The ancient land of the Incas will lead you on a journey like no other, testing your willpower, tenacity, physical fitness, mental endurance, and altitude adaptation.
That’s why I was petrified, I feared it more than anything in the world. I like going on hikes, but I am certainly not the fitness girl type.
I worked myself up worrying about the many “what if’s” – what if I’m not fit enough, what if I don’t make it, what if I stop breathing… and the list goes on.
But now having done it (and survived!), I realise how wrong I was about every single (ridiculous) expectation and worry I had before the trek.
Sure, it was probably the most challenging thing I’d ever done but I wouldn’t say it was the hardest thing in the world. But all in all, it was one the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life.
In my opinion, the Inca Trail is the only way to fully appreciate and experience Machu Picchu – because you earned it. And you will arrive to realise it’s as much about the journey as the destination.
So if you’re planning on trekking the Inca Trail, and wondering how close your expectations to the reality of it actually are, here’s my round-up that will hopefully make you realise you can do it, and you don’t need to be an athlete.
Expectation: I told myself I would make sure I would start a daily training regime while on our round-the-world adventure. We would run up stairs, do squats, and start running every single morning, for at least two months prior to our trek.
Reality: We did walk every day before the trek and did a few gym sessions a month out (mind you it was on an all-you-can-eat-and-drink Caribbean cruise!), and we climbed a few touristy mountains but nothing hardcore. We didn’t really train or prepare ourselves as much as we would have liked, but we still managed it. Word of advice: the hike is more about mental endurance than physical endurance. Some of the fittest people in our group struggled with the altitude so as long as you’re in good shape and take Diamox (altitude sickness medication) you’ll be okay.
Expectation: I thought I would die. Like actually die from the altitude. Or at least not make it to the end of the trek. I literally had nightmares about it. So much so that I even made a call to my travel insurance company to make sure that I was covered for high-altitude trekking, and took out a second policy to cover myself for medical evacuation. I was diagnosed with asthma just after I booked the trek and seriously worked myself up over it. I thought what if I stop breathing, or have concussion-like altitude sickness and need a chopper to rescue me.
Reality: My guides assured me I wouldn’t die from the altitude (phew!), and that there were only five helicopters in the whole of Peru, so it’s unlikely that myself or anyone will need to be evacuated because let’s face it, there’s little chance of getting a chopper. I then went on to ask about the llamas… But in all seriousness, the altitude was a breeze. I took Diamox in Cusco to acclimatise, and only on day two of the trek (as you trek from 2,500m to 4,200m). I did feel my heart beating faster and was short of breath so I took my inhaler, and had mild vertigo whilst looking at the Andes, but in all honesty, it really wasn’t that bad.
Dead Woman’s Pass
Expectation: This is the most gruelling part of the Inca Trail, as it’s the highest peak. Many friends told me the second day is the hardest of all, so it was the day I feared most and prepared myself for the worst. I thought it would break me. How could I possibly survive trekking to 4,200 metres?! I accepted the fact that I might be the slowest person in my group, and the last one to camp, or even worse not survive.
Reality: It really wasn’t that bad. I know you probably think I’m lying, or super fit (which I certainly am not). Sure, we’re talking trekking uphill for a good five hours and yes, it was exhausting. A lot of people sped off but I stuck to a comfortable pace and took a short break every 15-20 minutes to enjoy the amazing scenery. I felt empowered and energised every time I looked back as I could see how far I trekked. Towards the peak, I could feel my heart beating faster, but it wasn’t the hardest ascent I’ve ever done. I actually found the descent much more challenging, as my knees became very wobbly and swollen from those notoriously uneven Incan stairs – hiking poles are a necessity here.
Expectation: I knew the porters would be doing the brunt of the leg work. We were told they would carry our 7kg duffles with our clothes, air mats, and sleeping bags. I knew they would work really hard, having to set up camp every day ahead of our arrival. That’s why we chose Alpaca Expeditions, an accredited tour operator that respects and provides good porter conditions.
Reality: We really underestimated the work of the porters. These guys are machines. Not only did they carry our 7kg duffles, they carried every single bit of camping equipment. The tents, the dining tables, the food, the toilet, you name it. They would literally be running up and down the mountains in packs, quickly overtaking us on the ‘porter highway’, known as the right side of the Inca Trail. We would clap these guys as they came through in hoards with 30kg strapped to their backs, while we struggled to carry our small daypacks. I could not have been more grateful and appreciative of the work they do.
Huayna Picchu – The Stairs of Death
Expectation: I told myself I wouldn’t make it to Huayna Picchu (the mountain above Machu Picchu) and I would just have to suck up the $75USD I paid for the permit. When I realised it was nicknamed the ‘stairs of death’ I was induced with fear. Why on earth did I sign up for this?! I told myself I couldn’t possibly climb another mountain after trekking 45km. I thought if I did muster up the courage to give it a go, I would be so slow that I wouldn’t make it to the top, and would have to return halfway. I saw videos circulating on Facebook with people going down on their bum, and then I started thinking what if someone falls and causes a domino effect. Eeek!
Reality: When we made it to Machu Picchu, I must admit I was tired, but not completely dead. That’s right, I made it (I was alive!). So I decided to assess the steepness of those notorious stairs. But that’s when I realised it wasn’t possible. You couldn’t see the stairs, and so my heart sank a little. Then #fomo set in. So I thought what the heck, I might as well give it a go even if I only make it up for 10 minutes.
I took a deep breath and said to myself take it slow, and I gave myself 75 minutes to get to the top. Halfway up the rocks got larger and the so called ‘stairs’ got narrower. But before I knew it, I was standing at the top – in just 45 minutes. The view over Machu Picchu was incredible. Worth every step. There were a few scary parts on the way down (a cave-like-tunnel and some stair-bum-sliding) but I managed it even with my sore wobbly knees. I was in total shock. I did it, I conquered myself!
Book with Alpaca Expeditions
We did the classic Inca Trail Trek (4D/3N) with Alpaca Expeditions, and I would highly recommend you book with them (this post is not endorsed or sponsored). We can sure vouch for their #1 rating on TripAdvisor. They really are the best tour operator on the mountain and went above and beyond to make it an awesome trek with fantastic guides, incredible porters, and delicious food.