Words by Nadia Ibanez, photos by Alaina Hower, Romina Rossel and Nadia Ibanez
Editor’s note: The times of day, our wake up calls, distances, anything number related. These numbers might be slightly off because I was likely delirious with bliss and pain on the Inca Trail and also because I’m really bad at numbers. My apologies, I’ll let my travel mates let me know if I miss anything 🙂
Spoiler alert: If you have not seen the finale of “The Great British Baking Show” Season 3, please scroll down few paragraphs until I tell you to stop. I know, a British baking show is a tall order, but I figured I’d offer the spoiler alert so that I don’t get my first piece of hate mail 🙂
“I am never ever going to put boundaries on myself ever again.
I’m never going to say, ‘I can’t do it.’ I’m never going to say ‘Maybe.’
I’m never going to say, ‘I don’t think I can.’
I can. And I will.”
These were the words that home chef, Nadiya, said after winning Season 3 of “The Great British Baking Show.” My roommate got me hooked on the show and just a couple days before I left for Peru, I realized I never watched the last 45 minutes of the season finale. I was giving my brain and body a rest before leaving for the trip so I turned the episode on…not realizing it would leave me bawling at the end.
When I heard this contestant say these words, I couldn’t help but put myself in her footsteps. And it wasn’t just because we shared the same name. Feeling like an underdog and having to prove herself (in a group of men, no less), Nadiya had a certain attitude and prowess I started to see within myself.
These words were haunting me because I knew I was about to embark on not only an amazing vacation, but the hardest thing I was ever about to do.
OK, THE COAST IS CLEAR! SPOILER ALERT OVER.
When Romina asked if I would be interested in hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I said yes without even thinking about it. She mentioned words like “long trail” and “camping” and “trek”. I still instantly said yes. I had an approximate idea of what the trip would be: Hike and camp for a couple days. Be out in the middle of nowhere. Altitude.
No joke, you guys. I’m not going to lie. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
As I’ve grown as a traveler, I’ve found this weird new habit of deciding to go to a new place or check out a new thing without doing a lick of research. I love the surprise of just showing up somewhere and having no preconceived notion of what that thing would look like. I did it once before when my man took me to Gas Works Park in Seattle and I have loved that moment of awe ever since.
I knew the Inca Trail was going to be insane. Yet, I continued this habit of doing zero research…other than what to pack. I knew I was about to walk — a lot. And I figured that I knew my body enough to understand that it was possible to do this trek. I work out pretty much every day. I’m fit and I can walk long distances without a problem. It sounded like I had all of the prerequisites to do this trip.
I didn’t know anything. No clue how many miles we would do everyday. No idea about the change in altitude or how to treat it. (I ended up getting some meds from my doctor, and hallelujah that worked out.) I had no idea what I’d see and I didn’t mind keeping it that way.
We acclimated in Cusco, approximately 11,100 ft. in elevation, for two days before we left for the Inca Trail. The night before, we met with our guide, Clima, to get a brief on what to expect each day and how to prepare. He named off historical places we’d see, the slowness of what our pace should be when we started Day Two, what we needed to pack, and so much more.
All I kept thinking about was how crazy day two was supposed to be. It would be the hardest day but the shortest distance. We’d have to climb something called Dead Woman’s Pass with a peak of 13,800 ft. What the eff did I just get myself into?
Alas, I played it cool in front of everyone. I even remember telling my boyfriend the night before on the phone, “Oh, I feel so much better now knowing what I’m getting myself into!”
We woke up around 3:30 or 4 a.m. to catch our two or three-hour ride to Kilometer 82 in Piscacucho (9,200 ft. above sea level), the start of our trek. Clima started us off on the trail, teaching us the medicinal values of a few of the plants we’d pass along the way. We were a group of seven friends with one trekker who was dealing with food poisoning from the night before and another who was still nursing a neck injury from a surfing accident. Clima called us the Sexy Llamas but really we should have been the Sexy Tortugas (turtles) because we just needed some extra time. Clima probably thought we’d be hopeless and take forever to everrrything.
We started day one and it was hot. We must have been in the desert, or at least that’s what it felt like to me. We were baking and my altitude pills said I couldn’t be in direct sunlight. Grrreat. We made it to our first stopping point after what Clima said would be a five minute hiking sample of what the insanity of day two would look like.
Good lord, these hills do not love you. They want to break you down so much so that you can feel every muscle fiber light on fire. It burned and day two was starting to sound even more nuts. After a few more hours of hiking and Learning Corner with Clima, we made it to our lovely campsite alongside the Urubamba River.
The food on the trek was unbelievable. Sure, our blood sugar levels were probably through the roof when it came to meal time everyday so anything would have tasted delicious. But our chef, Florenzio, was fantastic. We had some of the best guacamole, grilled fish, lomo saltado, fresh vegetables and salads, the most amazing popcorn, and hearty soups. Each meal was like sitting down for a private three-course meal from a fancy Peruvian restaurant in our own little tent. One of our porters even took it upon himself to sculpt animals out of food for all of our meals.
I will forever be grateful to our porters on this trip. They took care of us in every way we needed, from serving Romina and I Chicha Morada when we’ve had enough of the trail to preparing warm water for us to wash our hands before meals when it was freezing out. While we had a bit of a language barrier, we made friends with each other. I called them my “novios más fuerte” and I will always remember you all.
Washingtón, descansa en paz.
The start of day two was hours away. I popped a sleeping pill, since we had an early wake up call, and fell asleep underneath the stars and to the sounds of the river.
The entirety of day two was a bit blurry. We were to hike up to “Dead Woman’s Pass” (because the shape of the mountains resembled a woman, not because it’s named after a horrendous incident). Clima warned us again to take the trek very slowly. I took the tiniest of steps as we started approaching the peak of the Pass. I could barely breathe. I would take a few steps and instantly have to stop because I felt my heart pounding unlike I’ve ever felt before. Nonetheless, I was determined to finish and I kept telling myself, “The more steps you take, the closer you will be to the peak. Just get there. You are stronger than you think you are.”
That entire morning, I kept hearing
I’m never going to say, ‘I can’t do it.’ I’m never going to say ‘Maybe.’
I knew that my body was capable of getting to the peak. I realized that I’ve proven myself to my actual self and I started to cry. The closer I got to the peak, the more emotional I was getting. My breathing was becoming even harder and I knew that if I didn’t keep my cool until reaching the peak, I’d have way more problems breathing.
Finally. We made it to the highest point of our four-day trek. Clima gave us all hugs and congratulated us. We took a group photo at the top and everyone started to head down the crazy steep exit. Clima said I had three minutes until we all needed to get down. Apparently, your body can only handle a few minutes in that altitude. I climbed up a small hill (the breast of Dead Woman’s Pass, if you will) and sat for a moment.
“You did it. You f*cking did it. You made it. You are so strong,” I remember telling myself.
I started to cry — like full-on bawling. I couldn’t control it. I was so happy and felt an emotion I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. I had just accomplished something that seemed so unattainable. I will never forget that moment.
The insanity of day two wasn’t over. We still had to hike down some treacherous steps for a few hours to get to base camp. But we all survived and celebrated. Camp was in the middle of the most amazing mountain range and we arrived with enough time to watch the sunset. We even had our own stream alongside our tents for us to fall asleep to. It was mystical and magical.
Day three was definitely the most beautiful day of the trek. We climbed through mountainsides, the valley, clouds and jungle. We walked through tunnels and hugged the mountainside when the trail narrowed only to show off the massive and dramatic cliffs and drop offs just inches from our feet. Day three was the longest but somehow we didn’t notice because we were surrounded by beauty 100 percent of the time. We learned about the Phuyupatamarka ruins, the indigenous Andean religion, and the symbolism behind the native lands and animals.
We continued crossing through the jungle that seemed to closely resemble the movie Tarzan and I watched and listened as the birds and butterflies flew around us. We could see Aguas Calientes below us, a small town near Machu Picchu and the absolute finish line of our trek and where we’d say goodbye to Clima.
After hours on the trail, we made it to base camp. We shared our last meal with Clima and our porters. I think we all lavished in the idea that day four was going to be a breeze and that we’d end up at Machu Picchu by 8 a.m. the next day.
Our wake up call on day four was around 3:30 a.m. We started the trek when it was still dark out and we passed through the clouds and vines as the sun started to rise. It was such a magical experience and I took a few breaks to just sit and listen. We finally approached the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately the clouds didn’t have enough time to burn off by the time we passed so we didn’t get a clear shot of the ruins.
Clima gave us a tour of the grounds and taught us the significance of the stones, how the ruins were discovered, how the sun and moon played a role in how people used to live in Machu Picchu and SO much more. We had our own time to roam before eventually making our way to the bus out of the ruins to start the next leg of our adventure.
I wish I had all the words to say about the four days we spent on the trail. Knowing that only 500 people (with only 200 as fellow trekkers) are allowed on the trail on any given day, June 27-June 30, 2017 will always have a special place in my heart.
Pachamama, te recordaré. Siempre estoy agradecido.
And for all of you numbers people out there… (Thanks to Alaina’s Fitbit)
Inca Trail Numbers
Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four
Hiking: Five hours
Hiking: Six hours
Hiking: Eight hours
Hiking: Three hours