A few months ago we decided that instead of taking the train to see Machu Picchu we would book a four day trek along the Inca Trail with plans to reach Machu Picchu at sunrise on the fourth day. When in Peru, right? Without much thought we went ahead and booked the tour - fast forward to two weeks ago when all of my good intentions to train would be realized as insufficient / mostly non-existent. A few jogs at sea level don't really count (so I've learned). Nevertheless, we were excited and flew to Cusco with headlamps and hiking shoes in tow. This is the map we were given at orientation the evening before the trek began:
I did a decent amount of research beforehand - I knew what to expect in terms of altitude sickness, which days were the hardest, what Trip Advisor reviews said about the food, etc. but nothing I read really prepared me for the physical and mental challenge of embarking on four days of consistent activity in mountainous conditions. Now, some people, especially those who have trekked before, might think the Inca Trail is on the easy to moderate scale. That's cool - I mean, it's not EVEREST but it certainly wasn't a breeze either.
The first day, we were told, was the easy day. It wasn't incredibly difficult but I could definitely feel the effects of the altitude already as we stayed around 3,000m (more or less) for the whole day. It was comprised of mostly uphill and downhill terrain with the odd flat stretch. I found the most difficult part of this day to be the sun! But the views... We could see snowcaps from our first campsite.
The second day was wild. We were warned that it would be the most challenging of the trek and told that if we weren't going to continue, we'd need to let them know by the first break spot so the porters could give us our bags. Motivating. I was pretty terrified. The trail was entirely uphill via stone stairs with a climb in 1,000m from our campsite to Dead Woman's Pass (4,200m). It would take us 5-6 hours to get there and then another 2-3 to descend to camp. You want to believe that the downhill part will be easy but with the stone steps it can actually be harder - and way more painful on the knees. You get to trade not being able to breathe for joint pain. This taught me that walking poles are LIFE. By the end of the day I didn't really know how to walk without them.
By the time we arrived at our campsite the sun was fading and our legs felt as though they were made of jello. Our guides had the well-intentioned idea to share a warm celebratory drink (made of rum, black tea, lime, and sugar) after dinner to commemorate our success in surviving the day's hike. However, I could barely make it through half the glass without falling asleep.
Day three meant another steep ascent followed by a combination of stairs and relatively flat trail. This was a welcome reprieve from the day before. I resumed my usual place at the end of the group. This didn’t really bother me at all until the last day, but we’ll get to that. The trek on the third day was largely through jungle-like terrain complete with waterfalls and caves. It was pretty awesome, though I was promised orchids and they were no where to be found. The destination was even more beautiful than the journey itself and was easily the most incredible campsite I’ve ever seen. I’ll let the photos depict the rest.
The final day meant a 2am wake up call to begin our descent in the dark to reach Machu Picchu by sunrise. We stood and marvelled at the stars before setting off down what seemed like a never-ending set of uneven stairs. I think most people on our trek loved this day for the novelty and excitement of hiking in the dark but I wasn't such a huge fan. I fell probably six or seven times and was lucky I didn't injure myself. Seeing as I was occupying the end of the group I often found myself alone on the trail. One can imagine how I felt about this in the dark (serious face). Our headlamps led the way until about 4:30am when the first light of day began to show. I managed to captured this pretty cool pic of my sister around that time.
After another few hours we finally reached the sun gate where it was still too foggy to see Machu Picchu. Upon arriving at the main site we were instantly overwhelmed by the number of tourists and selfie sticks after having been rather isolated for the past four days. Nevertheless, it was still a pretty magnificent site to behold.
I was absolutely delighted by the resident llamas (not as a great as alpacas but whatever).
After a couple of hours of wandering around in the scorching sun we called it a day (at like, 10am) and took the bus into Aguas Calientes in hopes of finding a cold beer and a hot shower. We eventually found a hostel willing to rent us a room for a couple of hours and we all took turns rinsing the past four days off our exhausted bodies before sourcing a pretty epic "happy hour" (with no distinguishable start or end time) of 4 for 1 drinks.
All in all, it was pretty spectacular to be totally off the grid in the middle of the mountains. It was easily the most physically demanding experience of my adult life (AND we hired porters to carry our bags). We hiked a total of 47km through the Andes in scorching heat, at high altitude, over rocky terrain, and all without creature comforts. It was a-w-e-s-o-m-e.
We trekked through fields, forest, and jungle. We woke to snow-capped glaciers in the distance and peered through mist at hidden valleys filled with ruins. We pat stray dogs and mingled with camp kitties. We survived the climb to dead woman’s pass at 13,800 ft (4,200m) after five straight hours of uphill climb with low oxygen. We woke up at 2am to hike for three hours in the dark to reach Machu Picchu at sunrise. Bucket list: ✓