Hiking Machu Picchu: Failure on The Inca Trail

Couple overlooking Machu Picchu, Peru
We tried to hike the Inca Trail. We failed. Hiking Machu Picchu in Peru is a bucket list item. We didn't get to cross it off our list. Here's why and what you need to know to prepare for the Inca Trail!

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. How difficult is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Well, let’s put it this way: instead of hiking to Machu Picchu, we turned around and hiked back after the first day. Here’s why.

Estimated Reading Time: 30 Minutes

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.

Hiking Machu Picchu at the beginning of the Inca Trail in Peru.
The quintessential “We hiked the Inca Trail!” photo. Or in our case, “We almost hiked some of the Inca Trail!”

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.

Machu Picchu, Peru. We tried hiking the Inca Trail to get here, but then we had to turn around and hike back.
We trained for months before we attempted to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, visions of llamas and ancient Inca ruins dancing before our sweaty eyes.

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.

Looking out over Machu Picchu after our failure to hike the Inca Trail.
I can say with complete certainty that had we actually succeeded at hiking Machu Picchu, my hair would have looked a lot wores. So we’ll chalk that one up to a win, I guess.

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.

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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.

Looking out over the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lush Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!
Looking out over the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lush Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!

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.

Along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu there are many fascinating ancient ruins. Our guide from Alpaca Expeditions gave us a detailed background and story behind each of them. We love that there are 4 days of learning about Incan Culture BEFORE Machu Picchu!
Along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu there are many fascinating ancient ruins, like this one, which is a perfect example of the terracing farming techniques used by the advanced pre-Columbian Inkan society. Our guide from Alpaca Expeditions gave us a detailed background and story behind each of them. We love that there are 4 days of learning about Incan Culture BEFORE Machu Picchu!

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.

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Alpaca Expeditions green machines (porters) at camp on day 1 of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The infamous Alpaca Expeditions Green Machines and the epic food tent, which is also the sleeping tent for the porters.

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.

The ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru, after our failure on the Inca Trail.
I can imagine seeing these incredible ruins as the sun rises over the Sun Gate after a grueling 4-day pilgrimage. I say imagine, because we wouldn’t personally know what it’s like.

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.

Attempting to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru. And failing.
Lia may be a regular hiker, but she’s a very, very, very, very slow one.

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.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

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.

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Peru Rail from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes on the way to Machu Picchu after our Inca Trail failure.
We took Peru Rail from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. It was fancy!

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.

Machu Piccu, Peru, after our painful failure on the Inca Trail.
Finally at Machu Picchu after our painful failure on the Inca Trail.

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.

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru after our Inca Trail failure.
This is it: THE photo of Machu Picchu that we always dreamt of! We may not have finished hiking Machu Picchu, but dammit, we made some really cute llama friends.

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.

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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.

Aguas Calientes, the touristy town just outside of Machu Picchu, Peru, blanketed in rain.
Aguas Calientes, the touristy town just outside of Machu Picchu, Peru, blanketed in rain.

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. 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.

Llamas in Machu Picchu, Peru, after our failure hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Honestly, going to Machu Picchu is 100% worth it if only to make llama friends and take pictures like this one.

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.

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 losing your breath or needing to stop. You should be able to do an hour on the Stairmaster (that’s like day 2 lite). When it comes to strength training, focus on your hamstrings, quads, and calves. I 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 hikse. 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, 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. It truly felt like we were a part of the family.  I mean, until we failed.
  • Do some reading to prepare for visiting Machu Picchu. I don’t mean like, 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.
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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 need 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.
Contemplating our failure on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru.
After our failure on the Inca Trail, we decided to get a divorce. No, I’m totally kidding. Look how cute we are! The couple that fails together, stays together.

My 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. I now firmly believe that Machu Picchu should be done by way of the Inca Trail. 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). 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.

Maybe we’ll try hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu again one day. After all, my grandmother did it 30 years ago, when she was 60. Who knows, maybe we’ll take our kids with us next time.


Did you get a sick sense of satisfaction from reading about our failure on the Inca Trail? (No judgement. That’s what we’re here for.) Pin it! Note: Full sized images can be found by clicking the “Pin It” button.

We tried to hike the Inca Trail. We failed. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru is a bucket list item. We didn't get to cross it off our list. Here's our story of failure on the Inca Trail in Peru.

 

29 Comment

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I have many things to say. First of all, you are a great writer! Second, congrats on having a good sense of humor and being so honest. Having just completed this myself (and I BARELY did it) I totally was laughing at your descriptions of things because it is a brutal hike. I am so sorry for you guys…the disappointment is palpable and I would feel the same. However I think you have a great attitude about it…this is just one part of a year long amazing journey you guys are on. At least you got to experience one day and those amazing meals. You have gorgeous pics. You have a great story to tell and someday it will be even funnier!

    I love your Machu Picchu picture and I’m super jealous of your llama pictures. I also was super irritated by the crowds at MP. You are right about the Trail making the experience more special, however…and maybe this will make you feel a little better…I was so irritated and exhausted by the time we finally got there that I just wanted to rest. I didn’t spend enough time in Machu Picchu as I should have. I have serious regret about that but that trail killed me. Our whole group was grouchy as hell that day. We had a shitty lunch in Aguas Calientes then went to those disgusting hot tubs (they call them hot springs) and we didn’t even care because our muscles hurt so bad and we needed to get drunk. Then a couple of us had food poisoning. I had to skip Huanya Picchu because of this.

    Anyway…..loved reading about your experience! Thanks for sharing it!

    P.S Cheap traveling dickbags…..too funny!!!

  2. Ahhhh sorry to hear about the fail but I was laughing right along – the couple that fails together stays together. As a highly reluctant hiker, you just re-affirmed my decision to skip Inca Trail when I’m in Peru next month!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Glad we could help save you from a miserable 4 days 😛 Thanks for the comment, Khalilah!

  3. Sally @ Lady and the Tramper says: Reply

    Oh guys I am so sorry that this happened to you. I certainly cringed in some parts (great writing skills, I was in the moment). P.S. was lolling at the estimated reading time for this post, mentally preparing people!

    The Inca trail sounds very grueling, I loved your honesty and the way you told the story. We had to do one of the alternatives to Machu Picchu as we were totally unaware of when we would be around cuzco but after reading this I’m kind of glad we didn’t do the actual trail as I would’ve been crying all the way up there! Especially as I was battling a cold. Hikes tend to affect me more than Jay who just seems to plod along unaffected by any incline (damn him)

    I really resonated with you about hiking in South America. Although we did a fair bit of hiking there, I feel I was lazier than what I was on most trips. Sitting on busses for 24 hours at a time and then spending the day charging your camera has that crappy effect on your body when you’ve been travelling for a while. South America is just so huge, you can spend days sitting around waiting to get to a place and by that point you’re really not feeling the crazy hikes the continent has to offer.

    I absolutely love your llama photos, they are the cutest! and totally agree with you how busy it is up there, which is a shame because the location is simply stunning, the backdrop of the mountains and the clouds is just beautiful.

    Hope you have better luck on your future hikes, I really enjoyed reading this post, not because of the failure part (I’m not that mean) but it was really well written and I felt I was in the moment with you!

    Happy and safe travels 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks for the commiseration! You’re totally right that sitting on long overnight buses and then recovering from them takes up more energy than I could have imagined down here. Add in acclimatizing to high altitudes and you’ve only got 1-2 days left out of your week for activities! No wonder we seem to spend so much time loafing around in coffee shops 😛 Which trek did you end up completing?

  4. So sorry to read this, but it was actually quite fascinating to read your post. My husband and I didn’t have enough time or advanced notice to do the hike so we took the train instead, but we did do the Huayna Picchu hike and it was the highlight of our day.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m glad you were able to enjoy Huayna Picchu! I think if we planned to go by train like we ended up going, we would have opted for hiking Huayna Picchu too. But as it is we cancelled our reservation in advance and then didn’t get a chance to hike it :-/ I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. Hi guys. Jenn read this and has been on me ever since to read it so that is what I did with my extra hour today. We posted it to our Pinterest board already. This is a fantastic piece and you are very brave to put it out there.

    Recently, we went to Wolf Creek Colorado and did a very short hike to Treasure Falls which is probably only at 10K’. On that hike, we were both working hard not to run out of breath. You actually loose oxygen exponentially as you go up. 8000′ has a lot more oxygen than 14k’. We can feel your pain.

    Surprisingly, stairs can be problematic too. Especially if they were build thousands of years ago for shorter people with different gaits. Hiking down to the Grand Canyon is harder than I would have expected because of the stairs.

    Finally, the heat. I have hiked in Arizona a lot and every time I had people from out of town hiking I made sure that they suffered in the heat before the real hike. Then, we would start at the crack of dawn to gain enough altitude to not bake on the desert floor during the heat of the day. A late start or slow pace would doom the hike because of heat exposure alone.

    I am absolutely sure that this is a hike we would want to do. I am not sure that we would complete it. I have been seeing so many articles about Machu Picchu and the “typical experience” that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go at all. Now, seeing this, I definitely want to go. I just need to get training on it. I have heard that high altitude training takes months for your body to respond to and increase your O2 intake. Perhaps we would have to move to Colorado before hand. There are certainly worse places to be.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I love that we were your extra hour today 🙂 Thank you both so much! I’m surprised (and glad!) that our article made you decide you wanted to go. It is really an amazing experience … we’re pretty sure … but you have to EARN it. And it is NOT easy. The altitude definitely slowed us down. Colorado would be a good training ground, and they have tons of challenging hikes there too 🙂 Maybe we’ll see you there!

  6. Monica says: Reply

    That was a fantastic read. I loved your open and honest account. I have a few friends who have been to Machu Picchu and seeing their pictures makes me think, “Wow, I want to go there.” Now I know how much effort is involved! I don’t think I’ll ever be fit enough to hike the Inca trail, and my husband was on the verge of passing out after going back up 320 steps from a small beach in Bali, so I doubt I’ll ever convince him to hike it, either. I would still love to go, but I am the type of person who hates being among throngs of tourists, so I will have to prepare myself for that. You did a wonderful job merging your experience with tips and advice!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank you Monica! We may never be able to do it again, but at least we got to see what we were missing out on. It’s SO freaking hard!!

  7. I’m so glad we visited Peru and Machu Picchu on our honeymoon—but in 1982, during the Falklands War, a guerilla uprising (the Shining Path), and before Aguascalientes was even a there there. There was 1 hotel up at the ruins and we sprang for it. When the tourist train left at 3 pm to return to Cusco, we had the ruins virrually to ourselves. We climbed Huyana Picchu the following day at the spur of the moment. Again, we had the trail virtually to ourselves–except for the dead viper. If you’re curious about the experience back, back in the day, search for “Peru” on my blog. PS: We’re still happily married and still travel whenever we can. 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That sounds incredible! And much closer to the experience my grandmother had when she visited decades ago. I will check out your experience on your blog!

  8. Holly says: Reply

    I am so glad I found this and want you to know I had the EXACT same experience including the tour company , the guide (Jose) and the horrifying talk on the end of day one. But I tried day too and hiked six miles of if before I was told I would not make if by the guide and then I had to turn back. Add in a ride down the trail on a motorcycle for part of it and peeing my pants when I fell on the trail and there you have it. It was still a great experience and I loved Alpaca but have to say I felt really rushed and pushed into getting off trail. I was making it I was just slow and the insane distances for the first few days didn’t help. But literally I had a guide behind me impatiently waiting for me every time I stopped to rest and topped off with my own feeling of failure and it sucked. That being said I learned a lot on that trip namely that things don’t always go as planned. You are not alone !

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank you for sharing Holly! I’m glad we aren’t alone. I think maybe we’d be better candidates for a 5-day version of the trail at our own very slow pace 😛

  9. […] things to do and see and experience: from the Amazon jungle to Patagonia to the Galapagos to Machu Picchu to the marble caves of Chile and the glaciers of Ushuaia to Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats and […]

  10. chikonahoka says: Reply

    Oh great… I mean I’m not a slouch, but I doubt I could be self-motivated enough to get into – and stay in – that kind of shape! Maybe my friend has the right idea with the train…

    1. Lia says: Reply

      It’s certainly the easier (and cheaper) way to see Machu Picchu!

  11. It was so refreshing to read this because every other blog post either skips the hard parts or glosses over them making it sound totally doable! I am not a hiker but getting to MP sans the crowds is one mega dream of mine. Having read this, I know I am not cut out to do the trail and if I ever do make this happen, thanks to this post know what to do!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m happy to represent Macchu Picchu failure realness, Harpreet! If you really want to skip the crowds, I’d say your best bet is probably going either on the very 1st train (buy your tickets in advance!) OR going really late in the day. They’ve started assigning times to people that they must stick by to help with crowds, too. Hope that helps!

  12. Amy says: Reply

    Wow, this is a fantastic post! You had me both laughing and feeling the disappointment right along with you. Great writing! Honestly, I LOLed at ” It was like walking into a Cross-Fit gym in stained sweats holding a donut and a milkshake.” I could totally understand feeling that way myself.

    Nathan & I would love to visit South America and Machu Picchu is high on my list. I actually hadn’t read much about the trek at all before this, and it sounds grueling. I love that you gave some practical tips with it as well. Awesome stuff. If we ever decide to do the trek, we will work out like animals!!

    Again, fabulous post guys.

  13. Gerri says: Reply

    You guys are fabulous! I loved this article and I laughed out loud so many times. I just love your writing style and humor. We are going to MP in April 2018 with a group of six friends. The others are all insanely fit….but not me!! I hike regularly in Colorado, but good lord, your description of the trail is hysterical/horrifying/and just what I expected it to be like!! Now, you can do a one day hike by exiting the train in the middle of nowhere. It’s a 2600′ elevation gain and 7.5 miles long and the average person does it in six hours. However, if you don’t make it to MP by 5:30 you’ll miss the last bus and have to hike another two hours to Aguas Calientes. I need to start training now and we’re going to arrange our schedule so we go to Cusco first. Since we live in Colorado at altitude, I hope we will be a bit acclimated! Thanks for this wonderful and honest article. Happy trails!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      You have a HUGE advantage living in Colorado – get yourself to Breckenridge or some high-altitude mountain trail and start hiking! That will help SO much. Good luck with your trek!!

  14. Renee says: Reply

    So, I’m slightly nervous now about hiking the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. My husband is some type of super human who runs on a daily basis while I sit on the couch watching Real Housewives of WHATEVER is on at the moment. In my prime I was an athlete but after collegiate sports ended I’ve been living the sloth life. I can run a mile just fine but we live in Texas, ain’t no altitude down here. ( said in hick voice). I’m coming to terms with the fact that I might die on this trek in October.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Good luck girl. Start training NOW! Hit that stairmaster! Swimming is supposed to help with altitude too, as is tying a bandana around your mouth while you work out … they even have fancy altitude masks to help with training. Honestly, they look silly (or possibly like it’s the apocalypse) but I totally wish I’d had one to train with!

  15. Amy says: Reply

    I just found your blog while looking for information on Huaraz (Lake 69) and kept reading until I found this post. Holy crap – hiking in Peru sounds effing hard!! I was thinking about going to MP and just doing the train and doing some day hikes in Huaraz but now, totally rethinking this.

    I loved your honesty and the way you guys story tell, it’s hilarious, charming, and heartfelt. Don’t feel like a failure! now I’m not sure if I should go to Huaraz. haha

    1. Lia says: Reply

      It just depends on your skill level, tbh. Keep in mind that coming from the coast of California, we are at a HUGE disadvantage when it comes to hiking at altitude. Someone who hikes in say, Colorado would be MUCH better equipped. I’d also highly recommend trying a few hikes with an altitude mask to see how you feel. It just takes a LOT of training and a higher level of fitness than we had 2 months into our trip. If you start training now, you can totally do it!

  16. melissa says: Reply

    Wow! Sounds like you got a personal tour and attention from Franz and you outcheaped him? I understand being on a budget and having extra expenses you weren’t intending, but gosh, it seems like you could have done the guy right. I’m guessing you didn’t bother tipping him after your trip was over? What a bummer.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Of course we tipped him. We tipped BOTH guides in full, despite not completing the trip. That’s exactly why we couldn’t afford to pay for a $100 a night hotel room for him, PLUS another one for us. We stayed in cheap hotels and hostels that cost under $10 a night, and he chose not to (we would have paid for his room as well). Honestly, we would rather have not had a guide come with us at all, as it wasn’t necessary and just an added extra expense. He was paid & tipped out either way. I get that it’s not ideal – for him or for us – but frankly we lost out on well over a thousand dollars and throwing in an extra few hundred just to make our guide happy wasn’t something we were willing to do.

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