The Truth About Hiking Peru’s Inca Trail

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Everyone tells you that hiking Peru’s Inca Trail “isn’t that bad.” I believe ‘moderate fitness’ is the requirement listed on most travel websites.

Well, I’m here to tell you the real story.

They’re lying.

Hiking the trail to Machu Picchu was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. A friend of mine, who had to turn back after Day 1 due to altitude sickness, joked, “It’s not the altitude. It’s the total lack of oxygen.”

Another friend told me, “It’s like spending four days on the stairmaster with a plastic bag over your head.”

6 llamaNow, maybe they’re over-exaggerating a bit. I mean, I lived to tell the tale, right? And even though I swore once I got home that no way, no how, would my next vacation be a hiking trip, I’m now looking up other trails to tackle.

It just feels that good.

Well, you know, when you’re not in the midst of it.

Beginning of the Inca trail

Beginning of the Inca trail

Day 1 was relatively flat — Peruvian plains, they call them, the undulating hills that are the closest to flat you’ll find in the Andes. The sun was hot and the trail dusty. I was sweaty and dirty, but otherwise feeling strong. All those blog posts were right. This wasn’t so bad.

And then it was.

Dead Woman's pass ascent

Dead Woman’s pass ascent

Everyone who embarks on the Inca Trail knows the notoriety of Day 2. It’s the day you walk straight uphill for five hours, ascending Dead Woman’s Pass at an altitude of 13,000 feet. It’s also on Day 2 that you encounter the steps that the Inca were famed for. Large stone steps, all of various heights and stages of crumbling decay, replace the dirt trail. The steps climb from jungle vegetation into arid, barren stretches. The snow line creeps ever closer with each step.

At one point, alone, I had a moment of terror, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I wasn’t fit enough, I feared. I wanted to cry. I maybe did cry.

For the last 500 metres, you can see straight up to the people who have already reached the pass, can hear their voices carrying down the mountain, urging you on. It was all I could do not to collapse to my knees. My walking became a series of mini successes: just make it to that rock, that bush, that branch. I consider myself relatively fit (I’ve run a few half-marathons in the past year), but the exertion at altitude had me gasping for air, wheezing as though I had been sprinting, not shuffling, up the trail.

Tammy at Dead Woman's Pass

Tammy at Dead Woman’s Pass

And then, just like that, I was at the top. The rush of cold wind blasted me, wicking the sweat from my body. My travel mates cheered and high-fived me, and ensured I bundled up into a coat before the adrenaline subsided and shivers set in. Another hiker, not part of our group, called out my name and congratulated me. Because that’s one of the many great things about a hike like this: you come across the same strangers again and again over the days, until they’re not strangers any more.

And then I turned around. Before me, the valley opened up and I could see the trail I had just walked disappearing into the distance. Snow-capped peaks slid down into jagged cliff faces, into a rolling valley of green and brown. The sky was a brilliant blue, the clouds close enough that I was sure I could reach out and touch them with my fingertips.

I sat down and joined in cheering on the remaining hikers of our group, empathizing with those of them who struggled with each step. I imagined myself as a rope, pulling them up with my own last remaining bits of energy.

Inca steps

Inca steps

From there, it was all downhill, which sounds fabulous but is in some ways worse than the ascent. It’s those damn Inca stairs again, that require taking large steps that jar your knees. I tiptoed the entire way down to our Camp 2, worried that one misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle and needing to be piggybacked back to Cusco. How many more kilometres did we have left to do, again?

The camp at dawn.

The camp at dawn.

We were all in our tents early that night. At such altitude it was chilly, and I cursed my bladder the few times I had to awaken in the dark and make my way to the privy. When morning wake-up came (complete with a friendly call from one of our porters through my tent wall, a cup of cocoa tea, and a wash basin of hot water), I grunted from deep within my sleeping bag. I zipped open the tent, expecting to grab my tea and retreat back inside, but was startled by the view. A pink dawn sky stretched out before me, mountain peaks disappearing into wisps of cloud. I sat there, shivering but unable to close the tent back up, ensuring the view was imprinted in my memory.

Qonchamarka ruins

Qonchamarka ruins

Day 3 led us past multiple ruins, archaeological sites that, unlike Machu Picchu, can only be reached by walking the Inca Trail. Each site reminded me that this wasn’t a hiking trail we were following — it was a road, and these ruins were once stops for those who walked it, who needed places to sleep and to eat as they travelled the trails that wound all through the Andes and made up the Inca Empire.

Sayacmarca ruins

Sayacmarca ruins

Throughout that day and into the next morning, I watched multiple hikers, all younger and with another group, sprint to be the first into camp, the first to finish that day’s trek, no stops allowed. They didn’t get it. I let them pass, and slowed down instead. I ran my fingers along rock walls that were hundreds of years old, and stood on cliff edges looking out over a mountain view that you could never tire of because it was different from every angle.

The final morning came early. The rumour is you wake at 3am so you can watch the sunrise from the Sun Gate. No. You start early because your porters need to catch the first train back to Cusco, and so you end up waiting for over an hour at the trail checkpoint because it doesn’t open until 5am. But you don’t complain, because your porters are your lifeline on the trail. An early wake-up is the least you can offer them.

The walk that day was easy. We joked about the energy we had, partially because it was almost over and partially because we were at such lower altitude. The air was thick with jungle moisture, and it wasn’t long before I was peeling off layers. The mountains were mostly behind us. The trail was behind us. This was it.

The Sun Gate

The Sun Gate

I cried when we reached the Sun Gate. I had wanted this moment for so long, since the first time I had heard of Machu Picchu in high school Spanish class.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

I sat on the edge of the rock, my feet dangling over, and wiping at tears because I had finally done it. My body ached. My clothes were filthy. I’m pretty sure I smelled. And yet, I also cried because I didn’t want it to be over.

Because you know, the Inca Trail isn’t that bad.

The writer hiked the trail on Intrepid Travel’s Sacred Land of the Incas tour.

Tammy at the Sun Gate

Tammy at the Sun Gate

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