4-Day Classic Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu
I planned our entire 13th anniversary trip to Peru around the Inca trail hike. I know, I know, it's not an ideal way to celebrate anniversaries for most people (including my husband), but sometimes I manage to get my way and my husband reluctantly agreed :) After 13 years, he knows better than to ask - Why can't we do beach vacations like others, though he still tries that once in a while ;) I really wanted to do a multi-day hike and at 26 miles long and ~14,000 ft. altitude, the Inca trail leading to Machu Picchu, the symbol of Incan Empire (not to mention one of the New Seven Wonders of the World), seemed like a great option to me. As much as my husband initially complains, I knew (and really hoped) he will come to enjoy it as much as I would :). To know more about this classic and often a bucket-list hike, read on...
The classic 4-day, 3-night Inca trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu is super popular the world over and a bucket-list hike for many. However, it is not permitted to hike the Inca trail without a guide and there is a cap on the number of people that can hike in a day. So you typically need to book the tour months in advance, especially if you want to hike in the peak tourist (dry) season of June-August. There are several great tour operators in Cusco, and I booked with Alpaca Expeditions 5 months in advance to secure the dates in August. We had a fantastic experience with them and would definitely recommend them - they were super organized and fed us really well :)
I am not sure if the Inca Trail attracts certain kind of visitors or we just got lucky, but our hiking group of 16 people was simply awesome. It comprised of enthusiastic people from all over the world (though mostly Europe), most of them in their late 20s/early 30s (we had one energetic 14-year old Riley too), in pursuit of themselves . We exchanged our stories and got along really well which made the whole experience so much better. Our group is led by 2 guides (Roro and Puma) and supported by a team of 22 porters and 2 chefs (total 26 people) from Alpaca Expeditions, who made our lives so much easier and better throughout the hike. Roro was lively and fun and Puma was quite supportive. I can truly say that our experience wouldn't have been the same without Alpaca Expeditions or this hiking group.
Now comes the nitty-gritties of our hike:
We were picked up around 4:30 am from our hotel in Cusco and transported by bus to Ollantaytambo, a beautiful town in the Sacred Valley of Peru that is about 1.5 hrs from Cusco. After having a breakfast prepared by our team chefs, the porters took our duffel bags and our bus took us to the starting point of the hike called 'KM 82', which is another 30 minutes from there. We spent about 30 minutes in line waiting to show our passports and get started with our hike. And finally, around 8:45 am there we were at the beginning of the trail - KM 82 at ~8,900 ft.
The hike began mildly and slowly and we were surrounded by the Andes mountains, with the Urubamba river flowing next to us. We stopped at a few viewpoints and tea houses on the way and our guide took his time explaining about the Inca ruins and their way of life.
Around 1:45 pm, we were served a multi-course lunch including soup and after a short break, we began hiking again. It was getting hot in the afternoon and the elevation started picking up. After we hit 10,000 ft, our breathing started to get a bit heavy. The combination of the heat, altitude and elevation made the next couple of hours of hiking hard. We reached our campsite around 5:15 pm - after hiking ~9 miles and an elevation gain of ~2,000 ft. Our tents were already set up by then and duffel bags ready for us. After taking a break and cleaning up, we had a hot-chocolate happy hour followed by sumptuous dinner around 7:30 pm. After quite a bit of chit-chat, we slept around 9 pm .
We got a wake-up call at 4 am and were served hot coca tea to start our day. We were also given warm water to freshen up, after which we packed our duffel bags and filled up our camelbacks. We had our breakfast and were on the trail to begin hiking around 6 am. Our porters packed the tents behind us and carried them along with our duffel bags and other equipment.
The plan is to hike to Dead Women's Pass in the next 4 hours, which is an elevation gain of 3,000 ft. I am not even sure what the hiking distance is, because everyone on the trail speaks in terms of hiking time (Me: How far is it from our campsite to Dead Women's Pass? Our Guide: 4 hrs), which we found quite amusing initially but eventually got used to.
We started at ~11,000 ft and let's just say the next 4 hours were grueling. The elevation combined with the altitude meant we had to stop every few minutes to catch our breath. There were a lot of stairs along the trail and each of us had a different pace. It felt like we all needed to be in our own zone to get through what is ahead of us. But by 10 am, we were all at the top. What a relief! This was the highest point in the trail and we all made it. And luckily, no one in the group was seriously affected by the altitude sickness, though we ended up chewing a lot of coca leaves and eating coca candy on the way (which supposedly helps with the altitude sickness but which, only later I learned, are the same leaves that cocaine is made from). If it took coca leaves to get us up to Dead Women's Pass, so be it :)
After a short break and a few pics, we began our descent. The surroundings started to get greener and this is when I started to enjoy the hike. I was quite slow going uphill but can almost run downhill and reached our lunch spot in about an hour (2,000 ft down). It was a beautiful spot and we were able to take a long break here and get some rest after lunch.
We began our afternoon hike which is an elevation gain of 1,300 ft to our Second Pass (Runkuracay). I found hiking post lunch even harder and I got even slower but we only had to hike about 1.5 hrs uphill and then it was downhill again to our campsite.
Just as we were totally exhausted, the weather got cooler, the mountains got greener and the mist made everything prettier. After a quick break, I went at my happy downhill pace and reached the campsite by 4:30 pm.
Our campsite was a beautiful location but there were a million bugs at sunset. I have no idea how we survived the next couple of hours with bugs biting us everywhere (including the scalp and the butt). Our mosquito patches were of absolutely no help but James later told me that 'Skin so soft' dry oil spray from Avon was a life saver. But things got better once we all huddled in our dinner tent. It was my husband's birthday (which he shared with James in our group) and I requested a cake in advance which our Chef brought at dinner that night. We all sang the birthday song, ate the cake, shared some stories and called it a night.
It was a long day - we hiked 10 miles over an elevation change of 7,500 ft and that was no mean feat for us :) It is said that Day 2 is the most challenging part of the hike and it was now behind us. My husband was in good spirits at the end of the day and I was happy that he wasn't mad at me on his birthday.
By now, we got used to waking up at 4 am, though we didn't start hiking until 7 am on this day. This was supposed to be an easy day with only 6.25 miles of hiking and 200 ft elevation gain, with the rest of it being downhill (~3,300 ft down from the highest point). We would be done by lunch time, visit Inca ruins in the afternoon and just take a break. Soon after we began our hike, we got good views of the Salkantay Mountains.
We reached the 3rd pass (Phuyupatamarca) at around 9 am and spent an hour enjoying the 360 degree panoramic views while trying to pay attention to our guide talking about the Inca ruins.
We then began our descent to 'Intipata', which is one of the most beautiful spots along the Inca trail. The descent took us about 2 hours and it was a meditative experience for me walking through the jungle towards our next archeological site. I was by myself most of the time, absorbing the beautiful scenery and just enjoying being in the moment.
When we reached 'Intipata', we were taken aback by the spectacular view of the Urubamba valley and the surrounding mountains. It is moments like this that make the hike so worth it.
After spending some time here and clicking some pictures, we headed to our campsite and lunch spot at Winay Huayna. There were cold showers available at this campsite and it was quite refreshing in that hot weather, especially when taking a shower after 2 days :) There is no hiking for the rest of the day and the plan is to just chill in the afternoon and visit a popular archeological site in the evening - Winay Wayna.
The weather was perfect, the views were amazing, and the site was fantastic. We admired their agricultural terraces, their ingenious water filtration method and their solid construction. And what an unbeatable location!
We woke up at 3:30 am and were in the line at the campsite checkpoint by 4:30 am for the gates to open to start hiking at 5:30 am. We did 'pranayama' for some time and chatted the rest of the time as we patiently waited for the gates to open. Once they did, it was a beautiful 1 hour hike to the 'Sun Gate'. As I watched the glorious sunrise on Day 4 from the trail, I was almost sad that the hike was coming to an end.
It was another 1 hour hike from the Sun Gate to the Machu Picchu viewpoint. The view of the Machu Picchu with the backdrop of Huayna Pichhu mountain was amazing. We spent some time at the view point, clicked some pics and headed to the restaurant before we began the tour of Machu Picchu. By then it was past 9:30 am and it was getting hot. What the Incas have built at Machu Picchu was impressive and truly admirable and our guide did his best to explain the architecture. But we were all tired by then and the heat was getting to us. It was a bit anti-climactic that we hiked for 3 days to be there but now that we are there, we can't wait for the tour to be done and get back in the shade. But I am glad we enjoyed the journey and the company, which is what matters most of the time.
We then took a bus to Aguas Calientes and had our last lunch together with the group and the guides. We had some arm wrestling competitions in the restaurant which were super fun. After spending a couple of hours having a great time together, we then headed to the train station to board a train to Ollantaytambo.
The train ride itself was beautiful - we passed through mountains and rivers and reached our destination in no time. I love train rides and I wished it lasted longer.
We then boarded a bus again to Cusco and were dropped off at our respective hotels. We took a much needed hot shower and called it a night.
Overall, hiking the Inca trail with this group was a great experience - it was a good mix of challenge (Days 1 & 2) and beauty (Days 3 & 4). Alpaca Expeditions was fantastic, so was our hiking group - My husband thoroughly enjoyed their company while the introvert in me alternated between interesting conversations and meditative silence on the trail. I would definitely recommend this experience!