The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

Day One – Cusco to Wayllabamba

An early start meant that I needed to have everything packed and sorted the night before so I did. An late-ish night and a lack of sleep meant I had to fight to get out of bed as the bus collected me at 0521 and we were off. The bus toured around Cusco picking up various passengers until we were all on board and off we went to Ollantaytambo. It was a really misty morning and the time went quite quickly as we were all chatting on the bus (before falling asleep for a while). A quick breakfast, back on the bus and we got to the start of the trail.

Start of the Inca TrailThe start of the walk is quite prolonged with getting things off the bus, porters getting sorted, ticket and passport checks… but it all went smoothly and off we toddled. It was tougher than I imagined straight away, the first hill whilst not steep or long immediately showed that the trek wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

We stopped for lunch and were all astounded by the food! I can’t Walking the Inca Trailremember the exact meal, but it was 4 course with avocado starters and was delicious! We pressed on afterwards to the campsite over some lovely paths and were chatting away merrily. The campsite was already set up when we got there and since I was an “odd-one-out”, I got a single tent for myself. Unfortunately the tent wasn’t designed for a 6ft person so I didn’t actually fit in it, but I managed. Another fabulous meal and bed at 2000.

Day Two – Wayllabamba to Paqaymayu

Another early start with the wake up call at 0520, breakfast at 0600 and starting walking at 0700. We were all aware that day two was going to be tough so were chatting about it over breakfast. You climb from the camping ground at 3000m to 4215m (9,850 to 13, 828 feet) – that is an ascent of 1215m, or the height of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.

ZZ Top ManIt was a cold, misty morning as we left the campsite and we had our first introduction to ZZ-top man. ZZ-top man was a gent who looked like he should be in ZZ-top when they had brown hair and could be seen sitting on the stairs, head between his knees and a guide looking bored beside him. We had to stop for the checkpoint for 10 minutes or so just above where we first met ZZ-top man, and when we restarted, he was sitting on the stairs again, head between his knees, about 500m further on from where he had stopped last time. It was going to be a long day for him! Over the next two days ZZ-top man always appeared ahead of us – he must not have stopped!

At the Summit of Dead Womans PassWe continued upwards, slowly climbing through the trees before Will (the guide) suggested we start walking at our own pace. Nina and I seemed to walking at the same pace so struggled long together stopping when we needed to, drinking gallons of water and sweating disgracefully. We reached the 2nd breakfast stop around 0930 or so and waited for an hour or so drinking tea and eating pop-corn! We all had to change as it was much colder than anyone expected and it is was even worse when your shirt is soaking wet! At this point I was fully aware that I was that person you see trekking with completely the wrong gear – I was wearing shorts and had a sodden shirt, a t-shirt and my warm jacket for company. It was cold! After a while of sitting, I was getting colder so decided to press on up the mountain without the others (they were all leaving around then, I just happened to leave first around 10:30 or so) and then it started to rain, it wasn’t particularly heavy, but it was persistent and cold. I popped a poncho on and kept to my nice steady rhythm up the hill summiting at 11:43. My stetson also worked a treat as it kept water off my face / my head warm.

On the down from Dead Womans PassIt was desperate. You couldn’t really see anything because of the mist, it was cold, it was raining, the wicking t-shirt I had on was doing a fine job of wicking the sweat off my back and putting it into my shorts and boxers… The final push had be feeling sick and dizzy presumably from the altitude, I couldn’t breathe… I didn’t hang around for long, a quick picture and keep pushing on back down the 700m to the campsite. The stroll to the campsite was great – the clouds started to lift, every step making me feel fitter, stronger and warmer until I took the poncho off and was able to wander along without it. I got into the campsite at 12:43 and all the porters kept staring at me, shouting to each other – I don’t think they recognised me at first so wondered who was clambering into a tent to sit out of the rain.

A change of clothes and a wash and I was much happier! The days walk over, I was able to sit back, relax and think about what I’d just achieved – 10km, 1200m ascent, 700m descent in a little less than 5 hours. I’d faced a challenge and overcome it!

TThe grouphe rest of the afternoon more people from our group came into camp and we were all chatting, having a cup of tea, watching Nina, Mike and Johnathon have a Yoga session, fight to open a bottle of wine… It was nice to get to know people a little better, not just trying to chat whilst walking (difficult as you can’t breathe) or over dinner/tea. I think all of our group arrived by 1530 or so but other groups were unluckier – some people were still coming in to the campsite at 1930 and had had to navigate the hills in the pitch black. Not fun at all!

The view from the campsiteAs the afternoon progressed the sun came out and we were left with a beautiful clear evening. The stars came out to play and there was loads of them! Pedro started to showed me one or two constellations but it was cold and the mountain location meant you could only see part of the night sky – I can’t wait to get to the deserts where the sky should be un-restricted!

Again, another early night and the toughest day complete.

Day Three – Paqaymayu to Winay Wayna

Day three startThe CondorDay three started with an hours climb. It was a beautiful morning without a cloud in the sky and not too warm. We stopped a couple of times to be shown an orchid and an Inca lookout / food storage ruins before summiting on the second pass early in the morning. At the top of the second pass Pedro took us to the top of a little hill to perform a ceremony to Mother Earth. As I went down to place my stone, calls went up from the group – a Condor was flying just over our heads. We frantically all started to take pictures and really enjoyed seeing such a rare sight – Condors tend to stay away from the Inca Trail simply due to the number of people around.

Jungle pathSpirits buoyed we started the downhill section over some very steep stairs before reaching an Inca ruin set into the hill side. There were some nice touches to be seen like the water channels carved into the rocks – a quick explore and off to the other side of the Valley for lunch. The path leading to lunch was lovely, it had a jungle feel to it, was covered by foliage and the path was much smoother. When we got to the lunch all the napkins had been folded in the shape of Condors!

Inca ruinsWe started off again at our own pace and a group of six of us wandered along within shouting distance. It was a climb to the third pass, but it seemed much easier than before – the path was smoother, the going easier, things to look at were different too as the foliage had changed, we climbed through tunnels… It was lots of fun and reached the third summit quite nicely. There were people camping here or having lunch and once the group had caught up, we took some viciously steep stairs down to another Inca Ruin for a quick shufty.

StepsIt started to get late at this point, we were around ninety minutes walk from the Campsite and darkness would fall in two hours, on the way there was also another ruin to see (the terracing) so the six of us set off at a fast pace. For some reason I was able to navigate the stairs much faster than anyone else and wasn’t suffering with painful knees so ended up waiting at the bottom of flights of stairs for the others to catch up.

Tasty BeerEventually the group of size dropped to three and Alison, Aide and I pushed on to the terraces before reaching the campsite a little after five. We had a celebratory beer and it was the best tasting beer ever. We had made it. There was only 5km remaining the following morning and we’d be in Machu Picchu!

Others started to arrive and eventually we had a full compliment of people and were served cups of tea. It was over tea that the topic of “tips” came up. I’ll say at the outset that I have no objection to tipping the porters (they did an amazing job), but the system employed is silly! Essentially everyone has to chuck into the pot a donation (we settled on S/100), the monies are then totted up and divided out between the porters, cook, guides using various percentages – trying to decide on the correct way to do this took along time. Once we’d decided, counted the pot (I counted it and got it wrong Sad smile) we had tea. The porters were then shuffled into the tent, Mike had to give a speech (translated by William the guide) and pass the money to the head porter and chef. We then all shook hands and the porters shuffled out. It was an odd experience!

We ended up eating tea very late (20:00) and I couldn’t face much as I was tired and didn’t want to go to bed with a full stomach. The food was spectacular though with wontons, fried rice, mashed potato and even an amazing cake – it was awesome! Another night sleeping in a tent which was a little too small for me and on gravel! I didn’t sleep well at all (no-one did) and was awake from 01:00.

Day Four – Winay wayna to Machu Picchu

The light at the end of the tunnelAn even earlier start on Day four at 03:50 meant a very simple breakfast and leaving the campsite at 04:30 to queue for the checkpoint. All the groups seemed to have the same idea as the Porters train runs at 0530 – they can’t afford to miss it and need to clear camp first, as a result, all campers need to be out of bed and away early on. We queued for about an hour or so before the light came on and we surged forward.

The view from the topWe were one of the first groups and Will set a great pace for us to charge up the final 5km. The last section of which is a flight of stairs exceptionally steep! People were walking up them with walking poles, but I went on all fours and ran – it was easy enough but they do look daunting! At the top we were all disappointed – it was desperately cloudy and you couldn’t see a thing. We stayed for a couple of hours hoping it’d clear but eventually had to leave without seeing Machu Picchu from the summit. It was a fun two hours though as I ended up chatting to various people from other groups, all in the same boat waiting for the view to open up.

The group at Machu PicchuWe walked down the hill towards Machu Picchu stopping at a Inca site, laughing at the bus-tourists struggling up the “little” hill to the Sungate, watched Will give Naha a piggy back… Then we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and grins erupted on all of our faces. The sun had come out, the ruins where there for all to see, we’d reached the final destination in a 42km three day trek, we faced adversity and we’d overcome it.

Pictures started to be taken of the group overlooking Machu Picchu before descending to the entrance to store bags, get some water, put on insect repellent etc.

Will then started the tour, later than he’d like but we got to see the main attractions by 11:30. They passed out bus tickets and directed us to the restaurant before disappearing themselves. The group then split up into various fractions as we explored Machu Picchu ourselves.

I wandered round for a bit but ended up just standing and looking around for a while. I stayed for about 30minutes sitting at the top of the hill overlooking the site (not the mountain) and reflecting on the trip, the holiday, Machu Picchu and life in general.

I then wandered down to catch the bus to Aguas Calientes and met up with the group again for a couple of beers and pizza. Then we all moved of to the Hot Springs for a relax and i was the best idea! Not many of us had swimming equipment so it was a mismatch of walking shorts and underwear as we walked into the pool. A couple of Pisco Sours and we left as friends rather than travellers sharing a common goal. It really was brilliant fun (apart from me mooning everyone when I forgot to hold onto my shorts!).

Final thoughts

When I went on this walk I wanted to meet some great people and get to Machu Picchu, the walk was going to be fun but it was incidental to the end goal. I got that wrong. It’s all about the trek. The trek is probably the toughest physical activity I’ve ever done and took a lot of mental strength and determination to keep going and to face the new experiences with an open mind and not baulk out. It’s about forming friendships with strangers and working together where necessary. It’s about having fun.

Tips for anyone doing the Inca Trail (not in the guides)

  • Hire a third porter. It’s perfectly possible to do the trip without one, but it’s tough and why make it harder for yourself (unless it’s a personal challenge).
  • Take your time – on the second day I found a nice steady pace which I could maintain without my heart leaving my chest and kept to it. I struggled at the summit (started to go dizzy and felt sick) but overall I was fine.
  • Take your own roll mat as well as hiring one. Even if you throw it away at the end (or give it to a porter), take it. The campsites are hard-packed gravel and are horrible to sleep on (if you can manage to sleep at all!)
  • Leave any western sensibilities at home – the toilets are long-drops and are filthy, you can’t easily wash, your clothes will stink…
  • Have fun!

More pictures of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

You can view more of my pictures in the Digitallery in the South America – Inca Trail album

Click here to load a map showing you the location of this post and images from the digitallery taken nearby.