HIKING THE INCA TRAIL
The classic Inca Trail trek to the gates of Machu Picchu is a highly sought after experience for a reason. It is a trip that I remember fondly, and always think back to with a sense of amazement. Did I really do that? Did fussy, high maintenance Niki actually hike for 4 days into the depths of the Andes without a shower and only a squat toilet to do her business? I did, and it was wonderful, beautiful, and transformative. Hopefully, the precursor to a future filled with equally amazing treks, including the Laugavegur Trek in Iceland this summer.
It’s common knowledge that the Inca Trail is the preferred method of reaching Machu Picchu, but what isn’t always clear (especially when I was doing research two years ago) is what to expect when you are on the trail. Everyone’s experience is different, so I can only say what it was like for a cautiously adventurous girl in her late 20’s, but I think my point of view is still valid for a lot of people. So here goes…
Do you need to physically train for the trek? I don’t think so. If you are generally in good health then you will probably be fine. Everyone in my group completed the trek, it just took some people longer than others. There were a lot of first time trekkers on the trail, including myself. It includes long days in quickly changing weather with steep assents, but it never felt like an insurmountable task. Although not necessary, I do think that being in good physical shape helps to make the whole experience more enjoyable.
Pack light and smart. Don’t bring anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. You don’t want to be burdened by extra weight in your backpack. Everyone on the trek will be re-wearing clothing, so don’t worry about bringing a new outfit for each day of the trail. Concern yourself with having enough layers for warmth and gear to protect you from rain. I visited over the winter, and we still had one wet day. If at all possible, I would highly suggest visiting during the dry season. I couldn’t imagine trudging through mud, climbing slippery rocks (also going downhill) and being wet the whole trek. Also, it can get really cold at night and during lunch stops, so bring layers of clothing to add when the temperatures drop. Check out Travel Fashion Girl for a great post outlining exactly what to pack for your trip.
There are no showers, plan accordingly. This was my biggest concern prior to the trip. For someone with extremely oily hair, not being able to wash it was a big deal. It wasn’t about looking good (but really, no one wants to look terrible in their iconic Machu Picchu photo), but about comfort. If you have similar hair, you will feel my pain. For everyone else, I hope you and your hair that only needs to be washed once a week are very happy together. To help ease my struggle, I brought along three things: baby powder to help dry out my locks, a bandana to tie around my hairline, and a baseball cap. It was the best I could do, and luckily I survived the ordeal.
Now I come to everyone’s favorite topic, the bathroom situation. It was about as bad as you can imagine. There aren’t traditional toilets along the trail, but stalls with squat toilets for everyone at the campsite to use. Squatting was the least offensive part of the bathroom sitch if you catch my drift. It took me one night to figure out that a bathroom fairy sprayed off the stalls after everyone went to sleep, so I woke up early every day to use the facilities. Before the throngs of people descended upon them. Another tip is to wrap a bandana around your face and put Tiger Balm under your nose to help mask the smell. What I lack in strength, I make up for in cunning.
Go in with the right expectations or none at all. This is always important to make the most out of any trip. The trek isn’t easy or luxurious, but it is infinitely rewarding. The sore legs, dirt, and grime covering your body will give you pride when walking among the crowds at Machu Picchu on the final day. You will be glad you chose to spend four days hiking in the Andes instead of taking the train. Also, the genuine joy you feel when you finally get to use a typical toilet and shower is indescribable.