My Experience In One Of The World’s Most Popular Tourist Attractions
There was no way we were heading to Machu Picchu and not doing the Inca Trail. The pretentious traveler in me wouldn’t allow it. The four-day trek is the stuff of bucket list dreams, and only seeing the old Incan Citadel wasn’t going to be enough.
As soon as we’d decided Peru was on the cards, I’d started exploring our options but was struck by the concern that it might not be possible. While Machu Picchu would be easy to visit, despite visitor caps, the Inca Trail itself limits daily trekkers to five hundred a day, including porters and guides. It’s not uncommon for places on the trail to fill up six months in advance. We were trying to book two months prior.
But for once, Covid was helpful, and as tourism wasn’t back up to full steam, there were places left for our June dates. We were also extremely flexible and chose to plan Peru around the available dates instead of the other way around. This is super important if you’re hoping to book your own. Plan months ahead, and don’t anticipate the same luck that we had.
It’s not cheap either, even for the most basic options. Many of the basic packages were around $600 to $700. These would have been larger groups of between twelve and sixteen, fully catered as with all of the options. We chose a private tour and a five-day option, something I’m delighted we did, which I’ll explain later. It was only $200 more to have an entire porter team and a guide for the four of us.
Our guide picked us up in a minibus at 5 am outside our hostel before we began winding through the ancient streets of Cusco, once the capital of the Incan Empire. We picked up our head porter and chef along the way before making our way to the Sacred Valley and the starting point of the Inca Trail.
The trail begins near Ollantaytambo, the centerpiece of most tours of the Sacred Valley, thanks to its epic ruins. The immense terraces were once the site of a major victory for the Incas over the Spanish colonialists and are one of the most important sites in the country. The start point is named km 82, which surprises many people. When we say the Inca Trail, we’re usually referring to the one we were hiking. In reality, there were many of them, spanning the entirety of the Incan Empire all the way to Ecuador in the North and Chile in the South.
The rest of our porter team was already there getting organized. The ten-strong team carried 99% of our things, including tents, food, dining tents, clothes, and cooking equipment. We still had bags, but only for essentials like cameras, rain jackets, and snacks. I tried to pack a little extra to feel a little stronger compared to the porters.
They set off maybe twenty minutes before us, heading odd at a breakneck pace that they kept up for the entirety of the trek. They would usually leave after us and still beat us by two hours.
Our guide, a local man, named Fernando, had been taking tours for almost thirty years. Most other guides we saw knew him by his nickname, gato- the cat. He was a charismatic man in his sixties who often stopped to comment on flowers he saw or to talk about different sites we passed.
Machu Picchu is the trail’s endpoint and naturally receives most of the attention. Those who choose only to visit the site deny the chance to see some of the most astonishing natural beauty in the world.
Mountains soar above the trail in every direction, while the gushing waters of the Urubamba River trace it to the right. The heavily enforced limits mean the trail never feels busy, and we spent most of the trek in complete solitude.
The first day is the easiest. We pass by no less than three Incan ruins, one a large settlement not much smaller than Machu Picchu itself, where Fernando points out the ingenuity of the civilization. Stone-carved plumbing allowed water to flow to almost every building, and the terraced architecture was always designed to maximize their time in the sun.
Our biggest surprise of the day was lunch. Despite having such a large team supporting us, we couldn’t have anticipated the quality of food we’d eat over the next few days. By the time we arrived at the stop, the dining tent was already built, and two porters ran over to us with warm water and soap to wash up.
We sat down in the dining tent and were brought a three-course meal. Trout ceviche was the starter before the main arrived in the form of plates of chicken and rice and salad and pasta and bread—all delicious. Even dessert was followed by as much tea and coffee as we wanted. It only got better each day. No meal was the same and was always waiting for us when we arrived.
The camp that night was a joy. Perched on a slope at the end of the valley we had hiked down; we had a full view of the Mountain Veronica, an icy peak sitting at well 5000 meters. We had hiked for around six or seven hours, our most straightforward and shortest day. The entire trail is about 26 miles long, and we’d only gone about six that day. The route was undulating most of the day, with the harsh sun being the only challenging aspect. We saw some other groups struggling, but we were happy to feel in good shape.
Day two was a different beast. Starting the day at 2950m, we climbed to the highest point on the trail, the Dead Woman’s Pass, which sits at 4200m. It was then we realized the immense benefits of the five-day trek instead of the four-day.
Itineraries for the four-day trek were strict and left little room for longer stops to enjoy ruins on the way. The most significant difference comes on the final day. Four-day trekkers have to wake at 3 am to try and arrive at Machu Picchu for sunrise, tour the site, and head back to Cusco. We, on the other hand, would be able to rise at a regular time, enjoy an empty trail the entire day, and arrive at the site at sunset. We’d then wake up the following day and have a tour of the site. We would see Machu Picchu at sunset and sunrise and have fewer crowds on the trail. Picking the five-day is worth it for this alone.
It actually made that day harder for us. Our day two is usually split by the four-day groups, as many struggle to cope with the altitude gain. We were all feeling good, so Fernando made the decision to push through to the next site. Seeing the ecosystems change as we worked our way up the mountainside was wonderful, and our first contact with a few llamas added to the South American feel. A glacier worked down the mountain opposite us while the steep stone steps of the trail climbed ahead.
The pass itself is a glorious moment on the trail. Exhausted, legs aching, and breathing heavily, the vastness of Peru met us. Two condors, the largest flying birds in the world, soared overheard. Behind us, the valley we’d just navigated with its drier climes and glacial systems in the distance and in front, a steep drop into the cloud forest and the Amazon beyond. Somewhere out there was Machu Picchu.
Day three was a stunning hike. The path climbed and fell quickly as we worked through two passes, descending further into the cloud forest. The rocks of the trail themselves, all seven hundred years old and once walked by Emperors, were beautiful in their own right, smooth and rounded from years of footfall, varying in color from creamy whites to pinks. The trail was lined with moss, punctuated with explosions of colorful flowers. No spot lay untouched by the vegetation.
We passed through two more major sites, both striking and mysterious as the clouds melded around them. One of the sites, Sayacmarca, featured a sun temple similar to those found in Machu Picchu, giving us a hint of what was to come.
Our camp that night was the best. Sitting at around 3900m were shrouded in mist. A few hundred meters below, I could see the ruin of Phuyupatamarca, where a family of llamas was grazing among the walls.
The following day, we were woken by those same llamas. One had taken up residence on our tent porch, while a mother and baby blocked the other tent. We were glad they did. The clouds had lifted, and we were gifted with the most incredible view of the Inca Trail. The campsite gave us unobstructed views of the entire region. The sacred snowcapped mountain of Salkantay loomed behind us, Veronica. On the other side, Machu Picchu mountain lay just down the valley.
We sat on the top of the rocky crags drinking coca tea brought up by our porters, watching the sun rise above the mountains. It was hard to leave that spot.
But leave we did, following the path downhill through Phuyupatamarca and onto a steep set of stairs affectionately known as “the Gringo Killer” by the porters. Each step is around a foot high but precariously narrow and isn’t kind on the knees. Several porter teams scurried by, taking the steps at a jog while we took care on every step.
After surviving the Gringo Killer, we were met with Intipata, an intimidating terraced ruin built into the side of a steep hillside. The sheer size of it was astounding, but the view left us speechless. The four of us sat, legs dangling over the edge of a terrace, watching the swallows dart back and forth while the Urubamba Valley stretched out in front of us. We could see the layers of the valley that we had already hiked, giving a sense of how far we’d come.
Eventually, we were pried away from the site for our last lunch stop at Winayawyna, often viewed as a sister site to Machu Picchu. It was the largest we’d seen and shared the same valley view as Intipata.
At this point in the trail, the one and two-day trekkers arrive on the trail. Us, four days in, were smelly and probably looking worse for wear. The new arrivals were decked out in hiking gear but with their hair done and looking fresh. It was hard not to feel a slight sense of superiority. Like we had earned it more. The streams of tourists piled up the trail at alarming rates. As many as 300 were expected to arrive around the same time.
But then it was time for our last push. We followed the trail down and around to the backside of Machu Pichhu mountain itself. The trail rises once again, turning into a steep staircase that requires you to use all fours to the summit. Just beyond, I could see a beam of orange light glowing through a gap in the trail: the Sun Gate, Intipunku.
Fernando asked us to cleanse ourselves before going through, touching some part of nature, a tree, a flower, a shrub, and then our bodies to show respect to Pachamama, the Incan deity, effectively Mother Nature.
He asked us to close our eyes and walk through the gate. Once in position, he commanded us to open them, and there it was. Basking in the dying light of the day was Machu Picchu.
I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up with the rest of my group. The sunset was beautiful, and the mountains engulfing the site were blanketed in lush greenery. There’s no question as to why the Inca people assumed this place was sacred. It looks too perfect.
We sat quietly for about twenty minutes, admiring the citadel and the surrounding valley. Only one small group passed through in that time. We wouldn’t have had this experience on the four-day trek. The extra $200 was worth that moment alone.
Eventually, we worked our way along the last of the trail, where it joins with the tourist gate for those who only visit the site. There, we were afforded the view seen on every postcard of Machu Picchu, the rays of dying sunlight making cartoonish beams across the valley. The last of the day, tours were leaving the site. We noticed how well dressed they were and how so many of them seemed a little uninterested.
We left the site, fighting through the swarms of tourists, drawing a few strange looks thanks to our grizzly appearance, and headed another hour down to our campsite. That night, we thanked our porters, each individually, and went to bed after yet another brilliant dinner. The following day, we were on the bus back up to the site to get our tour.
Once in, Fernando took us through the ruins, explaining the ancient citadel’s history and theories. He was frustrated, as the caps and Covid rules hadn’t been removed, meaning we could not see the entire site and had to follow a strict path through. I thought about all the people who had only come for a tour, forgoing the trail itself, and only had an hour being worked briefly through the site.
We were lucky. The trip could have ended at the Sun Gate for us, and we’d have been more than happy.
Machu Picchu is astonishing in itself. It deserves its place as a wonder of the world. But the Inca Trail is what transforms the experience. I don’t think I teared up at Machu Picchu because it was a beautiful view. I was emotional because I’d accomplished something. I’d followed a trail that was once sacred to thousands of people and was privileged enough to enjoy the same euphoria at the end of that pilgrimage.
It’s impossible to understand Machu Picchu without the context of the Inca Trail. They’re part of each other, and to truly appreciate either, you need the other. You can call it pretentious, but I did look at tourists who arrived at the site that day and know that Machu Picchu meant more to me. It was impossible for them to have felt the same thing I did at the Sun Gate, or Winayawyna, or Intipata, or Phuyupatamarca.
The trail allows you to see why this was sacred and shouldn’t be missed. Don’t be a day-tripper. Book the Inca Trail, push yourself and have an experience you’ll never forget.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com