Imagine you’re in the jungle, a cloud forest. Imagine now you’re in the pampas, or a savannah — now, a tropical savannah. Imagine you’re in the desert, except there are snow-capped peaks on the distant horizon. Imagine you’re on the top of a mountain, 4200m high, shrouded in fog, cold and windy, your lips quickly becoming chapped. You look down far below along the steep and narrow pass you’ve just hiked up, vague disbelief that you made it up this far. You turn to face look down the other side, contemplating the rocky trail you’re about to hike down, surveying how quickly and how far you’ll descend. You look up, beyond, your gaze level, and scan the tops of distant mountains to the next pass you’ll arrive at in six hours. You stop biting your lip, your eyes narrow, you nod, you stand up straighter. You focus on that next pass, determined, ready, hungry. And you go. That’s the Inca trail. And that’s how I spent four days at the end of my time in Peru.
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has long been a dream of mine. I’ve only just realized how many “new wonders of the world”* I’ve seen now; it seems I seek out the impressive sights of the world. The “classic”** Inca Trail takes most people four days, hiking through the Andes with a team of porters to the “lost city of the Incas.”*** Over the course of the hike, I climbed thousands of steps (up and down), ascended and descended meters upon meters upon meters, challenged myself to keep going, was fooled many times into thinking that I needed to go just a little bit farther. I stopped many times along the trail, winded, exhausted, fighting the altitude, but absolutely exhilarated because everywhere I looked no matter which direction, no matter the weather, was astonishingly beautiful. I know you know that pictures don’t do any subject justice, but I still have to say it: these pictures do not any sort of justice to Peru, the Andes, the Inca Trail…
About the food. To say we ate well on the Inca Trail would be an understatement, especially considering where we were: the middle of the Andes Mountains. Each meal we had was like a tasting menu of the Andes: we never went hungry, we never were bored, and we were constantly surprised. We had a lot of potatoes (a new variety each day), quinoa, and corn, and always a lot of coca tea. We had a lot of local dishes, especially our nightly desserts that I really have no clue about, but were good. Our cook was even able to bake us a celebration cake the night before we arrived to Machu Picchu. I’m not going to into too much detail about the food because I’d rather share more photos of the trail, but rest assured that if you hike the Inca Trail, you will not go hungry.
The four-day hike goes something like this:
- Day 1 – the first day: Wake up in Cusco, get to Ollantaytambo (near km 82), start the trail and hike for nearly six hours to the first night’s camp. Start at 2600m, end at 3400m; walk about 12km.
- Day 2 – the hard day: Wake up at 5:00 and start hiking by 6:00. Hike up to the first pass, Warmi Wañusca (Dead Woman’s Pass) at 4200m and then down to Pacamayo at 3600m. Hike back up to second the pass near Runkuraqay at 3900m and then hike back down to the second night’s camp (at 3600m). This took us around 10 hours, and we walked about 18km.
- Day 3 – the easy day: Wake up at 6:00 and start hiking by 7:00 (since we were fast). Walk through jungle Phuyupatamarca and then to Wiñay Wayna, a total of about 4 hours of hiking and 10km, ending at 2700m.
- Day 4 – the Machu Picchu day. Wake up at 3:30 and hike for a moment to the check point, which opens at 5:30. Hike 2 hours first to Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) where you see from a distance Machu Picchu. Hike leisurely for 45 minutes to Machu Picchu, at 2400m, and realize you did it. Spend hours wandering around the site, then go to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, celebrate by sitting in a chair that has a back, and find a shower. Because you haven’t showered in 4 days.
We really lucked out with the weather during the four days we hiked. It rained all of the time we were hiking on the morning of the third day, which was fine for us but unfortunate for the people who arrived to Machu Picchu that day. That’s the thing about hiking in the Andes, especially at the end of rainy season… it may rain, it may not. It may rain all day, it may rain for 20 minutes. Our guide Alex said that April is his favorite time of the trail since it’s not rainy every single day, but it’s still green, and warmer. I tracked the weather prior to leaving and was concerned that everyday would be rainy on the trail; there was an 80% chance of thunderstorms every single day. I thought I would be so let down if I couldn’t see the postcard-perfect picture of Machu Picchu after hiking for four days. I prepared myself for that, but, luckily, that didn’t happen and I got to see it all.
Machu Picchu was incredible. It is indeed the gem of the trail, the driving force, the reason you’re doing this. When you first get to the plateau, you stand there looking at this city on the top of a mountain, the fog rolling in and out, the sight teeming with mystery. Despite the throngs of people, you can’t help but feel the aura of this place. And, then you realize that there’s so much more than just Machu Picchu, and you turn around and see nothing but verdant mountain peaks everywhere you look. It’s hard for your eyes and your mind and your soul to grasp just how awesome**** this place is. Truly, truly awesome. I felt that no more than when I was leaving, and I kept glancing back for one last look, knowing that I was someplace so special, and I likely will never see it again in my lifetime.
Looking back over the whole hike, and looking back at everything leading up to the hike: it really was the journey that made it worth it. I’m sure that if you took a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and then took a bus to see Machu Picchu you would have a lovely time and it would be a nice trip. But the trek… the trek. I’m not saying that we were on an expedition that rivaled Hiram Bingham’s journey and discovery of Machu Picchu or that what I did wasn’t also done by hundreds and thousands of other people. But personally, the trek meant a lot to me. To do it. To overcome it. To champion it. To hear the countless stories Alex told us of all the different people of all ages and types that he’s guided along the trail (including one man who had lost his legs–his LEGS–and did it on prosthetics and crutches anyway) and to know I am now one of them. I’m in good company.
I did it.
* Of the original wonders of the world, aka the seven wonders of the ancient world, only the pyramids of Giza exist today. Now, there are several lists of wonders of the worlds from several sources. Hence, the quotes. But don’t you agree that Machu Picchu is a wonder of the world? It’s just incredible.
** The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is actually a lot longer than what I hiked, and is just a very small portion of the larger Inca road system comprising of nearly 40,000 km ranging from present-day Colombia to Chile and Argentina. I started at km 82, which I think is calculated from Cusco, and while I have no idea how or why this became the “classic” trek, it was worthy of being renowned.
*** Actually, Machu Picchu is not the lost city of the Incas. That title is actually for another Inca city, Vilcabamba, which was the last outpost of the Inca empire until it was destroyed by the Spanish. Hiram Bingham set out to find Vilcabamba but found Machu Picchu instead with the help of a few locals. He actually thought Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba until he died—and he actually stumbled on Vilcabamba before reaching Machu Picchu and deemed them not significant—but alas, he was wrong and the ruins of Vilcabamba were confirmed in the 1960s.
**** The word “awesome” is used here without any trace of hyperbole.