My Amazing Experience Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu From Cuzco
A trip to the historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a journey of a lifetime. Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", it lay hidden from the world for nearly four hundred years. Its location is pretty remote and inaccessible. The only way to get there is by bus along a steep and narrow dirt road from Aguas Calientes, a city that has no roads that connect it to the outside world. Or you can go by foot via the Inca Trail. My boyfriend Jorge and I chose the latter.
Upon landing at the Cuzco airport, a smiling Inca man greeted us and walked us over to our bus that quickly drove us to the Casa Andina Hotel. As soon as we got to the lobby, we were offered cups of "mate de coca" tea, a delightful welcome that serves the important purpose of preventing altitude sickness. We spent two days in Cuzco, starting with Christmas Eve. On Christmas day, after recovering from extreme jet-lag, we walked around town. The city is large (about 350,000 people live there), but it still looks very rural and on the streets we noticed a lot of Quechua traditions. On the way to the city center, we saw the market, the street dances and several colonial churches. The city was the capital of the Inca Empire, but when the Conquistadors conquered it about 500 years ago, they destroyed all the temples, and build churches over them.
During the afternoon, we decided to climb the mountain to visit the popular Christ statue and on the way, a local man asked Jorge in Spanish if we wanted to do some horseback riding. He asked for 30 soles (about 12 dollars) for a one and a half hour ride and we accepted this amazing bargain. The man then asked us to walk with him as he took us to our guide. I must admit, we were a bit sketched out just following this man through the wild terrain but after about 20 minutes of walking, we came upon a horse stable and were introduced to our teenage guide. He showed us our horses and we were joined by a girl from England on our sightseeing tour. Our horses were very obedient and great companions, walking one after the other up and around the mountains. We were taken to various Quechua temples, caves, and even through local farms where we had to bribe the owners to let us pass. The scenery was stunning. On the way back, our horses showed off their racing skills through the valleys and it was a load of fun! Afterwards we rushed to see the Christ statue, trying to make our way up in the mud without slipping. The statue was very impressive. Then we made our way downhill, trying to make it on time for our briefing before the Inca trail. We thankfully made it on time through the winding streets and met our tour guide, Martin and our group. Martin gave us a brochure about what lies ahead and a map of it, which consists of 42 km of hiking during a four-day span. Seemingly easy, especially to one former marathon runner (myself), but boy were we wrong!
Camino Inka Group Picture
Inca Trail (Camino Inca)
Our group consisted of Jorge, myself, and five other hikers. In addition to that, we had a guide, the guide assistant, seven porters, a cook and a cook assistant. The porters carried the tents and food.
Inca Trail Pics
Day 1 of Inca Trail: Prepping
This was an exciting day that started quite early. We were asked to be ready at 6:30am so we scrambled around to make sure we have everything we need, what we don’t need locked in storage, and we were set to go. A bus showed up a bit after 6:30 with 4 other hikers eager to start our journey and head to 82 km. We then picked up one more hiker and were on our way.
We made a short stop in Ollyantambo, a small town and our last stop in “civilization” where we were able to buy a memory card for our camera, Gatorade, rain coats and Jorge brushed up on his negotiating skills with the street sellers attempting to sell finger puppets of lamas and such. We re-boarded our bus and made our way to the start of our trail – 82 km. At the start of the trail, we came across the passport control where they verified the number on our tickets with the number on our passports that we provided months ago to the tour agency. This is also the Peruvian government’s way of controlling the number of people on the trail to 500 per day (including porters, so about 200 tourists per day). This is a way of protecting the delicate environment.
After a couple of hours of walking, we arrived at the first archeological site, where Martin explained the history of the Quechua Empire. It was a large empire, spread all over the east coast of South America, down from Chile up to Ecuador and Columbia. In the center, the capital of the empire was Cuzco. They had built thousands of miles of trails similar to the ones we were now walking in the Andes Mountains.
We continued walking, and we stopped in a rural village. We were surprised with the first lunch. Not only had they prepared a good Peruvian lunch, but they also brought a lot of vegetarian food for Jorge. After the meal, we kept walking up for 2 more hours, and we finally arrived at the first camping site. The easiest day ended up being 5 continuous hours of walking. We started wondering what the next they would be like, which was considered the “challenging day”.
After dinner, we drank the usual Coca tea. Peruvians drink this type of tea to adapt the body to the high altitudes. However, coca leafs are illegal in other countries, since they are the main substance used to make cocaine. The cocaine producers add other chemicals to produce it, so if you go to Peru, don’t worry, this coca tea is harmless.
During teatime, like any other camping experience, we shared spooky ghost stories. Martin told us that some years ago, he was skeptical about ghosts, but during a previous Inca trail hike, he had a terrifying experience. The story goes like this: One night, Martin went to the bathroom that was located some dozen meters away from the camping site. Since these bathrooms are a hole in the ground (literally), they are typically built far away from houses to avoid foul odors. When he opened the door, he saw a white "being" floating inside the bathroom. As he stared at it, it grew to a size of an adult, and turned to him and started running after him. His description of the place was so similar to the bathroom in our campsite that we decided not to use the bathroom while it was dark out and wait for sunrise!
Day 2 of Inca Trail: – A long way up
We woke up at sunrise after a short rest, packed everything, and had a delicious breakfast prepared by our porters. Martin told us that we would have lunch at the next camp site, so we would be walking for 6 hours, 4 hours going up and 2 hours going down after the first pass, without any major stop.
Our first camping site was at an altitude of 3,000 meters, and we were supposed to climb up to an altitude of 4,215 meters. That's the equivalent of hiking three Empire State buildings or four Eiffel towers!
After three hard hours of climbing, we finally saw the first pass. However, our legs couldn’t walk any longer, and the rain started to increase drastically. The last 10 steps were the hardest, and we took almost 5 seconds to climb each step. This was the highest mountain we have ever set foot on in the world. The pass is called Warmiwañusca or "Dead Woman's Pass", since it resembles a supine woman.
Two hours after climbing down the pass, we arrived at the campsite, and we had lunch. After a short nap, we came back to the porter’s tent to chat with the group. Molly and Mellissa were a mother and daughter from Florida that decided to spend some time together and do the Inca trail. Steven was an Irish student that was spending the next four months traveling around South America. Nial was an engineer from Australia that enjoyed traveling to new adventurous destinations. And Boaz was a New York City high school teacher who always wanted to see Machu Picchu.
After dinner, it started to become very cold. Jorge had bought a small bottle of Pisco liquor before the trail, and we shared it with everyone in the group, including the porters.
At night, the skies became clear and we could finally see all the stunning mountains around us. Machu Picchu waited for us behind one of those mountains. We got some great shots there.
Day 3 of the Inca Trail: A long way down
According to our guide, this was the most interesting day of the trail, since we would visit several archeological sites. Right above our camping site, we visited Runkuraqay.
We kept climbing the mountain and we crossed the second pass. During the next hours we would be crossing a natural tunnel, a rain forest, and seeing a lot of different species of flowers that grew in this special climate.
Right after the third pass, we arrived at Phuyupatamarka, a fortress built in the top of the mountain to control the Inca trails. From here, we saw for the first time the mountain where Machu Picchu awaited.
Martin told us about the religious beliefs of the Inca civilization. They believed in three realms: the celestial realm in the sky, the outer earth (where humans live), and the inner earth. An animal represents each of these realms, respectively, the condor, the puma, and the snake. The Incas had a city representing each one of these animals and realms. Cuzco was the puma city, the city that was built to serve the common human life. Machu Picchu was the condor city, built on the top of the mountains to serve all the spiritual beliefs. The city that represented the snake has not been discovered yet, and archeologists believe that it is located somewhere inside the Amazon jungle.
After leaving the place, we kept walking down for some hours. This was really hard, since the specific muscles we had to use to get down the mountain are hardly use, and as we arrived at the camp site, we developed severe pain in our knees. Next to our tents, there was a restaurant and we were able to finally take a hot shower. After three days without a bath and using only holes as a bathroom, this was a wonderful experience!
Day 4 of Inca Trail: Machu Picchu
This time we woke up at 4:30 am, since we would have to be in Machu Picchu early in the morning. I also had a bad surprise. I left my boots outside of the tent to dry, and since during the night we had heavy rain, they were totally soaked. So I would have to be walking the last miles with my feet drenched. We packed everything, and after 3 hours of hiking we arrived there, and surprisingly, the fog dissipated, revealing the ruins of the city.
Back in the day, Macchu Picchu was a university. There were several crop fields around the city, and each layers had a different micro-climate, where the Quechuas tested new crops.
The city was only discovered in the beginning of the 20th century. The Spanish Conquistadors weren’t able to find it since the Incas destroyed and hid all the trails leading to it. It was only when some explorers came that the city were discovered. The city was invaded by nature since it was abandoned for centuries and several trees grew into some structures. When the explorers came to the city, they found a family living there in a house that they restored (this house is different from the other stone houses around the city).
As we toured Macchu Picchu, Martin shared several stories about it. One of the rocks in Machu Pichu was a spiritual site, where the Incas made sacrifices to the gods. Dalai Lama, when he came there, said that that rock was very powerful. This rock is of such an importance, that there is a guy that is hired to continuously say, “don’t touch the rock” to visitors that are staring at it.
Before leaving Machu Pichu, we decided to climb Waynapicchu. This is the famous peak right behind the city, and since we felt like trained hikers, we decided that this was an easy challenge. However, to climb to the top, we had to use ropes, cross a narrow tunnel, and climb almost vertical stairs - all while it was raining cats and dogs! This was the scariest experience our lives, seriously! From the top, as we were climbing down, most of the people were scared of falling down, since the trail was almost vertical.
To return home, we took the bus to Aguas Calientes (the town built around the train station), and from there, we took the train back to our hotel in Cusco.
Photos of preety flowers encountered along the Inca Trail, PeruClick thumbnail to view full-size
Tips for Doing the Inca Trail
- Make reservations in advance (we made them 3 months in advance). The Peruvian government limits the number of hikers on the trail to 500 visitors per day
- Don’t bring unnecessary items (like makeup bags, snacks or a large camera, it will be difficult to carry)
- Do the trail during the dry season (it's harder to slippery climb rocks while it's raining and it's hard to see the views in the fog)
- If you do the trail during the rainy season, bring waterproof clothes, and water proof backpacks (and don't leave things to "dry" outside at night since it will probably rain)
- Bring some money for the trail, since there won’t be any ATM machines on the way (like 200 soles per person)
- Don’t bring coca tea outside of Peru! It is illegal and airport security checks every bag that you are carrying
- Check if you have the yellow fever vaccine. Some people can’t get inside of Peru because of that
- If you want to go up to Waynapicchu, the government of Peru restricts the number of visits to 400 per day. So you have to get a permit soon in the morning. Sometimes they allow people without them inside (we were inside the lucky last 10)
- Visit Machu Picchu as soon as possible. Next year it will be closed for repairs, and in 5 years it might be closed forever, since visitors increase the erosion of the rocks
- The airport in Cuzco is not international, since the Peruvian government wants to force tourists to travel through Lima. Expect to pay some domestic and international airport fees, so bring cash