Guest Post: Following the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Jer and Deb at Machu Picchu

When I travel abroad — for me that means outside the U.S. — I try my best to leave my expectations behind, to experience foreign destinations with an open mind and an acceptance that “it is what it is.”

That being said, I’m only human, so certain expectations do wiggle into my world-traveling psyche, as they did on a recent trip to Peru, where my boyfriend and I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Before I reveal those expectations, though, I have to tell you that, overall, the trip was awesome, amazing, and all kinds of other admirable adjectives. We wowed and oohed and aahed with every bend in the trail and were, for a few long moments, utterly speechless (and, speaking for myself, a little teary-eyed) when we arrived at Inti Punku — the “Sun Gate” — and saw Machu Picchu “for real” for the first time. Anyone interested in going on these trails I strongly suggest that you go, it is a fantastic sight to see. There are a lot of ways you can get there such these machu picchu tours, but whichever way you choose, it is worth going! I must also say, arriving by bus via the many switchbacks of the unpaved road from the isolated tourist town of Aquas Calientes, while a thrill in its own right, is nothing like getting to this world-famous destination after hiking through the high jungle of the Andes Mountains.

That adjective-filled praise being said … let me gush further about our first Peruvian experience. Thanks to the assistance of Travel Shop Girl (also known as my friend Marian), we selected Adventure Life as our guide service for this much-anticipated trip. They weren’t the least expensive of the outfitters by any means, but the reviews, so said our travel agent here, were excellent and, she advised, we shouldn’t shortchange ourselves when it comes to quality, especially for this central, much-anticipated part of our vacation.

And she was right. While other hiking travelers with other tour companies in our midst appeared to be having a very good time and to be well cared for, Adventure Life provided us with second-to-none service, from the knowledgeable, attentive and always good-natured guide to the hard-working porters who toiled tirelessly, early morning till late at night for our comfort and enjoyment, to the hearty, gourmet meals I never would have expected on a hiking trip … had I brought such an expectation along, that is.

A day on the trail went like this: Wake to the offering of hot tea and steaming wash water slipped beneath the vestibule of our tent by a polite, unseen porter. A bit later, a hearty hot breakfast is served in the dining tent on a cloth-covered table. Then, after time to digest that deliciousness, a few hours of hiking at high elevation, surrounded by lush jungle, grassy meadows, snow-capped peaks, falling water, blooming flowers … you get the picture … stepping to the side of the trail now and then for swiftly passing porters with their large, heavy loads. Add frequent micro-breaks to catch our breath and take pictures, with some longer, sit-down rests in the mix, and some well-placed stops so our guide could tell us about this Incan ruin or that gem of geology or this bit of botany or zoology. Arrive at the beautiful lunch spot to find more steaming wash water and the dining tent and chairs ready and waiting.

Machu Picchu
Meal on the Inca Trail

A hot, hearty, multi-course lunch is served. We enjoy a post-lunch rest, then more rewarding and challenging hiking at a leisurely pace. Arrive at the campsite to again find steaming wash water, our tent and sleeping pads waiting with our personal gear, carried all day by the porters, at our disposal. Then late afternoon tea is served with a snack and, soon, a gourmet dinner and satisfying, well-earned sleep. Repeat for three more days until we get to Machu Picchu.

Then we were treated to a private tour of this former Incan settlement by our own Adventure Life guide, followed by a bus ride down the mountain for a hot shower, dinner and a comfortable stay in Aquas Calientes. The next morning, it was back up to Machu Picchu for more exploring before we returned to Aquas Calientes for lunch, then the comfortable train ride through the Sacred Valley to a location near the start point of our hike, and a return van ride through more jaw-dropping countryside to our hotel in Cuzco.

So far, so good, yes? Yes! And, like I said, it was a great trip — everything we had hoped for and then some. (Notice how I didn’t say “expected.”) Cuzco, where we’d spent a couple of days before the hike, exploring and acclimating at more than 11,000 feet, was colorful and interesting and, while we were there in June, full of festival festivities. Not to mention a bit hectic, but, hey, it was culture and we were on vacation, so hectic was fun too. We enjoyed some geocaching and climbing many steep cobbled streets and stone steps in the process. It was a good warm-up for the Inca Trail.

So, you ask, what about those expectations I didn’t manage to leave at home and anything that wasn’t so wonderful? Fair enough.

Machu Picchu
A scene from Cusco (also spelled Cuzco)

First of all, I expected to feel like a contortionist – to be cramped and claustrophobic — on the airplanes. And my expectations in that regard were well met. After all, we can’t afford to fly first class. Add to that that I forgot to log on to internet in advance to try to reserve an aisle seat, combined with the fact that the guy in said aisle seat in our row for the five-hour flight from Miami to Lima fell asleep during take-off and snored for the duration, and I had to pee for a very long time. I also expected, since I’d confirmed by email with the folks at the Lima hotel where we’d spend one night before flying to Cuzco, that they’d pick us up from the airport upon our late-night arrival. And they did! There was the sign with our names on it, held up by a young man in the crowd as we exited the baggage claim area. I can’t say much for the neighborhood we ended up in, but, hey, the “hostal” was clean and cheap, and they got us back to the airport on time in the morning. I’d also expected we’d be picked up at the Cuzco airport. Unfortunately, I failed to reconfirm our airport pickup with the folks at that establishment, and their driver never showed. So we ended up paying about 50% more for a taxi.

I’m sure, if I’d think about it long enough, I’d come up with other minor expectations I couldn’t help but bring with me that either were or were not met, but I’ll skip to the bigger stuff. I’d expected, when I signed us up for the Inca Trail/Machu Picchu tour with Adventure Life that, as the literature said, our maximum group size would be eight – my boyfriend and me plus six others. So, I anticipated a small group trip, and I was looking forward to that. Once I revealed to Jeremy our vacation destination – a long-time secret I’d kept as a birthday gift until the day before we departed – he was looking forward to the small group experience, too. So neither of us expected we’d end up being the only two on our trip, other than the guide and six porters. And why would that not be a good thing, you ask? A private tour for the cost of a group trip? How great is that!

Machu Picchu
A shot of the trail

Well, honestly, we would have preferred not to be the only two. Without other tourists in the mix, we were like a threesome with the guide almost the entire time we were on the trail. Don’t get me wrong, he did a great job and really worked hard. And he shared a lot of information about what we were seeing along the way, always looking out for our comfort and safety too. It’s just that he was with us most of the time, hiking right behind or just in front of us, sharing all meals with us, even tenting right next to us, a mere couple of feet away. And that was just a bit too much togetherness for my taste.

With a small group, the attention is diffused. No one has to feel like they have to talk all the time and respond to all of the guide’s comments, not to mention the many personal stories he told once he felt we were good friends, which was soon after the trip began. Yes, we would have had meals with multiple others, not just the guide, had there been other tourists on the trip, but again, the attention and the pressure we felt to talk – sometimes directly placed on us by our enthusiastic guide – would not have been an issue. And we would have had more personal space on the trail, with more time to talk privately and comment on the world around us as we hiked. As it was, our guide involved himself in nearly every conversation we had, even if it was about something from home that he had no knowledge of. This, for me especially, was tiring and more so as the days went along.

Another drawback to being the only two travelers in our group was the fact that we were also the only ones there to tip the porters and guide. This was a topic our guide brought up the night before the hike began, when he met us at our hotel for an orientation. He let us know the amount per person that was customary for tipping, including the fact that we should give the chef more than the other porters. While he did say that tipping was, of course, optional, he said it was customary to tip if the service was good and very much needed by the porters, who were otherwise poor farmers. Doing the math on the spot, my boyfriend and I looked at each other and winced. It was more than we’d expected, and without anyone else along to tip, it would be very noticeable if we didn’t tip “enough.”

Needless to say, I also didn’t expect to get food poisoning (a la the trout I ordered in a nice restaurant in Cuzco) the night before our hike began. I’d thought I was being careful, but alas I got the bad bug and spent a rather miserable night in the hotel, hoping I’d be cured by morning. Not so, although I was better during the days than I was at night. The grumbly tummy – and worse – didn’t ruin my trip, and I loved the hiking, but it was tough being occasionally quite ill while having a guide so close so much of the time.

And I didn’t want our guide to know I was sick, lest he tell us we had to turn back like we saw a few others do from other groups. “She must have a bacterial infection,” our guide told us when a young girl and a porter passed on the first day, going in the opposite (wrong) direction. I glanced back at my boyfriend, visually conveying the message that my bad gut was our little secret. By the time we reached Machu Picchu, that bad bug had, thankfully, gone away.

So, in light of those little expectations gone awry, I would make the following suggestions:
• If you’ve made arrangements for airport pickup, confirm just before you leave on your trip.
• If you’ve signed up for and prefer a group hike on the Inca Trail, you might want to check with your guide service beforehand and find out if there really will be other travelers, if that’s important to you. It’s always possible no one else signed up for that departure date with that particular service, or the rest of the permits may have been snatched up by other outfitters.
• Inquire about tipping if it’s not spelled out in the literature you receive and, if you wish, set aside the most you’d be willing and able to give. (American dollars are fine, but they should be new, crisp, untorn bills.) You can ask your guide service how many porters there will be, in addition to the guide, so you’re prepared.
• Be careful about what you eat in Peru, especially in the cities and towns you visit before and after the hike. (The chef from Adventure Life was meticulous about cleanliness and safe cooking practices, so I never worried about that food.) Make sure your food is well cooked or, if it’s raw food, that it’s properly washed. Drink only bottled water. And bring along some anti-diarrheal medicine, antacids, and whatever else you might need if you run into one of those “bad bugs.”

If you’d like more information about this amazing adventure, including trip-specific pointers, hotel recommendations (and cautions), suggested gear, information for your visit to Machu Picchu, additional photos and more, visit my Travel Tips: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu page.

Deb Lauman is a freelance writer and novelist, who wrote the first draft of her first book, I. Joseph Kellerman, while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. In addition to writing and hike, one of Deb’s other passions is volunteering with the Search & Rescue team based near her home in Flagstaff, Arizona. You can read about her SAR experiences in her blog, Deb’s Search and Rescue Stories.

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