It’s the symbol of South America, it’s on all of the “Things to see before you die” lists, and as a keen hiker it was an absolute must-do for me while I was traveling through Peru.
I sometimes think it’s a shame that we can Google the world before we see it, because we inevitably build expectations of what a place looks like and how impressed we’ll be; there are few surprises in the Age of Information. And to make it worse, the top results on Google are going to be the ones with clear skies, Photoshopped colors, and no tourists whatsoever. So before I reached Machu Picchu I had doubts as to how impressed I’d be because I’d seen this image so many times before. But cynical me was proven wrong – it was breath-taking.
But before I tell you about the main event, I’ll tell you about the trek. After all, it’s the journey that counts, right?
Going it alone
As we piled onto the coach towards the trail-head I smiled sheepishly at my neighbor, initiating the familiar introduction speech: “This is my name, this is where I’m from, where I’ve been, where I’m going – how about you?” My fears about meeting new people quickly dissipated, and I formed friendships easily. This is the great thing about joining small groups like Intrepid – you make instant friends with like-minded travelers.
As well as the thrill of making new friends with people from all over the world, the empowering thing about solo travel is that you can inoffensively float from person to person and vary your interactions as you please. On the trek you will find yourself walking with different people for different stretches of the trail, depending on who you can keep pace with, or simply who you set off with after a lunch stop.
And if you want to take in the beautiful scenery without distraction, you easily can. I became unafraid to set off alone and take in the sights and smells that eluded me when deep in conversation.
Highs and lows
On day two of the Quarry Trail (the way less crowded Inca Trail alternative, fyi) you will develop a love-hate relationship with switch-backs that is 0% love and 100% hate. Switch-backs are the zig-zags in the path that make a steep section of trail more manageable than a direct ascent up. The zig-zag pattern protects the hill and the trail from excessive erosion, and breaks up the intensity for hikers.
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Go slow up these ascents, and don’t be ashamed to take breaks to wheeze in some more oxygen (and drink in the views). There is no clear link between your level of fitness and the likelihood that you’ll suffer from altitude sickness – it can strike even the healthiest of athletes – but if you take the appropriate precautions there shouldn’t be a problem, and the most you will experience is some shortness of breath. To ward off any further symptoms, keep hydrated and don’t rush – slow and steady will definitely win this race. It’s totally fine to not be the first to the top.
Aside from the breathlessness, ascents are my favorite part of trekking. As well as working those thigh and bum muscles, you build immense mental strength from overcoming the physical pain and continuing to put one foot in front of the other. When you first look up at all you have to achieve it can feel way too intimidating, but just take it one step at a time. Once you’re up, turning around and seeing the progress you’ve made in the form of a killer view…you can’t beat it.
I always think of the following quote from Nelson Mandela when I climb steeps trails: “Everything looks impossible until it’s done”. That quote and a killer Spotify playlist will get you through! (But if you do want more advice, read 7 things no one tells you about the Inca Trail.)
On day three you will rejoice at the announcement that there will be no more uphill. Woohoo! One word of warning: don’t underestimate the pain of going down – it can be very demanding on your knees and feet. One poor soul in my group hadn’t worn in their shoes properly and they came out with the worst blisters in the downhill sections. As long as you make sure that you have well-fitted, broken in, supportive footwear and/or walking poles, you’ll be fine. (Also it never hurts to pack good blister plasters, just in case).
Warnings aside, the scenery on this trail is beyond stunning. You will go from lush green valleys, alongside streams and grazing animals, to sparse, dry landscapes, towering peaks all around. It’s all too easy to stare at your walking boots while on the trail, because all you can think about is how tired you are or how much your feet ache. But these moments are to be treasured – look up at your surroundings often and take it all in. Once it’s over, you’ll only remember the good bits, I promise.
MORE FROM THIS WRITER: WHAT I WISH I KNEW BEFORE HIKING TO MACHU PICCHU
The main event
When I finally set eyes on that magical city in the mountains, there were no blue skies like its Google version, in fact it was incredibly misty. But this had its own magic. I was transported back in time by this ancient world where people used to pass their day-to-day existence up in the clouds. And I soaked it all up with the knowledge that it was simply my feet and determination that got me there.
Do you want to tick Machu Picchu off your bucket list? Check out the exclusive Quarry Trail hike we offer.
Pssst…Got the urge for adventure, but no one to go with? Check out our new range of trips specifically for solo travellers too!
Image Credits (top to bottom): Jen Welch x2, Intrepid Travel x2, Jen Welch