A Review of the Inca Trail
As one of the most popular trails in Peru, the 43 km Inca Trail did not disappoint. Although challenging at times with the altitude and numerous stairs, the changing scenery of the dry desert, going up into the rock of the high mountains, then down into the lush jungle, was everything we could have asked for.
We used G Adventures (a Toronto-based, Canadian company), who I highly recommend as a reliable and responsible tour company. They were professional, organized and kept us well-informed. Our head guide during the trek, Ever, was very funny and informative during the hike...although he kept making jokes about sacrificing the youngest woman on the trek (which was me), so we would all have good weather. Luckily we had great weather regardless. We went in late August/early September which is the transition time between dry and wet seasons in Peru. Pachamama (mother earth) granted us with sun and clouds every day, with one rain storm on the 3rd (and last) night, since we were down in the jungle at that point. Our second guide, Walter, was quiet but very kind and stayed at the back of the group to make sure no one got left behind.
It was a 4 day, 3-night trip. Each morning we were greeted by a cheerful “Ola! Buenos Diaz”, then given hot coca tea and a warm bucket of water to wash our hands and face before breakfast. There was 13 of us in the group, with 2 guides, and 20 porters. All we had to carry was our day pack with water, snacks and rain layers. The porters are amazingly strong and cheerful for the backbreaking job they have. Before the trek starts, we give them a duffel bag with a max of 6kg, filled with our nighttime gear (sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm clothes, spare shoes/sandals, toiletries). They carry everything - the tents, our duffel bags, dining tents, stools to sit on while eating, the cooking tent and all cooking supplies. Each time they ran past us in their rubber sandals with packs bigger than their bodies, we would encourage them with “Jaku!”, meaning “let’s go/you can do it” in the Quechua (Andean) language.
The breakfasts usually consisted of tea, bread with jam and butter, and an omelet or pancake with applesauce. Lunch was juice, soup and a variety of familiar and traditional foods (pizza, quiche, quinoa salad, rice and veggie stir fry, fish, and meat). They were also great at catering to vegetarians or any other dietary restrictions. Dinner was similar to lunch with a few more options - buffet style. On our last lunch spot, they even made us a cake with our team name on it.
The night before the hike started we stayed in Ollantaytambo (about 2 hours on the bus from Cusco) after exploring the ruins in the town (which is a great precursor to Machu Picchu). The following morning was another 1.5-2 hours bus drive through beautiful farmland, quaint, crumbling, red brick homes, and mooing cows. We came to a village, Piscacucho (or Km 82), where we got ready, applied sunscreen and bug spray, had a small debriefing about having a positive mindset (for good karma and good weather), our group being a family and completing this trek together, and the deciding of a team name. We somehow came to the conclusion of “Baby Pumas”, which, after the hardest part of the trek (Dead Woman’s pass), we changed to “Sexy Pumas”. At Km 82 many people bought last minute things such as buffs, rain ponchos, water, and snacks. The guide also gave us a bag of snacks including a juice box, orange, sweet cookies and a few candies.
Day 1 started by walking through Km 82 before coming to a bridge where we showed our trail tickets and passports. The first part of the day was fairly easy although we were tired from the early start and busy days leading up to the trail. Under the bridge, Willkamayu (the sacred river, now known as Urubamba) bubbled and roared as we followed for a few hours until lunch. Ever stopped us along the way to explain about the plants, bugs, and other trails across the river. He also gave us Inca warrior face paint using the red juice of a white beetle (cochinilla) found on cacti. We crossed the Urubamba for lunch and were greeted by our cooks and porters who had set up a dining tent for us. We were given a sweet warm juice to replenish our electrolytes, warm vegetable soup as a starter, then a delicious meal which left us rubbing our full bellies. Another few hours of walking and we were at the first camp spot - we had walked 11km. The way to the toilet was a little steep and it was a traditional squat toilet (make sure to bring your own toilet paper). The porters had already set up our tents and put our duffel bags inside for us to set up our sleeping pads, sleeping bags and get changed into dry, warm clothes. The view from the camp spot was beautiful, mountains everywhere and lights and gentle sounds from a celebration happening in the village below.
The second day of the hike was the "hardest" day. We had 12 km to go which included crossing Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200m. The climb up was a challenge, a good burn for the legs and lungs, but doable. Ever had offered us coca leaves to chew which we all accepted. I remember singing and dancing on the way up, partly because the mountains make me giddy and may be partially due to the leaves - I had a few helpings. The group was totally fine with no altitude sickness symptoms.
Note on coca leaves: make sure you get partially dried ones, stick 5-10 leaves in your mouth, I folded them up a bit first so they stay together, chew them around for a few minutes so you make a sort of juice in your mouth, keep swallowing your saliva but don’t eat the leaves. Once you’ve softened them a little, stick themin the side of your cheek for 20-30 minutes. If you still feel sick you can rinse and repeat. Your tongue and cheeks will start to go numb after a few repetitions.
After numerous stairs, we finally came to the pass and celebrated with a sip of Inca tequila and some delicious Cuscanean beer (it is not recommended that you drink at altitude because you get drunk quickly and it can lead to some altitude sickness symptoms, but it was only a little and it was worth it). It is always an amazing feeling being surrounded by mountains...we could see the trail that we had come from, down the valley behind us, continue it’s windy path down the valley ahead of us. After many mountain pictures and a group shot, and gaping at a circling condor (good luck!) we headed down the other side. A special memory I have from this day is coming down the stone steps and hearing the sweet sound of flute notes floating up the valley from a musical porter way below us. It was a magical moment and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was actually on the way down from the altitude that affected me most - I got a slight headache and a little tired. The camp spot for day 2 was right beside a river which was lovely. The toilets were pretty nasty and a little hard to get to but at least they were there. This was actually a freaky night because Ever had told us some ghost encounter stories at dinner - stories that he claims to be true about seeing a naked white woman by the river, and a black man/goat who represents an evil spirit in the Andean religion who will sneak up on you if you go out to pee at night. My tent-mate and I made a deal where if one of us had to pee in the night we would wake the other and go together. She ended up waking me, but I had to pee as well. We didn’t make it to the toilets, we just went outside our tent, haha!
The third day was an undulating gentle trail, mostly down by the end of the day - that’s when I started feeling the worst - I got a huge pounding headache and felt tired and dizzy. I popped a Tylenol for the pain. Most of the group was on Altitude sickness medication and they were all fine except for a few side effects. I had decided not to take it because I wanted to see how my body would handle to altitude naturally (I brought the meds as a back-up just in case, but didn’t end up using them). The second half of the day we started making our descent down into the jungle. Plants got huge and beautiful, the jungle canopy was thick and damp and the air was humid and warm. Ever warned us to watch for snakes as we made our way through the dusk to our tents. That night we were introduced to all of our porters, and I gave a speech of appreciation and our tips to be divided. It was a beautiful few minutes as we shook their hands, saying "Sul Paiki", "thank you very much", in the Andean language.
The next morning we were up at 330am, ate a quick breakfast and got in line with other hikers and porters at the gates going into the Machu Picchu area. We waiting just over an hour, playing tic tac toe and hangman in the dirt, before entering the gates that would lead us to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu. We got to the Sun Gate just as the sun was rising, Machu Picchu was covered in cloud but cleared only for a moment to allow us to take some beautiful misty pictures of the ancient city way down below. During the gorgeous walk down where we were also graced by beautiful mountain views as Machu Picchu got closer and closer.
Entering Machu Picchu was actually a bit of a shock for us. We had come out of the jungle after 3 long days of trekking, stinky, tired and happy. We got to the main photo area where there were crowds of people who had all taken the bus up...in their high heels, purses, nice clean clothes. As we were taking a group photo, one bystander actually told us to take a shower haha! Apparently we were immune to our communal stench. We had a stunning morning for pictures and for walking around on our tour. Ever provided us with beautiful and horrifying stories about the Incan culture and how they lived in this giant city. The tour was about 2 hours and we were getting pretty tired and sun-baked by the end. We had some free time to go look the rest of the temples further away from the center where most of the tour had been. After a quick walk around and gaping at the incredible rock construction and carvings, we headed to the bus pick-up area and headed down the windy road to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town) for our lunch.
To conclude, this was an incredible experience. We were blessed with the weather, the beauty of the Peruvian mountains and exposed to many cultural experiences. This is a memory that will stick with me for a long time. I highly recommend this trek to anyone with a love for nature, travel and cultural education. Become an Inca Warrior!