Machu Picchu is limited by the Peruvian government to 2500 visitors each day – and only about 10% of that daily total typically come via the long route. Those that do make it are following in the same footsteps as the Incans in going from the old Incan capital of Cusco to the hidden peaks of Machu Picchu, a journey that takes you up, over, and around the cavernous Urubamba River Valley, to the tune of four days (or 3 if you are particularly motivated), 45 km (27 miles), and a hell of a lot of rock steps.
For us, taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was the main premise of our trip to Peru, and without a doubt, the experience delivered. Over the course of four long and tiring days, we gazed upon countless magnificent views, saw a plethora of Andean wildlife, pooped in a number of questionable holes in the ground, and tasted a life’s worth of home-cooked Peruvian and Incan dishes.
With Cusco at just about 11,000 feet, we spent our two pre-hike days acclimating to the altitude, and it was well worth it, especially on a trek where you are consistently above 10,000 feet (and that takes you as high as 14,000 ft on day two). While the distance from Cusco to Machu Picchu is actually 50 miles (and 500 years ago the Incans would have done the full load), the Inca Trail actually begins at Piscacucho at kilometer 82, after a quick pit stop at Ollantaytambo in the AM, where our bus picked up the 12 porters that we would have accompanying our group of 6. So it wasn’t really until about 9 or 10 when we first got started on the first leg of our journey, as day one was, in the words of our masterful guide Edgar, a relatively flat (even according to Peruvian standards, where flat really means up and down), 12 km jaunt. In the morning, we covered about half of the 12km at a constant altitude to Llaqtapata (8694 ft), where we had our first lunch stop. A very scenic couple of hours, the hike was along the Urubamba River, where we had a chance to see several Incan terraces and a few small ruins along the way. After a three-course lunch prepared by our porter-chef Fredi (“Chico”), which set the high standard for food throughout the trek, we took off on an afternoon where we would cover the remaining 5km, mostly going uphill to an elevation of 9842 feet, to the site of our first campsite at Wayllabamba. The views in the second half of the day were solid, if unspectacular, with a couple stops here and there to check out some Incan ruins in the distance. At Wayllabamba, we were camped in a field within the tiny village, surrounded on all sides by mountains. The village had a Christian church and some old ruins that we checked out at the top of the hill, where we happened upon a pick-up soccer game played by kids living in the village. All of our party, tired from the first day, went to bed early, especially since we were about to embark on a series of 5:30am wake-up calls.