The Inca Trail portion of my round-the-world trip had been on the agenda since I booked my plane tickets back in August 2013. I thought I had done a fair amount of preparation, but not so much that my trip would be too rigid and I wouldn’t enjoy it. I got a great recommendation from a friend for a reputable company that organizes the tour, which according to Peruvian law can only be done with an approved guide. I researched what it entailed, how long it took, the elevation levels and what to bring.
I was nonetheless entirely unprepared for what was to come. One thing I never read in my research leading up to the trek is that El Camino Inka es difícil. MUY difícil. In fact, I cried. More than once.
In my defense, I don’t think the trail is supposed to be hiked with strep throat. The night before leaving I came down with a sore throat and by the next morning was feeling downright terrible. To make me feel even crummier, we were hiking the trail in January, which is right smack in the middle of the rainy season.
Our four-day hike started out on a surprisingly glorious morning. Our guide Edgar picked us up and accompanied us to Ollantaytambo, where I had what was possibly the most delicious pancake on the planet. We also ordered extra eggs, knowing we would need every ounce of protein we could get. We continued to Piscacucho, where we organized our gear and met our porters, who would become my personal heroes over the next four days. More on them in a separate post.
Day 1 was supposed to be our easiest, which worried me after feeling (or not feeling) my feet following our 8-mile hike that day. The views were spectacular, though, as we wound our way through lush green forested mountainside and came upon our first Inca ruin sighting.Starting off on the hike, Day 1 A breathtaking view of our first Incan ruins
The next day was possibly one of the most difficult of my life. My Peruvian bubons now in full effect, we proceeded to climb. And climb. And climb. And climb some more. Is that the top? Nope, keep climbing. On foot in front of the other. The dirt trail from the previous day gave way to jagged stones and we found ourselves surrounded on the sides by colorful trees and bushes, none of which sheltered us from the drizzling and at times pouring rain. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the 4,000-foot elevation gain to a point of 13,800 feet above sea level that did me in – I am, after all, a native Coloradan and therefore stubborn enough to believe I can easily handle a 14,000-foot mountain. Rather, the problem was that I needed to pace myself, yet every time I stopped to rest, catch my breath and take a drink of water, my brain began to pound in my already achy head.Just a tiny glimpse at what we faced for four days
After hours of fighting rain, steep rock steps and the voice in my head questioning my sanity, we finally reached the top of what the locals have deemed “Abra de Warmiwañusca”, ominously translated as “Dead Woman’s Pass”. It’s all downhill from here, which is easier, right? Wrong.
A bit of background information: About ten years ago I tore my ACL and meniscus in two different volleyball accidents. I ultimately had surgery, but every now and again my knee likes to remind me of its limitations. Just nine months ago I dislocated the joint getting into bed, so imagine how nervous it made me taking on thousands upon thousands of steps, aided additionally and unnervingly by gravity pulling my body weight down on the joint. What was even more unnerving in all of this was that the constant rain had not only soaked through our clothes, but was making every rock more slippery than normal.The world’s scariest steps
So I was incredibly slow. But both Chris (my boyfriend, for whom the entire thing was a walk in the park) and our guide Edgar were patient and understanding. At one point I secretly reveled at how we had caught up to and even passed a group of seemingly healthy trekkers who appeared to be at least ten years younger than I.
Day 3: an easy day, or so was the flat-out lie coming out of Edgar’s mouth. The morning began with another three or four hours of climbing in the rain. By this point I could barely feel my legs. In the afternoon we were met with the same dilemma as the day before – hiking back down a mountain; that 4,000-foot elevation gain would now be reversed.More. Damn. Steps.
By this point I had already broken out crying a couple of times. Chris was instrumental in talking me down off the ledge and keeping me going. We also decided that I would take some of the antibiotics I had procured at home in case of traveler’s diarrhea and see if it helped my strep throat. Luckily that idea panned out – within a day I was feeling better.
That night, however, I got a mental reality check. Sitting at dinner, Chris asked Edgar how often he leads these treks. “In the rainy season… once or twice a month”, he replied. “But I’m going to stop.”
“Why is that?”, we inquired.
“Too dangerous. With this rain, too many landslides, too many people getting killed.”
Did he really just say that? I can’t believe he just said that. It was now 7:00 p.m., dark, pouring rain, and we were going nowhere. I didn’t sleep too well that night in our tent perched just five feet from the edge of an insanely steep and wet mountain.
The next morning was one time I was actually happy to be getting up at 3:00 a.m. We’re getting off this mountain soon. I didn’t even care about having to venture out of our tent into torrential downpour. I might actually survive this experience.
That thought was put into question a few hours later. We were hiking along the side of the mountain, which curved around to a point we could see about a quarter of a mile down the trail. As if I wasn’t already concerned for my life, the most terrifying noise I had ever heard echoed throughout the mountains: “CRACK! SWOOOOOSH!!”
We froze. While we couldn’t see the earth slide down the mountain, we all knew what had just transpired. Edgar, who was walking in front of me, stopped and turned around. “Landslide! On the trail!”
I can hardly recall a time in my life that I’ve been more freaked out. There was nowhere we could go – back where we came from was steep, wet mountain, and where we were heading was steep, wet mountain. “Nothing we can do” I mentioned, calmly enough to surprise even myself. “Might as well keep going and make sure no one up ahead was hurt.”
I would later find out from fellow hikers that last year, three people died while hiking the trail: one from a heart attack, one from being accidentally nudged off a cliff by another person, and the third from a landslide. I desperately wanted off that mountain.
A few hours later we reached Machu Picchu. Yes, it was a marvel and a breathtaking wonder of the world. But for me, it was more: It represented relief. It represented victory. It represented the end of a very physically and mentally challenging four days.At Machu Picchu with our guide, Edgar
I don’t want to discourage anyone from hiking the Inca Trail. It was a rewarding experience and one I’ll remember for a lifetime. But I’m not sure how I planned for months and yet didn’t realize just how much of a challenge it would be or that it was potentially very dangerous. If you do give it a try, here are a few bits of advice:
1. Go in the dry season. This cuts down drastically on the risk of landslides. It also reduces the amount of clothing you have to bring. In the rainy season it’s so humid that once your clothes are wet, they never really dry.
2. Pace yourself. It’s not a race. Mountains (as well as oceans and deserts for that matter) deserve respect, and you deny them that respect at your own peril.
3. Always stay to the part of the trail that is closest to the mountain. If someone is passing you, let them take the cliff-side. It took me a while to get used to that, but once the cliffs started getting really steep, I had it down.
4. Drink about a liter more water a day than you expected.
5. Wear sunscreen, even on overcast, cloudy days. Both Chris and I got burned despite barely seeing the sun the entire time. When you’re at that altitude, the sun’s UV rays penetrate the clouds without you even realizing it.
6. Hire an additional porter to carry your belongings. I only carried a backpack with water, my camera, an extra layer of clothing and a few small things, and that was heavy enough for four days.
7. Get a hotel room in Aguas Calientes at the end of it all and stay the night. You’ll be too exhausted to get straight on a train back to Cuzco and a warm, dry bed will hit the spot.
8. Get not one, but two massages in Aguas Calientes following the hike. These were, hands down, the two best massages I’ve ever had, and at $20 for each 60-minute massage, they were a steal.