It is hard to believe, but just seven weeks ago today, Rita and I set out on our hike to Machu Picchu. Actually, sometimes it is hard to believe we really did it. But we have the trail stamps and photographic evidence to prove it, and in fact Rita says I still have a bit of the bruise on my ass from the third day, so there’s that too.
Now that we have had a little time to gain some perspective on the trip, I wanted to say something about what it was like, and what it meant to us.
Quite simply, it was the hardest physical task either of us have ever attempted, much less completed. It turns out that not only did we need every single one of the 381 days we took to prepare ourselves, we also needed a good dose of luck to succeed. Our biggest piece of luck by far was the weather. We chose the end of August because it is the very end of the dry season, and we hoped that would maximize our chances of minimizing the rain we would have to hike through, but we still fully expected that for some of the trail, we would be walking through rain. The fact that we didn’t have to try to walk on slippery, wet, stone steps was a real gift.
We also count ourselves lucky that although we both had some problems with illness, nothing completely debilitating happened to either of us. In fact, we didn’t even have colds or any congestion problems. Believe me, when you are hiking at altitudes over 10,000 feet most of the time, congestion and a runny nose are serious matters.
Finally, we were lucky that we did not suffer any injuries along the way. Part of that was the training we did, and part was the good equipment we chose, but a lot of it was luck. With all of the uneven terrain, steps, mud, rocks, and other obstacles, it would have been easy to twist an ankle or wrench a knee, and end up stuck in the middle of nowhere with no good options.
As for what it meant to us, it was a profound and meaningful experience on many levels. The amount of satisfaction, and yes, even pride, that we earned on those four days greatly outweighed the pains and difficulties of the 381 days that came before them. We both felt periods of great emotional despair and physical exhaustion at times, but we also both felt incredible exhilaration and joy as well. The emotional impact of summiting Dead Woman’s Pass, of viewing the Machu Picchu site for the first time in the morning light from the Sun Gate, and of finally walking into the park after 26 miles, were events that left us on the verge tears. The sense of accomplishment and self-worth are things that we will carry with us always, as well as the sense of wonder and awe at the long-gone Inca peoples whose footsteps we followed, and whose handiwork we witnessed.
The two biggest questions we get asked now are: 1) Would you do it again? and 2) Should I do it?
When it comes to number 1, no, we would probably not do it again. That doesn’t mean we regret doing it, just that for us this was a major goal, we did it, and we don’t need to do it again. It was well worth it, but now there are other things we would rather do, new things we would rather see.
And for number 2 – that is really a decision for you to make yourself. In our preparations and research, we often heard “anyone who is in reasonable physical shape can hike the Inca Trail”. I would have to say that statement is too sweeping, and is not totally accurate. We saw several people in better physical shape than us who either could not complete, or could not even start the hike. I would say instead that the following statements, taken together, are more accurate:
- You need, at a minimum, to be in reasonable physical shape
- No problems with your knees
- No respiratory or heart problems
- You need to be able to function well at altitudes over 10,000 feet (no high-altitude sickness)
- You need to do plenty of practice on stairs when training
- You need to allow two-three days to acclimate in Cusco before the hike
As I’ve said before, I also think you should have good quality equipment, especially hiking boots and hiking poles. The best advise I can give if you are contemplating the Inca Trail, is do not underestimate the difficulty of hiking 26 miles over four days through high-altitude trails. Can it be done? Absolutely, and I am the best proof of that, as I am certainly not in “reasonable physical shape” – unless you consider “round” to be a reasonable shape. But go into it with open eyes, and prepared for a difficult but rewarding physical and mental challenge.
Ahead for us, we want to continue to travel, and see more of South America. I’ll be writing about some of the other places we visited after Machu Picchu in coming weeks. Meantime, we are still walking 4-6 miles a day (since the ability to walk 8 miles or more while exploring new places really comes in handy), and I will continue to try and get my weight below 200 pounds, and to keep it there. We are still taking the stairs up and down from our 19th floor apartment, but only a few times a week instead of twice a day – we just don’t want to lose the muscles that took so long to develop.
In closing, let me give a shout out to my lovely and supportive wife, Rita. I would not have even attempted something so crazy without such a caring partner, and I never could have lost the 60+ pounds I needed to lose without her love and encouragement. Rita, you are my companion and partner, and I want you beside me on or off whatever trails life leads us down.
Here below, for friends and family mostly, since it is 43 minutes long, is a bonus slide show chronicling our four-day Peru Adventure on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Enjoy!