Have you ever had an experience that you wished you could savor? You stop, aware of the moment and realizing its importance. Your entire body tingles with the anticipation. “When will it end?” you wonder. Hopefully never. Before the moment is over, you are already wishing you could relive it. This is the experience I had while hiking the Inca Trail with my 58-year-old father.
Dad and I had been planning the trip for years. The Inca Trail has always captivated me. Even as a child, I declared my desire to visit the lost city of the Incas. I know I’m not alone in this infatuation. Thousands of people visit Machu Picchu every year, and many young and hearty hikers choose to walk the 4-5 day trail to get there. I wanted to join the ranks – to say I walked the same path. My father felt the same, even though he has hardly ever traveled outside of the country, let alone backpacked.
I knew the Inca Trail would be difficult, but I was concerned when my dad agreed to join me on the trek.
Don’t get me wrong, my old man is in good shape. There have been times where he could run circles around me, but lately, he’s slowing down. A knee injury here, a back injury there. A harsh midwestern winter without exercise and plenty of turkey dinners. Every year I see him falling more deeply into a comfortable routine, and I wondered how his body would handle sleeping on the ground with tired bones.
Months before meeting in Peru, my father tried to get in “trail shape.” He would hike 5-8 miles a day with a backpack on his back, albeit at sea level with zero elevation gain. Still, I believe this exercise helped ease some of his nerves. When we first arrived in Cusco, days before starting our trek, he gave me a warning. “I’m going to go slow,” He stated with a quiver. “I don’t want you to get mad at me.”
Dad knew I had backpacked before, and that I was well traveled. And I knew this was his first big trip. Yet, he was worried about ruining my time, even though that wasn’t possible. “I know Dad,” I responded. “I don’t care. We’re going to have fun!”
Inca Trail: Day 1
Aside from obtaining a permit in advance, it’s also required to hire local help while trekking the classic Inca Trail. Dad and I hired plenty of help. In fact, some people may say we hired an army of help. Our entourage included: 6 porters, 1 cook, and 1 English speaking guide named Eduardo. Neither Dad nor I realized how many people would be assisting us on this four-day journey. It was all pre-arranged through a tour company. At first, I was disappointed. Was this going to be too easy? The answer to that became clear almost immediately.
Thie first day was what Eduardo called: “an introduction to the REAL Inca Trail.” We hiked all day in the sun, stopping occasionally to look at ruins and learn some history. Lunch was fantastic – salad, main dish, and tea. Our cook and porters didn’t speak English or even Spanish (only Quechua). We thanked them as best we could, and they smiled back at us. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, joking around and doing their best to provide anything we needed. Eduardo told us about their lives, which was comprised of farming their lands and earning enough money to support a large family. Only one in ten would attend college. We understood how much they needed this work.
I was surprised to find bathrooms along the trail (mostly campground toilets or toilets owned by locals that you could pay to use). I was impressed! This was going to be a lot more luxurious than I expected.
We reached our first campsite by 4 pm. Dad took a nap in his tent, and I occupied myself by taking photos. A few hours later it was time for dinner…. but my father had trouble standing up.
Dad’s leg buckled underneath him. He grabbed the tent for balance, but it collapsed.
I tried to help him up and, after another try or two, he stood. “I’m okay,” he assured me, but I began questioning him. “How much water did you drink today?” “How many layers of clothing are you wearing?” “Did you eat lunch?” “Did you stretch in your tent?” “Have you peed today?”
It was clear that Dad had done it all wrong. He hadn’t been drinking water or eating much at all. Ever since taking prescription elevation sickness medication in Cusco, he hardly had an appetite. The thick layers of clothing he was wearing made him overheat on the trail. He didn’t bring vitamins, and he didn’t stretch before his nap. His body was so dehydrated he hadn’t needed to urinate all day. I gave him some of my vitamins and added a packet of electrolytes to his water bottle. “Wow,” he said. “You were prepared.” I chuckled at that. Of course!
Dad forced himself to eat everything on his plate for dinner. Afterward, he stretched and said his muscles felt better. I nodded, and we both went to sleep a little uneasy.
We knew Day 2 was going to be the hardest day on the trail…
Inca Trail: Day 2
Eduardo woke us up at 5 am for a breakfast of fruit and pancakes. I had been tossing and turning all night, a little nervous but also freezing in my tent. Dad said he didn’t sleep well either. And then it was time to start hiking.
The second day of the trail was the shortest in distance, but it was the steepest in elevation. At first, the trail winded uphill through the forest, but then the trees cleared and we could see the mountain ahead. The mountain we were supposed to climb over. And we also saw stairs. So many stairs.
The mountain crossing is called “Dead Woman’s Pass,” and I could see why.
Along the Inca Trail, we met dozens of other trekkers from all over the world. Most of the hikers were in their 20s and 30s. At 58, Dad was among the oldest. In fact, we only met one other person on the trail in their late 50s, and she was really struggling. Eduardo assured us that he’s hiked over Dead Woman’s Pass with a 75-year-old woman. I think that story helped Dad take each step up the mountain. I could tell it was difficult for him, but I encouraged him to continue. Step. Pause. Step. Pause. Step….
When we finally made it to the top, Dad broke down into tears, which caused me to well up. We were both so proud! The most difficult part of the trek was over, and the view was worth it all. A weight lifted from our shoulders. I wish I could breathe in that moment in forever. Instead, we climbed down the other side of the mountain to our second campsite.
“I will never be afraid of another hike!” Dad proclaimed.
Inca Trail: Day 3
I was no longer worried about my father making it to Machu Picchu. He had conquered Dead Woman’s Pass, and he was visibly more confident on the trail. His routine of eating, hydrating, stretching, and pacing himself was now well established. He was a pro!
The third day was my favorite day of the trek. The views were stunning. We went through several ecosystems: mountains, valleys, and portions of the Amazon rainforest. We also crossed through three Inca cities, all magnificent and unique, learning about their construction, special purpose, and eventual abandonment.
Day 3 had it all: history, nature, and spectacular views!
It was the longest day of the trail, but it was the most satisfying. At dusk, I explored the nearby Inca town named “Forever Young” (translated) on my own. I felt at peace among the ancient walls, forgetting any hardships of my past or worries of my future. I experienced only the present moment, watching as the mist covered the mountains in the distance and the world suddenly became silent and still.
Inca Trail: Day 4
We woke at 3 am and said goodbye to our porters and cook. Today we were going to see the ancient city of my dreams, and there was excitement in the air. The final hike started in darkness, but the sun greeted us with its warm smile as we approached the “Sun Gate” and peered down into the valley beyond. This was our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Eduardo said we were lucky; Many times the city is covered in mist.
Dad and I grasped each other. We made it!
One hour later we were touring the great forgotten city of Machu Picchu, with Eduardo as our personal guide. He recited famous Inca legends, rituals, and prophecies. We learned of the city’s abandonment, and how it was left alone for hundreds of years. My father couldn’t stop smiling. I stood like a dummy, staring off in astonishment as a balloon of pride inflated in my chest.
This was the moment Dad and I had been planning for years. We had hiked the Inca Trail, together as father and daughter. Knowing that fact was the most satisfying reward I’ve ever received.
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My father and I were enchanted with the lost city, the trail, and nature. But most of all, we were in awe of the experience.