Machu Picchu needs no introduction. Google ‘South America’ and the ruins will probably be the first picture that pops up – and for good reason. Anyone who’s been will remember that unforgettable moment when you first clap eyes on the Inca citadel. While this is definitely a highlight, and probably the reason you flew to South America in the first place, there’s a whole lot of stuff about the Inca Trail that people somehow never getting around to telling you.
It’s important to know the trail isn’t all llamas and mystical pan-flutes. It’s not always glamorous and there are forgotten parts of the trail that all would-be trekkers should know about. That’s what we’re here for. This article isn’t meant to scare or deter you, but to give you the information to plan ahead and make the most of your adventure. As they say, forewarned is forearmed.
1. Dead Woman’s Pass is even steeper on the way down
Yes, the dreaded Dead Woman’s Pass. Everyone will tell you about the knee-busting effort needed to climb this infamous summit. At 4,215m, it’s the highest point of the Inca Trail and is nearly 1,800m higher than Machu Picchu! While overcoming the pass is a celebration in itself, everyone forgets that what goes up must come down. The steps on the way down are much steeper, and there’s a good chance you could take a less-than-spectacular tumble down the stairs. The best strategy is to use the time at the summit to catch your breath (you’ll feel the altitude), clear your head, and then make the descent using hired walking poles to keep steady. You can get these from Cuzco before departing on the trail. The trek down takes roughly an hour but after this you’ll be back on comfortable walking paths.
2. Chewing coca is an art form
The coca leaf has been part of traditional medicine in the Andes for centuries. When chewed, the plant acts as a mild stimulant and can ward off hunger, thirst, fatigue and some symptoms of altitude sickness. The traditional method of chewing coca involves keeping a saliva-soaked ball of leaves in your mouth combined with an alkaline substance (similar to ash) that helps extract nutrients from the leaves. Much like an Andean version of gum, there are friendly competitions between trekkers to see who can chew the biggest ball of coca leaves. Keep an eye out and you’ll usually see what looks like large gobstoppers lodged in porter’s cheeks while they’re walking.
3. Don’t underestimate altitude sickness
Like seasickness, nobody expects that they’ll suffer from the altitude until it happens. Unlike seasickness, altitude sickness is not only more common but can be fatal if untreated. Many travellers in Cuzco will suffer mild symptoms, including headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and vomiting, but these will usually subside after you’ve acclimatized (around 12-24 hours after arrival). Unfortunately, the trail ascends and descends rapidly and the physical exercise puts a strain on your body’s ability to adapt. This is a large reason why Dead Woman’s Pass is such a challenge. I’ll never forget passing one unfortunate trekker who was carried by his porter. He was struck down with extreme dizziness, bouts of unconsciousness and diarrhea. I doubt he remembers the trail for the views, or that the porter had a fun day at work.
Some native remedies, such as chewing coca leaves, have been praised for their ability to minimize altitude sickness. While these may be helpful, it’s important to listen to your body and learn how to identify the symptoms. Pushing yourself too hard or failing to identify the warning signs can be hazardous. Consult your doctor before arriving in Peru and discuss the possibility of using altitude sickness medication (and get a Yellow Fever injection while you’re at it!). Altitude sickness tablets are usually small, cost-effective pills that travel well. You may not need to use them, but it’s better to be prepared than reach the Sun Gate on the back of your porter.
4. You get plenty of bonus ruins along the way
Everyone who signs up to the traditional Inca Trail knows what waits at the end of the road, but it’s the ruined fortifications that you pass along the way that make the trail magical. Trekkers pass through six ruins, ranging from the many steep terraces of Chachabamba to Phuyupatamarca and its enchanting cloud forest. Each site has its own history and character that your guides will explain along the way. Trekkers can hike at their own pace, so you should be able to explore each ruin at leisure. There’s plenty of great photo opportunities too, so remember to pack an extra set of batteries for the camera.
5. There will be squat toilets. They will be gross
Squat toilets are nothing new, in fact they’re widely used throughout Asia and South America. The difference between your standard squat toilet and those used in the high Andes is the lack of routine cleaning and electricity. Janitors don’t go out of their way to trek a hundred kilometres to clean them, which means they smell (badly). They’re also pitch black at night. You’ll need to either pack a torch or use the ‘torch’ function on your phone (just don’t drop it). The toilets aren’t stocked with toilet paper either. Ask your tour company whether they will provide it or if you will need to buy some before you begin. A small bottle of hand sanitizer also goes a long way.
6. Keep your wits about you
Even with all the glossy travel magazines we see today, the reality is that there are still some places in the world that are inherently risky to visit. The worn pathways to Machu Picchu, which are vulnerable to landslides, are just one example. On the final day, you’ll wake at around 4am and complete the final few kilometres of the trail. At this early hour, bleary-eyed trekkers will cross a narrow section that runs beside a cliff, with a sheer drop down to the valley floor. Most of the time the path will be clear, but sometimes it will be marked with orange tape (an indication that someone has recently fallen). Remember to stay focused and don’t get distracted trying to take pictures.
7. Put the camera down. Just enjoy it
That final early morning hike brings trekkers to Inti Punku, better known as the Sun Gate and the official entrance to Machu Picchu. Here you’ll be welcomed by a dramatic sunrise, with the ruins slowly being revealed in the morning light. It’s a reward reserved for those who complete the trail, as visitors who arrive by train must wait until after sunrise for services to begin. This exclusivity means the site is completely empty. So don’t rush. Relax, snap some photos with your new hiking friends, and really soak in this special moment.
Want to tackle the Inca Trail for yourself? Book a spot on one of our Machu Picchu treks and start practicing your coca chewing.