In March, my boyfriend and I did a major thing – we backpacked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was our first international trip together. We love the whole process of traveling, we love being outside, and we love a good challenge. This trip was all of those things and then some.
You cannot hike the Inca Trail without a guide – it’s actually illegal to do so. After doing some research about the local tour companies, we decided to go with SAS Travel. There are so many tour companies and guides to choose from ranging from very high end to very low end – SAS is somewhere right in the middle. SAS provides a guide, all appropriate permits, a tent, and all meals. You can rent a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, but we brought our own. You can also hire a porter to carry your belongings along the trail so you don’t have to. We did not choose this option – we chose to carry all of our gear.
The busiest times of the year for the Inca Trail are Peru’s winter months (our summer months). March is not a busy time for the Inca Trail because it’s Peru’s rainy season. In the busy times, there are usually on average 16 people in a group. We got so lucky – there were only 3 of us in our group (not including our guide). Definitely an advantage to going during the low season.
We also lucked out with the weather. While March is in the middle of Peru’s rainy season, it seemed to only rain while we were in the dining tent having a meal, or in our tent sleeping. There were a few times when we got sprinkled on, but I think it just added to the misty mysteriousness of hiking through the Andes mountains. Before the trip, I was fully expecting to get poured on every single day. With that expectation, the weather we did have was such a pleasant surprise!
SAS offered several different options for hiking the Inca Trail. We chose to do the 4 day trek with an extra day in Aguas Calientes to explore Machu Picchu more and to hike the infamous mountain that rises behind Machu Picchu called Huayna Picchu. We were both extremely happy with this package.
Day 1 was the easiest of the trek. It was a nice steady hike with just a little elevation gain. I was just so excited to be there on that magnificent, historical trail. I loved talking with our guide, Henry, and also getting to know our other group member, a sweet Aussie named Prue. That night we camped in someone’s backyard – literally. The generous families along the Inca Trail open up their land for trekkers to camp on. We enjoyed a beautiful meal prepared by the Chef who treks along with us and the porters before we got cozy in our tent for the night.
Our guide said day 2 was the most challenging, but I think day 3 was the most challenging for me. Day 2 consisted of 956,445 stairs (I may be exaggerating just a little). The whole day was up and up and up until we reached Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,828 feet (see my note about elevation below)*. The views were beyond stunning – I had to keep looking behind me to take in the ever-changing mountain views. We hiked through rainforest and cloud forests and microclimates – it was the most diverse day.
Day 3… Oh, day 3. That morning I was so stiff from all that elevation climbing the day before. The whole day consisted of descending. Lots of tall, steep, technical stairs. This was the longest day – we hiked from sunrise to sunset, all downhill. And I cried. Towards what I thought was the end, I was so unbelievably exhausted and sore that I wanted to give up. And I was frustrated with myself for feeling that way. I was so over hiking and I just wanted it to end. I knew that was not an option for me, so I kept going and watered the plants along the way. I was embarrassed for crying and being frustrated and wanting to give up. But, I guarantee I was not the first person to make the Inca Trail their own personal trail of tears. I also felt guilty for crying and wanting to be done. Here I was in this magical place that not everyone gets to experience, but many would like to, and I was wanting to not be there all because it was “hard”.
Tim was being so sweet and encouraging and I just wasn’t having it. I showed him a not-so-pretty side of myself and snapped at him for the first time in our relationship. He was so patient and understanding… But, definitely not my proudest moment.
The very last day, we woke up before the sun and started making our way to Machu Picchu. I was emotionally hung over, sore as hell, and so excited to actually be arriving in Machu Picchu – the grand reward!
By the time we had reached Machu Picchu at the end of our grueling 4 day trek, we really didn’t even care, as bad as that sounds. We were so exhausted – in fact Tim fell asleep during our tour of Machu Picchu. And all I could think about was either finding a bathroom (thanks to a bout of Giardia Tim and I both contracted) or relieving the constant cramps in my legs.
After saying goodbye to our new friends, we went to our hostel, cleaned off the trail grime, and attempted to recover from exhaustion. The next morning we woke up fairly early and hopped on a bus with our Huayna Picchu permits in hand. We had a small window of when we were allowed to hike Huayna Picchu, based on the permits we had. This hike was much easier than the last 4 days, but it was still pretty technical. It was very steep with chains to hold on to and also consisted of some scrambling – which was fun! After playing around on Huayna Picchu, we got on a train to head back to Cusco and then flew back home the next day.
You guys, this trail is no joke. Especially with carrying your own gear. BUT, I would not change one.single.thing. As intensely challenging as this experience was for me, it was one of the best, if not THE best. This trail proved to me what I’m capable of and a million and one memories were made with my boyfriend. The mountains, the Inca people, the language, Prue, Henry, and our little trail family… the llamas, the food, the giardia, the leaky tent, the tears, the exhausted laughter. These are the things that MADE this experience… Machu Picchu was incredible, but the journey to get there was even more incredible.
A few weeks after I returned home from this trip, Tim and I saw Cheryl Strayed speak. When she was talking about hiking the PCT, she stated something that really resonated with the both of us… Some of our worst moments actually end up being our best moments. When she said that, Tim and I both looked at each other, knowing exactly what the other was thinking about… This trip.
*A little note about the elevation – It is highly recommended that you acclimate in Cusco (which is at 11,152 feet) for a few days before you set off to conquer the Inca Trail. We did not have time to acclimate to the elevation because of our time contraints. Tim and I both took Diamox to help with altitude sickness. While the Diamox did not help with breathing better (I live at sea level), it did prevent any symptoms of altitude sickness which I’m so thankful for! I highly recommend talking with your Dr. about Diamox if you’re going on this trek!