Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Inca Trail that leads to it, is on travel bucket list of everyone who likes to explore off-beat places. But what is it to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu as inexperienced hikers? This is the tale of the good, bad and ugly of the adventure!
First things first- you don't hike the Inca Trail when you want to, you go when the Incans (rather, the Peru government) offer you the chance. There are limited permits issued to tourists for each day and they run out fast. We made our plan a bit too late, as a result had to contact several different tour agencies, moved our dates around and finally Inca Trail Reservations got us the coveted permits. The Incans were calling us, and so we went for it- high on enthusiasm, low on experience of a high altitude multi-day hike, and survived to tell the tale. So let's jump right in.
We arrive in Cusco just a day before the start of the hike. Genius idea, don't do it! Getting acclimatized to the 11,000 feet altitude of the ancient Incan capital is one thing, but more importantly, there is a fair bit of logistics to handle before starting the hike and we are now like college kids who decide to study everything the night before the exams. We walk into the tour operator's office for the pre-hike briefing, confident we can do this. After all, we had practiced exercising in gym for two months, that should be enough, right? (Hint: it is not!).
We believed we had planned this out well- paid in advance for a porter to carry our stuff, pre-paid to rent sleeping bag and walking stick from the tour agency, we should be good to go. Nope! Turns out the 5kg of stuff per person we paid the porter to carry includes the sleeping bag and pad which weigh 3 kg, leaving only 2 kg for personal items! That is not going to be enough. Well, pay extra and hire more space with the porters. Next surprise- turns out what we paid gets us only ONE walking stick, not a set of two! Do we need two walking sticks? If you are wondering, YES! Definitely. Do it, and you will thank me later.
So here we are, the night before the trek, out in Cusco market, searching for walking sticks and water bottles. In hindsight, don't rent any walking sticks from the tour operators- just get them from Cusco. We got ours at $3 a piece from the local market with some bargaining in broken English peppered with words of Spanish, as against the $20 we pre-paid. This is also the last chance to have a proper sit-down meal in a restaurant for the next four days, and the town has several hole-in-the-wall places to choose from. The one we randomly pick entertains us with live music. We are not done for the night yet, for we need to pack our backpacks with things we need during the day, and separate out things that porters will carry for us. This requires multiple rounds of juggling and sorting to decide what stays and what gets left behind. Clothes, food, first-aid, toiletries, and the girls decide make-up kit is required too. Don't ask me why.
It's D-Day. Armed with everything we need, the day starts with a pre-hike photo shoot in the hotel courtyard, interrupted by an angry man draped in a towel coming out of one of the rooms to shout at us in Spanish, I believe something to the effect of "Shut up! It is 5am!". Yes, remember not everyone in Cusco is going for the hike. The tour operator's mini bus picks us from the hotel, repeats for others, and heads out of town. An hour into the ride we remember- we did not carry toilet paper! Well, shit! Luckily the bus stops at the last town before the trailhead for the forgetful tourists to pick up last minute supplies and get breakfast. We do find toilet paper here, but the geniuses that we are, we forget it in the bus while getting off at the start of the trail.
The famed Inca Trail starts from a place rather unimaginatively named "KM 82". It is nothing more than a few shacks by the side of the train tracks (that lead to Machu Picchu for those not inclined on the hike) and a sign welcoming us to four days of adventure. This is where we part ways with the porters, and as a result, all our extra baggage that is not needed during the day. This is also where introductions happen- our group is a varied mix of Indians, British, Germans, Canadians, Americans and of course the Peruvian guides. The two guides tell us one of them will lead at the front and other one will stay at the very back, shepherding us the ignorant tourists between them. They also tell us that the first day of hike is all flat. Lies! Absolute lies! Sure the start of the trail is flat, but let that not fool you. Within an hour, we encounter our first incline and with it starts my friendship with my walking sticks which will only deepen as we go ahead. A couple of hours of walk brings us to the designated lunch spot.
One thing that everyone who has been on Inca Trail will tell, and yet is hard to believe until you see in person, is how elaborate the tour companies prepare meals on the Inca Trail. The cooks and porters have reached before us, set up tents complete with tables, chairs and tablecloth and are busy preparing a full hot meal when we arrive. We are welcomed with Chicha Morada, a drink local to the Peruvian Andes, that will eventually become an addiction for me, while we wait for lunch. The meals are simple but tasty and filling, enough to make us start wondering why are we carrying a ton of snacks with us. This place, we are told, is also one of the few that has a functioning toilet. On the Inca Trail, functioning toilets are like shrines, and you should pay a visit to each one that you find, for you never know when the next one will be found.
Post lunch hike involves more climbing along narrow rocky paths (hey, it's all flat- our guide still insists) until we reach the first of Inca sights along the trail- the ancient city of Llactapata where the Incans from Cusco and the jungle people from the Amazons used to meet to exchange goods. It is a great photo-op but we are soon reminded that our walking for the day is not done yet. A short and steep descent down hundreds of steps followed by seemingly never-ending walk along what is finally now actually flat part of the trail. After about two hours of walking with not one soul in sight, we ask our guide the quintessential question- "are we there yet?" and he calmly says "One hour more", completely deflating whatever energy we had left. Luckily we learn soon enough that our Peruvian guides have no concept of time estimation- our overnight camp is just 10 minutes away, not an hour!
It is such a relief to see that our hard working porters have reached before us and set up tents for us! The immediate desire is to drop everything and go to sleep, but wait, we've got stuff to do. There is absolutely no lights at the camp sites, so making "bed", changing clothes, packing for the next day, and anything else that needs the use of eyes has to be completed in a race against fading last light of the day. Dinner is served in a shed in the village, not in a tent this time, and we are joined by two very eager cats who decide the best course of action around fifteen tired humans is to walk under the tables between their legs, freaking them out!
By the time we are done with dinner, it is pitch dark. The camp site has an elusive clean usable toilet so have to pay it a visit but turns out one- there is no light, and two- the door does not lock. So, it requires teamwork- a trusted friend needs to stand guard outside while you do your business in the dark, aided by a headlamp. All that done, once all personal head lights are out, Mother Nature reveals probably the most spectacular sight I have seen in my life- the vast Milky Way stretched across crisp night sky, clearly visible with the naked eye. My original plan was to spend an hour or two dabbling in night photography to capture this sight, but the cold temperature and tired legs means this has to wait for another day (I mean, night).
It is said Day 2 is the toughest day of the Inca Trail and I think they are not referring to just the hike. For starters, trying to get ready in a small dark tent with the aid of just a headlamp while it is freezing cold outside is a challenge in itself, especially for those of us who had never done it before. Somehow stumbling and fumbling we manage to get out, get a much needed breakfast and set out. Commercialization is reaching parts of the Inca Trail and the tiny village has a store that sells western hikers' essentials, such as bottled water and Gatorade. We decide to grab some of both, and I would highly recommend doing this. Our guides give us cocoa leaves with instruction to chew them like a gum and spit it out later, claiming it helps with altitude sickness. It may sound gross, but do it! It actually works like a miracle!
We learn pretty quickly that when the locals say this part of the hike is difficult, do not take them lightly. It involves never-ending looking climb up uneven stone steps and the cocoa leaves can only help to a certain extent. Some of our group mates somehow magically manage to climb it all pretty fast leaving us far behind, dejected and demotivated. Luckily one of the two guides decide to stay back with us. Not learning from previous day, we enquire again how far to the first rest stop and he once again tells us it is about an hour of climb, and surprise surprise, it was only ten minutes away!
At this point the guide decides to leave us alone, to complete the climb to the next check point. Another hour, more steps, more tiring. We are now even thinking if we should abandon the hike, but we are long past the Point of No Return. The only way to get out is to finish it. Just when are down and out of all motivation to continue, we meet a jolly British gentleman, Jeff, who must be in his seventies, slowly but steadily climbing while his sons have long gone ahead. This was probably the push we needed- if he can do it at this age, we in our twenties can definitely do it! And so we do somehow manage to reach the first rendezvous point of the day- Llulluchapampa.
Llulluchapampa is the last place to get food, water and toilets for the day, and also the "base camp" of sorts before the final push up to Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point of the trail. Some tour groups break here for lunch, others including ours do not, and I think that is a good thing, because doing the steep climb up to Dead Woman's Pass on a full stomach would be pretty much impossible. Having made so far, we spend a very long time relaxing while rest of our group including both the guides decide to move on. Big big mistake, as we would later realize!
Finally we pick ourselves up and go for the kill. This is when we have our first Eureka moment- instead of pushing ourselves hard to climb a bit and break for rest and push again, we realize going for a very slow but steady continuous climb for longer intervals actually works better. For the first time, the low oxygen levels start hitting and taking every step becomes a challenge. It takes us much longer than expected, but finally by mid afternoon we are at Warmiwañusca, the highest point of the trail at 13,828 feet. We did it!
Or did we? We meet our guides waiting for us at the summit, and they tell us the day is far from over. Now we have to descend thousands of steps down to reach our overnight camp. Not having learnt our lesson twice, we ask the guide again- how long will it take? He calmly says "2-3 hours". It is already past 3pm, we have not had lunch, and if it is indeed that far to the camp, we are going to be in some trouble. I then remember how wrong his earlier time estimates were and convince myself that it won't take that long, but oh boy this time we are wrong and he is right! The descent is never ending, our group and guides except just three of us have long made their way down, and the daylight is fading fast. We continue trundling down when we are met by two of the porters from our group coming up the wrong way. Turns out our guide got worried for us and has sent them on a reconnaissance mission to find us but they speak only Quechua and Spanish, and we speak neither of those languages, so we have no idea what is going on. They keep walking with us, the sun goes down, it gets pitch dark with only our headlamps guiding the way, but finally we manage to reach the camp. A huge sigh of relief.
The hike now on does not have any human settlements, so we need to carry all the water we will need for the day, which the tour operators have graciously boiled and kept ready to fill our bottles even before we wake up. This camp also has toilets but it is dark, cold and requires awkward juggling of headlamps and tissue papers to get the task done. After yesterday's fiasco, our guide has decided that the three of us slowest hikers should take a headstart and leave the camp an hour before rest of the group, accompanied by the assistant guide. We start, high on energy, and reach the first checkpoint- Runkuracay in an hour. A quick pit stop but we want to cover as much distance as we can fast, so we continue on to the next point- the ancient city of Sayacmarca. By this time we had expected the rest of the group might catch up with us "slowpokes" but nope, they are not here yet. We decide to skip the detour to visit inside Sayacmarca and continue on. In the next hour we cover good ground, our spirits are up, and before we know, we have reached our lunch site before everyone else, by 9.45am. The group's target to reach here is 11am! Take that! Who needs a headstart?
Since this is the last lunch on the trail, it is tradition for all tour operators to conduct a brief ceremony introducing the porters and chefs to the tourists, and to be honest, it is a very humbling experience to know that some of those guys are as old as 70 and yet carry all the burden for us at great speeds, week after week. The adrenaline rush from morning is still strong, so we make the most of it and complete the hike to the next checkpoint- Phuyupatamarca or "City in the clouds". This is when we have our second Eureka moment- it is okay to separate out from your friends if you have found your comfortable pace. Trying to slow down or rush to keep up with others was making us tired over the past two days.
The remaining hike for the day involves descending down thousands of steps, a task that takes a bad toil on the knees. Now everyone is to their own, the guide has given us instructions that seem pretty clear- keep walking until you reach "the antenna" and turn right to arrive at the camp. Fine, and so we go. I am down to just one friend for company now since we have found our comfortable pace together. Three hours of tiring walk later, we arrive at the so-called antenna. One path from here leads to the ancient city of Intipata, while the other goes to our camp site at Wiñayhuayna.
Seeing that it was getting close to sunset, we decide to skip taking the detour and head down straight to the camp. We descend, and descend, and not one other soul is in sight, nor is the camp. This is for the first time in the entire hike I get a little panicked about getting lost. Luckily, I remember I had downloaded offline Google Maps for the entire area, and although there is no cell phone service, the phone's GPS works to show the exact location on the map. The map shows we are on the right path, a sigh of relief! A little more walking and we finally see the numerous tents, and are welcomed at the camp with an applause from our group mates who have reached long before us.
Tonight is the last dinner served by the tour staff, since the porters and chefs do not go to Machu Picchu, instead the take all the stuff and head down to a local village and take the train back to Cusco. To end on a high, to our surprise, they have prepared an elaborate dinner complete with pizza and a freshly baked cake (which tastes really bad, but full marks to the effort!). Post dinner, we are expected to tip the staff, and this results in a chaotic conundrum with fifteen of us trying to add up our tips, some paying in Peruvian Soles while others in US dollars, calculating the total with conversion rates thrown in, and dividing it into proportionate ratios to give to the porters and chefs. Had we known this before, everyone would have carried a fixed amount separately for this task. All sorted, it's time to call it a night, for we start very early tomorrow.
We are woken up by calls from our guides at an ungodly 3.30am. The reason for this super early start is twofold- one, the porters need to wrap up everything and rush down to catch their train, and two- we are at the checkpoint called "Control" which opens at 5.30am to let hikers on to the last leg to Machu Pichhu, and there is covered seating in the waiting area with protection from rain for only about fifty people, which every tour operator wants to grab. After walking half-asleep to the Control and gathering ourselves, when it is time to answer nature's call, we realize that the toilet has gone away! There are no toilet facilities at the campsite, so our tour operator had carried a portable one along, but that has been packed and taken away by the porters, leaving everyone in the awkward situation of walking randomly in darkness to find a private enough corner to do the business.
We are the first among all tour groups at the Control, so as soon as it opens, we are checked, and out on our way. This morning, the excitement of finishing the hike is strong, and we, the "slowpokes" are leading from the front! About an hour of walking, and one rock climbing exercise later, we are at the famous Sun Gate. We are lucky to have a clear day, and have reached at the right time. Before us lies the first view of the city of Machu Picchu nestled in the valley, slowly getting lit up by the golden rays of the rising sun. This is what we came for so far!
But we are not done yet. After all the initial photo shoots, it is time to finish the final walk down to the actual city, and at the entrance, get those obligatory I-am-at-Machu-Pichhu pictures that everyone visiting does. I am not going to try to describe the city in words because honestly you just have to see it to enjoy it, but one advice if you're visiting- the hike may be over, but the physical dangers are not. I got a bit too carefree and in the process twisted my ankles THREE times while negotiating the steps within Machu Picchu.
The guides give us an hour-long tour of the city and leave to explore the rest on our own, which we turn into an elaborate photo shoot session. After exploring the ancient Incan city to our heart's content, it is time to head down. There are buses operated by the government that leave every five minutes to take us down to the town of Aguas Calientes which serves as the main access point for Machu Picchu to the outside world. After four days of roughing it, the air-conditioned bus is a welcome relief and about half the passengers spend the 30 minute ride sleeping! We have a few hours before our return journey so we meet the rest of our group for one last meal together, explore the cute little town and shop some souvenirs using our by-now pro Spanish bargaining skills (or maybe not).
Machu Picchu has no road or air access, so the only way to get back to Cusco is by train. We reach the tiny train station of Aguas Calientes and find out it is crowded to the gills with tourists. A side note- The Peruvian government takes full advantage of this situation by charging ridiculously high ticket fares for this journey. Anyway, none of that matters now. All we want is to get back to material comforts. The conductor calls for our boarding, get our passports checked (yes, they insist) and settle down into the very comfortable air-conditioned coach. As we are relaxing with complimentary snacks and drinks served at our plush leather seats, we remember all the emotions we went through and wonder- "Why did we hike? We should have just come by train!"
PS: The last sentence is not entirely true. For better or worse, I do not regret doing the hike. It is a memorable experience that will stay for a lifetime. If you are physically and mentally prepared for it, DO IT!
TIPS AND TRICKS
So you want to experience this adventure and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Here are some things we wish we knew before heading to the hills-
- Rent porters, you WILL need them. Remember, the total weight they will carry includes 3kg per sleeping bag and pad if renting it from the tour operator. Account for this when planning how much to pack.
- Get good hiking shoes. Period. People on the Internet claim they did the hike in sneakers, flip-flops, barefoot and what not. Do not fall for that.
- Carry two walking sticks and a headlamp with spare batteries. Both are invaluable resources
- Carry enough cash in Peruvian Soles with you to buy water, energy drinks, snacks and for the last day tips for the porters. You may think the hike package is "all-inclusive" but it is not. There will be small expenses.
- The trail has its dangers. The path is narrow, there are steep valleys without any guard rails or protection, uneven steps, loose rocks. It is not scary as such, you will be fine as long as you're cautious and not afraid of heights.
- If any of the following things makes you uncomfortable, reconsider your decision to hike- unclean toilets, squat toilets, using bathroom in the dark, possibly answering nature's call in the open, not showering for three days.
- Do not try to compete with others. There will always be people who hike much faster than you. There is no award for finishing first nor shame in reaching last. Take your time, enjoy the experience.
- Do not believe everything the guides tell you. Sometimes they are overstating, sometimes understating the facts.
- Cannot emphasize this enough- DO SEVERAL PRACTICE HIKES before going for the Inca Trail. No amount of working out in the gym prepares you for the altitude and rough terrain.