Look at it this way: it’s taken me several days following that trek to get up the energy to write about it. Below is the day-to-day breakdown of the Trail, followed by some recommendations should you ever think you want to do this, too.
I had been sick for two days before the start of the Trail. Despite some low energy, I thought I’d be able to manage well-enough. The first day was introduced as an easy day, consisting of lightly undulating terrain with a few hills thrown in for good measure.
About halfway through the day’s kilometres, I stood in the bright sunlight, shivering. I was still sick. I knew this, but still managed to stand there and tell myself that I was a weakling and all sorts of harsh things. I was on the verge of tears and feeling as low as can be.
One of our guides, Percy, walked with me an encouraged me to continue on. With his help, I managed to make it to the first camp in one piece, but could not wait to sleep for the night.
It was chilly in the tent and I couldn’t manage to keep out of a slightly delirious sleep. I was desperate for a good night’s sleep, just to push the sickness off, but I wasn’t going to get one that night.
Percy gave me my options. I could either keep going on, or turn back and rest in the comfort of a hotel room after a day of hiking back to the trail head. If I made it through Day 2’s hike, I’d have to stay on the trail until the end because I’ll have reached the halfway mark that day.
I wanted to keep going, but I needed some help, so I hired a chaski (“runner” in Quechua, otherwise known as a porter) to carry my pack. It ended up being such a good idea, letting me focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I still had a really hard time, but it felt manageable, if incredibly slow.
I ended up having the most fun on this day, took the most pictures, and came away with some great memories. The climb itself was incredibly hard, making our way up 1100 meters in altitude on this day alone. Towards the end of the incline, I bonded with a girl named Anna, who was struggling, too. We pushed each other forward, picking out visual markers ahead of us and taking small breaks when we reached them, congratulating and spurring each other on as we went. I don’t know that I would have managed that stretch without her.
From the highest point on the trail, affectionally called “Dead Woman’s Pass,” it was time for a knee-busting few-hundred metre drop down some treacherous ancient Incan stairs. Picture uneven stones, partially with with the sporadic rains and you’ll have a decent idea of what it was like.
When we got to camp, I took a brief nap. This was a total mistake, my entire body seized up from the strain of the day’s hike. This turned out to be a common story amongst my group. We all had some pretty severe aches, pains, and cramps after so many meters up and so many stairs down.
The scenery on Day 2 was utterly beautiful, but Day 3 would give it a run for its money.
My personal journal entry for this day reads, “I barely have the energy to write, but I’m going to try,” as its first line.
As the day started, I still felt pretty sick, but I had made it this far and I wasn’t about to let the trail beat me. I climbed slowly and surely on the last of the major inclines – a two-hour stretch to 4,000 metres in elevation.
The next section wasn’t terrible either, with the group stopping a a pretty Incan site about an hour later. It overlooked the valley below and once served as a storage place for produce thanks to a strategic position along the trade route.
Then it was time for what is known to guides and trekkers alike as “Peruvian Flat.” This is an undulating terrain that varies softly from light inclines to soft declines with short flat spaces in between. It was a particularly beautiful section, with lush flowers and thick leaves and a beautiful view of the clouds hanging by the cliffside and the green valley below. This section made me appreciate how slow I’d been going on the trail.
As a competitive person, it’s hard for me to be the slowest in the group. Years of rowing and being told that if you want to be worth something, you’ve got to be fast still ring in my head. But there on the Inca Trail was where I’ve started to be able to let that go. As my friends and fellow group members moved quickly ahead of me, I was stopping to look at the orchids growing out of the rocks and to take in the view when the clouds parted. At dinner time, no one else noticed these things, it seemed. They had just noticed the trail itself. Going slow made me be able to appreciate the landscape around me.
There is a limit to this train of reasoning, though. It wasn’t long after the enjoyable section of Peruvian Flat that things went downhill, literally and figuratively.
At first, I just crashed after the multitude of steps heading down into the final camp on the trail. I suddenly had no energy to speak of and every step was slower than the step before it. I began to worry that I wouldn’t make it to the camp before nightfall, and was making plans to just unroll my sleeping bag right there on the trail.
After a few hours of going at a snail’s pace, a porter came running up to me from the camp below. He had been summoned to find me after so much time had passed after I was expected at the camp. What should have taken me two hours had taken somewhere just over three.
Switchbacks just kept coming as I went along, each time thinking it must have been my last one. Finally, finally, finally, I made it into camp where the most wonderful popcorn was waiting for me, along with my group-mates who were happy to see that I had made it. Not a single one of them looked down on me for having moved so slowly, they were all so supportive and happy to see that I was managing to finish the trail.
The morning began early, with a 3:50am wake-up call. We wanted to be the first group to make it through the Sun Gate that day, to see Machu Picchu in the distance before the other groups on the trail and before the site became infested with tourists who had just taken the train up. I can’t fault those tourists. If I had known how hard the Trail was going to be for me, I might have opted to do the same.
Not long after the sun rose, I saw my first glimpse of the expansive and famous Incan site. Though beautiful, I couldn’t help but feel it was one of those experiences where the journey was more beautiful and precious than the destination. I overheard one trekker remark that the entire trail and the site itself wasn’t what she had hoped. But for me, it was an archaeologist’s dream: an unspoiled sanctuary of a civilization long-gone.
Our guides took us around the site for a few hours to point out some of the features, before cutting us loose to explore on our own. Hillary and Greg opted to climb just one more mountain (masochists) and headed up Winay Picchu, but myself and some of my group-mates felt we’d earned a leisurely wander through the ruins was justified.
And here comes the part where I started yelling… There we are wandering around and out of the corner of my eye, I see a guide PEEING on the ruins. I lost my mind in that moment, because here were ruins that had been kept safe for centuries and there was someone just casually relieving himself on them. I was so incensed that I couldn’t string a single sentence in Spanish, but I’m fairly certain my tone conveyed the meaning of what I was saying regardless of what language said guide spoke.
Please, for the love of all that is holy, I am so tired of being angry at dumb tourists, and now guides, while visiting archaeological sites. Where’s that badge when I need it?
After touring this magnificent site, we took the bus back to the small town of Aguas Calientes to say goodbyes to our guides and our fellow group members. Hillary, Greg, and I ended up staying an extra day there, if only for the promise of hot water at the hot springs to ease angry muscles.
Jillian’s Tips for Surviving the Inca Trail
1. Don’t be sick. If you are sick, know that it is going to be that much more difficult. Steel yourself with the idea that you can probably manage it and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you can move one foot ahead, you are still moving.
2. Go with a good guide company. Current regulations for the Inca Trail restrict anyone from hiking unless they’re accompanied by a certified guide. Some companies treat their guides and porters better than others. On the second day of the trail, I was stopped by one of the porters from GAP Adventures, who was begging for some water. He was in rough shape and being made to carry much more than any one person should have to lug. I gave him the water and my group mates offered him some chocolate. After talking with fellow trekkers, GAP is apparently known for generally disregarding the well-being of their porters. We went with Peru Treks and I can say from first-hand experience, our porters and guides were happy and healthy. It was certainly more expensive to book with them than it would have been with GAP, but it’s clear that the cost difference directly translates into human decency.
3. Take not one, but two walking sticks. They will be annoying to carry on all the inclines, but for the 3000-step drop on Day 3, your knees will thank you. I only had one stick and I desperately wished that I’d had a second one during that section.
4. Bring all the gatorade packets you think you’ll need. The sugar and electrolytes will be a huge relief, especially if you’re sick like I was. It will also mask the horrible flavour of boiled water.
5. Pack as light as is humanly possible. If you think you might not need it, you won’t. Also consider buying your own ultra-light sleeping bag and foamy. You will pay for it at MEC, but at least you won’t have to carry the extra 4.5 kilograms that the trek company will give you in gear.
6. Hire a porter and tip them well. They want the money and you don’t want to have to carry all that stuff up the trail. Trust me, your body will thank you and you’ll have more energy to enjoy the wonderful views.
7. Go slow. Take a minute to look at the wild orchids and the expansive valleys.