Friday, December 15, 2017

The Definitive Guide to Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu - photo credit: Adventurous Tastes 2016

We're fresh off of our 10 day trip to Peru, the highlight of which was a 4-day, 3-night hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Peru is a gorgeous country, and the people were warm and welcoming. More to come on the amazing dining experiences we had. In the meantime, what else do you need to know before deciding whether you should tackle the Inca Trail? Here's what I wish I had known.

Inca Trail Hike
Our group kicking off our Inca Trail hike
  1. I truly feel like everyone I spoke to and everything I read undersold how difficult the 4-day Inca Train hike is. For context I'm late 30s and in pretty good, but not super athletic shape. This hike was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I've birthed two children. I, a grown ass woman, cried more than once. My little fitness tracker indicated I was taking something around 25K steps on some days, and those were very strenuous high altitude, up a mountain steps. 

  2. Some people had told me that the trail is mostly down hill. These people were lying liars. You will spend much of day 1 and 2 going steeply uphill. Think you can handle 6 hours of walking up a mountain? If not, then you should consider just taking the train or doing the 2-day hike because that's exactly what happens on day 2 when you go up 4 hours to dead woman's pass, then down two hours, then up another two and so on. And did I mention you're north of 10K feet up, so you'll be panting like an animal and might have a headache to boot.

    Inca Trail Camp
    Not a bad view from Inca Trail camp!

    1. Did I mention that going downhill is difficult, too? This isn't a gently sloping paved road. This is walking down often steep rocky inclines on stone steps laid down 500+ years ago. Walking sticks and fully functioning knees are absolutely necessary. I found it was actually easier if you took the stairs fairly quickly so you could keep your stride bouncy. 

      1. Lest it sound like all bad news, you will also be awed by the feats of architecture the Incas managed despite the difficult terrain and the ridiculously gorgeous views from all those mountains you climb.

        Inca Trail sunset
        Sunset after a long day of hiking the Inca trail

      2. You will have many fascinating conversations with the people from around the world who are in your group. And of course at least one person will drive you nuts. Shout out to the our new American, British, and Chinese friends who joined us on this experience!

      3. You will be blown away by the porters. While you're panting and cursing the day you booked the trip, they will be racing by you carrying something like 50 lbs on their backs. They carry all of your camping gear, the food you'll eat, your extra clothes, etc., and they haul ass up and down the mountain. 

        Inca Trail view
        Taking in the view after a long day

      4. The bathroom part is just as traumatic as you are expecting. I opted for Alpaca Expeditions in large part because they have their own toilet tent, which sounded way better than sharing with hundreds of other hikers. Worth noting, though, as our guide informed us on day 1 - the toilet tent is not really for "the main course," which means sooner or later you'll have to experience the Gross with a capital G hole-in-the-ground bathrooms. Start practicing your squat position now.

        1. You have to use a tour company to hike the Inca Trail. I highly recommend Alpaca Expeditions, which currently has a well deserved #1 spot on Trip Advisor. Their staff was passionate about Inca history and the Inca trail, and did everything possible to make it a great experience. Our lead guide Ruben "Sandwich," clearly loves his job despite how all consuming, exhausting and repetitive it must be (he said he'd hiked the Inca Trail well over 1,000 times). When I had a near panic attack about having to walk down a steep flight of stairs with a sheer drop off next to it (nothing says vacation like falling to my death), Ruben kindly served as my walking stick and personally escorted me down. 

            Inca Trail ruins
            My honey on the Inca Trail

          1. If you're really out of shape, I just don't recommend the 4-day hike. It's really, really hard. If you're older but in good shape, I'd suggest you at least try to find a tour that has some other older people on it. We had one 65 year old on our trip who did admirably, but I think he was pretty bummed to have no one else bringing up the rear with him other than Ivan, the second guide for our group.

          2. Definitely rent all the extras offered by your tour company to help make your camping experience better. Alpaca provided us with large tents that they set up plus inflatable mats and sleeping bags. It's quite cold at night, but we were toasty and reasonably comfortable in our tents. It didn't appear on any suggested packing lists, but definitely bring earplugs and a sleep mask. When people walk by at night with a flashlight, it will wake you up without a mask, and you will be shocked by the volume of snoring that comes out of so many people sleeping on their backs. I also recommend having some sleeping pills because while you're exhausted, it's still hard to sleep in such an unfamiliar and sometimes noisy situation. You will be getting up at the crack of dawn to walk for 6-10 hours, so you need your sleep!

            Machu Picchu
            Finally...Machu Picchu

            1. Aside from the obvious bandaids, don't forget to pack medicine for headaches and tummy aches. This is a thing, Yikes!

            2. Go during dry season. This seems like a given, but even just a week before our dry season visit it was still raining some. I would have hated this experience if we'd been schlepping in the rain.

                Machu Picchu
                Taking in the famous Machu Picchu view

                1. Everyone kept telling me the food on these tours is so amazing. Let's get real here - it's quite good considering porters are carrying the food up a mountain and a chef is preparing it without having an actual kitchen, but the food you get at wonderful Peruvian restaurants will still be better. Just have reasonable expectations, and you'll be quite happy. Instant coffee is garbage, so here's my recommended morning blend - 2 spoons of coffee, 2 spoons of hot chocolate (Milo in our case), 2 spoons of sugar and some non-dairy creamer.

                2. The cognitive dissonance of paying a bunch of money to do something that at times makes you miserable is real. Slowly but surely I think my memories of the tough days will fade and I'll be left just remembering the good parts.

                  Inca Trail
                  A river runs through it on the Inca Trail

                3. And most important - there are some real good parts. The camaraderie, the history, the glorious scenery all help ease the hiking induced pain. In the end, I'm hugely proud that I hiked the Inca Trail instead of just taking the train. I kind of wanted to punch the day trip people in the face while we were touring Machu Picchu, but even so, I had a once in a lifetime, definitely never to be repeated, experience, and I'd recommend it to anyone who is outdoorsy and fit enough to hack it!
                4. Bonus: You are straight up crazy if you opt to hike Huyana Picchu. It's a extra hike you can do once you get to Machu Picchu, and you have to pre-arrange it because tickets are limited. You will have been hiking for 4 days, so don't torture yourself with this even steeper and scarier hike. I promise your views of Machu Picchu from the sun gate will be sufficient.

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