When I booked my trip to Peru, I didn’t care what I did as long as I immersed myself in the culture. I wanted to eat the delicacies, learn the languages, live like a local, and understand more about myself. I was going to be in Peru for a month and was ready for a new adventure. I thought that the time I spent drinking Ayahuasca in the Sacred Valley would be where I’d experience massive breakthroughs and profound transformations, but I was wrong. The biggest lessons, revelations, and discoveries came from the 4 days and 3 nights I spent on the Inca Trail.
What is the Inca Trail?
The Inca Trail, also known as the Camino Inka, is a small 42 km section of a more extensive 23,000 km trail network known as the Qhapaq Ñan. It is believed that the ancient Incas used this trail for religious and ceremonial purposes, performing rituals along the way to honor the Apus (an Incan word for mountains). The Inca Trail begins at Kilometer 82 and takes you on a journey through the Andes, hiking through alpine tundras, tropical cloud forests, ancient ruins, and farming terraces before you even reach the citadel of Machu Picchu.
Beginning the Journey
The journey to Machu Picchu began well before I arrived at Kilometer 82. The day I was set to start the trail, I was on the bus by 4 AM. By 5 AM our entire group was present and we began our two-and-a-half-hour ride to the trailhead, stopping to pick up our porters from small Peruvian villages.
After showing our permits and passports at the checkpoint, we crossed the suspension bridge to start our hike.
“There’s no turning back now,” our guide yelled out to the group.
Those became the words I’d repeat to myself, especially on Day 2 while huffing and puffing up Dead Woman’s Pass, the most challenging day on the trail.
Everyone is a mirror. Every experience is a mirror. Every moment in life provides an opportunity for reflection. Being on the Inca Trail was no different. It provided me with moments of introspection, challenge, and an experience that resulted in immense growth.
Here are 4 of the most important lessons I learned (or was reminded of) while I was on the Inca Trail– one for each day.
Lesson from Day 1: Family is more than blood
There was a quote that I was constantly reminded of while I was on the trail.
“Family is more than blood and a name. It’s the people who stood by you when you needed them and who made you laugh when you felt like you couldn’t.”Pinterest
When you are with a group of people, disconnected from the world, on a strenuous hike, a bond is created that cannot be described. There is so much space for authentic interaction that you can’t help but enjoy the presence of those around you.
In Quechuan, the native language of Peru, there is no word for “friend,” only a word for brother and sister. Everyone we met on the trail, from the porters to our fellow trekkers, began as strangers. By lunch on day one, we were friends. By the end of day one, we were family.
If you forgot something, someone in your group was always willing and ready to share some of their supplies with you. Trail guides pushed you, encouraged you, and supported you the way parents would– ensuring you were safe and able to reach your goals. The porters, who were carrying upwards of 40 kgs, were cheering you on while holding the essentials you needed to survive (including eggs).
The connections that were created on the trail were something unique. When it came time to say goodbye, the tears were rolling down my face (Kim Kardashian ugly cry style).
Lesson from Day 2: Slow and steady wins the race
Day 2 of the Inca Trail is the most challenging. Our guides pointed out that the key to getting up the mountain is taking it slow and steady. Trying to run (like the porters) would only exhaust us and likely give us altitude sickness.
Equipped with plenty of coca leaves and candy, we made our way up Dead Women’s Pass. Our group tried various techniques, including taking 10 to 20 steps and stopping and picking a rock or plant in the distance, hiking to it, and taking a break. You only stop for 30 seconds– enough time to catch your breath but keep your muscles warm.
Groups would pass by while we were stopped telling us how amazing we were and how great of a job we were doing. We would echo the same sentiments while passing them as they took their breaks.
Even though day two felt like it would never end, the most powerful moments came when we would stop and look back at how far we had come. To look down the mountain and see what we had accomplished made it so worth it–– even with hundreds of more stairs to climb.
Lesson from Day 3: Practice gratitude, presence, and appreciating the small things
Every day on the trail was a practice of gratitude.
I kept thinking, “holy shit, my body did that!”
I felt so grateful for my mind, body, and spirit. For the first time in a long time, every word I spoke to myself was rooted in pure love and support. What’s even better is that I believed it. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to myself as nicely as I had while on the trail.
Moments in gratitude resulted in moments of pure presence. There was nothing to distract me. Although I had a fantastic (new) family on the trail, I spent many moments alone. I enjoyed the moments of solitude, always taking time to take in the views and express my gratitude.
Day three is the shortest day of hiking distance-wise but can quickly turn into the longest day while you admire all the sights and incredible views. One of my favorite moments of gratitude and presence came when we arrived at the Intipata Ruins.
At first glance, Intipata doesn’t look like much, but as you walk onto the ruins, you have some of the most breathtaking views of the entire trail. Groups would stop and spend hours relaxing, laughing, and being in awe of the views. Intipata was the final stop before heading to our campsite at Wiñay Wayna. It was the reminder that it was the last full day on the trail and the last night of camping. I wanted to savor every last moment.
When we arrived at camp, our porters surprised us with a homemade trail cake– congratulating us on how far we’d come. I never thought I’d eat a homemade cake with my new family on the middle of the Inca Trail.
Lesson from Day 4: The destination is the journey
Day four started at 3 AM. We ate a light breakfast and walked 10 minutes to the Wiñay Wayna checkpoint. We had to be ready to go when the gates opened at 5:30 AM.
We enjoyed the final sunrise and went to the Sun Gate to see our first views of Machu Picchu. Making it to the Sun Gate really felt like the end. Machu Picchu was a short 30-minute walk away.
Once we arrived at Machu Picchu, we could take some pictures at the best vantage point before having to exit and re-enter at the main entrance. While we were making it down, we heard tour guides telling day visitors that we had just completed 4-days and 3-nights on the trail. Groups would start applauding. We all felt so good, proud, and a bit fearful that they could smell us as we walked past.
Once we re-entered Machu Picchu and began our tour, most of us were ready to go. Yes, the energy of Machu Picchu was palpable, but we had passed so many ancient Incan ruins along the way that we had our fix. We wanted to get into town and enjoy one final meal together.
It dawned on me when I stepped off the trail and onto the bus back down to Aguas Calientes that the real growth wasn’t in reaching Machu Picchu–– it was the journey there. Everything that happened between Kilometer 82 and Machu Picchu was what really mattered. Seeing Machu Picchu was just another part of the journey.
Hiking the Inca Trail is not about seeing Machu Picchu; it’s about falling in love with the journey through all the trials and tribulations. It’s a pilgrimage and a spiritual quest. When you step off the trail, you’re no longer the person you were when you crossed the suspension bridge at Kilometer 82.