Is the Inca Trail difficult?

On October 25th we began the adventure of a lifetime – The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

My Google history in the lead up to the trek probably looked something like this:

  • Is the Inca trail difficult?
  • Do you need hiking boots for the Inca trail?
  • Training for the Inca trail
  • Fitness level required for the Inca trail
  • Do you really need to wear hiking boots?
  • Cheap hiking boots
Also the answer to that last one is Decathlon. These are Frazer’s boots and they’re doing pretty well for £30

As a full disclaimer – I’m not really a fan of walking. I don’t mind walking if I have a destination, but I can’t get my head around this going for a walk in the woods thing. Just walking for the sake of it is not my idea of fun. So I’m sure you can imagine the response I got from family and friends when I told them I’d be doing the Inca trail. I convinced everyone (myself included) that all would be fine once I started taking my training seriously. Needless to say – I did not train for the Inca trail.

Also – my husband is very into “exercising”. When we were living in England he was a 5-day-a-week gym-goer, plus the weekly football sessions and occasional park runs with his Dad. I much prefer to sit down and enjoy biscuits. He did train. And informed me that going on a total of 2 runs before leaving for South America did not count as training. So I suppose you could say I was feeling apprehensive.

So; is the Inca trail difficult? The short answer is – yes. It’s physically challenging, and totally exhausting. But the real question really is – was it worth it? And again – yes.

After lots of online research into the best company to trek the Inca trail with we discovered Alpaca Expeditions. They’re a local company who pride themselves on providing a fair wage for local workers, and are highly recommended on TripAdvisor.

We had two guides with us throughout the trek; Jamie and Marizol, and a team of porters carrying our tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and other essentials.

The porters are amazing, and are nicknamed ‘The Green Machine’ not only because of their striking green uniform but also their apparent superhuman strength. They walk ahead of the hikers, so that they can arrive at each checkpoint first to prepare meals and the campsite. In fact, by the time you reach your final checkpoint of the day the sleeping and dining tents are ready.

There are a few things that made this trek incredible and others that made it the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Before I embarked on the Inca trail I scoured the internet for honest reviews that could tell me what to expect but found very few. So I want to provide that information for anyone thinking of doing the Inca Trail.

The gleeful happy faces of two people who have not yet started the trail.

The Incredible:

  • Our company – Alpaca Expeditions. I’ve already touched on it, and if you search for them on TripAdvisor you’ll find out for yourself. But I have to reiterate the excellence of the guides, the porters, the food (the chef really is a magician, cooking full buffet meals with the most basic equipment in the mountains), the briefing and preparation and the support along the way to say the least.

  • The breathtaking landscapes and stunning views along the way. Mountains, jungle, valleys, Incan ruins – every twist and turn in the trail unveiled something incredible to gaze upon.

  • The friends we made. Our group was made up of 10 other fantastic individuals. From Wales, Canada, England and the USA each and every person in our group was kind, funny and a great laugh. I think we were lucky to be with such a brilliant group of people because the comradery and friendship that developed quickly over those few days was a huge motivator towards my accomplishment. Go superhikers!
We look super proud here because we are standing at the highest point of the trail, nicknamed Dead Woman’s Pass. Which means all these women made it to the top without dying. Yay us.

  • The Incan site close to our campsite on the final night. It’s called Wiñay Wayna and is built into the hillside with a view of the Urubamba River. The steeply terraced ruins are beautiful, as is the beautiful landscape surrounding it. We were some of the only people there to visit, and so it felt peaceful and relatively unexplored. Also my aforementioned friend Sarah received her yoga teaching qualification the day before leaving for her trip, so taught her first official yoga class to a group of us here. It was undoubtedly the most amazing yoga class I’ll ever take.

The Not-So-Incredible:

  • Let’s start with the trail. It’s difficult. I found the first day the hardest, but that might have been because of the climate. It was an uphill trek in warm and clammy conditions, and by lunchtime I was already feeling dehydrated. (Shout-out to the nurses who were in our group that diagnosed me and treated me with a magical electrolyte tablet that sorted me right out). The second day however, is billed as being the toughest trek with two passes (essentially mountains) to climb over. And although it was very tough, there were lots of breaks and we were able to walk at our own pace. (Shout-out here to my Canadian walking buddy, Sarah, who kept me going with her optimistic smile). I also learnt the term ‘Incan flat’ on this trek – spoiler alert: they didn’t build many flat paths. Don’t get me wrong it’s hard, very hard, but if I can do it you can do it too.
Here I am, in the actual clouds.
This is me climbing approximately 1/6000 steps that I climbed just in that hour.
You can’t see my face, but if you could I am pretty sure it would look grumpy.
  • Illnesses and injuries. I managed to come away from this relatively unscathed, unless you count my legs being rendered completely useless, especially when faced with any steps, inclines or indeed walking. However there were others in the group who got some pretty nasty blisters, and we went through moleskine like it was going out of fashion. Also, you reach some fairly high altitudes throughout the trek (Dead Woman’s Pass is approx. 4200m above sea level). This affected two of the members of our group, with both having to retire to bed early to try and sleep off headaches and nausea from altitude sickness.
  • Sun Gate. You wake up extremely early on the last day to queue up for entry to the last section of the walk. Once the gates open you walk at quite an incredible pace to make sure the group gets to Sun Gate in time for sunrise and a spectacular view of Machu Picchu from above. This section of the walk is where you’ll encounter the ‘Gringo killers’ – a set of stairs that you have to literally climb on your hands and knees. Now imagine getting through this with some seriously sore legs, only to discover that it’s a bit too cloudy to see anything. Luckily (for anyone trying to speak to me) the fog cleared and Machu Picchu made a magical appearance. But not everybody gets that lucky.

I think my face says it all here.

This was about 20 minutes later, and actually a very special moment that was our best view of Machu Picchu all day.
  • Machu Picchu. I blame partly my own ignorance for this train of thought. I believed Machu Picchu to be an ancient site belonging to the ancient Incans but have since learnt that the Incan empire was at its peak in the 15th century. At the same time that the Incans were building Machu Picchu, spectacles were being invented in Germany by Nicholas of Cusa, and in Italy Leonardo da Vinci was theorising about parachutes and flying machines. Also, I’ve often heard of people referring to Machu Picchu as “The Lost City” but when it was “discovered” by American Hiram Bingham in 1911 a family was actually living there. I think what I’m trying to say is that what had really drawn me to visiting Machu Picchu was the intrigue, the history and the magic that surrounded this place. So to discover that, actually, it’s not that old or mysterious was a little disappointing.
A photograph of the family living at Machu Picchu in 1911.

  • The crowds. Not only was much of the magic of the famous Incan site dampened by what I had learnt about it historically, but it’s also (as it turns out) a massive tourist trap. There’s a train that goes directly to the site, and so it is visited by up to 2000 people every day. There’s a one-way system walking through the ruins, and if you stop in one spot for too long you will be asked to move on to keep foot traffic to a minimum. So many people are visiting that they have to put down plastic matting to help prevent erosion on the terraces. It was a shame because the magic view of Machu Picchu that we had had at sunrise from Sun Gate as it emerged from the parting clouds, was ruined by 11am because of the crowds of people everywhere you looked.
You can bet your bottom dollar I got in trouble for doing this for the gram.

So, was walking 42km over 4 days to reach an archaeological site that was overcrowded and not-so-ancient worth it?

Well, as we were reminded by Alpaca Expedition’s motto: the journey is the destination.

The breathtaking views, the lasting friendships and the overwhelming sense of achievement made the Inca Trail the experience of a lifetime for me.

But if you’re going to just catch the train to see Machu Picchu, don’t bother.