The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Machu Picchu, Peru, South America

We Are Here
We are here! Where? Peru! Machu Picchu, to be exact!

Most of our previous studies of South America were realized as we entered the gates to the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu.

The trek to get there was a wonderful experience. Arriving in Cusco on a flight from Lima, we wondered if the altitude at 11,000 feet (3,600 meters) would affect us. We were also curious about whether it would rain since we were at the end of the rainy season (November through March). The altitude did affect us, we were out of breath easily.

Since we had a few days to acclimatize, we managed well. Be sure to allow at least a day or two before your trek to get adjusted to the altitude. Then, the elevations on the Inca Trail (highest pass is 14,088 feet or 4,198 meters) and Machu Picchu (about 8,000 feet or 2,450 meters) won't be so daunting. A good activity for the acclimatization day is a city tour of Cuzco (Sachsayhuaman, the Cathedral and Coricancha are included).

The rains came and went. It rained before, during and after the trek, but good rain gear and a day pack cover were sufficient to keep us and our gear dry.

The outfitter used by Adventures Within Reach in Peru is an outstanding group of professional guides, cooks and hard-working porters. The campsites are selected to be away from crowds, though you often pass or are passed by other groups of trekkers. This company is conservation minded, committed to sustainable development of tourism/trekking. As such, it has high standards for recycling, using biodegradable products and "leaving no trace".

Day One
The trek starts with a train ride from Cusco or, in our case, Ollantaytambo (enroute) to Machu Picchu. The train is filled with tourists, heading to the "Lost City" for a day tour. We Inca Trail trekkers get off the train at kilometer 88, check in at the guard station and cross the Urubamba River to our first campsite, Q'ente.

Sounds like an easy day! However, after a morning snack, we take a hike to the ruins of Machu Q'ente and Wayna Q'ente, have a good lesson on Inca culture and architecture. The view from the ruins is spectacular, looking up and down the Urubamba River and the Sacred Valley. We return from the six-kilometer hike, knowing that we have some beautiful scenery ahead of us!

A late lunch, rest, tea, evening meal and good conversation round out the day's activities. Already we are experiencing the delicious food prepared for trekking groups! Each evening, the guide gives a briefing about the hiking for the next day and answers questions. This first evening, we also sign an agreement that we will help conserve the natural area with good environmental practices, such as disposing of trash in organic and inorganic bags (which are carried out), not letting soap enter the ground. The guides are knowledgeable about the Inca history, the local Quechua culture, and the flora and fauna of the area. They also have a good perspective of current Peruvian culture and events, to give an overall realistic picture of their country.

Day Two
After breakfast and meeting the camp crew, we head out towards the Llulluchupampa campsite, about 11 kilometers westward and uphill. We leave the Urubamba River after viewing two more ruins. We go up the valleys of the Cusichaca, then the Llullucha Rivers. Beauty is everywhere! There are hamlets en route, occasionally we pass local people with horses or burros going to their fields (the animals are allowed on the trail in this area). Now and then, there is a house with an open window, which acts as a mini-store – candy bars, colas and water.

Lunch is prepared for us on the way. This means a sit-down meal in a dining tent, usually cooked and plentiful! Snacks for the day had been given us in the morning, so we have to be careful not to over-stuff ourselves! We still have an afternoon of hiking to do!

The trail continues upward, gradually first, then steeper. We think it is difficult, the altitude causes us to be short of breath, we need to go slowly, stop occasionally for a brief rest. We drink plenty of water. Our campsite is in fog when we arrive. We are near the highest pass (to be reached the next day) in a meadow area with mountains all around. Beautiful, even in fog. A latrine has been erected by the camp crew (who had passed us on the way), along with our tents and dining tent. Tea and snacks, followed by dinner and more conversation. We are treated to a clear sky and full moon before turning in.

Day Three
This is the most difficult day, we go over three passes. The first comes quickly, if you are a fast hiker. It is Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman's Pass) at 14,088 feet. Two others follow. The hike is 16 kilometers, doable in the mind of most hikers. The hardest part, though, are the Inca steps. Up, up, up. Then down, down, down. Then up, up, up – you get the idea. One comes to respect (and hate) the work of the Incas! The steps go straight up and down (did they not know about switch backs?). Each step is a varying height. Even with hiking poles (a must), they are a challenge. Enroute, there are the Inca ruins of Runkuraqay and Sayacmarca. Each time there are ruins, we take a break and are treated to more interesting stories of the Incas, the purpose and importance of these places.

We are often reminded that, since the Incas had no written record and the Spaniards who followed in the mid 1500's told the Inca's story with a Spanish spin, there are a lot of things that we do not know of the Inca culture. Archeologists have researched extensively and have ventured educated guesses, but one must be careful about saying "for a fact, this is what the Incas did or intended". Nevertheless, we are impressed by the immense amount of work the Inca Empire accomplished in their 100-year rule. Our campsite is at the third pass of the day, Phuyupatamarca. Since we are on top of a ridge (misnamed a pass), we have gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. We arrive late in the day and just before tea, we observe a breathtaking sunset. During supper, we are called outside and watch the full moon rise!

On the last morning (day four), you give tips and other gifts (optional) to your guide, cook and porters. We have a mini-ceremony, where we thank the crew for their hard work, for their expert service. We give them pens, baseball caps (Adventures Within Reach, of course), chocolate candy and tips.

Day 4
We go into Machu Picchu. The tour of Machu Picchu is Day Five. Our route is cut off at Winay Wayna ruins due to a landslide of the preceding month, the trail not yet repaired, but will be opened by the first of July for the remainder of the trekking season. As a result, we do not enter Machu Picchu via the famed Sun Gate; instead, we descend from Winay Wayna on the porter's trail to kilometer 107 of the railroad track, walk the track into Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes). The hike is mostly downhill. That does not translate to "easy", but simply means that one does not lose one's breath. The Inca steps (we are told 3,000 of them, but would estimate 5,000!) are difficult to negotiate, especially with the rain! However, we are treated to many beautiful flowers (as was true all along the trail), and take pictures of the orchids and other brilliant native blossoms.

Lunch at Winay Wayna is in a restaurant/hostel type building alongsie other groups. Everyone converges here before continuing to Machu Picchu. Nearby are the ruins of WiƱay Wayna, discovered in 1942 (more recently than Machu Picchu). We have a cultural tour, then descend with other trekkers and porters, to take the trail down to kilometer 107 and hike the five kilometerrs to Machu Picchu Pueblo. This is where you stay overnight in a hotel. Ah, showers and a bed! The day's distance totals 11 kilometers.

Day Five – Inca Trail Rules
The Inca Trail has recently imposed new regulations, designed to minimize the damage to the ruins and terrain, to conserve this historical resource. You must have a permit and a guide. Permits are limited to 500 people per day (including porters). For the most popular months of July and August, book well in advance. Disposable plastic water bottles are not allowed. You may take the Nalgene type water bottles or your water hydration system. Hiking poles are permitted, but you must use rubber tips, to minimize the impact on the terrain (rocks and earth).

The Porters Association has succeeded in getting a limit to the weight they can carry. Since they carry your main pack, this translates to an eight-kilogram limit for your personal backpack/duffel. You may carry what you wish in your day pack – water, jacket, raingear, camera, sunscreen… For much of the trail, burros, horses and llamas are not allowed. Local people, of course, have them.

Meals included in the package are plentiful and delicious! We thought we had a special gourmet cook, but were told he was typical! The cooks have in-service training, teach each other….with a bit of the usual competition for "presentation". Breakfast includes tea, coffee, cocoa, along with a hot entree (eggs, pancakes, cereal) and rolls/bread. Lunches are cooked and include vegetables or salad (fresh) with a meat or possibly a pasta salad. The last day of the trek is a picnic lunch with sandwiches. Snacks are fruit (fresh oranges, bananas, tangerines, passion fruit) and candy bars/energy bars. Tea time includes whole grain rolls with butter and jam or crackers and cheese or popcorn. Dinner start with soup, then a hot entree (stews, chicken, spaghetti, or other meat/ fish), potatoes and vegetables (cooked or in a salad) and dessert. Lunch in Machu Picchu is at a restaurant.

If you are inspired to go to Peru for trekking, here are the good months – May through October. November through March is wet (their summer season). They close the Inca Trail in February for trail clean up. April is iffy, we had both sun and rain days. July and August are the best, as they are the driest, but they are also the coldest (their winter season). We booked with Adventures Within Reach – an excellent tour operator.