Hiking the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. It was challenging, but 100% worth it. We hiked with the tour company Peru Treks and I would highly recommend them. Our guides were awesome and the food was amazing.
Inca Trail: Day 1
We started day 1 off on the wrong foot. The tour company told us they would be at our apartment to pick us up between 5 and 5:20 am and that we should wait inside because it isn’t safe to wait out on the street with our things. Since we were staying in an apartment, we came downstairs and waited inside the courtyard of the apartment building, cracking the door to the street so we could see if a bus pulled up. By 5:40, we still hadn’t seen a bus go by. We called the office, but they were closed. We sent an email to the generic email address and got a response around 6 saying that they were most likely held up waiting on another guest and we should wait another 30 minutes before calling someone as a last resort.
At 6:30 on the dot, we called the lady and she was thrilled we did. They apparently had been looking for us for over an hour. They asked us to come to the office. It was starting to rain so we high tailed it to the office and a man on the street asked, “Melissa?” “Yes,” I replied, and he escorted us to the office. The bus pulled up and we jumped on, thankful they hadn’t already left to start the trek without us.
Getting to km 82
We drove (I slept) about two hours to the town of Ollantaytambo to stop at a restaurant and eat breakfast. There were also bathrooms and a store to buy water and snacks. We continued another hour to kilometer 82, the start of the trail. The last bit of the trail was a very bumpy dirt road and I got a little nervous when we passed another huge tour bus on the narrow road.
Everyone got off the bus and it was pouring. We were hiking in the beginning of March, which is the tail end of the rainy season. We were really hoping it wasn’t going to be raining the whole time. Not only would that be miserable, but we wouldn’t get to see the amazing scenery!
The tour guides handed us our sleeping bags we rented and sleeping mats. Carson and I had hired an extra half porter for $85 each (well worth it) so we didn’t have to carry 6 kg of our stuff. I wish they would’ve given us our sleeping bags and mats beforehand though. I had brought three Ziploc bags full of clothes, medicine, and snacks, and only one would fit in the porter’s bag after I stuffed my sleeping bag inside. We ended up having to cram our extra bags into our own packs. It wasn’t super heavy, just extremely full and hard to get anything out of my pack. My hydration bladder tube kept coming unhooked because of the pressure of the things in my bag.
Once we got the bags sorted out, our guides Darwin and Edwin handed us our trail permits and the authorities checked them versus our passports. Once everyone was through at around 11 am, we started the hike: straight uphill in the mud. They call day 1 a “training day”. It isn’t too difficult overall. Some ups and downs, but there were plenty of stopping points where we could take breaks and set our packs down.
Let me just say how impressive the porters are. They’re carrying packs that I could literally fit inside of and are going fast enough to get to our next stop way before us. By the end of the day, when you arrive to the campsite, your tents are set up and dinner is ready.
We passed through a few small villages with decent bathrooms you could use for 1 sole (Peruvian currency equal to about 30 cents) and ladies selling bottles of water. Edwin introduced himself at the first stop and had each of us introduce ourselves and say where we were from. He said we were a family for the next few days, and proceeded to call us that whenever he wanted our attention.
The rain cleared after about an hour and we had beautiful weather the rest of the day. We stopped several times to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. Darwin told us we would be hiking for 6 hours today, but luckily those time estimates included short breaks. We all stopped at the first Inca ruin: Llactapata. These ruins were mainly used for agricultural purposes to supply Machu Picchu with food.
We stopped for lunch along the way. The porters had set up a big tent for us all to eat under. At this point it was hot and sunny so it felt good to sit in the shade. While we were waiting on lunch to be ready, we talked with the rest of the group. A cute little puppy came up to us and wanted to play. When it got bored with us, it decided to chase a chicken instead.
We were so excited to get to camp at 5 pm and take off our packs. My shoulders were still really sunburned from the Galapagos and were starting to blister. The backpack rubbing on them wasn’t helping. I changed and aloe-d up before dinner.
At dinner, Darwin gave us a pep talk for the hike tomorrow. It would be 5 hours of hiking straight up the mountain. We would be climbing 4,000 feet, something I had never done before. Since our packs were so uncomfortable today while we weren’t climbing, Carson and I decided to split an additional unofficial porter just for the second day. Unofficial porters are not hired by the tour company, and are available for the second and third days separately. It cost 120 soles for each day (~$37) and was so worth it. We decided to only hire one for the second day and we were able to unload all our extra stuff that we didn’t need for the day.
Dinner was great and we passed out right after we ate around 9 pm. When we were getting situated for bed, my water bottle leaked all over the tent and my sleeping bag and mat were completely soaked. I slept inside an extra trash bag I had in the sleeping bag. Not a great night.
Inca Trail: Day 2
We were told that breakfast would be at 5:30 am and we would get a wakeup “knock” at 5. Knowing how long it usually takes us to get organized, I set my alarm for 15 minutes earlier. Edwin greeted us with cocoa tea and I somehow managed to kick over my half empty cup in the tent. Luckily our stuff was out of the way.
The unofficial porters didn’t give us bags to put our things in, so I loaded ours up in an extra trash bag I brought. We could’ve given them a backpack, but then one of us would’ve been stuck carrying everything. Our guides had arranged everything and we gave our bag and money to the porter and headed to breakfast. We had a quinoa porridge, fruit, yogurt, and a pancake! It amazes me what they can make out here.
Straight Up The Mountain
We started on the hike at 6:45. Our guides explained that the uphill part of today would be split into three parts: one hour, two hours, and two hours. Then we would have a two hour steep descent before camp. We started off on the first section and I was almost immediately tired. We started at about 3000 meters (10,000 feet) today and I really hadn’t felt it until now. My goal was to only stop once every 9 minutes, with no more than a 1 minute break. Carson wanted to take more frequent breaks and said she didn’t mind if I went on ahead. I put in my earbuds and my upbeat playlist helped me through the day.
I got to the first Inca site of the day, Tres Piedres, in about 45 minutes. Darwin explained to us here that the Inca people worshiped the sun and the mountains. This was apparent from the way that they built temples with windows facing each of the large mountains surrounding specific sites, and other windows or pillars that would mark the position of the Sun on solstices. Solstices were celebrated by large festivals.
After our short break, we continued on the first two hour section. We would not be having lunch today until camp. Being at a high elevation is hard on your digestive system, so we would only be having a light brunch after this next section. The first part was through the forest, with a creek running alongside of the trail. I was hiking with the porters for a good part of the time. They would pass me and then I would pass them as they were sitting down for a break. That was a self-esteem boost!
Once we broke from the tree line, the view was incredible. We could see the entire trail we would be hiking for the rest of the climb all the way to Dead Woman’s Pass, which is the highest point on the trail. As we approached it, we could see little tiny people on the pass and it seemed like FOREVER until we would be those people.
I got to the brunch spot as it was starting to rain. Carson came a little after, saying the guides thought she had altitude sickness. Her vision was going in and out and she was super dizzy. I can’t imagine feeling that way while doing an intense hike, and am so thankful I didn’t feel those effects.
After brunch, Carson and I hiked with our new friends Traci and Brenden. We took our time getting up the steepest part. Traci was feeling some altitude sickness as well so we didn’t want to push it. The high altitude for me just felt like my lungs shrunk. A deep breath here felt like the capacity of a normal breath at home. By the end, we were taking breaks about every ten steps. Since we were in the back of the group, we gave ourselves the name Team Caboose.
I was so hungry by the time we got to Dead Woman’s Pass that I downed a Cliff bar and ate another one before we got to camp. We enjoyed the view for a few minutes before Darwin warned us that rain was coming and we should start moving again. The elevation is at 4,250 meters (~14,000 feet) and it was difficult to breath. We still had another two hours of a steep decline before camp and we were thankful to be getting more oxygen. As difficult as an incline is, I prefer it to going down. My knees aren’t in great condition, and the constant pounding on steep rocks made the last part really hard for me, especially when it started raining and the rocks were slippery.
We got to our porter holding the Peru Treks flag at around 2:30 and were impressed that we got there 30 minutes ahead of schedule. However, there was another 30 minute walk down a super narrow pathway that was essentially a small creek leading to the campsite. We finally made it and I headed straight for the bathrooms, which were another five minute walk down stairs. I didn’t think I’d make it but I somehow managed. Just as we got back to our tent to put away our things, it was time for lunch.
At lunch they announced we would have tea time at 5 and dinner at 7. After lunch Carson and I slept all the way through to dinner. Much needed. At dinner, all of the porters introduced themselves and told us where they were from and how old they were. The oldest porter was 73 years old!! We learned that the first language of the people of the Peruvian countryside is Quechua, and their second language is Spanish. Most of the porters spoke in Quechua when they were introducing themselves. We then flipped and all of us hikers introduced ourselves to the porters. Darwin informed us that since we were still at a very high elevation, this would be our coldest night on the trail. It was an early night to bed and I was thankful the tents were nice and kept so much heat in!
Inca Trail: Day 3
Day 3 started early again and after breakfast we started our hike. We all groaned when we learned we’d be hiking two hours uphill. After yesterday, everyone was exhausted. The stretch to get to the second pass of the trail was difficult, although not as bad as yesterday. The second pass is at an elevation of 4,000 meters. I’m not sure if it was my mindset, or if I could actually feel a difference in the elevation from Dead Woman’s Pass, but it seemed a little bit easier to breathe than yesterday. There was an extra part you could climb up to see great views, but we were standing in a cloud so I assumed we wouldn’t be able to see much.
Going back down from the second pass was incredibly hard and scary. The rocks are unlevel and different sizes and some parts are very steep. Plus, the cloud mist made them slippery. My hiking poles saved me from falling on my face a few times. We were going so slow to avoid falling, and I don’t know how the people passing us were speeding downhill. I kept thinking about how medical evacuation helicopters can’t land on this part of the trail, so if anyone gets injured, porters have to carry them all the way down to Machu Picchu.
After about 1.5 hours of steep decline, the trail leveled out to Inca Flat again, which in this case meant a less steep decline. The trail then enters the cloud forest, which could not be more accurately named. It was so interesting how often the scenery changed. We walked through a couple tunnels. The second one was very long and I wonder how the Incas constructed it.
The cloud mist turned into rain and I took off to our next meeting spot: lunch. The porters had set up a tent for us to put our packs in while we ate and we huddled under the meal tent to keep warm. After our main course, Darwin told us to close our eyes because they had a surprise for us. We opened them to find our chef holding a cake. How did they make a cake up here without an oven?! And how was it so delicious??
When we got done, we headed to the bathrooms. I’d been pleasantly surprised so far by the bathrooms on the trail. I came in prepared to squat in bushes or hold my breath in the campsites’ toilets at night. Besides the fact that the majority of the bathrooms had squat toilets, they were relatively clean and there were enough spread out on the trail so I didn’t have to go outside at all.
On our way back from this bathroom, a llama was blocking our path. We tried to get by him, but he wasn’t happy about that so we climbed up on the grass to avoid a confrontation. Darwin then made the announcement that near the end of the trail today, we would come to a “Y” turn and could make a decision about which way to go. The path to the right would take us directly to camp, but the path to the left detours to the Winay Wayna ruins. Darwin said the views here are incredible, and if the weather is nice we should definitely go. After hiking all morning in the clouds, we weren’t hopeful but we decided to make a game time decision when the moment came.
When we had hiked for about 30 minutes, the clouds started to break up. We could finally see the amazing scenery everyone had talked about! I couldn’t believe that the views had been this incredible all day and we hadn’t seen any of it. Team Caboose then decided we had to go to the Winay Wayna ruins. Edwin joined us to make sure we didn’t get lost.
The ruins were more impressive than anything we’d seen so far on the trek. Edwin told us that they were agricultural terraces used for supplying food to Machu Picchu. They are located in the most beautiful setting, and I could see why they are his favorite place on the trail. We hung out here for about an hour and took in the amazing weather. My stomach flipped as I looked down from the top. It is so steep (a common theme) and one wrong step could end fatally.
We made our way to the bottom on what seemed like a thousand steps and admired the llamas grazing next to us. Carson grabbed a branch with leaves and held it out for one llama to eat, and it yanked it out of her hand! When we had taken everything in, we finished the hike by walking another 20 minutes to the campsite and straight to dinner.
Our last supper consisted of chicken with papaya sauce, an instant hit with everyone at the table. We gathered tips to give to our porters and then presented it to them with a speech written in Spanish (Quechua, the native language, was too difficult).
Inca Trail: Day 4
I was not happy when we heard our tent rustling at 3:30 am for our wakeup call. The previous night was the only night I had been able to sleep soundly and I didn’t want to get up to hike in the dark. We ate breakfast and walked down to the permit control station at 4:30 to wait an hour for them to open. It seemed silly to wake up an hour early just to wait, but we learned that the porters have to catch a train to get back to Cusco and need enough time to pack everything up and get down the mountain.
While everyone was waiting, I went back to the campsite to visit the bathroom. I watched the porters pack up while I was waiting. I couldn’t believe the amount of things they were able to fit in their packs. They would have the packs seemingly full, before adding their personal bag in on top.
We started the hike at 5:30, just as the sun was starting to rise. I had been warned to be careful during the hike this morning. It is supposedly very competitive with people trying to pass each other on the narrow paths to beat each other to the Sun Gate. I didn’t really witness that; each group stayed together and waited on the side of the trail if others needed to pass.
The sunrise was gorgeous and the clouds were breaking to make for some interesting photos. Edwin pointed out the porters waiting for the train waaaaay down the mountain by the river. I couldn’t believe they had gotten all the way down there in under two hours!
The Sun Gate
When we FINALLY made it to the Sun Gate after about two hours of hiking, I couldn’t have been more relieved. The weather was perfect: clear skies and a nice warm temperature. We could see Machu Picchu perfectly for a bit, and then a cloud came and hung right over it to ruin our pictures. Oh well, we knew it was there! Our group took a “family photo” and then continued on to Machu Picchu, another 45 minute walk.
We smirked at the tourists that had taken the train who were huffing and puffing walking up to the Sun Gate, knowing they hadn’t experienced anything close to what we had. We made the easy descent and all met outside of Machu Picchu to get our entrance tickets. Darwin gave us a 15 minute break to use the (nice!) restrooms and check our bags. They don’t allow backpacking packs inside, so Carson and I consolidated our important things into her bag and switched off holding it.
Darwin gave us a tour of Machu Picchu and explained that no one really knows what its use was for. One guess is that the Inca King and other VIPs retreated to Machu Picchu when the Spanish conquest invaded Cusco in the 1500s. When the Spanish attempted to find Machu Picchu, the Incas further retreated into the jungle and took any records the Inca people may have had. The ruins are so impressive! For the most part, they’re still completely standing with only the roofs missing. The roofs, like the other Inca sites we had seen on the way, had been made from a thick thatched grass. It’s understandable why they weren’t still there after several hundred years. Historians had replicated roofs on a few of the rooms to show what the site had been like.
We entered a house that was close to the temple that Darwin said may have belonged to the Inca King. He explained that the bed was made from a layer of sand, then grass, and finally llama wool. Sounds comfortable to me! Next, we visited the granite quarry from which the workers mined the stone to build the walls of Machu Picchu. I didn’t expect it to be right there at the site.
Darwin let us wander on our own for awhile and told us to meet him for lunch in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town) around 12:30. Carson and I tried to go up to the very top, but they had a one-way pathway system throughout the entire ruins. When we would ask a security guard how to go up, they would point down. We kept going down until there was nowhere left to go and only an exit. There was never a choice to go up so we left and took the bus back to town.
The 30 minute road down the mountain from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes is steep and winding. Carson somehow fell asleep immediately, while I was holding my stomach trying not to toss my cookies. We arrived with 20 minutes to spare before lunch, so we walked through a market to look for postcards.
I ordered a pizza and pisco sour at lunch: the perfect end to a backpacking trip. My metabolism was working hard and I finished that meal much faster than usual. While we were all hanging around, the owner of a massage parlor came in to promote his business. When he said “free showers” I was sold. A hour-long massage, foot soak and shower only cost $25 USD. Well worth it!
Carson and I left our massages and were craving something sweet. We found a cute restaurant on the river. I got hot chocolate and she got the ice cream she had been talking about for the last four days. We saw Traci and Brenden walk by (who had just finished hiking Huayna Picchu, the mountain behind Machu Picchu) and called them over. We all walked down the street to where the rest of our group had been drinking since lunch.
Back to Cusco
It was time to gather for the train, so we went back to the restaurant we ate lunch at where we left our backpacks and met Edwin. He guided us to the train station and we all sat together on the train and had a few drinks. Everyone made plans to go out to bars when we got back. The train dropped us off in Ollantaytambo, where we found the bus to take us to Cusco. We said goodbye to Edwin and all took a group picture with him. The bus back was full of bends and curves and the drinks we had on the train did not help with the motion sickness from the bus movement.
We made it back to Cusco and all Carson and I wanted to do was go to bed. Everyone said their goodbyes and Carson and I made plans with Traci and Brenden to go to breakfast the next morning before our flight. We met Robert at our Airbnb and I passed out instantly. I didn’t wake up for 10 straight hours and it was amazing.
I would highly recommend this hike, but realize that it is no joke! Several blogs I’ve read made the trek seem easy. Thinking back on it, I selectively remember only the good parts, and I have to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t all fun and games. If you’re considering this hike, make sure you train for a few months and pack efficiently. It’s like nothing else you will ever experience!
See my video below on our hike!
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