Hiking the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu
Updated: Jul 7, 2020
This one has been on my bucket list for a long time! It was challenging, it was fun, it was really, really cold, and we loved it. It’s also something we managed to do in nine days (five work days and two weekends), and not many of the “big” hiking adventures can be done in that short of a time frame (like Mount Kilimanjaro or the Milford Track in New Zealand). But if you have kids that need to be taken care of, nine days might simply be the longest you can pull off….
In this post I will try to describe not only the different parts of the trail but also what we learned in the process of hiking it. Hopefully there is something useful in there for you!
First of all, if you plan to hike the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu, make sure you are picking the right trail: every trail that goes through the Andes Mountains and ends at Machu Picchu is in one way or another an “Inka Trail” (as in: a trail that was created and used by the Inkas). For example: the fantastic looking expedition offered by National Geographic features a hike that ends in Machu Picchu but is not the “one-and-only” Inka Trail. It’s a similar trail that allows you to sleep in lodges and we almost considered it (as it looks absolutely gorgeous), but then opted for the “real deal”.
Only a limited number of hikers are allowed on the Inka Trail each day and before you book anything else, make sure the trail is actually available for the number of hikers in your party on the days you are looking for. Funnily, our first attempt to book was for arrival at Machu Picchu on June 21, which happens to be the day of the Winter Solstice — the single most coveted day in the year to be in Machu Picchu.....but we didn't know!
At dawn on June 21, when the very first light rises over the mountains, it shines through one of the two windows of the Temple of the Sun and illuminates the ceremonial stone within. (The second window is for the sun’s rays on summer solstice.)
Needless to say, we couldn’t get the permits and had to move everything around. So don’t shoot for June 21 unless you are really early in the game….it will be the first day to be booked out.
In order to go on the trail you need to hire a government licensed guide and you will probably go through a trekking company to book your porters (they are not Sherpas….that’s only in the Himalayas). Some things to consider are: how luxurious do you want to get and therefore, how many porters do you need? Are you willing to go with other people or do you want to go private? What do you want the quality of your food to be like? And how many pounds do you feel comfortable carrying yourself?
Choose a trekking company that takes good care of their porters. We saw porters that didn’t have proper shoes on and were wearing recycled tires on their feet. Nobody can possibly feel good about that kind of tourism! Choose a trekking company that also takes good care of you: your porters should have oxygen tanks, a satellite phone and a plan to get you down the mountain should you break an ankle or get sick.
For us, this trip was an anniversary trip, so we didn’t want to hike with a group. We had our guide and porters all to ourselves. Our fabulous travel agent Liora found us a great trekking company and also made sure we got pampered, so we ended up with a completely over-the-top porter situation. When we checked in for our hike, we were greeted by a crew of a guide, a chef, a massage therapist, and 19 porters….just for us! It was a little embarrassing at first and I think we were somewhat famous at the end of the four days….even after our return to Cusco a couple stopped us and asked: Did you just do the Inka Trail? Weren’t you the guys with the toilet tent and the two million porters? As I said: unforgettable anniversary trip…..
In retrospect, some of the luxuries we had were unnecessary: porcelain and glassware for example. Others were very much appreciated: Do you need a toilet tent? No, absolutely not, there are plenty of bathrooms! But during a hail storm at 3am in the dark during freezing conditions you will be so glad that you only have to go to the tent next door and not to the public restroom 100 yards from your tent. We also appreciated the one glass of wine we got each night for dinner.
The hike takes four days and three nights. There are several campgrounds on the way and the government assigns them individually to each hiking group. Therefore, your daily hikes might look very different depending on where you stop to pitch your tent. Our third day happened to be very short, which meant we had to leave very early on the fourth day and missed some ruins as it was dark when we passed them. On the other hand, the third night campground we were assigned was the most beautiful one, with breathtaking views all around and wild llamas visiting our tents.
Here is a look at the four days:
Day 1: The trail officially starts at km 82 on the road outside the city of Ollantaytambo. Once you have crossed the Urubamba River, you have officially started your trek on the ancient steps of the Inkas. Day 1 of the trek is pretty easy, no matter what. It’s the starter day and it’s a way for you to get used to the altitude and for your guide to assess your physical condition. If you get stuck somewhere on the trail and need to be evacuated, there is only one way down: the same way you came up. Helicopters can’t land here and you either get a donkey to carry you, or your porters have to carry you. Making sure that you are actually in shape to do this is crucial, not only for you, but also for the crew.
During the day, we passed the beautiful ruins of Huayllabamba and ended in Yuncachimpa for our first night in the tent. It was so quiet and dark, I liked it a lot and slept well in spite of the altitude. I also enjoyed the freshly caught fish from the local fish farm right next to the campground. Day 1 started at an altitude of 7,200 feet and ended at 10,800 feet.
Day 2: This is the hardest day of the hike. The trail leads through the unbelievable Cloud Forest and finally up a steep ascent to the Dead Woman’s pass . It’s called Dead Woman’s Pass as the mountains look like the shape of a lying woman when seen from a certain angle. Here you should pause for a while and take in the views, if you can.
When we reached the top of the pass at 13,800 feet, it started snowing and the steps down the other side were freezing over….we were ready to get to camp though and descended to our second campground: Chaquicocha. This is also the night where you might feel the altitude. We had taken altitude sickness medication with us and used it during day 2 to prepare ourselves. We both did fine and didn’t continue to take it, but you want to make sure you have it with you.
Day 3: Day 3 for us was very short, given that our assigned camp ground was the closest one. This day is also known to be the most beautiful day of the hike. We started late and settled in early for a fantastic lunch overlooking the mountains.
After lunch we walked through the tropical forest of Wynahuayna, along scenic mountain lakes and enjoyed spectacular views of the Urubamba River Valley.
Day 3 was also the day where we finally had some cell reception for the first time. Our guide basically told us to walk out on a particular ledge and lean to the right. And it worked! It was the only phone call I managed to make home during the hike, only to find out that my daughter’s classroom had an outbreak of lice……good times! That night, on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley, our guide surprised us with a bottle of champagne to celebrate our anniversary. Amazing!!!
Day 4: The last day of the hike is very pretty. The early start we had (4:30am…..our fourth day was long, because the third day was short) meant we were hiking into the sunrise. We passed some beautiful ruins early in the morning and also the other campground.
It’s also the part of the hike that has you walk through caves on tiny steps and eventually climb up a very steep staircase to the famous Sun Gate.
When you reach the Sun Gate, all exhaustion will be forgotten. This is your first view of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu (the neighboring mountain that you should absolutely climb the day after your arrival). From here, it’s only a 15 minute downhill walk until you are amidst the ruins. It’s a grand feeling to arrive, knowing what you have just accomplished, especially as you have to be prepared to see women in heels and silk blouses from this point onwards!
In terms of accommodation: The Belmond is the only hotel right by the ruins. It’s part of the Belmond chain, which also owns the famous Hiram Bingham train. The hotel is expensive, but it’s beautiful and its location more than makes up for the price premium. If you don’t stay there, you have to take the bus down a 30 minute switchback ride to Aguas Calientes, the cute but touristy town below the ruins.
We were glad we never had to leave Machu Picchu. We arrived at 8am from our four day hike, toured until lunch time, checked into the hotel and relaxed the rest of the day. The next morning, we got up very early to climb Huayna Picchu, and afterwards explored the ruins some more. No waiting in line for the bus or at the entrance.
Note: If you plan to climb Huayna Picchu, buy your ticket well ahead. Just like the Inka Trail permits and the entrance to the ruins, this climb sells out quickly and you don’t want to miss it.
The climb is a little scary for people like me with a fear of heights, but if you decide to stop at the point where the trail turns from a two-way to a one-way trail, you get most of the views and avoid the most scary portion of the trail.
For the ruins themselves: We had our guide on the first day and no guide on the second. Both has pros and cons, but you want to make sure you have a guide for at least half a day. Machu Picchu is so vast with so much history and plenty of stories….you will miss most of it if you rely on your own guidance!
After our second day of exploring and a hot cup of tea at the Belmond, we took the hotel bus down to Aguas Calientes to take the Hiram Bingham Train back to Cusco. It’s a fun train ride with delicious food and live entertainment. It seems really expensive when you book it, but it’s worth it, because you will likely never do it again! For more info on train choices and the rest of our trip, please read my blog post on Peru (coming soon).
This was a bucket list trip and we have only the fondest memories of Peru! Kind people, great food, beautiful nature! I hope you will make this part of your bucket list as well!
Please reach out with any questions!!!!
Useful items to prepare and for your packing list:
Backpack : This is the Deuter 28L trail backpack for women. I love it! It has climbed Mount Whitney with me twice, it went on this trip and it's about to experience the Grand Canyon
Water Purifier: I carry these with me on all my hiking trips. You just never know.
Instant Ice Packs: I packed these to put inside my baseball cap in case it gets too hot and you fear a heat stroke. They work great, but cannot be reused.
Emergency Blankets: Hopefully you won't need these but they weigh nothing so why not throw them in there...just in case....
Fodor's Peru: Just your regular travel book but I liked this one. There are not a lot of choices on Peru and Machu Picchu in particular
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: I read this book after we returned from our trip, which I think is the better way to do it. All the places meant something to me now and I managed to retain more information because I could picture what the author was referring to. This was a fun read, real story but reads like an adventure novel.
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