If you had to name one truly iconic South American travel experience, this would probably be it – hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu. It doesn’t get much more travel-bucket-list-cliche than that.
The massive popularity of this hike means you’re never going to really feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you will definitely see loads of other people, but at least since the trail is reasonably strenuous it weeds out the massively-annoying, massively-obese cruise-liner types who you see trudging round cities the world over in flocks of around 200, having to pause every 2 minutes to gasp for breath while simultaneously trying to jam a slice of pizza into their fat gobs. Indeed, most of the people you meet will at least have something approaching a sense of adventure, but off the beaten path this is not. And yet, what a fucking awesome trip it is, and definitely deserving of the near-mythical status it holds in the minds of travellers the world over.
It is worth noting that there are several alternate Inca Trails than can be trekked instead if you want to get away from the crowds. And given the reported harm excessive tourist traffic is doing to the classic Inca Trail these could certainly be worth considering. However, let’s not bullshit here, there are always going to be people wanting to do the original Inca Trail, myself included.
Now let’s get one thing straight right from the start, hiking the Inca Trail is no walk in the park. In fact, it’s more like a walk in a Peruvian cloud forest. The path is often steep, with large sections comprising of ancient Inca steps, so you’re out of breath on the way up, and falling on your ass on the way down. The altitude can also be a factor for some, especially if you’ve recently arrived from sea level – allow a day of two in Cusco to acclimatise beforehand if you feel you need it. Still, the trail is definitely doable for anyone of at least moderate fitness, and anyone fretting about whether it will be too tough for them needs to have a steaming hot mug of harden-the-fuck-up and just do it.
The trail is stunning from both a natural & cultural perspective. For the first 3 days you will be winding through incredibly beautiful cloud forest & passing by some seriously impressive Inca & pre-Inca ruins that those heading straight to Machu Pichu from Cusco on the train will miss (a major reason why you should hike the trail). Ruins you’ll see include the puma paw-shaped Llaqtapata ruins & the beastly fortress of Sayamarca, check out the pics to get an idea of how wicked these are.
But nothing can prepare you for the sight that awaits on the morning of day 4 – seeing the sun rise over Machu Pichu. Well actually, on my trip there it rained continuously so it was more like watching the sky gradually become lighter over Machu Pichu, but still it was pretty damn impressive.
There is a certain type of traveller who takes great delight in claiming popular tourist destinations are not that good, and they’ve seen way better places but don’t worry because you’ve never heard of them – I call them travel hipsters. These people will claim Machu Pichu is overrated & maybe you shouldn’t even bother going. Seriously, feel free to give these people a swift kick square in the nuts/vagina. Yes I will admit some places are overrated, but Machu Pichu is not one of them, it is fucking brilliant.
A couple of other points worth noting. Firstly having a good guide can be the difference between having an awesome time on the Inca Trail, and having a really awesome time on the Inca Trail. That is to say, while this place is so wicked you’re going to have a good time even if your guide is about as useless as a one-legged man at a bum-kicking competition, having a good knowledgeable guide will mean you’ll learn loads about the Inca civilization plus you’ll actually know what you’re looking at as you hike along. If possible ask if you can meet your guide when you book your place on the trip, before setting out. Things to look for in a guide are a good grasp on the English language, a good sense of humour (you’re going to be together for 4 days so you might as well have some lulz), and if you can try to discern whether or not he is the type of guy who harbours deep-seated psychopathic tendencies & is likely to pull out a rifle & proceed to hunt you & your companions for sport once you’re out on the trail, then that’s a good thing to check for too.
Last, and almost certainly least, special mention must go to the toilets. The good news is that there are toilet blocks along the trail & at the campsites, so you won’t have to shit in the woods. The bad news is that these toilets will be amongst the most god-forsaken stomach-churningly wretched places you have ever dropped a deuce in your life. Add to the mix the effects of some fairly dodgy food that has been carted along for several days, and you have a recipe for some serious unpleasantness. Whilst waiting in line for the men’s toilet, the WTF spotted several girls head into the girls’ toilet & then come straight back out again with looks of sheer horror on their faces. The words “explosive”, “it’s everywhere” and “how did she even do that?” were overheard. Still, you’re not going to let a few days of appalling toilet conditions put you off one of travelling’s iconic experiences are you? If so, harden the fuck up, pack your poop blockers, and get out on the trail – despite some minor unpleasantness this is still one of the most epic things you will ever experience. Just do it.
Are you going to let some dodgy toilets put you off seeing this? Of course not! PS – the toilets also don’t have locks, so chances are at some point on the trek a chick will bust in on you squatting while pinching a loaf & getting a full-frontal visual of your junk. But who cares, you know she’s gonna be impressed anyway.