Machu Picchu honest facts

So you want to walk the Inca Trail. Here are the Machu Picchu honest facts, and what you should know…

There are lots of Inca trails and the treks last anything from two days to a couple of weeks. However, the most common one for tourists takes four days and involves three nights of camping.

For our group of nine, we had 15 porters, who carried about 24kg each and set up camp each day, a head cook, a guide and his assistant.

The laden porters.

All these people needed to be paid, but the porters, in particular, are paid a pittance and rely on tips, so even when various licences and registrations are factored in, the trip is reasonably cheap.

The treacherous staircases of Machu Picchu.

The Peruvian Government, backed by international agencies, has restored the area, clearing away centuries of foliage growth and revealing a magical, spiritual site.

Up to 5000 people visit each day. Out the front, it’s like Disneyland with queues of people, but the site itself is so huge there isn’t the same press of people inside.

It is said, certainly by travel agencies and tourism boards, that to really get the full Machu Picchu experience, you need to do the trek. So we did.

Altitude
The Inca trail takes trekkers up to 4200 metres at the eerily named Dead Woman’s Pass. In our group, the young and very fit didn’t have too much trouble, stopping every few minutes to take some deep breaths. However, the older or less fit members struggled to get enough air and were sometimes reduced to walking four or five steps and stopping for a breather.

Mist clearing over the site.

The altitude caused headaches, dizziness, vomiting, fatigue among our group, and definitely shouldn’t be underestimated.

Weather
The rainy season runs from January until March, but being set so high in the mountains, there is liable to be rain along the route at any time. The mist generally clears by mid-morning. We found the sun during the late mornings and early afternoons intense and strength-sapping.

Physical demands
Climbs can be incredibly steep and long, and there are patches with literally thousands of steps, some requiring us to clamber up on all fours.

Trekkers tackle the steep steps.

The downhill stretches of up to three hours are equally challenging because the steps are uneven – one false step can mean a broken ankle or twisted knee. We saw people turning back (or being turned back), others being carried by stretcher, and heard stories of some trekkers being evacuated by horse or helicopter. It’s a tough four days.

Sanitation
The camp sites had basic toilet facilities (squats or long-drops), which reeked. It required physical courage for those of us spoilt by Western conditions to venture in. Many trekkers seemed to prefer to hold on and duck off into the bushes during their day’s walk.

Mosquitoes
Mosquitoes are a concern and strong insect repellent is important. This is especially so at Machu Picchu itself, where the mosquitos display the Incan traits of cunning and perseverance. If you are unprotected there, you will really suffer. I wore long trousers, thinking that was sufficient, but finished the day with welts over my legs.

Looking out over our campsite.

Camping
The tents are usually pitched with only centimetres between them, so don’t expect privacy. The constant sound of tent zips, snoring, coughing and sneezing was part of any night on the trail. However, the tents and sleeping bags provided were warm and comfortable. The food provided was first-class, and full of variety.

The guides
After years of shepherding trekkers of all shapes, sizes and ages along the trail, the guides know their stuff. They have plenty of knowledge of the various Incan sites along the way, and they know when a trekker is struggling or simply not going to make it.

Pitstop on the Inca Trail.

Timing
We were woken about 5.30am each morning to pack, eat and get started before 7am. On the final day the wake-up call was before 3.30am. The idea was to finish each day by 5pm, but the slower members of some parties finished after dark.

Views

There is some wonderful scenery, ranging from glaciers and spectacular mountains to condors, deer, llamas and humming birds. The Incan and pre-Incan sites along the way were impressive too, but sometimes the track was so physically demanding we were too preoccupied with the grind to enjoy the sights enough.

View of Inca settlement on first day of trek.

The pot of gold at the end of the trail
Machu Picchu is indeed a special place. The Incas were so advanced as to defy belief. How they carved the huge slabs of granite so intricately defies even today’s engineers. Their understanding of astronomy, architecture, engineering and geology was incredible. No wonder Macho Picchu (which is actually the name of the mountain it is on) has become one of the world’s major tourist sites and is world heritage listed.

The “pot of gold” finish.

There was talk about “earning” my visit to Machu Picchu and the satisfaction of completing the trail. I really felt more relief than satisfaction when it was over, but to be fair, some members of our group seemed to love every minute of the four days. Counterbalancing that, we passed many, many people along the way who were struggling and wondered what they’d signed up for.

I would love to go back and revisit Machu Picchu, but next time I’d take the other option. I’d stay in historic, comfortable Cusco,  and catch the train.