I look at the morning sky. It’s misty, foggy, and dark still. Thirty more minutes of walk and Machu Picchu will be in front of me. Will the morning crisp air clear up before I get to the Sun Gate?
Hiking the Inca Trail has been on my travel accomplishments list for a very long time, and now I will take on this challenge on a very special date – my birthday. The Inca Trail is a 44 km (26.5 miles) 4 days hike through the Peruvian Andes that consists of three high passes, one of which reaches an elevation of 4,215m (13,828 ft).
Day 1 –The arduous trek begins
I wake up at 6:00 am in Ollantaytambo, have a quick breakfast, and say goodbye to my civilized ways. Before boarding the bus to get to Km 82 at Piskacuchu, where the Inca Trail starts, I make sure that I have everything I need for today’s hike in my daypacks. The rest is carried by porters (up to 6kg) on an extra duffel bag I packed previously in Cuzco.
Arriving at Piskacuchu gives me an instant adrenaline rush. From this point, I get a glimpse of the impressive panorama that will surround me during the next four days.
Once at the entrance gate, the first thing we do is take the almost obligatory group picture in front of “Camino Inka-Inka Trail” sign. Since we are the first group of the day, we quickly pass the control point, get our passports stamped, and cross the Cuisichaca bridge (happy bridge) that officially welcomes us to the trail that once linked this ancient empire.
Day one is the least challenging day. The terrain is mostly flat and the uphill segments are short and gradual. The gravel and dirt paths show no trace of the original Inca-laid stones that once paved them. When the Spanish invaded the Inca Empire in 1532, the Incas destroyed some of the trails to protect their sacred hidden cities from the conquistadors.
After walking five kilometers I reach the terraced ruins of Llactapata (Village in the Highlands). This was one of the most important administrative Inca cities of its time, controlling the flow of travelers going on different directions through the valley as well as administering local food production.
I spend the day adding and shedding layers of clothes to adjust to the constantly changing Andean weather.
A couple kilometers later we stop for lunch at what looks like a family’s backyard. To my surprise, the porters have already set up everything –dining tent, kitchen tent, and lunch (a delicious 3-course meal!). How can they do this so quickly? I feel like a slow fat tourist compared to these superhuman porters carrying 30 kg.
After lunch, the hike begins to live up to its reputation and gets tough (but still relatively easy compared to the rest). The trail starts getting steep, going from 2,550m (8366 ft) in height to 2,950m (9678 ft).
We arrive at Wayllabamba –the campsite– around 4:00 pm. Again, our superhuman porters have everything set, including the sleeping tents, like if it was popup magic. We all have dinner as a group, chat for a while, rest our weary feet, and go to sleep early. Today we hiked 11 km, but tomorrow is going to be an even more intensive day.
Day 2 – The grueling birthday
After a sleepless night (thanks to a stomping donkey chewing grass next to my tent with a suspicious skunk), I wake up at 5:30 am, excited and yet fearful of this day. Day two is known as the most difficult day on the trail. The hike consists of three steep uphill phases that take you from 2950m (9678 ft) to 4215m (13,828 ft) –the highest point on the trail– and then a single stepped downhill phase that brings you down to 3,350m (10,990 ft).
Still sore from day one, my muscles start aching after a couple uphill steps into the trail. Day two has no ruins on the way; today is all about the physical and psychological challenge of walking the 12 km to cross the mountain.
While yesterday we hiked as a group, today we hike at our own pace; concentrating on the goal of reaching Dead Woman Pass – the highest pass.
The hike up is slow but steady. The higher I go, the harder I breathe, the more my legs ache, the dizziest I get. The high altitude is taking effect again, but I chew some coca leaves to overcome the altitude sickness and get some energy.
After finishing phase 1 and resting for 15 minutes, Fernando –our G Adventures guide– says with a “get ready” tone, “Phase 2 is the hardest part of the whole trail, as well as the last 20 minutes of Phase 3 before reaching Warmiwañusca (Dead Woman Pass)” He then points towards Dead Woman Pass, clearly visible from where I’m standing. No reaction. I am puzzled, the Andean scenery is beautiful, but the hike looks and feels like if I’m about to hike Mount Doom.
As I start phase 2 I notice the trail is now covered with Inca-laid stones. The farthest I go, the slowest I walk, the more breaks I need –as so do my hiking partners. As I pass by other hikers I look at their weary faces –they look like they are dying. I’m sure mine looks the same. This hike up seems like a never-ending torture procession.
Heart pounding heavily, legs weak and sore, and breath short, I finally reach the thin-aired Dead Woman Pass. Now I feel like the king of the world, walking in the clouds, the world is at my feet. To my surprise, my friends start singing Happy Birthday to me – all tired and exhausted but excited for our accomplishment. This makes my day; the hike up was worth it… the experience, priceless…
But, what goes up, must come down. As slippery, steep, and treacherous as it might be, the way down feels easier in many ways except one; my knees are feeling the effect of the huge Inca steps. After stomping downhill for 1:30 hours, Pacaymayo –today’s campsite– feels like heaven… literally! It is high on the clouds, cold, and misty.
After devouring our lunch we spend the afternoon resting, chatting, and looking at the wildlife; followed by dinner (and let’s not forget my unexpected orange flavored birthday cake, skillfully baked on an open flame by our chef) and a long night sleep.
Day 3 – The beauty after the beast
Another sleepless night, the heavy sound of the pouring rain outside the tent made it hard for me to sleep. But in a way, I’m grateful for it. The morning sky is crystal clear and visibility is unlimited.
While today’s hike is not as physically challenging as yesterday’s, it still has 16 km of uphill/downhill paths and two high passes –Runkuraqay pass at 3,850m (12,631 ft) and Phuyupatamarca at 3,650m (11,975 ft).
The third-day hike might be the longest, but it’s also the most beautiful. The cobbled Inca paths cross through the cloud forest, lush green mountains and valleys, magnificent waterfalls, cave-like passes, and some of the most impressive Inca ruins on the trail. I feel small in such an expansive environment that has stood motionless for thousands of years.
The first ruins of the day –Runkuraqay– are set 1km ahead of the campsite. This was a ceremonial place, watchtower, and lodging house for the Inca messengers who used to run the trails.
After Runkuraqay, it’s downhill again. But now, the hike truly feels like a scenic walk. The best thing you can do here is to take your time appreciating the unspoiled environment and wildlife. Fernando pauses for a moment to play a tune with the Andean Flute. Its beautiful sounds harmonize the air between the mountains and echoes through the valleys in a soothing and natural way.
Next on the trail is Sayacmarca (Inaccessible Town). These ruins were once an important administrative, religious, and ceremonial center. It was a strategic point that served as the gateway to get into different parts of the jungle and Machu Picchu. Surrounded by sheer cliffs on three of its sides, their ruins are the most impressive I’ve seen on the trail, so far. Entering them feels like discovering something never seen before, waiting to be un-puzzled. Treasures like these make the Inca Trail such an iconic hike, a true exploration.
It’s 1:00 pm, the weather has been perfect so far. After lunch, I sit on a rock next to a cliff overlooking Phuyupatamarca (Town above the Clouds) and its agricultural terraces graced by an intricate series of ceremonial baths and water channels. From this high point, I can now see Machu Picchu Mountain standing by itself, protected by the mountainous range that surrounds it.
Before reaching the campsite at Wiñaywayna and the long-awaited showers and cold beers (yes! The only showers on the Inca Trail, for 5 soles, of course), Fernando takes us on a longer alternate path that leads to the adjacent ruins – also named Wiñaywayna. The extra 30 minutes hike are well worth it. The grandiose terraced hillside site of Wiñaywayna has an impressive panoramic view of the valley, Aguas Calientes, and the Urubamba River. These ruins were once essential for food production and the supply of provisions to Machu Picchu, which is only 4 km ahead.
The night at the campsite is short. After dinner, we perform a farewell/tipping ceremony for our porters, chef, and guides – who truly deserve recognition for their hard work. Bedtime is early; our wake up call will be at 3:30 am.
Day 4 – The race against the sun
This is it; I’m just hours away from Machu Picchu. I quickly wake up, get ready, have a light breakfast and head down to the campsite gate to be one of the first in the queue. At 5:30 am the gate opens and we all hike desperately the last segment of the Inca Trail.
Steep uphill paths and narrow segments outlined by sheer cliffs threaten to slow my quick pace. I am racing against time, against the rising sun. I have to arrive at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, before the sun does.
The sky gets brighter and the misty air gets clearer by the minute. How far ahead until I get there? Will I be late? I quicken my pace, taking my aching muscles and breath to their limit. And after the last set of ridiculously huge steps that have me climbing on all four, I get there – Intipunku. I take a few seconds to catch my breath. Then I look up… it is there… Machu Picchu. Still hiding under the shadows, nested by the mountains, sleeping.
I walk through the gate and sit down, feet hanging over the grassy terrace, and admire this once in a lifetime view.
Now I wait for the sun to rise over it and do its magic.
I am in awe.Part one: Hiking the Inca Trail: The Sacred Valley Part three: Hiking the Inca Trail: Machu Picchu
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