Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is on the top of the bucket list for many travellers, and is one of the most popular hiking routes in the world. I was absolutely thrilled that I had the chance to hike the trail and successfully complete it – and without too many difficulties. It took 4 days and 42km to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The hike was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, and it was definitely the highlight of my trip to South America.
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INCA TRAIL DAY 1: THE BEGINNING
Km 82 to Wayllabamba • Distance: 11km
After spending a few days in the cobblestone town of Cusco to acclimatise and gather our hiking gear, we travelled to Ollantaytambo the day before our hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu began. The next morning, we started our hike very excited and enthusiastic. After meeting with the group we would be spending the hike with, we made our way to the beginning of the Inca Trail by bus. Our G Adventures group had around 15 people – ranging in ages from 13-40+ and from various countries around the world (including Australia, UK, Germany, USA and Canada). Joining our group for the hike were three instructors, many porters and two chefs. We named our team the sexy alpacas – which was definitely a fitting name.
Starting the hike at Km 82, we scaled the Vilcanota River throughout the day. This day would be a walk in the park compared to the ones that followed. We treated this day as a warmup; the perfect time to find out everyone’s hiking pace and get used to the altitude before the higher points we would climb to over the next few days. Our group found our walking pace quite easily and separated into slow, medium and fast-paced groups.
This part of the trail was pretty flat and was made up of dirt, rocks and rough steps. As we were there in late August, we were bordering on the wet season so occasionally we would be walking through sections that were incredible dusty, and others that were muddy. We were lucky to be blessed with almost perfect weather for the majority of our hike.
Along the way, our instructors shared stories and information with us about the origins of the Inca Trail. We learnt that the Inca trail was created to connect the Inca cities to Cusco in the 15th century. The legends and history of the Incas had been passed down through generations in the form of songs and music, and that is how we know what we do about them today.
We saw our first Inca site Llactapata – a phenomenal site carved into a mountain valley. The urban section of the site sat towards the top of the ruins near the mountain sides, and was cleverly designed so there were strategic lookout points around the town. It is estimated to have had a population between 100-200 people in its prime.
We occasionally stopped for breaks – snacking on the food provided to us by the porters and drinking plenty of tea to help with our digestion in the high altitude. Along the trail we passed stalls selling food and drinks, as well as plenty of animals – roosters, horses, donkeys and llamas. We were greeted by the porters in our lunch tent for our first proper meal, which would be the first of many delicious meals throughout the hike.
Overall, the first day was not too difficult, with the most challenging section all uphill in the last 30 minutes. We had walked to one of the furthest campsites, which was in fact past the Day 2 checkpoint. This gave us a little preview of the day ahead.
We arrived at the campsite to the applause of the porters, who knows how long they had been waiting there for us. But to give you an idea, everything had already been set up for us – our tents, fresh hot water for cleaning and our dinner was already being prepared. These porters were incredible, the fact that they can so easily run ahead of you with huge packs on and have everything ready for you completely blows my mind.
We ended the day with a quick rinse, rest and dinner. Most of the group stayed up in the main tent playing card and mystery games, before we took our exhausted selves to bed by 9pm to get a good nights sleep and prepare for the following day – the toughest day on the Inca Trail.
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INCA TRAIL DAY 2: THE CHALLENGE
Wayllabamba to Pacaymay • Distance: 11km
The next day began with an early morning wake up call at 5:30am. As we slowly opened our eyes to the whispers of “buenos días”, a porter appeared at the entrance of our tent with coca tea and another bucket of hot water for washing. We were spoilt at breakfast by the cooks with bread and jam, porridge and crepes with caramel sauce. This was sure to keep us full for the challenging day ahead. While we were finishing our meals, the porters once again worked their magic by packing up our duffels, sleeping bags and tents. After finally working out how to fill our camel baks, we were ready to begin our day of hiking.
Although we were hiking a shorter distance than the other days, we knew this day would be the most difficult due to the high altitude we would be reaching. The first few stops along the hike weren’t overly hard – and we whizzed through each section faster than the approximate time estimate.
We then arrived at the most feared section of the hike – the steep walk up to Warmiwañusca, also known as Dead Woman’s Pass. The section is named after the shape of the mountain top which resembles a woman lying down. Although I’m not sure if I believe that, because this section really was a killer (pun intended).
The rock stairs up to the top were steep and uneven. The further we hiked, the more the altitude started to take effect on most people within our group. It affected everyone differently, although most people began to feel out of breath and get pain in the chest with every step they took. Sooner or later, we were stopping almost every 10 metres to catch our breath and regain our energy. The best thing we could do was to stay positive and chew on some candy and coca leaves. We were almost there, when one of our guides jokingly offered us some oxygen – instead we opted for a sniff of Timolina (a stronger version of Agua de Florida).
The hike up was definitely a test of patience and endurance; it took a lot of effort to keep continuing onwards. Despite the struggle, the view walking up was fascinating! It’s no surprise that we kept using the excuse of stopping to take a photo and admire the scenery, while secretly catching back our breath.
It was such an accomplishment when we made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. We had reached the highest point of the trail at 4215m! We were so exhausted that I have no idea how we managed to take a jumping shot, but it was necessary. We didn’t stay at the top for long due to the cold wind, and we were meant to be having our proper lunch break down the bottom of the trail, not in the high altitude.
The way down was a whole different kind of challenge. The way up was terribly hard work on the chest, whereas the way down was all about the knees and ankles. With many steps and loose rocks down the descent to Pacaymayo Valley, one wrong step could have ended in disaster – thank god for that walking stick!
We reached our campsite between 1-2pm, in perfect time for a short rest before lunch time. We finished off the day with an introduction to all of our porters, we learnt of their lives back at home and their ages – the youngest being 18 and the oldest 50+. We had the rest of the afternoon to relax and take in the lovely view from the campsite, before having dinner and playing more card games with the group.
To be continued…
Is the Inca Trail on your bucket list?
Note: I will do a post on my tips & advice for hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, as well as a packing list for what to bring on the four day hike. Stay tuned!