The knee-crunching, thigh-burning hike to Machu Picchu

In Travel Guides
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Llamas and alpacas hanging out by the side of the road

Llamas and alpacas hanging out by the side of the road on the way to Cusco

Peru

Peru is an amazing country full of beautiful and varied landscapes, a wonderful culture, delicious food and let us not forget pisco sours!! My tour started in Lima, with stops in Paracas, Nazca, Arequipa, and Cusco before reaching the highlight of the trip, the hike from Ollantaytambo along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was what I’d been waiting for. This was half the reason I’d chosen Peru to take my South American travel virginity.

Was I prepared?

I was worried in the lead up that I might not be fit enough. There was always the option to take the train to Machu Picchu (the easy way out). But, I knew people who had done the hike, and none of them had complained about having any trouble. I figured I’d be ok, I mean, I’m not an unfit person. That’s not to say I’m super-fit either, but if thousands of others had done it, surely I’d be fine. Some of the people I’d met on the tour had the same doubts, so at least we’d be in it together!! My next concern was the weather. I knew it would be cold, so I’d bought some thermals online while I was in the states, but after seeing my tour-mates’ hike wardrobes, I decided I would need a good warm jacket. I bought a beautiful purple down jacket. It was definitely worth it. Because the Inca Trek is cold. Overnight that is. Really cold. It warmed up during the day, and a tank top and pair of shorts or light hiking pants were my daytime standard. But overnight – cold.

The first (eye-opening) day…

5 hours, 11km

An early morning bus ride from Ollantaytambo to the starting point of the hike, where we were given snacks and for those who’d requested them, hiking poles, sleeping bags and thin foam mattresses. Our porters collected all the gear and food that would be needed for the four days, in addition to our overnight bags, and loaded up with 20-50kg each! My 2.5kg backpack seemed like a feather in comparison. After a short wait in a queue at the entrance, we started.

The porters and their GIANT packs leading the way up the trail

The porters and their GIANT packs leading the way up the trail

First up was a seemingly never-ending hill, but the view was beautiful, the air was fresh and no-one in our group had altitude sickness. It was a fantastic beginning. The hiking was hard (more so for some than others), but we all took it at our own paces and the guides, one in front, one in rear, didn’t pressure us to move any faster than we were comfortable with. Our porters raced ahead of us. Every few minutes there would be a shout of “PORTERS!” from behind and everyone would move to the uphill side of the path to let them run past. I was in awe. I mean, I was walking, very slowly, with my 2.5kg backpack and hiking poles and here they were running past with at least 20kg on their backs, at a pace some would call ridiculous given the incline and unevenness of the steps. And they do this up to twice per week!

 

The altitude climb for the day was approx 600 metres and when we reached camp, I didn’t think I’d ever felt so accomplished in my life. The porters had arrived at camp in time to set up the tents and kitchen. They were waiting to cheer for us and pat us on the back when we arrived. Knowing they’d be there to support and cheer at the end of each day was just the motivation we needed for the following days.

The second (hardest) day

Dead Woman's Pass

Dead Woman’s Pass

6-7 hours, 12km

They told us from the beginning that day two would be tough. After the struggle of the first day, we were all hoping it was a mind game. Maybe if we they told us day two was harder, we’d be much more appreciative of how easy it was. Nope. Day two was harder. MUCH harder. We rose at 5.30am for breakfast (the food was amazing by the way), and were set to leave camp at 6.30am. Hiking poles at the ready, legs aching, jackets on, ready to go. Up. So much up. I’m not tall, and the steps were a struggle for me. There was a little 5ft nothing in our group and kudos to her because getting those little legs up and over those giant steps – wow. It was hard. We climbed altitude by almost 1000 metres to reach Dead Woman’s Pass. Our group was spread so thin. The fitness-fellas were in the lead, with the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race shorties at the back. Every time we rounded a corner, we were convinced we must be there. And when we finally got there, disappointment.

Just kidding! It was the BEST feeling. I had thought I’d felt accomplished after day one, but on reaching Dead Woman’s Pass… For starters, it was a joy to sit down and an even bigger joy knowing there was no more uphill that day. But the real kicker was the view. And what a view it was. No words can do it justice.

Thank you offering to Pacha Mama

Thank you offering to Pacha Mama

Even photos hardly capture it, because the view couldn’t ever be as beautiful to someone who hadn’t hiked two days to get there. We spent about half an hour getting all the selfies and group photos we could desire and making little rock piles to symbolise our offering and thanks to Pacha Mama (Mother earth/nature). We rested, snacked and rehydrated before starting the 500metre altitude drop that was our downhill climb to the campsite. The way down was tough on the knees, but at a jog it was a relief to give the thighs a bit of a rest.

Once again, our arrival to camp was greeted by the cheering of our porters, and the knowledge that there was a shower if we were brave enough to suffer the cold. It had been a good day. We’d survived the difficulties of day two, and although worn out, we knew the worst was behind us. Reaching Machu Picchu now seemed much more achievable. We rested a while, had dinner, then climbed into our sleeping bags exhausted but prepared for whatever the next day would bring.

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The third (longest) day

9-10 hours, 16km

Where day two had been an intense altitude climb, day three was much longer, but nowhere near as tough – less uphill hiking, more beautiful sights – ruins of temples, mountains, jungle, rivers, caves… We took it slowly, partly due to aching legs and partly because we wanted to enjoy the scenery. It was a fun day. We were able to stay together as a group more easily as the fitness level required for the day was much lower.

Incan ruins seen from the Inca Trail

Incan ruins seen from the Inca Trail

We chatted, took photos, explored the ruins and generally enjoyed the hike as we hadn’t in the days prior.

 

Arriving at camp in the late afternoon, the excitement level was increasing. Just a few hours hiking the next morning and we’d be at Machu Picchu!!

That night we had a little thankyou ceremony, in which we handed over a tip as a token of our appreciation, and each porter told us (through our guide/translator) a bit about themselves. Some of them have been hiking the trail since before I was born!! What a life.

The fourth (final) day

1.5 hours, 4km

3:30am wakeup call. Yes. 3:30am!! The aim was to be at the Sun Gate at sunrise, which we achieved, but due to clouds the view was less-than-impressive. We strolled down the path to Machu Picchu, exhausted, but so very excited. SO EXCITED!

The spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu

The spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu

On the way down, the clouds parted a few times to show brief glimpses of the deserted ruin. One of the greatest benefits of hiking is arriving before the trains. You and the other couple of hundred hikers get the ruins to yourselves for a couple of hours. And when we got there? It was one of the most amazing sights I’ve seen.

 

Worth it?

There’s no better way to experience Machu Picchu than having earned it on a 4 day hike of the Inca Trail. The sights on the hike aside, the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve worked for it is worth the ache you feel every time you climb stairs for the next few days. So worth it! The Inca Trail is spectacular, and Machu Picchu is one of those things you just need to see to understand.

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