Many people, they visit Peru for one reason and one reason only-to trek the world famous Inca Trail. Sure, they look forward to touring the famous ruins of Machu Picchu, but it is the walk they take to get to said ruins that they are most excited about. In all the years that I spent dreaming about Peru, the Inca Trail was never in those dreams. I dreamt about seeing the sights of Peru, experiencing its culture, learning about its history-but never once did those dreams include walking x amount of miles each day and sleeping in a tent. Not that there is anything wrong whatsoever with that (Angela over at Angela Travels is a perfect testament to the fact that the outdoors can indeed be an incredible experience). However, it’s just not me.
I realize that there are plenty of people who are not really the “outdoors” type and yet still walk the Inca Trail. And the fact that walking the trail takes less than a week (there are routes that vary between three and four days) translates to yes, of course I could have survived since truly, humans can survive quite a lot. However, it was my vacation and granted, while it didn’t always seem like a vacation between feeling utterly exhausted at times, downright unattractive (sweat, sunblock, and bug spray all mixed together while wearing REI attire doesn’t make you feel exactly “sexy”), it was still my vacation. And for me, someone who has camped a total of once in my life (and has no desire to ever do it again), a vacation does NOT include sleeping in a tent, being restricted with what I could bring (i.e. I wouldn’t have brought as much as I did with me to Peru) and doing copious amounts of trekking each day.
Okay, frivolities aside, from a lot that I’ve read, it seems many (not all) people who walk the Inca Trail miss out on a lot of sites in the Sacred Valley that I just adored visiting. As in, they have their time aside to walk the trail, they visit Machu Picchu, they spend some time in Cusco, but then that’s it. They never get to marvel at the agricultural terraces of Moray; they miss out on being awestruck by the sight of the salt pans of Salineras; they even forfeit their chance at being able to have the workout of all workouts while climbing the ruins of Ollantaytambo. Yes, Machu Picchu is one of the most incredible places I will undoubtedly ever visit and yes, it was of course the main reason in wanting to visit Peru all these years. But it wasn’t the only unforgettable memory I took home with me from this South American nation.
One’s health is another reason. Altitude sickness is no joke. Countless travelers are beset with it each and every year and in some very serious cases, travelers have even died from it. When you travel to a high altitude area, it is recommended you spend a few days (if not more) acclimatizing to it, which means resting and taking it easy. After reading numerous recommendations, I decided to “officially” start our Peru trip in Ollantaytambo as opposed to in Cusco since the altitude in Ollantaytambo is 2,000 feet lower than Cusco’s. We still didn’t rest as much as we should or could have, especially since I felt the effects in Moray, but we did what we could. Many people who hike the Inca Trail acclimatize in Cusco, the same city where I often felt a shortness of breath. I took Diamox, which is a prescription drug used to stave off the effects of altitude sickness, which meant never once did I throw up/feel nauseous or have headaches (two common symptoms associated with altitude sickness). Truthfully, I could not imagine arriving in Cusco, spending a couple of days there where I think everyone feels some sort of effect if you’re not used to high altitudes, and then setting out on one of the most physically grueling and exacting journeys ever.
I know there are those travelers who sneer at the people who opt not to walk the Inca Trail. In their opinion, Machu Picchu is nothing but a Peruvian version of Disneyland-mobs of people, lines, a lack of authenticity. Personally, I feel I had no less an authentic experience. The train ride up to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of the ruins) both ways was utterly spectacular; being at the ruins by 7:30 AM meant that they were not overly crowded. And honestly, seeing the hordes of trekkers enter the ruins (with their obnoxious walking sticks, which by the way are supposed to be illegal to use when at the ruins), I don’t feel they had any more of an authentic experience than myself. I know that Peru is facing a dilemma over how many people should be allowed to walk the Inca Trail each year and seeing the swarm of hikers, yeah.
I know I’m not the only traveler who doesn’t have unlimited amounts of time at her disposal when she travels and that you have to pick and choose what you want to do the most. For me, that meant having the type of traveling experience I personally wanted and also doing what I felt was comfortable and the right choice for me in regards to my health.
If I had to do my Peruvian trip over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. The Inca Trail is a perfect testament to the fact that travel is one hundred percent a subjective matter.