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Sep 25, 2018

I'm Not Very Fit, But I Hiked Machu Picchu — Here's What Happened

I wouldn't consider myself that active, but I was able to conquer one of the hardest hikes of my life.

So earlier this month, I did a hike that I was sure would kill me — the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Everything hurt, but the view of the citadel was completely worth it.

Arielle Calderon

And once I did it, I asked my Instagram followers what questions they had about the hike, and most people asked if it's doable even if you're "not fit."

I don't know how to properly answer that as everyone has their own medical history, fitness levels, and adjustments to altitude. But I can give you an idea of how my experience was. My exercise regimen in New York was roughly one spin class a week and walking every day around the city. Nothing too crazy.

Arielle Calderon

If I could go back and "prepare" or "train," I would've been on that StairMaster a few times a week.

There are several types of hikes you can take to Machu Picchu, and you can choose the one based on what you think your body can handle. So while many people do the 4-days, 3-nights tour, I decided that the 2-days, 1-night was best for me.

This tour is one full day of hiking (roughly 6-7 hours), one night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes, and a bus back up to Machu Picchu again the following morning.

The altitude adjustment could also impact your hike. While Machu Picchu is certainly a lower elevation than Cusco, you are likely passing through Cusco to get to Machu Picchu. And some of the harder hikes start at a high altitude and descend to the citadel later.

Arielle Calderon

I was very lucky that the altitude didn't affect me, but if you have heart and/or lung problems, it might be harder to hike at these elevations.

For tips on how to avoid altitude sickness, click here.

The tour I signed up for was really only ONE full day of hiking. It took me seven hours to reach the citadel (one hour more than usual). Here's a play-by-play of the shorter Inca trail hike and what happened.

Arielle Calderon

5:15 a.m.: Llama Path (the tour company I used) picked me up from my Airbnb in a private van. It was FREEZING so check the weather and see if Cusco is cold depending on the time of year you're visiting.

Arielle Calderon

I went at the end of August — mornings were cold in Cusco and Aguas Calientes, but the hike itself was sunny and hot. I wore a t-shirt and used my rain jacket as my heating device. I was still cold, but this only lasted on the drive to the train. By the time we started hiking, I was sweating.

6:33 a.m.: We arrived at a cute restaurant to have a buffet breakfast. We stocked up on water bottles and snacks for the trek.

Arielle Calderon

Hydration is key when exerting yourself (especially for a long period of time). So remember to bring enough fluids for both before and during the hike.

7:45 a.m.: We took the train from Ollantaytambo to the beginning of the short Inca trail. The train itself is pretty fancy and we slept through most of the ride.

Arielle Calderon

9:00 a.m.: We arrived at the beginning of the trail. We checked in, took a bathroom break, put on sunscreen and bug spray, and tried to prepare for the hike.

Arielle Calderon

The first four hours of the hike are the hardest, and there are no bathrooms until you hit the lunch spot.

9:26 a.m.: We arrived at the first Inca site. This was a tease. We had barely walked 10 minutes. I felt fine but had no idea what I was about to get into.

Arielle Calderon

10:05 a.m.: My scrunchie broke. I asked a random British chick named Sophie to lend me a hair-tie, and she did. Saved my life. I also already stopped for a break.

Arielle Calderon

The altitude isn't that bad, but I hadn't hiked in a while and ascending wasn't as seamless as I wanted it to be. I found that taking it slow and at my own pace was crucial for sustaining energy.

11:57 a.m.: I was dead and it had only been 2.5 hours. We reached a waterfall and my legs were already burning. We tried to only take short breaks so that our muscles would stay warm and active.

Arielle Calderon

I probably stopped for short breaks every 30 minutes and drank a few swigs of water each time.

12:15 p.m.: We made it to Wiñay Wayna, which means "Forever Young" in Quechua. This picture was taken when I reached "the top," but it was actually just before we had to climb 362 stairs.

Arielle Calderon

By this time, we had been hiking for three hours. The exhaustion was already setting in, but I knew I had only been about halfway through. Knowing I then had to climb a bunch of steep stairs was mentally draining, BUT lunch was soon and I used that future break as motivation to just get through it.

12:38 p.m.: I literally got so tired that I started climbing the stairs on all-fours. A man at the top took a picture of me. FML.

Arielle Calderon

Let's just say that my glutes and calves were screaming at me to stop.

1:00 p.m.: We walked over to a campsite to eat lunch and relax for about 30 minutes. The first four hours are the most grueling and intense. So from here on out, the path was more flat and easier on the knees.

Arielle Calderon

For the next hour and a half, my heart-rate slowed, I sweat less, and we walked in the shade. It was WAY easier and felt like a three on a scale of 1 - 10.

P.S. The boxed lunch is included with the tour package. We had quinoa with chicken and veggies, an orange, an avocado, and a protein bar.

3:18 p.m.: The final 30 minutes before reaching Sun Gate were brutal. It was another set of steep stairs and ascension. But when we made it, the hard part of the entire journey was over!

Arielle Calderon

Sun Gate (Inti punku) is the "end of the road" because from that point, everything is downhill, and that's where you can see the entire Sanctuary. This is the highest elevation of the short Inca trail.

4:28 p.m.: After an hour of walking down narrow, rocky stairs and just general rocky terrain, we arrived at Machu Picchu. And it was WORTH IT.

Arielle Calderon

After walking up for so long, walking down felt nice. BUT, I worked a whole new set of muscles, so I was still exerting a lot of effort and energy. My legs felt like wobbly jelly.

After you take your pictures and spend time at the citadel, you have a choice to hike down (about one hour) or take the bus. My body felt a bit broken, and after relaxing at Machu for a while, my muscles were stiff. We took the bus down to Aguas Calientes.

Jen Nicholls

It costs about $12 USD one-way.

The next morning, we got up at 4:30 a.m. and met our guide at the bus station to go back up to Machu Picchu and walk through the site. This required little to no physical effort, but everything hurt. That seven-hour hike stayed with me.

Arielle Calderon

Pro tip: The first bus up to Machu Picchu is at 5:30 a.m., but the lines start at 4:00 a.m. and they are LONG. It's painful to wake up that early, but you'll want to be one of the first people in line for the bus.

Conclusion: I am not that fit, but I was able to do it. My advice is to hydrate a lot, take breaks and go slow, and pick a tour that is best for your body and fitness levels.

Arielle Calderon

The 4-days, 3-nights tour is an extra 26 miles of walking. That was NOT for me.

And if you don't think you can handle the Inca trail, but still want to exert yourself, you can always take the stairs from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu. It takes about two hours.

Arielle Calderon

Or you can just take the bus up and down, no judgements.

But no matter what your fitness levels are, or what age you are, it's possible to see Machu Picchu. And you should, because it was truly surreal.

Arielle Calderon

Arielle Calderon is a writer temporarily based in Latin America participating in Remote Year. If you have any tips on cool places, events, or things to eat in Perú, Colombia, or Mexico, email her at or DM her on Instagram.

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