My love for hiking was instilled in me as a child in the Austrian woods where I hiked with my parents on the weekends, searching for mushrooms which we then prepared with eggs for dinner. Nowadays, I do go hiking whenever possible and if it’s not possible then I “hike” the streets of New York City over the weekend–covering sometimes 10 miles or more. This means also taking advantage of the city parks.
But this time was different. I planned to trek the Inca trail that ends up directly to Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca citadel built in the 15th century by the Incas and discovered by Hiram Bingham of Yale University in 1911 with the help of a local boy. See for more history here.
After doing some research, we picked the 5 day Inca trail expedition by the Alpaca Expeditions. This company supports its own local community by providing jobs and building schools for the Andean kids. Alpaca Expeditions also supports its local women by trying to give them a voice. We booked our trip months ahead since the Inca Trail is a popular destination for trekkers. In order to regulate the trail and protect the monuments, every year only a limited number of hikers have access to the Inca trail. This means that without a permit and a guide, visitors are not permitted on the trail. We had heard and read that the Inca trail is challenging so we prepared for the hike by working out more than usual and walking longer distances over the weekends, whenever we got a chance. Yet, we learned that even if we are fit, the high altitude in the mountains will take a toll on people who are not used to it.
We finally embarked on our trip this May. We arrived at Cusco three days before the actual trek to get acclimated to the high altitude. Cusco itself is built up in the mountains at an elevation of over 11,000 feet. We tried to manage our altitude sickness, like headaches and trouble with sleeping by taking altitude pills (yes, they exist!), drinking coca tea (provided by hotels and offered in cafes), and unfortunately by consuming less food (the Peruvian cuisine is amazing) and fewer piscos.
On the first day of our trek, we were picked up by our guide from Cusco at 5 am with a van. Three hours later we arrived at the starting point of the Inca trail. Before heading out for the hike, we were provided a small breakfast by the chef. Yes, we had a chef (and an assistant to the chef) who prepared all our meals throughout the trek in the mountains. We also had 8 porters on our team.
The porters carried the tents, the food and everything else from one camp to the next. I still need to wrap my head around how they did all these things in such a perfect and amazing way. Every day they waited until we were well on our hiking trail, then they would break the camp, put the tents, sleeping bags, cooking pots, supplies and everything else in their huge and heavy backpacks, racing past us on the steep and strenuous trails, and by the time we got to the next camp, they had set up everything for us again. This means they provided us right away with bowls of warm water to wash our hands and sweaty faces and a fruit juice (each time a different kind) to quench our thirst. A few minutes later, they would invite us into the main tent (dining tent) for a delicious lunch or dinner which usually consisted of salad, soup, meat, pasta, quinoa, or rice cooked to replenish our energy. On our last day, our chef even baked us a cake!
Though our trek was only 28 miles long, the hiking was taxing because the trail consisted mostly of steep terrains up and down the mountains. Sometimes we had to climb tall Inca stairs and sometimes the stones on the trail were big and made the walking unstable and clumsy. When we got to flat portions on the trek, our feet would be thankful but that would usually last for only a short while, and then it was uphill or downhill again.
When hiking up to 13,800 feet, breathing can become a challenge. Our lungs were definitely overworked and I can’t remember ever to have gasped for air so loudly. But once we got to the peak, we were basically in the clouds!
That night the sky cleared up and we were lucky enough to see the Milky Way like never before.
After climbing 5 mountains and 3 passes (at 13,779ft, 13,123ft, and 12,073ft), walking by waterfalls and crystal clear rivers, listening to birds, looking for Orchids, watching roaming Llamas and Alpacas, and visiting several Inca monuments, we finally made it to Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. We were exhausted and in pain but proud of our achievement.
Once we got to the nearest town, Aguas Calientes, the main attraction was a hot shower and a real bed in the hotel.
Despite its many challenges, hiking the Inca Trail was a most rewarding experience that we could not have done without our amazing team (guide, chef, and porters).
Contributed by Sara Tabaei, Librarian, Midtown Library
All photos are taken by the author unless stated otherwise.
Alpaca Expeditions https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/
Ten Interesting Facts about Machu Picchu https://www.worldwildlife.org/blogs/good-nature-travel/posts/ten-interesting-facts-about-machu-picchu