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 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.
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.
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
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.
If the ruins don’t get you, views of the Urubamba mountain range will.
Day one of the Inca Trail is so civilized that we even camped near a village where locals sell thirsty trekkers beer.
Inca Trail Day 2—Shit gets real (12km)
Goodbye cerveca, goodbye towns or even scattered farms, today we hike for real.
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.
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.
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.
The trek from the Runkuracay ruins to the Abra de Runkuracay pass is a doozy, but crazy beautiful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before reaching camp, Inca Trail trekkers have the choice to beeline for their tent, or loop around to one last pre-Machu Picchu ruin.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.