Without a doubt, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, in Peru, deserves it's acclaim as one of the most surreal and sought after hiking experiences in the wall. This stunning trail traverses through cloud forests and jungle, and encompasses beautiful mountain scenery and Incan ruins. At some point in your Internet saturated life, you will have seen the quote, paired with a travel related image, "It is not the destination that is important, but the journey", or something to that effect. While this may hold true for many life situations, it is not completely accurate for this one. It is both the journey along the Inca Trail and the breathtaking view of Machu Picchu at the end, that gives the Trail it's place in the top 5 most sought after trekking experiences in the world. Few trails can promise a view as spectacular as that of Machu Picchu waiting for you at the end. After six months of counting down, I finally experienced this for myself - what an incredible journey and sight it was!
Cusco, the heart of the Incan Empire, is the starting point for many travelers journey to Machu Picchu. The Incans built a massive network of roads and trails that spanned their massive empire, all the way through to parts of Ecuador, Chile and Argentina, and Cusco marks the center. These trails connect some of the most important sites of the Incan Empire, including Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna and Machu Picchu. There are a variety of different Inca Trail trips that you can do, including the one that covers the entire trail. Due to time (and fitness constraints, sssh), I did the “Short”, one-day, 10km hike that starts at the 104km mark. This was an extra option on my Contiki Inca Panorama tour (a life-changing experience). The Inca Trail is restricted to only certain hiking operators in the country and has very strict regulations. For instance, you have to hike with your passport. No passport, no hike. You have to book a couple months in advance, and passes are limited to 500 per day for the entire trail (including porters and guides). This is not one of those things you can just rock up and do, and passes sell out quickly.
Our trip seemed to begin almost as soon as we arrived in Ollantaytambo, where you can pick up the train to join the different starting points for the hike or to continue to Machu Picchu. We were treated to a fantastic tour of the Incan temple and terraces in Ollantaytambo with our Contiki tour manager, Gaby (words cannot express how awesome she is, both professionally as our tour manager and guide, and on a personal level). At 6 am the following day, we headed to the train station to begin. Passport in hand, we popped onto the train for an hour and a half journey. I was way too keyed up to nap, and the views from the train are stunning. We had no idea what to expect from our trek. Many of us were nervous about how tough the trek is, and whether we would be ok. I injured my back a year ago, not a serious injury, but enough to keep me from being as active as I usually am. The train arrived at our stop, the 104km mark. After checking in with our passports (I was first through thanks to my surname!), we all loaded up on bug spray and got ready to start!
After passing through the checkpoint, the trek starts off with a short tour through Chachabamba, located alongside the Urubamba River. These ruins were discovered in 1940, 30 years after Machu Picchu was discovered. The fog was hanging over the mountains, and I was desperately hoping that the sun would burn through them by the time we got to Machu Picchu. Positive thoughts!
From Chachabamba, we had a steady climb for a couple of hours, on a mostly exposed and narrow trail (with a long, look down). Chachabamba is at 2120m (6955 ft) altitude. Myself and a couple of others couldn't keep up the pace with the speedy Gonzales in our group, so about four of us settled into an easy pace of climbing, talking, and taking photographs. Given that there is actually quite an ascent up to Wiñay Wayna at 2600m (8531 ft), the hike didn't seem that bad. Apart from the killer steps taking you up and down every twist and turn! After a couple stops along the way, the trail eventually leads into dense, jungle overgrowth so for a good percentage of time you are trekking through shade.
A couple of important tips for the Inca Trail One Day hike: take a lot of water. Our guides told us to each bring at least 3l of water each. It's a long day, in the heat, and water is very important. It's also not exactly available to buy along the way! Bug spray is also a good investment. I only sprayed my legs once, and as you can see, I was also wearing long yoga pants. Either the one-time bug spray application saved me or those yoga pants did. I didn't get bitten, but a number of the girls in my group who were wearing shorts did. Some of these bites looked pretty nasty too. I'm thanking my lucky stars I wasn't bitten by anything - two days after returning to the US; I landed up in the ER with a severe allergic reaction to fire ant bites... which are from South America. I now have to carry an EPI pen at all times and am glad I was fortunate enough to not find out about this dormant allergy in Peru or on the trek! But I digress... SUNSCREEN! That's also a good idea. Especially if you are fair like me! I also packed some snacks along the way: protein bars, energy shot blocks, some Pringles and a kit kat. Probably not the best snacks for a long hike, but I enjoyed them.
After passing the waterfall, and going up and down numerous rock staircases, you finally come across the Wiñay Wayna sign. You're all smiles! And then you round the corner and realize how much further you have to climb up to get to the top and how steep it all is. This part was definitely exhausting, but a lot of fun. At this point my little group and I were on our own. Two of our guides were ahead with the speedy Gonzales group, and the rest were behind us with the other group. The three of us had no idea where we were supposed to go, and being respectful of the ruins, we were not sure where was ok for us to walk on. After traipsing around the bottom of the site for some 10 minutes, and getting more and more anxious about being lost on the Inca Trail, we finally heard the voices of the speedy group and I spotted them above us. It is that steep that you actually cannot see the top! Relieved that we weren't lost on the Inca Trail, I hastily and breathlessly climbed the stairs to reach some of the people in our group, not taking any photos of the steep steps along the way!
Wiñay Wayna, which means “Forever Young” and is named after one of the orchards found in the region, is supposed to be one of the most impressive archaeological sites on the entire Inca Trail, apart from Machu Picchu itself. It was built into a very (very) steep hillside that overlooks the Urubamba River. Consisting of lower and upper houses, water fountains, and terraces connected by a steep staircase, the site is an impressive one. We relaxed here, taking in the view, before continuing on for lunch.
From the lunch spot you pass through another check point, after which it feels like a short but intense walk to Inti Punku Sun Gate. You first have to climb up the stairs to the Sun Gate though. It is an all limbs needed endeavour to the top. I found it pretty tough, but my back was giving me problems by this point. Our little "In-Betweeners" group was cheering each other on though, which made it easier.
At 2730m/8792ft Inti Punku Sun Gate presents a breathtaking view of Machu Picchu, lying in wait below. No words can express the triumph and awe of reaching the sun gate and seeing the impressive world wonder below.
Truly a magical and majestic moment!
From the Sun Gate, it is a 45-minute walk down to Machu Picchu. At this point I was super tired and sore because of my back. We enjoyed the view and took photos for a little bit and watched the rain starting to come in. We were lucky to have such good weather for our hike and upon reaching Machu Picchu – the next day we spent walking through fog at the site, absolutely drenched.
After a successful, wonderful and surreal trek, Machu Picchu presented us with a beautiful rainbow, a lasting impression of an incredible and inspiring day in Peru.
My Inca Trail trip was organized through Contiki, who uses Traveling and Healing as the Inca Trail Tour Operators.