If you enjoy hiking, the likelihood is that the Inca Trail is on your list; here are a few thoughts I had along the way.
I’ve always wanted to see Machu Picchu and what better way to get there than to hike the famous Inca Trail, said to be one of the top five treks in the world. I started the classic four-day/three-night Inca Trail to Machu Picchu on Christmas day, celebrating my birthday on Boxing Day.
1). Welcome to the most amazing scenery….ever
Majestic, stunning, awe-inspiring, breathtaking; I could throw as many adjectives and hyperboles at it as you like and it still wouldn’t do it justice. The Inca Trail, snaking through 26 miles of mountains, cloud-forest, subtropical jungle and how-on-earth-did-they-do-it Inca paving, tunnels and ruins surprises at every turn.
I hiked in rainy season and although the threat of a ferocious downpour hovered at every moment it only added to the experience. The ominous skies, the lush greenery and the towering cloud-shrouded mountain tops made every step worth the effort.
My group was lucky with the weather too; as well as spells of the inevitable rain, we were treated to sun-soaked afternoons which allowed us to experience the ever-changing terrain from both perspectives.
2). The porters are simply unbelievable
Although the Inca Trail is the most popular hike to Machu Picchu, it isn’t the only way to get there. However, it is the only hiking route that doesn’t allow mules or horses along it. This is due to the sheer steepness of the ascents and descents – it’s simply impossible for horses to pass. So, who carries your tents, cooking equipment, personal belongings, food etc? Say hello to the porters.
I’m telling you – marines have nothing on these guys! Thundering past you on the trail with their packs loaded up to 27 kilos, they make it to camp hours before you to set up your tents, the kitchen and dining area, prepare the most exquisite three-course meals and basically ensure that your every need is met.
Watching them work I had mixed emotions – I felt as though I was exploiting these men and putting them in physical danger, a sentiment which was echoed by the rest of my seven-person group. Our guide JJ quickly put our minds at rest though, explaining that most of these men come from Cusco’s highlands where the main income is through agriculture – a low-paying and unstable industry.
With their wages, and (hopefully generous) tips from customers, these men make more as porters than they could in weeks back home. Although it is gruelling work they are fit, healthy and have completed the trail many times. JJ himself has completed it 250 times in his five years as a guide. This obviously doesn’t remove the physical and health risks that the job puts them in though, and I would say to choose your travel agency wisely.
I saw porters from other groups overloaded with gear, running along treacherously steep, slippery paths with sheer drops to the side, wearing nothing but beaten up sandals and no rain gear. I went with an agency called Llama Path and all of our porters had uniforms, new boots and rainwear (and festive Santa hats!).
They also have a porters’ house on the outskirts of Cusco where they can stay the night before and after a trek. In February, when the trail is closed for a month, they are apparently rewarded with a trip to Lima, and the company also has porter insurance. Although I cannot attest to them being the best, as I don’t know every agency, I felt comfortable that (if what I was told was true) everything possible had been done to alleviate the physical dangers the porters find themselves in.
3). It’s all about focus
So, was the Inca Trail hard? Yes and no. The youngest person I met along the way was 17, and the eldest in their 70s. The trail itself is only 26 miles long, and it’s split between four days, so you don’t need to be Usain Bolt to complete it, but a good level of fitness is most definitely required.
The second day is by far the hardest. There are two high passes to make (Dead Woman’s Pass being the highest at 4,200m) and a total distance of 16k. You ascend 900m first, before descending 600m, ascending another 400m and then back down for 400m. It’s this that makes it tough – tough on the knees and tough on the spirit.
Throw in the lack of oxygen from the altitude and I quickly realised that this was about more than being physically fit, it was about focus. The rain was pelting down and the uneven, moss-covered, steep rocks meant we all needed to think carefully about the placement of every single step. With tales ringing in our ears (thanks JJ!) of people who had gone over the edge, I was more than happy to take my time and stick to the rule that gets most people through – take it slow and steady.
The Inca Trail has was everything I hoped for and more, despite ending up hospitalised for two days afterwards with lack of oxygen from the altitude, a stomach parasite and severe salmonella, which I’d contracted prior to the trip. So, if I can do it feeling that ill, anyone can do it with the right attitude and focus.