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South America

Surviving the Inca Trail

So, we’ll be honest and say that we really aren’t the most adventurous of people… don’t fault us for that. Asia has a decent sized list of fears and well I just don’t like to have to be all that active while on vacation. While I love a little adventure, hiking and camping… that’s just not my thing. I can admit it, so get over it! 

All this being true, I have done a couple of adventurous things so far in my travels. Things I absolutely don’t regret although I wouldn’t repeat them either. Let’s talk about Machu Picchu, primarily how to go about doing the 4 day hike on the Inca Trail for the inexperienced hiker. By inexperienced I mean I had never hiked before in my life prior to setting foot on this trail. Keep reading and you’ll see how things went. 

HOW WE MADE THIS DECISION:

I just wanted to clarify one thing first, this was one of my trips pre-Asia. Well we were dating at the time, but while I was off galavanting around the world after graduating from Michigan, she was stuck at home working (she graduated a year before me). She resented me a bit that summer to say the least. 

This trip was comprised of myself, my sister, my dad and five of his middle aged friends (don’t ask me how the middle aged friends ended up tagging along it was absolutely not our choice). We made the decision to hike the Inca Trail after meeting some people in a hostel in Brasil who had completed the trek themselves. They made it sound like the trip of a lifetime, and honestly it was just that…a once in a lifetime trip that I never plan to do again. Okay, that’s the last I’m going to say in that tone because seriously, I would recommend this to anyone who thinks they are capable… You absolutely can’t beat the views. 

WHERE TO BEGIN:

A trip of this caliber really takes an extreme amount of planning. We had to start a year in advance because there are only a certain number of people allowed on the trail at a time. This means you have to be permitted and you must have a guide. Do your research. Think about the best times to go and when you will be able to dedicate at least 10 full days to a trip. Also be aware of rules and regulations at work. I know this sounds like something strange to consider, but if your line of work requires frequent drug testing, be aware that the coca leaves you might chew to help with altitude sickness will show up on that test.

 

The first thing I tend to research when planning a trip is the best time to travel to the country/city of interest. In the case of Machu Picchu, really our only option was the summer because it was when we were finished with school. The best months to travel are between November and March because they tend to be drier, warmer, and less crowded. Our trip was in June, which if you are willing to pay a little extra money and book farther in advance, it’s a great time to go. The weather is relatively mild, the hottest it got was about 75 degrees and we had only one day of rain during our entire journey. Added bonus: we didn’t know this until we were literally standing in the ruins of Machu Picchu, but if you go during the summer or winter solstice (June 21st or December 21st) and you plan your trip to finish your hike on that specific date, the sun rises directly over the sun gate and shines through a particular window in the ruins. 

 

HOW TO PICK A TOUR COMPANY:

This is the most important aspect of the trip. I repeat: THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THE TRIP. Sorry for screaming but y’all need to take this seriously. Please Please do your research on all the tour companies who do this hike because there are a ton to choose from. Be weary, some companies do not treat their porters, chefs, and tour guides well. While on the hike, we noticed some groups with porters who were wearing flip flops and carrying backpacks with absolutely no back or hip support. Keep in mind, these porters carry 15lbs of gear from the hikers in the tour, all of the tents, the cooking supplies, and the food. It’s crucial that they are given the proper gear. 

We went with Llama Path and did the Inca Trail Private Service 4 day hike. I’m not saying it’s who you have to choose, but we loved this company. The porters and guides were well equipped and taken care of. The day before the hike we met with our guide at the company business office, we discussed the necessities, how to pack, and the itinerary so that we were able to buy the things we still needed and ask the questions we needed to ask before embarking on a rather unforgiving journey. 

WHAT TO PACK:

Don’t worry, I’ll put together a whole blog for y’all detailing exactly what we bought and what we packed for this trip because it is a very extensive list. For now, here are the essentials. We’ll go in order of importance to me. 
Become a coop member at REI. Seriously, just do it. You don’t get much back from it, but you might get like $20 back in dividends at the end of the year… plus you get exclusive access to their sales (especially the garage sale). Trust me, you’ll want to save all the money you can because the real expense of this trip is in gear. If you don’t have what you need when you get to the hike, you are shit out of luck. Don’t be that person. 
  1. Sleeping bag. You don’t think it’s important now, but after you’ve hiked up and down the side of a mountain for 6-8mi 14,000ft above sea level, you’ll care. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but spend the money on a good sleeping bag. A really good one. I recommend a mummy sleeping bag that has a tested comfort of at least 30 degrees… if you can find one that goes lower, choose that. Nights in the mountains were down in the low 30s and the last thing you want to be at night is cold. Choose a gender specific bag as well… they have ones for women for a reason. Along with the sleeping bag, get a liner – it’ll keep you warmer and keep your sleeping bag cleaner. Lastly, get a pillow. Sounds stupid to mention it, but hey someone will forget. 
  2. Dry Sack. Next to the sleeping bag, this is the literal most important thing you need to pack. The porters are responsible for carrying your gear and they will do so in a “water resistant” bag. If apple has taught me anything, it means you can’t trust anything that says “water resistant”. When it rains, if all of your extra clothes and everything you have to sleep on gets wet… well that’s a story for a different day. 
  3. Day Backpack. Like your sleeping bag, spend a little extra on a good backpack. This is what you will carry all day every day. Make sure it is comfortable and properly fitted for you. If you go into REI, they will fit you specifically for a backpack as long as you tell them what you are looking for. Make sure your pack has a pouch to carry at least 1.5L of water. Also, buy the bladder to hold the water. Again, self explanatory but someone will forget. 
  4.  Hiking boots. I really don’t care if the forum you read said you can do this trail in your favorite running shoes, or even low top hiking boots. You NEED HIGH TOP hiking boots. Something with some ankle support. Who ever told you that this wasn’t necessary, didn’t do the same hike. I promise. 
  5. Headlamp. When you get up in the middle of the night to pee, It will be pitch black and you will be on the side of a mountain. Do yourself a favor, get a headlamp so you can see. 
Check out the full packing list here.  

THE PROPER ITINERARY:

The best way to do this trip is to take your time. While I don’t know your skill level, nor do I know what your body is used to in terms of altitude, it is suggested that you acclimatize in Cusco for at least 3-4 days prior to starting the four day hike. We flew in to Lima, stayed a night and then flew in to Cusco the next evening. When we stepped off the plane, immediately it felt like someone had knocked the wind out of us. I have asthma so naturally I know what it feels like to be short of breath, this was a different story. It felt like there wasn’t enough air to breathe. I personally had never been above sea level before, so this was a huge change. 

While staying in our hotel in Cusco, we couldn’t even take the stairs to move about the property because we would get too winded. When I say you need time to acclimatize, please take the time to do just that. 

During our stopover in Cusco, we spent the days wondering slowly about the city because it really is a cool place to see. There are tons of little markets, stalls, and restaurants to explore. Ceviche is divine and Japanese Peruvian fusion is a really interesting combination you should try. 

THE HIKE:

I may not have mentioned this before, but this is likely the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life..unless you are planning to hike to base camp of Mount Everest. Maybe I’m dramatic, but I found this hike to be very difficult. Like a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10… keep in mind I’ve never hiked before. 

On the other hand, this is also one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. While Machu Picchu can be slightly underwhelming after the other views from the hike, every view you come across makes this journey more and more worth it. 

Choose your company wisely, I hinted at this, but my company wasn’t chosen by me (I wasn’t paying for the trip). If you do a private tour, choose company you know you will enjoy spending 4 days looking ugly and feeling exhausted with. Also, understand that at the end of the first day there is an option to turn back if you feel like you cannot make it. Once you wake up the second day and begin the journey forward (well mostly upward) there is no turning back. The second day is the hardest and longest climb, but if you can make it through, the rest of the hike will be a breeze. Not really, but kinda. 

Each morning begins rather early, no later than 5am and the last morning started at 3am for us. The Porters will walk through the tent ringing a bell to make sure everyone is awake, they greet you with a bowl of hot water to wash your hands and face and a cup of tea made of coca leaves. DRINK IT. Then you have breakfast after everyone gets dressed. The meals on the trek are something to be mentioned. I have never had such delicious food in my life (maybe because of all of the bodily stress, who knows). Each time we sat in the dining tent we were presented with at least 3 courses of food. I will warn you though, you get plenty of time to eat, but no time to digest. We were expected to begin the hike about 10-15minutes after finishing a meal… don’t gorge yourself, you’ll regret it. After the first lunch of the hike when they rushed us out of the tent, I was terrified I would puke mid ascent. After breakfast you begin the first half of the hike. There are a couple of break points until lunch. After lunch is the second half which ends in a lovely dinner and the best sleep you’ll ever have in your life.

Every stage of the hike allows for acclimatization. Cusco sits at 11,000ft while the trek begins at 9,000ft. Each day you will start with a climb and then descend slightly so as to not shock the body too much. The second day prior to lunch will be the highest peak of the climb at about 14,000ft. Machu Picchu sits at just under 8,000ft which will feel quite nice by the end of things. 

No matter what you do, keep going. You can do it. You will finish. Don’t be like 3 people in our group and turn around after the first day. You told all these people you were doing the hike… they’ll clown you for eternity if you don’t. Plus, you don’t want to miss the spectacular views including sunrise over the sun gate. Every day provides a climb through a different type of terrain which means different vegetation and different climates. This really is a once in a lifetime trip. 

I hope this was all the information you need on how to hike machu picchu. Reach out any time in the comments or through social media with any questions you have regarding this highly adventurous trip!