Hiking Machu Picchu as a Senior

I should have tackled the iconic four-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu decades ago. This grueling climb at high altitude reduces many visitors to cramps and nausea, but it’s said to be one of the all-time greatest treks to one of the world’s great wonders. Usually it requires porters, cooks, and excellent lung capacity, not to mention strong legs.

Somehow, this Baby Boomer missed that window. In semi-retirement, I found the next best thing: a one-day hike on the Inca Trail, following uneven stone steps ever-upward to the Sun Gate. Gasping for air thankfully gives way to gasping in awe at the first glimpse of the remains of the Inca city.

The hike is challenging, but doable. “Just keep moving,” our guide Fernando coached, “and resist stopping to rest.” He’s led an eighty-year-old up this route and says the trick is going slowly. The effort tests endurance, but rewards hikers with the spectacular Incan citadel and an arrival timed just as the busloads of tourists are leaving.

Incline of Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Photo © Ralf Broskvar/123rf.

Trekking the Inca Trail tests endurance. Photo © Ralf Broskvar/123rf.

Yes, we worried about altitude sickness, motion sickness, dehydration, insect bites, exposure, and everything else. We brought a veritable pharmacy in our backpacks. The travel clinic at our health care provider detailed the shots we’d need in advance and provided a list of medications to carry. At sixty-something, we are reasonably fit, and we hoped our home base in Denver (5,280 feet above sea level) would give us a head start in acclimating to the altitude.

It turned out that flying to Lima and spending days at sea level undid whatever benefit Denver’s Mile-High standing might have given us. I felt the altitude in Cusco (11,152 feet) much more intensely than I ever have in Vail, CO (8,022 feet).

On the Peruvian coast in Lima, we enjoyed walking along the cliffs above the Pacific. We could have spent days at the fabulous Museum of Lorca to better appreciate pre-Colombian culture and religion. We also got to sample some of the city’s famed cuisine.

From Lima, we followed excellent pre-hike advice and spent a few days in Cusco. The goal is to adjust to the thin air to the point you can drink a cerveza and not worry. (Our hotel, like most in Cusco, had oxygen available.) We had heard friends’ stories of blinding headaches and sleepless nights, but were spared.

The mantra our foursome shared thereafter for any stressful life event: “At least it’s lower than Cusco.”

Trekking the Inca Trail. Photo © Joanne Ostrow.

Trekking the Inca Trail. Photo © Joanne Ostrow.

From Cusco, we explored the Sacred Valley and then spent the night in Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters) on the Urubamba River, rising at dawn to buy boxed lunches and catch the train part way to Machu Picchu. We disembarked at KM 104, doused ourselves in sunblock and insect repellent, and signed in at the checkpoint. From there it’s a 7-1/2 mile trek, a gain of 2,600 vertical feet, at times straight up into the cloud forest, with waterfalls, Inca ruins, and spectacular flora en route.

The terrain is steep and narrow at the start. The hike can take anywhere from five to eight hours (we took seven), depending on pace and rest stops. We tarried at the spectacular waterfalls, using a steri-pen (recommended!) to replenish water supplies. At the most challenging moments we recited, “It’s lower than Cusco.”

The day hike includes a stop at not-to-be missed Wiñay Wayna, the ruins of a terraced Inca compound where a series of ten waterfalls and baths indicate the temple was used for ritual cleansing. The name in Quechua means “forever young.”

On the final push to the Sun Gate, our guide Fernando warned there was one more “oh my god” stretch. Sure enough, we came around a bend and encountered The Monkey Steps: 100 steep stones towering skyward that had us on all fours, concentrating on breathing and moving one foot in front of the other. At the top, Fernando waved us on to the Sun Gate. “It’s all yours,” he said.

The reward: an amazing view of an ancient Incan city. Photo © Joanne Ostrow.

The reward: an amazing view of an ancient Incan city. Photo © Joanne Ostrow.

An unbelievable spectacle spread out below us, frozen in time from the 1500s: a complete city, masterfully constructed according to astronomical principles and religious beliefs, with boulders and rocks so perfectly joined together a knife wouldn’t fit between them.

This bucket-list trip is best done sooner rather than later; authorities have been limiting the number of visitors per day and roping off sections of the site in order to preserve it. Currently 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail per day, but some 6,000 a day visit Machu Picchu. That reinforces the idea that it’s best to arrive on foot, avoiding the busloads.

After surveying the ruins, our group took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes and a splurge at the Inkaterra hotel. The next day, the heartiest of our number accomplished a second, steeper climb with Fernando, up Huayna Picchu. From there (I’m told) a bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu is possible. I opted to study the hummingbirds, orchids, and breakfast buffet at Inkaterra before returning to Machu Picchu for a full day tour.

Our Peruvian journey was tremendously educational, with enough physical exertion included that we felt proud. We arranged our four-person group trip through Montana-based Adventure Life, and would highly recommend them. Check seasonal weather forecasts (May through October is generally dry; November through April is the rainy season), and be aware that Peru’s climate differs widely from rainforest to mountains to coastline.

We may not be heroes for doing a day hike. Still, our exhilaration was well earned. The Inca trail provided those of us born in the Eisenhower era with another new mantra: Wiñay Wayna, baby! Forever young.