Thinking of going to Machu Picchu? Stop thinking and just do it!
Machu Picchu is one of the gems of the ancient world. Tucked high in the Peruvian mountains this holy Inca city was never discovered by Spanish Conquistadors, and contains impressive Incan architecture without any modern modifications.
In early June 2014, we completed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (MP), an adventure sitting on our bucket list for some time. Through careful planning and a stroke of luck we were able to book the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail trek with local outfitter Llama Path. We chose Llama Path due to their outstanding reputation and reasonable price. We received no compensation from Llama Path for this article, and hands down we would wholeheartedly recommend their services as extremely satisfied customers. We were lucky to get a June reservation (high season) because treks were already booked six months in advance, and with a bit of last minute scrambling in January, we secured our spots.
Some may ask, why hike into MP when there are a variety of trains that will take you to Aguas Callientes where buses depart to the park every 20 minutes. True, hiking the legendary Inca trail is not for everybody. There is the altitude factor, the constant ascents with no shade, environmental exposure, and many other inconveniences. But ask yourself this: How often in life do you have the opportunity to hike to a hidden sacred city on a trail once reserved for Incan royalty with splendid views of white tipped mountains and the wending snakelike Urumbaba River below? The Inca Trail is truly a once in a lifetime adventure and the rewards are worth every endured hardship.
Llama Path picked us up in the center of Cusco and drove us to Ollantaytambo for a quick breakfast. This is the last chance to pick up bottled water, toilet paper, and other essentials.
From Ollantaytambo the bus ride gets interesting. Recent flooding had washed out portions of the road and rail. Our bus lumbered along the pothole-laden track dodging cattle and tractors. At one point we crossed a sketchy concrete bridge about the width of a bike path having no guard rails ( a heart pounding experience before reaching the trailhead). An hour’s drive brought us to Piscakucho, also known as kilometer 82, the starting point. There are opportunities to purchase drinks and snacks and use a bathroom for a fee. I advise bringing plenty of soles in small denominations, change is often difficult for vendors to make (true statement for Peru in general).
The Peruvian government has strictly regulated the Inca Trail and the journey begins at passport control (passports are necessary) and crossing the footbridge over the Rio Urubamba. The plan for day one is a moderate uphill hike for 6 hours including multiple breaks. Local people live along this portion of the trail, and bottled drinks and use of private toilet facilities can be bought.
There are some ruins along this section, but nothing like what’s coming up. Upon arrival at the first campsite, a group of women appeared with bucket of cold beer and soda. Prices are inflated but worth every sole. At night we did formal introductions to all the porters and had our first meal. The food served to us throughout the entire trek was excellent, some of our favorite meals in Peru were on this trek. Among the items the porters carry is a dining tent complete with tables and chairs. Every meal is served in the tent. After dinner we talk story with our guide and fellow trekkers. We are fortunate to have a small group and genuinely enjoy everyone’s company. At night it gets cold, so be prepared to start adding layers, or crawl into the tent to rest up for the next day.
In my experiences backpacking in the wilderness there is an unwritten rule to leave no trace and pack out what you pack in. I mention this because as you hike the Inca Trail, modern flush toilets are few and far in between. In fact, I never used any of them, as I could literally smell them a mile away. The unsanitary state of the commodes leads most hikers to do their business in the bush. Unfortunately, many people do not have the decency to dig a hole and bury their refuse, so be warned, stepping off the trail to answer nature’s call may send you into a minefield.
I bring up this point early in the trip because it relates to the volume of traffic on the Inca Trail. Way too many. The maximum number of hikers allowed per day is 200, plus 300 porters/guides. That equates to 500 people a day starting the trek, meaning there could be up to 2000 people at a time on the entire trail. I mention this not to dissuade, during most of the hike I was far from most of the other hikers and truly the trail has a magical wilderness appeal. The problem with the volume of people, trash on the trail and the bathroom dilemma are issues the industry will have to address if there is to be longevity to this pursuit. Our guide was very forthcoming in giving us his point of view on this topic and promoting good wilderness etiquette.
The beginning of the second day’s hike runs along a creek in a shady, forested area. We soon got above the treeline and began the ascent to the dreaded Dead Women’s Pass (4,200m, 13,780 ft), the highest and most difficult part of the hike. This section will test your endurance and resolve. The uphill is brutal and relentless and there is no cover from wind or sun. To compound matters, I had developed a 24-hour stomach virus. With every step I felt I may have something come out either end. I was miserable, but managed to continue thanks to the stunning views of Veronica Mountain to occupy my thoughts. Once we descended Dead Women’s Pass, we lunched in a tranquil valley (I was not eating at this point but our chef made a local tea to soothe my digestive system). The route was again an agonizing uphill and we began another ascent, stopping at the ruins of Runkurakay perched in the clouds. Another hour or so of hiking brought us to our second night’s campsite.
We awakened to a breathtaking view of snow-capped mountains. The morning air was crisp and thin. At breakfast I managed to actually eat again (major bonus) and we began hiking, almost entirely downhill. We passed through the ruins of Phuyupatamarka, where there is an intact example of Inca plumbing, a series of baths where the royal Incas would bathe en route to MP. Llamas were grooming the terraces and providing trekkers with photo-ops, a welcoming distraction from our tired, weary muscles.
We continued downhill to the final campsite near Winay Wayna, the most impressive and largest of the ruins along the trail. After another spectacular lunch prepared by the chef, we ventured off to find a waterfall a short distance from the ruins. The waterfall was our first chance to thoroughly wash off 3 days of grit and grime.
Our final day started early, 3:30 a.m., to wait in line with all the trekkers at the guard post for passport checks. A short 1.5 hour hike to the Sun Gate brought us our first glimpse of Machu Picchu at sunrise. The final descent was 30 minutes to the park’s entrance including multiple group photo ops. Our arrival to MP signaled the completion of the Inca trail and as we entered the most impressive of all the Incan sites, we were somewhat stunned to be catapulted into the throngs of visitors. Others in our group had signed up for day hikes to nearby peaks such as Huayna Picchu. We opted for lazily exploring the nooks and crannies of MP.
Walking amongst the ruins is truly a transcendent experience. The amount of history and the scope of the geography and architecture really get my juices flowing. It’s not just a chance to take a photo of some neatly stacked rocks but a refection on what significant events may have occurred where we are standing. My final thought is don’t wait any longer, do this trip now.