The lure of seeing one of the seven wonders of the world took us to the beautiful tribal lands of Cusco. We have a few friends who have either done the 4-day trek or landed in Cusco and decided they rather take the train to see the Machu Pichu. I recall someone telling me that you can feel the higher altitude the moment you get off the plane. As we got out of the plane, while it was crisp with chilly winds, the sun was beaming and we were feeling fantastic. The only time we noticed the effect of altitude was when we were puffed out trying to drag our bags uphill to our hostel in San Blas.
Without wasting any time, we dropped our bags at the hostel and went out for a hefty meal of trout ceviche and alpaca skewers at Pachapapa. With our bellies full, we wondered the streets of Cusco to do everything we can to acclimatise and prep ourselves for the hike. The most interesting thing for us was how genuinely tribal the city was. In addition to the mountains enveloping the city, most women wear the traditional Quechua outfits, not for tips (like in Cuba), but that’s just how they dressed. After stomping around the tight windy lanes, we called it a night.
Then came the morning. The morning when Mrs FOMOist felt okay, but I was being tortured by the altitude sickness. It started with us both waking up with banging headaches, followed by me trying to keep my breakfast of half a slice of plain bread down (it didn’t work). I admit, I am guilty of suffering from man flu, but this was bad! After trying to fight it, I had to go back to bed in an effort to tame the symptoms. I felt so bad at one stage that I apologised to Mrs FOMOist for even suggesting that we do the trek.
Now to help whoever is reading this and for our own records, the following worked to help us feel human again:
- The obvious is not too eat too much on your first night, keep hydrated and drink lots of coca tea. Top tip: If the taste of coca tea makes you sick (after a while it made me a little queasy), make black tea and throw in some coca leaves and sugar, it works just as good.
- Chewing on coca leaves helps relieve initial mild symptoms but if you’re already in the grips of it, I don’t think it’s any more effective than the tea itself.
- Analgesics like paracetamol and ibuprofen worked for me. It just helps take the edge off your banging headache so you can then try tackling other issues like your lost appetite.
- While I was sick, I survived on a local chicken soup called Dieta de Pollo that was delicious and light enough to stay where I wanted it to.
After 3 days of trying not to look like death warmed up, it was time to wake up at 3.30 in the morning and get ready to be picked up by our guide from Peru Treks.
We were told by our guides Pepe and Saul that the people on the bus were going to be our family for the next 4 days. Now, I am not shy in the worst of situations and since these guys were family, I had no shame (well I did but I overcame it pretty quickly) to stop the bus, 15 minutes into our journey to relieve the pressure on my bladder. Later during the trek one of the girls told me that I took so long, they were wondering if I had pee’d in about a week.
After an hour and a half of the bus ride, we got to Ollataytambo, which was the starting point of our trek. Once off the bus, Pepe and Saul instructed us to get ready for the trek. While everyone started snapping open their hiking poles, tightening up their hiking boots and donning on hats, Mrs FOMOist and I stood there wearing sports shoes, me in chinos and a t-shirt and my better half in gym trousers and a casual top. It wasn’t really an accident. We were halfway through our 4 month trip and consciously decided that we weren’t going to carry all this gear only for 4 days. I am pleased to inform that we did survive the grueling 4 days in our walking shoes and our questionably fashionable attire.
Saul and Pepe advised that Day 1 will be the easiest (12 km), Day 2 will be the hardest (14 km and reaching the infamous dead woman’s pass), Day 3 will be the longest and the most scenic (15 km) and Day 4 the earliest (5 km, leaving the campsite at 3.30am). Before I give account of our beautiful journey, I’d like to point out the great job the porters do. In their jandals (flip fops or thongs depending on where you’re from), carrying 20 km each, racing through the mountainous trek, just to make sure that they can give us a round of applause as each of us arrive at the camp and cook us a three course meal for every meal for the 4 days. These guys are the true heroes of the trek, not like us who think they have conquered the world because they carried a day pack and had to hike over 8 km a day. Now that I am done with the selfless view above, below is an account of what really happened.
Day 1 was the easiest, which allowed the group to bond and come together as a “family”. We are extremely fortunate with our group that comprised of us, a couple of Aussie mates, an English couple, an American honeymoon couple (they are still together hahaha), American mum and dad of the group in their early 60s and a couple more American couples. They were all fantastic friends, family and motivators, and hopefully we’ll stay friends for a long time to come. Even though Day 1 was “easy” we were buggered by the time we reached our last stop. We were advised this is the only stop where there will be hot water to shower. As amazing as it would have been to shower, majority of the group decided to stay as they are to really embrace the 4-day trekking experience (with the help of wet wipes).
Before I move on to the rest of the trek, I’d like to dedicate this paragraph to the toilet situation. You must have read a lot about the dire state of the toilets on the trek, but I don’t think you can imagine how bad it is until you get there. Without going into gross details, all I am going to say is that I didn’t “sit on the throne” (there is no throne they are all keyhole toilets) for the entire 4-day period. I controlled my food intake to ensure it gave me enough energy, with zero surplus. Since the group was my family, they all knew about what was going on and my bowel movements, or lack of, was a hot topic every night.
Day 2 was indeed the hardest with steep inclines and frequent snack, coca leaves, catching-your-breath-back breaks. It was at the end of this day when I felt like death. Given that I feel like death with a headache (self diagnosed chronic man flu sufferer here), after the 12 km hike, I felt like I earned a bit of whinging right and Mrs FOMOist was very sweet fussing over me.
IMPORTANT NOTE: People planning on doing this trek with friends or your latest beau, remember that this trek will test you as an individual and your relationship. Not in a bad way, but it will. It will break you to the breaking point. It will surprise you at how much you can push yourself and how patient and motivating you can be to others. I am pleased to report everyone on our trek remain together, as far as I am aware.
Day 3, as promised by Pepe and Saul, was indeed the most scenic. We all ensured that we were encouraging each other to keep going, but at the same time remind each other to stop, take a breath and soak in the scenery. The scenery (on every day) was nothing that can be compared to anything we have seen. It might be the sense of achievement of putting one step in front of the other that made the surroundings so special, but we ensured that we weren’t obsessively chasing the finish line that we overlook the beauty of this stunning journey.
The third night was Mrs FOMOist to bear the brunt of the journey. Again, no one needs to know this but we had to get up three times in less than five hours and take to the woods with lots of biodegradable baby wipes.
Day 4 started at 3.30am to ensure we could catch the first rays touching the Sun Gate. Machu Pichu is a World Heritage site and one of the 7 wonders of the world. It is as glorious and mammoth as you can imagine and then some. But the highlight for us was the journey we shared, the people we met and discovering the strength we never knew we had. If I was to describe our experience is a few lines, I will say the following:
The Inca trail is strenuous but rewarding. A true test of mind over matter. The godawful toilets. A place where complete strangers became more comfortable with each other than they could ever be with their family.