Going to Machu Picchu? Is it Worth Booking the Inca Trail?

Probably the most famous hike in South America, possibly the world. The Inca Trail was the initial catalyst for planning our visit to South America many moons ago. Having been on my bucket list for over fifteen years, anticipation levels were understandably high. It’s not a cheap trek and there’s many other Machu Picchu tour options on the market. So, is it worth booking the Inca Trail? I sincerly hoped so..

Day 1. 

7-8hrs walking, 14km. Semi Tough Terrain. Max Altitude 3300 meters.

Picked up in 4am darkness from Cusco and driven to the small town of Ollantaytambo, we grabbed coffee and final supplies before leaving the last semblance of civilisation. At the trailhead we met our team of porters decked in green busily preparing a welcome breakfast to set us up for the day. This would be the first of many canny meals served out of their ad hoc kitchen. Our journey began at ‘Km 82’ where everyone must enter via ‘Inca control’. 

Officials meticulously check passports ensuring all have the correct paperwork before we’re allowed to carry on. Due to conservation efforts, there’s a strict number of 400 people allowed on the path at any one time. Booking is required months in advance as demand is overwhelmingly high. Happy to finally be here and with blue skies overhead our group of 15 hikers set off in good spirits. We strolled easily on the undulating stony tracks getting to know each other as we went. Most were from the US – New York, Washington, Texas and California and also three Dutch from Amsterdam. After a while the pack divided slightly into faster at the head with the slower taking their time at the back.

Within a few hours we passed the impressive Patallacta, an Inca site used as a checkpoint on the approach to Machu Picchu. The site was enormous and being three days away from the main event these guys must have taken security pretty seriously. A huge lunch was served in our temporary mess tent and we started to get an idea of how hard the staff and porters were working each day. Four courses appeared from the steaming kitchen tent with everything prepared to a high standard. As soon as we’d finished eating and were lazily reclining in the sun, our porters were hurriedly packing everything away hauling heavy packs up the trail to the next stop. 

The rest of day one was hard – mostly uphill and it was touch and go whether everyone would make it. But we slowed the collective pace and with local remedies including the magical coca leaf tea all made it to first camp. As we arrived back for the night the porters stood in line giving us a standing ovation for our efforts. Considering they’d just lugged all our stuff, set up our tents, cooked and built a kitchen before we’d arrived, it left me feeling a slightly sub-par for being a little out of breath. We had a pre dinner scrub using the bowl of steaming hot water and fresh towels left outside our tents. Again we felt spoilt. The food tasted so good, and not just because we were ravenous. After a short briefing we were asleep in our spacious tents by 9pm, shattered from the day’s activity. All the while our porters were busily packing down the non essential equipment ready for an early getaway in the morning. Tomorrow would be the longest and hardest day of the trek covering around 16km of steep inclines at a lung-crunching  altitude of over 4000 meters.

Day 2.

8-9 hrs walking, 16km. Tough Terrain. Max Altitude 4215 meters.

I woke up at 3am in pain realising an old running injury had flared up due to the previous days punishment. Breakfast was at 5am and I munched prescription strength ibuprofen (the yanks had a veritable pharmacy) and washed them down with coca tea. We set off in sleepy silence as the sun crept through the misty mountains ahead. On the advice of the our tour company we’d hired walking sticks but hadn’t really thought they’d be needed.

Now I used them more like a pair of crutches to get up and down the infamous ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ (4215 meters). It was a rough 6 hours before we broke for our much needed lunch. Luckily the meds and crutches combo seemed to be working. In the afternoon we passed two huge waterfalls cascading down either side of the valley and passed another Inca site (Runcu Racay). Later we stopped at the magnificent Inca site Sayacmarca for a guided tour before watching a stunning sunset over the impressive Vilcabamba Mountain range. 

Soon we’d marched into camp to another standing ovation from the porters. With the pain I’d felt all day it was somewhat of a relief to make it as I’d feared the worst. The view from our tent over the mountains was incredible – and looked even better after a medicinal rum and hot coca tea. Everyone was shattered after the long day and in bed soon after dinner. From our sleeping bags fell asleep to the soothing sounds of the distant waterfall below.

Day 3.

5hrs walking, 10km. ‘Easy’ Terrain. Max Altitude 3600 meters.

The shortest day of the trek, we managed a lie in until 6.30am when we were gently woken with the smell of hot coca leaf tea outside the tent. After our mammoth day 2 we were looking forward to what the guides were calling the ‘Inca flats’. However we soon discovered this meant long gradual inclines with not a flat section in sight.

Despite the dull discomfort we soon forgot our aching joints as the sun gleamed across the valley and lit up all the peaks and troughs below. Entering the misty cloud forest for a time, we broke through the summit catching glimpses of the mighty Salkatay glacial peak standing proudly high above all in the distance. With fantastic sunlit views all around we began our descent from the final crest of Phuyupatamarka. With steps nearly half as high as Liz, the walk down was tough but our final camp was in sight. 

Before reaching home we turned off up a steep set of stairs to visit Intipata (Terraces of the Sun) where we explored a sacrificial altar with original Inca stone carvings still intact. The view from here in all directions was magnificent and it’s no wonder the Incas strategically chose these positions to keep watch over their sacred valley.  After a well portioned lunch we relaxed a while before visiting the breathtaking ruins of Winay Wayna. Here we traversed the numerous levels of this improbable site as a light rain rolled in from the valley. Looking across this solid structure built high into the mountain it was hard to see how anything else could be more awesome.

Later that evening we got the chance to officially meet the porters and everyone introduced themselves and explained their jobs. It was fascinating to learn about their homes, families and how long they’d been working within the organisation. In turn we explained what we did when not trekking in Peru.

After a brilliant final dinner the group were presented with a huge cake decorated in our team colours. How the chefs managed to bake a full on sponge in a rudimentary kitchen is another testament to their creativity. That night sleep was hard to find knowing after fifteen years of anticipation, tomorrow was the day we’d finally see Machu Pichu in all its tangible glory.

Day 4.

1hrs walking, 5km. Semi Tough Terrain. Max Altitude 2500 meters.

Our wake up call was 3am so we could be first in line when the main gates opened. It was only a short walk from camp but already there was another group in front waiting to get in. We spent an hour chatting with our excited crew nervously waiting. As darkness slowly morphed into first light the gates creaked opened at 5am.

From here it was a short 20 mins to the famous Sun Gate where we’d first be able to glimpse the citadel from high above before descending down to Machu Picchu itself. Arriving at the Sun Gate I was struck by how many people were already there. And selfie sticks! As we approached Machu Picchu the views got steadily more breathtaking. To our right was a sheer drop to make your knees tremble. No safety rope to stop a fall into the abyss below should a loose stone come free underfoot. We finally arrived at the site and encountered a thing more incredible than I could’ve ever imagined. 

Of all of the magnificent and impressive Inca ruins we’ve seen both on the Inca Trail and elsewhere in Peru, Machu Picchu took our collective breaths away. We spent a good few hours walking up and down the terraces, exploring the myriad chambers and combing over the various halls and sacrificial altars. The stellar views across the mountainous landscape lit up as the sun rose high across the city. Our guides did a sterling job of explaining what each area was used for and why it was built the way it was. How the huge stones fit effortlessly together like a jigsaw using no mortar and rudimentary tools is still a feat of engineering mystery. 

Many pictures and much wonder later we reluctantly had to leave to catch our bus back to Aguas Caliente and then our final train through the valleys back to Cusco.

However things aren’t always that simple…

Upon reaching the main gate we were informed of a potentially violent national rail strike affecting train services. Not only that all the buses had stopped and were not allowing passengers down to Aguas Caliente. There was only one thing for it – we had to walk.

After 4 days of undulating mountainous trekking it wasn’t what we wanted to hear, but there wasn’t any other option. We walked through a striking picket line with rail workers on one side and riot police brandishing tear gas cannons on the other. Not what we were expecting after our edifying days on the Inca Trail. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and set off in the direction of our new pick up point, Hydro Electrica – along the very train tracks that should have been taking us home.  

We marched, anxious to arrive at our destination as soon as possible. Two hours of hard walking and we arrived to a jamboree of confusion as every tour company bus was waiting for their stranded charges in a small makeshift car park. Luckily we found our bus relatively easily in the milieu and sat back with a cold beer acquired from an enterprising local. The journey back was not the smoothest. Our driver was so tired he couldn’t stay awake and elected to have a power nap in the pitch black on the side of the road. Unfortunately he hadn’t quite taken the van completely off the road which we realised when a ten ton truck nearly went into the back of us. After this we started driving at what can only be described as at a snail’s pace. We found a service station where he swilled coca tea and was soon back to driving in the crazy fashion only known in South America. As is often the case in Peru we had classic 80’s hits played at an ear-blistering volume to keep us buoyant for the remainder of the trip. It worked. We pulled into Cusco late that evening, shattered but thankful to be alive and in one piece. I don’t think we’ve ever slept so well as we did that night.

Overall.

Despite the strange ending (which I think just added to the ‘experience’), the Inca Trail was one of the highlights of our trip so far. We couldn’t recommend our tour company Alpaca Expeditions highly enough. The guides and especially the porters work so damn hard to ensure that we all have an unforgettable experience. Without them there could be no Inca Trail experience like this and we take our hats off to them all. If anyone is considering whether to book the Inca Trail or go for some of the alternative treks on offer I highly recommend  you to go for the Inca Trail. It truly is the best and most magical way to experience the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

If you’re wondering what to pack for your upcoming Machu Picchu experience, see our previous post covering that HERE.