Inca Trail… it’s about the journey

We have spent the past four days trekking along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Before we left, we thought that it was just one way to get to Machu Picchu. Having completed it, however, we both agree that the jounrey was possibly better than the destination.

Our journey started very early on the morning of Tuesday 14th May. We had to meet our guide at 0430, fortunately only a few minutes walk from our hostel. We also met the other nine people who would form our group. (We had met them, along with our guide, briefly the night before for our induction.) We all piled on o our bus, along with our 17 porters, for the two hour drive to Ollantaytambo which is located in the Sacred Valley. While we enjoyed breakfast here, our porters were busy stocking up on all of the supplies we would be needing for trek. All stocked up, we piled back on to the bus to continue to kilometer 82 on the train line, where our trek was to start as we crossed the Urubamba river at an altitude of approximately 2720m.

The first part of the trek was along what is known as the “Inca Flats”. This is anything but flat, but describes parts of the trek which have sectins of both up and down. This section before lunch was approximately 12km and took 5 hours. When we reached our lunch spot (Wayllabamba, 3000m), the porters had erected a dining tent for us (with stools and tables inside) and had cooked us a delicious three-course lunch comprising an avacado salad followed by soup followed by omlette with potatoes and veg. Walking during the morning had been hot under the sun but during lunch the rain started to fall and was still falling as we got ready to continue the trek. The route for the afternoon was 2km of uphill, which should take 2 hours as we climbed from 3000m to 3300m at the campsite. Before we set off after lunch we all kitted up in our wet-weather gear. For most, this consisted of a waterproof jacket and then a poncho over the top to cover our daypacks. However, after only a few minutes of walking we all concluded that it was hot work and the rain was falling heavily enough to warrant all the wet-weather kit. I was back to walking in shorts and a t-shirt! The afternoon trek proved harder than it sounded, and we were all very tired by the time we reached the campsite at 1630 – 12 hours after first meeting in Cusco!. Our porters had already set up our campsite, including all of our personal tents, and had dinner on the go. After another three-course meal (popcorn; soup; veg, pasta and potato) followed by flambayed plantain, we were ready to call it a night. As Lindsay and I climbed into our tent we discovered a slight issue… the tents were designed for people 5´5″ tall! We were both unable to lie flat in the tent and it took a few minutes to sort ourselves out so that we could both lie flat – diagonally across the tent!

Day two started with a gentle wake-up call by one of the porters at 0500. After 40 minutes to get our stuff together, another 40 minutes for breakfast and 20 minutes to get ready, we set off at 0640. Today was going to be a difficult day. It started with a 4 hour ascent, climbing from 3300m to 4215m over 5km. This was to be followed by a 2 hour descent to 3580m over 3.5km, at which point we were due to stop for lunch – after 6 hours of trekking. The afternoon was to start with a 2 hour ascent climbing up to 3950m over 2.5km, followed by a 2 hour descent to our campsite at 3600m over 5km. Ten hours of walking, 1300m of ascent and 1000m of descent!

The first part of the trek, up to “Dead Woman´s Pass” was hard work. Not only was the climbing relentless and steep, but the altitude was making breathing more and more difficult. This was the part of the trip I was least looking forward to. As it turned out, despite being hard work it was not as hard as I had expected. The descent from “Dead Woman´s Pass” was also very steep, requiring slow progress and careful foot placement. As we were treading our way down very carefully we kept getting passed by porters – each carrying 35kg – running down the steps! After another three-course meal for lunch, we set off on our second ascent of the day. As with the previous day, the rain had started during lunch and continued for the rest of the afternoon making the ascent hot and sweaty work. Half way up there is an Inca ruin called Runkuraqay, a temple facing back up towards “Dead Woman´s Pass” where had a brief stop for a few photos before continuing to the top of the pass at 3950m.

The descent from the second pass was through what is known as the cloud forest, and it lived up to its name for us. For the vast majority of the descent we couldn´t see no more than 10 metres off the side of the path! It was very magical though, as we were treated to occasional glimpses of what lay below as the cloud thinned and lifted before dropping again. About 20 minutes before we reached our campsite we diverted up a set of very steep, precarious steps to visit the Inca town of Sayacmarca. After a few minutes it was back down the steps to continue towards the campsite, arriving at 1700. After yet another three-course meal it was another early night, laying diagonally across the tent. As we were 300m higher than the night before, the temperature was considerably colder and we all felt it as we slept.

Day three started with a relative lie-in as we were not awoken until 0600. Following the same pattern as day two, it took us 1hr40 until we were taking our first steps of the day along the trail. This was a relatively easy day with a 90 minute trek along more “Inca Flats”, up to a high point of 3650m where a 1000m descent lasting 4 hours was to commence. Just below was another Inca site, called Puyupatamarca. The descent was down some more very steep steps carved into the rock as well as paths through some amazing forest scenery where we were treated to some amazing flowers and the occasional lizard! Thirty minutes above the campsite was another Inca ruin called “Inta Pata”. We sat on the terraces here and just enjoyed the stunning views along the Urubamba valley, just watching the world go by. As the rain started to fall we continued onwards to our campsite at Wiñay Wayna, where we arrived just before lunch. Following our, now standard, three-course lunch we all enjoyed a siesta – time to rest our sore feet and muscles and ensure that we were all feeling fresh for the final 6km trek to Machu Picchu the following morning. At 1630 we all took a 10 minute walk from camp to visit the Inca site of Wiñay Wayna – a site used by the Incans to experiment at growing crops at various temperatures, as the difference between the bottom terrace and the top terrace was in the region of 5 degrees centigrade. They grew potatoes and corn here to test which variaties would work at other sites, based on their altitude. We were back at camp for an early dinner followed by an early-ish night in preparation for the big day tomorrow.

Day four started with us being awoken at 0300, with a view to us all being packed up, breakfasted and en-route by 0400. As it turned out, we were all quite eager and were on our way by 0345! This was only a short walk, however, to the control gate only five minutes below the campsite. Here we were to wait until the gate opened at 0530. The advantage of being at the gate so early meant that we would be one of the first groups through when it opened, and so one of the first groups on the trail towards the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu. The sun gate is traditionally an hours walk from the control gate (3km), but we went at an alarming pace and made it in just over 40 minutes. The first part of this walk was in complete darkness, so this was no mean feat! When we got to the Sun Gate, which is supposed to offer our first views of Machu Picchu, we were all a little disappointed. The cloud hadn’t lifted and so we couldn’t see a thing! We took an opportunity to rest, regain our breath and have a snack before continuing the final 3km down to Machu Picchu itself. All the way down we were all hoping that the cloud would lift so we could see what we had walked so far for, but as we reached the guard house, on the edge of Machu Picchu, the cloud was persisting. As we rested here, we were treated to the magical view as the cloud finally started to disperse and we caught our first glimpses of this amazing place. I was quite emotional as the cloud slowly lifted, showing us more and more of the Inca site until, at last, we could see the complete site. We took some photos, sat in awe at the sight in front of us and felt a wave of relief – this is what all of the hard work over the past few days had been for. Before we could enjoy the views for too long, the cloud and rain returned and hid the site from view. At this point we continued down to the entrance of Machu Picchu and took a seat on the benches on the patio. A few of us treated ourselves to a (very expensive) beer in celebration, despite it being only 0730! That beer was one of the best I have ever tasted.

After sorting ourselves out, we joined the queue to get back in to the site, where we were to enjoy a tour by our fantastic guide Elvis, from LlamaPath, the company we used for our trip. He talked about the discovery of Machu PIcchu by Hiram Bingham in 1911, and the subsequent trips to learn more about the site, the theories on what Machu Picchu was used for, why is was never discovered by the Spanish during their colonisation in the 1500s and how it was likely to have been built. Following the tour we were left to enjoy Machu Picchu by ourselves before catching the bus to Aguas Calientes, from where we were to commence the journey back to Cusco. During our tour and subsequent free time around Machu Picchu the cloud continued to rise and fall and it rained on and off. This did little to dent our enjoyment of the site, which really must be seen in order to fully understand how special a place it is

During our wait in Aguas Calientes, we had time to reflect on our thoughts of the past four days. Machu Picchu really is an amazing place, but the huge crowds of people make it very difficult to fully enjoy the place. During our trek along the Inca Trail we took in more than 10 other Inca sites – places that can only be visited by those who take the effort to trek all the way to Machu Picchu. Whilst none of these can compare to Machu Picchu for size, they are all very impressive in their own way. At most of the sites, our group of 11 (plus two guides) were the only people there. At IntaPata (on day 3) – which was my favourite site of the trip – we were able to explore the site and then sit and enjoy the stunning views in peace for the entire time we were there. These sites are all now unspoilt by mass tourism thanks to the restrictions put in place by the Peruvian Government in 2002, restricting the number of people allowed on the Inca Trail each day to 500 (including all porters, guides etc – so only around 200 tourists per day). Compare this to the thousands of people who visit Machu Picchu each day and it kind of puts it all into perspective. It was a definite culture-shock for all of us, after three days with seeing only a handful of people to be thrust back into reality.

In summary, Machu Picchu is definitely worth a visit. However, if you can find the time to trek the Inca Trail in order to reach it, your appreciation of it will be enhanced dramatically. I think that if we had just got the train and bus to get there, we would have been a little disappointed with it. The effort expended, hardship endured and friendships made along the Inca Trail are what this place is really about.

You can view a map of our route along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu here: view map

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