When the day of the hike came, I was filled with both excitement and dread. Did I train long enough? How’s my body going to handle 4 days of hiking? Did I pack enough Alleve? Well, we’re going to find out. This is my birthday present to myself after all!
We left at 4:00 am that day and drove to the base camp of the Inca Trail to receive instructions on what to expect and the rules of hiking the trail. Before we embarked on our challenging 4-day hike (Classic Trek), we stopped at a local cafe for a hearty breakfast.
Don’t try to be a hero like me. Pay the extra 70 bucks for an extra porter to carry all your personal items so all you have to lug around is maybe water, walking sticks and a camera. It’s a challenging hike. You don’t need all that weighing you down.
After loading up on protein and carbs from our breakfast buffet, we proceeded to the entry point for a final checkpoint.
Day One – Easy Day My Ass
Distance: 14 km / 8.68 miles
Highest point: Ayapata campsite 3,300 m/ 10,829 ft
Campsite: Ayapata 3300 m/ 10,829 ft
What Our Brochure Said:
The first day is relatively easy and we will have great views of the vast and incredible Inca site of Patallacta, the Urubamba mountain range that divides the jungle and the Andes and the beautiful snow-capped peak of ‘W’akay Willca’ (5,860m/19,225ft)
Once we entered the gates, we realized there was no turning back.
Bring your passport to the hike. I know, weird but required. At the beginning of the Inca Trail, you get the opportunity to stamp your passport with the highly coveted and rare Inca Trail stamp that only exists there.
Once we entered the gates, we realized there was no turning back. We went through the checkpoint and they ensured we had all the proper permits, then we crossed a bridge that spanned over the Urubamba River. This river is going to be significant throughout the trek because I will be using it as the reference point to how high and how far we’ve traveled.
The beginning of the trail was seemingly mild and unassuming. The exposed path was dirt and there wasn’t a significant incline. If this represented the entire trail, we’ll get through the 26.5 mile hike in no time. The views and terrain in the beginning were mostly flat and parallel to the river. I didn’t really see any difference from the hiking trails in Los Angeles, other than the donkeys. You begin seeing glimpses of the local flora and fauna and some signs of eroded Inca sites.
If you get the opportunity, buy coca leaves. You’re going to need them! They come in a clear plastic bag and just look like leaves in a bag. No, they will not get you high. No, they are not addictive. You will be exerting your body at very high elevations. These will help you with fatigue and symptoms of elevation sickness.
How to Roll Coca Leaves
Day One of the hike was meant to be the “Easy Day,” 8 hours of relatively mild terrain with a slight taste of the steps, the primer for Day Two, the hardest day of the four days.
An Overview of the Entire Trail
We get to a checkpoint that shows an entire map of the terrain and the comparative slopes for each of the trails.
Me Bitching About That Overview of the Trail
When you’re traveling with a reputable Inca Trail guided tour like Kaypi Tours, you will be accompanied by a guide and a team of porters who race in front of you, with the whole camp on their backs, and prepare your camp hours before you get there. By the time you get to your next destination, the guest, staff and dining tents are set up and boiled drinking water is ready for that day’s meals as well as to refill your water bottles. I always felt that special touch when I got to my tent after a long day’s hike and there was a little basin full of hot water and wash cloth waiting for me so I can freshen up a bit. After hours of grueling hiking, that wash cloth felt so refreshing on my face. Most of the time, you smell the wonderful aroma of your next meal cooking as you enter the camp. Ah, those little touches.
The Inca Trail Feast!
When finished with the camp, the porters pack up the supplies and race ahead of you again to the next camp. Some of the fancier tour groups even bring a portable bathroom and shower set up so you don’t have to use the public restrooms. Most of them carry a full kitchen set up. Nothing is pre-made. They cook everything in camp. It’s not the camping food you imagine. They cook full multi-course meals with appetizers and desserts. Never during the 4 days did I feel lacking. We certainly never went to bed hungry. I was thoroughly impressed by the decadence of the food they made and the little presentation touches. Since it was my birthday trip, they were even able to bake me a birthday cake! Amazing! THESE GUYS WORK SO HARD AND DESERVE HUGE TIPS!
These little touches may seem nothing in the Western world, but means so much more after being on your feet the whole day walking and breathing at such high altitudes.
I was planning on kicking Day One’s ass, but Day One had other ideas…
Day Two – You Will Hate Stairs Forever
Distance: 16 km / 9.92 miles
Highest point: Dead woman pass 4,200 m / 13,779 ft
Campsite: Chaquilcocha 3,600 m / 11,800 ft
What Our Brochure Said:
After waking up at 5:30am (maybe at 05:00-depending on your Guide) and having breakfast, we will start a steep ascent towards the highest pass The Dead Woman’s Pass’ – 4200m/13779ft. On this day a real sense of achievement is felt on reaching the top! After a rest here, we begin the descent to the lunch stop which is located at Pacaymayu (3550m/11646ft).
On the way up to the pass we will be able to see lots of hummingbirds and other birds. Also we will have the time to appreciate an incredible variety of native plants and trees such as the ´Polylepis´ or Q’ueuña trees which grow in the astonishing cloud forest located at 3650/11972m!!
Halfway through this ascent, I was hating my life.
Starting the hardest of days, you will want an early start to allow yourself time for what would potentially be 12 hours of hiking. Get your coca leaves ready and wear clean underwear just in case they need to carry you out. This day will challenge you both physically and mentally. You will need all your wits about you. There will be quick ascents and descents, which exacerbates altitude sickness for many people.
Day Two, Part One: Up, Up and Up
The trail will be steep. You will see nothing but uneven, granite steps…forever. Many of the rocks are even too big for a normal human step, where you’d actually need to use your hands to pull yourself up. Depending on the time of year, the steps may be slippery. This is when having the hiking poles will be worth it. Your burning thighs will thank you. The main objective here is to get to the peak, called Dead Woman’s Pass. Apparently, there were waterfalls and sights to behold, but I don’t remember because I just wanted the first part over with. I certainly did not see any freaking hummingbirds. The air will get thinner and thinner, and you’ll only be able to take 15-30 steps until you’d need to rest again. Your main objective here is trying not to black out. That’ll continue for the next 2 hours or so. Here’s the exact moment the altitude hit me.
Halfway through this ascent, I was hating my life. It’s evident in how much I bitched and moaned this whole day. I could not breathe one complete breath. It was like breathing through a straw. Did I say this was hard? Finally, if you just keep moving forward, you’ll eventually reach the peak, and the greatest sense of accomplishment will permeate throughout your entire being. You’ll get no shirts, no badges or any other accolades other than personal satisfaction. Ok, maybe a picture, video or two. They really need a gift shop up there…
Day Two, Part Two: Down, Down and Down
The good news is you’ve reached the highest peak, and you got to rest your burning thighs for about 30 minutes. The bad news is you’re in for an even steeper descent for the next few hours. I personally took the descent slower than the ascent, because it started raining and the granite was super-slippery. I’m not exactly the most sure-footed person. One wrong step means falling thousands of feet down the mountain. Yeah, I butt-slided a few times. This is when concentration is paramount.
Many times during the 4 days porters or faster hikers will try to pass you. The etiquette is, you move toward the mountain side and let them pass on the outside. You never move toward the edge.
Eventually, you get to the campsite where we have our well-deserved lunch. We were so tired, that we took every opportunity to rest and tend to our wounds.
After lunch, the difficult part was over. The hike to Runcurraccay, Chaquicocha and other ruins was still challenging but nothing compared to the ordeal we had to go through at Dead Woman’s Pass. Around this time, you might start encountering some other inhabitants of the area.
Camping Above the Clouds in Chaquicocha