By Allison Tebbe
After training for four months and countless hours of research, it was hard to believe that the day to start our trek to Machu Picchu had finally arrived. The day started as would the next few days to come: very early. We left our hotel around 3:45am, loaded with all our gear, to meet our group by 4:30 am. Almost immediately we regretted how much stuff we packed for the next four days as we walked to meet the bus, but at this point there was no turning back.
As people still filled the bars and celebrated the festival from the day before, we loaded onto the bus with ten other hikers for our two hour ride to Ollyantaytambo. In Ollyantaytambo, we were given breakfast and an opportunity to stock up on any last minute essentials before heading another 45 minutes to the start of the trail. At this point, I could not have imagined forgetting anything but alas I forgotten maybe the most important thing for our trip….toilette paper. Since we had been warned about the bathrooms and lack of toilette paper for the next four days, I was happy that the little market carried a bunch.
After another 45 minute drive, we finally arrived at the start of the trail. The Camino Inka Trail starts on the other side of the Urubamba River at km 82. As our 20+ porters prepared with all our gear for the next four days, we anxiously await and make last minute adjustments.
You could feel the excitement from the group as our guide announced we were ready to go. Before setting off, we stopped to take the iconic picture under the sign marking the start of the trail and the checkpoint to check passports. The government only allows 500 people on the trail per day, including porters, so this is a pretty regulated process. We had to register for the hike with the government of Peru almost four months before departure because the spots fill up so quickly. After everyone’s passport checks out, we are off.
Day 1, according to most everything you read, is described as a really easy day so I get concerned when we cross the river and almost immediately start to climb. Although the climb is relatively short, I am surprised at how quickly my heart is racing and how labored my breathing has become, especially since we had been training so hard and on much steeper inclines. Unfortunately, though, it appears the altitude is already affecting me, even at 9,200 feet. Thinking of how far we have to go and how high we have to climb tomorrow (13,800 feet), my initial goal of not being the last one to make it to camp is quickly replaced with just being able to finish the hike at all.
After about 30 minutes we stop for our first of many breaks and I can see our porters and guides scan our faces for signs of distress. According to our tour guide, most of the people who cannot finish the hike head back on the first day so I do my best to hide my agony. I don’t want to be categorized right away as someone who they need to worry about but I fear the crazy red color of my cheeks gives me away. As our guide takes this break to explain more about the Inca Trail, it is also hard not to notice a woman who looks much fitter than me riding on a donkey in the other direction. At this point, I feel doomed.
Luckily after our first break the trail eases up a bit and I start to feel a little more confident as we enjoy a long stretch of “flat” ground. Our guide refers to this section as Inca “flat” because along this trail there really isn’t the concept of a long section without some ups and downs. Despite the blazing heat, the next few hours are pretty pleasant with some nice Incan ruins and lots of breaks until lunch.
One thing to know about hiking the Inca Trail is that each tour group gets permits for different camps along the way. So for some groups, the first day is pretty short and you only hike for about five hours for a total elevation gain of 919 feet. The tour group we went with spends the first night at a camp about two more hours into the trail called Ayapata for a total elevation gain of 1,906 feet the first day.
After lunch and a brief siesta, we start off for the last two hours of hiking before we reach our campsite for the night. Since tomorrow is the toughest day with a total elevation gain of 4,373 feet, this afternoon’s climb of about 1,000 feet is a little preview of what’s to come. Although I regained a little confidence from the start of the trail, I am still anxious to see how I would do this afternoon.
The trail after lunch immediately starts to climb. I can’t believe how much steeper these inclines are compared to the ones in the morning. Our group of 13 quickly becomes separated into two groups as the faster climbers distance themselves from the rest of us. As we walk faster to keep up with the group, my breathing becomes so loud that the porters whizzing by us look back at me one by one with concern. I can only guess what they are thinking “call in the donkey”.
Our guide at that point sees several of us struggling and reminds us to keep it slow and steady.
“Slow and steady, slow and steady” he keeps repeating. “It isn’t a race, hike at your own pace”.
For the rest of afternoon, I would keep saying this to myself over and over again in my head. By slowing down, it really helped me find a nice pace and, while difficult, I found a rhythm that would get me through the rest of the day.
When we finally reached the campsite around 5pm, I was excited to have made it through the first day. It seemed maybe the odds of completing the hike were a little more in my favor and I was now a third of my way to Machu Picchu.