Mammoth post alert – sorry once again about the delay, this has taken me a while to write! This blog is much as a diary for me to remember the best parts of my trip as much as it is to keep friends and family up to date, so I apologise if it is rambly at times!! I am now in Bolivia and have plenty more to write about, but finally… here is the post about my experience on the world-famous Inca Trail! Will add photos later on when I have time and better wifi.
So… Where to start! The famous 4 day hike to Machu Picchu simultaneously flew by and seemed like an entire trip in itself. Even now, a week after finishing, it already feels like another world away as we were so isolated and concentrated on the hike.
Preparation for the Trail
We had been to the G Adventures HQ in Cusco where we received our briefings and also paid for any rental gear needed – most people (myself included) went for a thermal sleeping bag and two walking poles. There was an option for a thin air mattress but anything we rented would eat into our 6kg weight limit, and as the sleeping bag was already 2.5kg I avoided it. We also collected duffel bags into which we’d put the 6kg for the G Adventures porters to carry. Anything over that would have to go in our own day packs!
The day before starting we stayed in the small but charming town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, about 2 hours from Cusco. It was worth a look around and there are some fabulous Inca ruins built into the mountain walls encasing the town. Having walked Rainbow Mountain the day before, and knowing I had plenty of Incan ruins ahead, I opted to stay low and stock up on snacks plus – on a whim – a plastic rain poncho which would cover my day pack too, all the while sipping on a disgusting but effective electrolyte drink recommended by Fredy to recharge my batteries.
We all had an early night before starting the treks. 9 of our group were off on the Inca Trail, with another 7 doing the Lares Trek and 2 staying back in Cusco. Despite knowing it was my last chance to enjoy a nice sleep in a warm bed, I was nervous and slept quite badly.
An early start and rushed goodbyes and we were off! We started at Kilometre 82 which was roughly 40 minutes drive from Ollantaytambo. Sadly it was raining quite heavily so it was straight on with the rain poncho, which turned out to be the best 4 soles I’ve ever spent.
I believe it was around 5 hours walking on the first day although it is all blurring a bit! The start of the day was gentle and wove through valleys and villages, really quite nice in spite of the rain. It was harder than it should have been for me having trekked 18km at high altitude 2 days before. We did have breaks though – unfortunately at our first break we lost 2 of our 12 walkers, a couple, as one of them was really quite ill and decided they shouldn’t walk it.
We stopped for lunch in a really nice spot and had our first taster of the great food and family style table set-up which we would have throughout the trek. Each meal had at least 2 courses and it was really impressive what the chefs could manage to do so high up and with limited resources! The first lunch was rainbow trout with rice and veg – usually not a big fish fan but this was quite nice and we were all starved.
While we ate the sun actually came out and the rain stopped and so we had a much nicer time trekking in the afternoon even if there was a lot more uphill! We got to our first campsite around 4pm and it lovely – tents all set up in advance with sleeping bags and duffel ready inside, on a private site with a flushing toilet. How was it ready in advance? Thanks to our amazing team of porters! We had a welcome meeting that evening where they introduced themselves and us them. For 12 (now down to 10) walkers we had an entourage of 28 porters including 2 chefs, and our guides Joel and Alex. All of the porters were local farmers who worked on the Trail once a week or so – pretty incredible since it takes 3-4 days of their time. They carried our duffel, our tents, the kitchen resources everything. I’ll say now that throughout the Trail they continuously amazed us: as we struggled on they would overtake us, often running, with packs of up to 18kg on their backs. It was actually quite hard to see because you felt almost guilty at the sight, but it is part of doing the Trail nowadays and I am happy to say that G Adventures is known for taking care of their porters, enforcing a lower weight limit than other companies (some do up to 25kg and even exceed this illegally) and providing them with proper hiking shoes, equipment and back supports. You could spot the company a porter was from by distinctive colours – purple for G Adventures for example – and it honestly made me quite angry to be overtaken by porters in blue or green wearing leather sandals and packs clearly either too big or not properly weight distributed. For this reason I’d urge anyone walking the Inca Trail to properly research your intended company of use.
Anyway, we enjoyed ‘afternoon tea’ of biscuits and tea at around 5 before dinner at 6.30. This was the structure of all 3 our evenings actually. It was so nice being sat all round the table playing cards and enjoying more delicious food, always starting with a warm soup and then a main course (chicken and rice that time I think!). We were in bed by 8.30 as it was so dark and we had a big day ahead of us with a 5.30am start!
Woken at 5.30am by our guide Alex bringing us warm coca tea to the tents (great for altitude) although truth be told I’d slept badly that night so was already awake. I had a large rock under my hip and hadn’t worn enough warm layers to sleep in! We quickly got ready and had a breakfast of porridge and pancakes, then started the hardest day of all – up to Dead Woman’s Pass and down again, walking around 16km and reaching the highest point of the Trail. The plan was to have only short breaks and have lunch upon arrival at our second campsite, so it would be a long morning. We could see the Pass from our first campsite and it looked scarily small, high and far away, incomprehensible that we’d even get there let alone go beyond it! It is distinctive in appearance from the so-called vertical breast and face which make it resemble a woman lying down and thus give it its name.
Fredy had warned us that day 2 is ‘step day’ and the best way to take your mind off the infinite number of steps is to listen to music. So my friend Lisa and I stuck together and after break it was on with the reggaeton in the backpack. Fredy’s advice was spot on and the first couple of hours flew by, with some Australian women also sticking close to us so they could have the music too! The weather was dry and sunny and we went through forest area, climbing past waterfalls and streams, feeling good actually.
However, the higher we climbed it was increasingly hard to breathe – it felt like I was leaning on my poles even to stand up. I also did something stupid as we got higher – there was a build-up of pressure in my ears like going through a tunnel, so I tried to get rid of it by holding my nose and blowing. Apparently this is a big no-no at altitude and I got the most painful exploding pain at the front of my head and immediately had to sit down clutching my head. Luckily I had my agua de florida from the witches’ market and a passing guide helped me apply it straight away to my face and hands to clear my sinuses. The last section up to the Pass was a big struggle because of this, but once there it was a great feeling. Unfortunately the top was shrouded in clouds so the views weren’t as great! Turns out my cheap Chinese phone bought for this trip also wasn’t feeling the altitude and the screen stopped working. So until I can get a working SD Card reader for my camera photos on my new replacement phone (Cusco’s black market’s finest) no more of my own photos of the Inca Trail to update with I’m afraid!
What goes up must come down and so after Dead Woman’s Pass we were treated to hours of steep downward steps. Hard on the knees at times but we extended our poles which helped and it was just the best feeling to not be climbing anymore! The descent is a blur to be honest and it felt like no time at all until we reached our second campsite ready for lunch. With amazing luck, it started to rain torrentially almost the exact moment that we got to the lunch tent. It was a chilled afternoonand seemed like no time at all before the dark rolled in and we were tucked up in our tents again ready to sleep. I wore every single item of clothing I had with me and slept much better that night!
Less to say about Day 3 – it saw us walk for around 10 hours, but it was the most rewarding in terms of sights. We passed at least 3 Inca sites and entered 2 of them – the biggest was right at the end of the day and as a high and huge farming terrace offered us incredible views of Machu Picchu mountain (where the ancient city itself was hidden on the other side) as well as the valley with the train line running through it, and also our final campsite. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
As well as being the most rich in Incan history, day 3 took us into the cloud forest jungle and we walked narrow paths curving around the very tops of the trees at the edge of the rainforest. Extra bonus – the path is also more than 90% original Inca on day 3, as opposed to the previous days where soldiers had made some pretty ugly and non-historically-accurate renovations quite soon after the rediscovering of the Trail (leaving about 30% original). While this meant the stones on the third day were huge and sometimes challenging to navigate I personally started to really finally feel that we were actually ‘walking the path of the Incas’, which was quite an incredible feeling!
The morning flew by, broken up as it was with various sights, and we had our last lunch at a pretty site nice and high, which would have offered great views if the clouds hadn’t caused it to fog over. Never mind though – lunch was a huge buffet and the chefs had baked us a cake to say well done for getting through the worst… so thoughtful and somewhat of a miracle given the altitude and that we were 3 days into a remote trek.
The afternoon took us higher and into that beautiful ‘cloud forest’. Finally we got to the last campsite, on the other side of Machu Picchu mountain, and it was a giddy feeling knowing we were so close and that the next morning we’d be there at last! Grotty squat toilets again but there was a basic shower too – I decided to go for it since the weather was quite mild and sunny outside. Ice cold is an understatement but it felt great to freshen up after 3 days of wet wipes…
That evening we had a goodbye and thank you ceremony for the porters, since they’d be leaving in a hurry at 3am the next morning to catch their only train option. I had (as I’ve mentioned) been slightly awestruck by their speed and strength and made sure to tip well – the least you can do, really, for a group of people literally giving up half their weeklives and exerting themselves physically just so you can camp comfortably. Finally it was time for bed – we’d be up at 3, the earliest yet, so thay the porters could pack up and still make their train. I remember thinking I would sleep well since I was so tired…
Day 4 – Machu Picchu
…Famous last words! There was torrential rain from midnight onwards, so loud against the tent roof that it was impossible to sleep during the last 3 hours before our wake-up call. I suppose a small blessing was that it was more drizzling by the time we had to start walking, but in pitch black and feeling grumpy from lack of sleep it was a small consolation! We got to the last checkpoint at 4 am and had an hour and a half wait until it opened at 5.30 (we’d just had to be that early for the porters to catch their train). Groggy and sleepy and sheltering from the still persistent rain, the wait dragged on a bit, but finally we were through and hiking the last 2 hours of the Inca Trail! It was wet and muddy, surrounded by foliage, but principally an unchallenging hike – the main problem was actually that the path was very narrow and lots of keen hikers were shoving through (as our guide Joel said, clearly no one told them Machu Picchu wasn’t going anywhere!).
Even the keenest of the keen were halted in their tracks as we approached the last stretch, though – leading up to the Sun Gate are 50 narrow, high and higgledy piggledy Incan steps known to locals as the ‘gringo killers’, which says it all (gringo = white person)!! The only way to climb them is actually to scale them with hands and feet – isn’t that everyone’s idea of fun before 7am?
Finally we made it to the famous Sun Gate where supposedly we’d get our first view of Machu Picchu… Let’s just say that the heavy rainfall sadly hadn’t helped to shift the low clouds, and so it was less Sun Gate and more Cloud Gate.
I should note here that there is a common misconception that the Inca Trail is a ‘climb’ to Machu Picchu – actually, Machu Picchu is one of the lowest points at just 2430m above sea level! Under half of the altitude at Rainbow Mountain, for example. Therefore, being relatively low and encased by high mountains and jungle, the site is susceptible to not just wisps of cloud but entire white-outs. Sadly this was the case when we went. We carried on from the freezing and white Sun Gate feeling mollified by the knowledge that the iconic picture postcard photo is actually taken from within the site, huge as it is, and so that we might still get a clear view further down. However, once inside it became clear that today would have to be a case of abandoning hope for said iconic photo, and just trying to enjoy and make the most of what we could.
It was breathtaking inside, climbing the terraces, learning how the Incas lived, seeing their incredibly well thought out temples and views, manipulating the surroundings. The Incas were crazy about solstice, to the extent that they built two special temples with specially positioned windows that would only create sacred silhouettes on the event of the winter and summer solstice (so just once a year for each one!). Actually, that’s the true purpose of the Sun Gate – essentially it’s gap in a facing mountainside that would only allow reflections on the corresponding temple once a year. Hope the Incas didn’t have low clouds like us on that day!!
It sounds obvious but part of the magic of Machu Picchu was that it was like stepping back in time and seeing into history – the rise and fall of the Incas themselves. It was built in its strategic mountain-jungle position to allow the Incas to overcome their enemies the jungle tribes… but perhaps in the end it was that position that saw the last Incas perish. As the Spanish invaders closed in, bringing weapons and disease, it is thought that the last Incas retreated into the jungle and it was there that they died out. A sad story made even sadder by the fact that the city was then lost for around 400 years!
Despite the fog and worsening rain, I got a great feel for the place and in my eyes it truly earns its stripes as a one of the modern 7 Wonders of the World. And – I did manage to get one passable photo there with a little patience! Missing the iconic mountain in the middle but it will do. 😊
Actually, in a way I think I feel less annoyed about the fog and rain at Machu Picchu having done the Inca Trail than if I’d simply got the train up. For me, the whole experience was a package and I enjoyed every step of the hike there as much as the ancient city waiting for us at the end of the Trail. Arguably the best experience of my life and one I am very proud of – I think I’ve truly earned my ‘I survived the Inca Trail’ T-shirt.