Panting And Stumbling On The Inca Trail

They say that the path to Machu Picchu is a spiritual journey. This may be true, but it was the physical challenge that made the trip memorable for me.
01/23/2012 08:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Three months before the start of my trip to Peru, I decided to sign up to hike the Inca Trail. I'm not sure where this idea came from exactly, except the thought that I would be going to Peru and that is just what you do.

To say that I am not an athletic person would be a huge understatement. I have tried joining gyms, and just could not motivate myself to actually go. In the summers I play tennis, but that doesn't extend past New York's all too short sunny season. I've tried: yoga, pilates, cardio barre, you name it. I simply do not like to exercise.

I'm not really sure what I was thinking when I signed up for the Inca Trail.

If you are not familiar with the exact details of the Trail, you're not alone. I had no idea what I was really signing up for. In my mind, hiking was really just walking. I could go as slow as I wanted, enjoy the scenery, and then end the day by sitting around a campfire sharing stories with my group.


As soon as I arrived in Cusco, I started getting an inkling that I was in for more than just a few days stroll in the park. As each day passed, I watched fellow hostel mates gather up the necessary gear and food, and leave at 6 a.m. each morning. The day before my hike was scheduled, I headed out to buy all the recommended items. I rented a sleeping bag, bought a 2.5 liter water bottle and sling, stocked up on candy bars and nuts, and laid out all the clothes I was sure I would need.

Once my bag was fully packed, and my sleeping bag was tied to its straps, I hoisted it on my back to test out the weight.


But I needed everything in my bag. I decided that my bag would get lighter each day as I continued to eat all my snacks.

Day one came and I was feeling good. I had gotten a good nights sleep and was ready to start walking. Our bus drove for about an hour and a half up the mountains towards our starting point. We passed through the mandatory checkpoint, took our group photo in front of the Camino Inka sign, and we were off! Immediately we started walking uphill. The first few minutes went by and the loud chatter that had filled our group before was slowly replaced with the sound of heavy breathing. Walking around in high altitudes is one thing, but hiking uphill, with a heavy load on your back is an entirely different game.

After ten minutes of forced yoga breathing, and shouting every expletive in my head, we finally reached a flat path. Too tired to cheer, I plodded ahead, each step heavier than the last. Finally, we reached a little shelter and everyone dropped to the ground, throwing off their backpacks with huge sighs of relief.

"We must be at our lunch spot already," I thought. "That actually wasn't that bad."

Too bad our guides informed us just a few minutes later that this was just the first break of many. We had only been walking for 45 minutes, and had at least five more hours to go.

The day passed by in a blur of panting, heavy breathing, gulping down water, and basically just forcing my feet to keep moving ahead. "Just a few more steps," I would try to convince myself, as I inwardly cursed my decision to do this trail. As hard as day one was, everyone kept issuing warnings about day two: dead woman's pass.

I crawled into my tent, too tired for dinner and curled up inside my sleeping bag. The fact that I had a rock for a pillow made no difference to me and I was asleep in seconds.

The next morning the air was filled with anticipation as our group set out for the hardest day of the hike. We were told we would be hiking a minimum of five hours uphill, and then two hours down, before reaching our campsite. The day started off at a fast pace; we immediately began our uphill ascent that would take us to more than 12,000 feet above sea level. As the first hour came to a close I was towards the end of the group, panting for breath with each step. My bag felt like it was growing heavier by the minute, and I didn't see how it would be possible to reach our lunch spot, let alone Machu Picchu.

The guides saw me struggling and approached me with a suggestion. They told me that at the next rest stop, it would be the last chance to hire a porter to carry my bag. At 80 soles per day, roughly $35, I could rid myself of my heavy load and perhaps enjoy the trail a bit more.

I was torn.

On one hand, I wanted to complete the trail in an authentic way, carrying my pack and feeling like I really earned my entrance to Machu Picchu. On the other hand, if I continued this way, I really wasn't sure that I would make it. I decided to hire a porter for that day and see how it went. I had carried my bag for the first day, and could continue carrying it for the 3rd and 4th days if I felt up to it.

After lunch, I handed over my bag, and headed back to the path. immediately I felt a huge difference. No longer was I miserable, resenting each step, angry with myself for signing up for such a strenuous hike with no training. The uphill walk was still difficult, and I had to continue focusing on my breathing, but now I was able to stop occasionally and take photos of the landscape. I could feel myself smiling, and enjoying the slow pace through the mountains.

As we approached the last hour of uphill climbing, the skies suddenly opened and we were drenched in a torrential downpour. Now at the highest peak of the hike, we had to fight for each breath. Whereas before, we could rest on the side of the trail whenever we felt faint, now, taking a break meant sitting on the mud splattered rocks while being rained on.

It was better to just keep moving.


We reached the top of the mountain just as the rain turned to a light mist. Celebrating our victory with cheers from the group and photos against the giant mountain peaks and surrounding clouds, we quickly continued our journey. The air was still wet, and our pants were soaked from the previous rainstorm.

Walking downhill on the slick rocks should have been challenging, but after walking uphill for five hours, it felt like a welcome respite. I flew down the mountain, with thoughts of my warm tent and a hot meal propelling me faster and faster.


My foot slipped on one of the rocks, and slid to the ground, my right leg submerged in a muddy stream adjacent to the path.

I reached the campsite forty minutes later and decided that day three would be a slow one for me. Day one had been about making it to the campsite, day two had been focused on just finishing in one piece, and I wanted day three to be about actually looking around and marveling at the beauty of the trail.

I couldn't have picked a better day to decide to enjoy myself. As I left my walking partners and continued down the path by myself, I felt like I was experiencing the trail for the first time. Butterflies flew around me, birds were calling to each other in a symphony of sounds, and the fresh smell of flowers and trees was perfumed in the air. As I continued on the winding path going up and down the mountain route, I felt lighter, happier. I was really hiking the Inca Trail, something I never thought I could do! This was happening, in this moment, and I felt a strange sense of empowerment.

They say that the path to Machu Picchu is a spiritual journey and being a natural cynic I am not sure I believe that. Yet something happened to me on that trail, some sense of calm washed over me on the third day, and I felt like a new person. I needed to let go of the fear that was holding me back from doing so many things. Pushing myself felt better than I could have imagined, and if I continued to do so, who knew what else might happen?

I reached the camp that day earlier than the previous two days and yet I felt lighter and more relaxed.

The next morning, with just two hours to reach Machu Picchu, I knew that this journey was coming to a close. As my group approached the sun gate, I stood in the stone archway overlooking the Inca city we had worked so hard to reach, and just stood quietly for a moment, surveying the scene around me.

Some people were laughing, taking pictures and high fiving each other, while others were staring dreamily off into the unknown, still out of breath from the trail's last challenge; a set of almost vertical stairs that seemed to extend forever.

I stood there, letting go of my anger from the first two days, embracing my calm from the third, and trying to combine all my emotions on the fourth, for a truly memorable welcome to Machu Picchu.