Sure, You Can Probably Do the Inca Trail, But Should You?

I wrote extensively about our December trip to Peru, because … well, there was a lot to write about! I absolutely MUST write this one last Peru post, though, because trekking the Inca Trail was an experience of a lifetime.

Why I’m Sure You Can Do It, Too, Unless You Have a Serious Health Issue:

I first read about the Inca Trail a few decades ago, as I was procrastinating instead of writing my dissertation. It looked thrilling and fun, but seemed like one of those faraway things one can only dream about. Except that last December we did end up going to Peru…

We HAD to sign up for the trek, of course. But to tell you I wasn’t worried would be a lie. For one, I was a lot older than I was when I first read about it. A lot more out of shape, too. AND I was recovering from a second bout of debilitating back pain, the kind that rendered me nearly immobile for several weeks… I was terrified to hurt my back again, two-days into the trail, with no way out but a helicopter airlift… I went back and forth, trying to decide whether I should go or not. Then, at the last minute, I decided to go for it.

Now, my kids are in much better shape than I am. Several hours before leaving for the trek, however, we needed to take two out of the three to a clinic. One had an ear infection. The other–a bad stomach virus that involved sever vomiting and diarrhea. They went on the trek sick, each with their own antibiotics, and a small arsenal of additional medications.

So, folks, if we could do the Inca Trail, you could, too!

What to Expect

The classic Inca Trail is a four-day, 25-kilometer trek. It leaves from km 82 of the railroad, heads north towards the Amazon, and ends in the famous city of Machu Picchu.

The Trail

This is what all the guide books tell you: The first day is an easy warm-up. The second day, which takes you up to an elevation of more then 4,200 meters, is brutal. The third day is all downhill, and the fourth day is easy, with a short hike from the park entrance, up to the Sun Gate and down to Machu Picchu.

The reality: The first day is an “Inca Flat.” “Inca Flat” means lots of ups and downs. It might be easy if you’re in great shape. Otherwise … not so much. During this day you will walk through some pretty wilderness:

But also through many little villages that offer drinks and snacks for sale, as well as bathroom-use for a small fee.

You will also see your first Inca ruins, and realize, to your amazement, that there’s a ruin on almost every hill!

The second day is, indeed, brutal. Because if “Inca Flat” can be steep, just imagine what “Inca Steep” is like… Think an entire day of these:

And how grueling it can be to actually climb them…

My legs got so wobbly, that I needed to use walking sticks (those are life-savers!):

Don’t believe all the smiling Dead Woman’s Pass blog-post pictures you see everywhere. This is what it REALLY feels like to climb up to the highest part of the trail:

And yes, I, too, have a smiling picture from the Pass. But not because I felt great. I was smiling because, against all expectations, I made it there ALIVE!

That night I barely managed to crawl out of my tent to eat dinner…

The third day, I thought, would be super easy. What can be easier than going downhill, right? Uhmm … WRONG! Because this wasn’t down, it was “Inca Down.” That means starting the day with a twenty-minute upward climb. Then going down Inca steps, which  are STEEP. Some are knee-high. It rained. And everything was slippery. Going down those stairs was almost worse than climbing them!

The “leisurely” fourth day started with a 3:00 am wake-up call. We had to pack in the dark. Then we sat for two hours, in the dark and cold, along with five hundred other people, all waiting for the gate to the national park to open.

The minute the gate opened, at 5:30 am, the Great Race began. People were running, overtaking, almost pushing, only to get to the Sun Gate first. My family disappeared with the first rush. I walked as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. The view was beautiful, but I had no time to enjoy it.

Then, right before the Sun Gate, another set of stairs, which the guides jokingly call “The Death Stairs.” Some people literally crawl up…

From the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu was actually rather easy, though quite packed with tourists even early in the morning.

The Weather

Because of the high elevation and the fact that the trail goes through several climate zones, weather on the Inca trail can be very unpredictable no matter when you go. We went in December, which is the dry season. It didn’t rain on our first day, but, as you can see from the pictures above, it drizzled, rained, poured and hailed on the second and third days. It got quite windy sometimes, too.

And it was mostly foggy for two entire days. We were told there are breath-taking views beyond the trail, but this is all we could see:

Early mornings, evenings and nights were all cold, requiring coats, warm hats and gloves.

The Ruins

The Inca Tail passes near several small Inca settlement. Seeing those up-close and walking around them was one of the highlights of the experience:

Once, we even saw a black lama, which are quite rare!

Your Fellow Trekkers

The Peruvian government allows only 500 people a day on the trail. That number includes 200 tourists and 300 porters. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but since all these people walk at about the same pace, the trail feels rather crowded most of the time.

People overtake you constantly. Rows of porters go by, carrying ginormous, heavy loads. Each company has a different uniform for its porters, and the guides jokingly call the porter-rows “caterpillars.” During the day you see “Red Caterpillars,” “Green Caterpillars,” “Blue Caterpillars,” “Orange Caterpillars” and so on.

You meet other tourist groups at lunch stops, and several groups share a night camp.

The Food

Every group travels with a chef. Porters carry portable kitchens and all the ingredients. Meals are cooked on the spot. Despite the minimal facilities, the food was incredible! It not only tasted good, but was also presented beautifully, like at a high-end restaurant. I am vegetarian, and got some vegetarian dishes cooked just for me.

There is even a waiter, who serves everything restaurant-style:

On the last day, we actually got a freshly-baked cake!

The Bathrooms

Bathrooms on the Inca Trail are far between and far from perfect. On the first day, there are bathrooms you can use in the villages you pass. You need to pay a small fee. Those are very simple and not super clean. For the rest of the trip, there are few public bathrooms along the tail, and heavily-used-but-rarely-cleaned bathrooms in every night camp. I’ve seen worse in China a few decades ago. My kids were appalled.

When no bathrooms are available, you are allowed to use “Pacha Mama (=Mother Earth) Bathrooms.”  The problem is, that finding a private place is hard. The trail, as I mentioned, is crowded, with people passing you all the time. Even if you find a secluded spot, you never know when someone will appear from around the bend… As usual, things are easier for men than for women.

Some porter companies take portable potties along. I think that making porters carry heavy potties (not to mention cleaning them!) is unnecessary and inhumane. We chose a company that didn’t do that.

Why I’m Not Sure You Should…

I’ve been dreaming of doing the Inca Trail for decades, and although it was hard, I’m really glad I did. The trail was physically challenging, but pushing myself through it felt rewarding. Seeing the different landscapes of Peru up-close was interesting, even in the fog. Walking is the only way to see the many Inca ruins along the way. And Machu Picchu was everything I hoped it would be!

However…

It IS hard!

Even fit people find parts of the trail challenging. If you’re the kind of person who suffers greatly while hiking, this isn’t an experience for you!

There is no helicopter

It turns out that the rumors about a helicopter airlift are a myth. There is no good place for helicopters to land along the trek. If something happens on the first day, while you are close to villages, you can hire a horse or donkey and ride out. After that, you need to walk out, no matter what.

The bathrooms suck

You might be grossed out if you’re not used to it…

You might feel guilty about the porters

I know I did! It’s true that the Inca Trail trek provides many jobs to people who might otherwise not have them. It’s also true that these jobs pay better than some others. However, being a porter is really hard work! Porters carry huge backspaces and heavy loads. Once, there were no regulations and they were made to carry whatever tourists wanted them to. Now, the weight is limited to 20 kg, but it is still a lot.

The porters who pass you are constantly sweating. They chew coca leaves to keep themselves going. The porters have to get to camp before you, and set everything up so it’s ready when you arrive. They have to take everything down once you leave, and then rush to catch up and overpass you, so they can be there to set up the next stop…

Some porter companies don’t provide their workers even with basic equipment. We’ve seen porters wearing flip flops. And some companies make them carry portapotties…

The porters all sleep together in the dining tent once you are done eating. The food they eat is not nearly as sophisticated as what they make for you.

You don’t sleep a lot

On the first day, the guide comes to pick you up from your hotel at 4:00 am. On the second day, since you need to climb up quite a bit, wake-up is at 5:00 am, with a 5:30 departure. The third day isn’t so bad, with a 6:00 am wake-up call. But on the last day you need to get up before 3:00 am. That’s because the porters need to catch a 7:00 am train back to Cusco, and need to be able to pack camp and hike all the way down to make it to the train in time.

And so…

When you finally arrive in Machu Picchu, you’re exhausted!

Machu Pichhu was a city, and it is much larger than all the ruins you see along the way. So although by the end of the trek you think you’ve seen a lot of ruins, you are STILL awed when you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu! I, personally, felt elated once I actually made it there!

Even early in the morning, Machu Picchu is swarming with tourists. You can immediately tell who hiked there, though. The Inca-Trail veterans have an air of superiority to them. They feel a bit … hardier than everyone else (“The Lazies,” as our guide called them). They also have black circles around their eyes. And they certainly smell more … fragrant. Wearing, hiking and sleeping in the same outfit for several days feels OK on the trail, where you are surrounded by people who do the same. But once you come in contact with civilization again, you become a little self-conscious…

Then there are a few additional hours of touring the place. Our guide had a lot to explain, but I found it hard to listen. I just wanted to sleep. I was wondering if getting there on an early train, after a nice breakfast and a shower, wouldn’t have been just as good…