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[Recap] Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

We did it! We hiked 26 miles along historical Inca trails to Machu Picchu! I can’t believe this journey is already over. I’ve been looking forward to this since we booked the hike back in February, and the experience exceeded every expectation.

I wanted to take you along with us on this journey. This is a personal recap of our experiences during our four-day Inca Trail hike, culminating at Machu Picchu. It’s long and full of pictures, so you’ve been warned. If you’re considering hiking the trail, check back over the next few days for more posts with more helpful tips and suggestions, as well as our photo slideshow.

The Details

  • Trek: Classic 4 Day, 3 Night Inca Trail Trek
  • Tour Provider: Alpaca Expeditions 
  • Dates: 8/30/17 – 9/2/17
  • Cost: $665 + Tips (included food, lodging, permits, transport from Cusco, and guide)

Day 1: Cusco to Ayapata

We started our day at 4 AM when we were picked up from our hostel (Kokopelli hostel, it was great). We made our way to Ollantaytambo, where we picked up the rest of our group, and then made our way to the start of our hike at Kilometer 82.

We were super tired (how bout those bags under my eyes), but excited enough that it wasn’t so bad. We stopped for coffee and started to slowly make intros with the rest of our group. We would be spending the next four days with our trekking group and we couldn’t have asked for better people!

Our group comprised a newly engaged couple from New York City, a family of four from London with two college-age boys, another couple from London, a couple from India who were living in Portland, a couple from Seattle celebrating the husband’s 40th birthday, and us, a couple from Chicago.

We had a quick breakfast and hit the trail around 9 AM. The first day of hiking was through the desert side of the Andes so we saw lots of cacti, mostly brown landscape, and had dry and warm weather. It was mostly flat terrain, with a few ups and downs (enough to knock one of the hikers on her butt which unfortunately caused her trouble the rest of the hike). We saw lots of horses and passed by lots of small homes where they were selling drinks, snacks, and bathroom usage. Along the morning hike, we passed through our first of many Inca sites.

When we stopped for lunch the first day, we realized just how incredible the accommodations on this trip were going to be. We sat down to a huge lunch that would have been impressive prepared in an actual kitchen, and this chef prepared it with ingredients and supplies that they just hiked with for four hours!  (The porters who carried the supplies for this trip were super-humans, but more about them later.)

There were fresh trout cakes (like crab cakes) and vegetarian quiche for Kenny and I (yep, they made us our own special versions of everything and also a dairy-free version and onion-free version for the others with dietary restrictions). There was fried rice, avocados, salads, garlic bread, pumpkin soup, and ceviche (with a veggie version!). It was so impressive!

After lunch, we hiked for another 2.5 hours of relatively easy terrain that took us past some beautiful mountain range views before arriving at camp. When we got there, our porters who had carried all of our stuff started clapping and cheering for us! All of our tents had been set up, we retrieved our duffle bags which our porters were carrying for us (yep, we didn’t even have to carry our own gear), got situated in our tents and then headed to tea time in the dining room tent that they had set up for us. It was seriously glamping.

Before dinner, we got to meet our porters which was one of my favorite parts of the day. The porters introduced themselves and shared what they were carrying in their packs, which ranged from produce and food items, to tents, to an entire portable bathroom.

The porters were absolutely incredible. They worked so hard carrying such huge packs and hiking so quickly through tough terrain. They set up elaborate campsites in record speed and tore them down just as fast. They prepared restaurant-quality meals with camping-quality materials out of food that they carried on their backs. They were quick and strong and such hard workers, and yet so supportive and kind to all of us trekkers. We would leave a site, they would tear it down, pack up, pass us on the trail, and by the time we arrived, we’d walk into a perfectly prepared site! 

After teatime and dinner, which was delicious and included flaming Pisco bananas foster, we settled into our tents for the night. Our tents were spacious and they provided small pads to lay our sleeping bags on. I was exhausted, but didn’t sleep well because I was dealing with a cold. I probably would have been able to sleep better (it was quiet, cool, and relatively comfortable) had I not been sick.

It was the end of our first “average” day!

Day 2: Ayapata to Chaquiccocha via Dead Woman’s Pass

We had been prepped that day two was going to be hard. We would be hiking the longest distance (10 miles), at the highest altitude (~3,500 meters), up the steepest peak (Dead Woman’s Pass). This is the day that will break you, but no one in our group would be broken.

We were woken up at 6 AM by our assistant guide (Alex from Cusco) who gently tapped on our tents and handed us steaming hot mugs of coca tea. Seriously, I want to be woken up with tea delivery every morning! We had 40 minutes to gather our things and pack our bags before breakfast.

The morning hike, while challenging, was beautiful. It took us through forested areas with lots of small streams and babbling brooks. It was a little cooler than the first day, but I was comfortable in long sleeves. Our guide, Jaime, pointed out different plants and animals along the way, giving us short breaks as we trudged up the mountain. 

After our first morning break, Jaime let us make our way up Dead Woman’s Pass (named for the shape of the mountain, not after any particular tragedy) at our own pace, but recommended we take our time. We ended up forming a small leader group with the UK couple and the college boys and made our way up the steep rocky steps fairly quickly. The weather quickly dropped as we got to the peak and we all layered up as we waited an hour or so for the rest of our group to make their way to the top.

This part of the hike was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as I expected (granted we are fairly young marathon runners in decent shape). Everyone in our group made it to the top like champions (even though we’re missing two in this photo, they did make it!)! The hardest part was past us, but we still had a lot of work to do before the end of our hardest day.

After hiking the steepest peak of your journey, you might think that downhill would be a great relief! Fun fact: it’s definitely not! After the peak, we headed down steep and rocky “stairs”  (#stepslikeladders) for over an hour before we got to our lunch spot.

After lunch, it was back up hill! While Jaime (our guide) told us that the afternoon part of the hike was a 3.5 compared to the morning’s difficulty of 10, we strongly disagreed with his assessment! We found the afternoon to be pretty tough, but with lots of payoff.

The afternoon was really fun with a nice Inca site, two lakes, and an off-trail adventure to the very top of the peak. While it was a hard afternoon after a hard morning, our group was really bonding at this point and really having a great time together.

Near the end of hiking for the day, there was an optional Inca site 100 steep steps up. To Kenny and I, if we were going to be going up 10,000 stairs over the course of these four days (fact), we figured what was 100 more? So up we went.

On the bright side, the sight was gorgeous and really cool to explore. On the down side, this is where we met our nemesis: mini mosquitos. These buggers filled the air and couldn’t care less how much DEET you had on. They would fly right into your hair and your shirt and I even got a few stuck in my eyelashes! Kenny and I immediately put Buffs over our faces so we could breath without inhaling them and got away from that site stat.

By the end of the afternoon, our hardest day was behind us and we were really proud of that! Now it was time for tea, dinner and bed.

Day 3: Chaquiccocha to Wiñaywayna

On day three we got to sleep in until 6 AM before our morning tea wakeup call. I slept much better the second night because I was so exhausted from day two and not sleeping the night before. Day three is supposed to be the most beautiful day and it did not disappoint! It was a low-key hike as we casually went up and down a few small hills and were only hiking until 1 PM.

By this point, we’d traveled over the mountains from the desert and into the cloud forest. The change in scenery was drastic and so cool to have walked from one climate into a totally different one. While the path was still an uneven rocky path with some #stepslikeladders, it was certainly more relaxing that the day before.

For this part of the hike, our group mostly stayed together, stopping occasionally for breaks and to wait for everyone to catch up. This was also the first time we flirted with rain. It sprinkled enough for a few of us to put our Alpaca-issued ponchos on, but it only lasted about ten minutes. All things considered, we got VERY lucky with weather! It never got overly hot or too cold and we never got poured on. It rained heavily exactly two times and it was around midnight on our second night (our tents were perfectly waterproof) and the afternoon on day three but during siesta (aka nap time).

We hiked our way up Phuyupatamarka (Town in the Clouds), our last peak of our trek. Here we found another gorgeous Inca site and what would have had a gorgeous view had we not been in the middle of a cloud. Here, we also got our first glimpse of wild llamas who would later steal our hearts.

After Phuyupatamarka, we started making our way back down the mountain on more #stepslikeladders and through some caves. The payoff was another Inca site, Intipata (Terraces of the Sun), with an insanely gorgeous view of the valley and Urubamba River. We hung out here for a while to soak up the view and celebrate our accomplishments.

It was a short jaunt from Intipata to our camp where we enjoyed lunch before being treated to a much-appreciated two-hour siesta (nap time). We were woken up around four and taken to our second-to-last Inca site which ranked as one of our favorites. It’s the second most beautiful site next to Machu Picchu and was nearly empty (a stark comparison to the massive crowds at Machu Picchu).

Here, Jamie talked to us about the rise and fall of the Inca Empire and some more of the history behind many of the things we’d seen over the past few days and would see at Machu Picchu. After his presentation, we were able to spend the next hour hanging out on the terraces with llamas, exploring the Inca “country house” and taking in the gorgeous views. This was one of my favorite parts of the whole journey. It felt so relaxed and fun, but so authentic in a way that I felt like I could almost feel the people who stood in that palace before me. Plus, I now want a pet llama.

After a good hour playing with the llamas, the sun had set and we had to make our way back to camp. We had our last dinner with our porters and they decorated our dining room tent with balloons and even made a cake (without an oven and with ingredients they’d carried for three days – blew. my. mind. The porters were seriously super humans!!!). 

We arranged our tips as a group and presented them to the porters and thanked them for the insane amount of work they did for us. They also thanked and congratulated us, which was so not necessary, but so much appreciated.

Day 4: Wiñaywayna to Machu Picchu and back to Cusco

On our last day, our tea wakeup call was at 3:30 AM. We had to get up early so that our porters could tear down camp and make their train back back home, but getting up early also got us a great spot in line at the checkpoint into Machu Picchu grounds which doesn’t open until 5:30. We were the third or fourth group in, and there was a very long line of people behind us.

We sat on our ponchos, ate our boxed breakfast and talked about whether we were most looking forward to a shower or a real bed when we returned to civilization.

A big thing with Inca Trail hikers is watching the sun rise at Sun Gate, but we would have never made sunrise this time of year. Sun Gate is about an hour from the checkpoint, and the sun was up well before we got there. It was still beautiful to see it rise over the misty mountains, though.

About half an hour later, we made it to the “Gingo Killer Steps” which were the worst offender of #stepslikeladders. They were literally straight up and required you to climb up with both your arms and legs.

At the top of the stairs was Sun Gate, where we would see our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and the excitement was palpable across all of the Inca Trail hikers. When we got there, Machu Picchu was almost completely hidden by clouds, but by the time the last couple in our group made it up the steps, the clouds had lifted and the view was magical.

It was another hour hike and we were at the entrance to Machu Picchu. I get the chills just typing that because it was such a special moment. Machu Picchu is this massive and beautiful structure that was built by hand thousands of years ago, and is set high above the Sacred Valley in the Andes. We had worked so hard to get there that reaching the payoff at the end was just breathtaking.

We took photos from the guardhouse which had the most beautiful views of the Inca site, and then made our way inside. It’s hard to say that being inside was much better than the view from the guardhouse, but it was still amazing to walk through and learn more about the structure and the history of the Incas who built it and lived or stayed there. The Inca empire was only around for less than 100 years, and yet their architecture left such a beautiful mark on South America.

Jamie, our guide, always referred to us as family, and by the end of the trip, we really felt like we were family. When we got to Machu Picchu, we were all exhausted and dirty, but we were so proud of everything we’d accomplished together. We could not have done this hike without the help of our porters, guides, and each other. Our Inca Trail family will always have a special place in our hearts and memories of this once in a lifetime experience.