A day by day account of the Inka Trail: Aka, the ravages of Altitude Sickness!

So, you’re thinking to yourself “Self, I would love to see one of the wonders of the world, Machu Piccu.  From what I’ve heard, you can actually hike up there too.  This could be a fun little adventure!”  That’s what I was thinking to myself a few years ago.  I love camping, the outdoors, travel, and adventure, so when I set out to go to Peru, hike the Inca Trail for 4 days, and see the legendary city of Machu Piccu I was really excited.  A bit of huff and puff, a lot of photographs, and the bragging right to say I’d hiked to an Inca city!  What’s not to love right?  Well, I’ll tell you it was one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done.  Here’s a breakdown.

Cusco town square, lovely little town.

Day 1:  You fly into Cusco.  It’s a huge city nestled high up in the Andes at around 3300m above sea level.  Air is harder to come by here than one might think, but it’s managable.  It has a nice square and some cool sights to see, all around a cool place.  I found sleeping at this altitude a bit tough, the thinner air keeps your heart rate up and keeps you awake, but you can make it after a bit of deep breaths.

Ollantaytambo the city from the middle of Ollantaytambo the ruins.

Day 2:  We travelled by bus down to the small town of Ollantaytambo.  Located at 2800m, this place gave you a bit more oxygen to breathe.  Tiny little town with tonnes of sights to see, ancient ruins right at the door, and some half-decent places to eat.  I liked this town.  There was some half-dangerous trails which had sharp rocks, cacti, and steep pitfalls, but nothing that wasn’t managable.  It got us all in the hiking mood and we were glad to have a bit of a warmup.

The sign indicating the beginning of the Trail. Only 45 KM to Machu Piccu!

Day 3:  We begin the hike in the morning.  From the front gate, our porters carry our tents, 6 kg duffle bags, cooking supplies and food, and anything else we might need ahead to the lunch area.  Things are flat and low.  There are a couple of hills which we have to traverse before we hit a Inca ruin or two and everything is going swimingly.  Chewing coca leaves seems to give a bit of energy and zip as we head up and up the hills.  Breathing starts to grow tiresome though as I didn’t expect this much uphill climbing on the first day, but I press through.  I’ve never been good with altitude to begin with, and the mental gymnastics of trying to comprehend why every step was skyward took a toll.  I was very out of breath by lunch, and it wasn’t getting any easier.  I started pacing myself better, and managed to get to the first campsite in a poor mood but one piece.  There, the rest of the guys on our trek played some soccer with the locals on the dustbowl soccer pitch they had at 3000m, but I felt like shit and went to bed early trying to beat a headache.  I remember  there was a big storm that came through right around dinner time.  The tent held up nicely though and I remained dry.  A few hours later, probably around midnight, I went out to have a piss and saw the most wonderful night sky Peru could offer me.  There were Northern constellations and foreign ones, and the occasional flash of lightening from beyond the mountains.  It was one of those short moments in time where you feel very small, but entirely lucky to be alive.  Despite the dread of tomorrow and the grief of the earlier day, that 3 or 4 minutes was terrific.

From the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, elevation: 4200m

Day 4:  The morning bore no good news for me.  Mentally it was going to be an easier day, because I knew we’d have to traverse Dead Woman’s pass, which ran up to an altitude of 4200m above sea level.  I had just resigned myself to the idea that the whole day was going to be uphill.  My headache was gone, but it was quickly replaced with the gut-wrenching feeling that vomit was imminent.  If I had thought about taking a shot of Jack Daniel’s,  would have yacked.  But I didn’t and managed to get hiking.  Once on the trail, I took it slow and managed to climb about 300 meters vertically with relative ease.  I was feeling ok, aside from a bout of miserable diarrhea, but the air was getting quite thin.  By 3800m above sea level I was really in the thick of the shit.  I had little in the way of energy, I couldn’t catch my breath, I was tired, and miserable.  What was worse, I still had 400 vertical meters to climb.  Gone were the lush, oxygen-rich trees of the cloud rainforest, and into the arid hills of the Andes we stepped.  Up and up the hard granite steps climbed, and I was not having a good time.  By the end of it, I was climbing 40-60 paces before sitting on a good rock to try and catch my breath.  My muscles felt fine, but they had no oxygen going to them and after 20 steps would start to wobble.  My vision blurred.  My fingers tingled like they were falling asleep.  Just talking took my breath away.  But the finish line was in sight and I had to make it.  I couldn’t live with myself if I turned back so close to the finish line.  Eventually, I had my “DRAGO!” moment on top of the mountain, but I was a lifeless wreck barely able to stand.  After a few minutes rest, we turned back to the trail, climbing down the other side of the mountain for the 4 km descent to our camp site.  It took me nearly 8 hours, which was 2 hours longer than the rest of the group, but I had made it.  After a few sips of soup to try to keep my body from completely shutting down, I slept.  This sleep was punctuated by some brief sprints to the bathroom which were photo finishes.  It was during one of these sprints that I realized the porters slept in the kitchen and dining tent, as well as the cleaner parts of the bathroom so that they wouldn’t have to bring their own tent and carry it.  I think these guys are awesome for that type of shit.  It’s exactly what I would do in their situation: “I don’t want to carry another tent, screw it I’ll just sleep under the sinks in the bathroom!”

The steps of the Inka Trail, there are many, many, more.

Day 5:  This day I woke up early and set out on the trail before dawn with the assistant guide.  The reason for this early start being that I had taken so long the previous day, and this morning we had to go up the other side of the valley we were camping in.  Must not slow down the group Ian!  It was a breezy 200 meters straight up, but I felt much better, had a bit of an appetite for the first time on the hike, and the mental part of the game was much easier.  I could see the goal clearly and once there, it wouldn’t be nearly as hard for the rest of the day.  Accompanied by a stray dog for most of the climb, we made our way to the summit and waited about half an hour for the rest of the group.  The timing was nearly perfect.  There were some delicious downhill sections and my bathroom situation motivated me to go uphill quite quickly in an effort to make it to the next bathroom or short path off the main trail.  It was a day where I could actually enjoy some of the views, talk to other people on the trail, and have a good time in the Andes.  I ate lunch and dinner with gusto finishing my first full meal since the beginning of the trek.  After lunch we could walk among some good ruins and really appreciate what we were doing on this trail.  It was interesting to actually think about how many people had traversed the trail we were on.  Who they were, when they lived, what they were doing at the time.  It made me feel fully alive and a part of history at the same time.  We camped minutes from the gate where you could get your passport stamped and was the beginning of the final sprint to the Sun Gate, where we could put our eyes on the final destination for the first time.  Spirits were high and we got to bed early to secure a early spot at the starting gate tomorrow.

The finish line! Machu Piccu as seen from the Sun Gate.

Day 6:  Waking up early was easy, once again because of my tedious tending to the bathroom.  It was a serious problem, but other than that I felt great.  It was 2:45 when most of us were roused and at breakfast.  The porters headed down to Aguas Caliente (the nearest town) ahead of us and we were on our own, at least gear-wise.  We got in line for the final sprint behind a group of 4, second in line!  After about an hour, while once again going to the bathroom, I saw how good a move it was.  The line was about 100 meters long!  At 5 AM the little man opened the gate and we started the brisk walk to the Sun Gate.  it took about an hour, including one of the absolutely steepest set of stairs I’ve ever come across.  No joke, these were set at about a 60 degree angle, so we had to climb pretty much on all fours to keep from falling back and to our doom.  But eventually we made it, and even managed to snap a few photos with little in the way of fellow tourists and guides in the background.  To tell you the truth, my first reaction to seeing Machu Piccu was “Oh?  That’s it?”  It was very underwhelming.  To my beleaguered eyes, it might as well have been a speck in the hillside.  The sun came out for a brief moment or two, just enough for some great photos, but it was still so tiny.  However, as we made our way down the half-hour final leg, Machu Piccu loomed bigger and grander.  We managed to saunter down through the outskirts of the ruins to the front gate to sign in and say we weren’t dead, thus ending the Inca Trail. 

It was a long, hard slog.  I was sick the entire time.  It took me to dizzying hieghts and terrifying lows.  I thought I would die on more than one occasion, and wished for death on other occasions.  There were points where if I was lucid enough to care, I would have been horrified by the predicaments I was in.  Ankle-breaking stairs and rocks, slippery mountain passes with sheer drops in which the clouds below obscured the bottom, and a mountain pass which would take away your breath riding a chairlift.  Sounds miserable huh?  Well I wasn’t.  I live for that shit.  I wouldn’t do it again, not in a million years, but a positive attitude always beats misery.  I had a really great time in a unique place, and have seen things that only a handful of humans in history can gaze upon.  I’m truly grateful to everyone who helped me over those mountains and can’t wait to see how it has impacted my personality and work ethic.  The Inka Trail isn’t for everyone, but it was definitely good for me.