A Bucket List Trip
The Inca Trail wasn’t always on my radar, but when a friend floated the idea I didn’t even think much about it before booking a plane a ticket and getting excited.
It was somehow even more magical than I was expecting but also more challenging. I’m absolutely so glad I did it and can’t recommend the experience enough.
The Night Before
We meet our guides and group (we went with Alpaca Expeditions and had an amazing experience) for the first time! It’s a chance to get any last minute questions answered before running out to buy anything we might need. The only thing we’ll bring on the trail is a daypack and a duffel to be carried by the porters. All of the food, tents – even a toilet! – will be carried to the Porters from camp to camp.
Day 1 – 8.7 Miles
The wakeup call comes early, especially after stress packing everything you think you need into the duffle and your daypack. We sipped coca tea at 4:10am as we waited for the van to show up. After climbing in we picked up the other trekkers and when we had all 16 we were on our way to breakfast spot where they’d weigh our duffels (we had a weight limit for the porters – only about 15lbs per duffle) and continue to the start of the trek.
The trek starts out beautiful and mild. It’s listed as the “acclimatization day” for the altitude and trek itself. I was surprised by how much desert scape there was, with dirt and cacti surrounding the start of our hike. We also caught our first site of Inca Ruins from across the train tracks. Our guides, Isao and Aldair take time to stop along the way and give us a bit of history. A day one highlight was visiting Patallacta, the biggest of the Inca ruins on our trek until we would reach Machu Picchu three days later.
One thing that surprised me were the shops and homes along the first two days of the Inca Trail. We’d move out of the way for motorbikes and stop for ice cream and fresh juice in the shops. They also had toilets for 1 or 2 soles you could use.
Lunch was our first true experience with Peruvian food and oh my goodness was it incredible! We’re greeted at lunch with Chicha Morada then shocked as they set down 10 platters of Peruvian cuisine for our crew of 16.
The hike after lunch (and such an epic meal) was another two hours of straight uphill to our first campsite which sits at 10,829 ft high. All our tents were set up with our duffel bags (plus a pillow and inflatable mattress I rented) waiting for us inside, the food tent and toilet were also all ready for us. I grabbed a beer from a local selling them from a bag and sat down to take in the incredible view of the snowcapped Andes mountain in front of us.
Dinner once again included nearly a dozen platters of food, piled high with dishes like trout, rice, vegetables and pasta. Two chefs travel with our group on top of the 16 porters and two guides. The food truly is a highlight of the entire experience. Not only was it delicious, they accommodated all dietary restrictions, so each meal I had a special dairy-free option. We had been warned that day two would be the most challenging so turned in early to try to get some sleep.
Day 2 – 10 miles
They were right. This day was HARD. I hike quite a bit and have done a couple of 14ers, so I wasn’t too phased by the task of two mountain passes… but Dead Women’s Pass which tops out at 13,779 ft proved to be as challenging as promised. From our campsite it was straight uphill 2,950 ft. I always struggle above 13,000ft when it comes to breathing and this time was no different, stopping to catch my breath every few steps. And I mean step literally, I would describe Day 2 as 10 hours on a stairmaster. Once we finally made it to the top, it was straight back down another two hours to our spot for lunch. The porters had laid out air mattresses while we waited for lunch and I promptly fell asleep for a quick nap.
The Porters were impressive on Day 1, flying past us as we jumped to the side to get out of their way, but on this day I was truly blown away by their ability to not just pass us quickly, but with dozens of pounds of equipment on their backs. Going up they showed off their lungs and ability to breathe far easier than us, but going down they’re nearly running down the steep stairs (keeps the intense weight off their knees by going faster.)
After lunch we had one more mountain pass, this one reaching 13,123 ft before another set of steep downhill steps to our campsite which sat at 11,800 ft.
Day 3 – 6.2 miles
I was so excited for Day 3 to be almost all downhill, until I realized my very sore legs would not be a fan of going down steep steps for almost three hours. Thankfully, this day was incredibly beautiful and brings us into the Amazon rainforest so there is plenty to be distracted by.
The jungle is also known as the “cloud forest” and it really lived up to its name as we spent the first few hours solidly in fog and mist. There are two Inca ruins along the way: “The Town in the Clouds” and “Terraces of the Sun” which provide perfect places to rest and learn about the people who made the trail we’ve been walking for miles.
Day 3 ends early, arriving at our campsite at 1pm for lunch and a chance to explore my favorite of the Inca ruins Winay Wayna, including a stop down to a waterfall against the protest of my very sore legs to go up and down another 700 steps.
Day 4 – 6.2 miles
It’s Machu Picchu Day! And it starts very early… woken up by our guides at 3:00am for a quick breakfast before we head down to the gates to wait until 5:30am. I’m not going to lie, by this day my legs weren’t just sore, they were in quite a bit of pain. For some of our group the knees were feeling it, for others it was the hip flexors but for me it was my quads.
It takes about an hour to reach Sun Gate which would normally be our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from that famous view from above. But – we were in a cloud. They cleared the tiniest bit and we got a glimpse before it disappeared again behind the fog. Our guide assured us the views would be spectacular when we got down and an hour later, he was right. I was worried after all the incredible ruins we had visited that Machu Picchu would be a let down, but it was far from that.
We left our group early to hike Huayna Picchu, the tallest peak next to Machu Picchu (we had to buy an extra permit for this hike, which we did when booking our tour.) I really thought about skipping this hike after how tired I was after 33 miles of walking and barely sleeping in the tents, but I am SO glad I found the extra energy to do this hike because it ended up being my favorite. It’s steep – straight uphill with handrails to hold onto along the way but it’s absolutely worth it for the view at the top.
After the hike we met back up with the group in Aguas Calientes to catch the train back to the van which will bring us to Cusco. The train ride was amazing, so beautiful and finally we had a chance to celebrate our accomplishments buying beer and wine along the way. We still had another two hour drive after the few hours on the train, so finally made it back to Cusco around 8pm where I promptly ordered a bottle of champagne and pizza from room service that arrived after the best shower of my life.
Would I recommend the trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Absolutely. Was it challenging? Absolutely. We did have two people in our group get altitude sickness (which was brutal,) one got some sort of food poisoning and there was a women (not in our group) who slipped and fell down the side of the Inca Trail – so the trek isn’t for the faint of heart. It was difficult but certainly not impossible.
You spend four days walking along magnificent and mysterious history as you make your way through the various microclimates of the Andes. Despite the challenge and incredibly sore legs, it was one of the most beautiful and rewarding hikes I’ve ever done in my life.