Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
“We made it! Another Wonder of the World conquered!”After an intense four days trek along the acclaimed Inca Trail through the Sacred Valley in the Peruvian Andes, this was what was going through our minds, while sat at the of Wayna Picchu mountain, peering down at the impressive Inca citadel beneath us.
Machu Picchu was built in 1450 as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti until the Spanish invaded in 1572. Thankfully for us, they never found it and so weren’t able to plunder or destroy it as they had done to other Inca sites. Instead, it lay abandoned for centuries until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. It was subsequently restored to former glory, becoming a UNESCO listed World Heritage Status site in 1983, then voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll in 2007.
Machu Picchu, which translates to old mountain in the Quechua language, lies on a mountain ridge at 2,430m (7,970ft) altitude, and you can reach it via train from Cusco. Or, you can tread in the footsteps of the Incas and get there via one of the most famous treks in the world.
The Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is one of the most popular treks, and involves a four days/three nights’ journey through the Sacred Valley, culminating at Machu Picchu on the final day. This particular trail is the most popular because it had religious and ceremonial importance to the Incas. It was part of their route of pilgrimage to Machu Picchu and included rituals to honour the mountains. It was also part of a highly advanced network of around 40,000 trails built to connect the distant corners of the Inca Empire.
The trail is 44km (27 miles) long, winding its way up, down and around the mountains, snaking over three high passes, one of which reaches 4,200m (13,800 ft), called The Dead Woman’s Pass. As well as the historical importance of the Inca Trail, the views of snow-capped mountain peaks, cloud forests and the various Inca ruins you pass along the way is what makes it so rewarding, and of course, world famous.
A typical day during our Inca Trail meant around three to four hours trekking before lunch and a further three to four hours in the afternoon to the evening’s base camp
Our experience trekking the Inca Trail
Although trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the most rewarding things we’ve accomplished, it is hard. The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal is tough, and the trek to the Rinjani Volcano crater in Indonesia pushed us to the limit. However, this trek beats them all. It’s a hard-hitting. There are many steps going up then down, up and down again. The hardest part we remember through gritted teeth was on Day 2, trekking down from the highest point at Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmihuañusta). This involved going down some pretty steep steps for hours, which felt never-ending.
A typical day during our Inca Trail meant around three to four hours trekking before lunch and a further three to four hours in the afternoon to the evening’s base camp. Dinner was around 7 pm, and given how exhausted we were each day, we were fast asleep by 9 pm. There are no hot showers along the way, so it’s four days of baby wipes instead of washing.
Although sleeping arrangements was camping with tents and sleeping bags, if you have time, you can experience the Inca Trail in luxury, glamping style, with actual beds and champagne. A company like Journeyou offers a ten days luxury Inca Trail from around $6k per person.
The food during our trek was simple but impressive. We had a team of around two porters per person, who go running ahead of you carrying your dinner while you’re slowly lagging behind huffing and puffing with every step, trying to cope with the altitude. Arriving at camp, the porters will have already set up your tent as well as the dining tent where meals are shortly served. One rule on the Inca Trail is to keep to one side to allow the porters from each group to overtake you. It became a frequent ritual amongst trekkers to shout out “Porter!” as a warning to the person in front.
The team of porters is what makes the experience so unique. As well as carrying around a mini-kitchen to prepare all your meals, their upbeat, cheery nature helps you power through the more challenging moments of the trek. At one point, a lady in our group was unable to cope with the altitude, and one of our porters carried her down the mountain, not complaining once, always smiling, always positive.
We loved the challenge, the views and of course the historical importance of the Inca Trail. Whenever we stopped to rest during our trek, these were the moments when we also stopped to appreciate the value of what we were doing: this is most likely the same spot the Incas would have also stopped to rest all those centuries ago.
Do your research well, and book a good company that will give you an experienced guide, is licensed and speaks fluent English
A few tips for trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The Peruvian government heavily regulates the Inca Trail, limiting it to only 200 trekkers a day, so you need to book it several months in advance to avoid disappointment. We booked our Inca Trail trek using Journeyou, a company recommended to us by friends.
Rent walking poles
We are seasoned trekkers so had the benefit of hindsight knowing how valuable these are. When trekking downhill, on steps, your knees will thank you for bringing along walking poles.
Avoid trekking in the rainy season
The weather in Peru’s Sacred Valley has two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season is from October to April with the heaviest storms in February. February is so severe that the government closes the Inca Trail for the entire month to carry out maintenance works. Trekking close to February means you will risk having heavy rain for most of the trek, making it unpleasant, with poor visibility. The best time to trek the Inca Trail is during the dry season between May and September when there is little rain, but most importantly, you’re more likely to get the best views across the Sacred Valley.
Acclimatise in Cusco first
Trekking in the altitude is testing, and if you’re not acclimatised, you risk suffering from altitude sickness the higher up you go. We, therefore, recommend you first spend a few days acclimatising in Cusco, which is located at 3,500m (11,4800ft) altitude.
Your guide is everything
Do your research well, and book a good company that will give you an experienced guide, is licensed and speaks fluent English. This is the person who will motivate you to power through some of the tougher moments of the trek. The relationship you develop with your guide is the key to making the Inca Trail experience so special and memorable.
Try to trek up to Wayna Picchu
Wayna Picchu Mountain is located in front of Machu Picchu and is an optional extra trek. In our opinion, this is the highlight of visiting Machu Picchu. It takes roughly 1 hour to reach the top, with the final part involving some climbing. The views from the summit are spectacular. Not only do you see Machu Picchu in all its glory beneath you, but you also have a 360 view of the Sacred Valley around you. It’s impressive and puts everything into perspective. Beware, though, that the Wayna Picchu trek has become so popular that it is now regulated and limited to just 400 people a day, spread over two-morning time slots. As with the Inca Trail, you need to book this experience a few months in advance to avoid disappointment.
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Photo: Nomadic Boys
Photo: Nomadic Boys