“Hiking the Inca Trail was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” Julianna spoke in a hushed tone.
I took a sip of my wine, its silky taste winding its way down my throat, sending me brief comfort. Julianna leaned forward, grabbing my wrist. Her eyes opened wider. “Seriously! I thought I was going to die!”
I shook her hand off and laughed nervously. “Dave and I have hiked a lot. I’m sure we’ll be fine,” was my response.
Julianna rolled her eyes and flicked her long dark hair over her shoulder. “Trust me. It’s harder than you think.”
Hiking the Inca Trail and discovering the challenges
A couple of weeks later, as I climbed up a steep cliff, I wished I’d listened to Julianna more carefully. The sweat trickled down my back and my jumper started to itch against my skin as I perspired. Slowly, I lifted a foot and took another step. And then another. I glanced ahead. Through the moving sea of bodies in front I could see the crest of the mountain. It didn’t look much closer than when I’d started the climb.
I was hiking the Inca Trail, traveling the many miles of track on a quest millions had made before me. From the tourists who trod the soil hours earlier, grunting as they plodded along, cameras swinging round their necks, to the Incas who had made the journey thousands of years before, light footed, dressed in colourfully woven fabrics and pulling llamas behind them laden with their goods, this was a journey with a purpose that had changed over the years. But the end destination remained a constant – Machu Picchu.
Hiking the Inca Trail in the off season
It was March, one of the colder months of the year for Peru, and as I slipped over the boulders and hoiked myself up, mist smothered my face and the cool made my bones ache while my skin burned from the exertion. The heat came from within me but the cold fought it back from the outside. The 88km journey was to take us four days, through the Andes Mountains, before we arrived at the well-kept ruins of Machu Picchu, which had over the past 100 years, put Peru firmly on the tourist map.
But at the moment all I could think about was the pain in my legs and my throbbing head brought on by the high altitude. Our guide – portly Rueben with his wide grin – had told us we were almost 4,200m above sea level.
The strength of the porters when hiking the Inca Trail
Although humans are normally not well adjusted to these heights, numerous porters overtook me as I climbed, 20kg or more of belongings strapped to their backs. These men – short in stature but formidably strong – were the backbone of the Inca Trail tours, carrying all that was needed to set up camp for the night, from tin pots to tent pegs.
As another porter skipped up the rocks with agile grace beside me, I heard someone call from the ridge. “Come on Carmen! You can do it! Not long to go now!” It was Kyle, one of the young Americans in our group. Dave joined him, encouraging me to put one foot after the other.
The beauty of the Andes Mountains when hiking the Inca Trail
The minutes stretched by. My heavy breathing thundered in my ears and sweat ran into my eyes. Then a hand gripped mine and pulled. It was the last step. I’d made it. Dave embraced me in a hug and I high fived everyone, walking down and smacking hands with the line of the climbers before me. At the end, I turned and faced the view.
Beneath me stretched the Andes mountain range; dark green hill slopes reaching up to the sky to end at pointed tops with snow caped peaks. The sun beamed rays in patches through the clouds, highlighting greenery with its sun-dappled light, and with the grey shading other areas in darkness.
The drizzle had stopped and the grey clouds parted further, letting in more light that shone a dazzling white as it hit my eyes. From around the corner in the valley below, hikers made their way up the hill on the path I’d just trod, walking in a thin line like ants back to the nest.
Some carried packs, others clutched hiking sticks, treading along, oblivious to the view at their backs. I smiled as I thought about the beautiful view awaiting them at the top. The perfect reward for conquering the hardest part of the trail.
The dangers and beauty when hiking the Inca Trail
The path alternated between muddy puddle and small pebbles, uneven ground that could catch you out and make you fall when least expected. On either side of the trail, rough scrub surrounded me at about hip height, before giving way to tall trees and scraggly undergrowth. Flowers in bloom could be seen occasionally, a bright brushstroke of red among the constant green. Birds twittered and screeched around me, as I carefully stepped over a small lizard that scampered out of my way.
Unlike the previous ridge, this path was flatter and much easier to walk. Nonetheless, I felt relieved to be wearing comfortable hiking boots, broken in months earlier when I’d discovered my passion for hiking in earnest.
A bear on the Inca Trail
Our group had fallen into a rhythm – the faster boys up the front and the less fit trailing behind. I was somewhere in the middle, walking with a drink bottle slung to one side and a camera to the other along with a small pack on my back. Dave was up ahead and I’d found a new travel buddy in Kristin – we chatted as we made our way along the trail.
Up ahead I could see some of our group had stopped, peering above them into the trees on the right hand side of the track. The porters had slung off their large bundles and they too were looking up into the greenery, leaning on boulders and pointing.
“It must be something worth looking at, let’s see!” I said to Kristin.
We picked up our pace and a porter saw us approaching and pointed in the tree. “Bear!” he said.
“Woah!” I grabbed Kristin’s arm and we looked at each other. She raised her eyebrows. “Let’s go see… but carefully?”
Up close with a powerful creature when hiking the Inca Trail
Kristin nodded and walked forward, pulling me as she went. We stared up into the tree. Sure enough, on a grey branch, a huge Andes bear sat, black and fat, munching on some leaves. He peered down at us, non-plussed. The branch bowed beneath his weight, threatening to snap.
Suddenly, he pushed himself up, in an almost human-like manoeuvre, and stood, turning his back to us. He lifted his arms and pulled himself on to the branch above. Stretched out like this, I could get a true sense of his size and I marvelled at his girth. He was over a meter tall and his fur had a shiny gleam. He turned his head around as he settled on the higher branch, showing us his wet nose before pulling some more leaves into his mouth.
“I think it’s very unusual to see a bear,” a fellow traveller whispered at my shoulder.
I bet!” Kristin whispered back.
I picked my camera up from where it hung by my side and took a photo. Although I now had photographic evidence that this once-in-a-lifetime moment had happened, it was a scene that I imprinted on my mind, not solely in my camera. Never would I have thought I’d see a bear in the wild.
Inca ruins when hiking the Inca Trail
The wall stood a head higher than me, towering above. The height on either side felt oppressive within the narrow space that I stood, only slightly wider than me. I imagined myself as the enemy, trying to penetrate this lookout point, and feeling threatened by the small space through which I must attack.
I continued walking through the narrow gap until it widened into a round space, created by a wall about chest height, which spanned the edges of the circle. Parts of the construction were uneven and all of it was covered in a dark green moss. The wall was built from boulders, varying in shape but perfectly put together like a high scoring game of Tetris. I ran my hand along the wall and felt its smooth surfaces, edges worn down over hundreds of years in the rain and wind.
Thinking about the history of the Inca Trail
I thought about how the rocks came to be there and how the wall was formed. The small but sturdy Inca men climbing the hills, boulders tied to their backs, using brute force to carry the rocks up the mountains and along the trail. The tools used to carve and shape the stones, before piling them with perfect precision on top of one another, slopping mud in between to cement them together.
Decades had passed since then and yet there the walls were, standing the test of time. From the sentry point I gazed out at the mountains on all four side of me. This part of the trail was oddly deserted. It was just our group and our guide, looking over the sentry point, talking in low voices, the sacredness of the place imposing a sense of seriousness that made us feel as though we should speak softly.
As I peered out at the view, fingers gripping the edge of the wall, I felt so far from everything and yet so close to those around me. It was an odd contradiction – feeling so completely alone and yet so far from lonely.
A special night with special people
On our final night, we sat around the dining table, crammed under the tent as raindrops trickled gently on the canvas.
“Champions! I have a very special treat for you!” Rueben beamed, his face peeking around the open tent flap. Ruddy faced, he pulled a tin plate from behind his back, and revealed a cake.
“Wow!” we cooed in unison. Here we were, struggling to put up our tiny two man tents, when somehow our cook had managed to bake a cake!
“My Champions have worked so hard during this journey that it’s only to be expected that they are rewarded!” Rueben exclaimed as he placed the cake down on the table and took a step back, rubbing his hands with uncontrollable energy.
Cutting in to the cake
“Shall I do the honours?” I asked, grabbing my knife and wiping it on my paper serviette before glancing up at my newly found friends around me. I saw eleven smiling faces beaming back. For a moment I paused, willing this feeling to last. I felt the joy bubble inside me. A rush of exhilaration.
I’d only met these people for the first time 72 hours earlier and yet I was fiercely protective over them. They’d become firm friends. I’d heard their tales about what brought them to the track and why they were making the Inca Trail journey.
One friend’s father had recently passed away and she’d taken the year off to travel. Another couple was on their final holiday before they moved from Poland to New York. Another pair had flown directly from Buenos Aires for just five days, as it was the only break they could get from work but they had promised they would climb the trail this year and were determined to do so.
I’d heard tales of tragedy, sadness, joy, excitement and fear. We were all on our own journey, yet there was an imaginary string linking us all together, like elephants gripping one another’s tails as they walked in a herd.
My pause was brief but I relished in the moment. A moment of true friendship bound by the intricate link of travellers on the same journey. I cut into the cake.
Feeling ill as the last day dawns
We rose hours before the first light of dawn, when the moon was still high in the sky. I’d spent the night tossing and turning, my stomach rumbling, having to make numerous trips to the bathroom.
I’d feel an urgent rush to stumble out my tent and fumble my way down the stony path to the bottom of the hill where the hole in the ground, otherwise known as the toilet, lay in wait. But when I arrived, the state of the toilets after thousands of travellers had made similar journeys, put me off. I’d sigh, feel a sweep of nausea, and scramble back up to my tent, feeling worse than when I’d left it minutes earlier.
This repetitive dunny dance had left me in a state, dreading the early morning wake up call.
Desperate attempt to revive myself when hiking the Inca Trail
At three am, the porter had come knocking, waking us with a mug of warm coca tea to lift our spirits. Created from the raw leaves of the coca plant, the bitter tea was the Incas’ version of coffee. Derived from the same plant from which cocaine is manufactured from, it is drunk by many Andean indigenous peoples who use the tea for medicinal purposes, such as a remedy for morning sickness.
At this moment I had my own kind of morning sickness and it had nothing to do with a baby growing in my belly. I wish I had the chance to sip the tea slowly, but instead I gulp a few mouthfuls in haste as we roll up our mats and pack down our tents, pulling on our hiking boots for the final journey down to the mountain and to the crown of the trip – Machu Picchu itself.
Hiking the Inca Trail and stumbling along in the darkness
In the darkness, with the full moon shining a pearly light on to the track, we climb slowly down the mountain. With each step my stomach spasms in pain and with each minute of the descent my heart patters and my gut flips in protest to the exercise.
Dave is somewhere on the track ahead, and instead my newly-found friend Kristin walks a few paces in front of me, stopping every ten minutes or so to make sure I’m okay. Each time, I gasp a positive response while my mind wills the journey to end. The hours pass by, the minute hand of my watch ticking slowly. The cool of the dawn sends a shiver down my spine with each step.
The beauty of hiking the Inca Trail
But then something magical happens. The sun begins to rise, casting a red glow over the woods around me. As we walk further down the trail, with each switchback the sky deepens its red, before lightening to a dark pink and then fading to a dusty rose.
I start to feel better as the light grows, and my queasiness disappears as dawn fades and a new day arrives. This is day four of the Inca Trail trek and we’re close to the end. I can feel the finish line of the trail approaching, and I look forward to seeing the sweeping view of Machu Picchu before me.
As the morning arrives, we arrive at more Inca ruins, small constructions that look as though they were once storage or shelter for fellow journeymen who’d walked, or perhaps even carved, the trail. The excitement builds and I forget the flip-flopping happening in my stomach and my parched mouth as our group presses on, faster, towards the end of the journey.
Arriving in a haze of fog after hiking the Inca Trail
Suddenly, we turn a corner and see two large walls, nearly three meters high, facing us. As before, this is a traditional Inca construction, and that’s when I realise – it’s the gate. A small gap in between the walls leads to Machu Picchu. I take a breath, and step through.
And all I can see is cloud. Before me, where the beautiful ancient city of Machu Picchu must lay, is white. Puffs of the cloud stretch below, with only one mountain rising above it in the distance.
I sigh, utterly disappointed, and notice the glum faces of other hikers from different groups around me, mirroring what must be the look on my own face.
Those leading our group walk over to a section of wall to take a rest. I join them.“Shame about the view.”
“I know,” Kristin replies.
We are the champions of hiking the Inca Trail
We take a moment to rest and sip some water. The disappointment clouds my mind like the grey mist in front of me. Suddenly, Bartosz, one half of the Polish couple, breaks in to song. “We are the champions, my friends.”
Kyle joined in. “And we’ll keep on fighting to the end…”
I took a breath and sung along.
“Cause we are the champions, we are the champions. No time for losers, ‘cause we are the champions… of the world!”
Hiking the Inca Trail – an epic adventure to remember
Our whole group was singing together, voices loud, booming over the chatter of the other hiking groups. We smile at one another as we sing, grins wide on our faces, gesturing with our dirty hands and wiping unwashed hair away from our faces.
As we sing, voices pitching for the crashing crescendo at the end of the tune, I realise something profound. The way I’d believed the point of the trek was to reach Machu Picchu was not right at all. The destination didn’t matter.
The journey is more important than the destination
I could be anywhere right now with this group of friends – the edge of the world, on top of Mount Everest, sitting on a sandy beach – the location was of no importance. As long as we’d walked the Inca Trail over the past four days and reached the end I wouldn’t care where we were.
Because it was the journey that mattered. The sweat, the upset stomachs, the laughter and the songs. This was the point of the trip. After striving to reach the end, anticipating a view, it was the process of getting there that made a much stronger imprint on my mind than the destination itself.