Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the traveling highlights of my year. Yes, it’s that amazing. Standing 13,700 feet up in the Andes, knowing I had climbed up there myself? Such an awe-inspiring feeling. I won’t lie though: it took some (ok a lot) of work.
We met our group and our bus at 4:30am in Cusco…the first of four days of veryyyy early wake up calls. They started us out easy, with a gentle walk through the flats of the Sacred Valley, before slowly gaining altitude. We covered about 8.5 miles, climbing gently up through the Cusichaca Valley. The uphill sections were more difficult than most of us were expecting, as the altitude caused us to be very short of breath. It took a little getting used to, but after the first few hours it felt (slightly) easier. We were able to see views of the snow capped glacier, Veronica (~19,000 feet tall), which were just incredible. We also passed by our first Inca site, Llactapata. Our guide, Roger, stopped us periodically to tell us stories about the Inca history, including their triumphs and struggles. Roger was very passionate about his ancestors history, and shared with us his deep knowledge of the Inca people.
That evening we reached our campsite, happily changed out of our hiking gear, and joined the rest of our crew in the tent for “happy hour”. Don’t get any ideas: this was an alcohol-free happy hour consisting of tea, hot cocoa, and fresh popped popcorn. Our first dinner totally blew us away. The things the cooks could do with just a propane tank – unbelievable! Check out the photos below.
Needless to say we were well fed on the trail!
We awoke early today, at 5am to be exact. Our “alarm clock” was one of the porters, a quick knock on our tent with a “Buenas dias senoritas” and cups of hot tea and we were up for the day. We quickly packed up our belongings, ate breakfast, and headed out of the campsite. Today was the day I was most worried about, it was the hardest day of the trek. Not only would we be climbing to the highest altitude, but we’d be doing TWO high passes – going up, back down, then back up again, for a grand total of 10 miles of hiking.
The morning hike was relentless. Four hours going straight uphill, much of it over big, steep stone steps. My quads got a serious workout. It was slow going, my heart was beating wildly and my breath was labored. I started to feel the effects of the altitude after a few hours, getting the beginnings of a headache and feeling slightly dizzy. I made sure to drink a lot of water, slowed down my pace even more by making small switchbacks up the trail, and within a short while I was feeling ok. A short while later I felt a huge sense of accomplishment as I reached the top of the highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,779 feet. One of our porters was there to greet us, supplying us with sandwiches (cheese and bread have never tasted so good!), water and coca tea. We took some photos (though it was so foggy that there wasn’t much of a view), and rested for a bit before heading back down the other side of the pass. I hate to break it to you, but the downhills are almost as hard as the uphills (minus the crazy labored breathing). Trying to control your tired legs is an exercise in concentration.
The rest of the day consisted of more uphill, more downhill, and lots of amazing views in between. We visited two Inca sites, Runcuraccay and Sayacmarca, and we could see how the Inca’s were slowly improving their city-building skills.
Our campsite that night was my favorite of the whole trip. The camp was at almost 12,000 feet, so it was really cold – getting down to about 30 degrees F that night – but it was just beautiful. We were in a small valley, and watched the sun set over the mountains in the distance. While we had heard stories of this being the night where it was so cold it was hard to sleep, Bailey and I bundled up in multiple layers (including scarf, hat and gloves) and fell asleep in no time.
We awoke on day 3 to the most gorgeous sunrise. I stuck my head out of my tent, and this was my view:
After making it over the two passes yesterday, today was a relatively easy and relaxing day. It was by far the most beautiful scenery of the hike, with most of the trail taking place in the lush cloud forest, with incredible views of the Andes.
We only hiked in the morning, arriving at our campsite around 1pm. We had a chance to explore the beautiful Inca city of Winay Wayna, then relax before dinner.
The chefs went all out for our last meal. We ate course after course of delicious food, accompanied by amazing fruit and vegetable carvings. These guys would have no problem getting a job in a NYC restaurant! The dinner ended with a cake (yes – they baked a cake with JUST a propane tank!) and then it was early to bed in preparation for our final day and the hike to Machu Picchu.
Day 4 – To Machu Picchu
Today’s wake up was the earliest of them all, as our porter knocked on our tent at 3am. While t was incredibly early, it ensured that we were one of the first groups to get up and out of camp. We walked straight to the Machu Picchu checkpoint, just 10 minutes down the trail. There we waited for about an hour and a half until the site opened. Due to our guides preparation, we were the first group through the gates. It was still dark out, and foggy from the rain overnight (have you ever run through the woods with just a headlamp? Today was my chance), but we made quick time so that we could make it to the famed Sun Gate by sunrise. We were all anticipating the fantastic views of Machu Picchu from the gate…what we got left us more than a little disappointed. It was so foggy from the rain that we could barely see two feet in front of us let alone down into the Machu Picchu valley. We all tried to not get too discouraged, trying to believe our guide when he said that the fog would clear by the time we actually got down to Machu Picchu. We hiked through the Sun Gate, and arrived at Machu Picchu around 7am. The fog had started to lift, and we got our first views of the old city.
We had a 2 hour guided tour of the site, during which we learned about the Incas and the important areas of their city. I was in awe at how they built such intricate and advanced buildings with no modern machinery. After the tour, all 9 of us headed over to Wayna Picchu, for an additional hike. This is the big mountain you see behind all the infamous Machu Picchu photos. The fog was lifting, but we were all feeling really nervous once we found out that it is known as one of the world’s most dangerous hikes. Check out these photos:
Check out that arrow: it’s pointing to a trail down the vertical rock face…
View from the top of Wayna Picchu, looking down on Machu Picchu:
While I enjoyed the hike, and it gave us some pretty magnificent views, I missed the empty trails and solitude of the Inca Trail. As soon as we reached the top of Wayna Picchu, we snapped a few pics and ran back down the mountain.
After that, we did one last hike up to the top of Machu Picchu to take more photos after the fog had disappeared.
It took a few takes before I got that photo 😉
While Machu Picchu itself was a beautiful and fascinating city, the parts of the trip that stand out most to me occurred during the preceding 3 days while on the Inca Trail. The Andes Mountains are something of the most beautiful wilderness I have ever experienced, and to experience this without crowds of people around? Priceless.
More on my travels in Peru can be found here:
- Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail: Planning Your Hiking Trip
- What to Pack for a 4-day Trek to Machu Picchu
- Where to Eat, Drink, and Sleep in Cusco Peru
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Alissa Rumsey, RD.
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS (pronouns she/her/hers) is a registered
dietitian, nutrition therapist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and the author of
Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace With Food and Transform Your Life. Alissa is
passionate about helping people reclaim the space to eat and live,
A twice-a-month round-up of inspirational stories, lessons, practical tips and encouragement for living your most authentic, unapologetic life.