Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail
Day 1 – June 29, 2010 (10 km | 6.2 miles)
My journey to Machu Picchu began early in the morning. Around 5 o’clock, the van from Wayki Trek pulled up in front of the hostel to pick me up and off we went. Rather than going straight to the trail head, the plan was to take a detour to a remote village to pick up the rest of the group who had had spent the night there. We drove for a ways down the highway into the dark Peruvian countryside. We eventually turned off the paved highway and began bouncing across a lonely gravel road for about 30 minutes. As the first rays of sunlight began to penetrate the eastern sky, I began to see the landscape more clearly. We were driving through wide open fields of golden grass and what appeared to be freshly harvested corn. In the distance, snow capped peaks glowed in the light of the rising sun. It was beautiful. If only my camera wasn’t buried in my backpack at the back of the van, I would of had some photos to share.

We eventually came to a small community and pulled up in front of one the mud brick houses. It was one of two single room buildings on a farm, with livestock and other farm animals milling around. It was freezing cold outside, and with all the freshly harvested crops scattered around in heaps it felt more like a crisp fall morning. I followed my guide into one of the buildings, where we reunited with the Canadian couple we had met the day before to have breakfast. Despite the cold temps, the room was actually pretty cozy. The walls were black from the smoke that came from the small fire in the corner of the room, where an elderly Peruvian woman prepared our meal. I took a seat on some alpaca wool that was draped over a small stone wall on the far side of the table and right away felt something scurry across my feet. It was a guinea pig! As my eyes adjusted to the semi-dark room, I noticed there was probably close to a hundred of them scurrying across the floor. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, skinny ones, round ones, long ones…they were cute little critters but they were pretty noisy. Anyway, breakfast consisted of some sort of lima bean tea, potatoes, bread, and of course guinea pig (which I was I glad to have never had one for a pet). Despite the fact that they were running about under the table, I managed to push my guilt aside and tried guinea pig for the second time. I wasn’t as tough this time and tasted less gamey. I actually enjoyed it better the second time around. We then thanked the woman and her family for breakfast and proceeded onward on our journey. About thirty minutes later the road descended into a big canyon, known as the Sacred Valley. We took a pit stop in Ollantaytambo (one of the towns located in the valley) for a bathroom break and to get some snacks for the trek. At this point, the sun was already rising higher in the sky and it was getting much warmer out–quite a contrast from the freezing cold we experienced earlier. The trail head was just a little further down the road from there and in no time at all were were all checked in and ready to begin the four day hike to Machu Picchu!

Day one was pretty easy. It got us warmed up for all the uphill hiking we would do on the next day–the hardest day. For the most part, day one on the trail was spent walking parallel to the Urubamba River. It eventually leaves the river and turns west, gradually ascending into the mountains. We took breaks from time to time and Edgar was give us some insight on the nearby plants and fauna. There were a lot of desert-like shrubs growing along this part of the trail, including cactus and agave. But as we went higher up, the vegetation became more dense and more tropical-looking. Locals still use this section of trail for transportation and we passed a few small communities along the way. We walked for about four hours before arriving at Camp 1 in Huayllabamba (with a one hour lunch stop along the way). After getting settled in at camp, I went to explore some of the nearby Inca Ruins with my fellow trek-mate, James. As the sun went down, the temperature dropped quite a bit and it became fairly cold. Not unusual really, when you’re high in the mountains. We returned to camp where we had a great dinner and headed off to bed. Day one–complete!

Driving through the Sacred Valley early in the morning enroute to KM 82–aka the trail head!

More views of the Sacred Valley from the road.

The ruins of an old Inca fortress overlook the town of Ollantaytambo.

The Inca Trail! This was the first check-in point and the start of the trek.

The Urubamba River flows past Machu Picchu to the Amazon and finally the Atlantic Ocean. That would be one heck of a rafting trip!

Most people get to Machu Picchu by train. We took this on the return trip back to Cusco after we finished the trek.

Mount Veronica (18,635 ft) could be seen throughout most of the trek.

Patallacta…this settlement was believed to be the agricultural center of this region of the Incan Empire. All the terraces you see at these sites were used to grow crops.

Locals still use this segment of the trail on a daily basis for transportation.

We ate lunch at this spot on the first day of the hike.

Huayllabamba…these ruins were located about 5 minutes walk from our campsite. Pretty cool!

Inside of my tent at Camp 1 after a day’s worth of walking!

Day 2 – June 30, 2010 (12 km | 7.5 miles)
We all woke up around 6:30 AM to pack up, eat breakfast, and prepare for the hardest day of the trek. The reason why day two is considered the most difficult is not because of the distance, but because it is mostly all uphill hiking. Many people aren’t aren’t conditioned working out in a high-altitude environment, where the oxygen levels are relatively lower than at lower elevations. 

After breakfast, I sipped up a cup of coca tea and started walking uphill. This part of the trail, which is essentially a giant staircase, started out in a subtropical cloud forest (one of the highest in the world). On this day, groups often temporarily split up as people are encouraged to walk at their own pace. Being a naturally fast walker, I was soon separated from my group and spent most of the day interacting with different people from other groups. People from all over the world kept me company as we made our way up the mountainside.  At one point, a herd of llamas came running up the trail behind us. It was a tempting thought to capture one to ride up the mountain with!

Eventually the forest gave away to open terrain and we could see the summit looming far ahead. Thankfully, the weather was mostly clear so we had great views the whole way up. After two hours of huffing and puffing up the mountainside, I finally made it to the summit of Warmiwañuska (Dead Woman’s Pass). At an elevation of 13,830 feet, we were high above the clouds that I could see out in the distance on the other side. Despite the thin air, it wasn’t hard to breathe and I didn’t experience altitude sickness like I did in Quito. I sat down to enjoy the view and had a snack for about 30 minutes before heading down the other side of the pass to Camp 2.

Huayllabamba (Camp 1) from our campsite. Looks like it’s gonna be another great day!

Going up!

Llamas! Sorry for the blurriness, it was kind of dark in the forest. I walked with them for nearly 20 minutes.

Made it up to the summit in two hours. What a view!

The summit marker at 4,200 m (13,830 feet).

Mount Huayanay…one of the many glaciated peaks we saw from the trail.

Looking back down the mountain toward Camp 1. 

The walk downhill to Pacaymayu (Camp 2) only took an hour and fifteen minutes, but it was a lot steeper and there were more stairs. I waited outside of the campground for a little while until one of our porters came along and showed me the way to our campsite. A little while later, the rest of the group arrived and we all had lunch. I spent most of my time at Camp 2 in my tent, watching the clouds coming and going through the campsite. It was pretty neat–one moment the sun would be out and the next we would be shrouded in fog so thick that we could only see a few feet in front of us.

Heading downhill from Dead Woman’s Pass.

Porters setting up Camp 2. Those guys are troopers–they carry packs much heavier than what we carry and normally run the trail to get ahead of the group to set up camp…and some of them do it in sandals!

Watching the clouds come and go from my tent.

At dinner, our guide told us that the Inca Trail is the first big hike for many people. He said the average travel time between Camp 1 and Camp 2 is about five hours (four hours if you’re really fast). I made it in 3 hours 45 minutes, which made me appreciate all the “practice” I get from hiking so much back home in the Pacific Northwest. Although day two was pretty short, the uphill climb tired me out pretty good so I ended up falling asleep in my tent around 7PM. Overall, I got a total of 14 hours of sleep! It was magical.

Day 3 – July 1, 2010 (16 km | 9.9 miles)
On day three of the trek, I woke up around 6:30 AM to a hot cup of coca tea served by one of the porters (nice people they are!) and crawled out of my sleeping bag. Pacaymayu (Camp 2) is at an elevation of 11,800 feet, unsurprisingly, the morning was freezing cold. Unlike the previous days, where we enjoyed sunny mornings, it was cloudy and overcast.

Coca Tea…the plant is illegal in the U.S. but is grown Peru to help alleviate with altitude sickness. Some say it tastes like dandelions. I thought it tasted a bit like green tea.

Since we were supposed to explore some Inca ruins along the way, we all hiked as a group again. The third day consisted of hiking up two more mountain passes. The second mountain pass was a fairly short distance away from Camp 2, but it was a steep hike. On the way up we took a break at a semi-circle shaped Inca structure which had some nice views of Camp 2. As we climbed higher, the fog slowly began to dissipate to clear skies. At the summit of the second pass (elev. 12,960 feet), we found ourselves just breaking the surface of a sea of clouds with snowy peaks visible in the distance. We spent about 15 minutes up top enjoying the views and taking pictures.

Looking down at Camp 2 from some nearby Inca ruins.

View from the top of the second pass. Sacsarayoc (~19,400 feet) towers over a mass of clouds.

Me near the top of the second pass.

From the second pass we headed downhill for about an hour to Sayac Marca, the ruins of a small Inca town. After spending some time there we continued down the trail to our lunch spot for the day.

Ruins of Sayac Marca

View from our lunch spot.

Once lunch was finished, we set out to hike up to the third and last pass of the trek. The trail up to the pass was gradual and not very steep so the walk was pretty easy. Along the way we got some peek-a-boo views of Salkantay, the highest peak visible from the Inca Trail at 20,574 feet. We also encountered a tunnel that was once a cave but the Incas further carved it out so the trail could pass through. Pretty cool stuff! Once we made it up to the third pass, it was pretty much all downhill from there to Camp 3.

Inca tunnel! There was actually two parts to it–one part was a somewhat lit staircase while the second dark and flat.

Salkantay, the highest peak visible from the Inca Trail at over 20,000 feet.

Me at the summit of the third pass with Mount Veronica in the background.

Stair-building seriously must have been the great Inca pastime. Over 70% of the Inca Trail is made up of stone stairs.

After the third pass, we descended into the lush green Peruvian cloud forest. We were walking in the jungle, but we could clearly see glaciated peaks just a few miles away. What a contrast! And absolutely gorgeous.

For most of the day we had been walking among the clouds. But once we got to this point in the trail, the sun came out for good and we were blessed with awesome weather for the rest of the trip!

Camp 3 is situated at 2,700 meters (8,858 feet), which is considerably lower than any other point on the trek. This region is considered to be in the outer reaches of the Amazon rain forest, so the vegetation there was green and lush. We saw many different kinds of plants and flowers growing there (lots of orchids), some of which are only found in this particular area. I wasn’t sure how warm it was, but it was much warmer than the first and second camps and more humid. After we settled into camp, I joined my group in a 10 minute walk to the nearby ruins called Wiñay Wayna. Other than Machu Picchu, it was the largest settlement we encountered on the trek. We were fortunate to find that no other groups had arrived yet so we had the whole place to ourselves.

Wiñay Wayna…in English it means “Forever Young”.

Jagged peaks of the Andes…Mount Veronica is hiding behind the clouds on the upper right.

Inca houses…a temple sits on top of the hill in the background.

Just as we were leaving, a ton of other groups began to show up.

After exploring the ruins, we headed back for some dinner and pretty much just chilled for a while. The stars were out and I could clearly see the Southern Cross. The stars in the Southern Hemisphere are so much more vivid and brilliant than they are back home. For one, there is a lot less pollution. Two, there were no city lights interfering since we were virtually out in the middle of nowhere. We eventually all headed off to bed, dozing off to the sounds of the jungle medley (frogs and crickets).

Day 4 – July 2, 2010 (9 km | 5.6 miles)
Day four was our last day of the trek. We woke up around 3:30AM to pack up and have breakfast before heading down the trail to get in line for the last checkpoint. The gates opened two hours later at 5:30 and it was another 1 1/2 hours walk to Machu Picchu. Although there were hundreds of other people on the trail throughout the entirety of the trek, it never felt crowded until today. Everyone gets in line early to make it to Machu Picchu by sunrise and we were maybe the 5th group in line. Once we made it through the checkpoint, nearly everyone rushed down the trail at a brisk pace. We actually pretty much jogged along the trail in the dark to Intipunku–the Sun Gate. The path was pretty flat, hugging the mountainside, until just before we arrived at the Sun Gate, where we climbed up a very steep flight of stairs. At the top, we were rewarded with our first view of Machu Picchu.

My first view of Machu Picchu!

Group photo! Me on the left, the two Canadians in the middle, and our guide on the right. Our group was smaller compared to some of the others, but they were good people to hike with 🙂

We didn’t stay very long at the Sun Gate. The sun had not yet come up so we proceeded to hike down to Machu Picchu to see the sun rise. And let me tell you, it was glorious! The pictures don’t do justice when it comes to capturing how awesome it was to watch the sun rise at one of the Seven Wonders of the New World. Once the ruins were fully bathed in sunlight, our guide took us on a tour of the entire compound. After the tour was finished, our guide headed back to Aguas Calientes while I joined the Canadians to explore the ruins on our own. It turned out to be a pretty hot day, so we headed up to the guard tower that overlooks the ancient city–it was cooler up there with the breeze. Machu Picchu is the home of several llamas that normally spend most of their time grazing among the ruins, but they were all up at the guard house to seek shelter from the sun. We got lucky and had an incredible photo opportunity. 🙂

Sunrise on Machu Picchu…one of my most memorable experiences!

Our guide told us that over 1,000 people lived here–on top of a mountain.

The Temple of the Sun…there are two windows in this structure, both of which were measured to align exactly with the sun on the summer and winter solstices.

Some of the local wildlife…these little lizards were everywhere!

Beautiful scenery. I’ve never seen a landscape quite like it before. The Urubamba River, which we had crossed the first day of the trek, meanders its way through the mountains on its journey to the Amazon Basin and finally to the Atlantic Ocean.

There were some places that dropped off straight down into the valley thousands of feet below. It’s amazing how they managed to build a whole settlement on a mountain like that!

No one is really fully sure, but Machu Picchu might have still been under construction when the Incas abandoned it. It’s believed that it was occupied for only 100 years before the Incas fled in fear that they would be discovered by the Spanish conquistadors who had conquered other settlements in the region. The Spanish never found the ruins and the Incas never returned. Machu Picchu became forgotten for nearly 500 years.

Chinchilla! We saw quite a few of these chinchillin’ on the rocks around the ruins.

Probably my favorite photo from the trip.

Around noon we left the ruins and caught a bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes. We met up with our guide at a restaurant and had lunch together for one last time. After saying farewell to the group, I walked across the small town to check in to my hostel. While everyone else took the train back to Cusco that afternoon, I decided to spend an extra day in the area.

After settling in to my room and cleaning up from four days worth of sweat and dirt, I headed out to explore the town for a bit. The town itself is very small. The rail line that connects to Cusco runs through the middle of town and is really the only way in and out–there are no roads. I walked through some of the markets and found that the local economy seemed to be entirely dependent on tourism. Aside from a few houses, the settlement mostly consists of a train station, hostels, hotels, restaurants, pubs, and souvenir vendors. I thought about picking up some souvenirs, but everything was pretty pricey. I decided to save my soles to do some shopping when I returned to Cusco where it was cheaper. As there wasn’t much to see in town, I took a walk along the river down the road to find a trail that I planned on taking the following day on my return trip to Aguas Calientes (instead of taking the bus back down).

The main plaza in Aguas Calientes.

The Urubamba River

Aguas Calientes

The road to Machu Picchu.

It was getting dark by the time I got back and I headed back to my room. It was maybe only 7 o’clock when I got ready for bed and turned on the TV. I fell asleep watching The Hulk in Spanish.

Day 5 – July 3, 2010
I woke up at around 4:00 AM and headed downstairs. Before I made it out the door, the girl working the night shift offered to make me breakfast. She made scrambled eggs and toast, which was really nice of her. I thanked her when I was done and walked down the street to the bus station to catch a ride to Machu Picchu. It was only 4:30, but there was already a good-sized line forming. By the time the buses finally began operating at 5:30 the line was huge, extending few blocks down the street. I made it on the fourth bus up the mountain. The bus ride really is an adventure in itself–driving up the steep mountainside, careening around several sharp corners in the dark, praying that the buses returning downhill don’t collide into you. Luckily, I made it to the park in time to be one of the few people to get a pass to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the ruins). Due to the sensitivity of the trail and the fact that there isn’t much room on top of the mountain, they only allow 400 people a day to go up. I was #120, in the first group (the other 200 go later in the day).

While waiting for the park to open, I talked to a family next to me in line who were also scheduled to climb the mountain in the first group. It turns out they were from Seattle! At this point I didn’t think the world could get any smaller, but it did…one of them was also a current student at the UW! What are the chances? I’m not really sure, but it was pretty cool. I talked them for a while until we entered the park, where we eventually parted ways. I still had an hour to kill before I was scheduled to climb up Huayna Picchu so I just wandered the ruins and took some more photos. Unlike the previous day, the weather was overcast and cloudy. I actually think I prefer it in this setting. The clouds and mist wisping through the ruins and dense jungle definitely add to the aura of mystique that Machu Picchu is so well known for. 

An overcast day over Machu Picchu.

I think this structure was some kind of observatory–a place were astronomical ceremonies took place.

Once the time came, I headed over to the far side of the ruins and got in line. It was cloudy for most of the morning, but at this time the sun had come up and the clouds began to break away to another sunny day–perfect weather for hiking! The trail to the summit starts out with a short descent before heading up a steep narrow trail with a ton of stairs. The trip itself didn’t take too long, maybe only 25 minutes. Near the top is a cave that I had to crawl though. It was a pretty tight squeeze as my backpack scraped along the rock. The summit is a short scramble away from the cave exit and I found a most a rewarding view, totally worth the effort it took to get there.

Waiting in line at the gate of Huayna Picchu.

Huayna Picchu! The path to the top is very steep and narrow. From the picture, it looks nearly impossible to get to the top without proper gear.

Almost there! I ran into the Seattle family again at this point as we all made the final push to the summit.

Machu Picchu from the summit of Huayna Picchu. Note the switchbacks on the left–that’s the road we took earlier in the morning.

The crowded summit.

Taking it all in…I would recommend climbing the peak to anyone else who visits Machu Picchu.

Watch that first step–it’s a doozie!

After a while it got a little crowded up at the top so I started heading down the back side of the mountain towards a place called the Temple of the Moon. Along the way I found a geocache hidden just below the summit–my first in Peru! As I was putting it back, three young women came down the trail who were also going to the temple so I joined them. I think the trail going down this side of the mountain was much steeper than going up, taking us 45 minutes to get to the bottom. The Temple of the Moon was kind of a lonely place–there weren’t too many people around when we got there.

The Temple of the Moon…mummies were discovered here.

After taking a break and exploring a bit, the girls headed back up to the top of Huayna Picchu while I finished the loop and went back to Machu Picchu. I still had a lot of free time left before I needed to head back to Cusco, so I found another geocache hidden among the ruins and hung out at the guard house for an hour or so just enjoying the view. When the time finally came, I took one last look of the ancient city and proceeded down the trail back to Aguas Calientes.

Me on the bridge at the bottom of the mountain over the Urubamba River.

So long Peru! Until next time…

It only took an hour to get back to Aguas Calientes. I tried the Inca method of running down the big steps and it actually worked pretty well! After arriving back in town I grabbed my stuff and checked out of the hostel. I had a ticket to take the train back to Cusco, so I headed down the street to the train station. A crowd was watching the World Cup on TV in the station, which kept me occupied for an hour and a half until the train finally arrived. The ride back was fun–I sat with two Peruvian women and another guy about my age from Iowa. It was nice talking with them as I got a chance to practice my Spanish.

Two hours later, the train stopped in Ollantaytambo and we all had to get out. Back in February, the region experienced major flooding that wiped out a section of the tracks between Cusco and Ollantaytambo (which consequently closed Machu Picchu to the public for several months). Since the tracks were still being reconstructed, the remainder of the trip back to Cusco was done by bus so we all packed into several buses that PeruRail  had provided. The ride seemed to take forever (I got on the last one) but we eventually made it to Cusco a few hours later.  I checked back into the same hostel I stayed at before and got settled into my room. Surprisingly, I wasn’t very tired so I went to the living room and watched a movie with two other people staying at the hostel (an American and a Canadian). By the time the movie was over, the exhaustion I should have experienced earlier from the past few days finally hit me so I headed back to my room and crashed.

Cusco
Day 6 – July 4, 2010 (Last Day)
Happy Birthday America! This was my last day in Peru and I celebrated the 4th mostly waiting in airports. In Cusco, I wanted to get a few things before heading off the airport in the afternoon, so I went to the market and browsed around for a while. I got some more flat bread (so good!) to snack on later in the day as well as some wool hats for friends and family back home. After I was done exploring the market one last time, I headed back to the hostel. I still had some free time after packing up, so I watched another movie with some Canadians (lots of traveling Canadians in Peru it seems). When the time came, I headed out the door and caught a taxi to the airport.

I arrived in Lima (the capital of Peru) around 3:00 PM and my flight to New York City didn’t leave until 12:30 AM…lovely. During the long layover, I had a “BBQ” consisting of a hot dog, some chips, and M&M’s that I got from one of the food stands. Other than that, there’s really not much to say about sitting around for several hours…although I did see someone I met at the hostel in Cusco right before they got on their flight to Chile. When the time finally came, I boarded the plane and got settled in for the eight hour flight. Once the plane took off, I watched the Bourne Identity (finally!) and Date Night before finally falling asleep.

Notes on Peru:

  • Machu Picchu is a must. They say the best time to go is toward the end of May or early June, since that’s when the rainy season ends and there aren’t many tourists. At the time I went (end of June/early July) the ruins were packed during the day. At least the weather was awesome!
  • In my opinion, the best way to experience Machu Picchu is by taking the Inca Trail (or any other trail to MP). Sure the train ride was pretty cool, but the trek through the mountains and having the opportunity to watch the sunrise on the ancient city was unforgettable. And honestly, it was probably the most luxurious camping trip I’ve ever been on. I carried all of my own personal gear (clothes, sleeping bag/pad, camera, etc), but the porters carried everything else (tents, food, etc). And the food they cooked for us was amazing! I would say the meals we had probably made up 25% of the awesomeness of the trip :).
  • Inca Kola! Enough said :).
  • I noticed a few times while converting currencies that the banks won’t exchange any bills that are damaged. I had a $10 bill with the tiniest tear and they wouldn’t accept it. So make sure to take good care of your money.

That’s all that I have for Peru. Now on to New Jersey back in the good old US of A!

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4 thoughts on “Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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