As our small bus wound its way up through the agricultural Peruvian highlands to Ollantaytambo my main emotions were fear, fear and more fear. After a quick briefing the night before in Cuzco, we were on our way to tackle the famed trek up to Machu Picchu, following in the footsteps of the ancient Inca civilisation, which meant four days of hiking up steep inclines and down precarious stairs, no showering and camping in the cold every night.
Chewing on my coca leaves to stave off altitude sickness, I tried to remember why I'd been so set on doing this trek after researching the Incas online (I was admittedly cursing my former self quite a bit by this point), and I think the reason was that from my comfortable sofa in Leeds I believed it would be a good idea to challenge myself both mentally and physically, and see what I was made of.
Standing at the base of the Inca Trail, with my hiking poles in hand and days of trekking stretching out in front of me, however, it seemed like one of my sillier ideas. My comfort zone is being firmly planted behind a computer, or hanging out in the pub all night, not sweating my way up a mountain for the best part of a week.
My research had led me to expect miles and miles of stony uphill terrain, highlighted the difficulty of conquering the notorious Dead Woman's Pass, and informed me that people with a good level of fitness should theoretically be able to manage the trail. As a gym-goer and white wine worshipper with a medical history of asthma, my levels of fitness were, frankly, anyone's guess.
I'd arranged to climb three mountains in England's Lake District in a bid to prepare for the challenge; however, each time it had to be called off on account of the weather, and so I wasn't feeling as prepared as I'd hoped to be. While there didn't seem to be many fitness obsessives in our group, judging by the lack of sleeveless ‘sun's out guns out' vests, no-one appeared particularly unfit either (as I, in my darker moments, had secretly been hoping for), and I really hoped I wouldn't slow the others down.
As we set off to the starting point of the trail, and got our passports stamped with a souvenir outline of Machu Picchu, I tried to remember what our local guide had told us in his formal English the night before.
"Go at your own pace," he had instructed us. There would be a guide both ahead of and behind us all the time so no-one would get lost and end up living out an isolated, hermit-like existence in the Peruvian mountains, we were assured. It was also underlined that while you need to eat enough to give you energy for the climb, your digestion slows the higher you climb and so overdoing it would lead to a sluggish and uncomfortable trek.
Temperatures on the trail were expected to range from strong sun to freezing, so we needed to ensure we had plenty of layers to adapt to whatever the nature goddess Pachamama would throw our way. Our porters were able to carry 6kg of luggage for each of us, although this weight limit - in place to protect their backs - varies depending on the company you trek with.
Other essentials on the packing list included altitude pills, one or two bottles for the boiled water we would be provided with, a head torch for those nightmarish night-time bathroom visits and plenty of sunscreen and bug spray.
What were we up against?
The Inca Trail is actually not that lengthy, with trekkers required to hike just 39km (24.23 miles) over the space of four days. The reason some individuals find it hard is largely due to the altitude: you climb up to a max of 4,205m (13,796ft) before descending to Machu Picchu, which surprisingly sits at just 2,430ft (apparently the Incas preferred building stairs over digging tunnels). While only being able to take in low levels of oxygen, hikers are attempting demanding uphill ascents, scaling endless stone stairs that reach up - very literally - into the clouds.
And we were were off!
Once I got over my initial nervousness, the general mood of Day 1 was surprisingly jubilant. Much of this day was merely an amble through the pretty hills of the countryside, with many locals living on this part of the trail. This wasn't the stony, uphill trek I had predicted: it was lush and verdant, with our guide pointing out indigenous plants and flowers along the way, and telling us about their uses. It was also a relief to have actually started making our way on the trek after worrying about it for so long.
Some uphill climbing that morning left me gasping for oxygen, but we had plenty of breaks - with opportunities to buy cool beverages along the way - and it wasn't anything we couldn't handle.
We had 22 porters on our trip - carrying everything from our luggage, food and tents to gas canisters for cooking and the portable toilet - and all insanely fit and used to the trek, they had literally run past us with their huge backpacks earlier in the day.
When we reached our lunch camp we were greeted with cheering and a round of applause from the porters, who handed us orange juice and warm bowls of water to wash in. This was our first experience of their incredible skills and hospitality. There was a huge tent erected for us to eat a delicious three-course lunch of soup followed by rice, veggies and alpaca meat and a jelly dessert with coca tea. After refilling our bottles with boiled water, we set off once again, still cheery and clean.
That evening, after some more uphill climbing, we reached our first campsite (tents erected, mattresses inflated and sleeping bags rolled out) and were given the chance to get to know the porters, chefs and guides, who were enabling this glamping experience. While I knew I'd never be able to manage the trek if I had to carry everything myself, I had felt slightly uneasy about lumping the burden onto someone else.
Our guide explained that the porters - who ranged in age from 21 to 50 - had taken the job to make enough money to allow them to go into a less physically-demanding line of work. Lugging tourists' baggage up the mountains every week was not something they would ideally be doing for more than seven years, but it paid significantly more than other jobs in the region.
Our guide then quashed all my hopes of a moderate ramble up the mountain when he informed us that today had been like a "training day" for the rest of the trek, and that the following day would be the most physically demanding of the whole journey - not least because it involved ‘Dead Woman's Pass', which is named "not because a woman died there" but because some say the profile of the mountain looks like an old, dead woman. Cheerful! Not only would this be the steepest climb of our journey but it would be the part with the highest altitude - and therefore, the least oxygen.
That night we enjoyed a delicious dinner of trout (which is popular in Peru since it was introduced during the last century) and rice, followed by salted popcorn, crackers and cheese before playing some card games in the food tent. However, we must have been more worn out and dehydrated than we thought, as when a local person came to the campsite with beer on sale we all retreated into our tents for the night.
The next morning I woke up with a distinct sinking feeling, knowing what we would be facing over the next six hours. Of the 180 tourists allowed on the trek each day, on average one gives up - due to either the altitude or the difficulty of the trek - and has to ride the ‘backup donkey' all the way back down the mountain. I was having some strong premonitions this would be me.
I lay in the tent for a while as the camp began to stir, trying to psych myself up by mulling over the ‘inspirational' story our guide had told us about killing a cow in a bid to get us up Dead Woman's Pass with minimal complaints. And then from nowhere, the dulcet tones of The Lion King's Timon and Pumba rang out, singing Hakuna Matata. Our guide later tried to convince us it was our angel-voiced second guide who treated us to this wakeup, but I have a sneaking suspicion he was playing it from his iPod. Shortly after, there was a knock at the tent, and we unzipped it to find two smiling porters waiting for us with coca tea and water for washing.
After a breakfast of porridge, we were given bags of fruit and chocolate for energy, filled our bottles with boiled water and off we went to tackle the toughest day of the trail. From the campsite we started climbing the Inca Trail's iconic uneven stone steps - a sight we were to become way too familiar with. I found that looking ahead at the constant uphill climbs I had to tackle significantly hindered my progress - not to mention my morale - and took to constantly looking down at my feet - a ‘one step at a time' approach that really helped me through the day. However, once we reached Dead Woman's Pass, I doubted that even this would spirit me up those endless stairs.
After a quick water break, we gritted our teeth and started the climb up the stairs that wrapped their way round the side of the mountain. I really took our guide's "go at your own pace" mantra to heart here, and while some the fittest - and suddenly the most annoying - members of our group raced ahead singing (yes really) as they went, I made like the proverbial tortoise to their hare, and allowed myself a break to catch my breath every five to ten stairs.
Luckily, on my way up the Pass, I met many people from different groups who were finding this climb just as challenging as I was, and a sort of camaraderie kicked in, with everyone wishing each other good luck as they passed each other. In the couple of hours it took me to climb those stairs, I probably puffed on my inhaler more times than I have in the past five years combined, and whether this was a placebo effect or not, it really helped.
I stumbled to the top of Dead Woman's Pass fourth from last (which I was very pleased with), and only around eight minutes after the first of our group had arrived there. I was genuinely ecstatic about conquering this part of the trail, as I felt like I had overcome a personal obstacle by completing something I really didn't think I could do. It honestly felt great, and that moment proved to be the highlight of the whole trek.
Buoyed by my success, and the fact that the remaining two hours of that day's hike were all downhill, I pretty much ran down the rest of the trail to the campsite, discovering that I was very much a downhill girl. Wishing momentarily that the whole trek was like this, I realised that if I hadn't struggled so much with the uphill climb up the pass, I would never have felt the sense of achievement I did on reaching the top. And thus a life lesson was learnt!
That night, over our pancake dessert, I asked our guide what the following day was like, but he was reluctant to tell me. This was a theme in most of South America: many people are uncomfortable talking about the future because plans can change, and because they feel they are insulting nature by assuming the next day will happen for them. But as a result, all I knew about Day 3 was that it was not as challenging as the second day, and was also the most picturesque day of the trail. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge led to me having my most difficult climb yet.
On the third day of the trek we woke up with aching limbs, with some people so desperate to wash they braved the campsite's ice-cold ‘glacier showers'. Despite having finished the most difficult day of the trek we were only halfway through, and to me it felt like I'd been struggling up this mountain for weeks.
We set off on yet another endless uphill climb, and I don't know whether it was my stiffness from the previous day, my lack of mental preparation or the fact my morale was at a serious low, but I really struggled with the stairs from the very beginning. While many of the other walkers cited Day 3 as their favourite of the whole experience, I spent a lot of my time way behind the group, cursing the Incas for their apparent obsession with steps and apologising to our patient second guide for holding him up. Every time I conquered a massive set of stairs, exhausted and gasping for breath, we would turn a corner and there would be another set, stretching even further up into the clouds.
At one point, the guide used an oxygen monitor on the struggling members of the group to check we were taking in enough to keep going, and to my surprise, my levels were really quite high. It was on this day that I was extremely grateful to be in safe hands on the trail - I knew that if something should go wrong, our capable guides would know exactly what to do.
Day 3 is said to be the most scenic, with some even describing the trek around the cloud forest as "magical". Unfortunately our day turned out to be extremely misty so we missed out on a lot of amazing views - although our guides helpfully pointed out where people usually took pictures. This visual obstruction was almost completely made up for when we reached our breathtaking campsite for the night and saw that we would be sleeping among the glacier peaks and clouds.
The incredible chefs, who had thus far fed us a wide variety of amazing meals, along with popcorn and hot chocolate for treats, had prepared an elaborate sponge cake, which someone had iced with our group name ("Percy's Peruvian posse" in honour of our guide) and lugged up the mountain for three days. It looked perfect and delicious, and I have no idea how they did it.
While we were enjoying the sponge, it was time for another story from our guide. This one was about an old man he had helped up the Inca Trail to scatter his late wife's ashes at Machu Picchu, as the trek was something the couple had always dreamed of doing together. This was much more inspirational than night one's dead cow story, leaving a lot of us teary-eyed, and it really brought home how lucky we were to be in this incredible place and what we had achieved so far.
On Day 4 we were woken up at 2.30am (that is not a typo, it was actually 2.30am) to the sound of heavy rain cascading down onto the tent and The Bare Necessities blasting from speakers, before the porters - the only ones still smiling at this point - came round the campsite with some sugary coca tea to give us a much-needed boost.
Many people in the group cited Day 4 as their absolute worst, due to walking down precarious stairs slippery with the pouring rain for four hours in the pitch black before sunrise. However, the last day was probably my favourite: it was almost all downhill, as a Brit I found the rain both comforting and cooling, and - most importantly - we were almost finished! It wasn't just that I was excited to see Machu Picchu, or even that I was seriously ready to rest my legs and have a shower, but I was completely elated that I'd managed to make it through the trail without giving up and/or complaining too much. So as we set off through the rain into the pitch black jungle in our multicoloured plastic ponchos, headlamps leading the way, I was extremely upbeat.
Due to this early start however, it is essential to make sure your head torch has a strong beam so you don't fall off the mountain. Mine - which my Dad found somewhere in the depths of his garage - did not, and it meant those first few hours were more dangerous than they needed to be, with me slipping on the wet rocks a couple of times. It was also important to move at a very steady pace: one girl in the group behind ours complained we were too slow before promptly slipping in the mud, which we probably found a little bit too satisfying.
After sunrise, there was one final obstacle before we got to the Sun Gate: The Gringo Killer stairs. Being a gringo myself, I found the name of this section slightly intimidating to say the least. The stairs are absolutely the steepest you'll encounter on the trail - being nothing more than tiny ledges carved out of a rock face. However, they do not take long to complete, and I was pleasantly surprised to be up and over them, and on my way to the Sun Gate, in no time at all.
We arrived at the Sun Gate having been promised our "picture postcard view" of Machu Picchu, but to our disappointment, the heavy mist that had plagued us the previous day had reared its head once again and all we could see was a white blanket of fog. This sparked varying levels of disappointment among the group: some people were incredibly despondent that they could not even get a glimpse of the view they had worked so hard to arrive at, while others - myself included - were of the opinion that completing the trail was an incredible achievement in itself, and the view was secondary.
On the stairs down to Machu Picchu we encountered plenty of tourists who had arrived via train huffing and puffing their way up to the Sun Gate, which sparked irrational anger among some of the group. "They don't know what hardship is," one person remarked.
And then we got to the breathtaking ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu and all "hardship" was forgotten. This incredible place was built in around the 1450s by the Incas, but swiftly abandoned after 100 years due to the Spanish conquest. It is believed that most of the people who lived there died of smallpox. After staying hidden in the forest for centuries, it was finally rediscovered in the early 20th century but most of what happened there remains a mystery to this day.
We wandered around the site for some time, taking in the stunning views and learning about Inca history - which felt like a huge reward for all the trekking we'd done.
Advice for people considering the Inca Trail
When you're researching companies to do it with, try not to pick the cheapest - even if you're travelling on a budget. Cut-price firms are likely to be the ones that treat their porters the worst, in terms of pay and weight limit, so it is worth doing some research to make sure the company you are booking with is ethically sound.
You'll need a daypack for the trail that is big enough to carry your water, sunscreen, camera, jacket, bug spray, snacks, and anything you want to take that is over your 6kg limit. I learnt the hard way that it is a good idea to pack a good backpack with decent ergonomics and comfortable straps.
Altitude medication was recommended to us by our tour guide, and while most of our group already had some, the three Brits had to dash off to a chemist, as it is not widely known. Before you go, ask your doctor what they recommend you take for the altitude.
I've already mentioned that my head torch wasn't brilliant. You can buy good ones with spare batteries in Ollantaytambo, which is the jumping off point for the trail. You can also buy plastic ponchos, which cover your bag as well as yourself, but you'll want to take your raincoat too.
When I saw "sense of humour" itemised on my packing list, I cringed a bit to be honest. However, four days of hard walking up a mountain with no showers, I have since discovered, does indeed require a sense of humour!
However, my most important piece of advice would be to DO IT! Despite my nerves about the Inca Trail, it was an INCA-redible (sorry) and enlightening experience, not to mention a personal triumph, and one I'll never forget. If you're active and you love travelling, four days of trekking through incredible scenery followed by the breathtaking majesty of Machu Picchu is certainly not one to miss off the bucket list.