“Beyond the mountain lay our ultimate goal – Machu Picchu! I was overwhelmed with excitement as I realised tomorrow, I was finally going to see this iconic wonder of the world.”
Km 82 from Cusco to Machu Picchu in Peru
Hiking the Inca Trail & Machu Picchu had been on my Life List for a long time, so it was a must for my first visit to South America. Although doing the research showed me that you could get there on a bus & a train, it just didn’t feel like I would deserve it if I hadn’t negotiated the legendary Inca Trail as part of my journey.
I booked the 21-day tour ‘Absolute Peru’ with G Adventures, which had hiking the Inca Trail as one of the final activities. This gave plenty of time to acclimatise to the altitude. I had also spent the previous 3 weeks in Bolivia which helped (see my First Timer’s Guide to learn more). As we crossed the highest point (over 4200m) at aptly named Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2, I was very grateful for all this preparation. To see my Inca Trail experience in all its glory see my Video Diary.
What do you need to know?
The whole packing & preparing for hiking the Inca Trail is a subject in itself which I will cover over the next few weeks. Here, I am going to concentrate just on the hike alone.
“One of the key things you need to know is that there are only 500 permits for the Trail issued every day & 300 of these are taken by Porters & Guides.”
Everybody needs to go with a guided tour group. I would recommend researching this as the cheaper options can mean the Porters are not treated as well (in terms of the weight they carry & the kit they are given). To learn more about the Porters read this article. All this means, if you want to hike the Inca Trail then the earlier you book the better, to guarantee your place.
I was confident with G Adventures credentials as an ethical organisation & would thoroughly recommend them. Our group consisted of 11 walkers, 2 guides, 15 porters & 2 cooks. Our guides Joel & Miguel were extremely knowledgeable, caring & had a great sense of humour which is exactly what you need! I had spent the last 2 weeks with my group. We called ourselves “Cuy Banda”. In our heads, this meant “Guinea Pig Gang”, although in Spanish we were told this actually isn’t the case! It was also perfect as we knew each other pretty well, were incredibly supportive & had fun getting through the experience as a team.
Day 1 – The Training Day
12kms (5-6 hours) from near Ollantaytambo (82km) to Wayllabamba Camp
Before we started, I was very nervous. It felt like I had been building up to this point for the last 6 weeks since arriving in Argentina. There were 2 things I felt I really needed that morning, a good breakfast & a nice hot shower (my last for the next 4 days).
“After I got in the shower at our hotel, it refused to warm up. Peru’s showers are unpredictable at the best of times. I am rarely in a bad mood, but when I found out that other members of the group had a piping hot wash, I was a little grumpy!”
My roommate said she hadn’t heard that much swearing in a long time! Fortunately, I tucked into a hearty breakfast which cheered me up no end and I was (kind of!) ready to go.
At the starting point, we had our bags weighed to ensure they were below the 6kg threshold. Our porters were registered & weighed in case they were carrying more than 25kg. Our passports were verified, licences collected & photos taken. It was 10.30am when we finally started. They call this the “Training Day” & refer to the terrain as “Peruvian Flat”, basically not at all flat, but not just UP as was the case for Day 2!
Throughout the morning we meandered along the Kusichaka River & passed Patallaqta, an impressive Inca site in the valley, before lunch. This was our first proper insight into the activities of the porters. They are to be admired & respected so each time one of us saw a porter approaching we shouted at each other to get out of the way.
“We arrived at lunch to applause from the porter team (slightly embarrassing as they had been there for ages!). Inside the large tent was a table, set with cutlery & napkins”
After a delicious meal, a rest, a toilet & a stretch we were off again to complete our trek. Just as we were nearing the final section, the heavens opened & it started to pour with rain. As most other groups arrived at camp, we kept going. G Adventures gets one of the last spots at this point, which means we start the next, toughest day further along the trail.
When we finally arrived at our camp in the rain, it was amazing to see all our tents set up, sleeping mats inflated & sleeping bags laid out. We were treated to hot coca tea to help with the altitude (Wayllabamba Camp is at 2950m), biscuits & beers, which were all very welcome!
As the sun went down, we were introduced to our heroic team of porters. Joel gave us an explanation about G Adventures contribution. For example, all are provided with walking shoes, as many porters along the track walk in flipflops. Apparently, they often prefer this, but I’m not convinced that it’s the case for all. Each introduced themselves, how long they had been working on the Inca Trail, & what they were carrying. It really made the reality of their role come alive & gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves as well, all expertly interpreted by Joel.
Dinner again was a 3-course meal of soup & chicken, followed by an obligatory card game of “Shithead”. If you hike the Inca Trail or meet anyone in South America who has, you will quickly learn the rules of “Shithead”!
Day 2 – The Tough Day
12kms (7-10 hours) from Wayllabamba to Pacaymayu Camp
Breakfast consisted of toast, again gathered around a civilised table which had already been set for us. We knew we had a tough day ahead with 6 hours of trekking uphill at altitude. Our goal was the highest point of the trail at Warmiwanusqa (Dead Woman’s Pass, 4215m above sea level). I was nervous again & knew I needed to eat a good breakfast to get me through.
Just as we were about to leave to get ready, the chef arrived in a chorus of “Feliz Compleaños” (“Happy Birthday” in Spanish). Today not only marked the toughest day, but also the birthdays of 2 of our team, Katie & Steve.
“Our amazing chef had got up at 3am to make not one, but 2 birthday cakes! One was chocolate, one vanilla, both iced, with their names on.”
When you consider that everything that enables us to eat, & live for the whole 3 days of the trek is carried by this team of porters. It just blew my mind!
Full of cake we started the trek at 6.30am. From the start it was uphill & from the start, it was raining. Neither relented for most of our morning. We had a couple of official stops along the way. The first was literally sheltering from the rain under a tree in the cloud forest & resting for 20 minutes. The next stop was so we could all get a dose of “Agua de Florida”. This is a cure-all altitude healer! You put a few drops in your palms, rub them together & inhale strongly 3 times. It opens up EVERYTHING & definitely allows you to breathe much better. I bought some before I left Peru & have also found it to be excellent to clear your passages when you have a cold!
The final stop of the morning was a building where we could shelter for a bit. The key was to take off our wet stuff, so we could warm up our bodies a bit. It was great to finally remove my waterproof cape. However, it was even worse when 30 minutes later I had to redress myself in the still soaking wet poncho. My muscles had cooled & were reluctant to get moving again. This was definitely the most miserable part of the whole trek for me. Knowing we still had further to climb, I was cold & it was still relentlessly raining. The pain was eased slightly when Joel suggested that we buy a bottle of Pisco for the evening from one of the vendors hanging around at the entrance.
As I have said, there is an etiquette when you walk the Inca Trail that you always get out of the way when you see a porter. This helped with the walk, for regular small rests. As did my lovely tentmate, Katie (the Birthday Girl) who had asthma so needed to stop regularly to catch her breath. The gradient got steeper & the air ever thinner. As a very loyal friend (?!) I waited with her every time too. Finally, the rain even stopped & we were able to take off our ponchos for the first time.
“Eventually we heard a call from above us, as a fellow Cuy Banda team member had already made it to the peak. She had seen us & was shouting encouragement “Not far now!” The end of the relentless climb was in touching distance but seemed to take forever. We would go up a few feet, then need to stop again & gasp for breath”
Finally, as our last steps got us over the top, we joined our fellow team members, congratulating each other & exploring the top before we embarked on a victorious photo shoot.
After I’d been there for a few minutes, one of the group spotted Steve, the final Cuy Banda member to make it to the top. We all lined up, raised our walking poles into a bridge, & shouted his name until he made it up & through our makeshift tunnel. He was thrilled with his reception (it was his birthday after all!) & we were thrilled to see him. We had all made it through the toughest part of the trek!
The view from the top of Dead Woman’s Pass was spectacular (named as the mountain looks like a woman lying down). I spent the next 30 minutes taking endless photos of the same things over & over again (I think the altitude was getting to me!).
Finally, we decided it was time to start our jubilant descent. I always forget how hard it is to go downhill & my knees had a lot of complaints. They weren’t happy as I concentrated on negotiating the cobbled steps on our 2-hour descent into the valley. Needless to say, I was very grateful for the decision I made to hire poles. They were invaluable with my stability as my shaky legs made their way into the camp.
As we had such an early start it was great to be arriving at 2pm, ready for an afternoon rest before our final long day. Our tents were already up & I took off my well-worn boots & nursed my sore back & legs. I admired the view while Katie opened the collection of birthday cards she had brought with her.
“It was a special moment as we surveyed the view through the door of our tent to the valley, as the clouds moved to form a mist over the distant mountains.”
That evening we tucked into our next culinary miracle. Tonight the menu included delicious soup, Lomo Saltado (Peruvian beef stir fry), chips & broccoli fritters, followed by apple pie. A few games of “Shithead” was brought even more alive over hot chocolate spiked with the Pisco. We were ready for our well-earned beds when the time finally came (about 8.30pm again!).
16kms (8-10 hours) from Pacaymayo to Wiñyawayna Camp
I was woken up by Miguel’s gentle tones again this morning at 5am. We got ourselves prepared via a breakfast which included porridge & an omelette. Then, headed uphill again for another 2 hours. We stopped to hear all about Runkuraqay, an administration & military Inca site. A small lake followed (Quchapata, a deer habitat) & we finally stopped for our first proper rest on the top of the mountain. We were entertained by a hummingbird exploring the local flora.
The Cloud Forest
The next section was more “Peruvian Flat” before we made it to an Inca Ruin which was an extra 70m upwards, right on the top of the mountain. We all opted to go for it (even Shauna who was really struggling that day with an upset stomach). Our reward was magnificent Sayacmarca Ruins & views of the valley.
Or, it was, until the clouds started to form around us & presented us with a mystical sight. The valley disappeared below & we felt like we were on top of the world! It was a magical experience as we explored the ancient remains.
Back down into the valley, past Conchamarka ruin, we then moved onto the next toilet stop & another rest point. Beyond this, it was like something from Lord of The Rings – Cloud Forest, High Jungle. On the way out of the rest area, we walked straight into a group of llamas. One of them nearly knocked me off the bridge as it squeezed past in a determined fashion & I had to breathe in to let him through!
We were walking above the cloud, while it blanketing the valley below us. We passed through 2 Inca Tunnels (carved out of the mountainside). The rock walls were living, covered in moss, plants & spiders webs glistening with dew. Lunch was a very welcome stop when it eventually came. We were again applauded by our porters as we entered the rocky outcrop where our food tent was pitched.
The Last Stop!
Day 3 was the most unbelievable feast! It was hard to imagine how they were still carrying all this food. As tray after tray of deliciousness was passed around. I was in awe. We had chicken goujons, potato, yukka, beef kebabs, salad, pizza, chips. Amazing! And just when we thought there couldn’t be any more, we were given cake & jelly for dessert!
“It brought up a question – How on earth do they set jelly on the Inca Trail? I added it to my list of questions which also included – Where do all the toilet seats go? And now – Why am I so obsessed with telling you all about the food?!”
The Porters Challenge
For our final section of the walk, it felt like things were getting more relaxed for the last push to the (almost!) end. We posed for a photo with the full team of porters & chefs. Then, a couple of the guys took up the “Porters Challenge” – running down the track with a 25kg backpack on. They did it…for 200m & said it was OK. Bear in mind that the porters do this for the full 40kms! They always have to be there far enough ahead of us to get organised for our arrival. We were not bothered at all if they didn’t make it ahead of us, but that’s the standard they work to.
The Final Push
We passed a landslide which had closed the train line into the town of Aguas Caliente only a few weeks before. Then we saw our first view of civilisation (or at least modern & not an ancient one!) as we spotted an electricity pylon. Before long we came out of the forest & into an open landscape.
“Beyond the mountain lay our ultimate goal – Machu Picchu! I was overwhelmed with excitement as I realised tomorrow, I was finally going to see this iconic wonder of the world. The hard part was over (or at least I thought it was!) & tomorrow was the big day.”
We waited in awe of the view until all of our fellow Cuy Banda teammates had joined us on the top terrace while we explored. With all the sickness our little band of travellers had suffered today, it took a while for us all to gather. After watching the sunset behind the mountains, we headed down through the terraces via some huge steps, as the light was quickly fading.
We were literally the last group to arrive in camp & had to negotiate the twists & turns with our headlamps. Fellow hikers looked like they had been there for days! We finally reached our tents in the pitch black of night (6pm!). I enjoyed a beer before settling in for our final group meal, topped off (of course) with a few rounds of “Shithead”.
The final task of the day was to prepare for tomorrow. We had to be up at 3am to join the queue to get into the National Park. The park opened at 5.30am for the final 1 ½ hour hike to the Sun Gate. That night I slept in my clean (& very colourful) trousers as the combination of exhaustion & anticipation set in….
Watch this space for my next blog post covering the final push – the “Gringo Killer” Steps, Sun Gate, & magnificent Machu Pichu! You can also see my Video Diary of the whole experience.
What do you think?
What is your best memory of hiking the Inca Trail?
Where else have you been on a World Famous hike & what was your experience?
What piece of advice would you give to someone who has never tackled an activity like this before?
To see more of my photos from Peru please visit my Gallery page!