Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was hands down the highlight of my time in South America. After spending three days in Cusco to acclimate myself to the higher altitude, the day had finally arrived to begin my hike of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I was not too sure what to expect going into our trek, but it sure was harder than I initially imagined. When talking with others who already hiked the the trail, everyone talked about how amazing the sights were, but no one talked about the hike itself.
The trek is only 43 kilometres but it feels much longer. Even the first day, classed as “easy” by our guide, left us exhausted. When our freakishly fit tour guide told us that the next portion of our hike is “Inca flat”, we were prepared to die. But we were always entertained. We passed many local people at the beginning, walking alone or behind mules. Ladies selling water, sports drinks, candy bars and other snacks became our saviours. We carried only small day packs as we climbed up and down steep and dusty hills.
Some people saw the trail as a racetrack, running ahead and leaving the rest of their group behind. Others took a slower pace, either to savour the experience or because they physically couldn’t go any faster. There may have been times when I was on the racetrack . . . I was right behind the guide most of the time. But I slowed it down nearing the end of the trail, meandering along with a wad of coca leaves in one cheek, having plenty of time to consider what was happening around me. Chewing coca leaves can help with the effects of altitude and weather on the Inca Trail. I know some backpackers that hiked the entire four days in a torrential downpour . . . so I like to think that our group lucked out by having three days of great weather.
Forget the luxuries of toilet paper. Forget the luxuries of a toilet seat. Forget the luxury of . . . a toilet. On the hike, the best bathroom you will find is a rickety hut with a small hole in the ground. But I’ve been to Greece. And Egypt. Both places where toilet seats and toilet paper is considered luxury.
I have no idea what we’d do without our porters, cooks, and guides on this trek. Porters make less than 170 soles ($62 CDN) per four-day journey (not including tips) and carry all the equipment, personal belongings and food required by the groups they are supporting. We were introduced to these men on the second day and learned their names, how many children they had and how long they had worked on the trail. We cheered them on as they passed us on the trail. Because when your lungs feel like they are about to give out and your legs are screaming for a break, you come to appreciate that you would be taking the train if not for these guys.
Like a woman having just given birth to a child, hikers are too overwhelmed by the beauty of Machu Picchu that they seem to forget about the labour itself to get to the end. Ending at Machu Picchu, exploring ancient ruins, and continually stumbling across stunning landscapes made every treacherous twist and turn along the way worth it. We passed a beautiful waterfall along the trek and discovered several ruins that we rested and ate at.
I was pretty exhausted by the time we neared the end of the Inca Trail, but upon laying eyes on Machu Picchu I gained so much more energy. We climbed up tons of very, very steep steps near the end to get up to the Sun Gate. When I was just walking around at the top catching my breath and waiting for others to catch up, I looked out to my right and caught my first glimpse of Machu Picchu below me out in the distance. . . just sitting there with the sun shining upon it through the slowly moving cloud forest. I didn’t even realize I would be able to see it after climbing that last set of really steep steps. We spent so long hiking, the moment we would be this close to it always seemed so far away.
We all spent lots of time up at the Sun Gate, looking out at Machu Picchu, trying to wrap our heads around the fact that we were here, we were really here. Eventually, we started to hike downwards to our finish point. I took a pretty breathless video on the way down captivating my thoughts on the whole experience. About 45 minutes later we were officially on the same level and up close to mystical Machu Picchu.