In an attempt to take my mind off the grim yet unavoidable fact that I was about to turn 30, I decided to do something a little different for my birthday this year by ticking something major off the Bucket List. Machu Picchu has always been up there on the list of places to ‘definitely visit one day’ but as I entered the last year of my 20s, I realised that if I was actually going to do the famous hike and visit this World Wonder while I was still (relatively) young and fit then I needed to get my ass into gear. So, instead of booking somewhere sunny and exotic like Bali or the Bahamas where I could have spent 10 days relaxing by a pool and ringing in this new decade in a pleasant, rum-fuelled stupor, I booked my spot on the world’s most famous hike and headed to Lima.
Seeing as my last camping experience was a sleepover in my best friend’s back garden at age 11, its safe to say I wasn’t particularly prepared to spend 4 nights up a South American mountain with no hot water. I also didn’t ramp up my workout regime in the months before the hike as many people had suggested, and I definitely wasn’t going to spend a fortune on expensive hiking and camping gear when the price of the trip had already cost me almost 2 months worth of wages. Although luckily the old saying, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ didn’t hold true this time, there are a few things I wish I had known before hiking the trail.
1. It’s hard, but not impossible!
To be honest, although the hike is certainly no walk in the park, some blog posts I read definitely exaggerated the difficulty level, implying it would be akin to scaling Everest. To be fair, many of these people had terrible luck; suffering from altitude sickness, and twisted ankles, not to mention terrible weather over the entire 4 days, which made their hiking experience pretty unpleasant. (We tackled the trail in mid-May and were lucky to have perfect weather!)
In terms of the fitness level required, there is no ‘standard’ you need to achieve before attempting the trail. I did see some people walking in the opposite direction that were, frankly, extremely overweight and also passed one girl who had been hit hard by the altitude and needed an oxygen tank, but these were rare cases. Noone in our group failed at the hike and we all made it to Machu Picchu on day 4, which is pretty impressive seeing as we were quite a mixed bunch. An elderly Swedish couple had quite a rough time; a fall on some loose ground knocked their confidence on the first day, and they took the trail super slow, arriving at camp hours after the younger people in the group. But this didn’t stop them from making it into camp with cheers of encouragement each evening
The trail is tough, but you can take it at your own pace, and if this means arriving at camp miles either miles ahead or hours behind the rest of your group then that’s absolutely fine. You can take as many breaks as you need on the steep sections, but as long as you keep plodding along at your own pace and remember that the steep bits always peak eventually: what goes up must come down! (Although the hardest parts for me were actually the downhill sections – not fun on the knees!)
2. Be prepared for the altitude to hit in Cusco
While I had been worrying that altitude sickness would hit me halfway up the mountain, I actually felt the effects of being at high altitude as soon as I stepped off the plane in Cusco. This mountain town is actually higher above sea level than Machu Picchu itself, and the air is so much thinner here that your chest tightens and your breathing can feel laboured. It also doesn’t help that a lot of Cusco’s streets are super steep! Try to resist Cusco’s party scene and take it easy on the first night, but make sure you pop into the 180 Eco Bar at the very top of the hill for an incredible panoramic view of Cusco!
3. Walking poles will become your best friends
Walking poles might not be trendy, (and the expression ‘pr***s with sticks’ isn’t reserved solely for skiers!) but they are invaluable for saving your knees! The trail includes several steep, downwards sections where you’ll definitely need them! Make sure you buy a decent pair of hiking trainers too, your feet will thank you. (One girl in our group managed to do the entire trek in a battered pair of Vans and had no issues, but I’m pretty sure she was superhuman and I wouldn’t recommend this!)
4. Pack for all temperatures!
We were incredibly lucky on our hike as we had sunshine during the entire 4 days despite it having rained the previous week. The weather conditions can vary constantly so make sure you pack a variety of layers and a lightweight rain jacket, not to mention enough sun cream to last the entire trek!
5. It gets freezing at night – especially the second night at high altitude
Although you may find that you’re so exhausted from trekking that you fall into a blissful sleep as soon as your head hits your blow-up pillow, (or rolled up bundle of unwashed clothes in my case), I definitely struggled with the sleeping situation. The second night was SO cold I barely slept and felt frozen to my bones the entire night. I would definitely recommend packing proper thermal layers designed for sub-zero conditions as well as a thick, woolly hat and gloves. You can bring a super-thick sleeping bag with you but be aware that this will take up a lot of space in your backpack. (The campsite on the last night is much lower in altitude and therefore generally much warmer, I slept outside of my sleeping bag on the last night because it was so hot!)
6. Pack snacks! Hiking is hungry work
G adventures provided us with a small bag of snacks, with a couple of pieces of fruit, a juice box and some biscuits, which most people consumed on the first day. If you dont have room for snacks then make sure you bring cash to buy some snacks from local women along the way (the last one is just before the climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass) These stalls are quite pricey, think £2.50 for a Mars bar, but you can buy a tonne of little packs of Peruvian biscuits for 25p (1 sol). Its a good idea to bring fruit if you want healthy snacks on hand (one member of our group carried an entire pineapple with him for 2 days waiting for it to ripen… I would suggest carrying smaller, lighter fruit!)
7. The toilet situation is… interesting.
Your choices at camp are either seriously whiffy squat toilets which you have to venture down to in the dark and risk losing your phone down the hole if you’re using it as a torch (bring a headlight!), or a person-sized pop up tent with a glorified plastic bag to pee in. Lovely. There are no toilets along the trail, so if nature calls while you’re hiking you’ll need to venture off the path to ‘pick a flower’….
8. There are showers! (But no hot water…)
I had resolved myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be showering for 4 days, so I packed a load of wet wipes and hand sanitiser, prepared to be pretty pongy. But, some campsites do have icy-cold showers, which are incredible if you’re lucky to have a hot, sunny day and arrive at camp before sundown!
9. Porters are superhuman, but woefully underpaid.
Porters are incredible. They will swiftly overtake you as you heave and grunt your way up the mountain with only a light daypack, heaving heavy bags filled with the rest of your gear up the mountainside. Despite the back-breaking work, they’ll still give you a cheerful ‘Buenos Dias’ or an encouraging ‘Vamanos!’ as they pass by.
Throughout the hike, our guide repeatedly told us how little the porters are paid and told us how much we would be expected to tip at the end of the trail. Although I agree that leaving a tip to the porters is a nice gesture, I felt uncomfortable with the enforced, so-called ‘recommended’ tipping amounts and the strange farewell and tipping ‘ceremony’, especially as the porters literally sat in a huddled group outside the dining tent and watched us put money in an envelope before publicly counting it and sharing it amongst themselves. After paying a lot of money to do the trail, hikers shouldn’t feel pressured to add on a hefty tip for the porters and guides and this should be done discreetly, not as a presentation which felt awkward and uncomfortable for both hikers and porters. G adventures really need to pay these guys a better wage for the incredible work they do and leave tipping as an optional gesture for hikers.
10. The view at dawn from the Sun Gate will make it all worth it!
Catching that first glimpse of Machu Picchu inthe distance, will make you forget that you’re exhausted, smelly and that you’re covered in blisters and insect bites. After waking up at 3am to hike for an hour in the darkness before tackling the last slog, the near-vertical ‘Monkey Steps’, we finally made it to the gate to watch the sun rise slowly over this ancient wonder, with a collective feeling of achievement and elation. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate turning 30! Here’s to another decade of adventures!
(P.S, you can get enjoy a well-deserved beer or bottle of wine on the super-comfy train back to Aguas Calientes. Enjoy!)