How not to hike the Inca trail

Thinking of hiking the Inca Trail? Think again

When preparing for an adventure, there’s always that thought at the back of our mind – what if something goes wrong? Truth is, it probably will. And what’s worse is that you won’t know how much trouble you’re in until you’re right in the middle of it.


I was twenty-one years old, fresh faced and ready to see the lower part of the American continent solo. A lot of people told me how crazy I was, but also how brave and adventurous. I liked those compliments, I felt like all of those things when I set off. My mum had taken me to the chemist and gotten me one of everything for every situation, as well as making sure I got top-of-the-line insurance. Because “you never know”.

Turns out, I didn’t know.

I didn’t know then that I would end up needed to use a large portion of what that travel insurance had to offer. I didn’t know that I would end up having to cut my trip a month short and get an emergency flight home that would have cost me close to $4000. And I really didn’t know how quickly it can all go south, and not in a geographic way.

First signs of trouble

I was in Cuzco, Peru just two days out from starting my three-day trek up the Inca trail. Machu Picchu was the whole thrust of my trip. This was the reason I even went overseas in the first place, and why I wanted to travel to this part of the world. The Inca Trail was the top of my bucket list.

I’ll save you the dramatics, I did make it. But not without the biggest physical and mental struggle I have ever faced.

In the few days before we started the trek the Inca Trail, my right ankle started to ache. Coming from a history of sprained ankles from dance classes, I had assumed this was the problem so I kept it elevated, rubbed Voltaren into it and rested as much as I could. I was going to be fine! Not so. The first day of the trek it became swollen and intensely painful. Thankfully a member of the group had very strong Ibuprofen which eased the pain and had me dancing up to our campsite.

At dinner on that first night, I came down with the horrible flu. Everything I ate, came back up with a vengeance, hot and cold flushes all night, aches all over my body – it wasn’t just my ankle that was going to be a problem.

Inca Trail, Day 2

Day two started and it was the hardest day of the Inca hike – Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4,200 meters was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Not only was it physically demanding in good health, I was very sick and at a very high altitude. Light-headed and dazed I somehow made it. A personal triumph.

It was at this peak that I decided to look at how my poor ankle was doing. Since it was so swollen, I wasn’t tying up my laces which meant that the whole day, my heel had been rubbing, leaving a blister the size of a golf ball – full of bacteria. The group leader saw it and said it had to be popped there and then. All the local porters came to watch, and you know when you impress those locals, who had probably seen every shape and size of blisters, it’s pretty bad. After a painful endeavor to pop it and bandage it up, we were off down the other side and to the second camp site. The heavens decided to open up in the last few kilometers which allowed me to get to camp just as the sun was going down and I was beginning to look like a half-drowned rat.

The second night was another uncomfortable sleep, sweating and shivering I now had diarrhea to deal with, but I’ll spare you the details.

Inca Trail, Day 3

Day three was our final stretch to get to Machu Picchu. This was the finish line, only 11 kilometers to go and we’d be there! I geared myself up to do it. I could do it. I could definitely do this. This was the whole point of my trip. This was my aim and it was so close.

I walked 50 meters before collapsing. I was exhausted, I was sick and weak from not eating in three days. I couldn’t breathe from the altitude, I couldn’t walk because of my ankle and I couldn’t eat or drink because of the flu. I was done. I feel apart and started crying, thinking that it was over. I was telling my guide things like “you need to call a helicopter”. Little did I know, that these people were gonna get me there, come hell or high water.details.

Hero porters

Two Peruvian porters who only came up to my shoulder shared their 30 kgs packs amongst the other porters and alternated carrying me for those last 11 Km. I was on their backs “piggy-back” style with a blanket under me and over their shoulders. This is a long way to carry someone. It’s an even longer way when it’s at altitude and the trail is sometimes vertical, up and down. And for the most part, these guys were running with me on their back. Lucky I’m only 50kgs.

But I made it! I can’t say I did it. But I did make it. And so much of my gratitude goes to those two little men that hauled my a** up that mountain. We arrived at Machu Picchu in the afternoon, just as the crowds had cleared and the clouds parted to let the gorgeous sunshine through to illuminate the breath-taking setting that is one of the wonders of the world.

After the glow wore off from seeing the highlight of my trip, reality set it. I was really quite sick. Getting to Machu Picchu was only half the battle. Now I had to get better.

Cuzco Recovery

When we got back to Cuzco two days later, a doctor came to examine me. He told me that I hadn’t sprained or twisted my ankle, but I had an infection inside my ankle that thankfully had not spread anywhere else. If it had, it may have meant my foot had to be amputated. I was lucky. He took my blood to test and see the extent of everything but said I could probably keep traveling with some heavy antibiotics. He came back half an hour later with a taxi, telling me to pack my things as we were going to the hospital.

I emailed my mom, trying to sound as calm as possible before I was whisked away to a private hospital in Cuzco. I got put through all the tests and set up in a room and left there.

There I stayed for four days.

The Doctors had me on IV antibiotics, blood thinning injections (twice a day which would make my arms ache for two hours afterward), and diet of rice and jelly. Plus I had to go through the ordeal of having my blister scraped out every day. I did have a private room with some cable channels though, so I was very caught up with the Kardashians.

Throughout this, the scariest part was knowing that I had sent my mum an email, telling her I was going to the hospital for something I didn’t really know anything about, and I’d let her know more information soon. Four days passed and she heard nothing, I found out later she was calling hospitals all over Peru trying to find me.


When I got put back together by the doctors and nurses there, I had to take a flight to Bolivia to join a tour in La Paz. My foot swelled up so much on that flight that I had stretch marks across the top of it. And arriving at La Paz airport at 2am with no one there to pick me up (as was meant to be organized by the tour company) I was left stranded in a new city with no idea where to go. Thankfully a lovely Bolivian couple came and helped me, calling Peru at 4am to find out where I had to go. I’m not sure what would have happened if they hadn’t come to my rescue, but I’m convinced it would not have gone well.

The tour finished a few days later and I moved to hostel also in La Paz. Only then started the ordeal of trying to get home. When I left the hospital, the doctor advised that I could travel for another two weeks before I should go home. A lot of back and forth with my travel insurance company saw me pack my bag and go to leave for the airport three times before I actually got the confirmation email with the travel itinerary. I got home two weeks after I left the hospital to a very welcoming mother and family who were thrilled to see me safe and home after everything that happened.

What I learnt

My story is pretty unique, I ran into a lot of trouble and in such an awkward place. However, I met many people who at some point or another, had to go to the hospital or the police for something that went wrong. So I implore you, anytime you even have a thought that something might be wrong, investigate and take action. Spend that extra $200 on the better insurance, $200 might save you $2000 later down the track. I didn’t pay a single peso or dollar for the hospital care or any flight I did thereafter and that was due to my high-level insurance.

Things will go wrong, I promise you that. But I also promise you that fear should not stop you from doing the things you love. At times I was scared of what might happen to me, but I adapted and got through it. The people around you may seem like strangers, but they will also soon become friends. And friends are so helpful. So please know that help is always around, but also, be aware of whatever help you can offer others as well.

Vanessa Lert Travel Writer

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