Hiking the Inca Trail: Lessons & Myths
While the idea seemed quite daunting, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was the most incredible experience of my life. Living completely off the grid for four days was exactly what I needed after a series of stressful work/life events. Although it may seem like some people’s worst nightmare, camping each night, not wearing makeup, and recycling used clothing was truly liberating. Instead of worrying about my appearance, or fiddling with my phone, I was able to be my most genuine self. I could look at the world beyond myself with clear eyes knowing that I was just a spec in an infinite universe.
Being my most authentic self also led me to build amazing relationships. All eight of us, travelers, were going through the same struggles at the same time and there was a connection between all of us as we experienced it together. Each step up Dead Woman’s Pass and each shared meal under the stars bound us together. It’s truly amazing how fast friendships can form when you eliminate all the bullshit in life (cellphones, internet, egos). Free of distractions I fell in love with this family, the trail and most of all, Peru.
My trip was so incredible that I want to share it with the world. I want to take friends back to hike the trail with me because the journey was too amazing not to be experienced by everyone. Until then, I’ll share the lessons I learned and the myths of the trail that may be hindering young travelers from taking the leap.
Three Lessons Learned While Hiking the Inca Trail:
1. Smiles are Universal
Part of the intrigue with traveling to South America was the opportunity to practice my Spanish. While some people in Peru spoke a bit of English, Spanish was definitely the primary language. The porters, for example, spoke very little English. We all wanted so badly to converse with them! After all, we essentially bowed at their feet for carrying all of our belongings and setting up our camp every night. Although we didn’t speak the same language, it was so easy to communicate with a smile or laughter. When we’d arrive back at camp, after a long day of hiking, they’d be cheering us on and celebrating the day’s achievement.
Prior to the trail we spent time with a small community in Chinchero. As soon as we arrived people of all ages dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing, took us by the hands as we walked into their community. We all held hands and danced as they sang to us (again – we had no idea what they were saying). I could not shake the smile and pure joy from my face. Despite our difference in language, culture, clothing, socio-economic status – we connected as humans – the most genuine connection there is. You don’t need to speak to share happiness and love, a smile will do just fine. :)
2. Pain is Temporary
The Inca Trail was definitely challenging but also SO rewarding. We hiked over 26 miles, through the Andes where the air is thin and the climb is steep. At times, my calves were sore, my chest was tight, and I was breathless. I’d look ahead, up the path, at what was next to be conquered, and it would seem impossible – but it never was. Even a ten second rest was enough to recover. My breathing would normalize, the sting in my muscles would subside, and I’d be ready for the next challenge. It was a constant reminder of how resilient the human body is and how the mind holds more strength than we often give it credit for.
When we finally reached "Sun Gate", after four days of hard work, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the ONLY way to see Machu Picchu. The history, scale, and beauty can only be appreciated like this when you’ve worked so hard to get there. A perk of the hike is that you beat the crowds. You see Machu Picchu from "Sun Gate" before the chaos erupts…and that is truly special.
3. Familia is Forever
I’ve been on quite a few group trips now, but I’ve never found family like this. I think there is something to be said about people who put themselves through some sort of challenge together. Our group bonded during the strenuous hike, and we thrived being disconnected from the world for four days. I've found that the most “real” interactions happen during travel when we’re stripped of the comforts of our everyday life.
Three Common Myths of the Inca Trail:
1. Altitude Sickness
There are plenty of measures you can take to avoid altitude sickness. I’d recommend getting a prescription for altitude medicine prior to your trip. I didn’t want to run into any issues on the trail – and didn’t. Additionally, spending a few days in Cusco before the hike will help your body acclimate. Some people experienced minor headaches the first day, but were fine by the time the hike started. Coca tea and coca candies are also available EVERYWHERE. The hotel had coca tea on tap around the clock and the porters brought a warm cup of tea to our tents each morning.
2. Bathrooms on the Inca Trail
I assure you that they are fine. I heard the legends of peeing in a hole in the ground and honestly, it's not that bad. The fabled hole in the ground is essentially a urinal on the floor. Yes, it’s porcelain, and yes it flushes! In my opinion, it was not much different than using a port-o-john at any American campground. Ladies, if you’re worried, I’d recommend investing in a “Shewee“.
I will not sugarcoat the Inca Trail and tell you it is easy – it's hard as hell! That’s the best part. Nothing worth doing is ever easy – that’s part of the reward. While the hike is challenging, I am confident you WILL finish. There were people of all shapes and sizes on the trail as well as people of all different athletic abilities. Some hikers took a little longer to complete a leg than others, but everyone made it with smiles on their faces at the end of the day. If you are still concerned, simply prep a bit before your trip. Incorporate the stair climber into your workout routine a few times a week.
I encourage you to try something that scares you a bit – you won’t regret it. In fact, you’ll finish feeling on top of the world (and you’ll likely want to do it all over again).