The truth is, I’ve never been much of an athletic outdoorsman. At the ripe old age of 22, the longest hike I’d ever been on lasted 4 hours, and I had gone camping precisely twice. I’m not sure what part of my mind thought that joining a couple of my friends on the Peruvian portion of their South American adventure, specifically with the goal of doing the famous 4 day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, would be a good idea (Spoiler alert: it was). But having very little outdoors experience, being in maybe-average shape, and generally having little desire to put myself through physical struggles, did not seem like it would set me up for success.
The fact of the matter is, despite not being in the prime shape of my life or having much hiking experience, I was still able to successfully complete the Inca Trail, called a difficult hike by many, and make it to Machu Picchu in a more exciting way than just taking a train. Not an experienced hiker or athlete, but still want to accomplish one of the most awe-inspiring hikes in the world? Here are some tips based on my experience of the hike, as well as some dos and don’ts, for the 43 km trek.
Do: Hire a Porter
For $60 US, I was able to hire a third of a porter to carry up to 6 kg of my stuff for the hike, which included my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, change of clothes and toiletries. This left my back free to carry my expensive DSLR camera, snacks, water, and spare layers. Out of the four girls I did the trek with, I was the only one who hired a porter, and so I felt somewhat ashamed of being such a weakling and getting someone else to carry my stuff. Thing is, having very little hiking experience and not being in great shape, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to hike to altitudes of up to 4200 m above sea level while carrying all of my belongings, and I didn’t want to find out that I couldn’t when it was too late. So to be on the safe side, I hired the porter through my trekking company.
You should not feel ashamed to allow yourself that extra bit of ease – it’s a hard enough hike as it is without that extra load on your back. It gives a job to a local Peruvian (you do tip them on top of the $60, but for four days it still seems an extremely low wage by Canadian standards). And I won’t ever forget the look of gratitude on my porter’s face when I gave him his tip at the end of our last day. If you have even the slightest doubt that you’ll have too much to carry, hire a porter.
I’ve always had a penchant for bringing way too much stuff with me whenever I go on a trip – I like having variation in my outfits and maintaining some sense of fashion even when I’m off backpacking. But over time and with every trip, I lose more and more of my “diva” tendencies, and remember that as cute as my seven hiking outfits are, I really only need one. If you’ve hired a porter, you’re only allowed 6 kg of stuff to put in the duffel bag the trekking company gives you, and once you get your sleeping bag and mat in there, you really don’t have room for much else. Don’t bring three different pairs of pants – get one pair of hiking pants that have the zip-off bottoms so they can convert into long shorts. Maybe bring a variation of layering shirts underneath your hoodie and jacket because they’ll be what starts to stink first, but after four days without a shower, everyone in the group is going to smell bad anyway – may as well embrace it.
What goes over your limit for the porter is what you’re going to have to end up carrying, and making your bag heavier is just going to make the hike more difficult for you. No one cares if you look cute on the Inca Trail – the people who have model shots of themselves taken in front of Machu Picchu sure as heck didn’t do the hike to get there, whereas you worked your ass off for that moment and deservedly look a little bit greasy. Best to make the job easier for both yourself and for your poor porter, who may be too nice to say no to your overweight duffel.
Do: Prepare for Any Weather
I went on my Inca Trail hike in June, which is supposed to be the dry season, but that doesn’t mean you won’t experience rain (or worse, horizontal hail right in the face). Make sure you have waterproof/water resistant clothing and footwear, and maybe even wear one of those awful ponchos in the name of staying dry. But the poor weather won’t last long, so make sure you are well-layered so, in the event it warms up, you can take off a few layers and not overheat. Additionally, it gets very cold in the evening – one of the best things you can do for yourself is to pick up an alpaca wool sweater in the Cusco artisanal market before your hike. They run around $20 US, and will save you from an extra-shivvery night at the campsite.
Don’t: Be Afraid of Being Last
Most trekking companies always have one guide walking with the slowest members of the group, and another guide nearer to the front. The beauty of the Inca Trail is that you really can go at your own pace, whether that’s almost sprinting up the mountain like the 14 year old kid in my hiking trip, or taking your time and allowing yourself rest breaks at the back. I take a lot of pictures, so I was stopping a lot to try and capture the beauty of the hike, and because I’m not athletic, I wasn’t typically near the front anyway.
It’s not a race to see who gets to the campsite first, and as long as you’re arriving before it gets too dark it’s typically not a problem – they won’t start eating without you or leave a camp/food site without everyone there. Chances are, you won’t be alone at the back anyway – there will be people of all athletic abilities in a hiking group of 16, plus one of the guides always walks with the slowest person so they don’t get lost, and those conversations can be entertaining! That being said, I got a weird burst of energy on Day 3 and ended up beating everyone to the top of Phuyupatamarka, and I won’t lie – that was an amazing feeling.
Do: Pack Snacks
Before we began the hike we stopped in a town called Ollantaytambo, which is the departure point near kilometre 82 (the beginning of the trek), and it’s a chance to pick up some last-minute foodstuffs for the trek. Having a stash of chocolate is what saved me on a lot of the hike – the company I booked with, Peru Treks, fed us very well and ensured we had the proper sustenance for the level of activity we were doing, but the fact of the matter is this: when you’re hiking up a steady incline in high altitudes and need some kind of motivation to keep going, chocolate is certainly up for that job.
Day 2 of the trail is essentially a steep uphill for 5 hours, and to keep myself from whining too much, I let myself stop for a chocolate break every 20 minutes or so (whatever works, right?). I’d get made fun of for my chocolate addiction, but that little tasty kick of sugar can be enough to get you up (and down) those steep stone steps, which are mainly original Incan construction.
Don’t: Give Up
Even with the best shoes, best walking sticks, and lightest pack, you’re going to be in pain as early as day one. The muscle and joint pain will only get worse, and sleeping on the cold jungle floor is not conducive to the best sleep of your life. If you’re a big klutz like me, you’ll probably slip or fall a few times and end up with bruises and other injuries that make everything feel that much worse. There will be times that you won’t think you’re capable of continuing, when the air gets thin and your heart’s pumping as hard as your quads. But unless you completely collapse and need to be airlifted via helicopter out of the Andean jungle, you have to finish no matter what.
It’s a challenge not only for the body but for the mind as well, that constant mental mantra of telling yourself that you are capable of doing great things. Pick a quote, a song, a mental image, anything that helps you keep going. I used a combination of poems to keep me going, repeating Maya Angelou’s three words “Still I Rise” and sections of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” (I also used chocolate as a motivator). The physical and mental challenge of the Inca Trail is an experience you can learn from and apply to every day life – now when I’m doing any kind of exerting activity, I remind myself that I did the Inca Trail, so this should be easy!
Doing the trek also instilled a new love of hiking in me, and I keep searching for opportunities to go on more intense hikes, which is something I never thought I’d be interested in. Giving yourself that chance opens your mind up to all sorts of opportunities you never thought you were physically capable of, and finding that strength is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself.
So Was It All Worth It?
Doing the Classic Inca Trail was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. All-in, including my porters, tips for porters and guides, snacks, and the cost of the trek itself, I probably spent close to $750 US. But it’s an experience I will never forget and which arguably changed my life. There are cheaper routes you can take to hike to Machu Picchu, but I highly recommend the Classic route as you see more of the Incan ruins that way (and it’s the famous one for a reason!). You also have to book it much in advance (we booked in January for a June hike) because of the popularity and the restrictions on numbers of hikers on the trail at any given time.
But I never found the trail or campsites overly busy, I saw some amazing views unlike anything before in my life, and there is no better reward than finally making it up to the Sun Gate and watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu (though it’s pretty funny when you start to make your way down and the people who took a train there are passing you up to the sun gate smelling like perfume and Western comfort when you smell like sweat and dirt). So even if you’re not the biggest athlete or hiker but want to check off a major bucket list item, don’t hesitate – though maybe consider doing a little bit more uphill training before the hike than I did…