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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: The Most Challenging Trip of My Life Was More Fulfilling Than I Ever Imagined

By Margaret Manning February 03, 2015 Travel

When it comes to picking destinations to experience, I’m a snob. The less-travelled, the better. Except for one place: Machu Picchu. There are few more iconic tourist destinations… but what if you’re not looking for a tourist experience? That’s why I went with Road Scholar. I wanted the physical challenge of hiking the 26-mile-long Inca Trail that leads to the mountaintop fortress and the chance to learn from Inca experts along the way.

Road Scholar’s Hiking the Inca Trail adventure was just what I was looking for. It was a rigorous 12-day program that included Lima and Cuzco. The highlight was the three-day, 26-mile hike along the Inca Trail. The trail starts at KM82 (82 kilometers along the railway from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes) and ends at the Sun Gate, which looks down upon the incredible royal palace of the Incan Empire.

Let’s Have a Drink, Then Hit the Trail

I was travelling solo, which is another reason I love Road Scholar. An important part of their culture is that everyone is part of the family, whether you’re going solo or not.

Our small but feisty group arrived in Cuzco physically prepared for the Inca Trail hike — or so we thought. Boy, were we in for a rude awakening! While everyone finished the hike, we all agreed that the trek was one of the most physically grueling (but incredibly rewarding) experiences of our lives. Day 2 was really a killer.

Before we hit the trail in Cuzco, our Group Leader arranged a Pisco Sour demonstration at one of our fantastic hotels. A Pisco Sour is a famous drink in Peru containing lemons or limes, simple syrup, a type of fermented grapes called Pisco and egg whites. Extremely tasty but very strong! It was also nice getting a taste of home in Lima when I stumbled upon a Pinkberry. Everything about the store was the same, from the decor to the flavors.

Pisco Sour

I’m Tougher Than I Think I Am (Or Was it Just the Porter?)

While I was apprehensive about the physical challenge of this adventure, I was more worried about roughing it, i.e., sleeping in a tent. The good news is that camping wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d remembered from my childhood. Then again, we didn’t have porters back in Girl Scouts. In those days, nobody was lugging our gear, cooking fantastic food and greeting us off the trail with tea and hot towels.

On this adventure, everything was taken care of. We could spend our time hiking and learning from experts.

Even though we were a small group, everyone hiked at a different pace. I was consistently in the middle of the pack, taking regular water breaks, catching my breath and generally enjoying the experience. Our Road Scholar Group Leader did a great job allowing us to hike at our own pace, while still keeping track of the group.

No one had altitude sickness, but there were definitely some headache-y days. Chewing coca leaves and staying hydrated helped. The coca leaves had different effects on each of us. For me, it made my entire mouth and throat numb in a matter of minutes. For others, the effect was much milder and slow-acting.

Must … Get … to … Machu … Picchu …

After three days of 5-7-mile hikes, we were exhausted and excited to see the royal palaces of the Incan Empire. After crawling the last 200 yards up a very steep incline, we arrived at the Sun Gate, which looks down on Machu Picchu. When we arrived at the top, the entire scene was completely shrouded in fog. Several people were already sitting on the terraces, and told us they’d been waiting all day for the clouds to clear so they could see the ruins.

Our Group Leader put a smile on our faces when he pulled out a bottle of champagne he’d been carrying the entire time.

He popped open the bottle, made a toast to the success of the group, and we all dedicated a bit of the champagne to “Pachamama” (the Incan Earth Mother) before celebrating our success.

Our dedication to Pachamama worked, as within moments the clouds parted and we were rewarded with a beautiful scene of Machu Picchu for the first time. Truly, a magical moment.

Machu Picchu

Here’s My Favorite Theory: I’m a Pilgrim

Our Road Scholar instructor walked us around the ruins and made it our own personal classroom. We learned that since the first Westerner staggered up to Machu Picchu in 1911, visitors have understood that the ruins’ natural setting is as important to the site as the buildings themselves.

Archaeologists still don’t agree on the original purpose of Machu Picchu. I like one of the recent theories. Rather than create an easy path along the banks of the Urubamba River, the Inca built the physically taxing but beautiful Inca Trail as a pilgrimage route. The trials of the hike served as a rite of passage that prepared pilgrims for entry into this holy place.

That’s what I felt like — a pilgrim. And like every good pilgrim, I felt transformed by my experience. I challenged myself and passed the test and learned a lot about a fascinating culture. That’s my kind of trip.

A Chance for Friends of Sixty and Me to Win $500

If you sign up for a Road Scholar catalog, you are immediately entered in a contest to win a $500 gift certificate. The winner must be over 40 and will be notified by Road Scholar.

Road Scholar Has Something for Everyone

Road Scholar is a not-for-profit organization that has been around since 1975. They offer more than 5,500 learning adventures, including trips to Cuba, France, Costa Rica and every state in the U.S. Almost all of them are a lot easier than the one I chose.

What is the most exciting trip that you ever took? What did it teach you? Have you ever gone on a Road Scholar trip? What was your experience? Please join the conversation.

Disclaimer: This is a guest post by Stacie Fasola. This advertorial was provided by Road Scholar. I’m a big believer in this organization and will be taking one of their trips later this year, but, I also wanted to be upfront with you whenever I post content from a third party on the website. I hope that you enjoy everything that Road Scholar has to offer. – Margaret Manning, Sixty and Me

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The Author

Margaret Manning is the founder of Sixty and Me. She is an entrepreneur, author and speaker. Margaret is passionate about building dynamic and engaged communities that improve lives and change perceptions. Margaret can be contacted at

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