To quote Jim Gaffigan, “I’m what you would call ‘indoorsy'”—but when my then-wife LeeAnne suggested we take a vacation to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I agreed instantly. I’ve always had a thing for seeing historical sites, and Machu Picchu is right up there among the best of them. The fact that we would have to hike for four days to get there just added to the allure of the place.
As the Inca Trail is well protected, there are a limited number of passes issued to hike the trail each day, and you must go with a registered guide. We picked Intrepid Travel based on a friend’s recommendation, and they were great. From our tour guide Elias to the unbelievable porters, the trip was made much better with them in it.
We began with a day and a half in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude. At the time, we were both smokers and had had almost no experience at altitude (we did all of our practice hikes outside Philadelphia), so the day and half was not enough. But we made it work with plenty of altitude medication and coca tea.
The night before our trip, our guide dropped off the bags we were to give the porters with extra clothes, snacks, or whatever else we wanted during the hike as long as the bags were under 6 kg. We could also carry our own backpacks with whatever we wanted to have on us. He went over the route and what we could expect from day to day, and then we were left to pack up. The hotel we stayed at would be stashing most of our stuff while we were away, so we’d be bringing minimal gear with us. From Intrepid, we were able to rent sleeping bags, a sleeping mat, and hiking poles. Everything else, we had.
And then, just like that, it was time to embark. The hotel let us in the breakfast room early so we could get some food before we left, and that’s when it hit me: diarrhea. That’s right: I had felt fine the past few days, and then just as I was about to embark on a long trek where I’d be outside in the middle of nowhere for four days, I get hit with a bad case of the tummy struggles. I went from excited anticipation to absolute dread. Was it the nerves? The aji de gallina I’d had the night before? The alpaca burger? All the coca tea I’d been pounding? Who knows. Who cares. This was about to suck.
We took a two-hour van ride with our guide to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we stopped for a more substantial breakfast, a few trips to the bathroom, and to meet up with the rest of our group. There were eight of us total, and we’d be joining a group that was on a longer Intrepid trip. They were nice enough people, but we didn’t end up spending much time with them outside of our camps each night.
We drove up to the trail entrance, had our passports stamped, and were underway. The first day was hot and arid, mostly uphill. I made the mistake of trying to keep up with the more fit non-smokers on the trip and ended up getting winded pretty quickly, and in the altitude (even though we were nowhere near as high as we would eventually go) was getting the best of me. It wasn’t long before I fell behind. Luckily, LeeAnne was there to keep me going, because I almost immediately wanted to give up. I absolutely hate the feeling that I am holding someone back, and I didn’t want to feel like that with a group of strangers the entire time.
We stopped to see some ruins, and then we stopped for lunch. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I ate what I could in order to have as much energy as possible, and then took a quick nap in an adjacent field. One of our follow hikers gave me some coca leaves to chew on. They weren’t as good as the tea, but they definitely helped. Now, the coca leaf is indeed the raw material for cocaine, but the amount in a leaf is miniscule. The leaf itself is a mild stimulant that combats thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue, but is nothing like cocaine. Although I did become pretty addicted to coca candy while I was in Peru.
Day two started with a great breakfast and I was feeling much better, but our guide sent us out with one of our companions a bit early so I could get a head start. It wasn’t long before the rest of the group caught up with us, though, because we kept going higher and LeeAnne started developing some altitude sickness. We were slowed immensely by this, and now it was she that needed the convincing not to turn back. She stuck it out, though, despite having to stop every few meters on our climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which tops out at 4,215m/13,829ft above sea level, the highest I’d ever been outside of an airplane.
At some points, our guide had to make LeeAnne smell rubbing alcohol to keep her wits about her, and it took us way longer to get to the pass than everyone else. It was also a complete climate change from day one, being freezing cold and windy at the top of the pass. Having not prepared as well as I should have, our guide lent me his gloves.
After a brief rest, we went down the other side of the pass to where we were supposed to stop for lunch. Recognizing that we were struggling—as well as a few others in the group that had some problem—Elias made the decision to camp there for the rest of the night. This did, however, mean that the porters who had gone on ahead to set up camp for dinner would have to break down the camp and come all the way back.
It should be noted that these porters are nearly superhuman. They wear sandals for the entire trip and carry 50 kg of gear on their backs and practically run the trail in order to get to the next stop, set up camp, and cook the next meal. And the meals were not your typical camping food—they were miles above what any reasonable person would expect on a trip like this. Watching them get through the trail was awe-inspiring, and if you do it be sure to bring enough cash to tip them well. They are amazing.
Day three, our guide had LeeAnne and I get up even earlier. This time, we set out with a porter to accompany us and woke up while it was still dark and while everyone else was still asleep to get a 2-3 hour head start. It was slow going, and we were able to meet pretty much everyone else on the trail with us because we had to stop so frequently and all the groups passed us, making sure we were okay. Right before our lunch stop (which was supposed to be our dinner stop and camp the night before), the rest of our group caught up with us. Right after we stopped atop the high pass for the day for some yoga.
After lunch, Elias and a porter accompanied us once again as the rest of the group went on ahead. We were slow as cold molasses, but we made it through to camp eventually—tummy struggles, altitude sickness, and all. Luckily, even though we were there right on the edge of rainy season, it didn’t rain at all. The combination of being wet and miserable with being on slippery rocks next to some pretty heady cliffs (I’m afraid of heights) would have made the trek that much more nerve-wracking. We heard later from some folks who had experienced rain on the trip that it made everything excruciatingly worse.
On night three, we had one last group dinner and tipped out our porters, who would be leaving the next morning in order to get a train back to the city. That morning, we woke up early—probably around 3am—in order to get in line to get into the actual national park that includes all of the sites. We climbed along cliffs, up higher, finally coming to the “gringo killer” stairs that lead up to the Sun Gate, which are so steep they basically need to be climbed like a ladder.
It should be said that, with all the struggles we were having, I was pretty nonplussed by the idea of seeing Machu Picchu at this point. I stopped caring and figured it would be anticlimactic at best. At the Sun Gate, which looks down upon Machu Picchu, the clouds were still in and we could see nothing. We stopped for a brief snack, and at one point the sun came out and the clouds parted and we could see it, and I was immediately enthralled. The whole thing was so incredibly impressive, it was almost breathtaking. Once I saw it, all the hard work and the talking myself out of leaving and the diarrhea and everything else suddenly became worth every minute.
We took the walk from the Sun Gate down to Machu Picchu, where we got some touristy pictures and proceeded down to tour the city. I immediately hated all the people who had taken trains and buses to get there—the ones in jeans, wearing perfume or cologne, the ones who had clearly bathed in the last three days—they didn’t deserve this! They didn’t suffer for it! Jerks.
Though I don’t have much hard going to compare this to—running a marathon probably comes the closest—hiking the Inca Trail was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. With everything we had to deal with on top of the altitude, it was a struggle to say the least. But the struggle paid off with one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. If only to prove that I could do it a little quicker.
After leaving Machu Picchu, we grabbed lunch in Aguas Calientes, the town below, and then hopped a train back to Ollantaytambo where a van drove us back to Cusco. Back at our hotel, it was immediate showers, followed by devouring two massive Peruvian pizzas and a long, hard sleep. By morning, of course, my tummy struggles had ended—but not my love of coca tea.
All photos taken by LeeAnne.