I made it to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail and it was, hands down, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.The Inca Trail begins near Ollytantambo at Kilometer 82. This sounded really official and intimidated me right off the bat. The trail is 26 miles long and the “traditional” trek takes 4 days, 3 nights.
However, there are many Inca trails throughout the old Incan empire and numerous versions which lead to Machu Picchu. Our guide, Wilfredo, was fantastic at pointing out these other trails throughout our journey and letting us know how much shorter it would be to get to Machu Picchu if we took those instead. The one that is the most popular with turistas, which I did, used to be the royal trail.
The royal Inca trail was used for pilgrimages to Machu Picchu. This is something I was not aware of, because even though I’ve been obsessed with coming here, I did no actual research on the history before arriving.
So this royal trail was considered a “knowledge path” and there were numerous stops along the way for the Inca pilgrims. All these places, which we saw the ruins of, had “showers” which were used not to clean the body, but to clean the soul. This way, the Incans reached Machu Picchu being as clean as possible.
I found this to be very ironic because on the modern-day Inca Trail, there are no showers. The endless layers of sunscreen and bug spray mixed with intense cardio for multiple hours a day made our group quite the unclean bunch. But the food was outstanding and our guides even woke us up with a coffee/hot chocolate delivery in our tents every morning. I’m sure the Incan pilgrims did not enjoy that luxury on their trek.
I met some really nice New Zealanders who pretty much adopted me into their little trail family for the hike and let me hang with them. I learned a lot of fun new games from them which we played along the trail and were a nice distraction from all the ascents and descents. They also introduced me to Monopoly Deal, which is Monopoly, but not as a board game, as a card game. It moves much faster and is way more fun. Anyway, on to the trail!
The first day of the Inca Trail is only a slight ascent. It is nice and easy. I’m convinced they arrange it this way because it’s the only opportunity to turn back and they don’t want to scare anyone off.
You hike for a few hours on mostly flat land from Kilometer 82 to Wayllabamba, which is at an elevation of 9,842 feet. Once you reach camp, there are porters who have already set up your tent and who have carried most of your stuff for you.
We had 16 porters for our group and they ranged in age from 18 to 48. These guys are such hard workers and made the Inca Trail seem like it was nothing as they raced past you with tons of crap on their back. The most hilarious part was these guys would obviously beat our group to camp every day and by the time we arrived, they had everything set up and ready.
Whenever our group finally strolled in, out of breath and red-faced, they would break into applause for us. It was meant to be encouraging but I couldn’t help but think that they had to be thinking,”Wow, great job finally catching up to us! We’ve already carried all your shit and done everything for you! Yay!!”
After dinner (which was phenomenal – the best food I’ve had in Peru), our guide briefed us about Day 2 and we all went to our sleeping bags a little anxious for what was to come the next day.
Imagine waking up at 5am to climb up super steep stairs at a high elevation for 4 hours and then down equally as steep stairs for 2 more. That is the second day of the Inca Trail. It is physically challenging to say the least. You hike from 9,842 feet up to 13,779 feet, which is known as Dead Woman’s Pass. The name sounded quite welcoming so I was really excited to make it up there.
As you get higher, the air thins and it is a whole different experience to climb once you pass the treeline. I was very thankful for the New Zealanders and their movie and music games on this day because it was a great distraction.
The physical strain is completely worth it. Every time you remember to stop staring at the person’s feet in front of you and actually look up, it is breathtakingly beautiful. The feeling of accomplishment when you reach Dead Woman’s Pass is pretty exhilarating and not one I’ve felt too many times before in my limited workout history. I now finally know what Leo felt like on the bow of the Titanic.
The longest day of the Inca Trail. We hiked for about 9 hours through two more mountain passes. Also the prettiest day of the trail. The landscape becomes like a rainforest and it is gorgeous.
The other two mountain passes seem like nothing compared to Dead Woman’s Pass. After lunch, we visited Phuyupatamarca, which is a temple that overlooks Machu Picchu mountain. It was really exciting to see that peak and know the end goal is just on the other side of that mountain.
After the temple, the afternoon of Day 3 features the “Gringo Killer” – a 2,952 ft descent down Incan steps. I’d like to know how many broken ankles have occurred on these things. The porters literally sprinted down these stairs. We’d have to yell “Porter!” when one was coming and you’d have to quickly move to the mountainside of the staircase so you didn’t get taken out by one of them.
My roughest moment on the trail was near the end of this day. Camp was at Winay Wayna, which means “Forever Young.” There were some terraces the Incans used to farm which were 20 minutes before our campsite. Our group took a break here and soaked up the gorgeous scenery while sitting on the ledge of one of the terraces.
There were 3 llamas which approached us. I like animals, but I’ve heard stories of llamas charging people. When they got to be about three feet away, I must have blacked out because I don’t remember this at all but I was told that I started screaming, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, GET THEM AWAY FROM ME!” and I looked like I was going to jump off the terrace.
They stopped and ate some grass and I scooted away and regained consciousness and it was completely fine. I made it through Dead Woman’s Pass, but almost lost it during an encounter with some llamas.
Day 4 – Machu Picchu Day!
The last day starts bright and early at 3:30am. Usually if I am awake at 3:30am on a Saturday morning, it involves Corona and delivery pizza, not hiking. But there is a first for everything!
The final stretch of the trail is the most treacherous, in my opinion. You hike one hour to the Sun Gate which is your first glimpse of Machu Picchu, and then another hour to the final destination. It is 95% original Incan, which means it hasn’t been restored as much as the other portions.
I am not the biggest fan of heights and this was a lot of narrow trails with steep drop-offs. I played my own game during this part called the Pretend Game where I pretended the drop-off next to me wasn’t real.
At one point, our guide stopped us and took our trekking poles (which sound dorky but are necessary for balance) and said there was a “surprise” for us. When we looked to our left, the Incan stairs had become more of an Incan ladder which you had to crawl up using your hands and feet. I’ve never moved so fast in my life.
When we arrived at the Sun Gate, it was quite foggy which made it all the more dramatic. But the fog lifted and we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu! The last hour goes by in what feels like 10 minutes because you are just so excited to get there after 3 days of hiking through the Andes.
Machu Picchu was everything I hoped for and more. It feels like you’re in a movie or something because it is just so surreal and beautiful. There is a theory that Machu Picchu was a royal retreat for an Incan king, but our guide said historians don’t really know what it was. Around 800 people lived there and it is divided into 3 sections: farming, religious, and urban.
Our guide did a great job of explaining the Incan theories of duality and reciprocity and their belief in reincarnation and their connection to the Earth and different elements. There is something really spiritual about Machu Picchu. It’s hard to go there and not believe in a higher power.
Machu Picchu is incredibly beautiful and has such an element of mystery that it attracts thousands of visitors per year. Some people are even crazy enough that they hike through mountains for four days to get there.
Our guide pointed out a significant underlying meaning, which I had never thought of: Machu Picchu and all the Incan ruins in Peru are a clear reminder that nothing lasts forever. He said the Incans were fully aware of their downfall and accepting of it and may have even predicted it.
The Spanish arrived in 1532 which was when the Incas were in their prime. By 1571, only 40 years later, the Incan empire was completely destroyed. I wonder if the Incans were able to foresee all the tourists, like myself, that would come to Machu Picchu to take a minimum of 200 pictures each.
The Inca Trail was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I am so happy I was able to do it, despite my fear of llamas and heights. The Incas are so interesting and seeing all these ruins is such an amazing experience. It is a good thing I am leaving Peru soon because I have been on Inca overload and I might start worshiping the sun and carrying rocks around if I stay here. But Machu Picchu is like the holy grail of all things Inca and I am really grateful to check that one off the bucket list!