When I was a little girl in Casper, Wyoming, we had a set of encyclopedias that were stacked next to the fireplace. I loved looking at the “M” encyclopedia because the things in that book started with the first letter of my name.
I remember being mesmerized by the image of Machu Picchu, the Inca ruins in Peru.
The ruins of Machu Picchu
I knew that I wanted to see the ruins in person one day and I took it as a given that such an adventure would transpire. However, 40-some years later, visiting Machu Picchu was a distant memory and went on the long list of things I had always wanted to do but couldn’t because of my weight.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is over 25 miles long and includes thousands of stone stairs with significant climbs and descents (e.g., 4,000 foot climb in one day). I could hardly climb the stairs to the second floor of my house – climbing up and down the mountain passes on the Inca Trail was out of the question.
Although I love her dearly, this earlier version of myself could not have managed hiking the Inca Trail.
One of the many benefits of becoming healthier is that I can take things off of my “can’t do” list and move them to my “why not” list.
When Glenn and I began planning this big 6-month trip, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was at the very top of my list of things I wanted to do. Not only to fulfill a childhood daydream, but to prove to myself that I could tackle something that had, until recently, been all but impossible.
The Inca Trail did not disappoint and will forever be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. In addition to the beautiful mountain scenery and the amazing cultural heritage of the ruins I hiked through along the way, there are two things that I will remember the most – the trail porters and walking through the Sun Gate at the end of the trail.
1. The porters
Hiking the Inca Trail typically takes 4 days of trekking and 3 nights camping and requires going with a tour company as they are the only ones that can get the very limited hiking permits. Although it is possible to hike that distance carrying your own stuff, most people hire porters to help.
In our case, we booked our hike through a tour company called Bio Bio Expeditions
and the tour package included porters as well as chefs to cook the meals. There were 15 hikers in our tour group and nearly 40 staff that helped get us to the finish line. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Our hiking group at the start of the trail. We also had 4 guides and nearly 40 porters, kitchen chefs and other staff.
I felt very conflicted about the porters.
After breakfast we would hit the trail and within an hour the porters would buzz past us, their packs stuffed full of our tents, sleeping bags, food, clothing and even two portable toilets. They would set up a temporary camp further down the trail to make us lunch, pack everything up again and run ahead to set up our evening camp and prepare dinner before our arrival. Then they would do it all again the next day…and the day after that…and the day after that.
This is what camp looked like our first night. The big orange tent was where amazing, multi-course meals were served.
The porters are not allowed to carry more than 55 pounds (including their own gear) and there are various checkpoints along the trail where their bags are weighed to ensure their safety. Even so, I felt horribly guilty knowing that this army of porters was carrying huge packs of gear and food on my behalf.
Several of our porters making their way up the trail…racing to beat us to the next stopping point to get everything set up before our arrival.
Not only did the situation make me feel lazy, but it felt horribly oppressive.
On the other hand, being a porter enables these men – most of whom are local farmers – to earn additional, much needed income to support their families. They seemed to be enjoying themselves and there was great camaraderie among the porters. They would laugh long into the night and would joke with one another on the trail (e.g., after a porter got his pack on and started hiking the trail his companions pulled his pants down).
The tour company we hired has a reputation as a good employer that pays the porters well (compared to many other tour operators), and Glenn and I made sure to thank them often and tip them well. And, although carrying all of our gear was hard work, it likely wasn’t nearly as difficult as their backbreaking work as farmers.
One evening we arrived at camp in a driving rain. We crawled, wet and cold, into our tent (which was already set up for us) as the porters and kitchen staff delivered hot coffee, cheese and crackers to us. I have never felt so spoiled.
Was I just another privileged white North American taking undue advantage of the local indigenous population…or was I a tourist providing an important economic opportunity for local families? I have yet to reconcile this in my head and in my heart. In reality, it was likely a lot of both.
Regardless, I was truly in awe of the porters.
While we, the tourists, would slowly pick our way along the trail with our fancy boots, walking sticks and light-weight daypacks…the porters would all but run the stairs wearing little rubber sandals and carrying packs that were bigger than they were. As they passed they would smile, wave and give us encouragement.
In the video below you can see Glenn, and the other hikers in our group, gingerly plodding along the rain-slicked trail…only to be quickly passed by the sure-footed porters with their towering packs and encouraging words in their native language of Quechuan (which sounds like “ha-coo” and/or “ha-coo-chee”).
Hiking the Inca Trail was clearly in their blood.
Crossing the valleys and mountain passes along these amazing stone paths is part of who they are and where they came from – an important part of their heritage and an activity that seems to give them great pride.
On our last morning we gathered to say goodbye to the porters. A fellow hiker, Tika, was gracious enough to say a few words on our behalf and I think she was spot on when she said that we (the tourists) were blessed to have had the opportunity to come in contact with the lovely smiles and gracious spirits of the porters.
Several of our porters in their traditional Quechua attire.
There was an ancient wisdom in their souls, a gentleness to their spirit and a sparkle of magic in their smile. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met them – even if I feel conflicted about the role they played in getting me to Machu Picchu.
2. Reaching Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate
Of all of the physical activities we had planned during our time in South America, I was most anxious and intimidated by the Inca Trail. The uneven stone stairs (and there are thousands upon thousands of them) are daunting enough…but add in the high elevations, and major ascents and descents along the way (e.g., climbing from 8,000 to over 13,000 feet…then down and back up again) and I knew we were in for a very challenging adventure.
Our group (which we joked looked like a bunch of Skittles in their multi-colored rain ponchos) making their way up one of several climbs.
Up stairs, down stairs. Up stairs, down stairs. So goes the Inca Trail.
Getting up and over the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass was a big accomplishment.
As we were approaching the big climb (on day two of four) I asked to go ahead of the group of over a dozen other fellow hikers. I wanted to have the peace and solitude that comes from hiking alone so that I could listen to my body and get into the mental space needed to power to the top of the pass. Glenn came with me and, as we have done many times before, we hiked in silence – putting one foot in front of the other and made our way to the top.
Glenn, and several porters, working their way to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass.
The hike down the backside of Dead Woman’s Pass was more harrowing than the climb up because we got hit by a sudden hailstorm. In this picture Glenn is making his way down the trail that had become a river of water and ice.
It hailed, and hailed and hailed. Our guides had never hiked the trail in hail and the porters, some of whom have hiked the trail ~400 times, said they had never seen such bad weather.
The climb up and over Dead Woman’s Pass was very tough, but I will thrilled to discover what my body could do. I didn’t need to stop to rest along the way and once at the top I had plenty of energy to keep going.
Although I was elated by my accomplishment, it paled in comparison to how I felt as we approached the Inca Trail entrance to Machu Picchu, known as the Sun Gate.
Unlike many other tour companies, Bio Bio times the group’s arrival at the Sun Gate for the late afternoon (instead of early morning). By early evening the swarms of tourists have already made their way back down the mountain in countless tour busses and so we arrived to relative peace and quiet.
As we got closer to Machu Picchu I found myself getting very emotional – in fact I was a blubbering, crying fool.
Glenn and I nearing the end of the Inca Trail. I was very emotional at this point in the hike and had slowed down to pull away from the rest of the group to try to get a grip on my feelings.
For longer than I can remember I had wanted to hike the Inca Trail, and for much of that time I knew that it was impossible for me to do because of my weight and my lack of physical conditioning. As I watched the porters pass with their 55 pound packs I realized that I used to carry nearly 2.5 of those packs around in excess weight, 24 hours a day. Crazy!
Cresting the final stairs, walking through the Sun Gate and seeing Machu Picchu for the first time was a magical experience.
It felt like validation that all of my hard work to get healthy over the past few years was worth it and that anything is possible.
Our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. My nose is still red and my eyes glassy from shedding more than a few happy tears.
Enjoying a little bubbly to celebrate our accomplishment!
Yay, we made it! It was hard earned and years in the making…and worth every moment.
More pictures from our adventure below…
Our group enjoying a moment of rest after cresting Dead Woman’s Pass.
The weather would change so quickly on the trail…sunny and warm one minute, foggy and rainy the next.
The Inca Trail leads hikers past many other beautiful Inca ruins.
The campsites along the trail had spectacular views, including this one on our last night.
Me and Tika working our way up yet another pass the morning following the big hailstorm…me sporting blue plastic bags on my feet (wet shoes) and Tika’s backpack doubling as a clothesline for her wet socks. (Photo by Nick)
A little Inca Trail selfie action.
Brad, one of our fellow hikers, enjoying a few moments at dusk with a friendly llama.
Our great guides, Alvaro and Darwin.
Arriving at Machu Picchu in the early evening was a gift, as most of the tourists were gone for the day. This is what it looked like the next morning when we went back up to more thoroughly explore the ruins with 3,000 of our closest friends.
And of course…no blog post is complete without a picture of Glenn and one of the many dog (and donkey) friends he made along the way.
A few other pictures from the non-Inca Trail portions of our trip to Peru…
Horseback was a great way to make our way to some Inca ruins outside of Cusco.
Biking through the beautiful agricultural areas above Peru’s Sacred Valley.
Me and Glenn in front of the glacier covered peaks that were towering in the background…even though we were already riding bikes at nearly 12,000 feet. Crazy high mountains, those Andes!
Our amazing picnic lunch site on our bike ride (under the white tent).
The Inca ruins at Moray. These were agricultural test plots where they experimented with and researched different crops.
Another stunning view looking over the Inca ruins at Moray.
The salt mines (evaporation ponds) near Maras, Peru.
Local villagers harvesting the salt.
Why yes, little fella…you can come home with us!