Video summary of the trip
Image by Jacom Stephens Photography | based out of Salt Lake City, Utah | 801.979.1734 | http://www.jacomstephens.com
Spring leading up to this trip encouraged a profound sense of freedom along the Inca Trail and the children at the Aldea and the participants of this Radiating Hope trip warmed my heart in a way that was hard to say good-bye. In this blog post I will share a bit about my journey and give you tips for your own journey, should you decide to visit. I’ll include a gear list and some tips for training for the Inca Trail and time in Cusco.
Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for some time, though as a climber it never became a priority. To organize and take on climbing in addition to the sights I wanted to see, would have been a big ordeal. I didn’t have the bandwidth to tackle all of that so I was grateful when I came across Radiating Hope and their promotion to do the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu as part of a team to help raise money for cancer care in underdeveloped countries.
Spearheaded by Brandon Fischer, an oncologist and a climber, Brandon incorporates climbing as his means for fundraising. A few years ago, I went with a small group to Kilimanjaro, which was my first Radiating Hope experience, and loved it. Like Kilimanjaro, everything was planned for me, with time built in for self-exploration. This made traveling to a foreign country exciting and logistically simple. Just show up.
The organization brings together a team of people to support you on the adventure. It’s a relaxing way to enjoy something magical. You have instructions on how to prepare for the trip both physically and medically. Things to know about where you are traveling, what to pack, and the itinerary. I was very thankful for all of this because I know if takes a lot of time and research to pull together for one’s self.
I wanted to take my niece on this trip with me because I knew it would be adventurous, yet, comfortable. Porters would carry the bulk of our things leaving us to carry a day pack. Tents and food would be waiting for us at each stop and guides would lead us with points of interest and concern for the group’s welfare, never abandoning anyone and tending to any altitude or other sickness. Experiencing that kind of care for me is a luxury and freed me up to enjoy the sights and trek to its fullest.
My niece was unable to join me, and I didn’t want to go alone so I was fortunate to find someone who had the same ambition and together we signed up for this trip, almost 10 months in advance. Just before committing, I hurt my leg climbing. At first, I thought it would heal after a few weeks or a month, then I realized, it wasn’t healing quickly and in fact, the inflammation was getting worse. I pulled back from climbing and by spring, stopped hiking as well. I wasn’t sure how to train for this adventure given my situation.
To complicate training further, I got a job to help pay for medical treatment. It had been 6 months of injury and I thought it was time to do more investigation into what was wrong. The job was supposed to be part time, but turned into full-time, travel and overtime. While it was good pay, I had taken some smaller jobs before landing this one and had to close out that work at the same time. This meant, I was working 6 jobs at once for nearly 3 months and doing no climbing or training.
Working was great, since I had been struggling for income the last few months of the year prior. The new year looked promising that way and I took full advantage. I lined up Physio and Dr. appointments to get imaging and a prognosis. I was doing very little regular physical activity and working a ton instead. Each time my Dr. would try a new treatment on me, I was told to try to be sedentary. What they said was to go about my daily activities and avoid biking, hiking, running, climbing, etc. To which I had to reply: “those are my normal activities!”
Those 3 months of overload went by and all the while I worried about this Peru trip. Would I be able to hike the Inca trail? Would I have problems with the altitude because I hadn’t been training? As work slowly closed out and I was able to concentrate on fewer tasks, I had more time to focus on rehab and trip preparation, oh, and finding a new job…to reduce everything to one job.
I started to feel caged in, handcuffed, unable to actively expend the energy I had bubbling up inside of me. I was moving from one Airbnb to another, sometimes house sitting, which kept me feeling unsettled as well. A guy I’d been hanging out with and cared very much for, and I started having serious friction and estranged from my climbing and social communities, the spring became a dark and heavy period for me.
Peru was slated for June. I had already committed my spot and I really wanted to still go, but I started having doubts that I was ready and entertained bailing. I couldn’t sell my spot because all the permits for the trail etc. had already been secured under my Passport. It was already coming up on May and I was barely treading water in my life when I got a job offer to return to work at Microsoft. In fact, at this time, I’d notified the company I was working for and they wanted to keep me, so I had 2 fulltime offers to consider! I’d been working on the Microsoft potential opportunity since December and was excited to finally have the option to consolidate my life and focus on one, solid income generator AND have good medical benefits to finally take care of my injury properly.
All the injections and rehab I’d been doing leading up to June, had not helped me get the inflammation under control. I tried PRP, cortisone, and sub cutaneous nerve injections. Each one needed time to have effect, except the nerve injections. Immediately after those, the inflammation was dramatically decreased and the pain site more isolated. I could now walk, get out of my car, and *gasp* hike! Without severe backlash. This was amazing, and Peru was only a week away!
I didn’t have time to focus on training because now that I was returning to Microsoft, I had to find an apartment and prepare myself to be ready to work when I got back from Peru. I was doing it, regardless of my fitness, and now that the inflammation in my leg was dramatically reduced, I was like an athlete poised at the starting line, waiting for the gun to go off. I was ready to go!
As with any underdeveloped country, or developing country, there is some concern for disease and sickness. In this case, for the Inca trail, there was no need for malaria pills, but some antibiotics and altitude sickness medication is a must. I always pack my vitamins and electrolytes as well.
Packing for the trip was a challenge because you don’t want to be hauling heavy bags between hotels or other locations. My best advice is layers. Cusco is the city you will stay in to acclimate and tour prior to heading out on the Inca Trail. The city lies above 10,000 feet. You will experience altitude here. What that experience is for you will depend on a lot of variables. Typically, 10,000 feet is not a problem for me, yet this time, I had the most intense altitude sickness ever. I felt my head was going to explode and broke down to take one of my altitude sickness pills to help ease the pressure. After that first night, I never had any issues again. Others, however, had varying illnesses with altitude and diarrhea throughout the trip.
At this elevation, the sun is hot. You might think the air temperature is cold and not put on sunblock, but that would be a mistake if you plan to be outdoors for an extended period. A hat, sunglasses and sunblock are necessary for prolonged outdoor exposure on sunny days. Cusco weather remains about the same all year long, with cooler nights, and crisp but warmer days with an occasional downpour or rain. Heading up into the Andes has a similar clothing requirement. However, because you will be walking for hours, there is the chance to get too hot and when stopped for lunch, site seeing, or for the night, you might get too cold. Sleeping in tents, it’s a must to bring your own sleeping bag and sleeping mat. Make sure you bring something warm enough for the coolest temps. Remember it is always easier to disrobe than to make more layers appear out of nothing.
It is possible to get rain along the hike and while that might seem unpleasant, having a poncho or Gore-Tex jacket will save you and make the experience tolerable and maybe even enjoyable. If you have forgotten a jacket, there are stores in Peru (Patagonia, North Face) where you can buy one and lots of local markets sell ponchos for cheap.
Electrolytes are important for hydration. I prefer Elete electrolytes, easy to travel with and simply pure electrolytes, no sugar or other ingredients. It’s concentrated, which makes it easy to adjust the amount I want whether it’s in my water or added to my food. I brought a water bladder for the Inca Trail. When I arrived in Cusco, I bought bottled water and filled the bladder adding my electrolytes to it. Because the electrolytes are concentrated, I didn’t need to bring a lot, which meant they didn’t take up much room. I was very thankful to have this for the summit push and shared with others along the way.
Be mindful of what you have packed in your suitcase. One of our participants had things stolen from hers. It’s a good idea to keep essentials and a spare pair of underwear, socks, maybe clothes if you have the space, in your carry-on. Naturally, never leave important documents in your checked baggage. Always carry your passport, IDs, credit cards, medications, etc. with you.
This city is amazing and alive. There was a festival taking place every day I was there, which was amazing to watch. Each one was uniquely different with vibrant colors, dresses, dances, and music. There are a lot of markets to explore and many of them sell the same kinds of things. This makes it nice to bargain hunt and to find that perfect color combination, while supporting the local community. Our tours prior to the Inca hike took us to different places with markets outside of Cusco and I recommend you do your shopping there. I didn’t because I didn’t want to leave my things in the suitcase as I was doing the trail. However, others did, and no one lost anything during hotel transitions.
Things to do and how to acclimate
Blanco Cristo is a beautiful scaled down version of the one in Brazil. It’s a great hike to take early on before the Inca Trail to get yourself used to moving in thinner air. Take the stairs up first thing in the morning and observe the club dwellers ending their night and take in sunrise over the valley foothills. Walk back to town following the morning commute of locals. This site doesn’t cost anything to see and you’ll want to remember to gaze upward at night from the city to view the statue lit up.
If you have a few days in Cusco before you head out for Machu Picchu or after your trip, I recommend buying one of the tourist booklets for additional sites in the area. There is a lot to see and everything is reasonably priced. You can always take a cab up, but if you follow an organized group, such as Radiating Hope or Explore Peru, they will often include these in your tour price and arrange all the necessary transportation.
Peruvian Food and drink
For some amazing Peruvian food, add the restaurant Morena to your list. The smoothies, preparation, service, and quality of food is worth the stop.
A must try when visiting Peru is the Pisco Sour.
The biggest challenges to doing the Inca Trail are hiking at altitude, summiting over 13,000 feet, the number of stairs to descend, and hydration.
To be effective hiking at altitude, I recommend training hikes at altitude whenever you can. It would be best to hike with a pack and weight you anticipate taking along the trail with you. If you don’t have altitude, it’s possible to train your anaerobic system in preparation for the lack of oxygen you will feel while up there. Finally, regardless of your acclimatization training, hiking with a weighted pack for several hours and training your downhill muscles, will help.
In our group, we had people who had trained at altitude get sick on the hike and not enjoy the hike as much. They were often slower and in general sluggish. Then, there were those who hadn’t trained and were carrying full packs with no porters to offset the load and were doing completely fine the entire way. It was very individual, and I’m told fitness does not necessarily preclude your susceptibility to altitude sickness. It can help but you never know how it will affect you until you are there.
Avoid lots of alcohol or other substances that could leave you dehydrated and compromise your ability to function at high elevations.
The Inca Trail itself is a well-defined and well-traveled section of the Andes and because of that, it’s easy to put your head down and just go. If you are traveling in a group, expect the times between distances to be longer because the group will have varying speeds throughout. This may require patience if you find yourself at the front or back of the pack.
I didn’t have issues with altitude and after realizing my legs were doing fine with the hiking and weight, I simply had to bust ahead of the group when I could. I felt like handcuffs had been removed and I was free to explore, and roam and it was paramount that I find my own pace and just go. I am very glad that the guides and a few others, found that in themselves and together we kept a healthy distance ahead. This helped me enjoy the trek immensely as the freedom factor increased such that by the time we got to Machu Picchu, I was not ready to leave the trail.
Some tips about this hike:
Make sure you have broken in your boots ahead of time. I wore hiking boots and did not regret it. You could do it in tennis shoes, but I wouldn’t advise it. If it rains, the path gets wet and the steps can be steep in places and uneven and can become slick. Some people slipped during our hike.
Make sure you have food, lip balm, tissue, camera, etc. pouch accessible at the waist from your backpack so you don’t have to take off your pack to dig these things out each time you need or want them.
Make sure you have your permits and passport with you when you head off on the trail. They will be checked at official checkpoints and they will turn you away if something doesn’t match: for instance, the names between the two.
Fill your water bladder with good drinking water and make sure you have your electrolytes either in the water or with you for along the way. Do not drink the local water. It will give you the runs and that’s the last thing you want when on the trail.
Eat at reputable restaurants, avoid street food. Be courageous after the hike.
Train your downhill muscles. There are hours’ worth of stairs to descend and it gets tough after a while.
Bring hiking poles, they can help take weight off and stabilize yourself under poor conditions.
Be prepared for rain or sun. Layers! And, don’t forget the sunblock.
Bring money for the porters, cooks, and staff who set up your tents and make sure you have an enjoyable, dry, experience to recuperate between hikes. If you want, you can donate school supplies, hiking shoes, socks, jackets, etc. These supplies and tips are usually distributed to the workers before the last hike to Machu Picchu so be prepared to hike with everything until then.
Prepare for Rain or Shine, warm and cold weather.
When hiking, you will be warm, but at altitude, if it’s overcast and rainy, it could be cool and crisp. If it’s clear and the sun is out, you will be very warm, even hot! In the evenings, temperatures can drop so layers will help. Don’t underestimate the sun at that elevation!
Since you will be hiking with a Day pack or full pack, it’s essential that you pare down to essentials. You won’t be showering for several days so you won’t need much in the way of clean clothes or shampoos. Dry Shampoo works well if you are desperate. Also, a washcloth and a touch of travel soap will take you a long way. All you need is some water to freshen up. I carried a Fozzil bowl with me, which is compact and ultra-portable as a tent wash basin. You can also carry two of them and use one for food, if you choose to carry food on the trail with you, such as oats.
Our guide service had amazing breakfasts, lunch, and dinners so I never needed to use any of the extra food I brought (as a just in case). Extra food can be cumbersome and add to the weight so think carefully before packing any.
Waterproof, breathable shoes. I wore these on the hike. If you can bring a pair of extra shoes for Machu Picchu, or after the hike and for the trip back to the hotel, you might enjoy that…also, could help if for some reason you get sore feet on the Inca Trail, or just for unwinding in camp (for camp consider these).
For a sleeping bag, I used this one. Light, packs small, and warm.
You’ll want a couple of shirts, pick a short sleeve and a long sleeve that is moisture-wicking. I like to wear a fleece vest to add a touch of warmth, like this one. Easy to pack and a good layering item that won’t bulk up under a rain jacket, for example.
Take a rain jacket or invest in a simple poncho when in Cusco. I really appreciated this Gore-tex jacket. It’s both capable of keeping me warm, dry, and has lots of ways to open it up to add more breathability when needed. That coupled with a pack cover, kept me and my stuff dry.
Pants should be lightweight, breathable, and water proof. Invest in ones that can become shorts if you want versatility, too. I opted for two separate pairs of pants with the primary pair being a softshell, like this one. Aim for ones with zippers for breathability and an underlayer for warmth.
Spare underwear, sports bras, gloves, hat are also pleasantries that can make the trek feel comfortable.
Hiking poles are nice to help take some pressure off the knees both up and down the trail. My advice, take them just in case. Also, remember to buy rubber tips. These are not optional on the trail. I enjoyed using these Leki poles, which were compact, lightweight, and simply perfect. At 212 g per pole, this can’t be beat!
Don’t forget to pack a water bladder for your pack so you can easily drink while you hike. And, don’t forget the electrolytes! I use Elete Electrolyte Add-in, which is easy to consume and won’t create bacteria in the bladder. You definitely want this for the summit push. There are water stations scattered along the way up until the last push to the summit so it’s possible to take a small bladder and add bottled water collected along the way, which can save some space and weight.
Unfortunately, if you decide to buy water and snacks along the hike, you will need some cash. And, for the tips for the porters, staff, and cooks, you will need cash. How much you take is entirely up to you. Better to bring Soles (Peruvian cash, rather than Dollars or Euros). Remember, these people work hard and tips are a huge part of their income. There are a lot of people who make your trip happen so it takes more money to spread some money around. If you aren’t comfortable with carrying cash, or giving cash, consider packing extra clothes or donating hiking supplies such as your hiking poles, shoes, gloves, hats, jackets, shirts, etc. Just remember you will lose those items at the last camp before Machu Picchu.
Spend time in Peru because it’s a beautiful and the people are friendly, the food is wonderful, and there’s a bit of everything to do: Historic sites to see, modern sites to explore, and lots of culture to observe and experience.
This trip was special, not because it was an exploration of a place I had wanted to see, but because I went with a group of people that made the trip special. Inspired by the hikers who themselves had overcome some feat, it put into perspective the struggles I’d had throughout the spring. I didn’t realize how many of our group had experienced and survived cancer. It was mind blowing to hear their stories and to think of how much they had endured and the strength it took them to make it on this trip let alone for some of them to complete the hike. It was incredible to be around such energy and life that it gave the trip something extra special. I felt privileged to share in their journey and get to know them and I keep them, and this trip, in my heart, even today.