Which to Hike: The Inca Trail vs. Mt. Kilimanjaro

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My first hiking trek, and I went to Machu Picchu. Go for the gold!

In 2012 I decided to become a hiker. I had never really hiked much before except for the occasional day trips. As with most things I do I decided to dive, head first, into the deep end. In March 2012 I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and after an exhilarating adventure, I went on to summit Kilimanjaro in August 2012. Both are experiences to move up to the first two slots of your bucket list, but if you are deciding between the two, here are some things you should know about both.

The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail, located in the Peruvian Andes, is a 4-day hike (2- and 5-day treks are also available, but not as common) through an Inca museum. Ruins are everywhere and guides teach you about ancient Inca culture along the way. Nirvana is walking through the Sun Gate as the sun rises and the clouds drift away for what is a miraculous view of Machu Picchu.  The hike reaches an altitude of 4,215m (13,829 ft) at the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass on the afternoon of the second day. The trail attracts a lot of backpackers that have been traveling through South America, and this is part of their journey.

The trek features unbelievable landscapes that pictures do not give justice; there is never a point at which you are bored of the scenery. The hike itself is not very strenuous, often hiking 6-8 hours the first three days and 2-3 hours the last day, but there are a lot of steps so tighten those quad muscles before starting. I am a lucky gal because one guy on our trip carried a bottle of champagne the whole way to enjoy that final day (and of course we gave a sip to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, before we drank it).

Mt. Kilimanjaro

Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, has six different routes that can be covered anywhere from 5 to 7 days to “reach the roof,” or the highest point in Africa. I chose the Machame 6-day route, which is known for its magnificent scenery while being one of the most difficult hikes. On the mountain you are hiking for one purpose: to reach the summit at Uhuru Peak. No ruins along the way, just incredible views and a wide range of climate zones.

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An 8-hour midnight summit hike rewards you with this sign on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Beginning in the rainforest and summiting while looking at dwindling glaciers, you experience many ecosystem changes. You walk “pole, pole,” which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly,” with hikers who are on a mission and went to Tanzania for the purpose of climbing Kili. At first it seems unbearably slow, but acclimatizing gradually to the changing altitude is extremely important. Kilimanjaro has long hiking days, at times reaching 9-10 hours while getting colder and colder as you ascend. After the camp on night three, you embark on what I like to call a 36-hour day, which consists of a more technical climb up the Barranco Wall followed by a long day of hiking until you reach the base camp, Barafu, before attempting the summit. The 5 hours you have to “relax” before the midnight summit hike is hardly a time to take it easy, because at this point you are at 4,673m (15,331ft), have little appetite, and breathing has become an issue. The midnight trek, while in your finest skiing attire, is ominous yet magical. The glow of headlamps spanning up and down the mountain with the bare moonlight and stars shining brightly makes you feel like you are walking to space. While it is difficult physically because of exhaustion, the 8-hour trek is worth it when you are elbowing other fatigued tourists to take your victory picture right after sunrise at Uhuru Peak, which is 5,895m (19,341ft). The walk down the mountain as your adrenaline leaves your body is where the difficulty really sets in. Three hours down to Barufu Camp, a two-hour break, and five more hours down to the final camp ends that 36-hour day with a night’s rest that babies would be jealous of. Another short 3-hour hike in the morning brings you to the ending gate where you can purchase a beer and a boot wash for about $5—both which seem extraordinarily necessary.

Both hikes are amazing in their own ways. If you are interested in historical sites, a shorter experience, and are nervous about altitude sickness, try the Inca Trail. If you are looking for a significant challenge, can fight fatigue, and have the endurance to hike for a longer amount of time, Kilimanjaro is the way to go.

Guest post by Jennifer Erdman


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