Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (Part 1)

Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (Part 1)

Have you ever dreamed about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Is taking the train to Machu Picchu on your bucket list? If you are having trouble deciding what to do, my story may provide you with some insight…

Introduction

Machu Picchu, a wonder of the world, is a bucket list item for many people, including my daughter and myself. There are no roads to Machu Picchu, you either take the train or hike.

Machu Picchu

If you are not familiar with the Inca Trail, it is a world-famous trek through the high Andes on the original Incan highway of dirt and stone concluding at Machu Picchu. In use for over 400 years, the trail is spectacularly beautiful with stunning ruins, gorgeous mountain views, and extraordinarily different climatic zones offering a rich variety of flora and fauna.

There are different hikes to Machu Picchu taking two, four, or five days. My daughter and I chose the classic 4-day trail starting at Mile 82. We wanted to have the satisfaction of arriving at Machu Picchu on foot. At least that is how it should have happened. We never dreamed when we booked the famous trek that we wouldn’t complete it and would have to turn back.

Day One

Starting Off Easy

In May 2019, after spending three days in the Sacred Valley acclimatizing and sightseeing, we were all set to start the hike. Our guide, Eddie from Condor Travel picked us up at our hotel, La Casona De Yucay, a beautiful spot in the modest town of Yucay, inside the Sacred Valley, bright and early.

Eddie had already picked up the couple we would trek with, John and Jane, in Cusco. John was a retired Marine pilot who now flew for a major U.S. airline. Both were in their early 60s.

Before the trip, I agonized if I would be the only older person in a group with a bunch of 20-year-olds, slowing everyone down. I had a similar experience while white-water rafting and didn’t want to repeat it.

Our first stop was the Condor Travel Headquarters in Urubamba, where the porters loaded up our van and we picked up our chef. En route to the Inca Trail, we passed by the famous fort town of Ollantaytambo, traversing the cobblestone streets. We drove the constricted rough unpaved roads alongside the Urubamba River until we crossed the river at a bridge travelling back in the same direction we had just covered but on the other side.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Most of the tourist vehicles in Peru are Volkswagen vans, which shake and shutter over every bump. The dirt roads are narrow, and drivers typically honk as they go around bends to alert other drivers of their approach.

Staging Area

We arrived at the village of Piskacucho; (known as the 4-corners) the village where the Inca Trail starts at mile 82 (82 kilometres along the railway from Cusco to Aguas Calientes). The altitude at the starting point is 2,800 metres (8,500ft).

The porters who arrived before us had set up a staging area, repacking, and rearranging the equipment. They carry all the gear for camping, cooking plus 5 kilos per person of our gear. We had to carry our daypacks with any of the things we needed during the day. This makes the trek sound easy, but spoiler alert it is not.

The porters gave us some snack items to take with us in handy bags we could clip on our backpacks for easy access. My daughter and I used Osprey backpacks with hydration packs. The packs made it so much easier to access water and the special bladders kept the natural flat shape. I was thankful for the walking sticks because of the uneven ground.

I put some coca candies in my bag. Coca candies and coca tea are used to help fight altitude sickness. We had already been taking Diamox since we landed to help us adjust to the altitude.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

The staging area was our last chance to use a bathroom. Bathrooms in Peru, outside of hotel rooms and restaurants, are notoriously filthy, have no seat, no toilet paper and cost 1 sol to use. This bathroom fulfilled those categories.

Leaving the staging area, we adjusted the packs on our backs, walking the scant distance to the check-in. Eddie our guide, presented our trail permits while we showed our passports. You can’t enter the Inca Trail without a passport. The Peruvian Government only sells 500 permits per day, 200 for tourists, and 300 for guides, cooks, and porters. Posing to take the famous picture at the start of the trail. Then we were off.

Mile 82

Here We Go…

Crossing the bridge over the Urubamba River, in Qorihuayrachina, we were officially on the Inca Trail. The weather was beautiful, sunny, but not too hot. Our guide Eddy set the pace, and we tried to keep up.

Mile 82

The brochures describe day one as a simple day over Andean Flat terrain. For those of you not familiar with Andean Flat, it means ‘uphill’. If you look at the altitude map below, the incline does not look very steep. I thought day one would be easy, but I was wrong.

Average Distance Per Day

  • Day One: Total Distance: 12km (7 miles)
  • Day Two: Total Distance: 11km (6 miles)
  • Day Three: Total Distance: 16km (9 miles)
  • Day Four: Total Distance: 4km (2 miles)

Peruvians live on the first part of the Inca Trail; using the trail along with their donkeys and horses. Be prepared to see piles of poop and give them the right-of-way moving to the inside when they pass.

There are places to buy drinks and snacks. Bathrooms are available for 1 sol. I didn’t experience the bathroom first-hand, but Jane didn’t recommend it. Shaded rest areas provided much-needed relief from the sun.

Huffing and Puffing

I found the trail challenging since we live at 67 meters (220 ft) above sea level. Hiking in Peru is so much harder than in Canada because of the altitude.

Going down was easy, but going up required much more energy and oxygen. My legs did not want to obey my brain. I had to stop more often than I expected; huffing and puffing, trying to catch my breath. I am not an athlete, but neither am I a couch potato spending time, swimming, zip-lining, with no problems. I trained for months. At 53-years of age, I was in the best shape of my life.

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Inca Trail, Peru

Before booking the trip, I consumed volumes of information that spoke of the Inca Trail as a hard challenge but well worth every step. The blogs said you only had to be in average shape with determination and persistence. Let me tell you, average shape is not good enough you, need to be in athlete shape.

Jane also struggled with the altitude. John eventually carried both of their packs. My 25-year-old daughter felt no effects from the altitude.

Somewhere around this time, our porters passed us carrying their heavy load. Everyone is friendly on the trail, greeting you with ‘Hola’ and a smile.

The trail is beautiful, but there wasn’t as much time to stop and take photos as I would have liked. Clouds in the photo below cover the Véronica glacier.

Inca Trail, Peru

The Ruins

The first ruin is Qhanabamba. The Incas used this area as a resting place for people on their way to Machu Picchu.

Inca Trail, Peru

The trail ascended as we climbed high above the river to the viewpoint at Patallaqta where the agricultural settlement, Llaqtapata, sprawled below at the 88-kilometre mark. The name Llaqtapata means “elevated settlement”. This elevated settlement contained over 80 structures.

Inca Trail, Peru
Llaqtapata

The Incas used the terraces for agriculture and erosion control. The porters set up a light lunch so we could spend some time admiring the ruins and take photos.

The next stop was the ruins of Willkaraqay, an Inca hillfort. Briefly going downhill before going up again.

As the day went on, I struggled to keep pace with our guide as did Jane, stopping to breathe whenever we felt the need. My slow pace concerned me, but I tried to push myself to keep going. I was so excited when I saw the sign for ‘Hatunchaca’ thinking it was our camp ‘Huayllambamba’ but then found out we still had more walking to do.

The next hour was a blur, I remember little about it. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. The porters clapped as we entered the campsite, praising us for completing the first day. All I wanted to do was stop walking. Huayllambamba sits at 2950m (9576 ft.)

The Camp

Inca Trail Peru

The porters set up our tent and provided us with warm water to wash the day’s grime away. It was nice to take off our hiking boots and rest while the meal was being prepared. They even set up a washroom, which was cleaner and smelled so much better than the online trails.

We feasted that night in the dining tent, consuming chicken and rice. They provided a vegetarian meal for my daughter. Freddy, our guide, joined our group of four for dinner. There was even a dessert.

Jane was under the weather because of the altitude and could not eat her meal. John and Jane discussed turning around and going back in the morning, depending on Jane’s health.

Night falls early in Peru because they are so close to the equator. The length of each day is 12 hours and six minutes. The sun rising around 6:18 and sets around 6:24 pm.

I had never seen so many stars in the sky. With the mountain background, a starry sky and the sounds of nature, it was a perfect place to fall asleep.

Final Thoughts

Sounds like everything is going well, doesn’t it? Check out day two of our Inca trail adventure. Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list. Let me know in the comments.

Until next time

Frankie

All photos in this blog copyright Frankie Cameron Writes.