A holy grail not just for hikers, but adventures and travelers of all kinds, Machu Picchu was of course always on my list. Why? For simple reasons like many I’m sure – I’d seen pictures and it was grand and different, a place of history and even mystery, and undoubtedly one hell of a photo opportunity.
Is what I expected what I found? No. Not one bit. Because what I fell in love with was not the moment I stood atop that famous hill above Machu (the postcard perfect photo op) nor the feelings felt while gazing upon those ancient ruins. It was before that. It was the Inca Trail that stole my heart and it was a love so strong that by the time we reached Machu Picchu my expectations were all gone, as the road to get there had already given me more than I expected from the destination itself.
While visitors can choose to simply catch a train to Machu Picchu town, the traditional trek is that of the Inca Trail. Driven by the desire to be closer to the sun, the moon and their gods, the Incas forged this Trail through the mountains, some parts 4000m above sea level. This four day trek is now the pilgrimage that tourists can take to reach the site, and with just 200 people permitted on the Inca Trail each day, it is this journey that stole my heart and left me in absolute awe of the ruins we were so lucky to see and the beautiful history we learnt along the way.
That said (including my declaration of love), it’s not all beautiful views and stories of history. This trek is HARD. And I’m speaking from a pretty average perspective; under 30, having exercised a lot in my life but nothing too consistent for at least six weeks leading up to the trip, and let me tell you - this place absolutely gassed me. Dead Woman’s Pass (aptly named in my opinion) is the challenge hikers are met with on day two; a reward after a final three hour climb uphill and rocky stairs. I can’t say I was excited about this particular challenge as I’m no professional hiker, but I’m also not ‘unfit’ so wasn’t overly concerned. But my friends, this HURT. With limited oxygen up this high and my legs already shaky from days of uphill, Dead Woman’s Pass got me good. As a woman, don’t be surprised if the emotion of reaching the top brings a few tears, and once you get your breath back, the feeling that you can conquer absolutely anything.
I was left with the strong opinion that this was outdoor adventure at its best – physical challenge, pain, glory, endorphins, achievement, and absolutely breathtaking views. As for the way down on the other side, don’t let anyone tell you walking polls are for the over 50’s – I felt like a spider with legs and poles jerking in every direction, but make no mistake, without those poles I would have been flat on my face many times over on the way into that next valley. Toughen up you say? I did. Be prepared I say? You shall.
Now for the sordid tales of our health. The toilets. To add to the woes of your shaky legs, be prepared to squat. There is no other option. Girls obviously have the challenge 100% of the time, but boys, you’ll do it tough enough times, don’t you worry. I’m not here to complain about the ‘facilities’, as let’s be realistic - you are hiking a small walking path through the mountains in a remote part of South America. But just as a factual explanation? They were bad. Pure fear of the consequences ensured that my little legs did not give way each time, but it was made increasingly difficult when it rained as the floors were slippery, your pack had to stay on your back, and the smell took nausea to a new dizzying level. My all-time favorite story is of one of the girls who while squatting, couldn’t help things coming out both ends simultaneously, vomiting all over the floor as the stench of the place just became too much! At the time, not so fun. But once back out in the fresh mountain air, it certainly kept us cracking up with laughter for the reminder of the hike.
I visited my local Travel Doctor pre-trip, and along with a few vaccinations for my various South American destinations, I had a little travel pack of pills from Panadol to prescription. My pack also came with a little book with flow charts for symptoms and treatment, which quite simply was a lifesaver. I got some kind of nausea/diarrhea (we’ve all been there) bug the day before we set off. After struggling with it for the first two days trekking, I finally opened my little travel kit and the flow chart inside directed me to take a single tablet contained inside the pack. My symptoms were gone in less than two hours. So, don’t be like me – read up and actively try to solve any health issues as soon as you can.
Beyond that, just be prepared with the usual - hand sanitizer, Band-Aids, betadine, throat lozenges, Berocca – whatever floats your boat.
When it came to our trekking group, it was close knit and came with amazing support. In our group of 20 hikers, we had two guides plus 10 porters. These porters were Olympic athletes (or should have been!). When we would stop for lunch they were already there with a tent set up, chairs to sit on, a hot three-course meal ready to be devoured. While we lay in food and exhaustion comas after lunch, they would pack up and set off again after we had left. But they would always reach camp each night beforeus, tents already set up and the smell of another delicious meal drifting our way. How, you ask? Because even with 20kgs each on their backs (we each had a max of six kilograms), they would run past us on the Trail with calves that put every part of me to shame.
When it came to our two guides Carlos and Elvis, their love and respect for where we were and the history it held was unmistakable, and they passed on the stories of its histories to us constantly. We learnt that when the Spanish came, the Incas killed their own masters of their knowledge and culture to hide their secrets, to keep their traditions private. They abandoned Machu Picchu and all the other sacred sites along the Trail, blocking off all the entrances and concealing it. That is how precious this place was to them, and it lay hidden for over 400 years.
And so, there was a strong sense of respect that birthed within us all on that Trail, yet also a sense of entitlement. On the final night before we would wake and descend into Machu Picchu, we learnt that there would be 2000 people at the site. That there were this many people there every day. Perched on the edge of a mountain, about to sleep in our tents exhausted from hours of uphill climbing for the past three days, we who trekked, all 200 of us from various hiking groups, couldn’t help but feel that we deserved it. We had made this pilgrimage, labored through mountain passes, learnt the history, and as much as we could, respected it. At the time I was pretty confident it was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Now it’s over though, I can only feel that it was undoubtedly the best thing I’ve ever done.
So my advice is simple (and by now I hope, obvious). Seek Machu Picchu through the clouds as the Incas did, and fall in love with the beautiful traditions and cultures of the past. I will never forget the feeling as the sun rose behind me as we descended into the ruins, knowing how important what I had learnt was and how important this place was to them. That feeling will always be worth some postcard perfect photo a thousand times over.
From the archives // circa 2013