The Inca Trail – What Shoes Not To Wear, Dead Womans Pass And Magical Cake!
Thinking of hiking the famous South American trail? Here’s my account of the trail, honest and true to life as ever! Now I’m no natural athlete, nor do I relish the idea of any hike that involves even the smallest whiff of a hillock. But in 2015 I trained for a few months (I even went to the gym!) and now I count the Inca trail as one of my greatest achievements. The beauty of the Sacred Valley is well worth the toil and you get a huge sense of “look at what I gone and did” when you finally reach Machu Picchu.
The Inca trail is renowned among travellers and fitness enthusiasts alike for being “the” hike in South America and amongst the top five hikes in the world. At 26 miles long reaching altitudes of above 4000 meters it’s no walk in the park, but is something anyone who’s reasonably fit can achieve. The more preparation the better, after all “nothing great ever came that easy”. The altitude is the biggest challenge in my opinion during the four day hike, I guess no one knows how they will react to it but as long as you are prepared and give yourself time it shouldn’t be a problem, everything just takes a little more effort.
We’d booked our month long tour to Peru with G Adventures for March, just after the trail reopens from the February maintenance closure. It’s wise to book the trail permits in advance as limited spaces get booked up fast! Now I’m the type of person that would have been quite happy taking the train, but my brother and his girlfriend had convinced me to do the hike and I’m glad they did. The couple of weeks before exploring the surrounding area had given us time to acclimatise and get a good insight into history on the Incan Empire. The sheer scale of this man-made path through high mountain passes and subtropical forest beggars belief. How this vast ancient civilization moved huge blocks of stone from miles around to create a mountain top hideaway rivals the Egyptians building legacy. It’s something that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Day one saw us revved up and ready to go, after posing for a few pics we set off. Quickly the heat and pace started to make me regret my choice of brand new walking boots over comfy old trainers. There is an ongoing debate online for which is best, with the 6kg packing limit you’d be hard pushed to bring both, but I’d say the best advice is take the comfiest pair you own with good grip for the downhill sections. And don’t forget a pair of flip-flops to give your feet a break in the evenings. There are lots of rivers and picturesque picnic spots in this section to cool off and relax by. Passing through tiny villages and the odd ancient ruin we arrived in the late afternoon to the first campsite with scenic views over the surrounding mountains. A little hummingbird buzzed though the hedges and we chowed down on some delicious food and got to know our porters a little better. On a short walk from the campsite we saw what the next day had in store for us. Dead Woman’s Pass (or dead Jo’s pass as I affectionately nicknamed it) the imposing high point of the trip.
Day two started in the lush green fields of our campsite and worked upwards for 1000meters. We zigzagged through subtropical forests and grassy plateaus, finding it increasingly difficult not to stop for a breather. Soon we were in the clouds, the damp air offering some relief, the fitness levels of fellow hikers now becoming more obvious. Some striking off into the distance without so much as a glance at the view, some taking a bit more time to “appreciate the scenery” (code for needing a break). We were wrapped up in our ponchos by the time we reached the 4000m mark and celebrated the occasion with a Kitkat break. The last 200 meters or so were the toughest, I’m not too proud to admit my brother and our guide gave us a little boost by taking our bags for the last leg to the top. One step after another we made it to the top (and I was still alive!) and the view was… non existent as we were in the clouds! Another Kitkat later we were heading down the other side. A lot of fitter people tend to find this part the most difficult, navigating huge slippery Incan steps at a steep angle seems to affect different muscles. Here the poles that you were wondering why you’ve been carrying around for two days become quite useful. With gravity on my side I had no issues using speed and grippy boots to my advantage to hurl myself down the mountain side. Even spotting a few orchids, hummingbirds and waterfalls along the way. Camp number two was a welcome site by early afternoon. Perched in a valley next to a large river, our tents laid waiting for us, dinner on the go and our smiling porters cheering our arrival. Porters who had just done what we did with quadruple the weight on their backs in a quarter of the time; I was beginning to think these coca leaves weren’t such a bad idea!
Recovered from the dreaded day two, we set off on day 3 in high spirits. And what a day it was; fantastic trails, views and somehow when we got to our lunch stop those magical porters had baked a cake! We were literally in the middle of nowhere, all they had was a simple gas stove, to this day I have no idea how they managed it, but it was highly appreciated either way! We stopped at another Incan site at the last viewpoint of the day and looked back at how far we had come. Making our way back down into the trees we came across our campsite, or what was left of it anyway. Being the wet season there had been recent landslides on the slopes of the higher campsites, so rather ingeniously we went further downhill, below the landslides, to set up camp. Now three days of hiking, drop toilets and camping leaves you with a certain aroma no matter how many wet wipes or buckets of water you get through. Camp number three doesn’t have the views of camp one, or the joyous relief of camp number two, but what it does have is a shower! Only the hardcore brave this due to the fact it’s pretty much a pipe plumbed into the freezing river and no one has space to pack a towel. Nevertheless the single best shower of my life (narrowly beating a cowshed in New Zealand)!
Refreshed and buzzing for reaching the goal day four saw us up at silly o’clock in the morning fumbling around in the dark to get to the final permit check before the crowds. Now I’m no expert but getting there early and waiting for an hour for it to open isn’t much better than queuing for an hour at a sensible time of day, but the premise was to make it to the sun gate for the rise of the sun. I don’t remember much of that last push, bleary eyed, physically exhausted and rushing for the view in the dark was not a combination that suited me. I hit my ‘wall’. I let the group go ahead and gathered myself together. The unexpected low point of the trip was only confirmed when we got to the sun gate: mist, cloud and no view. This wasn’t just an issue for me, in the months before my brother had been planning his proposal to his girlfriend at that very sunrise. It was in fact the main purpose of our trip. Disheartened we stumbled down the hill to where our Machu Picchu guide was waiting. And slowly out if the mist began to appear the most amazing ancient construction work. Huge stone walls, imposing temples and views of the surrounding mountains that would make anyone’s knees week. Suddenly the hike made sense. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this undertaking by the Incas you have to hike the trail; building materials, livestock and whole families once came along the same path carved out by hugely successful and ingenuitive civilisation. The craftsmanship and the fact it still remains today is testament to that culture and their ability to thrive in such remoteness.
The sun now beaming unveiled the true magnitude of the settlement. After the profile pictures most of the group hiked back up to the sun gate for a better view. My brother, the most nervous I’ve ever seen him, and his girlfriend joined them for surely one of the best proposals ever! I wished him luck but couldn’t face another hill so wandered alone around the ruins. The trainloads of tourists had not yet made it on to the ruins (thank the early morning I was moaning about) and many people were sitting around just soaking in the view. I wandered in and out of passageways and temples occasionally bumping into the odd llama, taking in every magnificent view that appeared. Truly one of the most awe-inspiring days of my life that had started out so badly. It’s often the way with travel and life in general, some of the best experiences are intertwined with some of the hardest and most challenging. I met back up with the group getting the final stamp in the passport. My brother and his now fiancé, ring on finger, sat elated and exhausted and we all celebrated with a hot dog!