The main purpose of my recent trip to South America was to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Although that goal was definitely in jeopardy for awhile thanks to my back issues, my doctor gave me enough pain medication to bring down the Peruvian Army, so I’m thrilled to say that I was able to complete the hike! That being said, there was a lot that I learned while out on the trail that they don’t exactly tell you on the internet.
1. It’s a lot harder than the tour companies make it seem…but it gets easier.
Last summer, when I first started seriously looking into hiking the Inca Trail (a 4 day/3 night extravaganza with the final destination of Machu Picchu), I read a ton of tour companies’ websites. Advance permits are required in order to complete the hike, and they can only be issued through an authorized tour company. With only 200 spots for hikers each day, the spots fill up fast, so you really have to think ahead. Anyway, everything I read said that anyone with a “moderate” health and fitness level could complete the trail. I mean, that might be technically true, but the trail was honestly a lot harder than I expected it to be. Amanda and I were in by far the best shape of anyone in our group (they would definitely agree with that assessment) but it was still pretty challenging. In fact, we started with 15 people in our hiking group and only 10 finished! While the mental aspect of the hike is probably the hardest part, it would also be a good idea to actually work out before hiking this trail. And by “work out,” I really just mean do the stairmaster for like 4 hours a day every day because most of the trail is stairs. Fortunately, despite what the elevation chart will tell you, it really does feel easier every single day that you’re out there, even though you’re getting more sore, so stick it out! It’s worth it.
2. The hygiene situation is not as dire as expected.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not into camping. In fact, my only experience sleeping in a tent prior to the Inca Trail was the one night I spent on Great Cranberry Island last summer after the GCI 50k. This is not because I don’t like hiking, it’s because I really value showers and comfortable beds. As such, I was quite concerned about the fact that we would not be able to shower at all on the trek. Between the two of us, Amanda and I easily brought enough baby wipes to clean off our entire group. That’s not an exaggeration. Our amazing tour company, Alpaca Expeditions (who we seriously cannot recommend enough) also provided us with hot water, wash cloths, and soap each morning and each evening so that we could wipe off, and shockingly, we didn’t feel nearly as gross as we thought we would. Sure, I wouldn’t go on a date like that, but our group unanimously agreed that we didn’t feel that bad.
3. The porters are basically the Andes Mountain equivalent of elite marathon runners.
You know how in a lot of marathons you eventually get lapped by the lead runners? Is that just me? Well, the porters (aka the group of men who carry all of the stuff for the entire group) are the equivalent of elite marathon runners. Each porter has a weight limit of 20 kg (about 40 lbs) that they are permitted to carry, so we had 19 porters for our group of 10 people. They carry the tents, food, most of your personal belongings, sleeping bags, etc. and then basically sprint up and down the mountains to reach the site ahead of you. So let’s say we woke up at 5 am. The porters and cooks would make us breakfast, then send us off and then break down the entire campsite. They pack everything up, load it onto their backs, and then set off after us. Most days, they started about 1.5 hours behind us. They had to get to our lunch site before we did to set everything up again and start cooking. It’s so humbling to see not only how hard these guys work, since we could barely survive the hike with just our daypacks on, but how fast they do it and how easy it is for them. What would take us 3-4 hours to cover, a porter would do in under an hour!
4. The food is amazing. No, really.
One of the big concerns that a lot of people have about hiking for such a long time is that the food will be bad or sparse. Nothing could be further from the truth! We ate three HUGE (and I mean huge by Danielle/football player standards, not European or weird diet standards) meals per day, plus at least two snacks, plus more tea than I ever thought I could drink. It got to the point where our group was literally asking our tour guide if we could skip snacks because we were still so full from the last meal. At first, we also felt really guilty about how much food it seemed like we were wasting because it was simply impossible to finish it all. Then, our guide told us that in addition to the meals that the porters eat (which we saw, and they also looked very delicious), they also get to finish any food we don’t want. Once we knew that 19 super-fit, hardworking guys got to eat the rest of the food and that none of it was being wasted, we didn’t feel so bad. Our cook even made us pizza (how is still a mystery) and a CAKE while we were camping. Also, the best popcorn I’ve ever had. Despite the fact that we were hiking for 8+ hours a day, I think I still gained weight. You will not go hungry.
5. The ugliest hat was the greatest investment.
Amanda and I started the hike with big dreams of arriving at Machu Picchu looking really cute, and hiking all the way looking adorable and sporty in our visors and baseball caps. I’m sad to report that this was not the case and we made it about half an hour before we had to buy new hats due to the epic sunburns we were about to receive. Because the altitude is so high, the sun is really strong, and you pretty much have to have your entire face and neck covered if you’re as pale as we are. So, at the very first stop along the trail, we were forced to buy giant sun hats. Let me be clear: there are few looks I find less flattering than that of the floppy sun hat. As such, we decided to just go for it and get the tackiest and most touristy ones they had since we weren’t going to look good in them anyway. These hats proved invaluable not only for blocking the sun, but also the rain and wind AND for allowing the rest of our group to find us anywhere on the mountain at any given time.
6. Your hiking guide will constantly lie to you.
It is apparently a universal truth that the hiking guides on the Inca Trail will just lie to you non-stop. They lie about how far you’ve already gone, about how far it is till lunch, how long it will take to get there, and all sorts of other things. While this was initially a great source of irritation (and sometimes very confusing), we learned that it was totally necessary. The fact of the matter is that because of the elevation, the amount of stairs, and a host of other factors, it takes a really long time to do each section of the trail even if you’re in pretty decent shape, unless you’re a porter. Going down is often more difficult than climbing up. If your tour guide told you how long it would really take before you would stop for lunch, you’d quit on the spot. By the third day, we figured out that our guide was constantly lying and it became a source of great amusement for us. All the other groups did it too, so we couldn’t be that upset about it. Just know that they’re doing it for your own good, and that it’s never only an hour until lunch. Ever.
7. They say “go at your own pace,” but they don’t mean it.
One of the reasons I decided to even attempt to hike the trail with my back as it is currently is that the internet told me I could “go at my own pace.” Well, that’s kind of true, but as we learned on the first day, that rule only applies if your own pace gets you to the appointed campsite significantly before dark. The 5 members of our group that ended up quitting were going so slowly that we couldn’t even make it to our worst-case scenario campground that first night and our guide had to find a random campsite. Even after those people quit, we still couldn’t make it to our goal campsite on Day 2, so we had a much longer Day 3 than we should have. It all worked out for the best and we made it to Machu Picchu at the same time as everyone else, but we had to hustle. The point is that yes, you can go at your own pace, but only if that pace is still reasonable. It’s kind of like having a slightly tight time cutoff at a race.
8. The porters, guides, and cooks are glad you’re there.
This might seem obvious at first, but the staff for each hike is genuinely happy that you’re on the trail. All of the porters, guides, and cooks are members of the indigenous tribes in the mountains, and the popularity of the Inca Trail, particularly since it was designated one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, has provided tremendous economic opportunity for the native people. This was actually really concerning for me because I am convinced that everyone who lives in a touristy place hates the tourists. This is possibly because growing up in South Florida, the people who lived there full time were generally not fond of the Snowbirds, aka retirees from up north who come down each winter to jam up our roads and jack up restaurant prices. Fortunately, the people in the Andes are almost universally grateful for the tourists because they provide high quality jobs that help the native people make enough money to send their kids off to good schools and universities in the cities. Our guide talked to us at length about this and it was a huge relief.
9. You will hate the people who take the train to Machu Picchu.
On the final day of the hike, you’re dirty, you’ve been up since 3:30 am, and, in our case, you’re soaking wet from being rained on. When you finally get to Machu Picchu, there are going to be tourists. A lot of them. They will be clean, they will not smell bad, and they will be dressed nicely and holding very heavy cameras that you would not dream of carting around for 4 days. You will hate them. They will talk about what a “tough climb” it is up to the Sun Gate and you will fantasize about throat punching them. You can’t help it. The only people that you like at Machu Picchu are the other hikers that took the long road, and trust me, it is very obvious who they are. Everyone else just kind of needs to get the hell away from the ruins because they are messing up all the pictures. Sorry, everyone who is reading this who took the train. I still love you, but I don’t have to like you right now.
10. It is worth it. It is SO worth it.
Whether your favorite part of the hike ends up being Machu Picchu or somewhere completely different, the experience will be worth it. The ridiculously early wake ups, extensive number of baby wipes, long hours, expense, and difficulty of getting there only makes it that much better. You will make lifelong friends with the people in your hiking group whether you have anything in common with them or not. You will have huge newfound respect for another culture. You may never drink tea again. One way or another, it will be an experience that you will spend the rest of your life talking about! It is worth every single second.