficiently as possible to support the growth of crops. We spent a few moments here to take in the scenery and prepare ourselves for the final descent to Machu Picchu.
Finally, after four days of hiking, we were on our way to the famed Inca city of Machu Picchu! My knees had just about given up on me, but that wasn’t going to stop me from getting to my destination. Slowly, I made my way to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate represents the last big climb of the hike. It consists of about fifty very steep steps, which most people tackle on all fours. Experts believe only elite members of the Inca Empire lived in and visited Machu Picchu. Its remote location and guarded entrance from the Sun Gate limited the amount of visitors to the sacred city.
Yes, You Can
Many people wonder if they have what it takes to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. They focus on strengthening their bodies. Physical fitness. They want to be stronger, better, faster. I focused on the same aspects while preparing for this hike, and it served me well. However, what I learned on the trail is that mental fortitude is just as important, if not more. Mindset is everything. If you go into something with a “can-do” attitude, obstacles seem to melt away. So if you’re wondering if can build the strength and endurance to hike the Inca Trail, the answer is yes, you can. Believe in yourself, meet new people, and enjoy every step and experience along the way!
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