After spending three days in Cusco to acclimate myself to the higher altitude (or so I thought), the day had finally arrived to begin my hike of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The classic Inca Trail, roughly 28 miles of ascending and descending between elevations of 9,000 and 14,000 feet, is very physically demanding, especially for an out-of-shape 41-year-old like me, but I did make it through, as did my 61-year-old uncle, so if you ever decide to embark on the trek, you should be okay as long as you are in relatively decent physical condition, particularly if you are younger. Nevertheless, preparing physically for the hike can only help you (I’ve read posts of some people who went through intensive physical training in the months leading up to the hike); I would have benefited from much more than the two months of yoga and tennis classes I took prior to the trip.
You also have to be mentally prepared to spend four days in the wilderness dealing with the elements, sleeping in tents, getting dirt in everything, going without hot showers, and using restrooms, each of which is nothing more than a stall with a hole in the floor. As someone who is virtually addicted to his creature comforts, this aspect of the hike was even more daunting for me than the physical challenge.
Anyway, I woke up at 4am to get ready for the bus to pick me up. I filled my large suitcase with everything I would not be bringing on the trail and left it in my hotel room with the luggage tag provided by the staff. The hotel was storing my luggage free of charge for the four days I would be gone, a very convenient service. That left me with a large duffel bag (to be carried by my personal porter) and a small backpack to carry myself. I purposefully chose an extra-small backpack so that I wouldn’t be able to fit too much into it and weigh myself down. This made it a little inconvenient to retrieve items because they had to be packed so tightly, but it was better than having the temptation to over-pack.
Speaking of the large duffel, I have to say that hiring the personal porter was the best decision that I made on this trip, totally worth the extra $50. I would never have made it through the trail carrying all that weight. Uncle Kipp and I were the only people in our group who hired the porters, but everyone else in the group was much younger, so I guess the weight didn’t bother them as much. Still, at one point I picked up a pack belonging to one of the other guys and it was like lifting a bag of concrete; I don’t know how he hauled that thing for four days.
So the bus (a disappointingly tiny, cramped one for the long drive) picked up the 12 members of our group and we were off. We stopped for breakfast in Ollantaytambo near the ruins I had just seen the previous day. At the shop beneath the restaurant, many of us purchased walking sticks—the second best decision I made on this trip. I nearly left without buying one, which would have been a huge mistake given how heavily I leaned on it, as this picture of the walking stick’s condition at the end of the hike can attest:
After breakfast we drove to the starting point for the Inca Trail, where we met our guides (the main guide Freddy and the assistant guide Alex) and everyone in the group introduced themselves. The other ten members of the group consisted of one couple from Spain (though the guy was actually a fellow native of the Philly area), two couples from France, a younger woman from Spain traveling solo (though I think she was actually British), and three guys from Argentina. The Argentina guys did not speak English so they were given their own guide and hiked separately from the rest of us. Everyone else in the group spoke Spanish but the guides were kind enough to give the main tour in English (with the occasional humorous slip into Spanish) in order to accommodate my lame monolingual self. 🙂
Following the introductions, we started pre-hike preparations (e.g., stretching, applying bug spray, sunscreen, etc.). Speaking of bug spray, for the most part I was barely bothered by insects at all during this hike, and this is coming from someone who can’t step outside at home without getting dive-bombed by mosquitoes. The spray I chose (a combo spray/sunscreen from Avon) did a great job.
When the group porters had finished packing up all of the tents and kitchen equipment, we made our way to the check-in point to begin the trail, stopping briefly to take the group photo seen at the beginning of this article. We then crossed the bridge over the Urubamba River and set foot on the classic Inca Trail for the first time.
It did not take long for Uncle Kipp and me to fall behind the rest of the group. This would become a familiar refrain over the four days, though on this first day it had less to do with physical demands than with my frequent stops to take photos. As a confirmed shutterbug I wanted to savor and document everything I was seeing, whereas the rest of the group, not sharing my photo obsession, moved through the trail much more rapidly.
The first day of the trail is not overly demanding. You’re mostly walking along the river at low altitude and gradually climbing on trails made mostly of dirt (the more physically demanding stone trails and higher altitudes would come later). There are people living along the early part of the trail, so you see lots of donkeys, horses, mules, cows, and other animals roaming the countryside. In fact, the biggest obstacle to contend with on the first day is the ubiquitous animal dung along the trail.
The first big climb came around the middle of the day and from this point on the trail would become steeper in both its ascents and descents, though still easily manageable on the first day. At the top of the first ascent we came to a plateau with a spectacular view of the Inca ruins of Patallacta.
Unfortunately, the classic trail does not pass close enough to these ruins for a visit, but there is a five-day hike where you camp nearby and visit the ruins. The group stopped here for a rest as our guide Freddy gave us a lecture about the trail and its history. I must confess, after only about three hours of sleep which had followed a few other nights of little sleep, I had to fight to keep from dozing off as I leaned back. Luckily, I had sunglasses on so Freddy couldn’t see my struggle. I wouldn’t have wanted to offend him; the sleepiness had nothing to do with his lecture.
After our break we headed down from the plateau on our first steep descent, passing by another set of ruins known as Willkaraqay.
There are a few places along the trail to purchase water and other things, but after the second morning, you’re on your own. The only water you have from that point on is what the porters boil for you in the morning and at lunch, so you need to carry a good-sized thermos. Speaking of lunch, we stopped for lunch in the middle of the day, though I can’t recall if it was before or after Patallacta. When we arrived at the lunch site, the porters had already set up the dining tent. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of food and I was starving, so when they brought out fresh avocado with some cheese, I fought through my historic aversion to green food and ate it. Little did I know that this was only the first of multiple courses that included soup and a meat dish with various sides (they made an alternative dish for the vegetarian in our group). Overall, they fed us amazingly well at both lunch and dinner throughout the trip, and the food was delicious.
For the rest of the day we made our way along the trail in a casual fashion. Toward the end of the day the trail began to climb again and it started to get dark. At some point, as we were walking in pitch blackness, the guides came back with a couple of porters to carry our backpacks so we could get to the campsite faster. It took about another 45 minutes of walking in darkness for me to reach the campsite, and Uncle Kipp arrived about a half-hour after that. All of the tents were set up and waiting for us when we arrived. I joined the rest of the group in the dinner tent for tea while Uncle Kipp relaxed in our sleeping tent.
A little later we had dinner and then it was time to retire for the evening. At this point it began raining (in the dry season, no less, but more on that later). The guides warned us to keep things away from the sides of the tents because it would cause them to leak, but there isn’t a lot of room for two adults and all of their gear in a small tent, so a lot of stuff did get wet, as we would discover in the morning.
August is in the middle of Peru’s winter, so although the days are warm and almost summer-like, it gets quite cold at night. However, at this time it was still too warm to get into my sleeping bag so I just slept in my liner on top of it, and a couple of hours later I woke up freezing. Overall, I slept horribly that night, getting less than three hours, which would really come back to haunt me the following morning, but that’s a story for Part 5. In the meantime, you can see more photos from the Inca Trail at the link below.
- My Trip to Peru, August 2012
- My Trip to Peru, Part 2: Here and There
- My Trip to Peru, Part 3: The Sacred Valley of the Incas
- The Inca Trail Day 2: Detour Through Hell
- The Inca Trail Day 3: Almost There
- The Inca Trail Day 4: Arrival at Machu Picchu
- My Trip to Peru: The Movie