Why trekking the Inca Trail was the best way to celebrate turning 50

written by Rachael Layton June 27, 2019
Machu Picchu

A psychologist may have some theories about why two 50-year-olds decided to mark their half century by visiting an ancient ruin, but let’s not overanalyse this.

Leading up to our 50th birthdays, my partner and I talked about doing a river cruise along the Rhine, taking in the history and beauty of Europe while enjoying fine foods and wines.

As pleasant as that sounded, it didn’t quite float our boat – pardon the pun – because we knew it was something we could do when we were older and less mobile.


A group of travellers about to start the Inca Trail

Rachael and her partner Scott, with fellow travellers Chris and Allison, at Kilometer 82, the start of the hike.

We decided that while we were (relatively) young, (somewhat) fit and (completely) delusional, we should tackle an adventure trip.

For decades I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu but had never seriously looked into it.

Now it had escalated to the top of the travel list and we decided that, to do it justice, we would walk in the footsteps of the Incas and do the four-day Inca Trail.

Our travel agent recommended Intrepid Travel’s Inca Trail Express, so we booked a date and then planned a four-week South American trip around it.

A traveller in front of a map of the Inca Trail

Rachael in front of the map showing the altitudes during the hike

It was only when we had decided on a final itinerary and booked the trip that reality hit. We were going to walk through the Andes, reaching peaks of 4200 metres, while experiencing low levels of oxygen and the possibility of altitude sickness. What on earth were we thinking?


My partner and I aren’t campers. One of the few times we have camped, we were flooded out and stranded by a dam for days with all roads out cut. We aren’t even hikers. While we like to walk in our local State Forest, we do so in a pair of running shoes, shorts and tank tops.

A hiker on the rocky steps of the Inca Trail

The rocky stairs – hundreds of them!

So, after the trip was booked and paid for, we started to do some serious research. Some may think this approach was ill considered. I’d rather think of it as bold.

Our research included speaking to people we knew who had walked the Inca Trail, reading online accounts and watching YouTube videos. Most importantly, we started walking. We bought ourselves good quality walking boots and started exploring our local forests and parks.


A group of travellers and porters on the Inca Trail

With our fantastic porters and cook

Hiking boots

Giving the hiking shoes a rest while taking in the spectacular views

A tent on the Inca Trail

Our room with a view.

Inca ruins

One of many Inca ruins visited during the trek

The added bonus of this trip, one we hadn’t foreseen, was that my partner and I started exercising together. While both of us were regular exercisers, we had always worked out separately. However, during our Inca Trail training we spent hours every week walking in some beautiful locations in our area, sharing the highs and lows of our days.

My biggest concern was that, despite all our training, we couldn’t replicate the conditions we were about to face. We live in an Australian city at sea level so we couldn’t prepare for the possibility of altitude sickness until we were there. In the months between booking the trip and doing it, I regularly wavered between excitement and anxiousness.

That excitement and anxiety were with me on our bus ride from Ollantaytambo, the town we’d stayed in the night before our hike, to the 82km mark – the start of the Inca Trail.


Two travellers at Machu Picchu

We made it. Rachael and Scott posing at Sun Gate with Machu Picchu in the background.

Our tour group included four trekkers: us and a newlywed couple from Sydney, as well as our lovely tour guide Vania, cook and 11 porters. Such a small group is unusual, but it worked well. The newlyweds were two decades our junior and walked at a quicker pace, but not significantly so.

Once we started, my fears and anxieties took a back seat. “I’m here now,” I rationalised. “Unless I injure myself (one of my biggest fears) or can’t complete it (a close second on the scale), this is it.”

Two trekkers on the Inca Trail

Rachael and Scott at Machu Picchu

And so it was a matter of putting one foot in front of the next. And during the next four days that’s what we did. Some parts were amazing – we’d stop and take a photo of the soaring mountains knowing that a snapshot could not possibly do it justice.

Some parts were difficult – when the air was so thin that walking 20 steps made us stop and gasp for breath like we were unfit, 80-year-olds. But surprisingly, it didn’t take long to recover. Vania’s advice to ‘just take it at your own pace’ really helped. This was not a race. It was a matter of completing the miles but also experiencing the majesty of the trail.


Hikers at Machu Picchu

Allison, Chris, Rachael and Scott at Machu Picchu.

A llama at Machu Picchu

A llama photo bombs the ‘perfect’ Machu Picchu shot.

While I knew that we would see other Inca ruins on the trail, I hadn’t really given this much thought. During the four-day trail you see many other ruins, and the stories behind them all is fascinating. Immersing ourselves for four days in the history of an ancient culture – one that, in many ways, was incredibly advanced – was an amazing experience.

Of course, the highlight was Machu Picchu. In my travels I’ve visited a lot of places that I’d dreamed of visiting – the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Stonehenge. While I enjoyed the experience of visiting all these landmarks, there was also the feeling that, because I’d seen them in so many photos, it was almost an anti-climax.

I didn’t want Machu Picchu to be like this. So on the fourth day, when we reached the Sun Gate, I was the last of our small group to view the ancient citadel. I held back, behind the Sun Gate, hesitant to take the first view, worried that I would have that feeling of slight disappointment.

As I tentatively took the steps through one of the openings in the Sun Gate and saw the magnificent Machu Picchu below, a flood of emotion swept through me. As I fought back tears – tears of wonder, relief, triumph – my partner and Vania checked to see if I was okay.

I was more than okay. Reaching Machu Picchu after the four-day Inca Trail hike wasn’t anti-climactic; it was the culmination of a long-held dream, months of training and a newfound respect for the ancient Incas and their descendants, who had been our porters during the trip.

And, it certainly was better – although less comfortable – than a leisurely cruise along the Rhine. I wouldn’t have celebrated my half century any other way.

If you’ve got a milestone celebration coming up – or you’re just up for an adventure – join us on a trek to Machu Picchu. Explore our range of small group tours now

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