It was 4am and I was set to start my Inca Trail hike in exactly four hours. Instead of sleeping peacefully in my bed in Ollantaytambo, I was heaving over the toilet for what felt like the 100th time.
This was not due to nerves.
Somehow, I’d managed to successfully contract food poisoning the day before I left to attempt the hardest physical challenge of my life. Gulp.
I’d always wanted to visit Machu Picchu but given my travel style – foodie adventures and city walks – it never occurred to me to volunteer for a 4-day hike. I’m definitely a take-the-train kind of gal; my first camping trip ever was just two years ago. But when the opportunity to hike the Inca Trail on Intrepid Travel’s 7-day Inca Trail Express trip came my way, I immediately said yes. After all, tens of thousand of people hike the trail every year, so I figured some quality time with the StairMaster and a few visits to the sports shops for the right gear would be all I needed.
But don’t get me wrong: I spent much of the month before the trail freaking out and Googling survival tips. I felt slightly better at our welcome meeting, where our local leader Victor broke each day down for us. Though it never occurred to me that I’d be hiking in less-than-perfect health.
Back to the toilet heaving. Well, four hours after it. I stood in front of the Kilometer 82 sign – the official start of the Inca Trail – and vowed that I would finish, no matter what. One of my better traits – or worst, depending on whom you ask – is my stubbornness. And it was truly sheer willpower that led me to gawk at Machu Picchu four days later.
So what’s it really like to hike the Inca Trail?
To put it bluntly: it’s hard. I consider myself to be moderately fit but as someone who has spent her entire life living at sea level in Los Angeles, the altitude is no joke. The trail itself is filled with plenty of large and uneven rocks making it difficult to assess whether it’s harder to ascend or descend on the trail.
Despite all of this, the hike is worth it.
The first day of the trail is meant to be an introduction. The path is relatively flat and there are plenty of breaks, where you’ll stop to see impressive ruins that, for some reason, nobody talks about. The trail is filled with remnants of the Incas, all of which are only accessible by those hiking the Inca Trail. They’re amazing.
What is arguably even more amazing and impressive is the porters. You’ll be huffing and puffing your way up the trail at a tortoise’s pace and they’ll fly past you, carrying a pack that’s triple the size of the one on your back. Not only did they start hiking after we did, but they managed to beat us to the lunch sites, cook and prepare amazing three-course meals, then do it again for dinner. That’s not all. At each campsite, they had hot water waiting for us upon arrival and tea and snacks before dinner. They’re the real MVPs.
By the time I’d enjoyed my delicious three-course lunch on the first day, I felt confident that the trail wouldn’t be as bad as I thought. But by the time I made it to camp three hours later, I wasn’t so sure. The trail had suddenly gotten a lot steeper and we’d already been warned that day 2 is the hardest. What had I gotten myself into?
Day 2 is, in a nutshell, grueling. It’s around 12 hours of hiking including climbing to the highest peak of the trail: Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,828 feet. To date, I can’t decide if it was that difficult or if it’s because I desperately needed to use a bathroom for an hour before we got to the top (my food poisoning symptoms continued throughout the hike).
In theory, going downhill should have been easier but the slippery rocks and my natural clumsiness meant I was moving even slower than I was climbing up. Watching the porters and other hikers pass me with quick agility was disheartening but all I could do was give myself a pep talk and carry on until my well-earned lunch stop.
It started raining as we embarked on the final leg of the trek for that day and the weather fueled me to move faster. I was especially concerned by the prospect of hiking after dark, considering my pace. Luckily, I made it to camp around dusk. The hardest part was over and there was no turning back.
Despite knowing that day 3 would be just 6 hours of hiking, the first uphill climb the next day left me on the verge of tears. I was dehydrated and sore and still suffering from a queasy stomach. One of my hiking mates could tell I was having a hard time and offered me some rehydration salts. Victor gave me a pep talk and told me to go at my own pace. And several others told me they were more exhausted than they were letting on.
I was really thankful to have such a supportive group with me. Nobody made me feel bad about my glacial pace; instead, they cheered me on when I was struggling.
Read more: https://www.intrepidtravel.com/adventures/inca-trail-tour-firsthand-account/