*Takes deep breath*
I’ve been avoiding writing about this.
Sorry for the dramatic beginning as that’s not usually my style, but I will always look back on Machu Picchu with mixed feelings, though mostly pride and surprise in my ability. Before we embarked on the trek, I did my research and I asked a LOT of people about what to expect. Both the internet and the people we spoke to were overwhelmingly positive about the experience, and rightly so. Whenever I voiced my concerns about being a bit chubby and not too athletic, however, I was unanimously reassured. “People in their seventies do this trek and thousands of people make it every year, you will be fine!!”.
It’s hard not to compare it to what I imagine being a newly pregnant woman is like. “Millions of women give birth every year, you will be fine!! “, “ It’s such a wonderful experience having a baby, congratulations!”. While both of those statements are true, it doesn’t really give the woman a full picture of what she can expect from having a child.
Not to discredit some of the advice we were given, as it was useful and I’m grateful for people giving us the time to talk about it. I just know that when I am nervous about something, I like to mentally prepare for the worst case scenarios and celebrate it when they don’t materialize. So what I want to do is not focus on the negatives and spook anyone out of doing it – in fact I want to do the opposite. I want to give you the full picture from my perspective so you go into the situation more prepared and end up having the best experience possible.
After a very restless sleep, we were picked up from our hostel at 5.30AM and taken to “Kilometer 82”, a.k.a our starting point. Day 1 is unanimous for being the easiest day, with a gentle 5 hour hike to the first camp. The very beginning of the hike looks like this.
Spirits were pretty high for all of us at this point, and I even remember asking someone close by “So was that dead woman’s pass?” as a joke. In less than 24 hours I would not be feeling like joking around. The first day is a pretty cool day, as everyone is mostly together and you’re joined by a variety of animals, plants and some awesome scenery along the trek.
The porters display some of the most impressive feats of human strength out there. These bags that they were carrying would go up to 35+kgs and they would speed past everyone on the trail, no matter how fit they were.
Each group also has two guides, a main one and one who goes at the back of the group so ensure no one is sick/hurt. Ours were experienced and knew exactly what they were doing and the trail inside-out. This was our main guide, who oversaw everything from beginning to end.
After five hours of ‘Inca Flat’ (a term used to describe land that isn’t that flat, but is gentle compared to most of the inclines you’ll encounter on the trail), you are greeted with a peak of the campgrounds that we would be staying in that night. They were stunning! Our tent was already set up, food was already being prepared and all we had to do was get ourselves ready for the next day. That evening, we were greeted with amazing, wholesome food that begs belief as to how it was prepared in a tent AND carried along the trail. I wish we’d taken our camera with us to photograph it, because both the quantity and the quality of the food was beyond impressive.
For me, this is where the problems began. Day 1 isn’t very difficult, but it is not piss easy either, and most people were agreeing with me when I said so. It dawned on me that if Day 2 is meant to be monumentally harder, then I really was going to struggle. I completely lost my appetite there and then and struggled to relax and enjoy the amazing food that was given to us. Throughout the night, I could feel my heart racing and before I could calm myself down enough to sleep, a cockerel signaled that it was a new day.
Day 2 is considered to be the hardest day of the Inca trail. You climb from 3000m to 4200m and experience ‘Inca Steps’, which can go nearly as high as your hip bone. This day is where we began to spend a significant amount of time with our second guide, because we (well, I) were the slowest. You can see in my face that I’m not feeling to smug anymore, but the spirits are generally still there.
Just after this photo was taken, our guide spoke to us and gave us the option to turn back. He explained that it was purely our choice and many slow people still make it through, but he wanted to let us know that it would be unlikely that we would arrive at our second camp in the daylight and it was going to be hard. If I wasn’t with Dan, I definitely would have gone back at this point, because the minute someone shows a tiny loss of faith in me, I bolt. I’m sure you can tell from the length of this blog, that I chose to continue. At this point it was mainly that I didn’t want to rob Dan the chance of a lifetime and I had no idea how we would organise ourselves if I went back alone.
As you can see from the pictures, Day 2 was just as beautiful as Day 1, with lots to see. Day 2 takes place in three parts mainly as you have the first 2-3 hour trek upwards, then lunch, then another 2-3 hour trek upwards, then a break at Dead Womans Pass, then another 2-3 hour trek downhill to the campsite. The first third was the most difficult physically for me, as we were hemmed in with trees which, albeit beautiful, didn’t allow us to see our progress going up the mountain. There were times where I had no idea how long we had walked for and how long we had to go, which made the trek mentally challenging.
The second third was apparently steeper, but I found it to be so much easier as it was out in the open. You could see where you were, and you could see Dead Woman’s Pass ahead of you, so you always had the context of where you were in the trail. I think it was at this point that I gained some of the time back from my being slow before and made it to Dead Woman’s Pass before it was expected of me. Spirits were pretty high at this point as I started to gain trust in my ability to shift myself up this mountain and get through the day. You can see the lack of energy on my face though – big difference from Day 1. I usually shy away from showing you the shittest photos of me, but I said I’d be honest. Dan pretty impressively still looks like a dude.
And onto the last third. This was the decline of about 500m to take us down to camp. No one considers this bit to be easy, as going down Inca steps can be challenging on the knees, but it’s meant to be significantly easier than going up. It definitely was for a while, before a storm broke out. We had thunder, lightening and hail for a good 90 minutes before the weather tapered off. This made the steps VERY difficult to go down, and the lightening made the situation frightening as we were high up with no Empire State Building nearby to take the brunt of it.
What I felt confident would have taken us 2-2.5 hours took us over 3 with the adjusting of the ponchos and having to carefully plan our steps. Dan, bless his soul, took a pretty big tumble down the steps at one point and luckily only came out with a grazed shin and palm. As for myself, I had a very strong suspicion that I peed myself when a particularly close prong of lightening hit.
We did make it though and getting to campsite was wonderful. We were told to expect to be at campsite between 8-9 and we made it at around 5pm. This isn’t a big deal, but I felt proud of us to have gotten through that. Our guide who had to stick with us the whole time did not deserve that though – I doubt that was in his job description! The total time of this day was approximately 11 hours, including breaks.
Day 3 is easier than day 2, but is a fair bit longer. It’s a role reversal on Day 2 as well, as you only need to go up 500m, but you have to come down 1200m. The weather was promising to begin with, but it soon began to rain. The views we were meant to be greeted with looked more like this for a while.
There’s not a wealth to say about Day 3’s morning, except that the energy levels were low. My appetite hadn’t come back and I still hadn’t gotten much rest. This trail did not allow me to feel too sorry for myself on this day for long, however. At about midday, our guide asked us to get to one side in a tone that was darker then his usual, cheerful self. You need to stand aside to allow the porters to get past, but this time was different. Six porters were rushing up the trail with a stretcher between them and an unconscious girl on top of it. She needed help quickly and the best thing for her was to allow the porters to rush her to the local town as quickly as possible. We were told later that it was also at this point that another group started to become really ill and had to stop to throw up at several points on the trail and in another group again, a girl had broken her arm.
So if you were conscious, nothing was broken and you weren’t projectile vomiting, then you were one of the lucky ones. It was also at this point on our trail that we bumped into a few Canadians, which had a cheerful disposition and had a better attitude about being slow and steady. “We’ll get there eventually. Just let the gazelles go past and keep going”. It was really nice to have them pass us, and then pass them at times as well. Our group was a fairly athletic one, so it was good to see that I wasn’t the only one struggling.
The last bit of encouragement came from the skies. The Inca Trail has a habit of hiding and revealing her secrets as she pleases, so I felt like she (or the voices in my head) was letting us know that “all was okay”, when she finally brushed away the clouds to reveal these views.
The day before, we were at a big disadvantage making it back to camp later than the others, as they missed most if not all of the storm. On day 3, however, we got to see the last of the sun gliding across the mountains, while the others would have passed this scene in fog. I know it was random, but it felt like a gift and I really enjoyed this part of the trek. I’m gutted that I didn’t ask for them later, but even our guide asked to pose for photos and took photos of us here. After 36 hours, the clearing of weather had an incredible effect on everyone’s spirits.
Even though we had to be up at 3am the next day, we ate well (including a really moist vanilla cake that they made that night!) and slept really well.
Day 4 was what I expected from Day 1. It was two hours worth of hiking, with only 20 minutes incline and one bit of Inca steps called ‘Gringo Killer’. I made the mistake of relaxing a little too much once we arrived, as my legs became beyond stiff and I went from 26 to 106 instantly. Once we arrived at Machu Picchu, our main guide gave us a tour of the grounds and explained away all the different nooks and crannies to the place. Did you know that Machu Picchu had a constant water supply from a nearby glacier? That and we got to see more of the amazing rock cutting which formed the seamless walls that didn’t need any cement to join. I could go on and on about all the different segments of genius that made up Machu Picchu, but I’ll let you discover them.
So, to sum up, it was an incredible experience that I do not regret, even if I feel a little embarrassment at being last and keeping one of the guides behind. It brought out the extremes in me in terms of feeling happy and feeling shit, and everyone I spoke to agreed that it was the hardest thing they’d ever done.
As much pride as I feel for not turning back at the beginning of day 2, I’ll always remember that the guides and the porters get 0-2 days off in between each hike before they have to do it all over again, with up to 35+kgs on their backs – Dan asked to try one of their bags on, and lasted about five minutes before he had to take it off. That and the Inka’s once did treks like this in order to build this beautiful site. A site they never got to finish because of the Spanish invasion and a site that had stood the test of time in an unbelievable way.
The trek is definitely a whole lot more than just your individual achievement, but it’s great to be part of it all the same. It adds to the experience to be able to share it with an awesome group, and we really did have a great group. Really encouraging and interesting to talk to at night in the dinner tent. I can’t imagine people not sharing and caring on a trek like this, but I’m still glad all the same. I’ve found re-living it for the purposes of this blog very cathartic and my mind is already pushing out some of the tougher moments and rose-tinting some of the better moments.
If I could give anyone wanting to do it any advice it would be this; get a decent poncho or as much waterproof’s as you can, get walking sticks, try and get some sleep, eat as much as you think you could keep down and enjoy it when you can. Go in the middle of the year if possible, as it significantly decreases your chance of getting rain on the trial. Physically training for it is a very good idea, even if the altitude gets you on the actual day. If anything, training would mentally prepare you for having to keep moving for hours on end. I DEFINITELY could have done more to prepare for Machu Picchu, but ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ are the words of a girl stuck up a mountain.
It’s very tough, but I have no regrets. Having said that, I’m never going to do it again.