Hurts So Good: Advice for the Inca Trail

Adventure Travel, Featured, Fitness & Workouts, Peru — By on February 23, 2010 at 6:00 am

Rachel Hunt is a native Oregonian who has stumbled her way across four continents with designs on the other three. Having haggled in the souks of Oman and wrestled caimans in the Amazon, she is constantly in search of her next adventure. In the meantime you can find her blogging on The Matchbox Dairies ( Rachel is currently residing in New York City, which is always her favorite place to get lost and where even after five year of residency, she still does.

My first day on the Inca Trail; I think I almost died. I can’t really remember. It all happened in a blur of pain and aching lungs. Porters in rubber flip flops were zooming past me. My guide and fellow trail-mates were patiently waiting for me to inch my way to the top of each crest before continuing the relentless march uphill. I was stuck somewhere in the Andes and the only way out was to keep climbing.

I was, perhaps, woefully unprepared for the four day hike to Machu Picchu and it was seriously inhibiting my ability to enjoy what had quickly become a death march. I remembered the endless advice that I had stupidly ignored. Partly because the majority of it came from my ex and really if he was stupid enough to break up with me, how good could his travel advice be? Somehow, when you’re sore, cursing, dehydrated and feeling like the tortoise in a twisted version of a childhood fable, that hubris disappears. In other words, please, take my advice!


On the second and most difficult day of our hike, I noticed a young Canadian girl in our caravan was lagging behind with our trail guide. At first I was thrilled at no longer being in the back of the pack, since my pace on the first day had earned me the nickname, “the caboose.” When we stopped at the top of a ridge to refuel, I noticed the girl was sticking close to the guide because her lips where turning the pale blue of a cadaver.

My Canadian friend had flown into Cuzco the day before departing for the trail hike. As a result she hadn’t given her body enough time to properly acclimate to the altitude. Our second day of the hike saw us reaching our highest point of 4,200 meters (over 10,000 feet) above sea level. Cuzco, which is the main starting point for those attempting the trail, sits at 3,300 meters, making it the ideal spot to spend a few days acclimating to the thin air.


On day three of the hike, I was ready to sneak into someone else’s tent and steal their camel bag. This was the one piece of gear that brought out the “Lord of the Flies” in me. I was carrying a basic water bottle and the ease of the camel bag, along with the amount of all important water it would carry, was the subject of all my envy.

At night I learned another valuable lesson. I had packed a small hand held flashlight against my ex’s urging that I instead take a head lamp. It wasn’t until I attempted to navigate the toxic squat toilets at night that I understood. With one elbow anchored against the wall and the flashlight clenched between my teeth, peeing became an Olympic sport.

Squat toilet: 1, Rachel: 0.


The last day of the hike, we rose before dawn to race to the Sun Gate.

Scrubbed fresh and clean after our first shower of the four day hike we jostled past each other to grab a spot and watch the sunrise. When I was finally resting at the Sun Gate, Machu Picchu sat below me like a mirage. Fingers of sunlight were slowly stretching over the landscape, revealing an ancient city snuggled against the mountains. The hundreds of weary traveler gathered around me on the hillside watched in shared silence, all wordless in sync. When the sun finally broke the horizon, there was thunderous applauds. We applauded the suns arrival, we applauded our arrival and we applauded the ancient Incas for building this city.

After four days of shower-less hiking and daily tests of will; I finally saw what I had been working for. I had earned this moment with all the sweat and frustrations of the past four days.

The Inca Trail is twenty five miles of steep and winding humiliation, especially for those who are prone to humiliation like me. Even with time to acclimate and the proper gear, it is a difficult trek, but my advice is to go. That secret hidden city tucked in the Andes is worth every step.

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  • Lauren says:

    interesting article. four days without showering…yikes!

  • Pres says:


    Thank you for sharing this great Peruvian adventure! 🙂

    I’ve always wanted to visit Machu Picchu. The end of your story is very enlightening, and it reminds me of a quote from Og Mandino: “The prizes of life are at the end of each journey, and not near the beginning.” It seems like the Inca Trail is a great proof for this insight.

    Keep exploring the world, and keep sharing your adventures! There is so much wisdom in every culture…

    Greetings from Chicago,

  • Bethany says:

    I am ready to pack a camelback and head down south. I am truly ready for an adventure. Thanks for the inspiration!

    – BC

  • Anny Chih says:

    Great post Rachel! I actually started chuckling aloud while reading this.

    I’m going on the same Peru trek with BikeHike Adventures ( in May, and I think I’ll take your advice and invest in a camelback and headlamp. I had that headlamp problem on a trip to Australia’s Eungella National Park, but I had forgotten all about it until reading your post.

  • Rachel Hunt says:

    Lauren, Pres, Bethany and Anny,

    Glad you all enjoyed the post! Hope you all make it to Macchu Picchu eventually… with camelbag and headlamp.

  • Rachel Hunt says:

    Lauren, Pres, Bethany and Anny,

    Glad you all enjoyed the post! Hope you all make it to Macchu Picchu eventually… with camelbag and headlamp.