Cusco, Peru. 5:00am. I left my hostel the same way I had entered it, creeping around in the dark, waking people up and bumping into everything. At least this time I knew the girl who I was waking up in my dorm room, and my whispered apologies were well warned the night before. Thus began my adventure hiking the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu from Cusco, known as one of the best hiking trails in the world, and definitely one of the best places to hike in Peru.
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Naty, the outstanding woman who was to be my hiking guide for the next 4 days, picked me up before dawn, before picking up the two guys who would be my hiking partners, a couple of Danes named Christian and something else. I never really did get the second ones name, it was something super Danish, like Troelles. I just referred to them as a unit by calling them the Vikings. It was easier for me and I think made them feel like badasses.
Luckily, they looked like they were great physical shape and hopefully wouldn’t complain that much. Nothing worse that having an out of shape Debbie Downer hiking with you for 4 days in the Peruvian mountains.
Inca Trail Tours: Trekking Peru
So day one of the Inca Trail starts with the 90 minute drive from Cusco out to Ollantaytambo, where I had been the day previously. We had a big breakfast, which was great and yummy, but later on we found out it was not included in our trek and we were supposed to pay for it. So I inadvertently dined and dashed with dos Danes. Three cheers for alliteration!
To explain, it is required that all hikers seeking to attack the Inca Trail, do so with a guided tour, through a trekking agency. The trekking agency will reserve your Inca Trail permit, as well as your spot on the trail. At this time there is no independent hiking on the Inca trail, so if some cowboy tells you he’s just going to go for it, he’s going to get made.
We then drove a bit further in the mini bus to the starting point for the trail itself: KM 82 on the railway line heading from Cusco to Machu Picchu village.
This is where we first met our porter team from our Inca Trail tour agency X-Treme Tourbulencia, 5 short and squat Peruvian men who were unaffected by altitude and carried 50lbs on their backs. Walking uphill.
But at this time they were packing their monstrous bags filled with gear, and food that was going to make the next 4 days really wonderful for the English speakers in the group. The bags looked immense, and they were, they were apparently only up to 20kilos, but I still have a hard time believing there wasn’t more in there. They were carrying food for 9 people for 3.5 days, three sleeping tents, one dining tent, cooking stove, a propane tank (the same size as on your BBQ), kettles, pots, cutlery, flatwear, and toilet paper.
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I was carrying my clothing, my sleeping bag, my sleeping mat, and my Birkenstocks. Notice the MY’s in that sentence. So about 4 kilos. My packing list for the Inca Trail was short, though warm clothes were 100% essential. It gets cold at 4000m!
Not going to lie, I felt fairly superior to the Vikings when I saw that they were not even carrying that much, apparently whatever they paid to do the Inca Trail included the porters carrying all of their stuff except what they wanted for that day, like water and a camera.
So the porters got everything settled onto their backs and ran off. Literally, they ran off. With 20 kilos on their backs, their little legs just scurried away. Also of note, most of the Inca Trail trekking companies provide ‘uniforms’ for their porters, ours wore bright yellow soccer jerseys. This made them easily spotted, not only when we were catching glimpses of them on the trail, but also to find where our camp was!
The Inca Trail Trek – One of the Best Hikes in the World
Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail every day, this includes porters and guides. So for the three of us paying hikers, there were 6 ‘support’ people. With that kind of ratio, only about 200-225 tourists can start hiking the trail every day. This is why during high season you have to book up to a year in advance.
As we were standing in line waiting to go through the check point on day one I was looking around, and was just really impressed that everybody around me, myself included, all had enough of their shit together enough months early to actually get ourselves admittance onto the trail. This is uncharacteristic for me for sure, but hiking in Peru is a pretty big deal.
So all of us with our shit together got through the check point and off we went.
Archeological Sites along the Inca Trail
Machu Picchu isn’t the only old place in Peru! There are a ton of great archeological sites along the way between Cusco and Machu Picchu, and there make for excellent rest stops, as well as detours.
Day one of the Inca Trail is about 14km, not too difficult, but with a several gradual uphills. All along the Inca Trail you pass through different ecosystems, starting off in kind of desert, then rolling hills, and eventually ending up in the jungle.
So this first day was a variety of the first two. You also hike along the trail that really does take you past all kinds of Inca sites: on Day 1 we must have either gone into or looked down upon 3 different archeological sites from ye’olde days, when people used the route as a way to getting to Machu Picchu where the Inca, aka the King, held court. So for 4 days, you basically are actually walking like an Inca.
Camping on the Inca Trail
Our group was on a bit of a different schedule than most of the other groups. We walked further the first two days and therefore stayed in smaller campsites a bit further up the trail. This was great, because there was a huge group of high school students doing the trail as well and you can imagine my raised eye brows at the thought of camping with them for 4 days. So our campsites were smaller but also of gorgeous locations, as seen in adjunct photographs.
What was also great about camp was that we got to eat. As I said earlier, we had 5 porters. Porters carry all the crap, but also cook all the food. They set up the dining tent, where on one side of the tent that they have halved with a tarp, the head cook, in a white chef’s hat cooks a variety of veggies, meat, and carbs for every meal, all on two propane burners and a cutting board. On the other side of the tarp, the hikers and the guide eat at a very civilized table sitting on stools. And the food was amazing!!!! Every meal was different, there was always more than enough, it was tasty, it was nutritious, and it was a huge leap up from my typical over night hiking fare of cold spaghetti and crackers.
It really was a posh feeling time, despite the tents. I tell you, hiking with porters is big time.
Daily Schedule on the Inca Trail
We would get ‘wake-up tea’ brought to our tents at whatever pre-dawn time was chosen. Then 30 minutes later we would have breakfast in the dining tent, more tea, coffee or coca. Breakfast was always some sort of bread, hot cereal, etc.
Then we would start hiking, the porters would break everything down and pass us somewhere on the trail before lunch. We would then meet them at the lunch spot, where they had already raised the dining tent and were about to serve a hot lunch.
We would eat, then start hiking again, and they would again break everything down, pass us again on the trail somewhere, and get to the campsite before us to set up our tents and the dining tent and start making tea time and dinner.
Yes, teatime, so civilized.
Teatime would be at around 5pm, with hot bevvies, popcorn and another kind of baked good, also hot. So incredibly civilized.
Dinner would be about an hour later. Again, hot meal, 3-4 different dishes per meal.
Seriously. Whoever goes hiking with me next has a lot to live up to!
After the first day of hiking, we were met with teatime and then dinner. Naty would fully explained the plan for the next day, how far we were going, when we were eating (because that’s obviously the most important thing to know!) etc. After that first dinner, the Vikings looked at each other and nodded and one went off and came back with a bottle of anis alcohol. Basically black licorices booze. 40%.
Now, I detest black licorices, I believe it to be the Devil’s Candy, and it’s a rude moment of disgust when I accidentally throw a black jellybean into my mouth. All that said, on a 3 night, 4 day hike, when I have to sleep on the ground in a tent, and the chance of a decent sleep is slim, anything that might help right?
So we all got a little bit Inca tipsy.
Which is when I told the Vikings I had been calling them the Vikings in my head all day. I also asked them if they had seen the show Vikings. They had not. I urged them to remedy that. And then we all slept pretty decent!
What is the Difficulty of the Inca Trail?
Day 2 of the Inca Trail is the toughest, especially the way we did it.
After leaving camp you start going up and don’t stop for 3.5 hours. The Vikings went on ahead and Naty and I stuck together, meeting them at the top of Dead’s Woman’s pass, the highest point on the trail, at 4200m. Not the highest I’ve ever been, that was while hiking in Huaraz, Peru.But it is this moment where you ask yourself “What is the altitude of the Inca Trail?”
We happened to meet our porters up at the top too, so we got a ‘family picture’ at the summit. As it happened, because the Vikings and I were all in pretty decent shape, the porters had to work a lot harder than normal to stay ahead of us, so we did actually see them on the trail quite a bit. Often groups only see their porters at meal times and when they pass the group right after meal times.
After Dead Woman’s Pass, the trail descends until you get to the lunch spot for that day. Most of the groups camp at this spot, but we just had lunch and kept going. We then climbed up through the second pass of the trail, at about 3700m, a much easier climb than the earlier one. After the second pass it was a good downhill into our second night’s campsite, only to be greeted by the fact that our assigned site was perched on the edge of a cliff over looking a mountain gorge. Phenomenal!
And, there were llamas milling about. Bonus from the Trail Gods!
Day 3 on the Inca Trail
Day 3 was easy peasy, only really having to do a bit of a climb for the third, lowest, and final pass and then a bit of a descent into camp.
We were in camp by noon, had a lazy afternoon, checked out a couple of nearby Inca sites, and basically relaxed and were glad to have done a tougher second day. Really the true highlight of the third hiking day, as it was our last night, was that for teatime our ‘baked good’ was a cake. Seriously. There were clay ovens at the last campsite and our chef baked a tiered cake, complete with colored icing. It was a sight to behold.
I had two pieces, Naty had two pieces, and the Vikings at the rest. Amazing!
We also finished off the second bottle of anis booze. Yes, the Vikings brought 2 bottles of alcohol on the hike with them. Something I have noticed about hiking with dudes: They bring booze. Which is great, as long as I don’t have to carry it!
Trekking to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail
The last morning of the hike, Day 4, is Machu Picchu day. The porters have to get the first train out of Machu Picchu village, which is at 5:30am. So everybody has to get up at 3:30am, pack everything up, the porters run off to catch their train, and the rest of the hiking schmucks are left standing around in the dark until 5:30am. This is the time when the checkpoint to let you into the last leg of the trail opens and groups can pass through.
Interestingly enough, for me this early morning wake-up call was pre-empted by the sound of torrential rain, the first rain of the hike. Awesome. The one day you really want it to be clear for that view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, and it’s the Incan Apocalypse. Luckily, by the time we really started to hike after the checkpoint, the rain had stopped though it was still decently socked it.
A 2-hour hike from that last checkpoint, and after 50 steps up called the Monkey Steps, you reach the Sun Gate, which is where you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu site from the trail. Ironically, the Sun Gate often does not actually give a great view of Machu Picchu due to cloud cover, and as I said in the last paragraph we were not hopeful.
But alas, as the lucks, and fates, and Inca gods would have it, that side of the mountain was clear and upon emerging from the Sun Gate, we actually found not only a clear view of Machu Picchu, but the sun! Sun Gate was aptly named indeed.
Machu Picchu Tour
So Machu Picchu. Now, not to sound blasé and jaded, but I’ve seen my fair share of old places. I’ve been to Chitchen Itza, Tikal, Angkor Wat, Fort Langley.
But Machu Picchu: Holy F bombs!!!! It really is all it’s said to be, that first glimpse, knowing that you are still relatively far away, blows you away, not only because of the scale and entirety of the place, but because of the surrounding landscape, mountains, gorges and jungles. How/why they built such structures in such remote areas I have no idea, but it sure makes for inspiring location today!
Upon getting to Machu Picchu after hiking for 4 days, you feel like crying, pretty sure I did a little, let’s be honest. 42km, 3 mountain passes, 3 nights in a tent, 2 blistered Achilles, 2 bottles of anis liquor, 1 cake, and fuck yah, we just finished the Inca Trail!!!!
And now we are all sitting in front of one of the 7 Wonders of the World!!! Pretty great moment. And that’s why it was on my Bucket List and the reason I came to Peru.
And that’s why it deserves that F-bomb!
We took pictures and revelled in our badassedness, ate some chocolate, because damn it we deserve it, and then started the last 30 minutes down into the actual site itself. The trail really ends at that place in Machu Picchu where everybody gets their pictures taken, the classic Machu Picchu Kodak moment. So of course we took pictures there.
Naty then gave us a tour of Machu Picchu for about 90 minutes, after which we were let loose for free time. I basically meandered around, trying to not climb too many stairs, (I was tired, 42 km is far!), and basking in the glory of finally setting foot in Machu Picchu. The thought that a place like that could be built without real tools, all on the backs of people and with the knowledge of engineering based mainly on the stars is mind blowing since most us can barely win a game of Jenga.
Machu Picchu is site that was so well preserved for so long, AND that it was kept secret from those looting Conquistadors, it really just a miracle. Staring at the way those immense stones fit together, enjoying the views of Wayna Picchu (which I was way to exhausted to climb, but check out this info on climbing Wayna Picchu) and the rest of the surrounding mountains and imagining having to do that walk every week like Naty does.
I spent a very pleasant couple of hours taking it all in.
Then it started to rain. So I headed for the buses to take me down the hill to Machu Picchu village to meet Naty and Vikings for pizza and beer. Hiking, ancient archeological Peruvian treasure, pizza, and beer? That’s my kind of day!
After eating pizza and drinking beer, it was time to say goodbye to the wonderful Naty. I was so lucky to have her as a guide, we really were partners in crime for 4 days, and she was amazing. The Vikings and I had tickets on the 2pm train back to Ollantaytambo where we would get a minibus back into Cusco.
Riding the Machu Picchu Train
Most people who hike the Inca Trail, take the train back to the Ollantaytambo. It’s a time to relax after 4 very long days and take in the sights of the mountains of Peru while sitting down in comfort. What a deal! The train ride back is a beautiful route along the river that leads to Machu Picchu and a great look back on the trail’s variety.
I was sat across from a British couple who had been on the same schedule as our group, so we had bumped into each other along the way. They knew I had been with ‘the girl guide’ and asked how she was. I raved about her, and they said, “Yeah, she seemed amazing, our guide was a real douche”. So when in Inca Trail territory, look for the gal guides!
Once the train arrived in Ollantaytambo, the Vikings and I had hoped to have a bus to ourselves and have naps, but alas, the tour was over, luxury hiking be damned.
We got put on a mini bus with a bunch of other people, ugh!
The bus dropped us off at our hostels in Cusco, I hugged my Vikings goodbye, and was very glad to get checked into my room and into that hot shower I had been keeping in the back of my head for 4 days. Glorious.
Clean and no longer smelling of tent, I hopped out for my last supper in Peru, a nourishing and fulfilling dinner special of some kind of soup, some kind of chicken stew and rice, and hot pudding. Then I drank some beer with the girls at the hostel and climbed into bed for a restful night on a real mattress underneath real blankets. And not cold, finally.
The next morning was my last in Peru and I took one more tour around Cusco and sadly headed for the airport. Where my flight was delayed for 3 hours. Oh well! I did the Inca Trail yo!!!!
Information on the Inca Trail:
Throughout the whole Trail, I was reading Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Sleeping at altitude, in a tent by yourself, can get very cold. The highest campsite was at about 3600m, and yes that was a chilly night. I had every article of clothing I had on, and I still thought about going and creeping into the Vikings tent.
During the hike, I planned out a way to be relatively not as disgusting as I could have been. When getting to camp I changed all of my clothes, so I had hiking clothes and camp clothes. My hiking clothes should have been burned at the end, but I liked that shirt, so I didn’t. I also bathed myself with facial wipes, thanks Biore! I won’t talk about my feet.
Once at Machu Picchu, having done the Inca Trail, you cannot help but feel superior to those around you who you know did not do the Inca Trail. It’s a right. I earned that right of superiority and judgment, and nobody will take it away!!! On the flip side, I wanted to explain to everybody why I looked so crazy and dirty: Because I had just done the Inca Trail.
Peru was definitely the least fashionable trip I have ever taken. I spent most of time in hiking clothes, whether I was hiking or not, and I am unapologetic for wearing my wonderful pairs of woolen socks (knit by my lovely Aunt Jackie), with my sandal style Birkenstocks. Also, due to the cold, I wore more clothes than normal, including my bright blue raincoat from grade 9 and a wool toque I bought in Huaraz. Thinking back on it, I’m actually shocked the American girls let me go out with them. They must have felt sorry for me.
Speaking of my wonderful woolen socks knit by my lovely Aunt Jackie, I put some holes in a few. Maybe for Christmas…