We did the Inca Trail and enjoyed it ….
After much agonising with only 72 hours before we were to set sail, I ended up agreeing to walk the Inca Trail. We had booked our trek to begin on the 14th June over seven months prior, paying just a 30% deposit without all that much thought or research put in to it, it’s the Inca Trail, everyone does it right? Wrong!
The Inca Trail and visiting Machu Picchu are two very different things, visiting Machu Picchu (the top tourist attraction in the world according to Tripadvisor) can be done by anyone willing to make their way to Cusco. From Cusco you can make your way to Agua Calientes, the town sitting beneath MP via train or bus, and then it is only a short bus ride up a winding road and you will have arrived, no big deal, no sweat, no tears and no blisters. However what we had signed up for was a whole lot more bang for our (US$530) buck, and we hadn’t even paid the extra US$60 for porters. We were facing 4 days trekking, at altitude, carrying our own sleeping bags, sleeping mats, snacks, toiletries and clothing – this is when I had my mini break down, 10 days before we were due to begin, with the balance of our booking outstanding I was ready to pull the pin. Then it got a whole lot worse, I began researching online other peoples experiences, it was not pretty.
Here are a few snippets of what I found …
“As I drifted to sleep, I thought about a conversation I’d had with our guide that morning. I asked how often altitude sickness caused hikers to call it quits. He replied that it was the most common cause for mid-trek turn backs, but it was followed closely by the second most common reason — what he called an unwell mind. “Some people, they do not know what it is like to struggle. They don’t know what their bodies can do and it causes their minds to panic.”
“Unfortunately, not everyone in the group was feeling as chipper as I was. A few started succumbing to altitude sickness — in the end, seven out of the fifteen in our group would fall ill at some point, with severity reaching from mild to almost-couldn’t-continue.”
“About 4100 meters above sea level, with the goal in sight through the thin Andean air, I broke.
Your breath comes short up there, wheezing through your throat. There’s just not enough oxygen – it’s like being in the desert and trickling the smallest drops of water into your mouth. You gasp for more but it’s not there.
Gradually, inexorably, I shut down, my swinging arms and plodding feet coming to a halt, dead still in the middle of the track. I looked up. So close, yet so far. “Just leave me here, guys,” I heaved, hands on knees. “I’ll see you at the top.”
“To try and explain how tough it is, picture this. Even when I only had a couple of steps to go to reach the top, I would have to stop and rest every step. This was especially annoying as it was so cold that every time I stopped, I had to put my jacket back on. I would get so hot with the step, that it would go off again. On and off… it drove me crazy.”
“The next morning was, quite frankly, hell. We had to get up at 4am to be there in time for “daybreak”.
“We finally got to the look out point, late, exhausted, and with fog covering all of Macchu Picchu anyway. What was the point of getting up at 4am anyway?! I was angry, bitter and incredibly sore.”
If you ask me these blogs made the trek sound absolutely horrific, death defying, mentally draining and so physically demanding would it even matter that I had kept my cardio fitness up over the months?
Eventually I agreed to do the trek, and off we went to hire sleeping bags, mats, walking poles and decent backpacks as our current day packs are extremely unergonomic. We found a fantastic shop to hire from, it is up gringo alley (Procuradures) on your right hand side – the 2nd store after the restaurant with the Mexican food sign – the guy’s name is Rosly and he is really helpful and down to earth, check him out. We ended up paying 180Soles (AU$70) to hire two backpacks, sleeping bags, mats and poles.
I won’t go into detail of every day of the trek and what we ate, drank and dreamed about as you can find this information on the above blogs, I basically wanted to write about how misleading and incorrect what I found online was. Without porters, (in some instances the authors of these blog posts didn’t even have to carry there own gear) we thoroughly enjoyed the trek, we found it challenging and certainly tough but at no point would you find us cursing ourselves for ever signing up to the ghastly thing (until the last day, will go into that later). There are three main reasons I feel we enjoyed the trek so much and they are:
1. We had the right gear.
We ended up hiring FANTASTIC backpacks, mine was 6kg in total including everything I needed for the four days and Rob’s was 8kgs. Mine was especially comfortable and perhaps only once during the trek did my shoulders give a niggle. We hired a walking pole each and our mats and sleeping bags were super light, both were under a kg each.
I am at my most irritable when I am overheating, I hate being too hot, so I ensured to wear the right clothes during the trek, you’ll eat breakfast in the wee hours of the morning where you will be cold however about five minutes after whipping out the poles and beginning the mornings trek you’ll be warm. Don’t over dress. We both have Timberland boots which could have played a part in our comfort and also of course well fitting socks that do not slip around in your shoes are ideal.
2. Adjusting to altitude
We had been at altitude for the past few weeks so I feel that even though we were in and out of altitude our bodies have learned how to deal with the symptoms. We seemed to recover really quickly as soon as we stopped for a break within minutes we were rearing to go again, in fact cursing the constant breaks our tour guide proffered us, we just wanted to keep going.
Although Machu Picchu is not all that high itself, Cusco actually being higher, parts of the trek are at over 4000 meters so it would be really foolish to not get yourself to Cusco at least two days prior to your trek to get yourself adjusted. I still felt the effects of altitude sickness a couple of times myself, however I kicked the headache and strange feeling you get through your nose with cocoa leaves which you stuff in the side of your gum.
Almost any healthy person could theoretically attempt the Inca Trail, but the extent of your enjoyment will depend on your fitness level in my opinion. Common sense really, but get walking, running or just get active in the months preceding. The trek is not easy, it is difficult, you don’t need to be super fit by any means to complete it however if you don’t want to be hating life throughout the four days its up to you to do something about it before you head off.
I have to admit however that day four didn’t go down too well for me, and let me tell you this was the first time that I was too hot and could not stop to delayer as our guide was leading the group so fast to try beat the other groups. I did get annoyed by this and did start grumbling to myself, why did we have to walk so fast?, what was the point of the 3am wake up only to basically have to run to the sun gate and get myself all sweaty for the rest of the day?
We went with a company Inca Trail Reservations which seemed to basically do the same as all the other companies who charged more for the same thing. Much the same food (fantastic!), tents, and of course you are all seeing the same scenery. The two main things we learned is to check whether you will need to pay extra for a porter and also what time your included train ticket back to Cusco is. Our tickets were on the 6:45pm train which meant we would only get back to our hostel after 11pm, we ended up upgrading our ticket for US$20 to a 4pm train and this meant we got back to Cusco at a decent hour.
The question I wanted to ask people who had already accomplished the trek was, “knowing what you know now would you have chosen to do the trek in the first place?” My answer to this would be yes, in fact I would do it all over again myself, perhaps Rob and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary along the Inca Trail one day.