Hiking the Inca Trail
There are a lot of different ways to get to Machu Picchu. We chose to get there the way the Inca’s did; by hiking the Inca Trail. As I understand it, the original trail ran all the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Now you start at KM 82 and hike 26 miles through the mountains and jungle, on a centuries old trail thru the Sun Gate and into Machu Picchu. It is an adventure, definitely worth doing and really just amazing.
I would recommend getting to Cusco at least 2 days before you begin hiking to acclimate. You will also need to meet with your trekking company, go to a pre-hike meeting and figure out your meeting point. We chose to use Llama Path. Their office is right in Cusco and was walking distance from our hotel. Funny story; for some reason, we had to pay our final deposit in cash. Since we arrived ahead of the rest of our group, we had to carry $800 through the streets of Cusco to deposit at the office. I felt much better once they money was safely out of our hands.
We went to our pre-hike meeting the evening before we were to begin. At this meeting, we met our guide; Marco, got water proof bags for our gear, were assigned our pick up location and met the rest of our group. We chose not to do a private hike, and I’m so glad. In addition to the 8 people in our group, we were joined by 6 other hikers from around the world. They were all awesome and by the end of the trip we had made some great new friends.
We woke up early (4:30am) the next morning, took a cab to our pick up location and boarded the Llama Path bus. From there we drove about 2 hours from Cusco to a small village where we ate breakfast and stretched our legs. Then we drove about another hour down a really scary road to the start of the trail. (I think at one point our bus may have only been on two wheels). Honestly, that was the scariest part of the whole trip.
After we unloaded at KM 82, we took a bunch of pictures and got our day packs and hiking poles.( I strongly recommend having hiking poles). The rest of our gear including our tents, sleeping bags and the majority of our clothes went ahead with our porters.
*Side Note on the Porters * Llama Path and most of the trekking companies who run trips on the Inka Trail hire porters who carry everything except your day pack. ( my day pack weighed bat 20 lbs). They also set up camp for you prior to your getting there every evening and cook all of your meals. They are amazing. There are no roads, so the porters and chef carry everything the entire length of the trail and they move SO fast.
Once we were cleared to enter the park we were off and hiking. The first day we hiked 8 1/2 miles and increased about 2000 ft in elevation. It is a long steady climb and really not too difficult. You begin to see Inca sites almost immediately and they are amazing. Our guide Marco would stop at each of the sites and give us information about the history of the land, the Incas and the individual site. It was so interesting and so beautiful. This side of the trail is the dry side in my opinion, but it is still so so beautiful
We passed thru a few villages on the first day and there were women selling candy bars and soda along the trail. Nate and I each bought a few soda’s and snickers as we passed them. These came in handy down the road because after awhile you enter the UNESCO heritage part of the trail and they are no longer allowed to sell anything. We reached our camp the first day around 3pm. All of the tents were set up and the dinning tent was set up as well. Right when we got to camp we had individual bowls of HOT water waiting for us and clean wash cloths. They also had hot chocolate and popcorn in the dining tent. That popcorn tasted like the most amazing popcorn after a long day of hiking and Nate and I both had Coke’s to go with it every day of our trip;)
The first campsite that Llama Path uses sits at 10,892ft. It is located at Ayapata, and you look out on the most beautiful snow capped mountains. We really didn’t have any trouble with the altitude here and I believe that because we acclimated so well in Cusco. Just remember to keep eating, making sure you have enough salt and drink lots of water.
The second day is the hardest day by far. We hiked just shy of 10 miles and you cross over two really high passes. Dead Woman’s Pass is the highest of the two at 13,779ft. The climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass is really steep, and the a lot of stairs. The crazy thing about the stairs is how tall each one is. Im 5’4″ and I had to go up the stairs sideways because they were SO steep.
Once you get to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, you start to descend for the first time. It got really cloudy, cold and started to rain up on the Pass. It was so cool to be walking through the mist as we headed down the trail to our lunch spot. Lunch was in a pretty little valley and most of us took a nap. After lunch we started to climb again and saw the coolest Inca site heading up to the second pass. Marco our guide did such a great job taking the time to really explain the cultural significance of each of these sites. In Peru, student go to 4 years of college to learn English, History and everything else necessary to become tour guide.
After crossing over the second pass, the landscape completely changed. We went from arid mountains to really lush rain forest. Our campsite the second night sat at 11,800 ft, which was the highest of the trip. Again, Nate and I didn’t have a problem with the altitude at all, but one of my brothers in law really had a hard time at this campsite. We also saw llama’s walking down the trail multiple times here. Additionally there were the most beautiful glacier covered mountains all in the distance and tropical plants in camp. It was so interesting that flowers and plants that grow at sea level in Hawaii were growing at 10,000 ft in the Andes. It was amazing!!
Day 3 was my favorite day. It was pretty easy after the previous two days and SO, SO beautiful. We covered about 5 1/2 miles this day through a part of the trail known as Inca Flat in the “Cloud Forest”. It was cloudy most of the time but the plant life and archeological sites that you see are unreal. It looks like something from a movie set. You are hiking on ancient Inca trails through a beautiful rain forest while looking at the snow covered Andes Mountains in the distance. This day is so much fun.
Our group got to camp just after lunch and had time to shower and clean up. There was the option to take a short hike over to Winay Wayna, an extensive and very impressive Inca site. We spent about 2 hours with Marco at this site and some of Nate’s brothers even got to pet some of the wild llama’s that live there. It was really cool. We headed back to camp and had an early dinner and went to sleep.
On our final morning, we woke up at about 3:30am. You have to wait at the check point to Machu Picchu and show your visa. Then you hike 3 miles to the Sun Gate in time for sunrise. There are roughly 500 people allowed on the Inca Trail at any given time, which means that you are contending with about 125 people to get to the Sun Gate. Our group was first in line on this particular day. Once we got thru the passport check it was literally a footrace the last 3 miles in the dark through the jungle. I was either speed walking or running almost the whole way. The trail is basically flat until the last 300 yards were you have to climb up a little section and then walk up a bunch of Inca stairs.
We were one of the first to get to the Sun Gate and we made it in time for sunrise. It was spectacular. From the Sun Gate you can see down into Machu Picchu. What’s funny is that people get on the buses early to hike up to the Sun Gate from the other direction, so that was the first time that we saw “non hikers” in 4 days.
From the Sun Gate we descended into Machu Picchu, took a million pictures and then Marco too us on a 2 hour tour of the site. It was amazing. I can not believe the architecture and engineering that went into building something so amazing hundreds of years ago. Machu Picchu is something that everyone should see.
Getting Back to Cusco
Once we had finished exploring the site, we took the bus down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes. This is the little town that sits at the base of Machu Picchu. There we had some free time to eat lunch, wander around and play soccer in the park with the local kids until our 4:00pm train came. We took the SLOWEST train ever back to Cusco. To keep from going crazy we got a bunch of people to play charades with us on the train. It ended up being really fun. Once at the train station Llama Path had car ready to take us back to our hotel.
It was an amazing journey, one that I would recommend every one do…
*My next post will have our itinerary complete with our hotels, restaurants, airline and guide info