The idea of going to Peru has stressed the life out of me. For two full months I roamed in circles like a lion in a cage before I finally did the irreversible and booked. Root of the problem: I wasn’t perfectly sure whether I was fit enough to tackle the Inca Trail. In my head, I was picturing this to be a sort of survival hike and was really conflicted as to why on Earth I would put myself to such a test. There was also the altitude, the cold on the mountain plus my apparent frail physical structure that made me deeply weigh the level of trouble I was getting myself into. It was the Amazon that I had always wanted to see, and the Inca was included in the package. All these fear factors accumulated, truth be told, I do not mind a good challenge. Still, once in a lifetime experience though it promised to be, I was still counting on coming back.
I submissively received a shot against yellow fever (supposedly compulsory if you enter the Amazon, but no one asked for proof of evidence there) and thus added one more to the collection of vaccines I had already acquired prior to my departure to South Africa. The travel doc waves about five prescriptions at me on which he scribbled medicines intended to help me go through a variety of ills. I was to become broke after buying them. Luckily, I brought all of them back untouched and while tablets against altitude sickness and diarrhoea (thank God for the spelling corrector for this one!) have been reported to come in handy, you do not need water purifying tablets and these are actually the most expensive in the lot.
At that stage I was not concerned about the gear. But I decided I had to deal with the training part. Reaching a new level of my spontaneity, I booked a flight to Manchester from one week to the other to follow a two-day wild camping crash course in the Lake District. I had no idea what I was doing. Saying that I was absolutely not prepared for spending happy times in the mountains would be drastically reducing the reality of the situation. I had imagined this to be more of a leisure hike in an area that for me did not have anything to do with mountains: since when do 978 m tops are spoken of as “mountain”? Belgian and British people have a funny sense of what mountains look like, I thought. They’re trying to boycott geography. Dutch people might actually get altitude sickness there. But while I was poking fun in my head at the others, the Gods of righteousness were getting ready to punish me double-fold for real.
I must have looked like the biggest idiot ever to the two mountain guides when they asked me if I had everything I needed for the trek and opened my luggage in front of them. They looked at one another and silently started to bring me long ski trousers, gloves, winter cap, plenty of long-sleeve items, some of which were really thick and warm. They also got rid of my sleeping bag and replaced it with a polar one, capable of keeping someone alive at -30° C. Did I book for the right trip or were we all being sent to the North Pole? Where were they taking me? It was nicely sunny and I was perfectly content in my T-Shirt on that lovely May day 2013.
See, that changed around 7 p.m., after we set up our tents and decided to go for the peak. Nature has a very funny way to make one feel insignificant when it sets its mind on it. With suddenness that no one would have predicted, heavy clouds, mist and a terrible cold encircled us. We met people who were still looking for the peak after having literally passed inches away from it. They hadn’t been able to see it, so dense was the fog.
We, on the contrary, make it to the top, but we lose our way back. At midnight, unsteady on our feet and barely seeing each other, we were still looking for our lost tents in a paralysing cold and with no one else around. Jamie, our guide, and my personal protector and saviour (God bless him), was running in all directions searching for the lost tents, checking my pulse once in a while to see if I was still part of this world. It would all have been a funny spectacle, had I not reached a stage in which my senses had become stubbornly numb. It was eerie dark, my legs were not listening to my brain instructions anymore and it’s a miracle I did not sprinkle any ankle on those slippery rocks. I had passed the “frozen” level and under a wind-proof bivy tent that Jamie fetched for us as a protection means while he was away scouting for our shelter, my will to move had given up on me. But Jamie is a wizard and brought us back safe and sound.
You would have understood: having the right gear is crucial. The two-day hike in the Lake District marked my understanding of this forever. With my T-Shirt and light rain jacket, fully unprepared for the mighty cold that almost got me into hypothermia in spite of wearing 5 layers of very warm pullovers and jackets (and ski gloves) that Jamie had carefully provided me with, I would have learned my lesson.
Having survived Lake District and Scafell Pike, one doubtful question was still hovering over my head: how will my body react at 4200m altitude? This no one can tell, really – you might be a highly-trained sportsperson and still be rushed down the mountain in an emergency if your very personal genes do not adapt quickly to that.
If you intend to do the journey to Peru, here are some things that I would have liked someone to tell me. And let me reassure you: you’ll be just fine!
- The Inca trail is not a very difficult one (I had a 71 year-old lady in the group and she did perfectly well – don’t know what happened once she went back to her country, though). It is not a walk in a park either, but it does not require a professional fitness level. Anyone can do it. The most important thing is to establish your own rhythm and not run after the people in front of you. Take it nice and slow, and you might just enjoy the surroundings even more. After all, this may be your only chance in life to see this place. There is no point in walking quickly also because if you make it to the camp at 3 pm, there will be nothing there for you to do: you’ll just have plenty of time to try to deal with the cold.
- Peru is not a country where you would want to just go and be spontaneous, but one you need to prepare for. If you want to do the Inca, you need to book permits way in advance (read some 5 months in advance) – there are only 250 permits a day and in high season the trek is sold out rapidly. The dry season (May to September) is the best to do the Inca trail (less chances of rain).
- The difficulty with Peru is how to dress up: for the record, the country has no less than 28 climates (there are 32 in the world), meaning that no matter the season, you will alternate between cold and hot. So instead of taking thick pullovers, what you want is layers: sweat-proof T-Shirts, thermal underwear, long sleeve shirts, polar fleece, wind/water proof jacket, etc. (some useful reading from G Adventures: http://www.gadventures.com/trips/absolute-peru/PHPT/2014/details/).
- During the hike, do wear the trekking shoes you are the most comfortable with. After having carried across Peru two pairs of trekking shoes, I finally opted for the one without ankle support. Personally, I’d much rather be able to move my feet and not walk like Robocop, but this is totally a matter of preference.
- If you don’t book with a tour operator, make sure you acclimatize correctly. The best approach is to go up gradually, spend some nights in the altitude, then go lower and then high up again. Hopefully, your body adjusts.
- The currency is the Peruvian Nuevo Sol (the sun, of course, that the Incas worshiped so much) but locals gladly accept the US dollar, too. The only trick is that you will be given the change in soles, so having a minimum knowledge of the currency exchange is useful, although Peruvians proved to be quite honest people.
Time was ticking away and I was finally almost ready for my adventure, because despite all my minute preparations (I even iron my trekking clothes) this is as close as I would ever get to feeling prepared for the take-off. Ready or not, it was time for me to hit the road.