October 15, 2018
The first thing you need to know about hiking the Incan trail is that you’re going to get high. So high, you’ll be in the clouds. Literally. Your jumping-off point is Cusco, a city situated at a modest 11,000 feet in the Andes. The epicenter of the Incan empire is situated a short hour and half flight from Lima. There is no acclimation process, you land and boom, suddenly you have to labor to breathe because of the thin air. If you’ve never been in high-altitude locations, get prescription medication. Yes there are potential side effects, but it’s a lot better than an ambulance ride and a 24-hour stay in the hospital. I know. Details aside, once I was pumped full of oxygen and other medication we couldn’t translate, I was ready to go.
You’re picked up at the crack of dawn by your guide and loaded onto a bus with your carefully weighed gear to be shepherded to the trailhead. It’s a two-hour ride and the first thing you see as the sun peeks over the peaks is a surprisingly large town at the bottom of a gorge you switchback down. Beyond that are other towns diminishing in stature and size incrementally until they’re half built cement structures or standalone buildings with no windows. After a breakfast pitstop to fill up on food and coca tea you make it to the trailhead. The trailhead is comprised of a staging area, parks office and ticketing booth. At this point, the excitement is palpable. After exiting the bus the porters are organizing and weighing your gear, the hikers are shuffling about, anxiously checking and rechecking your gear and the next thing you know, you’re off.
After passing through the trail entrance you cross a bridge over fast-paced rapids and begin by climbing up a gaggle of steps. At this point, we didn’t quite grasp the quantity and size of the steps to come. At a couple points during the trip I went into a step delirium, laughing when finding even more stairs after bending around the corner that provided false hope.
We’re at the beginning of day 1. The first day is the easiest, the inclines are “Incan flat,” the views are spectacular and everyone is in a frenzy of excitement and energy.
Along the way you pass through several small communities that sell fluid, food and the essential coca leaves. Freddy, our guide, stopped us periodically and gave us impromptu history lessons with a vigor and energy only a direct Incan descendent could. At one of those lessons, about halfway through the day, we come to a ruin that used to be a major trading outpost. Here, Freddy told us that the porters run marathons from this point to Machu Picchu. In other words, they’re doing what we do over 3.5 days in 3.5 hours. How about that for perspective?
Day one isn’t that tiring, but you’re walking from roughly 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. so your legs will be somewhat tired, unless you’re a freak of nature. A pro tip? Be sure to soak up the quality of the bathrooms on day one. Trust me, it goes downhill.
Day one ends at a small farming community where we ate like kings and got to explore a small ruin overlooking the city.
We wake up nervous. All 15 of us. Day two is nicknamed the “gringo killer.” Nearly the entire day we trek up the mountain. Not just on a gradual incline, but up rough, hard, and tall stone stairs. To give perspective, we climbed from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., earning us an additional 5,000 feet in altitude. We top out at 14,000 on “Dead Woman’s Pass,” and our guide refuses to tell us how it got that name when we ask. From the top we got to enjoying the expansive views.
If you have bad knees like me, the worst part is going down. There’s 2,000 feet to descend and your knees take the brunt of it, even with hiking poles (almost as essential as the coca leaves). We eventually made it to camp, exhausted, heads pounding, but thrilled to be done. It was nothing that a little tent delivery service of hot chocolate and popcorn couldn’t fix.
Although day two was the hardest, day three was the longest. However, it was arguably the most beautiful. We came across several different ruins that made you wonder how they were possibly conquered, passed through eight different micro-climates, and lunched on what feels like the top of the world. If you’re lucky like we were, you may run into a pack of llamas! I have to admit, this portion of the hike had us feeling like Reese Witherspoon in Wild.
On day four we hiked the final section of the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. We woke up at 3:30 a.m. to eat, pack and get to an official outpost that doesn’t open until 5 a.m. All trekking groups line up and attempt to sleep on the cold hard ground until the outpost opens. Once it opens, it’s like we were suddenly on The Amazing Race —running for nearly three miles, overcoming other groups that were ahead of us and preventing other groups from passing. My wife took a picture of me “pretending” to take out a person passing us with my hiking pole. I was pretty tempted.
The urgency comes from the need to get a good position at the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is a mountain ridge that overlooks Machu Picchu. From this perch we saw the rising sun glide across the ancient ruins in all its glory.
Then we had to hit the pavement for another mile or so to get to the actual ruins. Once we got there it was clear that the ruins were a zoo. There are so many tourists and they’re the worst kind. First of all, they were clean. They smelled good, looked good and had fashionable clothing on. We all hated them.
That said, we (obviously) felt superior. They bused their lazy butts up to the top while we just did a grueling four-day hike. All their huffing and puffing while going up a few flights of stairs didn’t help their case. You can’t help but feel smug. Judge me all you want, but if you were in our dirt-filled, smelly shoes, you’d feel the same way.
Machu Picchu was beautiful, it lives up to all the pictures, but the consensus was that it was anti-climactic. Not because it wasn’t great, but because the sum of the experiences of the trek far surpassed a single ruin. While hiking we saw many ruins that were seemingly untouched, we walked amongst clouds and over mountains, passed through villages and valleys, overcame altitude, exhaustion and discomfort with friends new and old. What I wouldn’t give for another grueling four days.