Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – #TravelbackThursday

Before arriving to Cusco and Machu Picchu we had a preconception that this whole area was just a big tourist trap. We figured that every corner turned would be a new opportunity to be hustled. And for the hike itself, well that wasn’t going to be too difficult. Jordan was a tad more nervous than Pete, but that didn’t stop her from doing light training just to break in her boots. We figured the trail wouldn’t be in the best condition, have somewhat rustic amenities, and was a hike that most people could do – at least that’s what we gathered from the many social media posts of friends who have already completed the trail.

We were wrong on almost all accounts. The trail was worn (duh) but it was no where near a walk in the park. It was more beautiful than either of us could have imagined and much more difficult than we had considered. The physical and mental test that the Inca Trail provided was one that, when not prepared for, can make for a grueling four days. It was quite literally a test of just putting one foot in front of the next and never giving up.


 

Day 1: Kilometer Marker 82

The first day started early and we were picked up around 7 o’clock from our hostel. Everyone at the bus station looked pretty tired and we wondered how they would fare on this four day journey. From Cusco to 82km (our drop-off point) is roughly 3 hours.  The drive does not disappoint and we did our best to keep our heavy eyes open to take in the scenic views. You’ll pass through small villages where people are doing laundry with their bare hands and children are tending flocks of sheep. Stay awake!

We stopped in the village of Ollantaytambo on our way to hire our porters and grab a quick bite and any last minute necessaties (if you can, grab some rolls of toilet paper from your hostel/hotel before you leave!). As soon ase we stepped out of the van, we were immediately surrounded by locals trying to sell us rain covers and walking sticks. We thought we were spot on about being hustled and quickly walked away. We had no idea that those walking sticks were actually a great idea and are much cheaper to buy in Ollantaytambo than Cusco and on the trail itself. If you have bad knees or ankles, they are 100% worth the small investment.

When we got to our drop-off point we were all given our sleeping bags and mats. Believe it or not, these add a decent amount of weight to our packs so keep that in mind when packing for four days. Jordan and I had 65L bags since were backpacking for a few months, but these were honestly too big for the hike. Pete’s pack was so monstrous with everything in it that his rain cover wouldn’t even fit over the whole bag! The guide told us that we had about 8-10km to hike until camp and with that we checked into the check point, stamped our passports for the Inca Trail, and were off.

The 5-6 hour journey to camp the first day was filled with several stops, some for rest and others to learn about the ruins along the way. Despite our best efforts at finding a tour that guaranteed an English-speaking guide (this was the biggest tip to watch out for when we did our research back home), our guide told us it was the first time he had to speak English on the hike. Luckily, a woman in our group spoke great English and was able to translate the Spanish for us the entire time (Thanks, Nadia!). We broke for lunch around 2 and without having any expectations as to how the food would be, were blown away. It was a bit rainy so the porters served us some warm vegetable soup and Lomo Saltado. It filled us up nicely and set the expectation for the rest of the trip that we were going to eat well! Our group of 13 was given 30 minutes to chill after lunch so most people laid in the grassy knoll and stared at the white capped montañas. We both took some time to catch up in our travel journals (we used this one!), which looking back was one of the best things we brought with us. As we quickly learned, hiking the trail is almost more of a mental feat than physical and having those journals to record our days and thoughts were an invaluable part of our trip.

 

About 3km outside of camp we saw Patallacta, which is an Incan ruin site beautifully placed right in the valley. Our guide, Giancarlo, told us that on their way to Machu Picchu, the Incans would stop here for a night or two before continuing on their journey. The cliffs that surrounded us for the rest of the day to our campsite towered over us and were impossible to ignore. The hike on day 1 certainly wasn’t easy but was a good one to get under our belts for day 2, which would be the hardest.

We arrived to camp and our tents were already set up. The porters are truly amazing; the speed and agility at which they traverse the trail, with all of the weight they carry is simply unbelievable. Your company will tell you ahead of time to bring tip money for the porters, but we can’t stress enough how hard these men work and how deserving they are of a good tip. We had tea time at 5:30 (coca mate, of course) and got to know everyone who was in our group. Most of them were from Buenos Aires, one was from Brazil, one was from Germany, and then there was us and our friend Nicole who joined us from the States. Our group clicked almost immediately, which in hindsight is ultimately what made this trek.


 

Day 2: Dead Woman’s Pass

Before we left for the hike, the only warning we had from some friends was that Day 2 is by far the most difficult. One of the main reasons why this day is so tough is because of the change in altitude. We started the day at roughly 3,100 meters (10,170.6 ft.) and peaked at just over 4,200 (13,779.53 ft.). The 1,100 meters (roughly 3,600 ft.) that you climb is supposed to take around four hours. Knowing this ahead of time, Jordan and Nicole opted to buy walking poles at the start of the day. These were a huge help for them both (especially with Jordan’s ankle issues) and we would highly recommend buying them. We finished the first leg in roughly 45 minutes. This part involved lots of steps which in our opinion, made it much more difficult. We took our fair share of breaks to catch our breath and swig some water. However, they warn you not to wait for friends or stop for too long, because of the need to keep your heart rate going at the high altitude. Once you get through stair master pt. 1 (for real though, the StairMaster would be great training), everyone takes a break to have a snack and look at the valley below. It’s spectacular looking down at the small trail below that you just climbed up. Believe it or not, there were Peruvian vendors up here selling anything from Gatorade to full liters of rum – for at least twice the price. Fortunately for us, our guides provided a small snack since we weren’t going to have lunch until we arrived to camp. Talk about an incentive to move fast!

After a thirty minute break we took off for the final leg. More stairs were involved and at a much steeper incline. The air became noticeably thinner and the once pleasant blue sky quickly turned gray and tumultuous. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped big time. By the time we reached the top, it was quite cold and extremely windy. It took us just over an hour to reach the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, which made us the first ones of our group. Even so, strangers still clapped, cheered and sang – we certainly felt accomplished. It’s a crazy sense of community when hiking the trail. Even though everyone is nearly strangers, people do nothing but encourage each other the entire time. After waiting for the rest of the group and taking photos, we decided to head downward. The drop in temperature was causing our bodies to cool, making it more difficult to move. After you summit Dead Woman’s Pass, the trail is downhill for the rest of day 2.

In Pete’s opinion, descending was the worst part of the day. The way down is all steps, and since we hiked during the rainy season, the fact that they were wet and slippery made it even more brutal. Many people slipped and struggled with the constant impact on their knees. This is where having a walking pole/stick would be extremely convenient so make sure you have one! It also helps to make an investment beforehand for some solid hiking boots. At least half of our group wore sneakers and not only did they get soaked but they did not do well with providing traction. On the contrary, our Loma’s and Salomon’s were remarkable. The only parts of our bodies that stayed dry were our feet!

We arrived to camp around 1:30 in the afternoon, and it was such a relief to be finished with the stairs. The porters provided us some warm vegetable soup and a Peruvian version of a hamburger for lunch. Most of the group decided to nap after lunch until tea-time at 5. Because of the altitude, this was by far the coldest camp we experienced during the four days – we were quite literally in the clouds. Our down jackets really came in handy, and we ended up wearing them for the rest of the night.

A side note to anyone wondering about the bathroom situation: They were hands down the worst we have ever used. For the most part, they are simply holes in the ground. So our word of advice is to do everything you can to avoid getting sick (bring lots of Immodium!), and if you do, the woods make a much better option.


 Day 3: The Longest Day

Day 3 was the longest day both in distance and hours walked. It consisted of 18km (most of which were stairs) and roughly 9 hours of hiking. It rained throughout the whole day, and there was an overlying fog that did not allow us to see much along the way. The fog was rather unfortunate because at one point you come to a lookout where you are supposed to be able to see Machu Picchu – for us, it was nowhere in sight. We had lunch with a few llama friends and enjoyed a brief break of rain as we chowed down on warm soup.

One thing that certainly took some getting used to was the constant wetness of everything. Not just the paths but the clothes we wore, the clothes in our packs and even the sleeping bags. Even though we had rain covers on everything, it was nearly impossible to prevent things from becoming damp. Again, our hiking boots were by far our best investment and it went a long way to have dry feet! If you are considering going during the rainy season, make sure your boots have Gore-Tex technology.

As mentioned before, there were lots of stairs. For Pete, this was the toughest day mentally. At one point he said that the worst torture someone could give to him would be walking down stairs every day. The last 30 minutes were especially tough because you know that you are very close to camp but due to the switchbacks which were covered by trees and dense shrubs, you cannot see how much further you still have to go. After a day like this, all you want is to be laying in your tent.

We eventually made it to camp and tried to dry out in our tents even though it was pouring. For a brief period of time the rain cleared allowing us to take a glimpse at Winaywayna, which was only a few minutes walk from the camp site. However, in the back of our minds was Nicole. She was moving a little slower because of the rain and all of the stairs, and we weren’t sure when she would make it back. Just as we were sitting down to eat dinner she made it to camp with our other guide. She hiked for 12 HOURS and the last 45 minutes was in rain and darkness. Our whole crew was so relieved to have her back and everyone went to her tent to check on her and offer help in any way possible. It was quite moving to see these people who we only knew for three days, with a language barrier, be so willing to do whatever was necessary to make her feel better. She could hardly move so she stayed in her tent for the rest of the evening. We have to say, Nicole is by far one of the most resilient people we’ve ever met and we were so proud of her getting through that day.


 

Day 4: Machu Picchu

Our last day was the earliest and started around 3:30 a.m. The reason we got up so early was to be in the front of the line at the checkpoint. Because each tour that hiked for the past three days stays at the same camp, getting in the front of the line is important for two reasons. First, because you can technically be the first group to the Sun Gate, and second, to get cover from some overhead roofing in the case that it’s raining, which it always seemed to be during our hike. If you wake up late and are further behind, you have no shelter from rain and spend a good hour and a half waiting to actually begin your hike to Machu Picchu.

We got in line at a decent position – we were pretty much the last ones to still have a roof over our heads. We waited from about 4:30 to 5:30 am and then began the easiest hike yet on the eastern side of the Peruvian Andes. The only thing that made it slightly difficult was that it started down-pouring when we reached a stretch of stairs that you basically have to crawl up. You don’t walk up them because they are too steep – you literally put one hand over the other and pull yourself up. The rain certainly didn’t help this cause and we were surprised more people don’t get hurt when attempting this. We felt like we were rock-climbing!

We arrived to the Sun Gate and were pretty disappointed. We had been saying nonstop prayers all morning that the days of rain would mean we’d have a clear view of Machu Picchu once we finally arrived. The rain had stopped but the fog still covered everything which meant we couldn’t see further than 10 feet in front of us. We were starting to wonder if we would see the ruins at all but our guide assured us that at 10 a.m. it would clear up. Pete thinks that he must be one with Pachamama because at 9:57 it was almost completely clear and by 10 we stared in awe at the elusive Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is pretty hard to put into words. What makes it so unique is that they still don’t know for what exactly what it was used. Our guide said it could have been used as a school for only extremely well off noblemen and women. It also may have been used for religious purposes, or it could have served as a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles. Pete even heard one guide say that it may have been used as a hotel. The mystery of the place is what makes it so charming. The terraced fields, beautifully crafted stonework and network of open-walled houses proves that the Incans were the modern engineers of their time. Their craftywork is impossible to ignore. It’s hard to imagine what people thought of it back in the Incan times especially considering the journey they had to take to get here. And no matter how many pictures you have already seen in your newsfeed, there’s nothing like experiencing it in person.

We broke from our tour a tad early to hike up Huayna Picchu. Huayna Picchu, which means “Young Mountain”, towers roughly 1,000 ft. above Machu Picchu. Before arriving, we heard horror stories of how steep and unsafe the climb up is. It certainly wasn’t easy, but a little precaution goes a long way. It’s not the best climb for anyone with any fears of heights, but if you can face it, it’s the most rewarding view. We were both so exhausted from the hike that it is hard to believe we voluntarily hiked another 45 minutes straight up. When you reach the top and look down at Machu Picchu, it is simply breathtaking. You feel like you conquered something bigger than yourself and you have a much greater appreciation for the Incan’s did here many years ago. It was a moment we will never forget.

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The journey to Machu Picchu may be a distant memory but it’s one that’s always in the back of our minds. Four days in the Andes mountains with nothing but a pack on your back allows you to recenter with earth, and more importantly with yourself. Hours and miles of hiking permitted us an unprecedented amount of time for which we had the ability to be in silence with the Creator. Walking in wonder occurred on a regular basis and made us realize just how big and beautiful our world is. It was this excursion that allowed both of us to recognize the importance of committing a portion of our lives to spending time immersed in nature.

John Muir said it best:

John Muir - Machu Picchu - Quarter for Your Crisis

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