A few weeks ago, my friends and I spent a week and a half exploring the beautiful country of Peru, wandering around the Cusco area and spending four days hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Just to get some perspective, trekking the Inca Trail was the most physically challenging thing I’ve done, hands down, in my entire life (and I run half marathons so I’m in decent shape). The trail ranged from about 3,000 m above sea level to about 4,200 m above sea level at its highest point. It was cold and the stairs were steep. I felt dirty about 95% of the time and I barely slept. The ground we slept on was hard and uneven and we didn’t shower for 4 days. I got altitude sickness. And I wouldn’t take back even one second of it.
Day one was absolutely the easiest (and the cleanest). We hiked for about 5 hours and it was relatively flat. We had a luggage issue so we started later than everyone else but it was actually a lot nicer that way because we didn’t run into any other hikers on the trail. I was really surprised to find that people actually live along the trail. The children that live along the trail actually wake up really early on school days and walk miles to the nearest school. That makes me feel pretty lazy for hitting snooze a few times before I get up on most mornings. I spent most of that night literally paralyzed in fear because I heard a creature outside our tent. I thought it was a rabid dog or a wolf and I swear I heard it growling. I was terrified to make any loud or sudden movements. Come to find out in the morning, that creature was a mule. Clearly, I’m a nature person.
To make up for a casual day one, day two was easily the hardest. We spent about 5 to 6 straight hours climbing steep hills and jagged, steep stairs to reach the trail’s highest point. Mind you, when you are hiking at over 3,000 meters, the air is so thin it is very hard to breathe and you get winded much more easily. Breaks were frequent and welcome. Once we reached the top, Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200 m, we thought we could celebrate a job well done. Little did we know we still had over 2 hours of downhill/downstairs. Going down steep and uneven stairs like that is a lot harder than you would think–and not easy on the knees or ankles. This steep descent was also the reason for my altitude sickness. By the time we got to camp around 3 pm I spent the next 2 hours in and out of consciousness, trying to sleep off the nausea and headache.
I should probably mention how absolutely gorgeous the trail is before I keep sounding like I am complaining. All the physical pain and exhaustion I endured throughout the entire hike was well worth seeing views that most of the world will never get to see. It’s really really special and I genuinely mean that. Each day we witnessed a new terrain, more beautiful than the last.
Day three was almost as difficult as day 2 but also probably my favorite day (minus the rain). We started on an hour long ascent up MORE stairs–in the rain. Stone stairs + rain = a pretty slippery situation. When we got to the top of the pass, we performed a ceremony to thank the mountain gods and make a wish. Then, we spent hours hiking through the jungle, which was unanimously the most beautiful part of the trek for everyone. Day 3 ended with us descending down 3,000 extremely steep steps and reaching a beautiful Inca ruin overlooking the mountains with the Urubamba River cutting through them.
At this point I was tired, sore, dirty, and greasy. I hadn’t showered or used a proper bathroom in days. This was the most low maintenance thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. And, mind you, we had porters carrying our bags. If you want to feel extremely humbled, just think about these porters. It is their job to carry 50 pounds worth of the stuff that we use for camping–our clothes, our tents, our food, etc. I was tired and cranky and wanted a shower and some heat. These men have been portering for years, trekking the same trail over and over again, faster than any of the tourists who are carrying much less.
Day 4, we woke up at 3:30 am so that we could wait on line to start the trek to the Sun Gate, which is the first view of Machu Picchu. Even the fog completely covering Machu Picchu couldn’t take away from the beauty. When we got to Machu Picchu, everyone who came via train looked like they smelled very good and were so clean. But I had accomplished something that few can say they have. I had fought through the doubt and the pain and realized I could finish anything I put my mind to–and that is something I’ll never forget. I’d take the grease and dirt over a boring train ride any day.