The Inca Trail
Our main catalyst in planning our recent South American trip was a four-day hike of the Inca Trail. I've never been especially interested in Peru or the Incas and I only ever had a vague knowledge of Machu Picchu, but it seemed like almost everyone David and I know had made the trip fairly recently. Most people travel to Machu Picchu just for the day—there's a bus that drops you right at the entrance—but we decided to basically copy the itinerary of a friend of mine who had done the proper hike.
Inca Trail permits are very limited and sell out quickly, so we signed up with Peru Treks back in December for our June hike. Our four-day, 26-mile hike began 51 miles from Cusco on the Urubamba River, routed us through the Andes and ended at the Sun Gate entrance to Machu Picchu. Only 500 people are allowed on the trail per day—hikers and porters combined. You have to go with an official guide, and there are several checkpoints where your passport and ticket will be checked. I highly recommend Peru Treks—our two guides were kind and informative and the porters were complete champs. They carry tents and all of the camping supplies for the group—food, chairs, dinnerware, etc. You also have the option to hire an extra half porter to carry 6kg (approx 13lbs) of stuff that you don't need during the day such as sleeping bags, ground pads and extra clothes (do this!).
DAY ONE: Easy Day
The first day was labeled the "easy" day, and for the most part that was true. The trek company picked us up from our Cusco hotel, we stopped for breakfast and last-minute supplies and then headed to the checkpoint at the entrance. Peru Treks groups number 16 at the most and ours included people from all over the world—England, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Seattle and San Francisco. We stopped many times during the 7.5 miles—to introduce ourselves, learn about the local plants, check out some ruins—and the terrain wasn't too challenging (however, I quickly came to distrust the term "Inca Flat").
My initial impression of the Inca Trail was that it was much more populated that I expected. I knew we'd be hiking in a group, but I didn't expect so much activity on the trail itself. There are approximately 400 people (and dogs!) living in small villages along the beginning of the trail. Horses, donkeys, llamas and mules are allowed, however pack animals are no longer allowed on the latter portion of the trail because their hooves do damage. If you're using a hiking pole it must have a rubber cap to cover the metal tip.
Dodging piles of llama droppings every few feet wasn't exactly picturesque, but I perked up when we passed a small cemetery. I had recently been lamenting my failure to research Cusco cemeteries before we left, so seeing one on the start of the trail was a treat. I have no idea why they're not promoting it as a trail feature—I'll happily go almost anywhere if I know there's a cemetery involved.
I definitely took the most photos on the first day, a result of excitement and the relative ease of the hike. The views were incredible, and although I've included loads of photos, they just can't do the scenery justice. The one thing photos do terribly is capture scale—I've lived most of my life solidly at sea-level, and the Andes are just so massive.
DAY TWO: Challenge Day
I hardly took any photos on day two, because the word "challenge" doesn't even begin to describe this incredibly difficult portion of the hike. Basically, day two is another 7.5 miles but almost entirely uphill. Or rather, upmountain. We climbed (and climbed, and climbed) approximately one billion stone steps to an elevation of 13,776 feet. If that seems high to you, it's because it is. I think I'm in pretty good physical condition—I run frequently, I walk constantly—but I still get grumpy climbing the four flights of stairs to my apartment every night.
It was hard, and horrible, but we made it to the top without incident and weren't even the last of our group to finish. Like most terrible things in life, as soon as it was over it didn't seem nearly as bad and we recovered quickly. David didn't even need to dangle a Pringles can in front of me like we joked, but they were waiting for me as a reward when we eventually got to camp. Like cemeteries, there is almost nothing I won't do for a snack.
DAY THREE: Unforgettable
"Unforgettable" is the word chosen by our trek company to describe day three, but it has an entirely different meaning to me now since I spent all night of day two violently ill, making frequent trips to the (very primitive) bathrooms. I'm still not sure what I had/have and I'll spare you the gory details, but I woke up on day three feeling sicker than I ever have in my life. I had a raging fever, aches and chills on top of the ongoing intestinal disturbances.
After consulting with our wonderfully kind guide, Naomi—as I took loads of pills washed down with magic Inca tea—I tried to pull myself together for the hike (the longest day, nearly ten miles). I found out later that I had one other option—to be carried by a porter. I was feeling like garbage, but being carried by another human being would have made me feel even worse, so I just kept walking. I didn't eat all day, I kept taking pills (and frequent off-trail bathroom stops) and I've never been so grateful to crawl into a sleeping bag and fall asleep before dinner (which I didn't eat).
Despite the fact that I basically had no other choice, I'm glad that I rallied because the third day was my favorite of the four. It was scenic in so many different ways—cloud forests and jungle-like climates, sweeping views, ruins and one particularly cute baby llama. Unfortunately I wasn't super happy with any of my photos from our trek, and despite hiking nearly the entire trail with my "real" camera jangling around my neck, I actually think most of my iPhone photos turned out better.
I was still sick into day four, but we only had a few miles to go (after waking at 3:45 am) before we ended our hike at Machu Picchu. I'm not terribly happy with the feverish photos I took there either, but it's deserving of its own post, nonetheless.
I worried about so many things in the lead up to this trip—losing my passport, not packing the right clothes, being able to hear someone snoring in a neighboring tent—but it never crossed my mind that I would get sick during the actual hike. I'm not sure if it was the flu or a parasite or some other sinister combination—and I'm still dealing with its lingering effects—but I don't regret taking the leap outside of my comfort zone. I survived without Internet or cell service for four days, I pushed my body and it didn't give up and I now appreciate toilet seats and toilet paper more than I ever thought I would.
Our Trek Company: Peru Treks (now booking for 2018)