Compared to the Appalachian Trail hiking the Inca Trail was like flying first class with a personal chef and a chauffeur to carry your stuff. Back on the Appalachian Trail a gourmet meal included cold instant mashed potatoes and a Snickers bar. On the Inca Trail I dined on delicious soups, popcorn, a fresh baked cake, and champagne. Next time I thru-hike I’ll see if I can procure a few Peruvian friends to join me!
I left Ben and Brian behind in Lobitos and took a collectivo van, a bus, and a plane to get to the Lima airport 5 minutes before Brandy’s flight landed. We spent one night in a backpacker’s hostel and flew to Cusco the next morning. I’d been hanging out at the beach (0 feet above sea level) and Brandy was coming from Charlotte, NC (750 feet above sea level). Part of the Inca Trail is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level so we were hoping to acclimate in Cusco (11,150 feet above sea level) before setting off on the trek.
In Cusco we stayed near the main square and spent our time wandering the cobblestone streets, enjoying restaurants, and exploring Sacsayhuamán, an Inca site with a Quechuan name that is pronounced “sexy woman”. These enormous limestone boulders were hauled here and perfectly fit together several hundred years ago. Some of the largest boulders weigh in the 100’s of tonnes and are fit so closely together that you can’t slide a paper between them. It’s mesmerizing and pictures really don’t do it justice. This is definitely a place to add to your bucket list!
Hiking The Inca Trail
Day one of our Inca Trail trek we woke up at 4:00 AM, packed our bags, and waited for our bus on the quiet streets of Cusco. We were’t the only ones heading for the hills. At 5:00 AM in Cusco there are no residents, no cars, no pedestrians, just tour buses driving from hotel to hotel picking up groggy hikers. A few hours later we filed off the bus, met our porters, lathered on sunscreen, and stepped under the Inca Trail sign on the 26 mile mountain trail to Machu Picchu.
That morning we ate a good breakfast, packed a light day pack, and had perfect weather. The only problem was I’d been enduring a stomach bug the past 24 hours and spent most of that time running from baño to baño. Luckily my issues eased by lunch, but Brandy’s stomach started acting up, resulting in an afternoon vomit session on the side of the trail. She was a trooper though and was rewarded at camp when the chef made her a huge platter of popcorn.
Many families still live on or near the first few miles of the Inca Trail. They have been farming these places for centuries, but today their main source of income is us. They pack in heavy loads of soda, snacks, and water to sell to famished gringo hikers. I took full advantage of this and ate plenty of chocolate, drank several sodas, and was always on the lookout for cold beer, which I never found.
Each night the team of porters arrived at camp before most of us, set up our tents, and started preparing dinner. Brandy and I had a two person tent with rented sleeping bags that were more comfortable than some of the hostel beds I’ve slept in recently. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner was also provided and included eggs, pancakes, soups, chicken and rice, beef, and dessert. This was 5 star backpacking for sure!
The second day of the Inca Trail was billed as the hardest, and it was. I was back to normal, but Brandy’s stomach was still struggling and she only ate a little breakfast. We headed to the trail and started climbing. We kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing, until we finally crested the highest point of the Inca Trail, Dead Woman’s Pass, 13,800 feet above sea level.
We dropped into the next valley for lunch, Brandy took a nap, and then we climbed to the second highest pass of the trek that afternoon. I was stoked because the guides had hauled up a bottle of champagne to celebrate our achievement. Brandy wasn’t thirsty, so I gladly drank her cup too!
After the second pass Brandy started to come back to life (might have been that sip of champagne she had). The light in her eyes returned and she started to smile, she was feeling much better. We pushed ahead and took a side trail to Sayacmarca, another Inca site, to explore the ruins and watch the sunset over the Andes. We hiked on and made it to camp by the light of our headlamps.
In the morning we woke to a beautiful sunrise with amazing views of the snow capped Andes. Day three was a half day hike with a few archeological sites along the way. Once we reached camp we set off to explore Winaywayna, another Inca site. The best part of hiking the Inca Trail was visiting these archeological sites with only a few people at a time. We knew that once we reached Machu Picchu we’d be sharing it with a few thousand of our closest friends, so we took advantage of the quiet moments in the less visited ruins.
The final day on the Inca Trail we woke up at 4:00 AM to vacate the tents so the porters could catch a train back to town. We donned our day packs and walked a few hundred feet to wait in line to get into Machu Picchu. At 5:30 AM the gate opened and we filed through and hiked the final 2 hours to the Sun Gate.
Along the way we climbed the “Gringo Killer”, also known as the “Oh My God” stairs. This set of very steep stairs is near the end of the Inca Trail and is typically the breaking point for hikers as they prepare for an easy downhill stroll to Machu Picchu. Our group gingerly took their time climbing the staircase and I lagged behind with our guide. I tightened my pack, set my stopwatch, and ran. My goal was 20 seconds, but I made it up in 14 seconds flat, just short of our guide’s fastest record!
We reached the Sun Gate to find the gate, but no sun. We couldn’t see Machu Pichhu, but at least it was all downhill from here! We ate our sack brunch, took photos, and followed the line of hikers to our final destination, keeping an eye on the drifting fog to be the first person to spot the ruins.
We finally descended low enough to see the outlines of Machu Picchu. As Inca Trail hikers we had to actually exit the park and reenter through the official entrance. Our guides led a 2 hour tour and then we were on our own. We walked around the site, visited the Sacred Rock, the Temple of the Sun, the Three Windows, and more.
Fun fact: Did you know that taking a jumping picture in Machu Picchu is illegal?
Before leaving Machu Picchu we took one last look around and soaked it all in. We had earned our visit by hiking through the Andes for 4 days and now we were ready to get a burger and a beer. I wanted one last Machu Picchu experience, so I separated from the crowd, walked off on my own, and had a quiet conversation with the only local still allowed to live in Machu Picchu…a llama.
We climbed in a bus and rode down to Aguas Calientes for burgers and beer with the rest of our trekking group. We’d made new friends from Australia, China, Brazil, Uruguay, Poland, and Peru. In just four short days we had all become friends and hope to meet up again someday somewhere around the world!
Brandy and I caught a train back to Ollantaytambo and a bus to Cusco, arriving after dark. We checked into our hostel, found a small Peruvian pizza shop still open, ate again, and passed out. It had been 4+ days without a shower, but we were too exhausted to consider it. In the morning we’d clean up, pack up, and head back to Lima for more adventures, but that night we were just happy to be sleeping in a bed again!