Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
When we reflect on our travels through South America there are a few moments that stand out from the rest. One of the greatest accomplishments on our Round-the-World trip was hiking the Inca Trail to the Lost City of Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is a 40-km (25 mile) hike through the Peruvian Andes that consists of three high passes, one of which reaches an elevation of 4,200m (13,776 ft). We booked a tour with GAP Adventures that included a trip to the Amazon Rainforest, where we spotted this unique creature.
Day 1 started off early, leaving the comforts of our Cusco hotel at 6 am with Umberto, our local guide. We were supposed to have five people in our group, unfortunately two got very ill the night before so they were unable to make the trek (tip – don’t eat hamburgers in Cusco). So, then there were three.
“Reflecting on our 4-day hike, it was a truly amazing accomplishment for us. Years ago it was a dream. But that morning, the dream became a reality…”
We had mixed emotions about having such a small group. On the one hand, extra pampering and personal care is always good. On the other, it’s nice to meet new people and share the experience. But when we saw a neighbouring group of 48 people with 56 porters, we realized that our group of three translated into 5-star treatment.
It’s a 3-hour ride through the Sacred Valley to the small Andean town of Ollantaytambo, overlooking the beautiful Urubamba River Valley. This is where we met our porters and gathered the supplies needed for the 4-day trek. Because we were supposed to have five people plus guide, we ended up with 11 porters.
We felt VERY spoiled but knew that if the extra 4 porter’s did not come they would not receive their salary. We felt bad for the Australian couple that couldn’t make the trek, it must have been super disappointing.
Day 1 was the easiest (in comparison to the other days) with a 4-hour hike to our first camping site, Wayllabamba. Our remarkable porters carried loads of up to 25kg and flew past us during the entire four days of trekking. These guys are amazing!
Here’s how the scenario goes: we start hiking, the porters blaze past us, they set up a hot lunch, we eat lunch, we start hiking again, the porters tear down camp and pack up, they blaze past us on the trail yet again, then have camp already set up before we arrive – seriously!
The food was always good and started with a delicious homemade Peruvian soup. Over the 4-days we enjoyed fish, chicken, spaghetti, pancakes, vegetable pasta and even a freshly baked cake on our last day. Baking a cake over an open flame is an impressive skill!
We weren’t sure what to expect on Day 2. We were told it was the hardest day, and that it was straight uphill. Our guide Umberto was not lying, though we wish he was at times.
Starting at 7:00 am, it was a 5-hour hike to Warmiwañusca, also known as Dead Woman’s Pass. At 4,200 m (13769 ft), this pass is the highest point of the trek. The first 3-hours were stone stairs that passed through beautiful rain forest landscapes, before resting in an open area at the base of Dead Woman´s Pass.
“Muscles aching, legs not responding, we approached the Sun Gate with uncontrollable excitement and anticipation…”
The last two hours were extremely deceiving. At first glance, it seems like an easy hour hike. It turned out to be a grueling 2-hours straight up with very thin air – we thought it’d never end!
Legs heavy, hearts pounding and breath short, we reached the 4,200m pass and were instantly treated to stunning views of the cloud forest below. After a short break, it was a 2-hour decent down steep, slippery stairs. We’re still undecided on which direction is more painful - up or down.
Our second campsite was at Paqaymayo, nestled on the mountain side at 3,200m. Needless to say, after 11 km of straight up and down, it was a very early night!
Travel Tip – bring a pair of sandals or flip flops for the evenings, your feet will thank you.
We were looking forward to Day 3 because of the many archaeological sights we were going to pass. The prize at the end of the trail, the lost Incan capital Machu Picchu, was always on our mind, but some of the ruins along the way were equally spectacular.
Day 1 we passed two ruins: Salapunku and Llactapata. Day 2 we stayed just below Wayllabamba. Day 3 we saw Runkuraqay, Sayacmarca, and Phuyupatamarca. Witnessing these other treasures is what separates the popular Inca Trail from the other trekking options in the region.
Sore and tired, we started again at 7:00 am. With another exhausting hike in front of us, we reached Runkuraqay Pass at 3,800m. Day 3 was 16km of steep climbs and sharp descents. Compound that with the previous two days of sore muscles and we earned the cold beer that awaited us at our final campsite in Winaywaynaonly. The campground has an old hostel where cold beer and hot showers can be purchased.
We camped in the low range that borders the Amazon rain forest, creating a unique landscape that shifted from jagged and dry mountains to lush and moist jungle.
Umberto, our guide, took us to a lesser known archaeological site located a short hike outside our campground. Not many people visit this site because of fatigue after the long 16km, but it is well worth the extra energy. The archaeological site was the most spectacular we´d seen up to that point. For what it’s worth, Umberto thinks these ruins are more beautiful than Machu Picchu (see above picture).
Our final day started at Intipunku before sunrise. The weather was terrible; solid rain with a hot, sticky humidity. Imagine our horror. After 3 days of beautiful sunny weather, we are within striking distance of Machu Picchu and it’s raining!!
We hiked in treacherous, slippery conditions for 2-hours in complete darkness before reaching the notorious Sun Gate. Muscles aching, legs not responding, we approached the Sun Gate with uncontrolable excitement and anticipation.
We turned the corner and there she was, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Our reward after days of exhausting trekking… the legendary, majestic Incan city of Machu Picchu!
BUT, to our disappointment, the weather was not cooperating and handed us heavy clouds and terrible visibility. Umberto was quick to say, “Just wait 10 more minutes, you’ll see”.
So we took off our rain ponchos and waited. Sure enough, within minutes and almost on command, the clouds parted and the sun came out. It was like the Incan Gods heard our prayers!
Reflecting on our 4-day hike, it was a truly amazing accomplishment for us. Years ago it was a dream, but that morning, the dream had finally become a reality. It is one of the best things that we have ever done as a couple.
It pushed us, challenged us, and rewarded us greatly!
Did you know that there is MUCH more to Peru than Machu Picchu?