In 2012, Andrew and I traveled to Peru to hike the Inca Trail, a 4-day, 3-night hike to Machu Picchu that takes you up and down mountain trails and to many pristine and otherwise inaccessible Incan sites along the way. We flew into Lima, then hopped a short flight to Cusco, where we stayed for a few days to help acclimatize to the altitude. Cusco is situated 11,152 feet above sea level, so altitude sickness is common. We drank coca tea, and snacked on candies and gum made from coca, to help prevent and alleviate altitude sickness.
In order to hike the Inca Trail, you must go with a registered tour group because the Peruvian government regulates how many people can be on the trail each day to help maintain its integrity and prevent erosion and destruction of the trail from overuse. The trail was created by the Incans centuries ago. To enter the trail, you actually go through passport control and get a stamp, so that the government can keep track of the number of people entering and leaving each day.
We used Llama Path as our tour company, and would highly recommend them. Our guide Santiago was knowledgable, encouraging, kind and interesting. They also had a wonderful team of porters who helped take care of us along the way.
Our group consisted of an Australian who had been traveling solo in South America for months; two women in their 50s (I would guess), who though the oldest in our group were by far the most fit; and sisters in their 20s from the Chicago area. Aside from our guide Santiago, Andrew was the only boy! This is a smaller size tour group as well, which was nice. During our hike we saw other groups with around 20 people. We got much more personalized attention with our small group, and got to know each other well.
The first day on the trail is the easiest, with the flattest terrain. There are also still a few villages along the trail on the first day, so there are places to buy last-minute snacks and drinks if you want. At the last village, Andrew decided to give valuable pack space to a beer to enjoy later on the trail.
Our guide would sometimes stop along the way to show us different plants and animals, including edible berries and those used to make dyes. He even found wild mint, which he used to help me when I was feeling altitude sickness. He crushed the mint in his hands and then had me breathe it in, which helped open my airways and make me feel a bit better!
Our campsites were truly impressive. Each day the camps would be set up and torn down by our hardworking group of porters, who also carried all our food, fuel, and extra baggage. This means all you are responsible for is your day pack, which helps make this hike accessible to people of most experience levels. Outside of the tents, a bowl of warm water would be waiting for us to wash our hands when we arrived. We were also so impressed with the meals that were cooked each day. Each dinner consisted of 3 courses—appetizer, entrée and dessert—and on our last night the chef even made us a cake, quite a feat in a mobile camping kitchen.
The second day is the hardest hike, and goes to the highest point on the trail. It’s known as Dead Woman’s Pass, because the silhouette of the mountain looks like a reclining woman—and maybe also because I thought it was going to kill me. This is definitely when I felt the worst altitude sickness, but Andrew and our guide Santiago stuck with me and encouraged me until we made it all 4215m (13,828 ft) to the top of the pass.
We had some downhill hiking (a blessed relief) and then arrived at the next Incan site on the trail, Sayaqmarka. This beautiful ruin appeared out of the mist on the edge of a cliff, and we enjoyed exploring it almost completely alone. Finally, we made it to our campsite for the night and Andrew cracked open his beer to celebrate. We saw the most amazing stars from the campsite that night, including the Southern Cross and probably the clearest view of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen.
Our final full day of hiking including lots of landmarks along the way. First was an Incan site called Phuyupatamarca. Here, Santiago told us about how some theorized that the Inca Trail was a trek used by priests, and each site along the way was a ritual cleansing station. This site in particular has a series of pools and fountains that contribute to that theory. When we arrived at some beautiful flowering terraces, we also discovered a friend: a wandering llama who was more than willing to let us get close for a few pictures as he lounged in the sun.
After we arrived at our third and final campsite, we went to visit the Winay Wayna Inca site, the most impressive site along the trail—even more beautiful and impressive in my opinion than Machu Picchu. Part of its beauty and appeal is its isolation. Only those hiking the full trail can visit it, so there were very few other people exploring the ruins as we were.
That evening, Santiago told us that the next day we would have to line up at a border control post before the final leg of our hike to Machu Picchu. He told us that the perfect time to get to the Sun Gate was right at sunrise, but we’d only make it if we were one of the first groups in the line. Our team decided to go all in and woke up at 4am to be first in line! Once we passed through border control, the hike itself was pretty insane. We hiked quickly, almost at a jog, in the half-light before dawn, trying to reach the Sun Gate before sunrise. Running along a trail in the dark is pretty difficult, but we did it. In fact, Andrew was the third person to reach the Sun Gate that day!
We took a few pictures from the Sun Gate looking down at Machu Picchu to celebrate our accomplishment. Then Santiago took us on a tour of Machu Picchu. To be honest, our actual time at Machu Picchu was a bit of a letdown after the 3-day hike. Machu Picchu can also be accessed by train or bus, so many, many more tourists were at the site than were on the trail. We had seen so many beautiful Incan sites along the way, and experienced most of them in our group of 7 people, so suddenly being surrounded by hundreds of tourists was a little jarring. We both agreed that the journey to Machu Picchu was more enjoyable than the site itself. If you want to see Machu Picchu, doing the full Inca Trail is absolutely worth it.