Ancient Inca proverb: “Just as you think you have climbed all the stairs, there will be more stairs”
– NB that’s not a real Inca proverb – but it should be
A couple of days before I was due to begin the treacherous Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu, I found myself sharing a beer with an elderly American woman in an Arequipa hostel. After telling her about the hike, she looked me up and down before concluding: “Well, it’s good to have goals…but it’s also good to know you can change your mind”. Needless to say this did not exactly fill me with confidence about my upcoming trek.
While I wouldn’t say I’m currently hideously unfit, I also am not necessarily the ‘outdoorsy’ type. I’ll inevitably choose the pub over the gym, and my favourite food is crisps tbh, so I was understandably nervous about embarking on this famously difficult hike. And by ‘nervous’, I mean I thought I was actually going to die.
Here are some vital stats for you:
This is what the Inca trail looks like a lot of the time:
The Inca Trail is approximately 39km (or 24.23 miles) long, and takes four days (and three nights of camping) to complete. While this might not sound like that much in distance terms, it is the altitude that makes it difficult: you climb to a max of 4205m (or 13796ft). This is difficult both in terms of all the steep, uphill ascents, and also because you’re trying to do one of the hardest physical things OF YOUR LIFE while you have access to the least amount of oxygen OF YOUR LIFE. 500 people, including support staff, are allowed on the trail per day, which equates to 180 tourists. Of these tourists, on average one turns back and has to do a walk of shame all the way back down, like the proverbial loser who gets too scared when they reach the front of the queue for the water slide. I was very much hoping this wouldn’t be me.
In order to prepare for the climb I bought some glaucoma meds, obviously. These are blood thinners, and are supposed to help with altitude sickness, and if that’s not enough reason to take them, they also clear up your glaucoma very well. Two birds, and all that…
I’m going to start moaning about how hard it was soon, but first…
I went on a G Adventures tour, and I can’t emphasise enough how good the guides, the porters and the chefs were. This was not the grimy festival camping experience I’m used to, which tends to involve a lot of battling against the elements to erect wonky tents, beer for breakfast, rain-soaked breakfast bars for dinner and glassy-eyed 16-year-olds, hyperactive with freedom and Class As, setting your camping chairs on fire: this was practically glamping.
When we arrived at our campsites, exhausted from ALL THE STEPS – more on those later, the porters would have already put up all our tents, inflated the air mattresses and unrolled the sleeping bags. And if that was not enough, they’d greet you with a cup of juice, a bowl of warm water to wash in and a hearty round of applause and cheering (despite the fact it was definitely them that deserved the praise). There was also a portable toilet, and a dinner tent with a table, chairs and AN ACTUAL TABLE CLOTH. They also did the same thing every lunch time. We woke up to Hakuna Matata and the The Bare Necessities blasting from speakers, and the porters delivering coca tea to our tents, to help with the altitude. They are real life superheroes.
The cooks were incredible and extremely creative – catering for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free tastes, as well as everyone else. Each meal had several courses, and during the course of the trek there was soup, pancakes with syrup, hot chocolate, salted popcorn, veggie rice, crackers and butter, Alpaca meat, apple pie, porridge, scrambled egg, quinoa, chicken, trout and – on the last day – an ACTUAL CAKE that was iced with our group’s name that someone had carried up the mountain for THREE DAYS. And this was all at 4,000-odd metres above sea level.
Meanwhile, the guides were incredibly professional, and did everything to ensure we were as comfortable as possible, giving us as much help and support as they could, and constantly cracking HILARIOUS jokes along the lines of “there are drop snakes in this jungle”. Lol. They were also full of interesting historical and geographical facts about our surroundings, as well as a number of ‘inspirational’ stories to help us tackle the challenges ahead.
Indeed, on the eve of Day 2, which is widely renowned as The Hard Day as it involves scaling the endless steep stairs up to Dead Woman’s Pass (“It’s not called that because a woman died doing it,” the guide promised, rolling his eyes), our first guide sat us down for a story that he said would give us the strength to get through the following 24 hours without making excuses as to why we couldn’t manage it.
It was a (rather capitalist) story of a cow and it went thusly.
A young man asked his teacher why some people are rich and some are poor, so in response his teacher KILLED A COW, which just happened to be the ONLY POSSESSION of a kind but poor family, who had earlier shared some of the cow’s milk with the pair. The young man was understandably baffled, if not slightly horrified, but returned to see the family at a later date and THEY WERE NOW RICH after going into the business of growing and selling food on the land that had conveniently been fertilised by the late cow. He asked them about it and they were all like “oh yeah, that day you came to visit us before, some other people must have come by and killed our cow”.
The moral of the story seemed to be about not resting on your laurels – or about how you can just go around killing poor people’s cows and you’ll totes get away with it. Or about how you can get minted even if you are far, far too trusting of dodgy strangers.
Our guide said when things got difficult on the trail we should KILL THE COW. Metaphorically, of course. This sets a good tone for the next part of the blog…
A chronological collection of some thoughts I had when starting out on the Inca Trail:
Day One: ‘the easy day’:
- This is SO easy
- Everything is REALLY pretty
- I think maybe I like hiking
- Maybe hiking is one of those things you start to like as you get older, like olives?
- Maybe hiking could be my new ‘thing’?
- OH GOD I WAS SO WRONG ABOUT HIKING
- Why does the guide keep calling this the ‘training day’?!?
Day Two: ‘the hard day’:
- Today is the day I will depart God’s green earth
- Oh dear.
- Okay, steps – I can do this
- Why does that elderly portly man think he can keep overtaking me?
- More steps…
- And some more…
- Goodbye world
- Thank GOD those stairs are over…oh no wait…*cries*
- Okay, time to KILL THE COW!
- WHY DID THE INCAS LOVE STEPS SO MUCH?
- I think I might hate the Incas
- I can’t believe I just thought that! I don’t hate the Incas! They were magnificent!
- And I bet they had fabulous legs
- More steps…
- KILL ALL THE COWS!!!!
By Day Three: ‘the pretty day’, I was mainly just fantasising about hot showers. Unfortunately it was incredibly misty and so we missed a lot of the stunning views we had been told about as we walked alongside the cloud forest. However, the hike wasn’t too bad, with uphill and downhill in equal measure. Uphill and downhill start to take on very different meanings up the mountain – as does chocolate, which it turns out is a thing you NEED, not a thing you eat alone in bed at night as a cloud of shame engulfs you.
At the end of Day Three, we camped among the clouds, glaciers and mountain peaks, and the views were absolutely spectacular. Pre-Spanish conquest and the subsequent Catholicisation of Peru, the people living in these areas worshipped the breathtaking mountains in which they lived, rather than what we understand to be a ‘God’ – and that night it was easy to understand why.
Our guide told us the story of when the Spaniards descended on Peru and were converting the country, and the Spanish officials had a meeting with the Inca king at the time – who wanted to find out more about their machinery and strange animals (before the introduction of horses and cows, among the most important animals in Peru were llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs). They wanted to talk to the Inca king about the Catholic God and presented him with a bible. Due to a slight mistranslation, the king considered himself to be the Inca version of a ‘God’, and wanted to talk to this other God directly – not converse with his lowly servants (aka these important Spanish people). To this end he tried listening to the bible, and talking to the bible, but after receiving no communication from the book threw it on the ground. A ruckus predictably ensued.
On Day 4: ‘the last day’, we set off through the jungle in the dark at THREE IN THE MORNING just after a helpful bout of torrential rain. This was possibly the most surreal experience of my life. The first couple of hours were all steep downhill on slippery rocks, and passed in a blur as we all – wearing multicoloured ponchos like members of a creepy mountain cult – pointed our head torches downwards in an attempt to avoid falling off the mountain.
When we finally reached the Sun Gate at about 8am, after hours of hiking and the infamous Gringo Killer stairs (because of course there were more stairs) it was incredibly misty and we couldn’t see Machu Picchu. At this point one of the group turned to the youngest member and told him that this was a good life lesson: no matter how hard you work for something, sometimes all you will be is disappointed. This was depressing to say the least – but we had almost made it to Machu Picchu! And to hot showers and Wi-Fi!
However, on the short(er) walk down to Machu Picchu, the mist started to lift and we ended up getting some great views of one of the new seven wonders of the world. The sacred site is breathtaking – both the ancient Inca town itself, and the surrounding mountains – and it made the entire four-day trail so very worth it.
Now a bit about Machu Picchu – like, what actually is it? It was built around 1450 by the Incas, but abandoned around 100 years lated due to the Spanish conquest, and it is thought that many of the people who lived there died of smallpox. However not that much is known about the mysterious settlement. It wasn’t discovered until the early 20th century, by which point nature had almost claimed it as its own, and since then people have been working to restore the stunning monument to Inca culture.
I left the site absolutely exhausted, and unable to move without experiencing significant levels of pain, but feeling like I had achieved something that I didn’t think I could, which was a really nice feeling. As the group’s resident Geordie vegan Cat put it: “I looked, smelled and felt like a goat”. AND THEN, just as I was about to board a bus to soak my aching limbs in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes, I saw it. A shining beacon of hope: my reward for the trek and, frankly, proof there is a God – mountain or otherwise. A vending machine. Containing an ACTUAL CAN OF DIET COKE. I had conquered the mountains and the mountains had rewarded me. Praise the mountains!