I did the Inca trail in 1987; I’m sure it’s changed since then but here’s my experience: I was traveling alone in South America so most people told me not to go on the trail alone. I heard various stories about how dangerous it was (the best one was how two German guys got robbed at knife-point by five or six “ladrones” who took all they had and left them in the freezing cold in their underwear).
I went shopping for the trail in Cuzco and happened upon two guys from Arizona who were shopping for the trail too. They heard all of the bad stories I had heard so they said I could join them (safety in numbers they said). They told me one of the guys wanted to do the trail as a bucket list kind of thing for his 40th birthday. I remember thinking “my God, he’s ancient!” Knowing me, at the age of 26, I probably said something really inappropriate like, “Are you sure you’re not too old for the trail?”
The first thing you have to do is buy a train ticket to the start of the trail (Km 21 I think). It’s the same train that goes to Machu Picchu so it’s pretty popular – buying a ticket three or four days in advance was recommended. I think I waited in line for a couple of hours. I also needed to rent a tent. I had everything else I needed in my backpack, like a stove and fuel (you could take stoves and fuel bottles on planes back then). We needed a permit too, but I think it was free or at least really cheap back then.
We loaded all of our own stuff (enough for five days). We didn’t go far the first day, but made up for it in the next three days. The trail was really hard because there weren’t a lot of switchbacks. It just went straight up! We got passed a lot by Porters – insane little descendants of the Incas who chained smoked, drank rot gut Pisco (like White Lightening), and chewed massive quantities of Coca leaf. They all seemed to be carrying dining room tables and chairs on their backs…barefoot! They made quite an impression.
The places where we camped out were amazing – mostly small Inca ruins like miniature versions of Machu Picchu without the crowds. One night we camped out in a cave. I’ve heard the Peruvian Government won’t let you camp out in the ruins anymore because of all the litter left behind by foreigners. The amount of blue, disposable gas bottles (canisters) from Sweden left behind was disgusting.
We ended up traveling with three guys and a girl from Australia so you know what that means: Lots of drinking! Usually our lunch breaks consisted of rice, beans, maybe an egg, along with three or four beers in a village or a locals house.
I think by the 2nd day on the trail the older guy in the group was baddly lagging behind. One of the tour groups had a doctor who said the guy was suffering from severe altitude sickness (I think we were at around 10,000 feet). The doctor gave him Coca leaf to chew (a local remedy for altitude sickness), but he refused, saying he wouldn’t do “cocaine.” He wanted us to go ahead, but we just rested (and went down a bit) and he was OK.
The last slog to Machu Picchu was pretty brutal, but we were almost there! It rained a little so the smooth stones that make up the whole trail (all done by the Incas) were slippery. There’s a rock portal that you pass under and then, there it is: Machu Picchu! Pretty amazing.
Side note: My room was rented to someone else when I got back and the whole town of Cuzco was booked out for an Eastern Festival. I was desperate (and tired) so I went to a high-end (for Peru) Hotel. It was full too, but the clerk was a former Inca Trail Porter. He said I looked beat and told me I could sleep in his cot in the back for free! He even cooked me an awesome breakfast in the morning. God bless you, Porter Guy!
Have you done the Inca Trail? If you have, tell me your Inca Trail story!