One year ago today, I got to cross a major travel goal off my bucket list. After four days of hiking, we made it to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail was challenging at times, but the views were beautiful… as I mention many times in this video!
(I blame the lack of oxygen and exhaustion for my limited vocabulary!!)
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for years. The more photos I saw of this mysterious Incan wonder and the more I read about the Inca Trail and how Machu Picchu was ‘lost’ for years, the more I wanted to see it for myself. While there are options for just seeing Machu Picchu, I didn’t want to arrive at the site by train. I dreamed of following the path of the Incans and hiking my way along the Inca Trail.
One of the most famous treks in the world, the Inca Trail trek itself is 42km, leading you along ancient narrow paths in the Peruvian countryside, up into the Andean Mountains. This mix of jungle, Incan ruins, cloud forest and beautiful Sacred Valley views lead the way to the incredible Machu Picchu, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
Machu Picchu’s existence was not widely known in the West until it was “discovered” in 1911 by the Yale University professor Hiram Bingham, who was led to the site by a local Quechua-speaking resident as he sought to find the lost city of the Incas.
I couldn’t wait to get there!
Our trek started in Cusco. Here, we met with our guide, got our gear and learned about what each day would entail, before taking a bus to the town of Ollantaytambo to stay overnight.
During the Incan Empire, this area was the site of the Emperor’s royal estate. Today, the small town is basically built around all the trekkers heading to the Inca Trail. We took a tour of the town, filled mainly with shops and restaurants for tourists, and then climbed up one of the surrounding hills to an old Incan site that used to be storehouses for the Inca’s crops.
Being up high helped protect the crops from both thieves and decay. The view of the Sacred Valley was beautiful from up here.
After a dinner of alpaca pasta, we headed to bed, ready to start our trek in the morning.
After breakfast, we drove over to the start of the Inca Trail, Kilometre 82. We got our bags all sorted out (what we were carrying and what the Porters were taking), making sure the weight was under the limit. Then we got our passports checked and tickets taken and headed across the bridge one at a time to start our trek of the Inca Trail!
It was so beautiful. I have been wanting to do this trip for so long that crossing that bridge was an exciting moment for me.
By 9:30am, we were hiking and it was uphill pretty much right from the start. We spent the next couple of hours going uphill and downhill, stopping for breaks every hour. The landscape was incredible. Most of it was so green, especially down in the valley when you were looking up at the hills surrounding you. As we passed various old Incan ruins our guides would give us some info about what we were seeing. The first big one we stopped at was Patallacta or Llactapata.
As you make your way along the trail, you are walking on a mixture of the original Inca Trail and a newer one, located nearby. This has been done in places to help preserve the original trail. Looking at all the sites and even parts of the trail itself, it’s incredible to think that most of this was built pre-1500s. How were they able to get all this stone here? This would be a challenge to build today, and yet they did it without any modern tools. Each time we came across a new site, this is something I marvelled at again and again.
As we walked, the sun soon turned to a misty rain. This continued on and off for most of day one, so it was nice to stop for our lunch break at Tarayoc for warm tea and soup followed by fish with rice and vegetables. After a break, we headed back to the trail. We passed houses along the way, and locals out on motorbikes, and horses and donkeys carrying loads along the trail. What a view you would have living out here (and also what a challenge unless you could completely live off the land!)
We hiked for about six hours that first day and of course the last 45 minutes was once again pretty much straight uphill! Camp tonight was at 3100m. I was exhausted by the time we made it there and so happy to see my tent! After arriving at our first camp, our guide, Odie, introduced us to the rest of our crew. The cooks and porters ranged in age from teens to their mid fifties, some of them earning money for school or training to become guides themselves, and others who had hiked this trail working as either cooks or porters their whole lives. While the language barrier made it hard to have conversations, learning something about each of them and sharing something about ourselves was great. We all sat for our first “Hot Drink Happy Hour” and had a hot chocolate or tea and cookies before having dinner in the dining tent around 6:30pm: soup followed by chicken and vegetables. By 7:30pm we all made our way to our tents, exhausted. It was pitch black and cold, but you could see so many stars. What a day!
The day started with a knock on the tent around 5am. “Good morning, would you like a hot drink?” A very early start, but such a lovely wake up call! We were given warm water to wash our hands and faces and a cup of hot tea. We had a breakfast of porridge and pancakes with chocolate sauce and coffee. By 6:30am, we had loaded up and were ready for what Odie said would be our toughest day, as we gained 1000m in elevation and then had to come back down 600m. It was steep right from the start!
Twenty minutes in, we stopped as Odie had to do some paperwork at the checkpoint. They make sure everyone is accounted for and that none of the porters are carrying more than the allowed weight of 25kg. It’s great that they are being monitored and that this rule was put in place to protect them from being completely overloaded.
The first part of the hike today was through lush vegetation, at times with small waterfalls and a river flowing beside us. The trail was a mix of dirt and rocks with large stone ‘steps’ in some parts (which I found much harder to climb). The trees were covered in moss and we saw some very large hummingbirds, in beautiful colours. The misty rain had settled in again by this point and the higher we went, the harder it was to breathe. At one point, I was stopping for a breather every twenty steps or so.
We climbed higher and higher and after three hours of climbing, we finally reached Dead Woman’s Pass – a name that was quite fitting for how I was feeling by that point!
The view was incredible and looking down at where we came from was almost unbelievable. We had a nice break here, taking photos and catching our breath.
Although being up at 4215m, it was quite chilly. At one point, someone yelled that they saw something moving. We all ran to look at what Odie called a Bobcat – dark in colour, with a long, ringed tail – a wild Andean cat. He said in the 10 years he’s been leading treks here, he’s only seen a couple of others, so we were very lucky to have spotted this cat!
After 15-20 minutes, we were all starting to shiver, so we began the trek back down the other side of the pass. As always, the scenery was gorgeous, although you needed to spend a lot of time looking down at where you were stepping so you didn’t go tumbling.
Just before 2pm, I saw Jorge waving the purple G Adventures flag meaning I had made it to tonight’s campsite. What an amazing sight!!
The porters all cheer you on as you make it into camp and hand you a refreshing drink. By 2:30pm, we sat down for lunch. I had been saying all day that I just wanted some spaghetti and cake and that’s what we ended up having for lunch! It was delicious! We had a restful afternoon until “Hot Drink Happy Hour” before dinner. The campsite tonight was around 3600m and the view was amazing. Definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever camped!
Another 5am wake up call with a cup of coca tea before breakfast. We set out around 6:15am for our 16km hike today. It was a beautiful sunny day as we started our uphill climb.
We soon came to Runcuracay Ruins, which Odie said were discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1915. This site had been used as a resting spot for Incas using the Inca Trail. The entire trail is 40,000km long, so this was one of the resting spots used by messengers as they travelled along the trail. We explored the ruins and then continued on our way.
The view from up above was beautiful, looking down on the ruins, with the morning mist still casting shadows over the mountains. The trek was challenging, but the views kept me going.
Today wasn’t as steep, but was more of a rolling up and down.
We also came across a number of llamas walking along the trail today. This made my day!
Each llama had an ear tag and Odie explained that their name was printed on the tag. One of my favourites was Doris.
She walked along with me for a little while before running back with her pack as we entered a cave.
Our lunch spot had a view where you could see for miles.
It also had a bunch of llamas to take photos of! Today’s meal was a feast. We had pizza, ceviche, veggies, chicken stuffed with peppers, pasta with cheese, quinoa burgers, squash, fried jungle potatoes, beef, corn and fried chicken!
Our head Chef, Wilbur, was great. We were certainly never hungry along this trek!
After a break to digest, we began the 3-hour mainly downhill section of today’s hike, much of which had very steep stone steps.
We stopped at another Incan site, Phuyupatamarca. With its elevation around 3600m, it’s also known as “The cloud above the town.”
This site had many different levels and some great views out the ‘windows.’
Shortly after, it began to rain, which made our rock-filled trail very slippery. Soon it was pouring, so the hike along this beautiful, jungle part of the trek was a slow one. We were soaked and cold by the time we finally made it to camp and had a tough time getting warm and dry as the rain continued. Not the best afternoon on the trail, but as we went to the dining tent for “hot drink happy hour,” the Chef surprised us with a cake that said, “Well done Inca Trail 2018.”
Such a nice surprise! We had another great dinner and then said our goodbyes to the cooks and porters as they would be leaving early in the morning to catch the train back to town. Then, it was early to bed as our final day would be an early start.
We were up by 3:30 to have a simple breakfast of bread and coffee and head out to get in line at the final checkpoint. We had to wait there until sunrise as the trail isn’t safe in the dark. Watching the sun rise over the Andes was incredible!
The final hike was about 45 minutes, including one super steep 52-step hill to reach the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku.
From here, you could see the sun rising over the valley on Machu Picchu. We were almost there!
We continued hiking down from the Sun Gate, passing several other Incan sites along the way, until we finally reached the entrance to Machu Picchu, which means ‘Old Mountain.’
I got some more llama selfies on the way and then continued on to what Odie called the “classic picture spot” in Machu Picchu, looking at all the old ruins with Huayna Picchu standing tall in the background. We made it!
We toured around the site, with Odie telling us about the different parts. The detail is incredible, especially considering how old it is and how remote.
There were terraces all the way down to the river below, but the brush had only been cleared down to a certain point after being found again by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
The site has several temples, including the Sun Temple and the Temple of the Condor. You could tell the difference between a temple and a regular building because the temples were built using only rock, with no mortar in between. There were huge storehouses for grain and crops and a large sundial at the top, as well as many other buildings which would have been living quarters.
The Temple of the Condor was made to look like a giant condor, with a cave below. Here, an ancient mummy was found. It was also the place where sacrifices would likely have taken place.
The one downside to this incredible place was the crowds. Tourists flock to Machu Picchu and there were tour groups EVERYWHERE. It was hard to get to see everything with as much detail as I would have liked as you were constantly moving from one point to the next, dodging people. We spent several hours here, taking photos, learning about the history, and walking from building to building.
Before we left, I just stood there and took in this beautiful wonder of the world, so happy to have finally made it here to see this old Incan world for myself!
Since 2002, access to the Inca Trail has been limited to 500 people per day (this is roughly split between 200 tourists & 300 guides and porters). It is necessary for everyone to obtain permits in advance to do the hike. The only way to secure a permit is by booking with an approved tour provider who buys these daily permits in advance. This means that you can only do the Inca Trail with an approved tour company and spaces are capped. Be sure to book early to avoid all the permits being gone for the time you want. (We went with G Adventures on their 7-day Inca Trail tour and had a great time).
There are a number of toilets located along the Inca Trail. They range from outhouses that locals own (they usually cost 1-2 sol to use), to actual restroom facilities located mainly at the campsite. Most are squat toilets, but some flush. The campsite ones had running water to wash with and freezing cold showers if you dare! Best to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you!
Dress in layers. The temperatures varied from day to day and hour to hour, depending on your elevation. Also be sure to have a warm fleece for the nights and rain gear as we had some rain most days, varying from a light mist to pouring. You’ll want comfortable hiking boots and good socks to avoid blisters.
Most of all, come with an open mind and a camera to record the breathtaking beauty you will find along this ancient trek!
On the way back to the airport in Puerto Maldonado, we stopped off at Inkaterra’s Butterfly Farm. The enclosure is filled with tons of flowers, fruit and variety of butterflies and moths, ranging in size and colour.
Such a beautiful spot to explore before getting on another plane!
After a week hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and spending nights camping on the ground along the trail, we decided to end our trip to Peru by treating ourselves to a cabana in the jungle!
We boarded the plane in Cusco and took the short flight over to Puerto Maldonado, the start of the Amazon in Peru. The airport here was tiny, so we quickly grabbed our bags and met our Adventures within Reach shuttle. From here, we travelled 15 minutes to the docks to catch our riverboat to the Inkaterra Lodge – Hacienda Concepcion. An immediate difference we noticed from Cusco was the humidity. It was 35+C here and so humid your clothes began sticking to you in a matter of minutes.
Thankfully we were soon cruising down the Madre de Dios River with a bit of a breeze on our 30-minute journey. We docked and made our way up to the main lodge to check in and have lunch (which was amazing!)
The photos I’d seen when booking at the Hacienda Concepcion certainly don’t do it justice. What a gorgeous spot! Our cabana was perfect with a screened in porch you could sit on and listen to the birds and other wildlife moving around outside while looking at all the beautiful vegetation.
After settling in, we met our guide, Plinio, for a tour around the property. As we walked, he explained that the grounds here used to be a cocoa and rubber plantation. They were owned by a Spanish doctor who started a Catholic mission here in the 1950s with the intention of improving the lives of the locals by using his boat as a ‘hospital’ and visiting communities along the river. After the boat sank and the doctor passed away, the grounds were left to decay until they were bought by Inkaterra in 1979 to develop it into a scientific research facility.
Our guide pointed out various types of vegetation we found and let us try some of the cocoa. We also saw birds, insects and a few monkeys!
We enjoyed coffee time in the lodge and then a traditional Pisco Sour at happy hour before heading out for our Twilight River boat excursion.
Here, we found some night birds and a bunch of caimans ranging in size from babies to five feet.
After another delicious meal here, we went back to our cabana for an early night and fell asleep listening to the sounds of the jungle!
I woke up around 3:30am to a huge crash of thunder and rain pouring down, followed by lightning lighting up the sky. It rained a good part of this day, which cooled everything off and sounded so cool pounding against the huge leaves and thatched roofs of both our cabana and the main lodge. Being in the rainforest during a rain storm is certainly quite the experience!
By 2:30pm, it was only spitting rain, so we set out on our next excursion, The Inkaterra Canopy Walk and Anaconda Walkway. We took a riverboat about 25 minutes up river and were greeted by Tamarin monkeys playing in the trees.
We climbed up the tower to the canopy walk, 120-150 feet up into the treetops of the jungle and went one at a time across the six long suspension bridges used by scientists to study the canopy. What a view! Looking down was freaky, but if you just looked straight out you got a unique view of the jungle canopy, looking out over it instead of looking up from the ground. I wanted to see a sloth so badly, but sadly it was not to be on the walk.
That night, we had our final excursion, Hidden Forest. We went for a walk around the property with Plinio, who stopped to point out all kinds of insects, a few chicken tarantulas, a bright green tree frog and a caiman in a little pond.
It was neat and also a little spooky wandering through the dark, listening to all the sounds of the jungle moving around you. On our way to dinner, we found more monkeys playing in the trees including a mama with a baby hanging on her back!
Our last morning, we had another amazing meal.
The food here was incredible and the coffee was delicious! Then, we got our stuff packed up and went for one last walk around the grounds.
It was such a beautiful spot – the perfect place to relax for our final few days in Peru.
Thousands of tourists flock to Cusco, Peru every year, but often it is only a stopping point before heading out to hike the Inca Trail, visit Machu Picchu, climb Rainbow Mountain or one of many other amazing sites waiting just outside the old city. I made this same mistake, only spending a day before and after our hike in the old capital of the Incan Empire, which was not enough time to properly explore this cobblestone beauty.
The altitude here can take some getting used to and what better way to do that than by getting out and exploring the city!
Plaza de Armas is the city’s main square. Here you can find a variety of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and even a brewery. It’s also a great spot to sit near the fountain and watch the sun set over several beautiful old churches found here.
After a great afternoon wandering around the city, head to Organika for an amazing local farm to table dinner and a Pisco sour.
While in Lima, we took a free walking tour to explore the Historic Centre of the city. In 1988, this beautiful old part of Lima was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its originality and high concentration of historic monuments constructed during the time the Spanish were present here.
Despite damage caused by several earthquakes over the past century, it’s a great place to see some of Peru’s gorgeous colonial architecture.
Plaza de Armas, Lima’s colourful main square, was considered the foundation for the “City of Kings” in 1535 when it was founded by Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro. This public square is also where Peru was declared a Republic in 1821.
The Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno) is located at one end of the square. Every day at noon, you can go and watch the Changing of the Guards, an hour of music and marching (and high kicks!) displayed behind the palace gates. This is where the Peruvian president resides.
It certainly is a beautiful spot to wander around. Below are a few of my favourite sights!
Cathedral of Lima
Entrance to the Cathedral
Fountain in the centre of Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas
San Francisco Church
Beautiful stained glass ceiling at the Mario Vargas Llosa library
Inside the Church of Santo Domingo
Beautiful alter in Santo Domingo
San Martin de Porres, Santa Rosa de Lima & San Juan Macias tombs
Basilica and Convent of Nuestra Señora de la Merced
Jumping into freezing, smelly water isn’t something I generally enjoy doing, but that’s exactly what this excursion was…and I LOVED it!!
While travelling in Peru, we opted for a unique excursion in Lima – swimming with sea lions!
We headed to the marina in Callao to meet up with our tour before setting out into the Pacific Ocean. Our guide pointed out the smaller islands we passed en route, as well as different wildlife including pelicans and Humboldt penguins! It was a rough ride out, but as we rounded the bend to Palomino Island, you could already hear the sea lions. There were hundreds of them. They began jumping off the rocks to follow the boat, splashing and barking away. They were ready to play!
We got our wetsuits on and one by one jumped into the chilly water and swam out to them. The curious sea lions would come very close, sometimes even touching your toes, before swimming away again. We spent 20 minutes in the water swimming with them all around us. What an incredible experience!!
One of Peru’s most famous dishes is not exactly a conventional one – at least not by North American standards. Here, though, Cuy (guinea pig) has been a staple in the Andean diet for around 5,000 years. Long before they were considered cute fluffy pets, they were raised in the Andes for food.
While gourmet chefs have spruced up the original recipes and are now adding their own flare to the dish, Cuy is generally roasted whole, with the head, teeth, ears, and other parts left intact. They are doused in salt and garlic to crisp up the skin. You can find them being sold as “street meat” on sticks in areas surrounding the Sacred Valley, but many restaurants in Cusco and a few in Lima also serve the dish. For Peruvians, Cuy is a dish served on special occasions, not part of the everyday menu anymore. But with the influx of tourists over the last decade, many restaurants keep Cuy on the menu for those curious travellers to taste. It’s generally one of the most expensive items on the menu, costing anywhere from 40-70 soles ($15-28 USD).
I like trying local dishes while travelling, but this one was harder than most. Growing up, I had pet guinea pigs named Fuzz and Magic, and seeing the little face still intact on this Cuy dish definitely made me feel guilty for taking a bite. If you can get your head around it and forget what you are eating, the crispy skin tastes a lot like fried chicken.
I certainly won’t be making this dish a regular, but if you are in Peru, it’s definitely a must-try!