The Inca Trail is one of the world’s epic treks. It has has been on Susan’s bucket list for years, but I have always been hesitant on signing up because of the weather. Cusco, the launching point for the trek, and the Peruvian Andes receive a fair amount of rain and cloudy days throughout the year, and we get enough of that in our home base of Seattle. But given our travels over the last few months, we thought this would be a perfect time to add this hike to our swing through South America.
As this is a very popular trail, logistics make it very difficult to do it yourself. Even with guides, one must plan months in advance. There are only 500 people per day allowed on the trail and 300 of them are porters, guides and support staff. There are over 200 licensed operators that guide people on the trail and group sizes can be as small as one and as many as 20ish. By far, most people are hiking in groups of 15 or so. We did a fair amount of research and found a great guide company, Valencia Travel, that we would highly recommend after spending a week with them. We used Trip Advisor and Google to locate options and ultimately, booked through The Clymb, which can have some great deals on outdoor travel trips.
We chose the classic, four day trek which was 26 miles of hiking (with elevation as high as 13.7k ft. (Dead Women’s Pass) and as low as 7k ft. (Machu Picchu)), 3 nights of tent camping, 3 mountain passes, plenty of ascending and descending ancient staircases, countless Inca ruins (some arguably as impressive as Machu Picchu) and an 3:30 am revelry for the final to push to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. For us, the Inca trail experience was as much of the trip as checking out Machu Picchu. With the hordes of people at Machu Picchu coming in mostly via bus and train, we may have liked the hike more than the destination. ( 3,500 people is the limited at Machu Picchu per day.) For this reason, if you plan to hike, you may want to consider the five day trek to give you more time out on the trail with less people and incredible views.
We were a large group of 34 not including our drivers to get us to and from the trail head. Our team for the hike included 15 porters, 13 guests, 2 chefs (complete with a torque), 2 guides, 1 lead porter, and a waiter. All the guests were from the US and consisted of a couple of sexagenarians with their 20 something son and girlfriend (all from Oklahoma), a mother and teenage son from Phoenix, a father and teenage son from Florida, two cousins from Iowa, and a solo male traveler from LA.
Day 1 was one of three early mornings as we left the hotel at 4:30 am for a couple hour drive to the town of Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast, met up with our porters, and had our first view of some of the surrounding peaks. It is also where one can take the train to or from Machu Picchu if one is not hiking. After hiking and visiting Machu Picchu, our experience included a train ride on the PeruRail from the town of Machu Picchu back to Ollantaytambo where our drivers met us to take us back to Cusco (to complete a 18 hour day). The train ride was another treat with gorgeous scenery.
Starting at what is sometimes referred to as KM 82 and after clearing a checkpoint where each passport and ticket for the Camino Inka are verified, we slowly followed the trail up a dusty path dotted with small villages, a number of ruins sites and small vendors selling water, Gatorade and even cerveza. Spirits were high, and weather was outstanding. There was a lot of introductory conversations, discussions of pack sizes and contents and vigilance for the teams of porters that would pass us with packs of 70 lbs and moving at double time. Most of the porters are farmers in their twenties and cannot way more than double their packs. They are absolutely amazing to watch as they navigate the trails with their heavy loads.
We had our first look at a significant Inca ruins site set high above the Urubamba River. Llaqtapata, or the Town on the Hillside. We had a quick look around and got some background and history from our fearless leader, Alex, and then headed up the trail for lunch.
Each day at lunch, the team set up a mess tent complete with tablecloth, chairs, real silverware (not the utensils you get at the airport these days) and served us a full, multi-course, hot lunch that we all inhaled looking for extra calories and carbs for 6-10 hours of hiking we did each day.
Our first campsite( Ayapata) was up at 10k feet with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and an awesome view of the stars and night sky when the sun left us. We all crashed pretty early after the nine miles of hiking at elevation and the early and huge ascent planned for the next day.
Day 2 plan was for an o’dark hour wake-up call, two mountain passes including the infamous Dead Women’s Pass at just under 14K feet and 10 miles of hiking. Our mornings always consisted of some hot coca tea that was delivered to our tents by Edy, one of our guides , while scurrying to get everything back in the packs and then followed by a carb-heavy breakfast. (We never spent more than 90 minutes from awaking to hiking and a couple of days, we were under an hour.) Coca tea (along with candy and leaves) is everywhere in Cusco and on the Inca trail. Hotels serve it to guests in their lobbies. It is a mild stimulant and contains alkaloids that are believed to be good for hydrating and countering the effects of high altitude. Our porters and guides chewed the leaves non-stop during their days on the trail. Coca is very much part of of the culture in Peru and its medicinal use dates back thousands of years. So while it is the source of Cocaine, there is a bit of resentment here for the outlawing and vilifying of the plant in other parts of the world (some argue that banning coca would be like banning potatoes if one was trying to stop alcohol consumption).
Day 2 was an incredible day. The hike up to Dead Women’s Pass lived up to its reputation. It was a bit of a grind, but the views from the top were stunning. The second pass of the day was just as scenic and both were followed by epic descents on the ancient stone paths of the Incas. (Some parts of the Inca Trail have been renovated and other parts of the Inca Trail are close to, if not, 100% original.) We had perfect weather (again) for our climb up to about 14K. It was blue skies and warm enough for t-shirts and sunscreen. In fact, the first 3 days of our trek were perfect with plenty of sun. We were only hit once with rain on our final morning (more on that later).
After the big uphill, we had an incredibly long downhill to a nice lunch spot at Pacaymayu (11.6k ft), followed by some ruins and another big and scenic uphill. To say this day was big is an understatement. The total time hiking on Day 2 by the team was about 10 hours.
Even with all the hiking, we managed to squeeze in a couple more Inca ruins on the way – Runcuraccay and Sayacmarca. Runkuracay or the Egg Hut is a small site about halfway up the climb to the second pass, it overlooks the Pacamayo valley. It was probably built as a lookout point for watching the commercial Inca highway, and perhaps also as a traveler’s lodging for the chaski’s (Inca messengers with oral messages) and temporary storehouse. No one is really sure what the purpose of Sayacmarca was, but one hypothesis is that Sayacmarca was a fortified outpost of Machu Picchu, storing food for pilgrims and visitors.
Our destination for the night was a camping spot in the cloud forest, where we would be sleeping above or with the clouds. It did not disappoint.
After a big day, we looked forward to a relatively easy hike for our 3rd day. We still ended up hiking for 6 hours and ascending one pass, but after the 10 hours the day before, we were all happy with a relaxed afternoon. And with all the celebrating with the Pisco Sours (that the Valencia team provided us) the night before, we were also looking forward to an extra long siesta. The sours were just one of many treats our cooks and team had for us. We were treated to all sorts of fantastic quinoa power dishes ranging from soups, to granola, to porridge and salads. Dinners were always followed by deserts, including a baked cake on our final night, and teas of all sorts including the digestion-friendly local munta tea.
During the day, we visited two ruins including one of favorite ruins, Wiñaywayna (meaning “forever young” in the local Quechuan language). Intipata was first. The name Intipata means “Sunny Slope”. Intipata was primarily an agricultural settlement, but it probably had a strategic function as well. Wiñay Wayna is a neighbor to Machu Picchu, on an elevated perch overlooking the Urubamba River. The ruins consist of upper and lower house clusters, interconnected by a long, precipitous staircase and includes a large area of agricultural terraces.
Followed by Wiñaywayna.
It was another great day of hiking with a great campsite at the end. Although, we did note that this campsite was also used by day trippers and 2-day hikers (Do no do the day trip or 2-day hike – you will miss too much) so the amount of people out and about increased significantly.
Our final day was challenging as well because we had a 3:20am wake-up call when we ate a quick breakfast and were on the trail by 4am. Due to the crowds, we had to hike to the park’s entrance early to secure a place in line for the 5:40am opening. It was tough getting up early only to get to the entrance and wait for 90 minutes but this is life on the trail. Machu Picchu has become so popular that logistical challenges await all visitors – hikers and those arriving by bus and train. To add to our challenges that morning, we faced a full-on down pour of biblical proportions. The morning hike was quite surreal as the 13 of us, covered with gore-tex and plastic and donning head lamps, searched for our footing in the muddy trail in the dark as we were blasted by water. But the skies broke around sunrise and we had only a couple hours of hiking to get to the Sun Gate – the entrance to Machu Picchu, our final destination.
The section of trail today was mostly “up and down” and relatively flat but we negotiated one final set of stairs, nick-named “the Gringo Killer” , to add to our countless encounters with steps during the week.
The Inca Trail was fantastic (and exceeded our expectations including the gorgeous weather we had). We are so glad we chose the Inca Trail route to see Machu Picchu not only because of the outstanding views but also because of the additional ruins. There are other hiking approaches to Machu Picchu, but the Inca Trail is supposed to be one of the most historic and has the most ruins. As mentioned above, the trail experience was every bit as good as Machu Picchu itself. If you have not gone, go! Tourism drives the local economy in Cusco and the surrounding towns. Not only will you be rewarded with an amazing experience but without tourists, Cusco would likely be another very poor city. Stay tuned for some of our thoughts and pictures of our Machu Picchu and our Cusco visit.