I just returned from an amazing trip to Peru with my family. We hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and visited Lake Titicaca.
To prepare for the hike, I increased my exercise for a couple of months with extra cardio exercise (cardio tennis classes and some dreaded jogging), some inclined treadmill walking, and some good old push-ups).
The section of the trail I would hike was 26 miles long (42 km) from KM 82 to Machu Picchu and considered a moderate hike. There are no hard technical sections, but the high altitude adds a layer of difficulty and unpredictability.
We planned our trip so that we would arrive at the high altitude city of Cuzco four days before we would begin the Inca Trail hike to allow us to acclimate to the high altitude as much as possible.
Altitude sickness is caused by the lower level of oxygen in high elevations and can result in headache, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, malaise (general crappy feeling), and shortness of breath; more seriously, it can result in pulmonary edema or cerebral edema.
I live only a few hundred feet above sea level, and the city of Cuzco is located at 11,200 ft. (3,400 m). Our hike would begin at 8,500 ft. (2,600 m) and go up and down in elevation throughout four days, reaching our highest point at Dead Woman’s Pass (I wasn’t crazy about that name) at 13,800 ft. (4,215 m) on Day 2. We would finish at Machu Picchu at 7,972 ft. (2,430 m) on Day 4.
When I first ventured out of my Cuzco hotel, I felt the effects of the high altitude right away. I had slept for several hours after getting in from the airport on an overnight flight and went out with my family for a late lunch and to explore a little.
The streets of Cuzco are hilly, and I was out of breath repeatedly while just walking down the street. I had a headache and felt nauseated, symptoms of mild altitude sickness. I found it difficult to think clearly in the little interactions between me and my family. We were all exhausted. Drinking plenty of water and getting rest are supposed to help people to acclimate to the altitude.
I went to bed at 6:30 p.m. and slept until 8:30 the next morning.
The next day I felt better, but still got out of breath easily, and the next day, I felt better still. Cuzco is a beautiful city, and we visited its cathedral and some museums.
On our fourth day in Cuzco, we visited two different archeological sites in the Sacred Valley with our G Adventures group, where we did short hikes up to the sites. Many of us got out of breath–myself included–but I was noticeably better adjusted to the altitude than when I’d arrived.
We had an organizational meeting the night before hiking the Inca Trail, and we rented trekking poles (a lifesaver! I had never hiked with them before, and they really helped), good sleeping bags, and sleeping pads.
We stored our main luggage in our Cuzco hotel and packed a duffel bag weighing up to about 13 lbs. (6 kg) that would be carried by porters. After the sleeping bag and sleeping pad were packed into the duffel, we had room for about 6 lbs. (2.5 kg) of extra warm clothing or other supplies. On the trail, I carried a day pack with water, camera, clothing, poncho, hat, and anything else that would not fit into the weight restrictions of the duffel bag.
The weight restrictions for the duffel bags were put in place to protect the porters, who in years past were expected to carry extremely heavy packs. Still, it was amazing seeing them carrying their huge loads of up to 55 lbs. (25 kg) at a rapid pace. In addition to our duffel bags, the porters carried everything needed for setting up camp on the trail–tents, food, cooking equipment, table and chairs, and so forth.
All packed up and ready to go, I went to bed feeling nervous, but eager to start the hike the next day.