Most things in life come with an escape plan. If your college isn’t all you hoped it would be, you can transfer. If your job isn’t a good fit, you quit. If your boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t The One, you break up. And if a vacation isn’t going well, you change the game plan or book an earlier flight. Unless you’re hiking the Inca Trail.
It’s been over a year since my hiking boot-clad feet touched Peruvian soil. And yet… it feels like just yesterday. Peru was my first trip to South America. My first hiking trip. My first time living without toilets. And my second-ever time to sleep in a tent.
I can honestly say that the Inca Trail is everything it’s cracked up to be. Over the 4-day trip we climbed up, down, and across over 45km (almost 28 miles) of trail. And I promise I felt every one of them! I had traded my walking boot (achilles tendinitis) for a pair of Keen boots on the way to the airport, and hopped on the plane praying that the weeks of physical therapy post-half marathon would carry me through. I wouldn’t recommend that method of training… but I can definitely recommend those boots, because I got ZERO blisters even after ZERO amount of breaking in.
I went with Active Adventures South America for the Inca trail at the recommendation of a Peruvian friend who definitely didn’t lead us astray. Our guide Saul was passionate about his culture, heritage, and encouraged us through the many moments of near-breakdowns. We paid the extra fee to have the porters carry our bags… and if you can swing it, I’d recommend that to everyone! They were INCREDIBLE! They carried our things in addition to all of the tents, food, and propane we’d need for the 4-day journey. And, they did it all in sandals.
Our group of nine was an eclectic mix of languages and nationalities. As we (the only two Americans) mingled among our group, we heard French, German, and Spanish languages and a South African accent. And although some of us couldn’t speak a common language, our group quickly bonded over our shared battle cry: Si se puede! (Yes, we can!).
The first day began with an early hotel pick up, a supply stop (one last chance to pick up Oreos before starting the trail!), and rearranging our packs to meet the 6kg weight limit before handing them off to the porters. In my memory, day one was a cake walk: beautiful scenery, Incan architecture, frequent opportunities to buy water or Gatorade, and not a whole lot of elevation change. However, rereading my journal reminded me that the altitude made it a little less of a cake walk than I remembered. Definitely plan to stay a day or two in Cusco before the trail in order to get accustomed to the altitude. Plus– it’s just an amazing city.
Any visions of cake walks evaporated with the dreaded day two, which we had heard affectionately referred to as “the day from hell.” We woke up to rain, and about 10 hours of stairs. It was at some point during this day that I realized that there was no escape plan. The only way out was back or forward, and so we pushed through, climbing the rain soaked steps, until we got to camp– greeted with hot coca leaf tea and a nice warm meal.
As tough as day two was, it made waking up to day three even more magical. We woke up among the clouds, halfway between snow-tipped peaks and lush green valleys. Day three was as laid back as day two was hard. We stopped frequently to learn about the Incans as we passed their holy sites and took photos of the breathtaking views. The flowers on the trail were unlike any others I’ve ever seen— some of them looked like they belonged underwater rather than growing out of the side of a mountain.
Our last morning began dark and early, with a 3:30am wake up call. We hiked to the checkpoint into Machu Picchu park, and waited until it opened at 5am, passing the time with games, conversation, and breakfast packed by our porters. The group of hikers buzzed with anticipation, knowing the previous days’ hike was filled with purpose that would be fulfilled within a few hours. We reached the Sun Gate just after sunrise— the first spot where Machu Picchu can be seen— only to find it covered by clouds. But at that very moment, the clouds cleared and a rainbow emerged, spanning over the ancient ruins. It was emotional to say the least.
We’d hiked through rain, pain, and exhaustion for this moment. And we were rewarded with the most beautiful presentation of our goal, just within our reach. (I wrote a blog about that moment for the Denison Forum… you can read about it here.) Aware of our exhaustion, and even more acutely aware of our prize, we pressed on, pausing just outside Machu Picchu with Saul for a debrief.Then, we were free to explore Machu Picchu, see the Inca Bridge, or go on to climb Huayna Picchu for those who had purchased tickets in advance. Machu Picchu was beautiful and magical, and everything we imagined it to be.It was also more stairs. Our legs were on fire and our knees felt like 20-year-old rubber bands on the verge of crumbling. But we heard that there was a great lookout point above us, and so we decided that a few more stairs couldn’t hurt. And we were right…. the intricacies of the architecture witnessed inside the site and the grandeur of Machu Picchu seen from above are a once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-make-it-up kind of amazing.
What to bring (I recommend packing everything in Ziploc baggies in case of rain):
On the Inca Trail:
- Daypack with rain-cover
- Rain jacket
- Snacks (nuts, energy bars)
- Reusable water bottle
- Bug spray
- Buff headwear (for use as a sweatband or to hold in warmth and cover ears at night)
- Camera (bring extra batteries!)
- Electrolyte tablets (I like Nuun brand)
- Cash for tips at the end of the trip (bring new bills to Peru— most places won’t take them if they’re old or torn)
To send with the porters:
- Quick dry pants (I brought one pair that zipped into shorts and one that didn’t. Zappos is great for hiking clothes because they offer free shipping and free returns.)
- Quick dry tops (I brought a moisture wicking t-shirt, a long sleeved Columbia fishing shirt and a short sleeved Columbia fishing shirt)
- Fleece jacket
- SmartWool socks
- Hiking boots (preferably broken in)
- Sandals for camp
- No Rinse Bathing Wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Travel pillow (I like the Cocoon brand blow up hood pillow)
- First Aid kit with bandaids, Moleskin, antibiotic ointment, anti-itch lotion, and medicines for headaches and stomachaches (Check with your doctor on vaccinations and prescriptions you may need for the trip)
- Toilet paper
- Ear plugs
- Young Living Deep Relief oil (this stuff is the best!)
If you don’t want to travel with bulky equipment, you can rent a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and walking sticks from the company you hike with.