Of all the places in South America, the Inca Trail is easily the most popular answer of the “Did you do the (insert blank)?” question. The four day, 28-mile hike is capped off by none other than Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan settlement that is at the top of many people’s bucket lists. As usual on this trip, we approached the Inca trail as a last-minute option that would be figured out once we arrived in Cusco. One afternoon of going door-to-door and doing price comparisons, we had found a tour group that had a great price and even included our sleeping bag rental.
Our trip began with (you guessed it) a bus ride that began at 5 am, and had us out on the trail a few hours later. Of course our tour operator somehow botched the registration process, leaving us to sit around for a little over an hour. It actually ended working out okay because all the other groups got a head start and kept the trail clear for us. The first day is the easiest of all, with only a minor rise in elevation.
The first day was a breeze. We got to see our first ruins, and our hiking group of eleven were brave enough to even play some soccer at lunch. Let me tell you something: I’m terrible at soccer at sea level. I’m incredibly terrible at soccer at 9,000 feet. Running around at that altitude makes you feel like the world’s most out of shape person. Luckily, the first day turned out to be pretty easy, and we were at our first night’s camp site before you know it.
What a difference a day makes. Day two is known as the toughest, and boy it did not disappoint. With over 5000 feet worth of incline and another 3000 down to our scheduled camp for the night, the second hiking day was brutal. A few things become apparent on this day’s hike. One, you will be drenched in sweat only minutes after beginning your hike. Two, the altitude here is no joke. Getting to the top of Dead Women’s pass at 13,000 feet is like walking up ten flights of stairs while holding your breath. The final observation is that not all tour groups are created equal. Let me tell you something: When cheery European kids (18ish?) on their gap year waltz by you because they’ve paid three times what our tour costs and don’t have to carry ANY of their own equipment… well I challenge you to not try and stick your foot out the next time one is about to pass you (kidding. But only kind of). Now why don’t they have to carry any of their own equipment, you ask? What a perfect segue into the realm of the Porter.
Porters are the special group of men who carry all the equipment necessary for the hike: food, tents, cookware, etc. A little over a decade ago, these men were exploited to carry insane amounts of equipment and receive next to nothing in payment. The Peruvian government then instituted a new series of laws to limit the amount that porters can carry along with minimum payment requirements. I’ve seen a lot of interesting people on this trip, and Peruvian porters rank right near the top. Waves of them whiz by during the hike, only unlike the Euro gap year kiddies they have 50 lb+ bags of gear strapped to them. To top it all off, they often wear simple sandals that look like flip flops. To see the pace that they attack the trail is nothing short of astonishing. My ankles would be shattered into millions of pieces were I to try to descend the stone steps of the Inca trail as fast as them. I will never again complain about a job again without taking a moment to appreciate what these guys do for a living.
Day 3 was supposed to be a moderately strenuous day of hiking. Well, it would’ve been, had it decided not to rain. Yep, the rain came down for most of the day, making the trail very slick. The stone steps were a royal pain to walk on, always having to check your footing so there was no chance of slipping. Normally I’m the clumsy one, but Dana had a few moments of slipping on the rocks, leading to a famous exchange between her and myself that was capped off with this quote directed towards me: “The next big city we get to, we’re going to a McDonald’s, and I’m ordering whatever I want, AND I’M NOT SHARING!” I don’t know what that had to do with slipping on the rocks, but whatever made her feel better at the time. The gigantic silver lining came within the last half hour of the hike. Rounding a corner, we had our first breathtaking glimpse of what was in store for us once we reached Machu Picchu. The green peaks were bathed in low-lying clouds, and the canyon seemed to go down forever. The view definitely made all of the rough patches the past days disappear.
Only one more day remained, the final hike through the Sun Gate and into the lost city of Machu Picchu. We had a wake up of 3 am for the big day, so it was time to get some sleep and rest up for the final leg of the journey.