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!