Jenny and I were warm & cozy in our little tent high in the Andes mountains, watching in wonder as the mist lifted to reveal the splendour before us. All was still. We sighed as a porter, not an Inca warrior, tiptoed to wake us & the aroma of coffee told us breakfast was ready. Time to get back on the trail.
Can you just get your backpack & go for a hike on the Inca Trail? I’m afraid not. Access is controlled by the government & the limited spots booked about a year ahead.
Jenny & I went in September with Alpaca Expeditions. Raul Ccolque, the owner, started out as a porter & knows how hard his staff works to make Alpaca #1. We studied Alpaca’s excellent site & chatted with Raul before we decided that the 5 day 4 night trek would be best for us. Raul suggested the longer time knowing that at 75 years old, I would like to savour the experience. Which was his kind way of saying I would be slow.
Altitude can be a problem. The Machu Picchu Trail rises to 4200m. I took prescribed meds before I left home and arrived in Cusco the recommended three days before the trek. Jenny & I both drank a lot of the local cure, coca leaf tea. It made no difference. Jen was fine but I struggled. Americo, our fabulous guide, knew all the tricks to help: go up slowly, drink water constantly, and as a last resort have a puff from his canister of oxygen! I had no idea altitude sickness could be so debilitating. It’s a good thing we had sorted out tips for the staff before we left because when Jenny and I sat down on our sleeping bags in our little tent to figure out the money (everyone was amazing & we needed to give them more!), I simply could not count. Not at all. What a strange feeling! Thank goodness for my amazing daughter who took care of everything.
The first day we were up at ridiculous o’clock for our 3 hour drive from Cusco to the start of the trail. Americo weighed our bags on the scale in the lobby to make sure we did not go over the 7kg limit, and at 5:00am we were on our way. It was a beautiful drive even though it was difficult to resist sleep in the warm car. Staying in Ollantaytambo, closer to the start, might have been a good option. Once we arrived at the trail head we tried to calm our nerves to eat the big breakfast that was prepared for us. All the groups leaving that day were gathered at tables on a covered porch. It felt like a big party. Excited, nervous voices filled the air. Cooks whipped up scrambled eggs & porridge as if it was a normal day in the neighbourhood. Which I guess it was for them. We kept checking our bags, looking around at what others had brought. A few confident lads with well-worn gear headed out first. Everyone looked so young & fit & confident. Jenny & I & the ‘Green Machine’ were the last group to go. I was already in love with The Green Machine! This was the plan:
Hiking is hard work! I wish I had taken more pictures!
The last evening we spent in the little town of Aquas Callientes. It was lovely to have a shower after camping. The next morning we got one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu to see the sunrise at the citadel. Americo took us on a 2 hour tour of this mysterious site. It was hard to believe we were actually walking where the Inca people lived. Jenny climbed Huaynapicchu! It’s a steep climb that takes 2 hours to get up & back. You need to book this when you book your trip. Although we both paid for this extra challenge, there was no way this old lady was taking one more step up. I had a wander around while Jenny got to the top for the best view over the Andes Mountains, the ones we had come to experience. Mission accomplished.
Packing for the Trek
You’re going camping on a really difficult trail with high altitude & fluctuating temperatures. What would you take for a camping trip with your friends? That’s what you take for MP too.
I’m just saying this because I was obsessed with “getting it right” for this IMPORTANT trek. I read everything I could find and watched about 20 YouTube clips. It was ridiculous. It wasn’t until I was actually on the trail that I relaxed and realized it was just a camping trip. Wear the same stuff every day. Bring something warm for the high altitude and rain gear in case it rains. Period. OK, you need some equipment, you need to have broken-in boots, you need bug stuff & sunscreen. But don’t you take that on any camping trip?! I was an idiot. I admit it. So, from experience, here’s my list:
Super hero porters carry all the equipment: tents (sleeping, dining and even toilet tents), food and cooking gear so you don’t have to even think about that. You rent the sleeping bag (which includes a liner & pillow), sleeping mat, and trekking poles from Alpaca.
Porters carry your personal belongings *up to 7kg (15 pounds). This is how it works: Alpaca gives you a big duffel with your sleeping bag, pad, & pillow already in it. You add anything you want for the trip that you are not wearing or carrying yourself. This includes your extra socks, camp sandals, extra fleece, toiletries, an extra outfit if you like, etc. You leave all your other belongings either at your hotel or with Alpaca. Everyone does it & the hotels are prepared.
You wear most of your clothes and carry your own Day Pack. I took a 15L pack & it was too small. Jenny took a 25L & it was perfect. They warn that pack sizes are checked & big ones (45L is the limit I think) are not allowed but in truth they rarely check.
Your Day Pack has every single thing you think you will need for the day. Water. Do you know how heavy water is?! We used the ‘bladder system’ & it was great. The cook boils water for you to refill your pouch every morning & noon. You also carry your snacks which are provided by the cook. That was heavy enough for me! But you still need lots of things: rain gear (Americo insisted!), sunscreen, bug repellent, meds, blister patches, toilet paper, sunglasses, flashlight in case you’re still on the trail when it gets dark (!), gloves & your fleece in case it gets cold. You get the idea.
*I didn’t think of it until it was too late but I could have hired my very own personal porter to stay with me & CARRY MY PACK! You must book this when you book the trip so Alpaca can put another person on the permit. We went to Patagonia on our next trip & experience taught me to book my own porter!
So here’s my list: good but lightweight trail boots – broken in; good socks – I took 4 pr of light merino liners & 2 pr of boot socks (changed the liners every day) & it was perfect; your favourite pair of comfy, synthetic trail pants (not jeans, not shorts – the sand flies are awful); comfy leggings/running tights that can be used as a base layer, jammies, or regular pants; undies – a pr of pants for each day + 2 sports bras; t shirts – 2 short sleeve & 1 long sleeved (not cotton!); hat, fleece, puffy jacket – the kind that scrunches into nothing, gloves, lightweight rain jacket & pants; stuff – headlamp, light camp shoes, meds, personal wipes, sunscreen & bug repellent (we took Ben’s bug wipes) & toiletries (lip balm, deodorant, kleenex, toothpaste & brush (I like Lush tooth tablets), moleskin for blisters, advil, etc.
I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything. If you need something, someone else for sure has brought it. It’s a really difficult climbing trek but you’re camping. Enjoy!