Gadventures Inca Trail

The Challenge of a Lifetime: Hiking the Inca Trail

Exactly a year ago today I was sitting in our hotel in Cusco, exhausted and aching all over, never wanting to move another muscle again, except to lie down for the massage I had booked later that day. I had just completed the toughest challenge of my life – an incredible journey along the Inca Trail, one of the world’s most renowned and most awe-inspiring treks. The 4 day hike through Peru’s Andes Mountains took us past ancient Inca ruins, over steep peaks and breathtaking vistas, and finally lead us to the world wonder of Machu Picchu.

I cannot believe that a year has already gone by since the trek; I remember it like it was just a few days ago.  I originally wrote this post shortly after returning from South America but I think the trek, along with getting ill in Brazil afterwards, exhausted me out too much to actually finish it. So even though it’s taken me a whole year to actually tell you of our adventures on the Inca Trail, these are not just vague memories.  This my honest, fresh and slightly gruelling experience at the time!

Hiking the Inca Trail

Our group all set and ready to start the Inca Trail

I had done the odd bit of hiking before but never anything quite as hardcore as this.  Before we left I did so much research, got advice from everyone I knew who had already done it, and tried to get myself in as best shape as I could. I thought I was prepared, but I soon realised that there’s only a certain amount of advice you can take from other people and your fitness levels really don’t matter a whole lot when altitude comes into it.

All I kept hearing from people was “it’s a challenge, but you’ll be fine”. Yes, it was a challenge, but I definitely did not feel so fine!

Hiking the Inca Trail

Day 1 – The hike begins

Our group set off on the first morning of the trail, each of us with a spring in our step, excited about the journey we were about to embark upon. We chatted away as we walked, looking around us in wonder at the view of the snow-capped mountains, the rambling river running alongside us and the trains that blared their horns as they swept around the side of the mountain, carrying those people to Machu Picchu who didn’t want the hard work of the climb.

Hiking the Inca Trail

This was an easy day of small ups and downs, easing us into the trek. After a stop for lunch in a small village and finding some of the cutest tiniest kittens to play with, I arrived at our camp that evening, tired but not exhausted, thinking that if every day was like this the trek would be a doddle!

Animals on the Inca Trail

The boys were obviously still raring to go, as they decided to organise a football match with the guides and porters, and so the first (unofficial) World Cup 2014 game – England/Australia vs. Peru – was played against a stunning backdrop of the Andes Mountains.

Football on the Inca Trail

Day 2 – Climbing Dead Woman’s Pass

When your aim for the day is to get over a mountain range called Dead Woman’s Pass, you know it’s not going to be easy. At almost 14,000 ft, this is the highest and toughest part of the trek. With the scorching sun blaring down on us, the bottom of our zip-off trousers ripped off, and our walking poles gripped firmly in our hands, we slowly climbed up the hundreds of steep steps to the peak.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Me, Alex and Matt with smiles on our faces before the hike got tough!

I had already experienced a bit of altitude sickness in the mountain town of Cusco which had left me feeling dizzy, lightheaded and short of breath. But now we were on the Inca Trail – I wasn’t able to lie down and relax in my bed like I’d done in Cusco and I had to keep pushing on to the top of the pass.

Climbing Dead Woman's Pass

I found it harder to breathe, taking big gulps of air and trying to slow my breathing down.  Every single step I took it felt like I was being pushed back down. I couldn’t climb more than a few steps before my body forced me to take a break. I would sit for a while, drink some water, eat a couple of sugary sweets for energy and take in my surroundings, but even turning around to look back down at the stunning views made me dizzy. I felt like I could fall off the mountain at any point!

Climbing Dead Woman's Pass

Alex is as fit as a fiddle and he had shot off ahead as we both wanted to go at our own pace. But even he struggled in the last section of the climb where the mountain got higher, the steps steeper and the altitude even more intense. Altitude really is a bitch and it can hit anyone whether you’re the fittest person or not. I ended up climbing with some people from another group who went at a similar pace to me, all of us different ages and different fitness levels. There’s no competing to get to the top here. Everyone on the trail is in the same boat and the support and encouragement you get from complete strangers makes you push on.

With burning legs, and a burst of tears, I finally reached the top of the pass to cheers and words of encouragement from Alex, our friend Matt and some others from our group who had already made it up there. Then it was my turn to support those still climbing and once our whole group had made it we really did appreciate the breathtaking view so much more.

Climbing Dead Woman's Pass

The rest of the day was all downhill and, while my knees might not have liked the constant jarring steps, I really didn’t care as long as I wasn’t going up anymore! By the time we got to our camp for that night, it was only 3pm but it felt like it had been one of the longest days of my life. I threw off my heavy boots, collapsed in my tent and burst out crying (again) from sheer exhaustion and the fact that I had achieved a hell of a lot more than I thought I was capable of. After a short rest, a refreshing drink, a dip in the ice cold stream nearby, and a hot filling meal, everyone felt a whole lot better.

Camping on the Inca Trail

Day 3 – The Town Above the Clouds

I started out the third day with a renewed energy, knowing that I could get through anything after the torturous hike the day before. This was probably the friendliest day of them all with gradual ups and downs but also plenty of flat winding paths, climbing crumbling Inca ruins and passing through beautiful sheltered forests and small lakes along the way, spotting wildlife wherever we could.

Hiking the Inca Trail

But instead of finding the hike an easy one, my body decided to protest – my legs seized up from all the uphill climbs, my knees were fed up with the jarring downhill stretches, and my neck screamed at me for the uncomfortable nights of camping without a pillow. I was also starting to seriously worry about some bites I had got on my ankles on the first day which had blown up to a ridiculous size and were causing me pain when I walked.

Inca ruins in Peru

The dramatic views around me might have been stunning but I just wasn’t enjoying the hiking anymore. So Alex and I took it slow and steady, stopping often to enjoy the views and all the flora and fauna surrounding us.

Llamas on the Inca Trail

We stopped for lunch up in the top of the mountains amongst the clouds, where the cooks surprised us with a cake to congratulate us on almost getting to the end of the trail. I have no idea how they managed to cook up so much amazing food, let alone a cake, way up in the mountains with only the portable equipment that they carried on their backs!

Just before we got to our last camping spot on the trail, we stopped and all sat in silence marvelling at the views. Just behind the mountain in front of us was our destination for tomorrow…Machu Picchu.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Day 4 – Reaching Machu Picchu

After a ridiculously early wake up before the sun rose, we stood in the cold dark morning waiting for the gates to open for the last part of the hike, wishing we were all still snuggled up in our cosy sleeping bags. The short hike to the Sun Gate was nice and easy, especially in the cool morning air, and we stormed on ahead just wanting to reach our final destination by this point.

Finally, after 3 days of tough hiking and a last struggle pulling ourselves on all fours up the last few set of stairs so steep we were pretty much climbing a ladder, we reached the Sun Gate. Machu Picchu stood before us and wow she was beautiful.

Hike to Machu Picchu

I was so ecstatic that we had finally made it and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked the Inca Gods that there was no more hiking to do! We even had a marriage proposal in our group right in front of Machu Picchu which made all our tired souls even happier.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering around being awe-struck by the ancient ruins and marvelling at how far we had come. Even though we all felt dirty, messy and exhausted compared to the neat and tidy looking visitors who had obviously got there by train, there was a huge feeling of elation at what we had just achieved that you just wouldn’t get by sitting on a train.

Our amazingly knowledgeable guides and lovely porters from G Adventures were incredible and none of us could have done it without them. They hike the trail over and over again and the porters carry such huge weights on their backs but still had our tents set up and dinner on the go by the time we arrived at our camp every night. Each time I found myself struggling on the trail and a smiling porter passed me with a huge bag on his back, it would give me the spurt of energy I needed to keep me going. If they can do it carrying such heavy weights then I must be able to!

Gadventures Inca Trail

Our amazing G Adventures guides, cooks and porters

The best piece of advice I can give you is that there is no race to get to the top. You have to go at your own steady pace and don’t push yourself to keep up with others, otherwise you will make yourself ill. Wear your boots in before you go, take hiking poles to stop your knees from killing you and lots of snacks for energy.  And remember to enjoy all the spectacular views around you because there really is nowhere else like this in the world.

Am I glad I did it? – Without a doubt. It may have been the hardest thing I have ever done but it is one of the most amazing treks in the world and something that I’m extremely proud to say I’ve achieved.

Would I do it again? – No bloody way!!!

31 thoughts on “The Challenge of a Lifetime: Hiking the Inca Trail

  1. lovetotrav says:

    I did the Inca Trail many years ago and it still remains as one of my top memories… painful but exhilarating. A massage after…you are a smart woman. I never thought about that but then again, maybe it wasn’t too prevalent back then. Your pics brought back lots of good memories.

    • Ayla says:

      A massage was a must for me – there was no way I was moving for the next few days otherwise! So glad you had such a great experience too. Painful but exhilarating sums it up perfectly!

  2. Lucy Dodsworth (@lucydodsworth) says:

    My sister is really keen to do the Inca Trail and I was thinking of going with her. It does look amazing, She’s superfit though so will be fine but I think I’ll be one of those lazy people on the train after reading this (hiking definitely not my thing!).

    • Ayla says:

      Just because she’s super fit it doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be fine. Like I said, if the altitude affects you (and it can affect anyone) then it really doesn’t matter if you’re fit or not. You’ll still get to see the main attraction Machu Picchu by taking the train but you really do miss out on some incredible views. I completely understand that hiking isn’t for everyone though!

  3. Upasna | Life On My Plate says:

    Wow Ayla! I just did a small trek myself in the Himalayas… Only 26 kms spread over 3 days but steep with what felt like a gazillion steep stairs to climb and THAT felt like the hardest thing in the world to me! But the Inca Trail I’ve heard is super challenging even for very fit people so it’s so awesome you did it! Kudos! I’d love to do it myself one day 🙂

    • Ayla says:

      Your trek must have been amazing too! A lot of hikes are challenging but they’re worth the struggle for all the amazing views and the sense of achievement that you have at the end. If you did treking in the Himalayas then I’m sure you’ll manage the Inca Trail too 🙂

  4. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) says:

    Well done Ayla! Reading this makes me realise even more what a huge achievement it must have been and I’m with Lucy on this one – definitely the train for me otherwise I’d be seriously concerned I’d turn into a medical emergency as I barely struggle to make it through my zumba class each week 😀

    • Ayla says:

      Hey now you’ve survived hiking in the Cinque Terre, I know that you’ve got it in you 😉 Haha no the Cinque Terre hike was a stroll in the park compared to the Inca Trail but, saying that, I would still really recommend it. You have to be a fairly keen hiker though so maybe the train is the way for you. You can meet Gautam at Machu Picchu after you’ve had a few relaxing days in Cusco!

    • Ayla says:

      I wouldn’t say lazy! Some people just aren’t keen on hiking or just don’t have the time. It is a super tough trek so if you’re not up for it, then I really wouldn’t recommend it. You still get some great views from the train and you still saw the main attraction of Machu Picchu 🙂

  5. Lisa Welsh says:

    This is on our list of things to do for sure!!! Just a little hesitant about the cost. When we decide to travel again, we would like to do it on the cheap! I can imagine it is worth the money though….amazing pictures! 🙂

    • Ayla says:

      Thanks Lisa! We did it with G Adventures who aren’t the cheapest company to go with but they are known as being one of the best for the Inca Trail. There are plenty of smaller more independent local companies who you can go with though. Just make sure you don’t wait to book only a few days before when you’re actually there, as the permits get booked up well in advance so you might miss out. I hope you get to experience it soon and have an incredible time! 🙂

  6. Polly (Follow Your Sunshine) says:

    Congratulations on such an awesome achievement – I have known so many people to set out, only to be hit with severe altitude sickness or twist an ankle…I don’t think I actually personally know anybody who’s reached Machu Picchu so I’m really impressed! It looks like a once in a lifetime experience, and something I’d love to do. Thanks for letting us in on your adventure 🙂

    Polly xx
    Follow Your Sunshine

    • Ayla says:

      Thanks Polly! The problem with the hike is that once you reach a certain point there is no turning back. And it would cost a fortune to get airlifted out of there if you hurt yourself that badly! We had some people who really struggled in our group but we all got there eventually. You just have to keep pushing on and encouraging each other, and remember that while it might be tough, you’re experiencing something that is truly incredible. The challenge is so worth it 🙂

    • Ayla says:

      Trust me Mike I have not forgotten the sweat and the pain quite yet! It’s still nice and raw a whole year later! Yup the kittens, llamas and all the other wildlife always gave me the boost I needed to keep going 🙂

  7. Packing my Suitcase says:

    This was one of my favourite posts of you… you made me feel like I was there too, and also reminded me of a hike a did in the Galapagos Islands, which back in 2008 was a bit too much for me, but I also made it. Nothing compared to what you did though, you are a fighter… and I am sure that when you finished you felt like a whole new person.
    The views are indeed unique and amazing, wow!! I would certainly would like to try this hike one day!
    The team seem sooo nice, I admire them for doing this over and over again!

    • Ayla says:

      Aww thanks Allane! I didn’t realise there was much hiking to do in the Galapagos. Have you written about it? Yes, underneath the exhaustion, sweat and tears, I felt like I had achieved so so much. It’s a huge achievement for anyone who does it, even the most experienced hikers. The porters, guides and all of the team were amazing. I do not know how they do this every single week!!

      • Packing my Suitcase says:

        Yess, the Galapagos Islands are all volcanic mountains, very cool! I did 2 hikes while I was there… I haven’t written about any of them yet.
        But the hikes there are nothing compared to yours, 4 days is a looot! Amazing 😀

  8. Jodie Louise says:

    As challenging and tough as this sounds, I now want to do it more than ever. Well done for completing the trek despite your struggles… Oh and those kittens. So lovely.

    • Ayla says:

      So glad you want to do the hike Jodie! I didn’t want to put anyone off by sharing my experience but I had to be truthful. Yes, it was bloody hard but it was also bloody amazing. Despite all the tough parts, in no way do I regret doing the hike. It was totally worth it for the views, the journey and the achievement of reaching Machu Picchu at the end. Do it!

  9. thegrownupgapyear says:

    Such an amazing achievement Ayla – well done! I found it hard work too, but was lucky not to suffer from any altitude sickness, so I can only imagine what it must have been like if you were not feeling 100%. I totally agree with you that slow and steady is the way forward. I was always at the back in my group but really enjoyed the experience – and there’s no prizes for getting there first! Also love the marriage proposal story – so romantic!

    • Ayla says:

      I’m sure I could have been a lot worse with altitude sickness than I was but it still made me feel awful when I was up there. Totally worth it though as I’m sure you know! Oh it was super romantic. The whole group, apart from the bride-to-be of course, all knew beforehand so everyone had cameras and grins ready for the moment! 🙂

  10. angel li says:

    Thank you for sharing. Your story brings me to tears, especially the last paragraph! I am almost 50 and will do this with my children 17 and 14. next year

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