When I crossed off Machu Picchu from my travel wishlist recently I had to make a decision – whether or not to hike the Inca trail or take the train. To be honest I never knew there were options and hence the Inca Trail was never on my radar. The more I read about it the more intrigued I was. On the one hand there appeared to be a great interest in the trail and on the other hand it also sounded like a real physical challenge. I made my booking and chose the trail. Then I had to wait to see if they would actually allow me to. Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail on any given day and due to its popularity, the authorities draw names to see who gets to do the trek.
As I read more experiences the more nervous I got. People kept asking me “are you training?” Training??? How bad it this trek? Some of my friends who had done it assured me it wasn’t that bad. Mind you, those people were considerably younger than me. Whilst not supremely fit, I do a great deal of walking during my normal life so the physical exertion posed no real issues. The greatest concern for me was the altitude and lack of oxygen. I’ve always had poor lungs and even at my fittest when I was 16 long distance running was a difficulty.
So the big day finally arrived. After spending 24 hours in nearby Cusco acclimatising to the altitude, we hit the trail. At 50 I was the oldest in my group. Day 1 they say is the easiest. ‘Flat’ they called it. I quickly learned that they meant ‘Andes flat’, which is around a 5 degree incline. Half an hour into the hike and I was contemplating turning around. Again, under normal circumstances, the hike would have been a breeze but my lungs were crying for air. It’s amazing how much we take something so simple like breathing for granted. After a few hours I reached the lunch site. Then after lunch it’s more hiking for several more hours. That was the worst part of every day for me – plucking up the energy after a large meal to start hiking again. The reward at the end of each day was a stunning view of the Andes.
Our tour guide, having seen my struggles the previous day told me he would stick with me on day 2, notoriously the hardest day of the 4 day trek. And so it proved to be. It also provided the best scenery of the trek, which is little consolation when you’re gasping for air. I have to say day 2 was largely soul destroying for me. After every horrible incline you’d turn the corner and be faced with yet another one. Finally the highest crest came into view. It seemed like a very long way away but I told myself that every step I took was a step closer. Before long I had reached Warmiwanuska, the highest point of the trail at 4215m above sea level. It was a fabulous feeling and probably my greatest physical achievement. A sad statement, I know, but I am over 50.
Having taken the requisite photos and rested up a bit, I proceeded on the hike down the other side. The descent was an easier challenge, but only because on the way down oxygen was less of a concern. The great misconception however, is that the descent is far easier. The oxygen situation is better but physically it was more demanding than the ascent. A large percentage of the Inca Trail are rocky steps and you really have to watch each step when climbing down. Whilst your thighs get the workout on the way up, the way down really works your knees and calves. I arrived at the campsite by 5pm, an hour behind most of my group.
Day 3 was about 80% downhill and although a welcome respite for my lungs, was actually physically more stressful, given you’re forever putting the brakes on. After 8 hours of this, it really got quite exhausting. I probably felt more fatigued at the end of the 3rd day than I did at the end of the 2nd. The trail on this day is probably the most ‘dangerous’, with some unprotected sheer drops. Given that you can easily find yourself alone on the trail, this opens up the possibility of falling off without anyone noticing. Again, it was a day of beautiful scenery. I arrived at the campsite only 20 minutes behind the rest, showing how much the lack of oxygen affected me the day before. Alas, due to the strain of the downhill trek, one of my boots (which survived 12 years travel around the globe) gave way. Fortunately I managed to perform some sort of MacGyver style repair on it that night, using medical tape and a spare shoelace. When it was all said and done, I would actually rate day 3 as difficult as day 2, for different reasons.
Day 4 began very early in the darkness of pre-dawn. We say goodbye to our wonderful sherpas and make our way to the gate, along with every other group, a lot of whom were young twenty somethings. At around 5.30am the gates opened and group by group we went along the trail at aa cracking pace. Before long I had to give up my spot in the procession, unable to keep up with the youngsters, all of whom appeared to want to get there in record time. Although the shortest trek of all 4 days the pace was unrelenting. Everyone was racing to be at the Sun Gate for sunrise. Like the day before, the never ending steps were proving to be a great physical challenge. By the time I reach the Sun Gate, the sun had risen and we are treated with a great view of the Machu Picchu settlement. But there’s still a fair bit of descending to be done. We pass a few people walking the other way, which is crazy, given the view from the Sun Gate is nowhere near as impressive as it is from closer. When we reach the actual site, we take a group photo from THE spot, and move on outside the entrance. A weird thing about the Inca Trail – trekkers have to go out, buy tickets and come back into the site.
As our guide started his Machu Picchu spiel, it was all I could do from passing out in the morning sun. But I made it. We were actually very fortunate with the weather. It did rain, but mostly when we were in our tents. And the morning mist added that special effect to our photos. I won’t talk about Machu Picchu itself. It’s a place that has to be experienced. I can, however, list my tips for surviving the Inca Trail, something I wish I had before doing the trail.
Facts about the Inca Trail
- Peru has a very long wet season and is best avoided if you’re hiking the Inca Trail. The best months are from May through to September.
- Only 500 trekkers a day are allowed on the trail so book months in advance.
- Only registered groups are allowed on the trail, so no individual hiking is allowed.
- The days are cool to warm but the nights are very cold (could get to below 0)
- There are no showers so be prepared to be a little stinky. There was a cold water shower in the mens toilet at the day 1 campsite – good luck with that.
- There are no toilets along the trail except for one just on the other side of Warmiwanuska. There are toilets at each campsite, which are all squat toilets and cleanliness is at a minimum. All used toilet paper is to be put in a nearby bucket.
- Up to a certain point there will be places you can buy drinks and snacks from locals.
- Spend as much time in Cusco as you can to acclimatise before the trek. I had 24 hours which wasn’t really enough. But I was on a tour and had no say in the matter. If you don’t acclimatise you WILL struggle.
- Pack as lightly as possible. We were only allowed to give the porters 5kg of our own stuff to carry, which isn’t that much. Anything else you bring will have to be carried by you. If you can live without it, don’t bring it.
- Also weigh your day pack. Mine was a heavy beast by itself and was a real burden. Consider buying a lightweight one.
- Essential items – a fleece jacket, hiking pants, thermal sleeping bag, hiking boots, hiking poles, sunscreen, poncho, toilet paper, sunglasses, first aid kit, a hat, camera, hygienic wipes, water bottle, travel pillow, head light, torch
- It’s very easy to over-pack, so keep clothes to a minimum. Everyone’s stinky, so don’t be shy.
- You may also need altitude sickness pills like Diamox (prescription meds) or cocoa leaves. I was popping Diamox and drinking cocoa tea and I did not suffer from altitude sickness so I can’t really tell you which one was working. (Note: altitude sickness is not the same as being short of breath)
- If you’re travelling with a friend or friends it might be wise to share certain items like toothpaste, deodorant etc so as to minimise what each person carries.
- Walk at your own pace. It’s not a race and there are no prizes for arriving first. I myself walked at an ridiculously slow pace. Take the time to admire the beautiful scenery.
- If you struggle to breathe like I did, a companion and I came up with a method which worked fairly well for the uphill bits. Walk very slowly. Take 30 steps and stop, regardless if you think you can walk further. Count to 30 and move one. Breathe through your nose. Breathing through your mouth will dry it out. Progress will be slow but you’ll get there.
- The use of hiking poles is a personal thing. if you’re super fit you probably wouldn’t even need one. I used 2. Some people went with 1. It’s entirely up to you. You can buy and bring your own titanium poles or you can buy very cheap wooden ones there.
- If you, like me, do not own an appropriate sleeping bag and was not inclined to fork out a fortune just for one trip, you can hire them in Cusco for around US$10.
- After you pass the entrance gate there is a room where you can leave your bags, which is handy. IMPORTANT: watch where the woman puts your bag. When you come to retrieve it she will have no clue as to where she put it and it could take a long time.
- If you’re a photographic enthusiast it may not be a good idea to bring a massive zoom lens or tripod into the Machu Picchu site as you might be tagged as a professional (whether you are or not) and charged an extra fee.
I really want to make special mention of our great porters. They’d run past you on the trail carrying a humongous load and will have your tents set up and your meal cooked by the time you arrive. All for very little pay. They were fantastic.
I have often asked myself if I would have done the Inca Trail had I known what I know now. On the one hand it was an amazing experience. We saw sights we’d never see if we took the train and for me it was a great physical achievement. On the other hand it was a physically demanding and uncomfortable four days, and it reminded me of how little I cared for camping. I was so fatigued by the time I got to Machu that I probably only took a quarter of shots I would have taken had I arrived by train. When the guide finished his tour of the site I was on the first bus to Aguas Calientes! If you knew me you and how much of a photo enthusiast I am you would realise how crazy that is. All things considered I believe I would have taken the train if I had my time again. Probably.
The Inca Trail is truly indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The views are gorgeous and if you’re a hiking enthusiast this is for you. The downsides are that it is physically demanding and comforts are at a minimum. Accommodation is camping only, there are no showers and toilet facilities are quite gross. Most, if not all groups have porters and cooks who prepare all the food for you so you are well looked after in this regard. The choice to do it is entirely up to personal choice. Take comfort in the fact that there are people of all ages and sizes on the trail. If you’re over 40 make sure you at the very least do some form of daily exercise, which probably isn’t as important if you’re in your 20s. If you are at all concerned if you are up to it physically, consult your doctor.