Up, Up And More Up On The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu

Beginning the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu Simulator

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Why couldn’t those bastard Incas have built at sea level, I thought, as I entered yet another hour of wheezing uphill, bitching about mountains, never ending steps and healthy young Canadians.


Ten years ago* on Thursday we took our first footsteps on what, by sometime around mid-afternoon, would seem to be punishment for the truly frightful acts we must have committed in a previous life.

I mentioned our Inca Trail anniversary over dinner to Deirdre, asking her to guess where we were at this time a decade ago. On hearing the answer she turned a lighter shade of pale, fixed me with a steely glare and said she’d never ever, ever, ever, ever do that again. For brevity I’ve cut out 90 per cent of the evers from that sentence.

The Inca Trail

You see, the thing about mountains is they are really, really hard work. They are marvellous things to admire in the distance but up close, as I have mentioned before, they are evil.

The trek to Machu Picchu was our first ever hike if you don’t count popping down to Sainsbury’s for the weekly shop. We had already spent two and a half months acclimatising in Cusco, getting used to the altitude and hills, and though we still struggled to the top of the steep street around the corner from our apartment, we could make it to the cake shop three quarters of the way up without pausing for breath.

Resting on the trek to Machu Picchu

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The elderly Llama Ladies still smirked as they outpaced us but they saved their full on laugher for when they accelerated away from newer arrivals to their city.

Once on the Inca Trail, you are stuck on it for the duration. It is possible to head back the way you came but the full enormity of the journey ahead doesn’t sink in for a few hours. By this time the sunk cost fallacy kicks in. It makes as much sense to keep plugging away with the group than to head back on your own.

Try our Inca Trail simulator

Try our handy Inca Trail Simulator

For this reason we have put together an Inca Trail simulator to help those undecided whether walking up and down mountains at altitude for three and a bit days is for them.

First off gather the following items:

  • 48 x packs of strong cigarettes (Egyptian or Chinese cigarettes are best but French Gauloises will do)
  • 1 x flight of stairs
  • 1 x small backpack of light to moderate weight
  • 1 x heavy pack filled with items of no discernable use
  • 1 x small torch with the batteries about to run out
  • An oxygen mask
  • 10 x packets of noodles
  • 1 x girlfriend or boyfriend with phobias too innumerable to mention
  • 4 to 6 young Canadian medical students with calves the size of tree trunks and 1 x obnoxious Swiss man. (Under no circumstances are you to look at their faces. After four days you should only be able to recognise the back of their heads at a distance)
  • 1 x random stranger (this role can be played by a friend or relative who lives in your house)
  • 1 x competitive Peruvian (or someone to play the role)
  • Naked pictures of Scarlett Johansson or Robert Pattison**
  • A bus stop
  • A bowl

Ruins on the way to Machu Picchu

Follow the steps. Lots and lots of steps

Once the above items have been gathered head to the bottom of the stairs and then follow the steps given below.

  1. Smoke at least three packs of the strong cigarettes in quick succession to simulate the breathlessness of altitude. Once you have a headache put on the light pack and, with the Canadians, the obnoxious Swiss man and the competitive Peruvian, start walking up the stairs. After two minutes wave goodbye to the rest of the group.
  2. While chain smoking keep walking up the stairs. (Obviously you will have to walk down the stairs to get to the bottom and start again. On the real Inca Trail you won’t start walking downhill until midway through the second day where you will learn this is an ordeal in itself).
  3. After two hours take off the light pack and pick up the heavier one. This simulates offering to take the larger, heavier bag full of unnecessary items packed by your girlfriend.
  4. An hour later teeter dangerously at the top of the stairs, take a blast of oxygen and hand over some money to the random stranger (or person playing this role) to take both bags.
  5. Keep walking up and down the stairs smoking and wondering why you didn’t take the bus.
  6. Arrive at the top of the stairs just as the Canadians and competitive Peruvian are leaving. Overhear the obnoxious Swiss man complaining how slow you are. Eat some noodles.
  7. Spend the rest of the day walking up and down the stairs while chain smoking. By now your girlfriend or boyfriend should be clinging on to your arm and moaning about heights, pigeons, claustrophobia, etc. Every now and again pee in the bowl in full view of at least one other person (not including your girlfriend or boyfriend).
  8. Eat some noodles and spend the night on the floor at the top of the stairs.
  9. Wake up stupidly early the next day, eat some noodles and repeat steps 5 to 8 for the next two days.
  10. At the end of the third day you are allowed to spend a few hours in your own bed
  11. Wake up at 4am and spend the next three to four hours walking up and down the stairs in the dark. You are allowed to use the torch for the first 15 minutes only.
  12. You’ve made it. Take out the naked photos of Scarlett Johansson or Robert Pattison and enjoy the view.
  13. Walk to the nearest bus stop and sneer at the people getting on and off the bus.
  14. Introduce yourself properly to the Canadians and tip the competitive Peruvian. He was your guide.
  15. Sleep for 24 hours straight.
  16. A couple of days later meet and completely fail to recognise the obnoxious Swiss man.

For brevity I’ve reduced this to only 16 steps rather than the 10 gazillion it actually takes to make it all the way to Machu Picchu. Despite the stunning scenery I took very few photos on our way up to the ruins. As tempting as it is to stop for a breather it makes more sense to just keep plodding on rather than break the rhythm to stop, take out the camera, take a picture, put the camera away and will yourself on again.

Is the Inca Trail worth doing?

As much as an ordeal I’ve made it sound, Machu Picchu is well worth the effort. I felt a great sense of achievement at pushing myself to do something that, even for my younger, skinnier self, was so difficult.

Now, whenever confronted with a hard task I always think back to those three and a bit days on the Inca Trail and know that I can do it.


Machu Picchu

* This post first appeared in The Working Traveller in 2012.
** Please update your choices as appropriate.

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Try our handy Inca Trail simulator




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This piece was first published in an older version of our blog which included the following comments:

Suzy said: “Ha! I love how you call mountains evil. I would probably say the same after such a hike, or trip up and down the stairs chain smoking.”

– we replied: “They seem nice at a distance but it’s all lies.”