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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!!!