It was the tenth time I stopped in as many minutes.
I looked up and saw the peak. Many of the group members were already up there whooping and cheering. The sky was blue and the sun was lighting up the valley. I knew the view would be amazing over the peak. I also knew the clouds were coming in and I had to get up there fast.
Welcome to Day Two of the Inca trail as you face the knee high steps to Dead Woman’s Pass.
It wasn’t until after I booked onto the Intrepid Inca Trail tour that it dawned on me that I would actually have to trek the 39 km of undulating terrain. I’m offering up my own definition of ‘undulating’: bullshit hills, steps that only the Big Friendly Giant could tackle, and steep ascents that give you head spins.
I spent hours searching the net for people in a similar situation as me. What situation is that you ask? Well someone who takes a lot of inspiration from people like this:
And it was hard to find tempered views how a person who likes to avoid exertion and is overweight could complete the trail. Headings like “OMG the hardest thing I have ever done in my life” and “If you are not of medium to high-level fitness you won’t finish”.
WOW, I thought. I better get in shape.
But you know how it can be. Monday never comes and before you know it you are staring at 4 weeks on the calendar before your flight to South America where, upon landing, your mission will be to find and devour all the stuffed peppers weighed down by melted cheese and buckets of ceviche.
I did manage to put in a solid month of exercise with spin classes, walking home from work and swimming, but I was still overweight. In my case 14kgs (approx 30 pounds) and a full-time smoker. Yeah, not one of these part-time smokers damn it. I was committed!
The Inca Trail a rigorous challenge, but it can be done.
You can complete the Inca Trail and be overweight. I thought I’d share my tips that helped me hike the Inca Trail while carrying a few extra food-fuelled belly folds.
One step/ One day / One moment in time
It was nearing the end of Day 1 and I had just started the short (approx 45mins) ascent up to the campsite. While most of the day was fairly manageable the last section was a struggle. I couldn’t regulate my breathing and my legs were feeling the burn. Over dinner, we all joked about what the infamous ‘Day 2’ will have in store. Our guides even looked a bit concerned for some of the slow pokes (that’d be me then).
The Inca Trail is definitely a physical challenge, but in order to get to the other side, I had to win it mentally. What I did was get myself into the headspace that I would use for deadlines at work where you know you will be pulling 14-hour days for at least a couple of months. It’s one day at a time. In this case, it was one step at a time. There was no point focusing on the kilometres that needed to be covered that day or what the ascent was. They were just numbers that served me no purpose. What I did know for certain was that if I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I’d get there. It wouldn’t be pretty, but I’d get there.
Listen to music
Make sure whatever device you use is charged up and raring to go. I found listening to Chemical Brothers and Taylor Swift (don’t judge) along with interludes of Beatles ‘Here comes the sun” got me through. I found myself transported to my happy place where I like to dance. Suddenly I felt lighter on the feet and could double the distance covered before I needed to rest.
Rich swears by progressive house music and listened to Above and Beyond’s Group Therapy shows. The beats matched his breathing and steps.
Buy hiking poles
I can’t recommend this enough. It was Day 2 and I had just completed the 1200m ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass. Now a 500m descent of steps (more like mini skyscrapers) were waiting for me. The poles became my new best friends. I could put all my weight on them and have a bit of fun trying to jump down the steps. When it came time to return the poles back to the guide, I almost shed a tear. I hired my poles, but you could buy them for the same amount of money at the markets in Cusco or Ollantaytambo.
A nightly Ibuprofen and some tiger balm will be your best friend
After dinner I was so dog-tired I could barely move to brush my teeth, but I did remember to take one Ibuprofen for any knee inflammation and also rub tiger balm on my calves and thighs.
Each morning I woke up with no stiffness or soreness (or at least very little). It put me in a good frame of mind to being able to accomplish whatever the day had in store for me. Obviously, check with your doctor what is suitable for you.
Forget the coca leaf and snack regularly
I wanted to have an ‘authentic experience’ and complete the trail like the porters do by chewing coca leaves.
It was the 2nd hour on Day 1 and I gave up on it.
It tasted awful, like leaves that you picked out of a compost bin. It also didn’t do anything and I quickly became despondent because I pinned a lot of hope onto this magic leaf. If Jack and the Beanstalk was real, I’d be Jack. I love me some magic plants.
As soon as I realised I needed bursts of energy I dug into my snack rations hoed into the lemon sherbets and coca caramels. This is not the time to start skipping meals thinking you will lose weight. You need the energy.
Get a porter
As part of our tour, it wasn’t an option to not have a porter carry your 6kg of change of clothes, sleeping bag, and sleep mat. It was assumed that each person would only carry their personal effects for that day like water, a rain jacket, snacks, camera, sunscreen etc. We did see people carrying all their gear and more power to them. But even if I was fit, I still don’t think I would do it. Leave it to the professionals, I say. Trust me it’s hard enough with your small backpack.
Agua de Florida
Now this is an awesome local tonic. A tiny 15ml bottle I bought from the San Pedro Market in Cusco as advised by our guide. It’s a lovely floral scented water used by Shamans for ceremonies and rituals. But don’t worry, you won’t be using it to temper the volcano gods. Pour a few drops onto your palms and rub them together and inhale. It worked wonders in eliminating any headaches or dizziness from the altitude. Note you should not ignore the signs of altitude sickness and keep a log of what you are experiencing and share with your guide if you have any concerns.
Stop and check out the scenery. It will motivate you to keep going
My heart sounded like the entire troupe of Stomp! was dancing in my ears. I stopped trying to catch my breath. To at least slow it down from being a morse code message. I leant on my poles and looked across. In the distance, an Incan ruin clung to the side of the mountain. We were going to go there and explore it. How amazing it that!? I took another step and never looked back.
I had to remind myself that what I was seeing was reserved for only a few who could travel this ancient route. Take the time to stop and take it all in. Something I didn’t do nearly enough. While you may be cursing each and every step, you will be sad when it comes to an end and surprisingly if feels all too soon.
You might be the slowest and that’s okay
When it comes to hikes, people often write that there is always someone slower than you. Well, how about if YOU are the slowest person? Like always!
I learnt to own it. I’m happy taking my spot in the back. Of course, you don’t want to be a disruption to the whole group and your guides, but as long as you are keeping a steady pace you are doing great.
It’s a team effort
The night before we departed I asked Richard to make sure he was never too far ahead because I knew I would feel left out. Memories of being picked last for the basketball team (to be fair I’m a short-ass) came rushing back. The good news is that you are on a trail with other hikers and you are never far from the pack. The guides were with me explaining various fauna and flora. Group members deciding to take it a bit slower or take photos were new buddies to talk to along the way. You could have your space if you wanted to or you could put the world to right.
Don’t be a complete dunce and do no training or preparation.
This is not the guide to doing as little as possible to get by like my fellow uni teammates from Law Studies that did sweet FA.
No, this is a guide-of-sorts to let you know that it IS possible.
You will complete the 39km.
You may hate every moment of it. But there is way more that you will love and cherish.
You may find new levels of being repulsed by your own stank. But you will form a new appreciation of how much you can actually sweat.
You may never want to see a step again. But when you do, you will remember that you beat that sucker. Beat it good.
Was it worth it?
Hell, yeah! Just be warned you may get a little too confident and start planning volcano hikes, multi-day treks in extreme winds and muddy climbs to a freezing volcano lake.