Machu Picchu – The Best Hike of My Life

Before 2017, if you had asked me to name 10 places in the world that I wanted to go to, the Inca Trail – Machu Picchu would not have been on the list.

No real reason why, I just hadn’t thought of it. Not until one of my brother-in-laws decided that going to Machu Picchu was how he wanted to celebrate his 40th birthday. And he wasn’t just talking about taking a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu. He wanted to do the 4-day Inca Trail trek, and he wanted the whole family to do it with him.

All I knew about Machu Picchu at the time was from stories we had heard from friends who’d gone. Each one just as intense as the other but all ending in – it was such an amazing experience. But what did that mean?

My brother-in-law did all of the planning starting in January for our July, 2017 trip. He worked with a travel agency called Latin America for Less to purchase our permits (they were each ~1000 USD) and structure the itinerary. We decided on the following:

  • Day 1 – Arrival to Cusco
  • Day 2 – Cusco City Tour
  • Day 3 – Sacred Valley Tour
  • Day 4 – Begin the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu
  • Day 5 – Inca Trail Trek
  • Day 6 – Inca Trail Trek
  • Day 7 – Machu Picchu Tour & Overnight in Aguascalientes
  • Day 8 – Aguascalientes & Return to Cusco
  • Day 9 – Departure from Cusco

The only research I did was to figure out what to pack. Lists on what to take were spread out across various blogs, so I compiled my own.

Below is a list of what I took along with links to where I bought things that I didn’t already have.

  • Basic Travel Things
    • Passport
    • Peruvian Currency (Soles) 
    • Kindle or a book and flashlight – It helped me wind down before sleeping 
  • Clothing
  • Hike Accessories
    • Day/Hike Backpack
    • 2L water bottle that we could tuck into the back of our backpacks
    • Travel towel
    • Flip flops – To either use as shower shoes or when I remove my boots at night
    • Sunglasses – I took whatever I thought I could hike in
    • Poncho – It didn’t rain when we went, but can be used for you or to cover your stuff if needed
    • Headlamp – For when you walk around the campsite at night
    • Strong sunblock
    • Strong bug spray
    • Travel pillow
    • Tissues
    • Toilet paper
    • Wet wipes
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Toiletries – Anything you need to clean up after the day, e.g, toothbrush, face wash, lotion, etc., but keep it light!
    • Snacks – Protein bars were great, but the best snacks were ones with higher sugar and salt content. This includes: gummies, chex mix, jerky, oranges, etc.
    • Walking sticks (2)
    • Camera
    • Extra batteries
    • Extra memory cards
    • Plastic bags for trash
  • Medical Supplies
    • First aid kit
    • Pain medication – Preferably ibuprofen if you’re not allergic to it since it also reduces swelling
    • Probiotics
    • Altitude pills – Ask your physician for some a few weeks before you go 

The following was to be provided by the tour company:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Bed pads – this is extra but we opted for it because the temperature was to drop at night

The factors I took into account when creating this list were:

  1. We would be doing this hike during the Peruvian winter which meant that it could range anywhere from 30 degrees F/0 degrees C at night to 60 degrees F/16 degrees C
  2. Our individual duffel bags could not contain more than 10 kgs as our porters would carry them

So we really had to make sure we kept things lightweight and our layering game was strong. I was also trying to make sure that my color palette made sense, but that’s just me.

Cusco

Early Wednesday morning, July 12th, we met our family and friends at the Lima airport, and then flew to Cusco where we met members of the travel agency. You could feel the thinness of the air as soon as you stepped outside of the airport.

The elevation in Cusco is 11,200 ft and was the lowest altitude that we would be at until we went back to Lima. We had started taking our half-tabs of the altitude pills a few days prior, as instructed, but some folks were still a bit nervous about whether they’ll work.

You may have heard that coca leaves also help to acclimate to higher altitudes. Whether it’s drunk in tea form or chewed as dried coca leaves, it’s a stimulant, like coffee, but without the crash. Yes, it is an ingredient in cocaine, but it requires a lot of chemical processing to actually create cocaine from it – so don’t worry you won’t become a cocaine addict.

The travel agency shuttled us to our hotel, the Casa Andina Standard Cusco and checked us in. It’s not a fancy hotel by any means, but it was clean, had a nice, complimentary breakfast, and always had coca tea available in the lobby. I personally didn’t enjoy the flavor of the tea, but drank it to help acclimate.

The Casa Andina chain does have a premium hotel in Cusco as well, but we didn’t think it was worth it given that we weren’t planning to stay indoors anyways.

Close to an hour after we checked in, the altitude started taking its toll on some folks. It was also chilly (40-50 degrees F/5-10 degrees C) and dusty since it was their winter so that didn’t help either. Allergies were kicking up for some while others were feeling dizzy and nauseous. So we split up and spent the rest of the day as we wanted before we started our tours the next day.

Cusco is a very touristy city, as it’s where everyone gets acclimated before going to Machu Picchu, but it’s pretty in the plaza center because it’s surrounded by hills and mountains. The restaurants were also touristy, as expected, but I enjoyed the following: 

  • Barrio Ceviche – A great place to kick off the trip with the group. The ceviche was fresh and there were a variety of pisco sours to try.
  • La Valeriana – Great place for a coffee and/or dessert
  • Limo Cocina Peruana & Pisco Bar – A good dinner option mainly because of the ambiance, but I also enjoyed their Causa de Pollo
  • Mr. Soup – Offers a variety of different soups that helped warm us up. It was also a great option for anyone that had altitude sickness.

We spent Day 2 on a guided tour of the city and Day 3 on a tour of the Sacred Valley. Both tours were great from a historical perspective, but the Sacred Valley tour was my favorite because it was our first taste of the mountains. I also loved seeing ancient Peruvian architecture and the Incan farming terraces in the valley. The llamas in the en route animal sanctuary were also too cute to forget.

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We ended the day early to meet our two Machu Picchu tour guides who briefed us on the hike as we were to start the next day. They also gave us our 10 kg duffels that we had to pack for the hike.

More than the hike, I was nervous about the bathroom situation. Not to get TMI, but where could we go No. 2? We were told that there would be some bathrooms along the way on Day 1, but what about the days after? Would we have to become one with nature? We can’t just toss our toilet paper off to the side, so how long would we have to carry it for?

I was too nervous to sleep.

The 4-day Inca Trail Hike

Day 1

The hike was to start in Wayllabamba, and over the 4 days we would eventually trek it to Machu Picchu.

Armed with our hiking backpacks and duffels, we left at 6am to meet our tour guides and porters at Ollantaytambo. We left our duffels with the porters who would bring them for us (these people are amazing), and then headed to Wayllabamba to pass the passport checkpoint and begin the hike.

The heat of the day rose by mid-morning so we stopped to shed some layers, and were told by the tour guides that it was a good time to open our stash of dried coca leaves that we had purchased for the hike. They instructed us take a bunch with our fingers, wad them up in a tight ball and stick it into a side of our jaw.

It tasted worse than the tea, but after a bit you could feel the stimulant and it really did help push you along. Whenever you were sick of them, you could just spit them out at the side of the path. It was such an odd thing for me, but hey, whatever works.

The day was long, but great. The focus of the day was around getting adjusted to the terrain and learning more about Incan civilization, Machu Picchu and the trail itself. We got as many breaks as needed and enjoyed our surroundings.

Each day, the porters would set up camp for lunch just off the hiking path. I didn’t expect much because the porters were carrying everything, but I was mistaken. Each meal started with some type of soup, followed by carb dishes, and then protein, and the options varied each day. There were various rices, pastas, pizzas, meats; just so much food. All of it was great, but since we were all concerned about the bathroom situation, we ate minimally. Thankfully we were sharing the food with the porters so I hoped that they were at least finishing it!

I was also pleasantly surprised that the porters had set up porta-potties at the lunch and evening campsites. They were for all of us (our group, tour guides, and porters) and were exact the opposite of glamorous. But you either used that or you roughed it, which also meant you’d have to carry your toilet paper until you got to the next campsite. So porta-potties it was!

We reached the campsite just before 6pm and the porters had already set up everything. They literally ran past us during the day from the lunch site to the campsite.  

Our tents were set up with our duffels kept right outside of them. Heat lamps were on in the dinner tent and we were given bowls of clean water to wash up before and after dinner. The first thing I did was rip off my hiking boots and put on my flip flops. The temperature had dropped significantly, but it felt great to aerate my feet.

Also, there are no showers at any of the campsites until the very last one (which was too cold to use) so wet wipes were my saviors. It might sound wasteful, but after the long dusty, sweaty days, it felt good to use the clean water on my face, hands and feet and use the wipes, sparingly, for my body.

And just like that, Day 1 was over. We enjoyed another great meal and debriefed about the day before we crashed. Day 2 was to be the most intense day of the hike so we were all a bit anxious.

Day 2

We were woken up at 5am to start early as the day was to be so intense that it would take longer to complete.

Day 2 was not about the terrain or views but about the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass – at 13,829 ft it was the highest point of the hike. This part of the mountain range was given that name because it was said to have the profile of a “dead” woman from her head to her bust which was hard to see from where we were. And why was the woman dead and not just sleeping? The guides didn’t have an answer to that, so I just assumed it was because people “died” on their way up.

It took us 4-5 hours up-mountain to reach the peak and it was painful. Even with the breaks we took. There were some great landscapes and views along the way, but it was hard to enjoy them because all I could think about was reaching the peak.

The ascent weaved through the Andes mountain range and varied from small steps to pebbled slopes to massive slabs of rocks that tested our usage of walking sticks and oxygen as we went higher and higher. The clothing layers came on and off as we climbed, stopped, and climbed again until we finally reached Dead Woman’s Pass.

The view at the top was stunning, of course, but more than that, I couldn’t believe that we had made it. I took a moment to sit down by myself and digest the hike up to this point.

I consider myself to be a fit person – I dance professionally and workout regularly, yet the hike up to this peak was unbelievably difficult. I couldn’t tell if it was the upward climb or the thinning air that was making it tough to breathe, probably both, but it surprised me. So now finally sitting at the highest point of our hike, realizing that the worst was now over, I felt extremely humbled and gratified. And I was both happy and sad about how quickly it had all passed.

It was all downhill after that.

We reached the campsite much later than planned, and were exhausted. I cut my dinner short and went to my tent, pulled out my kindle and passed out.  

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Day 3

Day 3 was called the “flora and fauna” day as we were to hike through parts of the mountains that were covered in various colors of moss and other foliage that we had not yet seen on the hike. Some of it reminded me of what my husband and I had eaten at Central in Lima which made it more fun for me (post coming soon about this trip).

It was also the last night of our overnight camping, so after dinner, our two tour guides introduced the porters by name and gave us their backgrounds which were so humbling to hear. Their ages ranged from 23-65 yet they all carried relatively the same amount and ran past us every day. We were thankful to have them there for us.

Day 4

The last day was another early morning as we needed to get to the Machu Picchu citadel by noon. So we woke up around 4:30/5am, quickly packed up and hiked to the passport checkout point where we would officially leave the Inca Trail. We continued our hike to Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) where we scrambled up a wall to the lookout point and ate a snack while hoping that the clouds to part so that we could see the Machu Picchu citadel from where we were.

We were told that it had been so cloudy in days prior that none of the other groups had seen it, but somehow we got lucky. Just as we were about to leave Inti Punku, the clouds parted and we saw the view of the citadel that up until then we had only see in pictures.

It was breathtaking. Some of the same feelings that I had at Dead Woman’s Pass washed over me again.    

We finally made it to the Machu Picchu citadel just after noon. It felt odd to tour the citadel in our overworn hiking clothes as everyone else looked clean and well groomed, but we were filled with a sense of accomplishment. The citadel was beautiful in person, but it could not compete with our journey there. Nothing could.

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We boarded a bus that took us from Machu Picchu to Aguascalientes, and my sadness was almost palpable. I had become attached to the mountains.

I now understood why everyone who had been said it was an amazing experience. You were forced to be offline for 4 days and could either give into the intensities of the hike or enjoy them.

There were 11 of us in our group – a mix of family and friends. The youngest was my nephew who was 11, second youngest was his second cousin who was 14, the oldest was 49, and the rest of us ranged from 34-43. It was a great group so no one was ever bored, but there were times when it felt good just walking by yourself.

My favorite part of the hike was watching each person complete it. It revealed so many aspects of their personalities including how they complete their goals.

I mentioned in the beginning that the Inca trail is not something I would have chosen as my type of vacation but it turned out to be one of the most insightful trips I had ever been on. I left feeling thankful for what I have in my life. And while I often lose sight of that in the real world, I’ll never forget that feeling.

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Blog edited by: Betty Ho

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