Jeff and I were SO excited to embark on our 4 day/3 night Inca Trail trek through the Andes to Machu Picchu. While touring Machu Picchu itself is a very common activity in Peru — we have at least four or five friends who have been in the last year alone — we were itching to get some good hiking and camping in as part of the experience.
So after purchasing some seriously dorky Merrell hiking boots in Quito (hi mom), we packed up and headed straight for Cusco — a city in southeastern Peru that serves as a hub for outdoor activities in the region.
A quick note on Cusco: Jeff and I didn’t have high expectations for the city itself, but we were both pleasantly surprised by how delightful it is. While the town caters almost exclusively to tourists (every street is lined with hotels and hostels, adventure/excursion outfits, camping gear stores, alpaca wool vendors, etc.), we found it to be a friendly walking city with no shortage of things to do.
The food was also pretty stellar — Cusco has a wide variety of good vegetarian options in addition to typical Peruvian fare which includes llama, alpaca, and guinea pig (eww!). AND, I’ll fess up: there was a Starbucks located in Cusco’s main Plaza de Armas — the first one I’d seen in two months — and I totally went. Sometimes a little taste of home is necessary, k?
…onto the Inca Trail trek!
A few minutes after 5 a.m., Jeff and I had checked out of our hostel and were loaded onto a bus with 30ish strangers, including 14 other hikers, 16 porters/cooks, and 2 guides. We had stuffed our small backpacks (day packs, really) with everything we were told we’d need, including lots of water, and attached our rented sleeping bags and “mattresses” to the outside of our packs. Suffice it to say that our packs were heavy and pretty uncomfortable because neither is made for backpacking (e.g. mine does not have a hip buckle). It wasn’t the end of the world, but if you go on a similar trek, I recommend a more professional setup!
One benefit of booking a guided trek is that the vast majority of what you need to camp (e.g. tents, cooking equipment) is carried for you by porters and all your meals are prepared. We call this “princess camping” where I’m from, and you can go ahead and judge all you want…it’s amazing. And it’s mandatory to have a guide on the Inca Trail, so you pretty much don’t have choice. We booked through Cusco Viajes.
Anyway, the trail porters not only hike the same distance — there are no shortcuts on the Inca trail — but they do it REALLY fast and carry about five times more weight than we do. So each time the hikers left camp, the porters would disassemble the whole camp, pack it up, pass us on the trail, and have lunch/dinner/camp set up for us at the next meeting point. (It’s a lot harder to “boo hoo” about your uncomfortable backpack when a bunch of Peruvian guys carrying their weight in gear literally jog past you on the trail.)
Given the early wake up call, our first day was long but not too hard. We hiked about five miles of mild terrain before arriving at our pre-assembled campsite. There, we enjoyed our first “happy hour” of coffee, tea, popcorn and biscuits. An elaborate supper followed, which included an appetizer, soup, meat dish, rice, vegetables, and usually another carb. Every single meal was like this. Suffice it to say that no one went hungry.
After getting to know our fellow trekkers a bit — all of whom were/are awesome — we went to bed in anticipation of another early morning.
We were woken up at 5 a.m. with coca tea delivered to our tent (I’m not kidding about the “princess camping,” guys). We had been warned that the second day is the hardest — there are a series of three long and steep ascents to tackle — so we ate a bunch of pancakes before shipping out at 6 a.m. sharp.
And the second day was hard; we covered about 4,000 feet of steep altitude (much of it in the form of actual stone steps) in the morning, followed by two hours descending steps. It was a cold and semi-wet slog, but we were among the first of our group to summit. I was just relieved to get the toughest day over with — or so I *thought* it would be the toughest day.
We rolled into our campsite in the early afternoon, looking forward to a little free time. True to form, I passed out almost immediately and did not resume consciousness until it was dark out. Jeff braved the ice-cold shower (he and one other person were the only ones to attempt this; everyone else, including me, went shower-less for four days).
Another “happy hour” ensued, followed by another lovely supper. Everyone retired to their tents shortly thereafter to catch some Zs before Day 3, which we were told would be the longest day. The hardest day, however, was supposedly behind us.
Flash forward three hours: I wake up in a cold sweat and my stomach is churning. All I can think is: Not good. Not good. NOT GOOD [except with more expletives.] Have you ever gotten food poisoning in a tent in the middle of nowhere while it’s pouring rain? Cause I have.
Another 5 a.m. wake up call, but both Jeff (poor Jeff) and I had been awake all night. I was a trembling, freezing, nauseous mess, and all I could think about was teleporting into a dark room with a warm bed. Obviously, that wasn’t an option. We had about 10 miles to cover that day, with a fair amount of altitude. And like I said before, there are no shortcuts on the Inca Trail.
I can say without hesitation that this particular day was one of the most physically and mentally challenging days of my life. We started with a 1,200 foot climb that nearly did me in; had Jeff not carried my backpack, I probably wouldn’t have made it. But, being the chivalrous individual he is, Jeff strapped my backpack to his front and hauled up the mountain with my pathetic, whimpering self trailing behind. I wish I had a photo of this, but alas, documenting the experience was not really a priority.
The day was indeed long: we hiked from about 6 a.m. till 4 p.m., and I knew I just had to get through it. I should note that everyone in our trekking group — many of whom we now consider friends — were SO NICE and accommodating of me, the miserable cripple.
Just as we were getting used to our 5 a.m. wake up calls, the final day of our trek began at the BRUTAL hour of 3:30 a.m. The plan for our fourth day on the trail was to hike an easy couple of hours before literally descending into Machu Picchu. After a quick breakfast, we walked a short distance to a park checkpoint where we waited two hours to pass. (Apparently, if you want to see Machu Picchu when it’s not completely overrun with people, you have to show up EARLY.)
Once into the park, our first stop was the “Sun Gate,” a point from which Machu Picchu can be seen from above. Unfortunately, it being the rainy season in Peru, the valley was totally socked in with clouds and we saw exactly nothing. Our Aussie friend Jonno joked “this is one of those moments in your life when you realize you did it all wrong,” which everyone found to be very funny (and very true, at least for that moment).
Though the Sun Gate was a bit disappointing, I’m happy to report that the clouds eventually burned off. Once we arrived in Machu Picchu, we were treated to some pretty spectacular views while the park was still (mostly) empty.
Before we went on our trek, our travel friend Betsy told us that Machu Picchu is “overrun but not overrated.” Having been, we couldn’t agree more: the history, beauty, and sheer grandeur of the former Incan city are truly incredible, and well worth braving the crowds to see. But the journey (i.e. the Inca Trail) was at least as enjoyable and inspiring as the destination.