It's a daunting task trying to describe the experience of the past four days. What I can say, is that it was unequivocally the most difficult thing, mentally and physically, that I have ever done. And I could not be happier that we did it. Have a seat, this is gonna be a long one.
Actually, let me back up a bit...
We almost didn't do it. The altitude in Cusco is no joke. I would have posted photos and blog entries sooner, but they would have all been of me lying in bed. The headaches and exhaustion were bearable, but as soon as I finished the recommended two day dose of altitude meds, I couldn't keep food down either. This also happened to be our deadline to pay the non-refundable balance for our 4-day trek. Reece had the heavy responsibility of going to the office alone to beg for more time, and ultimately decide to commit or cancel if they wouldn't give it to us. Long story short - He scored two more days, I started to feel better, and the day before departure I signed the contract in terrified tears. I knew that I didn't NOT want to do it, but I was still scared that we just spent half our month's budget to potentially be miserable for four days. Did I mention it's rainy season? Oh yeah, it hails every afternoon.
Rise at 4:45am after no sleep. Walk past the late night partiers to our meeting place. Our group consists of two Australian guys, a mother and daughter from Canada, an American med student, a French woman, and two more girls from Australia. Our small size of ten is nice compared to the usual max of 16. Accompanying us are two guides, 15 porters, and a chef. I feel like a real professional mountain woman doing a hike that requires a walking stick. Onward!
It's staggering the effect that tourism has on a place. Driving down narrow dirt roads past modest homes of stone and clay, women in traditional wear doing their daily chores, children playing barefoot in the street, men hearding farm animals, stray dogs and dogs and more dogs... We reach the village on the outskirts of the trek and dozens of tour busses crowd the small plaza. Hostels and ATM machines and internet cafes and restaurants proudly serving "American Breakfast" dominate what was probably once a local gathering place. I know this is the case in every touristy place around the world, but for some reason it really struck a chord with me here. It's only been nine years since they started these large/regulated treks, and the relatively recent affect it has had on the community is palpable. It made me feel uncomfortable, like an inturder in their home. I wonder what their reaction is to the thousands of people from around the world visiting each day to see the sacred site hidden in their mountains. I am overcome with a desire for the profits of such tours to benefit the people and their small town. I begin to ponder the possibility of a future with some sort of organization that helps to make things like that happen, somewhere in the world. I am nervous and excited and hungry.
After breakfast, we continue through tiny villages to the departure point of our trek. 14 kilometers stand between us and our camp for the first night. Right off the bat I slip to the back of the group, and feel like I cannot keep up with the pace. I am discouraged, and the thought makes me feel weak and unprepared. At our snack spot, I realize we were only about 5 minutes behind, and that lifts my spirits. Seven hours of hiking, and I collapse in my tent. I'm completely exhausted and fearful of how tremendously sore I will be the next day.
Anticipation of this day was the cause of my contract-signing tears. The plan: Rise at 5:30am, ascend 900 meters to the charmingly named "Dead Woman's Pass", at a breathtaking altitude of 4200 meters (just under 14,000 feet). Three hour descent to lunch where all of the other trekkers are setting up camp for the night. Then, in order to get a head start on the final day, we'll climb up and down ANOTHER mountain, and call it a day after 12 painful hours on our feet. I start the day strong. I’m shocked to find that I am not sore at all, and manage to keep a steady pace up and up and up the mountain. Today, I am not straggling in the back of the group, rather I am close to the front. This makes me realize how much of a mental challenge the whole thing really is. Just knowing that I’m able to keep up makes me feel strong and healthy and confident. Those feelings give me a surge of stamina I didn’t know I was capable of. The top of the mountain is far, far away. The camp below grows further and the people below shrink to the size of ants. I keep telling myself, “It is irrelevant whether I can make it to the top - All that matters is that I can take one more step.” And I can, and I do, and it’s an incredible feeling to stand atop a mountain that you were looking at high above hours earlier. I feel like a million bucks.
Here is where the day takes a turn. Climbing down hundreds of stone steps, some the height of my knees, proves astonishingly more difficult than climbing up. The fog becomes so thick we cannot see how far the valley is below. It’s drizzling and the path is slippery. Large, loud groups of ostentatious Argentinians are eagerly passing us by. My knees feel like they are going to buckle underneath me, and the path appears neverending. Three times my eyes brim with tears and I insist to Reece that I can't go any further. My feet have never felt pain like this. When we finally approach our lunch camp, I break down sobbing.
Lunch is like an infirmary. The moring has taken a toll on everybody. People are laying down, vomitting, headaches and diarrhea abound. At the risk of exposing TMI, sore legs + squat toilets + unfamiliar food = a true test of strength. We are envious of the campers setting up tents for the night. We still have another mountain ahead of us. It starts to rain. It’s miserable.
We strap on our gear, bundle up in hats and gloves and rain jackets. We continue to marvel at what a small role physicality plays in this. It’s 100% mental. Our bodies think they can’t go any further, but our minds must know better. I am relieved to find that the uphill climb is actually a welcome break for my knees. One guy in our group, a marathon runner, can’t continue and lays down on the trail. They discuss sending porters back to carry him. I feel both tremendously sad for him, and tremendously grateful that I’m not sick. My biggest fear going into this was finding myself in his shoes. I count my blessings, and eventually reach the top on mountain number two.
Beginning our final ascent of the day, we are astounded by the beauty that surrounds us. Our pace is leisurely, pausing to take dozens of photos. Alone on the path, we can feel the spirituality that exists in this sacred valley. It is peaceful and mystical and inspiring and overwhelming. We are so happy we made this decision. We talk about the people who skip the trek and take the train directly to Machu Picchu. They have no concept of what they are missing.
Today is a short day, “only” 10 kilometers. We are permitted to “sleep in” until 6:30am, and will complete the hike by lunch. The group is somewhat recharged, after the overcoming the beast of the day before. (And yes, the marathon runner made it. After napping and medicating, somehow he was able to continue the trek. We are all in awe of his strength.) We are so pleased that the previous mountain is behind us, unlike the rest of the groups who began very early to catch up to us. The hike is mostly downhill today which is a relief for many, but not me and my knees. My feet want to know what they did to deserve this. It is the home stretch and I’m ready to be done. I power through much more quickly than usual. We take much fewer pictures. The carrot is dangling in front of me and I want it.
Lunch. Flip flops. Cold beers. Visit to Inka site. Dinner. Porter ceremony. Thank yous. Tips. Briefing for the next morning, the day we have all been waiting for.
3:30am. I have never rose at 3:30am in my life. Our goal is to line up at the entrance ahead of the other groups, so that we may be one of the first to arrive. The Key Man arrives at 5:30am to open the gate. Hundreds of trekkers are in a frenzy. I wonder what the point is of being in front. I’m going to go at my own pace when the stampede starts anyway. I’m tired and achy and irritable. And tired.
Gates open, and Machu Picchu is still two hours away. I walk briskly, realizing I don’t want my group to have to wait for me when they arrive. This morning is strictly business – Head down, pace up, don’t look back at the people ready to charge if you show the least bit of hesitation. We approach the Sun Gate, where one can catch their very first glimpse of the wonder of the world. All we see is fog.
We are nearing the end of our four day pilgrimage. We still cannot see anything, but we can feel that something is there. We perch atop the lookout point where the classic postcard photos are taken. Ever so slowly, the fog begins to disperse and Machu Picchu slowly reveals itself. It’s magical. I’m emotional. Reece is talking to his new Aussie buddy about football.
The sky clears just long enough for all of us to take turns getting our obligatory “we made it” photos. Just as we are organizing for a group shot, it rolls back in and envelopes the valley in a cloud. As we head down to have our morning snack and begin our tour, it begins pouring. Yet none of us are disappointed. Our arrival feels a bit anticlimactic somehow, and while it’s an absolutely breathtaking sight, we all agree it was nothing compared to the experience of the past three days. Whoever said it’s the journey, not the destination, must have hiked the Inca Trail.
We feel smug as tourists pour out of busses in jeans and make-up. 2,000–3,000 people visit Machu Picchu every day. Of those, only about 200 make the trek. The sense of entitlement is hard to supress. As a line forms at the entrance with plastic poncho wearing tourists protecting their hair from the rain, it starts to feel a little like Disneyland. We take a two hour tour of the ruins and find it impossible to get a nice photo without people swarming every corner of the background. We decide they should allow trekkers to have the place to themselves for an hour before opening up to the general public. My what a long way we’ve come since Day 1.
Eventually the rain relents and Reece and I head back to the viewpoint for more photos. We finally have a moment to reflect on that fact that WE DID IT! We are beyond proud :)
To view the rest of our photos, click HERE!
Just a few more things, should you be considering the Inca Trail, 4-day trek to Macchu Piccu...
- DO IT! If you have two functioning legs, you can do it. If you can’t recall the last time you excersized, you can do it. If I can do it, you can do it. Promise me you won't just take the train.
- Have respect for the altitude. Give yourself as much time in Cusco as you can (we did 5 days) before departing. They people we met who didn’t, regretted it. And, “Slow pace wins the race!” Okay it’s not a race. But I was so happy I never allowed myself to feel pressured to speed up. I picked a pace that was right for me, and I’m convinced that’s what kept me going.
- Go with Llama Path. Of all the groups we saw on the trail, ours appeared to be the most prepared and organized. The porters are treated much better than with other companies (provided with clothing and shoes backpacks and sleeping bags and health insurance... most porters we saw were carrying 60+ pounds in sacks on their backs wearing sandals!!) The food was great, and the campsites were preferable. And, it’s the little things... Bowls of hot water and soap placed out for you before every meal and at the end of each hike, hot tea delivered to your tent every morning, healthy snacks provided each morning to take with you. I can’t imagine being more satisfied with anybody else.
- Get the walking stick! Contrary to my suspicions, they aren't just trying to upsell you to make another buck. You really do need it.
- If you actually made it through this entire post, WOW! I'm impressed.