Hiking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu

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I remember first hearing about Machu Picchu in geography class at high school. I must have been 13 or 14 at the time, and I remember thinking how amazing it would be to visit such a place, to visit one of the New7Wonders of the world. Fast forward 17 years, and I had booked to go on the Inca Trail, ending at Machu Picchu.

Before I left the UK, many friends asked me what I was looking forward to the most on my 5 month adventure. Machu Picchu always came in the top three.

The trip started in Lima, Peru and after a quick meet and greet in the morning, our group made it’s way to the airport for the 1 hour flight to Cusco, which sits at an altitude of 3,300m above sea level – the perfect location to acclimatise for the 4 day mountain hike ahead. For those who have yet to experience the flight into Cusco, it’s quite an approach – the plane bending round mountains before lining up the runway.

When we landed, I had my first experience of chewing a coca leaf. It would become the backbone of my diet for the next three weeks. Coca leaves are chewed by most of the population of Peru and Bolivia because coca is believed to help prevent altitude sickness (and coca is generally considered good for the body).

We arrived in the lovely city of Cusco, had a walking tour for an hour or so, and then sat down to business back in the hotel – the briefing for the Inca Trail commenced. Information about timings, what to take, what to wear, what to drink, what not to drink, how to keep warm, when to shit, coping with not showering…everything you can think of. The excitement began to kick in. Our guide finished the briefing by saying: “You will soon embark on one of the greatest treks in the world. Enjoy every minute.” I don’t need telling twice.

That evening we ate at a restaurant behind the main cathedral, called Marcelo Batata. We got a rooftop table, watched the fireworks light the night sky, and were told that alpaca should be the meat of choice. So be it. So I tried alpaca for the first time…and it was nice! A very lean meat, very good for you and almost a cross between lamb and pork.

The next morning we set off on a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It was fascinating to learn how important Cusco was in fighting off the Spanish in the 1500’s, and the role that each town played in helping defend that part of Peru. The scenery was spectacular. Mountains, valleys, agricultural terraces, waterfalls…and the odd llama.

Looking out towards the start of the Sacred Valley

After visiting the old Inca ruins at Pisaq, the bus eventually brought us to Ollantaytambo, our base for the final night before the Inca Trail began. As luck would have it, there was a festival in the main square when we arrived, so it was fun to watch the locals dance and cheer. Naturally we joined in by drinking a Cusquena or two.

Traditional dancing in the scenic town of Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo itself also has Inca ruins. We visited the Templar de Sol, and learned about how the religious spot for each ruin was symbolised by different mason work, and much larger, smoother rocks. As many as 200 men would transport one huge rock across the valley. It’s a slow process, but no surprise many of the Inca towns are still standing today.

After helping myself to a double serving of scrambled eggs the next morning, we made our final preparations before taking a bus to KM 82 – the start of the Inca Trail.

With porters carrying 6kg of our luggage, and cooks running ahead, we set off on a steady incline on day one. For those still to do the Inca Trail, use this day to guide your pace and get used to the altitude. It’s a nice 11km, with a couple of big inclines, but all our group managed it no problem. At the top of the first big incline our G Adventures guide took us off the path to strategic vantage point used by the Incas as a lookout over the five valleys that connected at this spot. Here we learnt about Pachamama, and how the Incas made ‘offerings’ of coca leaves and other items. Specifically, our guide taught us about the K’intu offering. This is where three coca leaves are held together, and are meant to bind the upper world, the earth (middle world) and the under world.

We eventually reached our camp at Wallabamba by 4pm, and were greeted with a huge tent where we gathered to eat cake and drink coca tea. This was followed by a fantastic 3 course meal! Safe to say, Gadventures know how to feed you well on the Inca Trail 🙂

After some ‘fantastic tent sleep’, we were up early, and mentally preparing for what we knew was the toughest day of the hike. Wallabamba is located around 3000m. Day 2 of the Inca Trail requires a 1200m ascent, which takes around 6 hours, followed by a 2 hour trek downhill to the second campsite. At that altitude, it’s tough, slow going…but we enjoyed every minute.

Passing some old Inca ruins on day 1


Enjoying the scenic uphill climb on Day 2

After the 6 hour uphill climb, the highest point on the trail is at 4,215m, and is famously known as Dead Woman’s Pass. All 12 of us had different levels of fitness and pace, so it was only natural we split into smaller groups, and I’m proud to say despite the alcohol consumed in Colombia, I was one of the first three to reach the top. What a great view it was too!

At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass

Downhill hiking usually makes my knees scream for a double whisky, so once everyone had caught up, got their breath and rehydrated, it was time to bring out the trekking poles. Once I got into a rhythm, I flew down the hill, and made it to the next campsite for just after 1pm…literally minutes before the heavens opened. Thankfully I snapped a picture of the view from inside the tent before the rain began to pour.

After a quick nap, more coca tea and cake was followed by yet another 3 course meal – the perfect solution for refueling after 8 hours of exercise. That evening, we were introduced to each of the porters and cooks. They told us (in Spanish) what their names were, where they were from, and how long they had worked as a porter / cook. We also had to introduce ourselves and tell them where we were from (also in Spanish). It was a nice mutual moment of respect, and particularly humbling for us, given these guys run most of the Inca Trail on a weekly basis to get in front and make sure their guests are comfortable. Here’s a big group shot taken at the campsite (you’ll notice the flat cap rarely left my head);

Safe to say, most of us slept well this night. Good job as the next morning we were up at 6am. The third day of the Inca Trail is the longest, but by far the most scenic. The views were made even better with bright blue skies above.

We hiked a long a traditional Inca path, through caves and jungle, and eventually ended up at our lunch spot at Phuyupatamarka. After dropping my pack on the ground, a few of us hiked to a higher vantage point and got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu mountain. Beyond the mountain, lay Machu Picchu itself. We were close.

We continued onto the final campsite of Wiñay Wayna, and after a long descent we had our final 3 course meal, and gave our thanks to the porters and cooks, who would set off in the morning to catch the train from Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo.

Day 4 is the final day. We were woken at 3:45am in order to join the queue of the other tour groups and hike the final, short leg to Machu Picchu. We watched the sun rise in the queue, and soon we were on our way. After 3km, we reached Intipunku, also known as the Sun Gate. After climbing the short, but steep staircase our heads peacked over the rocks at the view. We were seeing Machu Picchu for the first time.

Many people just sat in silence, arms wrapped round their knees, just staring at the grandeur. Others took photos. I’ve heard other stories of people breaking down into tears. For me, I quickly flashed backed 17 years to that day in geography class. I was indeed lucky to see Machu Picchu with my own eyes.

Looking back towards Intipunku (the Sun Gate)

The rest of the trail was a gentle downhill hike, with Machu Picchu getting gradually larger and larger in the foreground. It was a sight to behold. As well as a few individual photos, it was only fitting that – after spending 4 days together of hard work, sweating, no showers and discussing the intimate details of bowel movements (that’s another blog post entirely) – we should have a group photo. A great end to a great trek.

We wandered around Machu Picchu on our own for 2 hours, taking in the sights, and just sitting, relaxing, and reminiscing about some of the scenery and memories of the last 5 days.

After lunch in Aguas Calientes, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo, and then the bus back to Cusco. Luckily for us, it was Halloween, so it seemed only fitting that we celebrate by going out for a meal and drinking several Cusquenas. It was also the perfect time to sample Peru’s national dish….guinea pig! Most people I’ve spoken to hate it…but it was ok. Like a well cooked duck.

And so we partied the night away, drinking beers, rums and eventually white Russians in a YMCA-clan-clad, gay-come-salsa bar until the early hours. The celebratory part of the Inca Trail was missed from my geography class. I should get back in touch.

From here it was onwards to Bolivia, where more blog posts will tell the story of cycling down the worlds most dangerous road!

All set to hike the Inca Trail but not sure what to pack? I’ve got you covered – check out my post on the complete Inca Trail packing list 🙂

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