The Inca Trail: the road to Machu Picchu
A couple of months ago we published a preparation guide for the famous Inca Trail. Now it’s time to tell you more about the actual walking experience. The fun, the glory but also the pain we were in. This world renowned track is until today still one of our most impressive trails we hiked. Just forget about the crowds (they are there but are not as bad as people want you to believe) and forget about “why you can’t do this”. Can’t does not exist. Just read on and hear our story!
The night before our departure we have a meeting with someone from the local agency. About what kind of gear we should bring, our pick up time for the next morning and that sort of things. Even though we are staying at an awesome place (Niños Hotel, I definitely recommend staying there if you ever go to Cusco) it is still a restless night for me. I’ve been looking forward to hiking the Inca Trail for almost a year. I have been training really hard to be able to walk with a pack (we decide not to hire a porter) and now the time has come to see if I trained hard enough. Will it be OK or will it be hard? Will I get altitude sick? Will I manage to reach Machu Picchu on my first ever multi day trail?
Day 1: Cusco – Ollantaytambo – Wayllabamba (12 km)
Very early in the morning we rise up. It’s showtime! It’s a 3.5 hour trip by bus to Ollantaytambo to the start of the trail. After sleeping a bit in the van, we finally get to the starting point and unload our luggage. We are given our sleeping mats (tip: bring something to tie them to your backpack with otherwise you will have to buy ties there) and off we are. We cross the Vilcanota River and then it has started: We Are On The Inca Trail!
From here the wide and well marked trail leads up to the small village of Wayllabamba and after about 4 hours of walking we have reached our camp for the night. Although this first day of the trek was fairly easy, it’s a good indication if you can keep up with the pace of the group and if you can deal with the height. We camp right between the mountains. After dinner it’s time to go to bed. An early rise is planned for tomorrow.
Day 2 Wayllabamba – Pacamayo (11 km)
I will say it immediately: these have been the longest 11 kilometers of my life. Or at least, they felt that way. The trail leads gradually up at first but soon after you start this day, it starts climbing with steps. More steps. And more steps. Until you don’t ever want to see another step again. First you are in a forest and finally you reach a grassy valley. It a climb up to 4.200 meters to Abra de Huarmihuañusca (Dead Woman’s Pass). It takes forever and I’m left breathless. Each step sucks away the energy from my body. With every step I feel like I need to take water and regain my breath. What is happening here? Oh right, it’s the altitude. Eventually, after I don’t know how many hours, we are there! Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the Inca Trail!
Unfortunately, the clouds have set in and it’s very chilly, so after a picture we down again. In fact, this part of the hike was the most strenuous for me with all the giant steps going down. Even though the Inca’s were short, their steps were huge, like stepping off a high chair at times. My knees were in a lot of pain, carrying a heavy pack. Let’s just say I had to work really hard. Eventually, after about 7-8 hours we reach camp, knocked out for the day…
Day 3 Pacamayo – Wiñay Wayna (16 km)
Don’t think you’ve already made it after reaching Dead Woman’s Pass because on this third day of the Inca Trail you will definitely need to work again. I remember it as extremely long (16 km but it felt like double) and once again, lots of steps. I repeat: lots. Thousands. Or more. But the scenery was awesome. We passed quite some ancient Inca ruins, two more mountains passes (4.000 m. and 3.700 m.). From one of those passes (I don’t remember which one, sorry, it’s been almost 7 years now) you have a grand view over the mountains and lush, green cloudforests. Simly stunning, it completely felt like walking from one world right into another.
Then you will pass an Inca tunnel carved into the rocks and finally, after a full day of working, you will reach a crowded camping site. There’s also a hostel so not the best place to stay. Here we get the nasty crowded feeling we were anxious about for the first time only. Since it’s already the third day on the track, we can’t be bothered really, we’re just happy we’ve made it this far already.
Day 4 – Wiñay Wayna – Machu Picchu (6 km)
There’s a little bit of stress when waking up in the morning. It’s 4.30 am and pitch dark. We know we have to be ready to go within one hour to be able to make it to the Sun Gate to see the sun rise on Machu Picchu. We are well on our way before 05.30 am and as the trail is relatively easy, we reach the sun gate just before 7.00 am. The sun has just started to light up Machu Picchu in the distance. I feel stunned and emotional. I wanted to see Machu Picchu ever since I was little, I walked 4 days to get there and suddenly, there it is, all the way in de distance down below. We sit down, enjoy the view and take pictures.
Then it’s time to get moving again and make our way to the ruins. It’s about 1.5 hours more until you actually reach it and upon arrival I’m just intensely happy that I can take off my pack and wander around with it for a while. We’re there before the crowds from Cusco come in and we enjoya long tour of the complex and by the end of the morning, it’s time to leave and head back to Cusco.
When the train is departing from Machu Picchu I am exhausted and want to sleep. But I can’t. I am too excited I nailed it. I did it! My first trek ever, without getting sick, sore (ok, not entirely true) or injured. I wouldn’t want to say it was fine because it really was hard work and no piece of cake but man, what an experience! The highlight of our trip to Peru for sure!
Things I’ve learned from the Inca Trail:
– Don’t pack too much. With the same backpack I was carrying back then, I now do trekkings with my own camping gear (back then, all food and the tents were carried by porters). I can’t recall what it was that I brought on the trail but it was way, way too much.
– You can do it! If I can, you can, trust me. I used to be one of the unfittest people you had ever met so if you train well and work hard, this can be done by you, too.
– Listen to your body but push on. At the end of day 2 my knees were totally giving in. At one point I just wanted to sit down and cry. But I didn’t, instead I continued walking. Making it to our camping site felt like sweet chocolate.
– Don’t mind the crowds or let others discourage you. Sure, there will be other people but isn’t that the same at all touristic places. The Inca Trail is an epic journey that everyone should make once in their life!
It’s been almost 7 years and now that I writing this, I’m filled up with curiosity. I would love to do this trail again. Will I still find it hard, or will it be easier on me now that I’ve become a fit person and am used to hiking with a pack. Would I still enjoy it a second time or would it even be better because the physical demand would be less? Or would the track get to me this time? Will I see the snowcapped mountains I hoped to see (the weather wasn’t too good for us) and will it still be the same inspiring adventure? Maybe, one day, if we ever make it back to Peru, I might do it again. Not just because I want to satisfy my curiosity but because the Inca Trail is simply stunning.
Please note that this blog is based on an trekking experience of back in 2007. Details may have changed and you should always check with a tour operator if the itinerary is still the same. This blog is used for inspiration only.
Want to read more? Then go to either of these:
– The Inca Trail: can you do it?
– More South America: All you want to know about Torres del Paine
– we12walk: the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Psst: sharing is caring!
Declan (The Two Gallivants)
Hi Guys, great stuff – I never cease to be stunned or get jealous no matter how many Inca Trail photos I look at!
I’m thinking of a trip to S America in the next couple of years after Asia and Australisa and the Inca Trail is number one on the list of things to do. What company did you book with (as you said it’s great to do things independently, but for something on the scale of the Inca Trail – best to use the professionals!)?
Thanks for visiting our site! We booked the Inca Trail through CAT Travel, here is their website: http://www.cat-travel.com/ We usually travel independently where possible but on the Inca Trail it’s not allowed and you don’t want to be a) caught or b) damage the pristine landscape of the trail. Plus we never got the feeling that we had the crowds around us until the last night and of course at Machu Picchu…
Good luck with your trip planning and let us know if you have any questions!
Great post. I love seeing the Inca Trail through other people’s eyes. Really brings me back to that magical trip. Thanks so much for sharing 🙂
Agness of Fit Travelling
What an exciting and adventurous trip, Antonette and Martijn.The views of the hills and mountains are breathtaking!
Yes, they are pretty amazing!
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, is a trail full of wildlife, a lot of adventure and having physical is very important, iletours was one of the agencies here in Cusco Peru, which helped me make this trip, all quiet and well organized.
Hi, Antonette! Loved this post! I was actually twice in Cusco and once in Macchu Picchu, but I wasn’t brave enough to take the Inca Trail road. My boyfriend hasn’t been in Macchu Picchu yet, so I’m guessing that’s the perfect opportunity for me to go back with him and try it next time. Thanks for sharing the experience and the tips, will definitely keep them in mind!