The bathrooms on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu
If you're thinking of doing the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu and you're someone who appreciates modern plumbing, you're probably wondering what the bathroom situation is like. Spoiler alert: not good.
I did the hike myself in early September of 2014, and because Google wasn't that helpful in my pre-trip research in detailing what the toilets were like, I decided to document them and write this post for all of you Inca Trail hikers of the future. Here's your poop trigger warning: some of these photos are gross. Also, I swear I'm not some toilet-obsessed person; I just appreciate knowing the details of what I'm getting into on trips, and bathrooms are a significant part of that.
This post is totally focused on toilets, so I'm abbreviating the rest of the trip. The quick summary: we spent a few days in Cusco to acclimate and hang out, then did the classic 3-night, 4-day hike with Inca Trail Reservations (who we loved and I recommend) to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail was beautiful and amazing, and it felt like a serious accomplishment to do it carrying our roughly 30-lb packs ourselves.
The toilets of Peru
You can't flush toilet paper in Peru. That was the first thing we noticed about the toilets of Peru after landing in the Lima airport and throughout Cusco. I thought it was a mistranslation or something; maybe they meant paper towels? Nope; you really can't flush any toilet paper in Peru.
As a result, every toilet has a garbage can next to it to house all the "wipings." The garbage cans are like women's sanitary napkin disposals on steroids. And both #1 and #2 wipes are supposed to go in there. I kept throwing my TP in the bowl for the first few times out of reflex. Once I actually started throwing away my TP in the garbage can, I'd hurl it really hard to generate enough force to bypass the spinning top of the garbage can. The last thing I wanted to do was touch those things, given how many bodily fluid particles probably coated them.
But despite the weirdness of tossing your toilet paper, the default Peruvian bathrooms looked like royal latrines compared to what we'd encounter later. It's all relative.
Inca Trail, day 1
For the first few days on the Inca Trail--when you're still fairly close to civilization--you're responsible for buying your own water bottles and bathroom access, so it's important to have change with you. Although the price of water bottles increased the further we went out (15 Nuevo Soles max for a 2-liter bottle, or about $5 USD), the bathrooms were either 1 Sole (about $0.35 USD) or free.
Every bathroom we encountered on day 1 cost 1 Nuevo Sole to access. I either had to bring my own toilet paper into the stall with me, or the bathroom attendant would give me a meager square the size of a napkin to use.
I took this photo at the rest stop where we camped for lunch. Sure, it doesn't have a toilet seat, but it's pretty nice. The toilet flushed; there were stall doors; they locked. Check out that lime green tiling. Plus there were sinks, with (bonus!) a bar of soap.
We hiked for a few more hours after lunch and reached another rest stop, which also had a bathroom. It was built into a little hut on the side of a hill. There wasn't any toilet seat and the floor was getting a little grimier, but it was still solid for a bathroom in the middle of nowhere.
Not so great things here: there was no longer a top on the upper part of the toilet bowl, the doors didn't really close, there's some mysterious moisture pooling on the floor from the toilet, and the toilet paper can was almost overflowing. Still, this looks amazing compared to what we'd encounter that night.
Inca Trail, night 1
Here's where things got bad. Our campsite for night 1, called Wayllabamba, had an outhouse in the farmland behind our campsite that our guides told us a local family owned and that we'd have to pay 1 Sole to use. There wasn't anywhere to put the money and no one ever asked us for it, so I guess I owe those people a dollar.
This was our first "hole in the ground" bathroom on the Inca Trail, and all the rest of the would be the same. It was essentially a porcelain hole with an outhouse built around it. There was an upper-deck contraption on the wall above it with a cord hanging down, and it took me a while to figure out that pulling the cord "flushed" the toilet. I say "flushed" in dramatic quotation marks because it was less like a flush and more like a sordid wave of water that flooded away any gunk blocking the toilet hole, but also doused the entire floor with a mix of feces, mud, and urine. It was also running loudly at all times, like the Niagra Falls version of when your toilet's running and you have to jiggle the handle to make it stop. One of my traveling companions said that he thought originally the sound was someone having explosive diarrhea.
Another note to my future Inca Trail hiker readers: this is not the time for flip-flops. I brought them thinking it'd feel nice to air out my feet after wearing hiking boots all day, but the truth is, you have to put them on to wade into the grossness of the bathroom. Plus it's generally cold on the trail and flip-flops get chilly fast.
Here's my photo with headlamp illumination, so it's not great:
The outhouse was located about 5 minutes away in the middle of a field of dirt and rocks that had been worked into little piles and ruts, which made it fun to trip over in the middle of the night. My fiance and I were stumbling through the field to the outhouse at around 2 AM with our headlamps when I stopped, suddenly aware that there was someone else near us. We looked around, horrified...and it was a donkey, just standing there. Normal.
I intentionally didn't edit this picture to show you how difficult it was to see the outhouse in the pitch black of the campsite:
It was on night 1 that we collectively started calling the toilets "baños," like the guides did. It was the one Spanish word we all used 100% of the time for the rest of the hike. Looking back, I think it subconsciously reflected that the concept we'd previously known as a "bathroom" had morphed into some crappy, twisted alternative (pun intended) where that word no longer applied.
How to go to the bathroom in a hole
Let's take an important sidequest, shall we? Successfully using the hole in the ground took some practice. I initially went for the Standard Toilet Seat Hover, typically reserved for peeing in American toilets that are pre-sprinkled with urine or suspect for some other reason (e.g., in a nightclub; at Ruby Tuesday's). Your legs are parallel in this position. This turned out to be a rookie move. Going parallel isn't sustainable for more than like 30 seconds for most people: even if you destroy wall sits at the gym, you're extra sore from hiking. Plus it's tough to aim for that small hole more than a foot away. In short, you won't be doing anything but peeing in the Standard Toilet Seat Hover, and even then it'll be a battle.
The key is employing the Special No Shame Low Squat. Assuming you're mobile enough to get into the position, it's surprisingly comfortable. You can hold it for a long time with no quad burn. Put your weight on your heels, point your toes out 30 degrees or more, and keep your chest and head up. For the love of all that is holy, don't look down. Without going into detail here, let's just say that a quick glance to make sure you're hitting your target is enough, lest you splatter yourself in the face. Which may or may not have happened.
Inca Trail, Day 2
I'm one of those people who usually gets up a few times during the night to pee. This became my worst nightmare on the Inca Trail, to the point where I'd hold it for several painful hours just to avoid suiting up in outerwear, putting on a headlamp, stumbling through the darkness, wading in an inch of pisswater, shivering, doing my thing, stumbling back, and tenaciously removing my disease-encrusted hiking boots a few inches from where I slept. That also meant that every morning, I'd have the Pee of All Pees for like 90 seconds before feeling human again.
With that done, we left for day 2, otherwise known as "the day where everything's uphill." Day 2 of was like the Stairmaster of the Incans, only you have a plastic bag over your head so you can't ever get a full breath of air. I sound like I'm complaining, but it was a real challenge with incredible views the whole way. Just be aware that carrying your own packs and moving at a decent pace requires a high level of fitness beforehand.
I photographed the bathrooms at our first rest stop, called Llulluchapampa. After the night before, it felt like a gift that it had separate men's and women's rooms:
The bathroom was another hole in the ground with your usual "don't know if it's dirt or poop" mixture surrounding it:
We hiked another few hours, up and over the tallest peak we'd cover (Warmiwañusqa or Dead Woman's Pass at 13,780 feet) and down to our campsite for the night, called Paqaymayu.
Inca Trail, Night 2
Getting to the bathrooms from our night 2 campsite required a ten-minute walk through some twisty trails around other trekking companies' campsites, little bridges, and streams. It was pretty during the daylight, but disorienting at night via headlamp.
There were separate men's and women's bathrooms, although they were functionally the same and everyone seemed to use both. A nice touch was the head-height window cut into the side of each bathroom for no apparent reason, except maybe to give a Peeping Tom the world's least attractive view of somebody in hiking gear and two days of sweat squatting. An open-air urinal and a sink were built between the bathrooms:
In the photo of the hole in the ground toilet below, you can see the first instance of a phenomenon I'm calling "Corner Toilet Paper Pyramid," where people--presumably those from countries where you usually flush the toilet paper--don't know what to do with their TP once there aren't any garbage cans for it anymore, so they panic and throw it in the corner. Other panicked Americans do the same thing, and the result is a soggy, skidmark-stained pile of toilet paper hanging out in both back corners of the bathroom.
Although the Inca Trail was remarkably free of insects, we had the good fortune of having a few quarter-sized spiders in the bathroom with us that night. There's nothing better than spotting a huge spider illuminated by headlamp while you're assuming the Special No Shame Low Squat.
Inca Trail, Day 3
Day 3 brought more of the same for toilets, but just a bit worse. The toilet paper receptacles were gone, which meant the Corner Toilet Paper Pyramids multiplied and grew in size. We encountered a scary, zero-privacy shower at our lunch campsite, which seemed to share a floor with the toilet (which, remember, was regularly flooded with poop water):
Here's another shot of the shower. One of the people we were traveling with asked the porters whether he could use it; they started laughing hysterically because it's frigid and anyone who tried just starts screaming:
I stuck with my waterless wipe showers in the tent.
Another campsite later in the day had bathrooms inside of traditional port-o-potties. I had a glimmer of hope for a toilet seat, but nope...it was another hole in the ground, this time without even the porcelain bowl. Note the Corner Toilet Paper Pyramids and the brown mystery splatter on the back wall:
I think you're supposed to put your feet on those raised areas, but A), they're too close together to make that comfortable; and B), every surface in that baño is so covered in filth that a half inch of higher ground doesn't make any difference.
Inca Trail, Night 3
We hiked through the Intipata, which had the best views of the trip (better even than Machu Picchu, because it turned out that it was covered in fog the day we arrived), to our final night's campsite at Wiñayhuayna. I thought I had numbed myself to the realities of the bathrooms by this point, but MAN OH MAN was I wrong. Again, here's your poop trigger warning: skip the next section if you don't want to see the worst bathroom ever.
Our campsite was at the bottom of a hill, and the bathrooms were at the top. Scaling a lot of Incan steps after several days of hiking just to pee wasn't ideal, but that paled in comparison to the condition of the toilets themselves. This was a popular campsite--it's where everyone and their porters stays the night before getting to Machu Picchu--so the bathrooms were especially high-traffic. But despite having more toilets to choose from, they were all awful. It was like picking the lesser of 7 evil baños each time you went. Strangers were laughing with each other over how bad it was. It caused bonding.
Here's what it looked like going up the steps to the bathroom in the middle of the night:
I picked a random bathroom when I got there, looked down, took this picture, and promptly left:
The one I found after that was a lot better:
I went one more time around 3 AM before we left for Machu Picchu, which allowed me to capture the pièce de résistance of the entire Inca Trail bathroom horrorshow:
The disarray. Those Corner Toilet Paper Pyramids. The sheer amount of PoopMud. The fact that a piece of poo is stuck to the back of the bowl. I can confidently say that it's the worst bathroom I've ever seen. And even so, porters were using it. They were teeming in and out of there like there was nothing to see. Again, everything is relative.
I ended up going with this one, which was the best I could find:
The whole bathroom area reeked, too. And because our campsite was directly below it, it smelled like the runoff from the bathroom went directly behind my poor friends' tent. We'd be walking down the row of tents and suddenly be hit with a distinct whiff of baño right to the face.
Inca Trail, Day 4 to Machu Picchu
There was heavy fog covering all of Machu Picchu when we arrived at about 6 AM, so rather than stop to take photos that would turn out badly anyway, I made my final descent to my true pilgrimage destination: the bathrooms of Machu Picchu. This had become a quest for me, not only to document the conditions of the bathrooms for future travelers, but to reunite with an actual, working, non-poop-covered toilet and sit down.
I wandered to the bathroom like a zombie and was all too happy to pay my 1 Sole entrance fee, knowing that it meant there was a better chance of a real toilet. And there was. It was glorious:
It was the best pee of my life. I looked at the thing where you throw out your toilet paper and the lack of an inch of feces water and sat there and smiled like a crazy person. And then I flushed the actual flusher handle, washed my hands with actual soap, dried them with actual paper towels, and went on the Machu Picchu tour.
A few points in closing
I want to reiterate that the bathrooms on the trail weren't the responsibility of our guide company (or any other, for that matter). They were apologetic about how bad the conditions were.
The Peruvian government installed the facilities as part of a multi-faceted effort to clean up the trail (because people were going anywhere they wanted before that, making the trail disgusting). Other regulations included limiting the number of hikers to 500 per day and banning the use of metal-tipped hiking poles, which were eroding the predominately stone trail.
Now that my hiking boots have survived repeated dips into sewage water, I kind of want to set them on fire. I honestly feel like they'll never be clean again.
I will never, ever complain or have a single negative thought about having to walk downstairs in my apartment at night to pee.
I'll leave you with a few shots of the beautiful things we saw on the Inca Trail to help erase the horrors of the baños.