The Inca Trail hike was our first long-term trek – and we did it!
If you've ever considered taking the 26 miles, 4 days, 3-night trek along the Inca Trail to the historic Machu Picchu, keep reading!
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- Back Story of our Inca Trail Experience
- Reflection #1: Sore feet
- Reflection #2: Multiple Bug Bites
- Reflection #3: Lots of Dirt From The Trail
- Reflection #4: Hunger Pangs
- Reflection #5: Extreme Hiker Exhaustion
- Reflection #6: Overwhelming Sense of Pride
- Reflection #7: Huge Reward As A Hiker
- Reflection #8: Gratitude For All
- Inca Trail Hike: Sulpaiki, Pachamama
- Looking for more international adventure reaps?
Back Story of our Inca Trail Experience
Dylan was comfortably snoozing in the seat next to me on our evening bus ride back to Cusco. We had been up since 3 AM, but I couldn’t quite get my brain or my heart to calm down. I was still reflecting on what we had just accomplished.
Over the previous four days, we had walked almost 30 miles on the Inca Trail!
Early that morning, we had hiked to our final destination of Machu Picchu, after successfully completing the sacred pilgrimage route of the Inca Trail. We finished the trek with another two-mile trek up Huayna Picchu, the mountain that looms above Machu Picchu.
We walked through jungles, forests, valleys, mountain ranges, ruins, fog, rain, and sun. At the highest elevation, we hiked uphill to approximately 14,000 feet. We hadn’t showered properly in almost five days and were running on adrenaline, coca tea, and sheer determination.
While sitting on that bus ride back to Cusco, rushes of emotion and excitement ran through my head. After four days of disconnect from the outside world, I was finally catching up and processing our journey. It was as if we stepped into a completely different time and place where nothing mattered but the path ahead of us.
Those thoughts on the bus ride back really pinpointed exactly what it was like to hike the full Inca Trail. Sure, it was challenging. Yes, it was amazing! I sat reflecting on the whole experience during that bus ride and realized there was more to it. Under the notes application on my phone, I quickly typed out what was on my mind at that moment.
For anyone planning to complete the Inca trail, here are eight honest reflections to prepare you for this journey!
Hiking the Inca Trail: Reflections
Reflection #1: Sore feet
The most obvious one of all!
My feet were very sore. My muscles had adapted well to the uphill and downhill as I am accustomed to hiking. The only thing I really noticed was my calves. It felt like I had gotten a really good workout the day before. Day three was pretty much all downhill, so it was a lot of work on my knees and lower leg muscles.
But my feet were another story.
Hiking boots provide a lot of support and traction, but when you walk for 28 miles (we had also completed the hike to Huayna Picchu which added more to our hiking total), your feet are bound to hurt. Every step was like dragging dead weight. I was more than ready to kick off my shoes and prop my feet on twenty-five pillows. Or get a foot massage for three hours. Either one would have been nice!
Reflection #2: Multiple Bug Bites
This one snuck up on me.
We applied sunscreen and bug spray every day on the Inca trail hike, multiple times. When walking through the various zones and climates we traversed, bugs were bound to be out there. While we had no sunburns to report, by day 3, various red bumps had begun to appear on my legs, my feet, and then my arms! Each day I would find more and more. A week after completing the trek I was still discovering new mosquito bites! Maybe bug bites are the gift that keeps on giving!
Also, these mosquitoes are strong little guys. These have been no minor mosquito bites- they itch like crazy to the point where if you aren’t careful, you’ll bleed or scar. By the last day, they were appearing in groups of two or three every hour. Not only were my feet sore from hiking, but my legs were becoming scratching posts.
Reflection #3: Lots of Dirt From The Trail
Oh man, the dirt. The grime. The layers of gross all over me! While I did manage to take a 5-minute freezing rinse at the campsite the night before, it wasn’t enough. The water was so cold I couldn’t even stand under it. All I managed to do was to cup my hands and throw water on myself while trying not to scream at the temperature! I’m pretty sure our porters had a good laugh at the American girl who isn’t used to cold showers.
I considered myself about 80% clean after that. It didn’t make a difference at all due to our last day. On Day 4 I managed to get the most sweaty and gross of all due to the heat, humidity, and climbing Huayna Picchu. Four full days of exercise without a proper shower will make you realize how much you smell!
Note: the same phenomenon (not showering, smelling bad) also happens if you hike the ABC Trek in Nepal. It's worth it, but just FYI.
Reflection #4: Hunger Pangs
We ate like kings on the trail. Our trekking company Alpaca Expeditions provided complete and delicious meals each day that we barely had any need of bringing our own snacks.
Each breakfast was a combination of fresh fruit, eggs, ham, pancakes, tea, coffee, juice, cereal, toast, and dulce de leche. Lunch was multiple courses including an appetizer, soup with bread, then the main course with side dishes. Happy Hour every afternoon included no alcohol, but tea and coffee, plus cookies, crackers, and freshly popped popcorn. Dinner was similar to lunch with multiple courses.
As the only person with a dietary restriction in our group, I expected to be limited in what I could eat. I had brought snacks and planned ahead as I often do for gluten-free travel. It was the exact opposite! The chef made extra efforts to cook things gluten-free. One night I even got my own slice of gluten-free mango cake with whipped cream!
The only issue was that my stomach couldn’t quite handle the quantity of food available to us. Be it high altitude, adjusting to a different country, or traveler’s sickness, my stomach was not feeling great by the last day. By the time we were heading back to Cusco, my stomach was empty and I was ready to eat anything and everything.
Get the full details on my entire gluten-free experience on the Inca Trail in this gluten-free guide.
Reflection #5: Extreme Hiker Exhaustion
Tired was nowhere close to the weariness inhabiting my body. After the amount of physical activity coupled with the lack of sleep, I was beyond exhausted. The tents we had were very spacious, plus we had air mats to sleep on, sleeping bags, liners, and pillows. I just couldn’t stay asleep.
One night I woke up shivering, another night I woke up sweating, and one night the wind was so strong on the mountainside I thought the tent was going to fly away! By day four, my body was ready for a real bed, sheets, and uninterrupted sleep!
Also, not running into a donkey when you get up to pee at 3 AM would be a bonus, but not as funny!
Reflection #6: Overwhelming Sense of Pride
Reaching Machu Picchu on that final morning was surreal. I couldn’t fathom we had actually made it.
To be honest, it wasn’t even my favorite day on the trip!
The whole journey was something to be proud of. Our group was filled with wonderful, dynamic, interesting people. Our guides taught us the ways of the Quechua culture and the history of the Incas. Not many people can say they’ve been to Machu Picchu vía the Inca Trail. But we can! There’s something to be said about that!
Our highest days of elevation were ones we had been most concerned about. I really didn’t want to suffer from altitude sickness or have anything inhibit my ability to finish the trek. My concern was also for Dylan – I wanted his hike to be problem-free. When neither of us had any real issue, I was thrilled. We kept an awesome pace while hiking, staying near the front of the group the whole time. Our concern about being last or not making it was far away and never something we really had to worry about.
Reflection #7: Huge Reward As A Hiker
We worked really hard to make sure this trip was a success. Dylan and I spent numerous hours just planning, packing, obtaining emergency medications, acclimating to elevation, and preparing as much as possible for the worst possible scenario.
While we wanted to believe we would have no challenges on this trek, it isn’t realistic. Many people suffer from strong altitude sickness or other problems. It was also the rainy season and we were bound to get bad weather. Accounting for enough toilet paper, sunscreen, bug spray, and appropriate clothing were additional important items on our checklist.
When we made it through the hardest hiking day and successfully made it to Dead Woman’s Pass (13,800 feet), I immediately felt relieved. If we could make it through the most challenging part of the trek, we could definitely finish the whole thing! By day 4, I was in disbelief. We had done it!
Besides some minor stomach upset, we had no real issues. The rehydration salts did help us replenish our electrolytes when we felt a bit nauseous. We didn’t need any real emergency meds but having the Pepto Bismol on hand was a smart choice. There were no sunburns, just a few bug bites (and more to come, apparently), but we had no major injuries, falls, or illnesses. We had prepared as much as possible for this and when the whole thing finished as a success, I felt our hard work had really paid off.
Reflection #8: Gratitude For All
More than any pain or discomfort, lack of sleep, bug bites, exhaustion or hunger, what I most felt was gratitude. I could not have felt more grateful to have been given this opportunity to complete the Inca trail hike with our excellent tour company, Alpaca Expeditions.
Our weather had been beautiful and not typical of the rainy season- we had clear days, sunny days, and cloudy days, but each day the views were something out of a storybook. The rain and thunderstorms only came at night and with one minor tent collapse on some of our Argentine group members. This was quickly rectified by the porters!
This sacred pilgrimage route of the Inca Trail depicted such wondrous natural beauty. Everywhere we looked was an example of various microclimates, flora, and fauna. The mountains loomed over us but not in a way that was terrifying. Instead, they welcomed us and guided us along our way. Colorful flowers, iridescent butterflies, and green terraces dotted the snow-capped peaks and landscapes. Each archeological site and ruin was a chance to escape to the past – to see how the Incas lived and learn firsthand from local Peruvian people.
The landscape and stunning country of Peru were not the only things that left me feeling indebted to this experience. Our hiking group was filled with amazing and fun people from all over the world! We all got along so well and bonded so quickly. Together, we supported each other, sang songs, played games, and shared so much in such a short time. Quickly we became fast friends and that was one of the best parts of our Inca Trail experience.
The other people on our trek who made this trip a success were our guides, Jose and Filio, our chef Sergio & his colleagues, and every single porter – the Green Machines!
Inca Trail Staff: Our Guides & Chefs
They are two of the kindest and hilarious guys we’ve ever met! Jose and Filio, along with our entire team of porters and chefs were so friendly and absolutely incredible. The porters carried 65 pounds each!
Without them and our lovely chef Sergio, who cooked for us, giving us afternoon juices and coca tea, we would have not been successful. Jose and Filio constantly checked on us, offered us advice, told jokes, reminded us to drink water, and provided us with encouragement along the way.
They both contributed individually different facts and information about the Quechua customs, Inca history, local plants and animals, and more. While Jose would teach us about the architecture of the ruins and archeological sites we visited, Filio would point out different herbs and plants along the trek.
We learned so much from them and became so close in such a short amount of time. Leaving Jose and Filio, plus parting with our new friends on the last day was almost harder than the most difficult day on the trail.,
I felt so indebted to everyone and felt we had known each other for years, and not a few days. We already had so many inside jokes and funny stories from our time together. It felt like it was all over too soon. I was the only person who cried when saying goodbye.
Inca Trail Hike: Sulpaiki, Pachamama
This post is titled “Sulpaiki, Pachamama”- two of the Quechua words that we learned on the trek. Quechua is commonly spoken among native Peruvians. Many of our porters only spoke Quechua, and a few spoke Spanish too. “Sulpaiki” was one of the first words we learned. It means “thank you”.
Numerous meals went by with mentions of “Sulpaiki” from each of us, sharing food and drink together in our dining tent. Filio was always quick saying, “Sulpaiki, señorita” whenever you passed him something as simple as a napkin. It warmed my heart.
The other Quechua word we learned was “Pachamama”. This word appeared on the T-shirt’s and bags of our porters, with the sayings of “We love Pachamama”. While I was curious as to what it meant, it didn’t come up right away.
During a planned break on an uphill stretch on one of our first days, we stopped to rest in the shade by a quaint village. Underneath a hut with benches, we all sat catching our breath and drinking water to stay hydrated. José, however, grabbed a cup of chica, a corn-based Peruvian beer from a local woman selling it on the side of the road.
It was immediately clear how much Jose was enjoying his nice cup of beer. Some of our fellow group members commented,
“Man, a beer would be great right about now.”
While it would have tasted good (not for me, obviously), but alcohol while hiking at high elevation wasn’t wise. Instead, we drank our water and rested our tired lungs while Jose and Filio enjoyed their chicha.
As Jose finished explaining the process of making and brewing chica beer, he turned his plastic cup to the side, allowing some of the beer to fall on the ground. Filio immediately did the same.
Thinking it would be wasteful to lose even a drop of their precious drinks, I was about to ask why, when my unspoken question was answered.
Seeing the confused looks on our faces, he translated:
“For Mother Earth.”
That small pouring of chicha on the ground was humbling and inspiring. The trail was to be respected and honored, just like the earth is to be taken care of and protected.
Even though I am not Quechua, nor Peruvian, this small gesture deeply resonated with me. It reminded me that we didn’t just hike the Inca Trail, but completed a pilgrimage – a sacred journey.
When we began walking on the Inca trail hike that first day, just an hour or so after breakfast, our porters began clapping and cheering. It was such an incredible moment to witness!
They were so happy for us to experience the way of the Incas as it is meant to – on foot and with lots of memories to take with us. Even though the porters do this trek every week, their enthusiasm was genuine and sincere. They were so proud to show more people the wonders of Pachamama.
Thank you for showing me the Inca Trail hike and teaching us about the Quechua people. Thank you for providing Dylan and me with beautiful weather and a safe passage. Thank you to our team of porters and chefs at Alpaca Expeditions for providing us with food, shelter, and carrying our bags. Thank you to our guides Jose and Filio for teaching us and caring for us.
Thank you for this incredible gift, and thank you for the memories!
If you are interested in completing the Inca trail hike, check out Alpaca Expeditions. They were a fantastic company to work with and provided not only excellent service, guides, and overall experience for us; but they treat their porters well and give back to their local communities.
Alpaca Expeditions can also accommodate special diets like those who eat gluten-free (🙋🏻♀️) or vegetarian. This post is not sponsored in any way, it is just a heartfelt recommendation. These guys were amazing and we can’t recommend them enough!
For more information, check out their website or their page on Facebook.
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