We’re sitting in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes. Around us are five couples, two solo travelers, and two tour guides. All fourteen of them are tired, dirty, and covered in dried sweat. They just finished hiking the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and experienced a life changing experience, an incredible physical and mental challenge that had bonded them as lifelong friends. As we watch them drinking celebratory beer, retelling stories, and soaking it all in, I’m reminded: this was supposed to be us.
But instead of having a spiritual pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, we had an expensive failure on attempting to hike the Inca Trail. Instead of hiking to Machu Picchu, we turned around and hiked back after the first day. Here’s why.
Table of Contents
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Psst: Planning a trip to Peru? We’ve got a few other posts that might be helpful!
- 13 Things to Know Before You Go to Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru
- Hiking Laguna 69 in Huaraz, Peru: Everything You Need to Know
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Free Walking Tour: Lima, Peru
- 40 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Peru
Hiking The 4-Day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
We decided to hike the Inca Trail months before we started our year-long trip and backpacking South America. We chose the classic Inca Trail: a 4-day, 3-night trek through the Andes that ends at the Sun Gate, an exclusive entrance to Machu Picchu. The trail is part of an ancient pilgrimage, a path walked by thousands of ancient holy men, shamans, and great Incan scholars. Completing the path is a bucket list item, a dream come true. We were stoked.
After a lot of research (by Lia, the bigger nerd of the two of us), we booked our trek with Alpaca Expeditions, one of the highest rated companies. Alpaca Expeditions is amazing. Their prices are super reasonable, and the services included in your trek are far above the other tour companies. They provide porters for anything you need carried. They bring a chef – AND a sous chef. The staff is all paid fair wages, and the company is founded by two former porters themselves (a big problem with tourism in the Sacred Valley is the exploitation of the impoverished local populace, so this is a huge deal). All of their porters are from the Sacred Valley community. All meals, snacks, camping equipment, and purified water are provided. Hikers just need to bring a day pack with rain and sun protection, while the porters carry everything else. Makes the Inca Trail hike sound easy, right? We made the same mistaken assumption. Spoilers: we were wrong. In addition to an excellent company, our tour guide Jose was one of the best natural storytellers I’ve ever had on any tour. He was engaging, passionate, incredibly knowledgeable, and funny. Mind, you we didn’t get to enjoy much of it.
What to Expect on the Inca Trail
Even with an awesome tour company, the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is no joke. It’s an incredibly difficult hike. Different companies take slightly different approaches to the trail in regards to the length of each of the 4 days, and Alpaca Expeditions happens to have arguably the hardest – something we didn’t realize when we were booking 8 month ago. Cool.
While most companies start short and increase their hiking distance each day, Alpaca Expeditions optimizes campsites to avoid crowds.
Day 1 is the “training day”; an 8.7 mile long warm up hike. The bulk of this section is lovingly referred to as Andean Flat – meaning, well, not flat. If anyone in Peru ever describes a hike as “mostly flat,” you can safely assume they actually mean “mostly uphill.” The last stretch of day one is a steady ascent uphill for roughly an hour and a half.
Somehow, we looked at the altitude map of Day 1 and thought, “that doesn’t look too bad.” Day 1 seemed like a piece of cake. Yup: wrong.
Day 2, we thought, is the big one. It starts with a nearly 4000 foot climb straight uphill – literally stairs – for about four hours, to the cheerfully named Dead Woman’s Pass, situated at 13,500 feet of elevation. From there, it’s down-up-down on more stairs. The whole day is about 11 grueling miles long, at the most difficult and callenging altitude of the entire hike.
Day 3 is a short 6 mile half day in preparation for the mad dash to The Sun Gate first thing in the morning on Day 4.
We figured, as long as we can get through Day 1, we’ll be OK – it’s just Day 2 we have to worry about. Of course, we were totally wrong.
Training to Hike the Inca Trail
I know that some of you are only reading this to make sure your Inca Trail hike won’t befall the same fate as ours. (Which is smart. Keep reading!) Training was definitely part of our failure. But not in the way that you might think. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t train for the Inca Trail, or that we were overweight (although yes, in the interest of full disclosure, we’re both mildly overweight). We trained hard for our backpacking trip … but our Inca Trail hike was 4 months into our trip.
When I signed us up for the hike, 7 months before our trip, failure on the Inca Trail didn’t even cross my mind as an option. We were regular hikers at home, taking advantage of the myriad hikes around the Bay Area on a weekly basis. We added backpacking into the mix and hiked with heavy packs on. For almost a year leading up to our travels we also worked out regularly at the gym, doing at least 3x a week of strength training, powerlifting, and cardio. We timed our hikes, aiming continually for a 20-30 minute mile, adding elevation gain and mileage regularly. We felt fit. We felt ready. And then we left for South America.
In the months leading up to the trek, we planned various hikes and treks throughout South America: La Cuidad Perdida and the Valle de Cocora in Colombia, the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador, and Laguna 69 and Colca Canyon in Peru. Our goal was to train steadily over our 4 month trip to work up to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, as it is by far the hardest hike we have ever attempted. It all seemed so doable. One trek a month or so. No big deal.
The thing is that we could barely handle our training hikes. The hiking in South America is so much more difficult than we had ever experienced. From the altitude, to the heat, to the actual trails themselves – which seemed to alternate between knee-deep rivers of mud, slippery sand or shale, or just unmarked landslide-covered mountainsides – we were woefully ill-equipped.
We were used to Northern California hiking, with it’s temperate weather, low elevation – except for the challenging mountain peaks, which we of course hadn’t attempted – and well-marked, comfortable sand or packed dirt trails.
Within the first 2 weeks of our South America trip, we called of our 6-day Ciudad Perdida trek based off of our miserable experience during the relatively “easy” hike to Parque Tayrona.
We managed to hike only half of the Valle de Cocora, defeated by mud, slippery hidden rocks, and our own slow pace.
We successfully hiked 2 out of 3 days of the incredibly difficult Quilotoa Loop trek – if by “successfully hiked” you mean got lost, crawled up a mountainside on our hands and knees, and injured ourselves. On day 2, we took a taxi. By day 3, we were limping so badly that we hitchiked for the last mile of our hike.
Only one of us managed to hike Laguna 69, our first and only high-elevation hike ever, while the other one suffered in bed from debilitating altitude sickness.
By month 4, when it came time to do the 4-day Colca Canyon trek, we opted to take a bus instead. Fit hikers? Ha. Not anymore.
Hiking in South America turned out to be WAY more difficult than hiking in the States. Needless to say, after 4 months of almost no training at all, we were not ready for the Inca Trail.
Hiking to Machu Picchu: Off to a Bad Start
I could tell we were out of our league when we showed up to our debriefing session at Alpaca Expeditions the night before the start of the hike. Everyone but us was in perfect shape. You could just see rippling abs bulging out from every Patagonia and North Face jacket in the room. One guy was casually telling stories about various marathons he’d completed and the time he summitted Mount Fuji. Another couple was late to arrive because they were finishing up another multi-day trek. It was like walking into a Cross-Fit gym in stained sweats holding a donut and a milkshake. We were in way over our heads.
As we sized up our fellow hikers in dismay, I’m sure they were looking at us with the same dissappointment. As one uber-fit fellow travel blogger put it, there’s “nothing worse that having an out of shape Debbie Downer hiking with you for 4 days in the Peruvian mountains.” Her Inca Trail Trek was far more successful than ours, of course.
Hiking Day 1 of the Inca Trail is called”Training Day,” and it’s meant to illuminate the difficulty of the trek before you get into the really hard stuff. Our big problem when it comes to hiking is that we hike SO SLOWLY. We’ve heard so many well-meaning people who successfully finished the Inca Trail be like “Oh I’m slow too, it’s no big deal! You can do it!” It’s nice, but it’s wrong. In the words of Beyonce, “You must not know ’bout me,” because we take slow to a new level.
We let our guides know in advance that we are incredibly slow, and they both told us not to worry.
So as we began our trek, we weren’t surprised to find ourselves falling back regularly behind the rest of the group.
The first part of Day 1 is supposed to be from 9 AM-1:30 PM, then an hour break for lunch. The historical lessons that Alpaca Expeditions includes along the trek ran a little longer than planned, so the group got to lunch around 2 PM. Well, everyone except us, that is.
While the group was sitting down to enjoy a well-deserved break and deliciously cooked meal, Lia and I were slowly making our way up an Andean Flat stretch that became infinitely more difficult because the sun was burning us to oblivion. We expected rain the whole hike, but instead we were given unrelenting sunshine. I wasn’t sure what I would have preferred, honestly. We were dressed for rain, not sun, and it felt like we were dragging ourselves through the desert in 800 degree heat. We huffed and puffed and sweated the whole way up what was supposed to be an easy, “flat” section of trail. We finally rolled up to lunch just before 3 PM and got the dregs of the leftover food. I was so exhausted I barely touched the delicious fresh trout. Minutes later, the porters were tearing down, packing up, and (literally) running to set up our camp. Break over.
Our Uphill Battle Hiking the Inca Trail
We didn’t get any time to relax before we had to follow the rest of the group back up the trail. Franz, our assistant tour guide, was a trooper. He gently strolled alongside us as we huffed and puffed uphill for the next two and a half grueling hours. He was our personal chauffeur throughout the whole ordeal, in charge of our safety and health as the last 2 stragglers in the group. The section of hike after our lunch break was the beginning of the climb to Dead Woman’s Pass, the most notorious and difficult part of the Inca Trail. The hill alternates between stairs that go up to your knee and an incline so steep that it would make San Francisco say “Nope.” Franz gave us the advice to take the hills in a zig-zag. This helped a little, but my knee injury was returning mere minutes into the hill (thanks a lot, Quilotoa Loop). The pain sparking in my leg was only mitigated when we were passed by three fabulous, fluffy llamas.
Lagging behind and struggling, we were already feeling defeated. I asked Franz about the logistics of turning back the next day. Being the determined “we-can-do-it” one on our hikes is usually my job, so we both knew we were in trouble. But Franz remained optimistic, telling us that our pace was slow but steady, and assuring us that we could do Dead Woman’s Pass. Alpaca Expeditions never wants to send people back (imagine the pain of losing your entire trek fee AND failing at your once-in-a-lifetime bucket list dream – trust me, it hurts), so Franz kept pumping us full of hope. As time stretched to an hour and a half of slogging up the hill, we found a slow, methodical groove. I was feeling almost meditative, slowly putting one foot in front of the other as we climbed stair after stair with no end in sight. As the waning sun disappeared behind the majestic mountains apathetically observing our slow struggle, Franz pointed up and around a bend. Finally, he said the words we’d been waiting to hear for hours: “there’s the camp, ahead.” The end was near! In a last ditch effort to cheer us up, he added, “I actually think you guys can do it tomorrow.” We huffed and puffed and limped into camp, visions of finishing the trail and accomplishing the impossible dancing in our heads.
Happy Hour on the Inca Trail
We arrived at camp about 45 minutes after everyone else. It was already dark outside. The porters probably set the tents up 15 minutes after they left lunch, because they’re insanely bad-ass (I’m not exaggerating when I say they were literally running up the trail). So when we got to camp, everything was already set up for us in our spacious tent. We gratefully accepted a bucket of hot water to soak our feet in and tried to catch our breath.
The group was supportive and friendly, avoiding the slow elephant in the room, and instead asking things like “did you see those fabulous llamas?” It was a forced comradery – they’d just spent 8 hours bonding and chatting as they hiked, while we’d only interacted with them for a few minutes the entire day – but they were a really polite group.
Jose came by our tent and let us know that “happy hour” was in five minutes, followed by dinner. He said we didn’t need to come to happy hour if we needed rest. Then, ominously, he added “After dinner, we need to talk. I will give you suggestions.” Unsure what this meant, we went to happy hour. Happy hour was hot chocolate, tea, popcorn, deep-fried cheese wontons, and crackers. Honestly, much better than any booze-centric happy hour (especially at 10k feet above sea level). Dinner, like all Alpaca Expedition meals, was fantastic. We had Chifa style chicken, fried mashed yucca patties, rice, veggies, and fried cheesy cauliflower. Dessert was banana flambeed in pisco tableside.
As we stuffed ourselves, Jose gave the group a pep talk about Day 2: It’s the hardest day. 5am wakeup. 4 hours of climbing stairs. High altitude. You’ll likely feel sick. You’ll probably lose your appetite. You might throw up. Most of your extremities will be tingly and numb. Drink a lot of water. You know, the usual.
If you read that and thought “oh my god, that sounds like actual hell on earth,” you know exactly how we were feeling.
Facing Reality: Accepting Our Inca Trail Failure
After we ate our fill, Jose pulled us aside. He gave us two options. Option A was that we pack up that night, sleep in our hiking clothes, and get started on the trail at 4 the next morning. At our pace, he estimated, we’d be hiking until after sundown. 14 hours of hiking. 4,000 feet of climbing. 14,000 feet above sea level. Oh god.
Option B was that we turn around and hike back. Franz, our assistant guide, and a porter would go with us carrying our stuff. We would spend one night in Ollantaytambo and one night in Aguas Calientes, just outside of Machu Picchu. On Day 4, we would take the tourist route – the train – to Machu Picchu and reunite with the group early in the morning. “In time for pictures,” Jose assured us, in a voice that hinted that in case it helped ease our pain, there’d be a photo that made it look like we’d hiked the whole way too. Thank god, nobody on Facebook has to know about our failure on the Inca Trail. I guess that’s probably important for some people, but our first question was: how much is this going to cost us? $400 extra – on top of our $1,200 trekking fee – was the estimate. Ouch.
We took a hard look at ourselves. I was full on limping. Neither of us have ever hiked for 14 hours straight, much less on such a difficult and high-altitude trail. Lia is about 18 times slower than I am, and I’m slower than everyone else we’ve ever met. We were both filled with dread at the thought of Dead Woman’s Pass. Our optimistic visions of completing the hike faded and vanished. With a heavy heart, we told Jose we would be leaving the next day. Our failure on the Inca Trail was set in stone.
Return Hike to Ollantaytambo
We had breakfast with the group and told them we wouldn’t be joining them that day. They were understanding and sympathetic. A few of them definitely saw it coming. Jose gave us each a bagged lunch and wished us well.
The way back was much easier. Maybe it was because we knew that once we were done hiking that day, we were done hiking for a long time. Maybe it was because the way back is all downhill. Either way, we returned to KM 82 (The Inca Trail trail-head) in just 6 hours, compared to yesterday’s 8.
At the trailhead, we were joined by a Danish couple who had turned around due to altitude sickness: they’d spent night 1 throwing up. The four of us, our porters, Franz, and some others from the small town jumped in a combi and headed to Ollantaytambo.
When we arrived, we got a surprise from Franz – and it wasn’t just 2 bright green t-shirts proclaiming that we’d “Survived the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.” Thank god, no one at the gym has to know about our failure on the Inca Trail! No, the surprise was that apparently we were expected to pay for Franz’s hotels and transportation during the 3 days while we were off the trail. Surprise! We were pissed. We didn’t even NEED a guide, and we were already out enough money (*cough*$1,200*cough*). I guess if you’re the kind of traveler who flew into Peru just to do the hike (which describes everyone else in our hiking group) you might feel more comfortable with a guide tagging along, but we were 4 months in and perfectly capable of finding our own way.
The two Danes, who were on their honeymoon, got a nice hotel. We – on our much grungier honeymoon – found the cheapest piece of crap hotel we could. $5 for Franz, $10 for us. Sorry, Franz. If we’re paying, you’re roughing it too. We also, inadvertently, discovered what some people already know: Ollantaytambo is the cheapest place to stay close to Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo is quite similiar to so many Peruvian small towns we’ve been in. There is a main square surrounded by local restaurants and traditional craft markets. There is a looming mountain covered in picturesque ruins that we were in no mood to explore (side note: the Ollantaytambo Ruins are actually awesome, and make a great – and cheaper – alternative to Machu Picchu, as it turns out. Oh well. Next time, I guess.)
Trying to make the best of a bad situation, Lia and I tried some Alpaca Saltado, one of the local typical foods. We’ve been asked repeatedly if we’ve tried any bizarre foods in South America. Alpaca now tops the list. But it was super gross. It tastes like gamy overcooked beef. We like alpacas way better alive.
We bought our tickets for the train to Aguas Calientes and spent the rest of the day trying to find a cell phone charger and a wi-fi signal. We drifted off to sleep around 8pm, only to be awakened 3 times (3 TIMES) by the owner of the hotel, who apparently thought we were going to bounce without paying. He would shine a flashlight in our room, ask if we were still there or when we were going to pay, and then shuffle off. Early in the morning, he knocked on the door with the same routine. We eventually found him sitting motionless outside of our room, waiting to take his money. I guess not many gringos go with the super cheap hotel option in Ollantaytambo.
Aguas Calientes, Peru
We boarded a train the next afternoon across from the Danish couple. We enjoyed the scenic ride through the Sacred Valley from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, despite the awkwardness I brought on by bragging about how cheap our hotel was (theirs wasn’t, and we ended up looking like cheap traveling dickbags. New blog name?) During our train journey, as we sipped our free passion fruit juice and nibbled our free cookies (actually, “cookies” is a stretch. It was stale bread with 4 chocolate chips on top) we passed the beginning of the Inca Trail again. You know that feeling when you spend hours hiking a difficult trail, only to drive past it on the way home and realize it only took you 10 freaking minutes by car? We watched 16 miles and 14 difficult hours of our life pass by us in the blink of an eye. No wonder they stuck a train track on one of the most-used Inca Trails to Machu Picchu.
When we arrived at Aguas Calientes, Franz met us at the station. We had pre-booked our beds at Super Tramp, a hostel that was in partnership with other hostels we’ve loved in Cusco and Arequipa. Again: we were in major penny-pinching mode. Franz escorted us through Aguas Calientes to find the hostel, making himself as useful as he possibly could. Turns out we’d managed to out-cheap him: he took one look at the graffiti-covered hostel filled with grungy lounging backpackers and announced he’d booked his own hotel. We were off the hook for his room bill! I guess he didn’t want to stay with us in a 10-bed dorm. Can’t blame him.
As for us, we took one look at Super Tramp hostel – with its graffiti and travel-quote covered walls, free breakfast, and crowds of friendly lounging backpackers – and thought, oh thank god, we’re home. (Every time we stay in a hotel, we end up missing hostels. Seriously!)
The town of Aguas Calientes is actually pretty cool looking. It’s built in the rainforest at the base of a waterfall. Due to its location, there are no cars in town, so the streets are narrow with tall buildings. The only vehicles in town are buses to and from Machu Picchu. The major downside to Aguas Calientes? The price. The entire town is marked up like crazy to take advantage of the crowds of tourists who tromp through on their way to Machu Picchu and have no idea what a regularly priced Peruvian meal is like. Hint: it’s usually a lot less than 30 soles for a plate.
Franz offered to take us on a 3-hour hike to see a waterfall or to visit the local thermal baths. I’m sure those things are lovely, especially for people who are only in Peru to see Machu Picchu, but we were short on cash and … I realize this sounds super obnoxious … we’ve seen a lot of waterfalls and thermal baths during our 4 month backpacking trip through South America. Also, we were cranky. Sorry, Aguas Calientes. We opted to sit inside the hostel doing absolutely nothing – and trying not to dwell on our failure on the Inca Trail – and it was great.
Finally in Machu Picchu
We woke up at 4am the next morning, along with everyone else in our 10-person dorm room, and scarfed down the super early free breakfast from the hostel. We met with Franz and waited in the long line for the bus to Machu Picchu. The bus was bouncy, but the scenery was beautiful: low-lying fog nestling up against gigantic, steep mountains blanketed with rainforest.
Anyone who has ever been to Disney or somewhere similarly packed with tourists knows that whenever people flock to a tourist attraction, they turn off their brain and tend to believe this experience is just for them. Arriving in Machu Picchu felt just like that. In the low season, 3,000 people are let into Machu Picchu a day – 5,000 in high season. After the 45 minute wait for the bus, 30 minute wait in the line, and 20 minute crowded uphill walk to Machu Picchu, it was…disappointing.
Don’t get me wrong. Machu Picchu is beautiful, and a truly breathtaking sight. But it’s so crowded. In order to appreciate the quiet majesty of the ruins, you have to avoid selfie sticks, tour groups, and hoards of people trying to take THAT picture. Which is impossible. Without firsthand experience, I think it’s safe to say that Machu Picchu is way, WAY more satisfying after a grueling 4-day pilgrimage.
After kicking out a couple who were attempting to meditate in one of the most popular designated picture spots, Franz helped us take our own obnoxious Machu Picchu picture. We got a few minutes to explore the Guard’s House – hands-down the best spot for photos AND the least crowded, as it’s all the way up the hill – before finally reuniting with our group as they walked down the hill from the Sun Gate, the entrance from the Inca Trail.
The group was starry-eyed and excited. They were seeing Machu Picchu with completely different eyes than we were. And we felt the difference. Despite their friendliness, it seemed like we were being pitied. Our questions of “Oh my god, was it amazing?” were met with a polite and uncomfortable “so how was…your time? Was the town nice?” We also stupidly wore our complementary “I Survived The Inca Trail” t-shirts… but nobody else did. Awkward. We took our group picture, imagining that for years to come, whenever the rest of the group shared this photo with their impressed friends and family, they’d say, “See those two in the bright green “I survived the Inca Trail” shirts? It’s so ironic. They were the only ones who didn’t make it.”
The group left us again to check in at the office. In the meantime, Lia and I got to do what we were looking forward to the most: making llama friends. As anyone who has been to Machu Picchu will tell you, there are llamas everywhere. The llamas even have the right of way throughout the ruins. We found some particularly friendly llamas (that’s a lie, all llamas are sassy and rude and it makes us love them so much more) and finally got the picture that we’d always dreamed of.
Once Jose and the group returned, we were treated to a two hour tour of the village of Machu Picchu. Everything Jose said put the group in awe and built upon 4 days of in-depth cultural lessons that we had missed (and I do mean in-depth. Jose went to college for this. He is insanely knowledgeable.) As we passed ruin after ruin, not quite grasping the significance of subtle architectural details that made the rest of the group gasp in delight, I realized that everyone else had experienced Machu Picchu the right way. The Inca Trail was a pilgrimage, and here they were reaping the benefits. 4 days of dust, sweat and tears. 4 days of viewing progressively larger and more interesting ruins, and hearing the stories of the people who once lived there. 4 days of fully embracing Pachamama and deeply resonating with how Sacred the Sacred Valley truly is.
All we’d done was sit around bored for 2 days.
After the tour, most of the group continued to Wayna Picchu, an hour hike (more stairs!) uphill for a sweeping view of the village and surrounding area. You know that tall pointy mountain in the back of any photograph of Machu Picchu? That’s Wayna Picchu. We decided not to do the hike, because it’s extra money and who are we kidding.
Instead we opted for the Inca Bridge, a derelict stone pathway that hugs the side of a cliff face. As we hiked the hour to the Inca Bridge, we realized we were both feeling the same disappointment about not finishing the trail. We hadn’t just failed at hiking Machu Picchu. We had ruined our destination, too.
Return to Aguas Calientes
We left Machu Picchu before most of the others, sick of the crowds and the overall feeling of regret. Jose told us to meet at a restaurant called Tupana Wasi. If there was any doubt that Alpaca Expeditions is used to gringos with money, this restaurant confirmed it. We took one look at the menu and nearly choked: it was SO far out of our budget.
We spent the hour waiting for the rest of the group eating raisins and nuts like chipmunks storing up for winter so we would be less envious of everyone else’s food.
As the others arrived, hugs were had, beers were consumed, and contact information was exchanged.
Well, except ours.
This was the most awkward part of the entire day. The group tried to be polite about avoiding getting our Facebook information, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t even remember our names. Which is OK, because we didn’t remember any of theirs, either.
It felt like we had stumbled into the cast party of a close-knit group of actors in a play we’d only caught the first 10 minutes of. We sat awkwardly trying to join in as much as we could as the rest of the group retold stories, shared laughs, and reveled in the life changing experience they had shared. I mean literally life changing, you all. One couple in the group actually got engaged at The Sun Gate!
We killed time in town after lunch until our train ride. Finally, after four days of lucky weather, the skies had opened up into the torrential rain we’d been expecting all along.
On the train ride back to Ollantaytambo, we passed KM 82 and the start of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu for the FOURTH time. It was like we were reliving our Greatest Hits of Inca Trail Failure over and over again.
Finally, after four hours of transit, we arrived back in Kokopelli Cusco, finally done with one of our most expensive failures ever.*
*Surprisingly, this was not THE most expensive failure we’ve had. We once bought a used car for $5,000 cash. It lasted for 2 months, then inexplicably died. RIP, Loretta the Jetta.
How to Not Fail at Hiking the Inca Trail
The 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Piccha is no joke. It is a grueling four day fight against time and altitude. Of the group who actually completed the hike, 3 felt the effects of altitude sickness on Dead Woman’s Pass, and 1 spent a whole day throwing up as he hiked. I mean, he DID finish, though.
If you plan to take on this challenge, here are our tips for hiking Machu Picchu. Follow our advice and you’ll be far more prepared than we were!
- Arrive in Cusco at least 4 days in advance in order to acclimatize. We gave ourselves 5 days and did not feel any of the effects of altitude sickness.
- Take altitude sickness pills, from the time you arrive in Cusco up through the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass.
- Hit the gym. Hiking Machu Picchu is insanely difficult and gets even harder if you happen to be overweight. At a minimum, you should be able to run a mile without needing to stop (which we still struggle with). You should be able to do around an hour on the Stairmaster (especially helpful for Dead Woman’s Pass). When it comes to strength training, focus on your hamstrings, quads, and calves. We recommend deadlifts, squats, and weighted calf raises. The stronger your legs are, the less likely your knees will get injured.
- Train like your life (and your trekking fee) depends on it. At a minimum: hike like crazy. Hike weekly. Hike for speed, hike for altitude, hike the hardest hikes you’ve ever done and master them. If you’ve never done a 4,000 foot incline (and decline), find one and do it. If you can find some high-altitude hikes to do – even a gentle stroll at high altitude will help – do them as often as you can. We’ve also heard swimming can help with altitude training, so long as you’re working hard and holding your breath at the same time.
- Train with a respiratory restriction mask, like this one. Wearing this ridiculous looking mask might make you feel like Bane from Batman, but it’ll turn you into an altitude-mastering hiking beast. If I had 1 thing that I’d try if I could go back and do it all over again, it would be to buy one of these and wear it on every single one of my training hikes. Altitude was by FAR the most difficult factor in our Inca Trail failure, and if you’re training at a low-altitude area like we were in California, this will be crucial to make sure you’re able to complete your hike to Machu Picchu!
- Research the hiking route. This is something we didn’t do – we assumed all trekking companies did the same route on the Inca Trail from day to day. We didn’t realize we’d be covering more ground than every other company in the first 2 days. Many companies spread the 26 miles out evenly over 4 days, or give you 2 days of warmup before a long day. If 12 hours of hiking (the plan for day 2) sounds like too much, go with a different company than Alpaca Expeditions.
- Consider your options for hiking Machu Picchu. You should know that the 4-day Inca Trail is not the only way to hike to Machu Picchu. There are other treks that get you to Machu Picchu, like the Lares Trek, the Salkantay Trek, and the Inca Jungle Trek, just to name a few. There’s also a 2-day Inca Trail hike option. It is my understanding that these all end at Aguas Calientes, then a bus continues the trip to Machu Picchu. The 4-day Inca Trail is the only one that ends at the Sun Gate and continues straight into to the ruins of Machu Picchu.
- Choose your tour company carefully. If you are planning on hiking Machu Picchu, you’ll find many options for tour companies. I can’t praise Alpaca Expeditions enough. They were open, honest, patient, and helpful, from booking to when we were dropped at our hostel. With most South American tour companies, you get what you pay for. But with them, it felt like we got more than we paid for. We are big proponents of sustainable and equitable companies. Alpaca Expeditions are one of the only companies to treat their porters fairly, and it shows in the happiness and demeanor of the porters.
- Do some reading to prepare for visiting Machu Picchu. I don’t mean like reading a blog post, y’all. I mean books! I highly recommend this excellent, expertly-researched primer on Incan culture and history: The Incas by Terence N. D’Altroy. No book opened my eyes to the incredible, forgotten reality of how insanely advanced, high-tech, and populous pre-Columbian societies such as the Incas were prior the invasion of European colonists more than 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. And if you’re looking for something a little less research-based and a little more humorous, Turn Right at Machu Picchu is a fantastic read.
What to Pack for the Inca Trail
One thing that we felt well-prepared with was our hiking gear! Peru, much like the rest of South America, is the land of every kind of weather you can imagine. It’s hot during the day, cold at night, even colder if you climb higher, and can rain in an instant – which becomes even more likely depending in the time of year you choose to hike the Inca Trail.
You’ll need to bring gear that can withstand anything that gets thrown at it, and keep you comfortable to boot. Here’s what we recommend throughout all of our trials (and failures) hiking both in the US and in South America.
Note: we had a porter carrying our belongings, which we STRONGLY recommend – even though some companies charge extra for this service, it is worth it.
- 50-100oz of water: We have a Camelbak Hydration Pack that fits 100oz of water, snacks, AND has some room for gear, too. This was all we carried with us during the day, to keep things as lightweight as possible.
- Trekking poles are a huge help when it comes to tricky terrain and climbing both up and downhill, such as Dead Woman’s Pas. We brought our Black Diamond trekking poles with us, folded down and tucked into a side pocket of our backpacks, for our entire 5 months in South America and they were SO useful on hikes.
- Rain Gear: We love our Ultra-Light Packable Rain Jackets (His & Hers) and we bring Waterproof Socks to wear under our Trail Runners, just in case. These are small enough to roll up and tuck right into our CamelBak.
- Hiking Clothes: We prefer wool hiking gear thanks to its ability to cool you down in the heat and keep you warm in the rain – totally necessary for high-altitude hiking in Peru, where the weather can change in a minute. We’ve tried a lot of different hiking clothing over the years, and these are our favorite tried and true picks.
- Hiking Shoes & Socks: We both hike in Trail Runners rather than heavy duty hiking boots – they’re lightweight and travel friendly, more flexible and comfortable, and they dry super quickly when it rains or after a water crossing, so your feet will stay toasty and try. Pair them with well-made wool socks. Our favorite wool sock brand is Darn Tough: soft, durable, and they come with a lifetime guarantee in the event of holes (that’s how you know it’s real).
- Coca Leaves to chew during your hike. The guides will give you Coca Tea and a special hand spray that will help clear your lungs on day 2, but bringing extra Coca Leaves to chew as you walked will really helped with the altitude. You’ll find Coca Leaves all over Peru, including mercados and even supermarkets. If the leaves are too gross for you (they taste like … well, leaves) there’s also Coca Leaf candy and gum.
- Sunscreen and a Hat or Sunglasses: Many parts of the Inca Trail are exposed and sunny.
- Camera: Machu Picchu is stunning, so don’t forget to pack a camera for that once-in-a-lifetime shot! We recommend bringing a tiny, lightweight GoPro – the wide panoramic angle is perfect for the sweeping wide-angle shots of Machu Picchu. Our other fave is the Canon Powershot. It’s the perfect lightweight, hike-friendly camera that takes amazing photos while still fitting comfortably into your pocket. We used this camera exclusively during our 5 months backpacking South America and were extremely pleased with it.
An Honest Assessment of Our Utter Failure
So you might read this and think we’re saying not to try hiking the Inca Trail. In fact, the opposite is true. We now firmly believe that Machu Picchu should be done by way of the Inca Trail, if possible.
Seeing the ruins through a crowd felt cheap and touristy, and much of the magic and awe shared by the rest of the group was lost on us (in hindsight, I wish we’d known more about making the most of Machu Picchu in a day).
It felt like our hiking group truly earned the sight of this ancient village. We just showed up and tagged along.
On a positive note, our love for hiking hasn’t been dampened by our failure on the Inca Trail. We plan to continue slowly plodding along on progressively more challenging hikes, keeping our expectations reasonably low to match our abilities.
So if you’re reading this and wondering, “Should I hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu?” Well, we really can’t answer that for you! We can only speak for our own experience. The only one who’s really able to assess your physical abilities is you.
If you think you can do the Inca Trail, and you’re committed to trying, we wholeheartedly say “go forth and f**king slay, you athletic warrior god/goddess!”
But if you’re not feelin’ it after reading our experience … well, that’s OK too. You can sit with us at the “maybe one day” table and we’ll all have a beer and hang out.
We hope reading about our failure to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu made you laugh. Or maybe it helped you assess your own physical abilities. Either way, let us know in the comments!
Psst: Planning a trip to Peru? We’ve got a few other posts that might be helpful!
- 13 Things to Know Before You Go to Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru
- Hiking Laguna 69 in Huaraz, Peru: Everything You Need to Know
- 40 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Peru
- What to Pack for South America: 32 Backpacking Essentials
Did you get a sick sense of satisfaction from reading about our failure on the Inca Trail? (Hey, that’s what we’re here for.) Share it on Pinterest or Facebook so everyone else can judge us, too!
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