The Inca trail is an adventurer’s dream and we got to check it off our list this year…Hurray! Spending 4 days in the Andes under the southern hemisphere skies is one of our favorite travel experiences so far. We got lost in the stories of the Incas, the views of the valleys while devouring delicious Peruvian food and counting shooting stars. No iPhones, laptops, and social media to connect with the world and yet one finds the utmost comfort in isolating themselves from civilization and connecting with nature instead. Sometimes all you need is a detox from technology to connect with the people and beauty around you. But enough philosophy, let’s take a closer look at the Inca trail and our day by day experience.
We woke up at around 3 am in our Cusco hotel room and met our hiking group at the plaza at 4 am. We hopped on a bus for a 4 hour journey across the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo where we stopped for breakfast and continued on to Piscacucho (at kilometer 82) where the Inca trail begins. We hand our stuff to the porters, get our day packs in order, sunscreen up, use the loo for one more time (just because) and off we go! Our guides lead the way and we say our goodbyes to our comfy hotel beds, clean toilets and civilization for 4 days.
It was warm on the first day as we hiked along the Urubamba river and climbed the first few gentle “Andean hills” as our guides called them. The terrain was dry and we had a few short steep climbs along the way. We passed some beautiful Inca ruins where we learnt about the history and practices of the Incas which mostly centered around offerings to the gods. We hiked 16 km/ 10 miles on the first day with plenty of breaks and an amazing lunch. The food on the hike was the best we had in Peru.
We got to Ayapata, our first camp site at around 6 pm, and everything was set up when we arrived. This is a 5 star camping experience! The crew got us hot Coca tea and small tubs of water and hand towels to freshen up as soon as we arrived, how awesome is that! We got done washing up and were ready for happy hour. Happy hour in the Andes? Yes, we had a delicious happy hour every evening before dinner, no fancy cocktails but the yummy buttery popcorn, homemade jams and delicious hot chocolate were a treat we looked forward to after a long day of hiking. Great company, good conversation, delicious food and cozy tents made the perfect end to a great day in the Andes.
TIP: Use the bathrooms and clean up as soon as you get to camp while it’s still bright.
We had been mentally and physically preparing ourselves for Day 2 for months. The second day is the toughest as you make your way up to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13779 ft/ 4200 m, the highest point on the hike. What’s with the name? Apparently the mountain looks like the silhouette of a woman lying down, hence dead 😛 I didn’t see it, and I’m pretty sure there are more fun stories around the Dead Woman’s Pass that locals entertain the tourists with. Remember to take it easy and drink plenty of water as you make your way up the thousands of steps, this is where your stair climber training will come in handy. For more information about training for the hike see The Inca Trail – Logistics, Tips and Training
The feeling of triumph you experience when you get up to the pass is priceless. All the hiking groups gather here and the pass echos with cheers, as hikers encourage their fellow team mates make the deadly climb up the last few steps. We stayed at the pass until all the members of our group made it to the top. It got pretty cold waiting and I wanted to continue hiking to keep warm but the hot coca tea and cheese sandwiches were a relief. We took a couple of group photos, had a mini celebration and continued our hike to the camp site. We climbed two mountain passes, visited two Inca sites (Runcuraccay and Sayacmarca) and covered 16 km/ 9.9 miles. The toughest part of the hike was over, we survived!
TIP: Carry an extra warm layer on Day 2 to beat the cold when you get to the pass. I froze up there, and it got really windy on our way down from the pass.
This was the most relaxing day of the hike. We hiked 9 km/5.5 miles in 6 hours and had plenty of time at Inca sites throughout the day. This is also the most beautiful part of the hike with magnificent views of the valley and lush rain forests. Most of the hike is downhill and hiking poles are crucial, it would have been quite challenging without the poles.
Note: Each company does the hike a little differently. I met a hiker from another group that felt that day 3 was very rushed and they didn’t get enough time to enjoy the Inca sites and scenery on the way. They covered less distance on day 2 and hiked more on day 3. From our experience, we think that the way our hike was planned was perfect. Even though day 2 was tough, we got enough time on day 3 to relax and regain our energy for day 4 which is at Machu Picchu. Just something to consider when you book your hike.
This is it! The final few hours before you get to Machu Picchu. We woke up at 3 am and were out and about by 3:30 am. The reason you start early is because you want to be the first group to get to the sun gate so you can enjoy the views and take some uninterrupted photos. The groups assemble at the checkpoint which is a 10 minute hike from the campsite and you start hiking once the checkpoint opens at 5 am. Tip: wear an extra layer to beat the early morning chill. Waiting for 2 hours in the cold was tedious but the stars in the southern hemisphere sky made it worthwhile. We saw more than 30 shooting stars and our guide Ruben pointed out some of the constellations. It was one of the most beautiful skies we have ever seen.
We practically ran to Machu Picchu. It was a 5.5 km/ 3.5 mile hike and we got to the sun gate in less than 2 hours. The first glimpse of Machu Picchu was breathtaking to say the least. My first reaction was the loudest “woooohooooo” victory yell of my life. I think I may have woken up a few dead Incas from their tombs, but it felt so darn good! The final walk to Machu Picchu is unreal as the sunlight hits Wayna Picchu and slowly lights up the lost city in gold shimmering light.
It felt strange to see people in jeans, clean clothes and fancy shoes. These were the folks who woke up in their cozy hotel rooms and took the comfy train ride to Machu Picchu. No offense but when you see girls in high heels at Machu Picchu, it’s kinda lame. It felt strange to see so many people around you and I really wished we could have this beautiful site all to ourselves because we worked so hard to get there…silly I know. Machu Picchu although gorgeous is like any other tourist attraction, there are thousands of people around you and you have to try really hard to get a picture without anyone photo bombing it. The first train gets there before the hikers so unfortunately the hikers are not the first folks to get to the site but we are the first at the sun gate. This is the best example where, “The journey is the destination.”
We spent all day exploring this magnificent feat of engineering and our guides took us through the entire city explaining the different structures, their purpose and how they were used by the Inca’s. We also climbed Wayna Picchu, the mountain that rises over the lost city. We were not certain we would climb this mountain since it was a challenging hike and we were fairly tired after 3 days of hiking. But it was right there, staring at us and taunting us to climb it. So we took up the challenge and conquered its summit. Post on climbing Wayna Picchu coming soon!
We took the bus back to Agua Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu and were reunited with the gang for a celebration and some well deserved cold beers. Cheers!! We made it to Machu Picchu…It’s your turn now!
For a complete packing list for the hike see The Ultimate Packing Guide for the 4 day Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu
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