Peru: The Inca Trail Hiking Experience

Machu Pichu ruins with morning cloud, the highlight of the Inca Trail hiking experience

Trekking the Inca Trail was both physically and mentally challenging, and the 4-day hiking experience definitely involved some roughing it. Was it worth the effort? Here’s how it all went down …and up … and down … and up.

Day 1: uphill all the way

Our group of 15 hikers knew we were in for about five hours of uphill hiking on our first day. As we set out, our local guide Wilbert handed out snacks for the trail (granola bars and fruit), a nice surprise which was to be a daily ritual.

Climbing the exposed mountain slopes, the sun was glaring and and hot in the thin atmosphere.  I was dripping with sweat, and had to take frequent stops to catch my breath as my heart pounded. Gorgeous views of the Andes appeared around every bend, thankfully taking my mind off the physical at times. After rounding one curve in the path, we heard and then saw a large flock of almost blindingly bright green parrots yammering away as they flapped around in the sky.

Lunch was much more elaborate than anticipated – a sit-down affair at a long table under a tent. Our porters and cooks had gone ahead of us on the trail and had tea ready when we arrived, followed by soup, rice, fried chicken, and cooked veggies. Everything needed for meals, including propane tanks, tent, camp stools, and of course the food, is carried in by the porters, and everything (including garbage) is carried out again. Quite a production.

I arrived at our night camp around 5 pm to the cheers and claps of those who had beat me there. Three other groups in addition to ours were camping there. Each of us was provided with a tub of warm water and soap to wash up. Very primitive bathroom facilities – the good old squat toilets and no sinks or showers, but another delicious meal prepared by the cook and assistants. They had passed us on the trail after cleaning up from lunch and had our tents already set up. You should have seen them bounding up the pathways, despite their huge and awkward loads. They all have fabulous calf muscles.

Day 2: snow, stairs & stumbles

I woke up at 5 am with coca tea delivered tentside by the porters along with another tub of water for washing. This was the big trekking day – 10 hours of hiking, and traversing through highest pass on the trail. The altitude at Dead Woman’s Pass is over 14,000 feet. Legs and shoulders were already tired from the day before, and I had not slept more than a couple of hours in the chilly tent.

view of the Andes from our tent along the Inca TrailThe trail alternated between steep stone steps and uneven rocky pathway, often very narrow with a sheer drop down one side. It was cold, rainy, and windy – completely opposite from the sun and heat of the previous day. My poncho kept blowing all over the place, making it hard to see where I was stepping. My breath was so laboured that I had to stop every few minutes. I could see other bright ponchos on the curves ahead, and it looked like the uphill climb would never end. I had to set little goals for myself – 25 more steps and I’ll stop to catch my breath, just to the next bend and I’ll stuff a fresh wad of coca leaves in my cheek.

The porters too rely on coca leaves to ease their journey. At one point, one of them stopped me and gestured to his cheek with a pleading look in his eyes. I took out my bag of leaves and held it open for him, at which point he reached in and relieved me of half of my supply! He held the leaves in both hands, lifting them first to heaven, then to earth, then from side to side before rolling them up and shoving them in his mouth, adjusting his load, flashing me a smile and bounding away ahead of me. Providing this small amount of sustenance was the least I could do in return for the huge burden he was literally shouldering for me.

stairs on the Inca Trail and hiker in a poncho at Dead Woman's PassBy the time I reached the pass, the rain had turned to light snow. I posed for a quick photo, donned my fleece gloves, readjusted the poncho, and started the downhill. The excruciating part was that it wasn’t necessarily any easier than the uphill. Easier on the lungs, but hard on the knees, and the rain made the jagged, rocky, steep terrain even more treacherous than normal. There is narry a guard rail on the Inca Trail, so total concentration is needed to avoid plummeting to one’s death. I was grateful for the walking stick I had been convinced to rent – it saved my behind a few times. I did slip and fall on my backside twice, but it was mainly my pride that was hurt, and I was relieved that my camera wasn’t damaged. By the time I reached camp that evening, I was totally spent. I could barely stay awake for dinner.

Day 3: ‘minor’ ruins & mysterious music

Bodies aching even more than the previous day, we set off for only a half day of hiking this time. We got a few breaks from the hike to view various Inca ruins, as there were more of them on this leg of the trail. Grey stones arranged in cascading geometric patterns against terraced green mountainsides – stunning. It was mostly downhill on steep stone steps, a bit less treacherous than the day before since it was a dry sunny day again, but still oh-so-painful for overworked muscles and blistered feet. Much of the trail was forested, and there were some pretty orchids and other flowers growing on the cliffsides along the path.

Inca ruins along the trail to Machu PicchuAs I hiked with Yvette (my British tent-mate for the trip), we could make out the faint sound of a Peruvian flute player. It got louder and louder as we continued, a beautiful accompaniment to take our minds off our muscles. We vowed to give the musician a well-earned tip if we found him. When we finally did encounter him, it turned out to be our very own guide Wilbert! He got quite a kick out of surprising us.

We arrived at camp in the early afternoon. This camp was huge and crowded, since it’s the closest one to the ruins, making it possible to get to the ruins by sunrise the next morning. A very welcome feature of this camp was the HOT showers – hooray! And, of course, the beer vendor was also a hit with the group. We took the rest of the day to rest and relax.

Day 4: Machu Picchu sunrise

Up at 4 am for a hasty breakfast, then lining up at the gate to the last leg of the trail. A couple of other groups beat us to the punch, so we knew we wouldn’t be first. I suspected it wouldn’t matter anyway, as we were ensconced in heavy cloud fog. Of course, it was also still dark, so each hiker donned a flashlight or headlamp, creating bouncing beacons of light through the mist. When the gates opened, the 80 minute sprint was on. The trail was slightly flatter than the previous crazy inclines, but still a lot of rocky ups and downs.

Good thing Wilbert had warned us about the frenzy. “Stay to the left by the wall,” he had said, “otherwise you might get knocked off the cliff by people trying to pass you.” It was rather ridiculous really, this race to see the sunrise, and our group had a few good laughs about it. It was odd though – despite the speedy pace, most trekkers were eerily silent, and the loudest noises were our own heavy breathing and the chirps and singing of unseen frogs and birds encouraging us along the way.

alpaca grazing with view of Machu PichuSure enough, even after we climbed the last extremely steep set of stairs to the Sun Gate in a tangled free-for-all of anxious arms and legs, we were still enshrouded by cloud. There was no sunrise-viewing to be had. We had some snacks while we waited for the fog to lift a bit, which it eventually did, but the ruins were partially covered by cloud for most of the morning. Our guide said this was highly unusual, and I actually enjoyed the mysterious effect.

Machu Picchu is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s mind-blowing to think about the construction of this city clinging to mountainsides. No wonder they lived here relatively undisturbed for a few hundred years – who would have the energy to bother staging a raid on such a hard-to-reach place?

After Wilbert gave us a full tour of the ruins, our afternoon was free to wander around, and eventually regroup in the town of Aguas Calientes later in the day. We wandered around Machu Picchu for a bit, taking a short hike to see some caves and waterfalls tucked into a cliff around back of the main site.

Post-trek treat

Eventually a few of us took the bus down to town and wandered the streets in search of the hot springs. After stopping to ask some locals for directions, we eventually found our way. Inside, we found pools of different temperatures and depths, all with sand floors. What a welcome treat for aching legs! Oh, and the poolside delivery of nicely chilled and freshly made mojitos made it all the more enjoyable. “Salud!” we said, and toasted our Inca Trail hiking experience.

Happy trails,

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