Part I: Machu Picchu is not to be taken lightly

Home  /  Blog  /  Americas  /  Current Page

The idea of taking a two month trip to South America began last winter when Penny put an email out to all of her friends, asking who wanted to hike to Machu Picchu for New Years Day 2013. I had just returned from my 5 week trip to Southeast Asia and LOVED my travels, so I impulsively said I was down for Machu Picchu and booked myself a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Lima, Peru. I’m definitely living my 20’s in my mid-30’s, but after 12 years of working (mostly in community-based organizations) straight after college I think I’ve paid my dues by now.

A few of my friends had told me that Machu Picchu was a piece of cake, in not so many words. One friend told me that I should have just saved my money and did the trip without a guide (this is now not allowed), while another friend told me that the hike is not that bad, and that my group would probably go pretty slow.


After my day trip to Ollantaytambo (see my other post at Analog Girl World!), I was pretty excited for the 4 day, 3 night backpacking trip to the ancient Incan city. Camping, backpacking, history and traveling all rolled into one sounded like an ideal trip for me.

Well, as Murphy’s Law rules my life, the trip was not what I expected in many ways.

The trip started out with an orientation at the Terra Andina hotel, where I soon found my sleeping bag rental misplaced or stolen (this has been a bit of a theme for my trip to Peru). I have to say that I was a bit anxious about the notion of not having a sleeping bag while camping on the top of a cold ass mountain.

Day 1: From Trip Delays to Hiking During Sunset on the Inca Trail

The start of el Camino Inca

The start of el Camino Inca

The next day we woke at 5 am to meet at the hotel by 5:45  am. I walked out the door just in time to find the rest of my group walking down the street to the bus that would take us to Ollantaytambo, and then to a village where we would start our trek. There were a lot of bumps along the way – a lack of porters to carry the camping and cooking equipment, fights among the women and men around payment, and a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen. Despite leaving Cusco around 6 am, we were still waiting for something to happen at 2 pm near the start of our hike.

Waiting..and the rain

Waiting..and waiting…in the rain

I passed the time by doing tarot card readings with members of our group. Penny asked me to do a reading regarding how the trip would go for her – all I remember saying to her is that it would be fun, but hella hard (the 10 of wands literally shows a person struggling while carrying a heavy load on his back), and that one key thing to remember is to help each other out, and to deal with arguments in an effective way. I thought it might mean arguments between friends, but it turned out to be disagreements on a much different level later on…

After waiting what seemed like an hour to get our passports and tickets cleared by the Machu Picchu officials, we were finally off and hiking around 4 pm. As we hiked along the river, the view of the valley and the mountains was absolutely stunning. Some people live in the area around the trail, so as we hiked we also saw homes, a small cemetery, buildings, and a lot of people herding livestock.

Sharing the trail

Sharing the trail

The first day’s hike was great – it was gorgeous, the weather was great, the sun was setting, and I had enough energy to chop it up with folks and bond with a bunch of our group members. Talk about a small world – one woman used to work at an organization that’s allies with AYPAL, so we talked about doing youth organizing and education justice work.

The valley and river, Day 1

We had to hike using our headlamp lights around 7pm when the sun set, and came to our first camp around 7:30 (there’s a lot of designated camps and even restroom services along the Inca trail, where groups can rest at or camp at each day). We had just hiked 6 miles – one mile short of where we were supposed to be, but it was fine. The tents were set up, and we soon found ourselves eating a hot soup and chicken and rice dinner on a long table below a canopy.

Natalia and Lizzy, staring at their hands for some reason

Natalia and Lizzy, staring at their hands for some reason

Raina (one of Penny’s childhood friends) and I shared a tent. All I remember is that: 1) we had to bring ALL our gear inside (because items stored in the vestibules/outside of the tents have been stolen before) which is HELLA gross; 2) Raina was too cold and tired to go to the bathroom to brush her teeth, so she did it while leaning her head outside of our tent and rinsing with bottled water; and 3) neither of us slept very well at all that night. I actually don’t even remember falling asleep once. Was it due to the altitude? Feeling a bit queasy? Who knows.

Day 2: The Hike from Hell

We were told in advance that Day 2 would be the hardest day of hiking. I never knew it would be that bad.

stairs 1

We were woken up by the trip staff at 5 am and were each greeted with a tub of hot water to wash our faces and coca tea. How dope are they?

After eating breakfast, we continued our hike up the mountain. In a few words, it sucked.

The top 5 reasons why Day 2 is such a hardcore hike (on a 4 day trip to Machu Picchu):

1) Even though it’s only 7 or 8 miles in one day, it’s 5 straight miles uphill, 2 straight miles downhill.

2) The trail climbs 4,000 ft. in 5 miles. That’s like hiking 800 ft. per mile. In comparison, when I hike Tahoe, it’s usually only 500 ft. per mile. What that translates to: lots and lots and LOTS of steep stone staircases for miles, with little to no rest along the way.

3) The way down the mountain is 2 miles straight downhill on extremely steep and treacherous ass stone steps, where you have to dodge steams and impossible stairs on the way down.

4) The top of the first mountain we cross is 4,200m, or about 13,779 ft. Not only is it hard to breathe in high altitude, but it’s also extremely cold and can put people at risk for altitude sickness.

5) Speaking of #4, I got HELLA sick on the way up!

Yeah, Day 2 sucked. It was bad enough that I was hiking up some of the steepest terrain I’ve ever seen (I hate stairs! Tiny and narrow stone stairs are the worst!). Try hiking with a big backpack when you got an upset stomach (backpack waist belt is a killer on that one), altitude sickness, and/or flu-like symptoms.

If I were at home and I got the flu, I would stop whatever I was doing and would go straight to bed. If I were backpacking in the woods and got tired, I would just rest or set up camp and start off again the next day. Unfortunately on a group trip that has a time limit, none of that is possible.

Hiking up along a stream to the top

Hiking up along a stream to the top

Cold, thin air means stomach aches, altitude sickness, nausea, and flu-like body aches. Not to mention that CLIMB!

Cold, thin air means stomach aches, altitude sickness, nausea, and flu-like body aches. Not to mention that CLIMB!

What ensued for the next six hours was absolute sickness craziness for me on the hardest hike of my life. I had to rest a lot. I had to use the bathroom a lot. And I had to eat candy (for nausea), drink water, buy Gatorade from the local vendors on the stops along the way, take advil/altitude meds/immodium/DayQuil…and chew lots of coca leaves and eat coca candy. If it weren’t for our sympathetic guide Jessica, and our group members at the back of the hike who helped me out and gave me drinks/candy/coca/medicine, I would not have made it to camp that evening.

At the top, looking back on the trail we came from

At the top, looking back on the trail we came from

at the top sm

That smile was totally fake

Even as I approached the summit, I had to stop 15 meters short of the top so I could breathe and not throw up. It was freezing cold. I thought I had the flu because it felt exactly like a hardcore flu (body chills, weakness and all – except no headache) – and I felt pretty stupid for not wearing warmer clothes on the ascent up the mountain. After taking a celebratory photo at the top, I had to descend – down two miles, on steep, narrow and wet stone stairs. Despite the relief of not having to exert as much energy on the rest of the hike, it was definitely hard on the knees and ankles – and body. I still had to stop from time to time because I felt so weak from whatever sickness I had. At one point with just less than a mile to go, I almost stopped to lay on a rock and fall asleep, right then and there.

Camp for night 2

Camp for night 2

I finally made it to camp around 5 pm. As I approached the tent area, the rest of the group was there to cheer and congratulate everyone that finished the hike. I went straight past everyone, found my tent, and fell down to sleep. I didn’t move for the rest of that night except to go to the bathroom.

And it didn’t stop there. I started to have the chills so bad that Raina (thank gawd for her!) brought me a Nalgene bottle full of hot water so I could hug it in my sleeping bag until I could drink some of it. I was in so much pain: body aches from the flu/altitude sickness, muscle strains from the hike, nausea, stomach aches, running on no sleep from the night before…it pretty much sucked balls. I wasn’t even hungry, even though the last time I had eaten was over 10 hours ago for breakfast.

Raina lent me her warm socks, gave me some electrolyte powder, and pretty much took care of me for the rest of the night. I was extremely grateful, but I felt so bad. I knew that I HAD to get better so that I could hike the next day with the group and not hold everyone back. At one point, I even pondered whether I could get a horseback ride up the trail, or whether or not I would have to be dragged out by porters or flown out by helicopter. I was feeling so shitty, I was pretty sure that there would be no way in hell that I would be healthy enough to hike another 10 miles the next day – starting with a two mile hike up another mountain, and more stone stairs.

While I’m not very religious, I started praying –  like CRAZY. I was like, “please, please, PLEASE help me get better so that I can finish the hike tomorrow; I need to make it so that I don’t ruin this trip for the rest of the group!” It’s always during those times when you hit rock bottom that you find spirituality in your life.


Leave a Reply