Doing it the Hard Way: Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail

I step. I breathe. I wonder again why I thought I could do this. I step. I breathe.

The Inca Trail is a 4 day, 45 km, high-altitude hike in Peru that ends at Machu Picchu, a UNESCO world heritage site. Google South America and likely the first photo you see will be this iconic Incan ruin.

I consider myself fit and an experienced hiker. For many years I took students on outdoor education trips, both introducing novices to the world of the outdoors and taking more adventurous students on specialty trips. Yet at times on this trail I was the last person in our group of 5 hikers, being encouraged by others and our guide. Gasping and leaning over my hiking poles, I heard echoes of the coaxing techniques I’d used on reluctant beginners. Near the end of the first day I contemplated turning back. I thought the first day was supposed to be easy, a break-in hike that was “Inca flat” with only a 400m elevation gain, and the difficult reality had me worried about how I would do on the tough second day, with its 1200 m elevation gain, almost straight up, followed by a 600 m descent on precipitous stairs.

So many stairs…

The challenges were as much mental as physical. I did not quit, and only an hour into the second day I knew I would not turn around. I played games: 7 stairs, 17 stairs, 27 stairs, and I could stop and rest, have a drink of water, look up or back. The view was astonishing. My legs were fit but the elevation made breathing difficult. Reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, elevation 4200 m, and completing the hike at Machu Picchu, were two moments of accomplishment that will stay with me forever, I think. I have a new benchmark: things may be tough in the future, but I suspect they will not be as tough as the Inca Trail.

Llamas in the cloud forest

It was not all determination and difficulty. Our group of 5 shared laughs and encouragement, forming deep connections. My pride recovered somewhat on the downhill sections where, sure-footed and not afraid of heights, I took the lead. Our porters took wonderful care of us, and the food was plentiful and delicious. We explored Incan ruins along the way where we were the only people in sight. The ecosystems we passed through were varied and amazing. Llamas met us on the trail, unaccompanied, and visited us in camp.

I made it!

When we reached Machu Picchu, it was disorienting at first. People who had ridden a bus up the hill passed by, wearing sandals and carrying shopping bags. Although there were few people at the site when we arrived early in the morning, a few hours later there were crowds. I’m ready to head home, but the thought of leaving my trail mates, perhaps never seeing them again, is sad.

At the end, I was sore, sunburnt, bug-bitten, and exhausted. So why did I hike instead of taking the train and the bus? For the challenge. For the sense of competence and accomplishment. I feel a new confidence that whatever I choose to do will be possible.

I don’t know where I will go next, but I know there will be more brave travels.

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