Part 1: Machu Picchu is not to be taken lightly (Abbreviated version)

A few of my friends had told me that Machu Picchu was a piece of cake, in not so many words. They’re pretty much on crack. IT WAS HELLA HARD.

day 1

After my day trip to Ollantaytambo, I was pretty excited about Machu Picchu. Camping, backpacking, history and traveling all rolled into one sounded like an ideal trip for me.

Well, as Murphy’s Law rules my life, the trip was not what I expected in many ways.

Day 1: From Trip Delays to Hiking During Sunset on the Inca Trail

The start of el Camino Inca

There were a lot of bumps at the start of our Machu Picchu trip – a lack of porters,, fights among local women and men, and a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen. Despite leaving Cusco around 6 am, we were still waiting for something to happen at 2 pm near the start of our hike.

I passed the time by doing tarot card readings with members of our group. Penny asked me to do a reading regarding how the trip would go for her – all I remember saying to her is that it would be fun, but hella hard – and that she needed to deal with conflict in a healthy way. Ooohhh…

After waiting what seemed like an hour to get our passports and tickets cleared by the Machu Picchu officials, we were finally off and hiking around 4 pm. As we hiked along the river, the view of the valley and the mountains was absolutely stunning. Some people live in the area around the trail, so as we hiked we also saw homes, a small cemetery, buildings, and a lot of people herding livestock.

Sharing the trail

The first day’s hike was great – it was gorgeous, the weather was perfect, the sun was setting, and I had enough energy to chop it up with folks and bond with a bunch of our group members. Talk about a small world – one woman used to work at an organization that’s allies with AYPAL, so we talked about doing youth organizing and education justice work.

The valley and river, Day 1

We had to hike using our headlamp lights around 7pm when the sun set, and came to our first camp around 7:30. We had just hiked 6 miles – one mile short of where we were supposed to be, but it was fine. The tents were set up, and we soon found ourselves eating a hot soup and chicken and rice dinner on a long table below a canopy.

Natalia and Lizzy, staring at their hands for some reason

Natalia and Lizzy, staring at their hands for some reason

Raina (one of Penny’s childhood friends) and I shared a tent. She was a great tent-mate. However, for some reason neither of us slept very well at all that night. I actually don’t even remember falling asleep once. Was it due to the altitude? Feeling a bit queasy? Who knows.

Day 2: The Hike from Hell

We were told in advance that Day 2 would be the hardest day of hiking. I never knew it would be that bad.

stairs 1

We were woken up by the trip staff at 5 am and were each greeted with a tub of hot water to wash our faces and coca tea. How dope are they?

After eating breakfast, we continued our hike up the mountain. In a few words, it sucked. Why? Well…

The top 5 reasons why Day 2 is such a hardcore hike (on a 4 day trip to Machu Picchu):

1) Even though it’s only 7 or 8 miles in one day, it’s 5 straight miles uphill, 2 straight miles downhill.

2) The trail climbs 4,000 ft. in 5 miles. That’s like hiking 800 ft. per mile. In comparison, when I hike Tahoe, it’s usually only 500 ft. per mile. What that translates to: lots and lots and LOTS of steep stone staircases for miles, with little to no rest along the way.

3) The way down the mountain is 2 miles straight downhill on extremely steep and treacherous ass stone steps, where you have to dodge steams and impossible stairs on the way down.

4) The top of the first mountain we cross is 4,200m, or about 13,779 ft. Not only is it hard to breathe in high altitude, but it’s also extremely cold and can put people at risk for altitude sickness.

5) Speaking of #4, I got HELLA sick on the way up!

Yeah, Day 2 sucked. It was bad enough that I was hiking up some of the steepest terrain I’ve ever seen (tiny and narrow stone stairs are the worst!). Try hiking with a big backpack when you got an upset stomach (backpack waist belt is a killer on that one), altitude sickness, and/or flu-like symptoms.

If I were at home and I got the flu, I would stop whatever I was doing and would go straight to bed. If I were backpacking in the woods and got tired, I would just rest or set up camp and start off again the next day. Unfortunately on a group trip that has a deadline, none of that is possible.

Hiking up along a stream to the top

Cold, thin air means stomach aches, altitude sickness, nausea, and flu-like body aches. Not to mention that CLIMB!

Cold, thin air means stomach aches, altitude sickness, nausea, and flu-like body aches. Not to mention that CLIMB!

What ensued for the next six hours was absolute sickness craziness for me on the hardest hike of my life. I had to rest a lot. I had to use the bathroom a lot. And I had to eat candy (for nausea), drink water, buy Gatorade from the local vendors on the stops along the way, take advil/altitude meds/immodium/DayQuil…and chew lots of coca leaves and eat coca candy. If it weren’t for our sympathetic guide Jessica, and our group members at the back of the hike who helped me out and gave me drinks/candy/coca/medicine, I would not have made it to camp that evening.

At the top, looking back on the trail we came from

At the top, looking back on the trail we came from

at the top sm

That smile was totally fake. I was in pain!

After taking a celebratory photo at the top, I had to descend – down two miles, on steep, narrow and wet stone stairs.

Camp for night 2

Camp for night 2

I finally made it to camp around 5 pm. As I approached the tent area, the rest of the group was there to cheer and congratulate everyone that finished the hike. I went straight past everyone, found my tent, and fell down to sleep. I didn’t move for the rest of that night except just once to go to the bathroom.

While I’m not very religious, I started praying –  like CRAZY. I was like, “please, please, PLEASE help me get better so that I can finish the hike tomorrow; I need to make it so that I don’t ruin this trip for the rest of the group…and please help all of us finish this trek and arrive safely at Machu Picchu on New Years Day…” It’s always during those times when you hit rock bottom that you find spirituality in your life…

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4 thoughts on “Part 1: Machu Picchu is not to be taken lightly (Abbreviated version)

  1. Nat says:

    Awesome Tiff!!! Can’t wait to read part II. You words capture our experience. It’s like we are reliving it again.

  2. Pam says:

    Day 2 scares me!! Planning the hike in a few months (Oct). Any tips that I wouldn’t find online?

    • Hi Pam,

      Day 2 is not usually that bad – at least, if you don’t get altitude sickness!! People of all degrees of fitness do it, so I’m sure you’ll be fine.

      I’m not sure about other people’s tips, but all I can say is:

      1) Make sure you acclimate to Cusco’s altitude at least a few days before you do the hike
      2) When hiking, if you start to feel lightheaded or sick, take it easy and go slow if you need to. Or just stop and take a break. If it’s really bad (if you have severe headaches or you don’t know where you are), make sure to descend. Altitude sickness will get worse if a sick person ascends at a rapid pace.
      3) Altitude sickness has nothing to do with physical fitness. Each person will react differently, so don’t get discouraged if you’re a marathon runner but get really sick by the altitude. You can’t help it!
      4) Make sure to stretch out your muscles every morning and night. And bring a trekking pole or two for the hard uphill/slippery stairs downhill.
      5) Carry a personal first aid kit with you, with your meds, bandaids, things for blisters, hand sanitizer, etc. For altitude sickness, make sure to carry Ibuprofen or pain killers, gatorade packets (to add to your water if dehydrated – especially with altitude sickness), cold medication, diarrhea meds, coca leaves (with a bit of bicarbonate soda to act as a catalyst), and last but not least, ALTITUDE SICKNESS PILLS! You can buy the latter at any drug store in Peru or Bolivia. They usually call them soroche or soroji pills and they’re oftentimes red and white capsules.
      6) On that last point, make sure to go to your doctor and get all your necessary shots at least a month and a half before your trip. And get altitude meds too (use correctly! I didn’t and paid the consequences).
      7) It gets cold, even when hiking up a huge mountain. Make sure to dress warmly.

      Good luck and have fun! despite getting altitude sickness, it was an amazing and beautiful experience! Enjoy the ride 🙂

  3. […] in 2012-2013 when I traveled through Peru and Bolivia for two months, I began my trip with a four day backpacking trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with a group of 21 other people. Reina, one of the women on the trip and my tent partner, basically took care of me when I became […]

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