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.
The second leg of the Inca Trail is what many reviewers and guidebooks called the hardest of the trip, mostly because the entire morning is spent climbing from the 9800 feet at Wayllabamba to nearly 14,000 feet in the course of about 5-5.5 hours. The climbing was a test in patience and endurance – steps were uneven and about 2-3 feet high for the entirety of the morning. God bless the decision to use hiking poles – they were a lifesaver for the many climbs and descents. Along the way, most hiking groups that were once tightly grouped together began to disperse, and you either passed or were passed by many other faces that would become very familiar over the course of the trip. It was a grueling morning, but our team finally made it to the Warmiwanuscca (Dead Woman’s) Pass at about mid-day, where the views were absolutely breathtaking. . After some prerequisite jumping pictures, a thirty-minute rest, and some much needed nutrients and sustenance, we were back at it, this time a 3-4 hour trek down the other side of the mountain. If going up the stairs was painful, going down was excruciating. With stairs of varying narrowness and height, each step was a potential disaster or turned ankle, and on a number of occasions I caught myself landing awkwardly – thank goodness for the trekking poles. Not to forget the intense pounding your joints take as you go down, stair after stair, with the weight of your body and pack falling against you during each step. While our team kept a great pace going up the mountain earlier in the day, our pace slowed to a (literal) crawl on this hot and exhausting second leg. In fact, I’m not sure if it was because I was too focused on each downhill step, or it was truly a lack of scenery (very few ruins or structures on that side of the mountain), but of my thousands of pictures taken, almost none were taken that afternoon.
We finally got into camp (Pacaymayu) around 3pm, a couple hours late, hungry and exhausted (our porters, wondering what was taking us so long after having prepared lunch hours earlier for our arrival, decided to graciously bring us some ham and cheese sandwiches as we made our final 1-2 miles descent into camp – yet another example of how invaluable our team of porters was to our trek). Turns out exhaustion + dehydration + significant altitude change (up 4000 feet then down another 2000 feet in about 8 hours) really affected our team – three folks (including Winnie) ended up vomiting multiple times throughout the night, while the rest of us were fighting dehydration as well. The vomiters were unable to keep much food down, which was going to be trouble, as day three was, in Edgar’s words, the roughest day.
The longest day of the hike was day three – a freezing 5am wake-up call, leaving the camp at 6, and not arriving to the final campsite until nearly 11 hours later. Having been unable to keep any food down all night, the prospect of a full day hike to our sick groupmates was a daunting task. From Pacaymayu to Winaywayna, we would cover 16 km (or a little more than 10.5 miles) and decrease our altitude by nearly 3000 ft, most of which came after lunch.
To get to lunch, however, required a morning hike that would take us through the most scenic part of the trek – we were surrounded by many smaller Incan ruins along the outskirts of Machu Picchu. Along the way, we passed by Sayacmarca, a magnificent fortress of stone that lies precariously at the top of a steep set of steps above the trail. In fact, with there being nearly 200 steps to the entrance of the ruins, Edgar suggested that those in the weakened state continue on to the next rest stop. Our friend Silas and I decided to venture up, and climbed the many stairs to find a location that was perfectly situated to spy on the entire valley below as well as the many pathways running through it. After spending a quick 30 minutes there, we had to hustle down the path, through the jungle, in order to catch up with the rest of our group at the next rest stop, so that we all could then get on to lunch at Chakicocha. Note: as our group made its way to lunch, we ran into the lead porter (nicknamed Condor) who had been summoned by our guide. Apparently there was much concern over the sick members of our team being able to continue, and, as we later learned, Edgar had radioed up to the porters in the event that someone (read: Winnie) needed to be carried along the way. However, having finally been able to force down a partial Clif bar, all of our sickly wanderers were feeling much better, and thankfully we were spared the embarrassment of having someone carried to our destination.
After lunch, with all of our team feeling much improved (and after our porters set up a mobile outhouse…and the first time we’ve had a seated toilet in about 123018204107 days), our final push to the campsite was a descent down the side of the mountain. During this time, the clouds ominously passed through with a few rain drops here and there, but nothing too significant to complicate our downwards journey.
We ended up making decent time, as we reached the fork leading to Winaywayna (our final campsite) by about 4pm. At this fork, you can either go straight down to the campsite, or you can take a 45 minute detour to Intipata, a jewel of a ruin, that contains a series of terraces that runs pretty much up and down the entire mountainside. At Intipata, you can over look the entire valley and follow the Urubamba down to the hydro-electric powerplant that now powers the majority of the cities in the area, including Cuzco, 50 miles away. With the steep terraces came some very intimidating steps (picture), but despite those and the rapidly approaching dusk (and having been hiking all day), seeing the magnificence that is Intipata gave us a second wind as we closed out our day, and began wrapping up our entire trek. After all, the next day would be the early morning hike up to the Sun Gate, and then a final descent down to our ultimate goal.
The last night is also the typical “tipping” ceremony for the porters, where you give them tips in gratitude for their help over the prior 3 days. Given that there were 12 porters to 6 of us trekkers, we ended up tipping about 150 soles per trekker ($60 usd), which ended up being 900 soles for the 12 of them. We also tipped Edgar $120 usd ($20 each), also during the ceremony. As it happened to be my birthday the next day, our chef also prepared a two-layered cake for me, amazing since it was prepared in a pan over a propane stove. Not sure how it ended up being my responsibility to give a very accented and broken speech (my Spanish is/was rusty) but I guess I got the point across. Interestingly enough, that night it rained for the first time (poured, actually), which made the night a little more difficult, with some folks’ clothes getting drenched because their tent windows were open. But when you think about the porters, who all slept on the dirt ground, and had no rain gear, we were really lucky – those guys must have been miserable!
The last day we got up at 3 am (so damn early!) so that we could get packed, and then our porters could hustle down to catch the one train out that day. (Later we heard that a few of them took some nasty spills as they ran down with all the gear to catch that train. Sad.) But getting up early meant that we were among the first in line for the final checkpoint before getting to Machu Picchu, which didn’t even open until 5am. Hiking at 5 in the morning meant traveling in the dark, so headlamps were quite useful, particularly since it was imperative we watch our every step, as the ground was uneven to begin with, and still slick from the previous night’s rain. However, we moved at quite a rapid pace; perhaps it was the excitement of finally getting to Machu Picchu. The entire way on day four is along the mountain side, which in the dark you can’t see the dangerous cliffs. As it dawned, however, you could tell how treacherous the path was, especially since the walkway was so narrow at times (Edgar also told us of a hiker that had recently died falling off the cliff…so we were forewarned to stay on the mountain side). The trek was otherwise uneventful, with everyone eagerly anticipating arrival at our final destination, but our penultimate stop was a nearly straight up climb up to the Sun Gate, from which you get your first site of Machu Picchu in the distance. And boy, it did not disappoint! Yet, from that distance, the grandeur of Machu Picchu is almost muted, because it looks so small on the mountain side. However, following a short picture taking session, we were off down the path, trying to beat our fellow hikers to the site about 40 minutes away.
As you approach Machu Picchu, you start to realize just how large and magnificent the ruins are – and you also get your first glimpse at civilization. It was such an odd sight, seeing hordes of people who had ridden the train to Machu Picchu, in their fresh clothes and clean skin, hike up to the Sun Gate away from Macchu Picchu, while we unkempt trekkers made our way down. Nevertheless, there are few feelings greater than stepping foot on one of the many higher terraces overlooking Machu Picchu, knowing that you have survived 26 miles of steps, no showers, no toilets, achy knees, sore backs, and several bouts of vomit, and finally reached the place that was lost for so many years.
The guide/trek we went with was Wayki Trek (Wayki means “friend” in Quechua), and while it wasn’t cheap (total was about 600 each after gear rentals, including sleeping bags and trekking poles), they certainly treated us well. Our guide, Edgar Cordova, was knowledgeable and very patient with our group, especially as we crawled our way through days two and three. He even carried Winnie’s daypack for the entire morning on day three, when she wasn’t feeling well (Winnie’s interjection: “I thought I was going to die. I swear I’m not weaksauce!”). We wouldn’t have made it without his help, his guidance, and his companionship. Our porters were also amazing – they basically run the entire length of the trail, wearing primitive rubber sandals, carrying 60 kg of gear – and finish in a quarter of the time. Our crew, led by Condor, was top notch – Fredi’s three course meals were wonderful, and pretty much anything we needed (like boiled water) they made sure we had. Overall, we had a great experience with Edgar, Condor, Fredi, and the Wayki Trek team, and highly recommend them for your future Inca Trail adventures.
More on our travels in Peru can be found here:
- What to Pack for the 4-Day Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu
- Travel Notes: Cusco, Peru
- Two Weeks in Peru: The Itinerary and Budget