Hiking the Inca Trail

In my first blog post I said:

“I periodically find myself reviewing memories of powerful events that occurred in my past. I remember how I felt, the insights (if any) I derived from the experience at the time and whether those insights have evolved since then. One of the reasons the idea of a blog was appealing to me is that it’s a way for me to record these memories, share with others what they meant to me at the time and what they mean to me now and find out if this touches a chord in anyone else.”

I haven’t posted a blog entry like that in a while but one about some experiences in Peru has been rolling around in my head for a few weeks so I figured it was time to metaphorically put pen to paper. I visited Peru eight years ago with a Canadian friend of mine who was then living in the UK. She and I both enjoyed travelling so we would sometimes take trips together. The first week we were there we boated along the Amazon in Manu National Park. It was a week filled with heat, bugs and amazing flora and fauna but I will share my recollections of that part of the trip some other time. This post is about our hike of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu – something I had wanted to do for as long as I could remember.

It was a three-day trek but I’d been on longer hikes and enjoyed both hiking and camping. I knew it was going to be a challenging trip and that I wouldn’t be able to carry my backpack so, along with most of the rest of our group, my friend and I hired a porter. All I had to carry was a day pack and all my meals would be prepared for me. I felt it would be a challenge, but an enjoyable one. I loved to hike and I love history – this trip would combine both together with the satisfaction of finally seeing Machu Picchu.

The first spanner in the works was the realization that the word “Trail” in this context was a complete misnomer. I’ve hiked sandy, muddy, rocky, pebbly and watery trails but regardless of type, the trails I was used to hiking all had a fairly flat surface. The Inca Trail would, more properly in my estimation, be described as the Inca Staircase.

A slippery staircase… with enormous steps

I had a long stick which was a huge help with all the steps but it was still slow going. Climbing up them wasn’t too bad but coming down was a different ballgame altogether. When it wasn’t raining it was still usually damp so tackling large, slippery steps was both slow and tough on my knees.

The next hurdle to face was lack of sleep. I’ve camped in the cold before (with snow on the ground actually) but the equipment I was camping with then was far superior to the equipment we were supplied with on this trip.

Our encampment

The tents were old and definitely not waterproof. As you can see, our camp sites were always sloped so not only did I spend the nights trying to stop myself from sliding down the tent, I was usually also in the middle of what felt like a stream of water. Did I mention it was also freezing cold? I remember one night having to take some ibuprofen because my legs had cramped after hours of shivering.
Despite the endless, wet, vertigo-inducing steps, the awful camping equipment and the cold, there was still a lot to potentially enjoy about this hike. The group of people we were hiking with were great – different ages, backgrounds and nationalities. The food was good and the meals we shared were full of fun conversation. Pedro, our guide, was extremely knowledgable and his english was excellent. The porters were ludicrously fit, upbeat and very helpful. The scenery was breathtaking…

Life's pretty good when this is what you wake up to (not that I slept but... you know what I mean)

The good would most definitely have outweighed the bad if it hadn’t been for one thing – altitude sickness. I hadn’t spent long enough in Cusco after having returned from Manu but then neither had my friend and she was fine, in fact I was the only one of our group affected. It started in the afternoon of the first day and it just got worse from there. At first it was just dizzyness and nausea but by the third night it was full-on vomiting. I couldn’t keep any food down, not even steamed rice. Gravol seemed to make it worse. I felt so bad for my fellow hikers – if you’ve done the Inca Trail hike then you know that the last night is spent in pretty close quarters at Wiñay Wayna. During dinner I sat with the group, while they tried to eat, I sipped mate and periodically popped outside to barf. Good times 🙂
There is no way off the Inca Trail other than to finish it. If you break a leg then you rely on porters to carry you out. So the only option I had was to keep going. The highest elevation reached on the trail is 4,215 m or 13,829 feet at Warmiwañusca. I’d been over 11,000 feet before and not had any problems so being hit so hard by altitude sickness really took me by surprise. Warmiwañusca means “Dead Woman’s Pass” – apparently it’s called that because it looks like a woman lying down. I suspected another reason entirely for the name and as we came to the end of the “trail” I was certainly feeling like death warmed up.
The last morning of the hike starts early – usually about 4am. It’s a 4km hike from Wiñay Wayna to the Sun Gate (Intipunku) and everyone wants to get there before dawn to see the sunrise. 4km doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that it’s pretty much all steps. Really, really steep steps. The reason people want to get there before dawn is that you get to see this:

The sun rising over the Sun Gate

As the sun rises it starts to illuminate the early morning mist. At this point you’re still 350 metres higher than Machu Picchu itself and so you see it below you, gradually revealed. It really is breathtakingly beautiful.

First glimpse of the site itself...

At this point, you’re probably anticipating me saying that all the travails to get here were worth it. The endless steps, the wet and the cold, the sleep deprivation, the vomiting… all of it would surely be forgotten as I finally got to see:

My first view of Machu Picchu

Tragically, at this point, my bowels involuntarily opened. So while everyone else was hiking the last stretch of the trail to spend the day enjoying Machu Picchu itself, I was doing my best to clean myself up a little. Once I got down to the site they had washrooms that I used to make myself feel a little better but I couldn’t change my clothes because our backpacks had gone straight to Aguas Calientes. I spent the rest of the day uncomfortable, still unable and unwilling to eat but trying my best to hold it all together. When we all finally got to Aguas Calientes I burst into tears over dinner and confessed to my friend that I couldn’t face going to Lake Titicaca as we had planned – I needed to be somewhere for a while that wasn’t at a ridiculously high altitude. Luckily she was understanding and in fact the entire group were very kind and worked hard to both cheer me up and hydrate me with electrolyte solution.

In terms of insights – hiking to Machu Picchu was something I had dreamed of for a very long time so was I the victim of heightened expecations? I don’t think so because it wasn’t an anti-climax, it was a miserable experience right from the start. Overcoming adversity to achieve what I set out to do; the triumph of achievement erasing the memories of how hard it was to get there – in this case they turned out to be just hackneyed tropes.  I didn’t feel any sense of triumph and in fact the time when I anticipated I would feel elation ended up being the time I felt my absolute worst. I don’t remember the hike fondly and I would never even consider doing it again.

No, I think the only insight I gleaned from the experience was that sometimes there is no bright side to things. Hard work and pain aren’t always rewarded and sometimes the only pay off is that it’s over and you managed to survive.

And of course that any day in which you don’t crap your pants should be viewed as a very good day.


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6 Comments on “Hiking the Inca Trail”

  1. Stef November 23, 2011 at 12:26 am #

    I completely agree with your theory about “Dead Woman’s Pass”!

    I was also a bit disillusioned with the “magic” of the Inca Trail, particularly as there seemed to be noisy people around every corner scaring off the wildlife and leaving rubbish in their wake. I was affected by the altitude in terms of difficulty breathing but otherwise my health (and bowels) remained relatively controlled, so I was pretty lucky.

    Despite not making it to the Sun Gate by dawn and having Machu Picchu covered by fog in all of my photos, I do consider it a highlight of my travel experiences. Because I DON’T hike or trek often (i.e. at all), finishing the Inca Trail was a physical accomplishment for me, even though I wanted to trip a few tourists and watch their noisy, messy habits fall over the edge!

    • OMum22 November 23, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Stef. I don’t hike any more sadly, not since the birth of my kids. Kudos to you for making it – that’s a tough walk for a non-hiker! You should be proud of yourself 🙂 I’m really glad to hear your health wasn’t affected.

  2. Cynthia Gregory November 23, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    I.love.you. Lololololol

    • OMum22 November 23, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

      Back at ya 😀

  3. VW November 24, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    Thank you – I will probably never get their myself, though I would love to. The photos are breath taking and blog – I had no idea about things like that – not a hiker or a camp.

    • OMum22 November 24, 2011 at 1:26 am #

      Thanks for the comment Veronika! I will share more pictures and travel stories, it will just take a while (need to sort and scan the photos). I miss hiking and camping. I hope it’s something the boys and I can do a little of as they get older.

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