I took on walking the Inca Trail ... the iconic 4 day 3 night hike ... a month before my 70th birthday.
It has a number of physical challenges but acclimatization, or acclimating, is very important.
A young, fit friend had recently arrived in Cusco and suffered such bad altitude sickness that her dream of walking the Inca Trail were shattered when she had to return to sea level to recover.
Cusco is located at 3 400 metres (11 000 feet) above sea level and on the hike you crest two mountains classified as “very high”. One of 4 215 metres (13 700 feet) and the next at 4 000 metres (13 000 feet).
The hike was tough but rewarding. It was an opportunity to meet and bond with some fantastic people and like in every day life the occasional a..hole. There are many companies selling hikes on this route but to preserve the trail and prevent overcrowding there is a daily limit of 500 people on the trail (this includes the porters, guides and hikers).
We went with Alpaca Expeditions a highly professional, locally owned and run company. The company was started by Raul Ccolque, a young Peruvian, who started as a porter worked his way up to becoming a tour guide and now is the owner and active manager of a successful and growing business.
Our group of 12 was an interesting mix. Three Canadian paramedics and a nurse, a New Zealander mom and her outstandingly strong young son, two young, nearly qualified American doctors, a Canadian mining engineer, a young Dutch intrepid traveller and my friend Roger (who we’d been travelling the world with for the last 8 months) and myself.
The mix of personalities and ages made this an interesting and entertaining 4 days.
We were led by an outstanding guide Juan Carlos, ably assisted by his young assistant Max. Their support and encouragement was invaluable.
Juan Carlos was a great story teller and ran a very tight schedule. With his “family”, “packs on”, “packs off”. Passionate and entertaining stories about the Incas and their history (and his contempt for the “lazy Spanish”) made the hike educational and entertaining.
The hike is 45 kilometres or 28 miles – although my t-shirt says 26 miles!
After a 04:10 am pickup and a 2-hour drive from Cusco the Inca Trail hike starts after breakfast at Piskacucho at Kilometre 82.
The breakfast was our first experience of the delicious and varied food we would enjoy over the next few days.
The first day’s 14 kilometres are described as “Moderate Difficult” and take about 6 to 7 hours. The Difficult section is after lunch as it’s a steady uphill walk.
The second day of the Inca Trail is described as “Challenging”. It covers 16 kilometres and includes two steep climbs. The first up to Dead Woman's Pass at 4 215 metres (13 779 feet) and after plunging down into the valley for lunch there is another ascent up to Runkuracay pass at 4 000 metres (13 123 feet). Followed by a final downhill section to the camp. At times I felt quite light headed, with a slight headache that came and went and also felt the effect of some old injuries.
The third day is 10 kilometres. The first section undulates until going over the final pass at Phuyupatamarca at 3 680 metres (12 073 feet). Then came the painful section known as the “Gringo Killer”. It’s about two and a half hours of downhill steps. Different heights, different widths which requires unwavering concentration. My legs suffered the "killing" effect the next morning.
The final day of walking the Inca Trail is interesting … but confusing. We were woken at 03:00 am so we could get down to the checkpoint as one of the first groups … we were second as the one in front of us had got there at 2:30 am!!! The main reason of getting there early is to get on to the trail before the crowd but also there is limited shelter and during the wait until 05:30 am when the gate is opened standing around in the rain is not pleasant.
Once the gate is opened there’s a fast 1-hour hike to Sun Gate. A few of us dropped back from our main group and were soon passed by some “runners” who seemed intent on getting there as soon as possible. We failed to see why as it was rainy, very cloudy and misty … there would be no sun at the Sun Gate.
In this final section there’s a short but very steep uphill section of steps which are climbed like a ladder.
From the Sun Gate ... the path downhill to Machu Picchu takes about an hour. It had been raining and was slippery. As we descended we were met by the first hordes of day visitors making their way up to the Sun Gate.
The clouds cleared as we descended and we had our first sighting of the majestic Machu Picchu. After a 2-hour guided tour of the site and more history and cultural immersion by Juan Carlos some of the group did the extra hike up Huayna Picchu mountain.
By now my legs were very tired and sore and the rest of us wandered around Machu Picchu before taking the bus to Aguas Calientes for lunch. The long trip back to Cusco started after lunch. A 2 hour train trip to Ollantaytambo and then the 2-hour bus drive back to Cusco.
Over the 4 days of walking the Inca Trail you visit a number of Inca sites. With the highlight being Wiñay Wayna (mini Machu Picchu) which is visited in the afternoon of the third day. We had the place to ourselves. Time to marvel at the engineering and ingenuity and to roam around without the crowds.
The walk was tough and arriving at Machu Picchu an unforgettable experience.
On a mission to help others expand their horizons. Who knows where they can end? Passionate about learning and embracing the changing world. Adventurous and skeptical but optimistic!