Completing the four day Inca trail to one of the Ancient Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu Inca town, was one of the toughest things I have ever done in my life. It’s relentless walking from sunrise to sunset, sleeping in sub-zero temperatures and showering amongst sewage or not showering at all. It’s the feeling of your feet stinging, your lungs aching from struggling to breath the thin altitude air and your legs burning like its been leg day four times in a row. But it’s also one of the best things I have ever done, one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen and certainly one of the biggest achievements of my life.
The four day, three night Inca trail trek is the most sought after Machu Picchu excursion of them all, not only because it’s the most demanding of the trails, with four full days of tough terrain trekking up to an altitude 4,215 meters, but also because it follows the original trail built by the Incas in the 15th century, so you can literally walk in the footsteps of history. It is for this reason that we booked this trip about a year in advance to ensure availability.
Before starting the Inca trail, we had heard so many different reviews about the difficulty of each day. Most people we spoke to raved about the intensity of the trek which concerned me a little as I underwent major knee surgery only three months ago. While we found that even the notoriously difficult day two wasn’t as bad as we had heard, this trek definitely requires you to be physically fit and have trained in advance. Sadly, two people in our group of six didn’t make it to the top due to the difficulty of the trek but aside from physical fitness, the main thing that will get you to the top is a strong and positive mental attitude to keep telling yourself that you CAN and WILL get there. Here’s my day by day experience:
Day 1: piece of cake – difficulty rating: 2/10
Day 2: famous for being the worst day of them all, although it was really challenging it was by no means impossible. This day takes more endurance than physical strength as the uphill ascent to dead woman’s pass, the highest point of Machu Picchu, feels like a never-ending line of steep Inca stairs. Prepare to feel very breathless due to the altitude but counteract this by chewing cocoa leaves and Andean mint on the way – difficulty rating: 8/10
Day 3: while day two is renowned for being the hardest, no one warned us about how challenging day three would be. If anything, we felt it rivalled the intensity of day two – with ten hours of constant down-hill walking on steep Inca steps from dead woman’s pass, day three really pushes your knees to their physical limit. It is for this reason that I really recommend hiring walking poles, especially if you have knee problems like me 👵🏼 – difficulty rating: 7/10
Day 4: not particularly tough as it’s only a short 2 hour walk from the third day’s camp to Machu Picchu’s sun gate. The main challenge is the 3am wake up call to make it there for sunrise and the fact that this early morning trek is nearly entirely in the dark on narrow cliff top paths. A head torch is essential for this day! 🔦
– The toilets are an experience and a half. The smell alone will nearly knock you out but make the best of them by packing lots of tissues (for the lack of loo roll) and hand sanitiser (for the lack of taps).
– By the time you get to each camp it will be late, dark and very cold so your probably not going to want to step into a freezing shower which charges you around 10 soles to do so. Instead, we brought a pack of baby wipes to keep ourselves clean at the end of a long day trekking, saving us from using the rather cold and expensive showers that were avaliable in the camps.
– If you’ve got dodgy knees, hire walking poles! The poles saved my post-op knee from further damage and my legs actually felt pretty pain-free at the end of the trek while my friend who didn’t hire poles was certainly feeling more of a burn towards the final day.
– Head torches are a MUST especially for the final day where you start trekking at 3am in the dark to reach the sun gate for sunrise. Plus, they really come in handy for late night visits to the toilets 🚽
– Be prepared for the pretty compulsory custom of tipping the porters. It’s normally around 60 Soles per porter and 100 Soles per chef, a bit steep for budget backpackers but they do do an amazing job.