A disastrous experience on a volcano in Guatemala left me feeling defeated, out of shape, and like I wasn’t cut out for hiking. Perhaps it was meant for different body types, those with “better” mental game. Maybe I’d never know what it looked like to reach the peaks of mountains, with the satisfaction of seeing how far I’d come, the wind hitting my face as a reward. I was resigned to staying on the ground.
But as I booked a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Peru, I knew I couldn’t skip Machu Picchu, the notoriously mountainous Inca site.
The brutal four-day Inca Trail hikes were already sold out by the time I booked my flight, which came as a relief, but could I handle two days of hiking and camping instead? I sure didn’t look like many of the lithe travelers I’d seen posing above the ruins on Instagram, all seeming a bit too clean to have spent the last few days in tents.
Instead of letting my self-doubt affect my itinerary, I decided to prepare.
I went on a few local hikes to get myself ready for the mileage. I also purchased trekking poles to help with my balance — something that came in handy. I researched the trip’s distance and altitude and read postings on travel forums from those who had already completed the Inca Trail. I considered every possible outcome.
After a lot of research, I booked with a Peruvian-owned and operated company that contributes to local communities. Upon arriving in Peru, I gave myself a few days to adjust to the high altitude, something recommended by trekking guides. My chosen tour operator held a pre-trip meeting that put most of my fears to rest. My guide, Primo, assured me that he would always stay with the group and no one would be left behind. I got to know the rest of the group, including an American couple, a solo German girl that I would share a tent with, and a group of four Canadian friends.
We packed up matching green duffel bags with essentials that porters would carry, which would help ease the difficulty of the hike. These Quechua men and women come from communities around Machu Picchu and are paid a living wage through the company. And they know the trails well and can carry the items we’d need much faster than we could.
On the morning of our departure, I was a bundle of nerves. We boarded a bus and then a train as the valley appeared through the fog in the glass windows. We had arrived in the Sacred Valley. The train stopped in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere but was actually a trailhead for the Inca Trail. Our crew had breakfast at the foothills of an Inca site and started the first two hours of the trail.
During the beginning of the climb, I struggled to keep my breath. The air was thick with humidity. I tried to keep my sister’s words in my head: “just keep moving.” It didn’t matter that I wasn’t setting the record for fastest time — this wasn’t a competition. All I had to do is walk. To keep myself sane during the grueling walk, I popped in my headphones and listened to my favorite podcasts. Someone else’s words would keep me going.
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By lunchtime, we’d reached the highest point of the day, at the Inca site of Winay Wayna, which means “forever young” in Quechua. Alpacas lazily ate grass on the hillside surrounding our picnic site. I felt high with accomplishment as we hit the trail again, knowing the familiar stonework of Machu Picchu would soon be in sight. And a few hours later, after passing through the iconic Sun Gate, it was.
We weren’t the only group there to watch the sunset, as another crew of alpacas had found a spot as well. The infamous clouds lifted from their low coverage as we finally arrived at Machu Picchu. After getting our fill of photos, we retired to our campsites where real bathrooms (not “trail bathrooms”) and hot showers were awaiting us. I slept well in my tent — a first for me.
The next morning had the whole group buzzing, ready to explore Machu Picchu in its entirety. But I had one last concern. In an effort to feel like I’d really hiked, I booked a hike to Huayna Picchu, one of the two mountains in the background of every photo at the Inca site. I’d read about how it was considered to be one of the most dangerous hikes in the world.
Sweat coating my face, I slowly walked up each step, often pausing to go on my hands and knees, dirt finding its way into my nail beds. Within an hour, I arrived at the summit. The people walking around Machu Picchu looked like ants.
It had all been worth it, every ingrown toenail, every ache of my joints. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do: hike the Inca Trail.
Past “failures” helped make this trip a success. I packed only what I absolutely needed. I brought more than enough water and drank at every opportunity. I knew my limits and my expectations. I stopped comparing myself to others with the mantra “hike your own hike." I learned to trust myself and my body.