Ever since I read about Peru’s indigenous tribes at the tender age of 14, I wanted to trek the Inca Trail. For more than ten years it ranked highly on my travel bucket list, and now, finally, it has been checked off. But it wasn’t an easy ride.
If you are unfamiliar with the trail, it was built more than 500 years ago to transport messages, goods, and llamas between the mighty cities of the Incan empire. The crude perfectly preserved stone path twists and turns for nearly 100 kilometers through the Andean high jungle and Peruvian cloud forests, reaching heights upwards of 4,200 m (13,800 ft). It takes four days and three nights to complete the trail, eventually reaching the Sun Gate in the Sacred Valley, where Machu Picchu is located.
Here are the five things I learned while doing it.
1. Altitude sickness does exist. And it sucks.
If I were to tell you that I approached the Inca Trail in a less-than-organized fashion, that would be an understatement. I flew directly from Lima to Cusco (which is the closest tourist-friendly city to kilometer 88 – the starting point) and immediately realized that I had underestimated my challenge. It wasn’t because I didn’t have the right walking boots or lacked fitness; it was the altitude.
Sitting approximately 3,300 meters above sea level in a shallow valley, Cusco has some of the most beautiful mountain views you will ever encounter. But it also has no oxygen. If you have never experienced life at altitude (and this was my first time), it is a bit like breathing through a paper bag. You quickly get out of breath just walking from your hotel to the bar down the road; which brings me neatly to my next point. Drinking copious amounts of lovely Peruvian beer does not help when you are trying to acclimatize. It does quite the opposite.
My advice for anyone planning a trek at altitude is to take a few days to gradually acclimatize. In Peru, for instance, take the bus to Cusco from Lima and gradually increase the height that you are sleeping at. This will dramatically reduce your chances of getting sick. Of course, as with all travel, it tends to come down to how much time you have for your trip. If, like me, you have to fly directly to height, start taking altitude sickness tablets in the days before your fly – many people I spoke to said that helped. They also have coca in Peru (yes, it’s used to make cocaine), which is perfectly legal to chew – the locals swear by it as an altitude sickness cure.
2. The porters are superhuman.
With hundreds of tourists (of all shapes and sizes) descending on the Inca Trail each week, it is inevitable that some will need a little help. That’s where the local porters come in. These tiny, muscle-bound Peruvian men are employed to carry a maximum (by law) of 20kg of tourists’ belongings, sleeping bags, and tents. Their job is to rush ahead of the meandering group and set up camp before you arrive.
Let me put this into perspective. The majority of these guys are tiny. Some of them are probably carrying a third of their body weight, and I definitely saw some carrying a lot more. They run at heights upwards of 4,200 meters, traverse narrow ledges and tackle the steepest staircases known to man. One of the porters even demonstrated how effortlessly he could carry me. They’re superhuman.
3. You will meet some brilliant people.
If you decide to take on the classic four-day, three-night Inca Trail, you’ll need to book well in advance. Access to the trail is limited and, unsurprisingly, demand is high – so a few months’ notices is necessary. I booked in January for a trek in May at a cost of $640 with an excellent company called SAS Travel (this included all food, tours, and tents for the duration, including access to Machu Picchu).
Of course, when you book this far in advance you never know who will end up in your group. I have had a mixed experiences with this. In one instance, I got stuck with an extremely outspoken American on a bus tour in Namibia. She lectured me on the virtues of gun ownership for six hours. That’s quite a long time when you consider none of the roads are tarmacked, there was no air conditioning and I don’t care about gun ownership.
But in Peru, I was lucky. Meeting people from all over the world is an integral part of travel, and when you click with a group it’s great. The Inca Trail is the perfect place to build lasting memories with these people. After all, you are suffering everything together, from altitude sickness to food poisoning (a few people in our group got this en route, but it’s quite common). There’s a real sense of achievement when you make it to the Sun Gate on day four together and watch the sunrise over Machu Picchu. I promise it’s a moment you’ll never forget.
4. Experiencing the Andes will have you planning a return journey.
Standing at the Sun Gate overlooking the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu within the vast, tropical Sacred Valley (more than 2,500 meters above sea level) offers one of those unique opportunities for reflection. Thousands of meters below, the winding Urubamba River flows, carving a path through the towering, jungle-strewn mountains and high, overhanging waterfalls cascade above. There’s nothing like it. I’m already planning a return journey to Argentina’s Patagonia and the Bolivian salt flats. After completing the trail, I bet you’ll do the same.
5. Everyone should do it.
For all of the reasons I’ve given above (except for altitude sickness, that’s awful), everyone should do it. Find a time and make the journey. If you’ve never been to South America before – and I hadn’t – this is the perfect place to find your feet. In the words of the ancient Incas, “open the earth.”