"The" Inca Trail

Cusco Travel Blog

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At the entrance to the Inca Trail: Steve, Tash, me, Sian and Simon

I say "the" Inca trail because there are in fact hundreds (or thousands) of Inca trails that traverse the north-western part of South America, all the way from Bolivia to Ecuador and even Colombia. But, the most famous trail is the one that leads to Macchu Picchu (the deserted, untouched city of the Incas). The standard trek takes about 3.5 days, starting by the river at Km 82. Most of the people on our GAP tour had booked too late to get a place on the trail - they only allow 500 people to enter per day, including porters and guides - so they left us to do an alternative trail, called Lares, and we would meet them a few days later at Macchu Picchu.

So our group was very small, which was nice - just Tash and I, Steve (a pickle company manager from Milwaukee, also on the GAP tour) and a couple from the UK on their honeymoon.

View along the Inca Trail, first day
Our guide, Jorge, was great, professional but approachable and always telling us the right amount of information.

The trail: The first day is quite easy. The trail is sandy and dusty with a few gentle ups and downs and some rocky stairs, but nothing too strenuous. The second day, everyone will say, is the hardest, because you're going uphill until Dead Woman's Pass, which is at 4,200m above sea level. The trail is undulating at first, then starts ascending: a sandy and rocky path with a few steps through subtropical jungle. Very dark and scenic (and not at all what I expected the trail to be like, to be honest). Our first rest stop was at a flat, grassy area where we had snacks and watched the sun peek over the mountains. Tash had lagged behind on that first stretch, and when she finally made it to the rest stop, we found out she'd been struck badly by altitude sickness.

What a gorgeous little thing!
This is very common on the second day, so the porters were all very efficient at getting a mat out for her to lie down on, giving her coca tea and oxygen. Sian, the Welsh newlywed, gave her a flapjack, a serious honey-oat kind of bar (serious because it's so compact and heavy), and Tash perked up a lot after that (she had thrown up earlier).

The hardest part was to come, but we all made it without too many problems. Frequent stopping was the key, I think. From the rest stop to the top of Dead Woman's Pass, it's basically a staircase. We ran the last few steps up to the top of the pass as a group, watched by other amused trekkers (we could hear some incredulous "oh my god, they're running?!"). The view from up there was lovely.

We were given the choice to camp at the lunch site, which was the original plan, or to do an extra 3 hours' hike to a camp further along the trail.

Our chef, Ector (left) and the ten porters
This would, of course, save us time on the last proper day of the trek. Although Tash was still affected by the altitude, she was happy to keep going so after lunch, we headed off on another tough uphill section, then a descending and undulating (Jorge liked to say "Peruvian flat" which meant anything but flat) path to our campsite for the night.

The third day was basically all downhill, on steep, rocky Inca stairs. I hated to think of what sort of damage I was doing to my knees but I'm sure my walking stick helped. (At the start of the trek, Tash was the only one with a walking stick - she liked the condor, puma and snake design on it and even sent it home at the end of the trek. After some convincing, the others bought sticks too, so I couldn't really say no, seeing as I had a bad knee and all, and it was only a few soles for a lightweight bamboo stick with a little embroidered holding piece on the top).

Sian in front of "the Nipple" mountain
There were some beautiful mountain and valley views. The Inca trails we were walking on had foundations some 2 to 6 metres deep! Which is probably why they're still standing today. Crazy Incans.

The fourth day, everyone wakes up super early (3.45am for us) so they can line up in front of the trail gate, ready to do the last leg of the trail to the Sun Gate and then Macchu Picchu. It's crazy, because everyone has a competitive mindset that they have to be first at the sun gate, even though you don't actually get to see the sun rise from there (it's too damn early). So this was probably the worst part of the trek. We were the third group in line, and once the trail was open, the first few people set off at an incredible pace. We all felt pressured to keep up, so it was a wonder that no one fell, seeing as we started off with only our torches to guide us.

The path wasn't exactly easy, still Peruvian flat with lots of rocks and rocky stairs. It would have been almost comical to watch us trying to shed our jackets, scarves and gloves as we're flying over rocks and around twists and turns, if it wasn't so horrible. Anyhow, just before the Sun Gate are the "oh my god stairs" which are a seriously steep set of stairs going up. (Tash had a minor grapple with a woman who was using her stick in an uncooperative manner while trying to ascend the stairs). The Sun Gate was decidedly underwhelming, however, the sense of achievement and relief was unbeatable.

The food, porters and campsites: We were all incredibly impressed by the food. And the porters. Four the six of us, we had 10 porters and one cook.

At the summit of Dead Woman's Pass
I daresay we only needed that many porters because of the quality of the food we ate, and also the fact that we had a lunch tent - with a table and little chairs and even a little gas light at night. Anyhow, our chef was Ector and he cooked up the best meals (it's a pity I was still a bit sick as I couldn't finish most meals). Some of the food we had was: herb bread, avocado salad, trout, porridge, lomo saltado, mash, cheese-ham-spinach rolls, tasty deep fried chicken, spaghetti, chocolate custard, pancakes (with dulce de leche! oh my!), sweet and sour sauce with chicken cordon bleu, fried rice, aljaflores, criolla soup and fruity desserts. Each meal was presented stylishly, and the head waiter, Paulino, would find a new way to fold our napkins and present the cutlery every meal.
An Inca ruin
And every morning we were greeted by two porters who would bring us a selection of tea, right to our tents, and two basins of warm water to wash our faces, and a porter running around with a roll of paper towels so you could dry them. It was so sweet (and luxurious, and somewhat unnecessary but hey).

The porters were as amazing as people say they are. Our porters were "older", anywhere from 35 to 50, except one guy who was 25. On our first morning together, after breakfast, we had a little presentation where all the porters introduced themselves and told us how old they were and if they were married and had any kids. Well, everyone except the young porter and the cook (who was around 24) was married and had at least 1, if not 4 kids. Peruvians (especially in the highlands) look quite young till around 30, where they start to look really, and some of our porters could have passed for grandfathers.

Somewhere along the way
Yet every day they would overtake us as we struggled up the stairs, carrying huge bundles and wearing only sandals. I even saw a plastic bag wrapped around one of the porter's toes, instead of a bandage, I suppose. Anyway, they were all really nice and would say hello when we walked past at the campsite. On our last night as a group, we held another little presentation after dinner, where we gave the porters, the cook and Jorge a big tip (bigger, at least, than what had been suggested). The job was given to me to say thankyou to the porters and cook (in Spanish - we thought it would be nicer than having Jorge translate), and afterwards, they all came up and kissed us on the cheek or shook the guys' hands, which was sweet.

All the groups on the trail camp at certain areas, so seeing other tourists is inevitable.

Mountains under a moody sky
The first night was spent in a grassy area near the tiny village of Huayabamba. I was prepared for super cold weather, but our sleeping bags were so warm (down feather!) that I didn't even need to wear thermals. The second night, our campsite was on a harder, dusty area among other campsites. Both these campsites had toilets, although I think I much preferred doing the other trek (Huaytapallana) where you just had to go wherever. There's something abo,ut being in a dark, confined space covered with and smelling like urine and poo that's hard to get used to. The last campsite is kind of on the side of a hill, so there was a short but steep twisty path to our site, and just enough room up there for our four tents. Everyone camps at the same place on the last night, so there's actually a building with electricity, a bar, hot showers and sit-down toilets.
Winayhuayna, agricultural terraces close to Macchu Picchu
Luxury!

There is another Inca ruin near the last campsite, called Winayhuayna, mainly used for agricultural purposes but really quite impressive, built into the steep mountainside. There were all of two other tourists at the site when we visited, and it had a still-functioning aqueduct and seriously steep stairs running down the centre, but of course, it wasn't quite so impressive when compared to the mother of all Inca ruins...

Macchu Picchu: was one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. I've had a picture of it on my wall for a few years now, but nothing compares to the real thing. The famous view of it is from the path, a couple of hundred metres past the Sun Gate, so you're looking down on the city ruins and the mountain Huayna Picchu behind it.

Me - to show the scale of things
Macchu Picchu means "old mountain" (and "huayna" means young), and the mountain of Macchu Picchu itself is quite big. The view around the mountains are spectacular as well - soaring shadows and distant mountain peaks makes it feel otherworldly.

We met up with the rest of our GAP group and were given a guided tour by Jorge. The city of Macchu Picchu is so big, it would take a few days to really explore all of its little rooms and areas (especially since it's quite tiring going up and down stairs in the hot sun). By midday, the place was teeming with tourists - I'm not sure if the number of tourists are restricted on the site itself. After the tour, we were given a couple of hours to do our own exploring, so I followed the signs to the Inca bridge, followed by Bastiaan (a 15-year-old Dutch boy from the tour) and his father, Erik.

View of Macchu Picchu from the Sun Gate
Except Erik had to stop halfway along due to his fear of heights - the path had a steep drop off to the side. The Inca bridge was actually quite impressive, clinging to the sheer rock face of the mountain, still several metres deep and with a wooden plank across the middle. However, you can't actually reach the Inca bridge as part of the path has been destroyed.

The ruins of Macchu Picchu invite leisurely exploring and I inevitably got lost, but there are so many tourists it's hard to feel isolated. After awhile, it just got too crowded and too hot to continue, so I met up with a few others and caught the bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes where we all had lunch together.

One of Macchu Picchu's resident llamas
So, what an adventure. The trek was fun, not as touristy and a lot more luxurious than I expected. (The Lares trek was apparently only inhabited by locals, no other tourists, and goes higher - to 4,700m, but only lasts for 2 nights). And Macchu Picchu - well, I could go on and on but words aren't half as good as pictures so you'll just have to wait!

travelman727 says:
Great review, you did an excellent job of describing your incredible trek. I look forward to seeing your photos!
Posted on: Aug 06, 2006
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At the entrance to the Inca Trail:…
At the entrance to the Inca Trail…
View along the Inca Trail, first d…
View along the Inca Trail, first …
What a gorgeous little thing!
What a gorgeous little thing!
Our chef, Ector (left) and the ten…
Our chef, Ector (left) and the te…
Sian in front of the Nipple moun…
Sian in front of "the Nipple" mou…
At the summit of Dead Womans Pass
At the summit of Dead Woman's Pass
An Inca ruin
An Inca ruin
Somewhere along the way
Somewhere along the way
Mountains under a moody sky
Mountains under a moody sky
Winayhuayna, agricultural terraces…
Winayhuayna, agricultural terrace…
Me - to show the scale of things
Me - to show the scale of things
View of Macchu Picchu from the Sun…
View of Macchu Picchu from the Su…
One of Macchu Picchus resident ll…
One of Macchu Picchu's resident l…
We made it! Steve, Simon and Sian,…
We made it! Steve, Simon and Sian…
The famous viewpoint of the Macchu…
The famous viewpoint of the Macch…
Pretty much the same view, but bas…
Pretty much the same view, but ba…
Becca and Ann in front of MP terra…
Becca and Ann in front of MP terr…
The Inca bridge, impressively buil…
The Inca bridge, impressively bui…
Spectacular mountains, viewed from…
Spectacular mountains, viewed fro…
Cusco
photo by: Vlindeke