Virginia is for Lovers, The Inca Trail is for Best Friends

It feels so good to say this: the Inca Trail totally lives up to the hype. Even better, we got to hike the Inca Trail with two of our best friends.

This photo explosion of a post is dedicated to our hard trekking, light-hearted amigos Courtney and Charlie (Catalina y Char-les), as well as our guides Manuelito and Juancito, and the superhuman Chaskis (Inca Trail porters) without whom this incredible adventure would be way less enjoyable.

Inca Trail lovefest, 2013

Inca Trail lovefest, 2013

Inca Trail Day One—This gone be fun (12km)

They call day one the easy one. It even starts at a restaurant.

Like many Sacred Valley eateries, our brekky spot had a playhouse-sized cuy (guinea pig) pen. Snapping a photo is tricky; resident cuy know to hide when human hands approach.

Coi, it's not what's for breakfast

Cuy, the other, other white meat

The 4-day Inca Trail trek starts at the romantically named Km 82. It’s the first of four checkpoints where Inca Trail officials weigh chaskis’ packs, and cheesy tourist like yours truly get to add superfluous stamps to their passports.

Inca Trail Day 1: sunshine, lollipops and a meandering river

The Inca Trail Day 1: sunshine, lollipops, and meandering rivers

The trail crosses Rio Vilcanota where we got our first glimpse of ckaski power. While we posed for photos with our light-as-air daypacks, the chaskis shot up the hill, literally running with packs the size of six year olds.

Chaskis: an army of 5’4″ Usain Bolts with the strength and agility of 10 llamas descended from highly trained Inca foot messengers 

Chaskis run the Inca Trail wearing sandals and 20 kg (45 lbs) packs

Chaski legs

Chaskis calf envy

After the initial assent, the trail levels to a meandering path through beautiful mountain pastures. A few long-established farms dot the trail, and we passed a handful of locals walking between their homes and fields.

The Inca Trail is an archeologist’s playground and spectacular ruin views are constant scenery.

Inca Trail first ruin

Llactapata was an agricultural outpost built to supply Machu Picchu with maize

If the ruins don’t get you, views of the Urubamba mountain range will.

day one mountain

Inca Trail = Quechua scenic highway

Day one of the Inca Trail is so civilized that we even camped near a village where locals sell thirsty trekkers beer.

Day one sets the Inca Trail bar high

Day one sets the Inca Trail bar high

Inca Trail Day 2—Shit gets real (12km)

Goodbye cerveca, goodbye towns or even scattered farms, today we hike for real.

day two haze

On the Inca Trail, weather and altitude go hand-in-hand


Morning mist was an added bonus for us, not so for Inca Trail pack animals

Day two is said to be the hardest of the Inca Trail. Juan woke us (with tent-service coca tea and hot chocolate no less) at dawn. After breakfast (one of the hugely satisfying and surprisingly delicious meals enjoyed on the Inca Trail) we set out for the most grueling day of the trail. The 9 km hike took us on a never-ending vertical from our 3,000 meter campsite at Wayllabamba to the notorious “Dead Woman’s Pass” at 4,215 meters—a 1,200m, 5 hr climb.

Abra de Huarmihuañusca, i.e. Dead Woman's Pass, 4,200m

Abra de Huarmihuañusca, i.e. Dead Woman’s Pass

4,215 meters, baby

4,215 meters y’all

The best thing about trekking with friends: whatever this is

The best thing about trekking with friends: whatever this is

Tough as the assent was, the next hour-and-a-half, 3km (straight) down decent to camp at 3,600 meters was the real nail in the coffin.

Tired but triumphant

Tired but triumphant at Pacamayo

Poker night

Poker night

Inca Trail Day 3—Gringo killers (15km)

Day 3 isn’t actually all that much easier a hike. But it does include lots of ruins and other fun diversions between climbing up and tumbling down the trail.

Magic in the air at Runkuracay

Tomfoolery in the air at Runkuracay

Ruckus in the air at Runkuracay

Day 3

Looking back at Runkuracay

The trek from the Runkuracay ruins to the Abra de Runkuracay pass is a doozy, but crazy beautiful.

Abra de Runkuracay pass, 4,000 meters

Abra de Runkuracay

Abra de Runkuracay

By the time we reached the pass, we were feeling pretty down with our Inca selves, and there was nothing to do but bust out some Inca Trail warrior poses.

Warrior II

We weren’t the only ones feeling spiritual. Just before departing Abra de Runkuracay, Manuel and Juan lead us in a Quechua coca leaf ritual. That morning they’d told us to collect a small rock along the trail. Juan now handed us each three coca leaves. They had us fan them out, and then blow a wish into them, and then present our wish leaves East, West, North, and South. Finally, we placed our three coca leaves under our stone and Manuel sprinkled them with essential oil.

As we dispersed after the ritual, Juan put the bag of extra coca leaves in my hand. Chewing them came in handy as we hiked, but I harbour a hope that their magic medicine will last past the trek.

Quechua coca leaf ritual

Laying out our wishes during a Quechua coca leaf ritual

Next stop was Sayacmarca, the ‘Inaccessible Town’. The ruins are incredibly preserved. Like several spots along the Inca Trail, no one knows for certain what  Sayacmarca was built for, but some archeologists believe it may have been  a community for Quechua elders.

Today, Sayacmarca is the first place you set foot on the original (rather than restored) Inca Trail.

Manuel puts together a history lesson at Sayacmarca, the 'Inaccessible Town'

Manuel sketches out a history lesson

Playing paparazzi in, the 'Inaccessible Town'

Paparazzi in the ‘Inaccessible Town’

Sayacmarca isn't totally deserted

Sayacmarca isn’t totally deserted

Again, certain travel rituals are only appropriate in the company of friends.

Again, certain travel rituals only fly in the company of friends

After lunch and a pleasant cloud-forest stroll, we took on the infamous 1,000+ steps down affectionately called the Gringo Killers. Each step is the width of a woman’s size 5 shoe, and it’s a good 12″ from one step to the next. The chaskis (obviously) leapt from one step to the next like ballerinas in a production of Swan Lake while we wobbled and wondered if we’d make it off the mountain with both ankles intact.

Muy pooped gringas at the bottom of the Gringo Killers

Muy pooped gringas at the bottom of the Gringo Killers

Before reaching camp, Inca Trail trekkers have the choice to beeline for their tent, or loop around to one last pre-Machu Picchu ruin.


The Inca Trails gods reward going the extra mile with rainbows

Wiñay Wayna was incredible. The city was built around 10 baths and  the most formidable terrazas we’d seen, in the most stunning panoramic setting imaginable. Wiñay Wayna is Quechua for “forever young”. Those tiered gardens definitely kept inhabitants fit as pre-teens.

Approaching Wiñay Wayna

Approaching Wiñay Wayna


Llamas tend the terrazas at Wiñay Wayna today

It's easy to see how Wiñay Wayna kept the Quechua "forever young"

It’s easy to see how Wiñay Wayna kept the Quechua “forever young”


Clifford Inca

Inca Trail Day 4—Machu Picchu! (5km)

“The sky starts getting light by 5:30am and the first rays of the sun reach Machu Picchu at about 7am”, says Peru Treks’ website. I don’t doubt that statement on a cosmic level, but it was not the case for our hike.

On our last morning on the Inca Trail, Juan woke us at 3:45 am. Coca tea and hot chocolate tent service were replaced by cats and dog rain. As the Chaskis sped off to catch a crack-of-dawn train for Aguas Calientes, we huddled under a corrugated tin roof waiting for the fourth and final checkpoint to open at 5am.

3:45 am. Enough said.

4 am. Rain. Enough said.

But the weather mattered not. You could almost hear the beat of an Inca was drum as we powered through the hour-and-a-half hike to the last vertical flight of 50 steps leading to the famed Intipunku, or Sun Gate.

And there it was, Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is all of its misty and mysterious glory

Machu Picchu is all of its misty and mysterious glory

One of the VIP things about reaching Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail is that you trek in from above. We even had a run in with the ghost of Hiram Bingham.

Look ma, Machu Picchu

We got to run amuck at Machu Picchu, Manuel toured us about with lots of fascinating details. And then exhausted, freezing cold and soaked to the core,  we did what Pachacuti Inca would surely have done, and retired to the outdoor baths at Aguas Calientes.

stacky houses

If all the raindrops were lemon drop and gum drop ponchos

Much like the later Wu Tang Clan, Incan masonry ain't nothing to fuck with

Much like the 21st century Wu Tang Clan, 15th century Incan masonry ain’t nothing to fuck with

The Quechua language doesn’t have a word for goodbye. Instead, Quechua people use the most beautiful phrase , tupananchiskama, which means “until we meet again”, or “see you in this life, if not in the next”.

Tupananchiskama friends old and new. Tupananchiskama Inca Trail.

Looking across to Huayna Picchu

Looking across to Huayna Picchu

A note for anyone planning to hike the Inca Trail–your tour company matters!

After choosing good hiking pals and hiking shoes, the most important Inca Trail decision is choosing the right tour company. You aren’t allowed on the trail without a licensed tour operator, and you wouldn’t want to be on it without the fleet of guides, cooks, and chaski porters that they provide. These guys are your food, shelter, and family from pre-dawn till dusk every day of the Inca Trail.


Our Peru Treks Family

After tons of research, we were super stoked to book with Peru Treks. Beyond recommendations in all the major guidebooks, Peru Treks is known for paying chaskis livable wages, sponsoring annual community projects, and promoting and investing in overall responsible tourism.

We’ve never been on such a well-executed tour. We were blown away by our multi-talented guides Manuel and Juan, our magician of a cook Justino, and the 21 superhuman Peru Treks chaskis who escorted our group of 15 trekkers through the Inca Trail.

If you’re researching the Inca Trail, give Peru Treks a look.

Manualito y Jancito

Peru Treks guides extraordinaire Manualito y Jancito