During the peak of the Inca Empire, many steep paved routes were built as a system of highways throughout the empire for the chasqui runners of its ruler (the eponymous Inca) to travel on. If people mention “the” Inca trail, they are referring to the most famous one of all – the paved path leading to the famous Machu Picchu, an Incan city perched on a mountain top high in the Peruvian Andes.
Since I was a child and heard of Machu Picchu, I wanted to hike along its famous and difficult trail. The city has a mysterious appeal to it – having remained hidden from the Spanish conquistadores, it was unknown to Europeans (though not to locals!) until 1911 when Hiram Bingham “discovered” it. Even today, the city (and its neighbouring modern town Aguas Calientes) are extremely isolated – you arrive there by train or on foot, not by road. Finally, a couple of years ago, I was able to achieve my lifelong ambition. This was an amazing trip, but it was a good few months after I got back before I even wanted to climb a set of stairs ever again! My journey was in November, which is the start of the rainy season in Peru (which is in the tropics of the Southern hemisphere) – we certainly managed to get a lot of rain on our walk!
The Classic Inca trail
There are several variants of the Inca trail that take a varying amount of time from one to five days. The one I did was the most popular variant called the classic trail, which takes four days and can be started from either the km 88 or the km 82 marker. These markers refer to the distance out on the railway from Cuzco, a Peruvian city which was once the capital of the Inca empire. The Inca trail takes you over several passes, the highest of which is 4200m high – plenty high enough for bad altitude sickness, but we had spent a week acclimatizing by that point, so most of us had got over the worst of the altitude sickness.
We took the 42km long route from km 82, which lasts four days. That might not sound far, but that represents four long days of extremely arduous hiking.
The trail itself is paved for most of the route with stones ranging in size from small brick-sized stones to large slabs. Much of this is the original Inca work. For the most part can only be travelled on foot, with no pack animals available (the wheel was not invented in the Americas and only llamas were used for pack animals). Erosion is a serious problem on the trail; because of this, only a restricted number of permits are issued each year. Only about one third to one half that number of tourists can go on that route, plus porters and guides. This means you have to travel with an organised tour, who arrange the permit and all the accommodation and food on your behalf.
Make no mistake – although you are completely taken care of (almost to the point of being pampered), hiking the trail is not an easy experience – even the most independent of my group were extremely glad of being looked after by the end of a long day’s hike!
As the trail is at very high altitude, the oxygen levels are much less than at sea level, meaning that the level of exertion is much higher than an equivalent route at sea level. So it is definitely worth while trying to improve fitness levels! In preparation for the trail, I took up jogging six months beforehand and went three or four times a week, building gradually up to 5km each time. This level of activity strengthens the lungs and helps you to get used to the intense levels of activity which you experience on the trail. To give you an idea of the intensity, imagine how out of breath you feel sprinting as fast as you can. That’s how you feel just putting one foot in front of the other! Now remember the route is very steep, and you’ll realise how a 42km walk can take four long days! People do find it differently difficult – being in my twenties, I was one of the younger travellers in my group, but that was counterbalanced by my having asthma, so I was about midway in ability and so probably represent a fairly “typical” level of fitness.
Meeting the porters
After breakfast following the first night, we had an introduction session with the porters, with a fair bit of translation going on for those who know no Spanish. Up to a certain age (40ish), the porters look much older than they actually are, because of exposure to the elements ageing their skin, but the older porters looked much younger than their years (keeping fit appears to be good for you!).
The porters carried all of our luggage (limited to 7kg!) and our tents, meaning we had only to carry our small day packs containing our waterproofs, sweaters, water bottles and chocolate. The packs were bundled up into enormous packages that the porters would lift onto their back and shoulders as if they weighed nothing; then they would run along the trail and overtake us as we slowly shuffled along. This meant that although we set off first, the porters still beat us to the next rest stop and had tea and hot food prepared, in spite of the fact that they had to put all the tents down and pack up after we left.
The food was plentiful and tasty and every meal featured a selection of teas and powdered milk. Every meal had a vegetarian option, although it did have a tendency to feature eggs nearly every single meal. We had hot food for breakfast, elevenses, lunch and dinner and a cold afternoon tea and trail mix and other snacks for the journey. We were given as much boiled water as we could carry each day – the local water is generally considered safe only once it has been boiled and sterilised.
One of the questions people regularly asked me is what were the toilets like on the trail. There are generally toilet facilities at all of the camp sites en route, but not necessarily ones you would want to use – some of them were filthy and others were “footprint” style holes in the floor. In addition, our group had use of two chemical portaloos during the frequent rest stops, which the porters carried with the rest of the luggage. Other than that, if you can’t hold it, there are always convenient bushes along the route. Never did I think I would find a chemical toilet a great luxury until I hiked the trail!
The accommodation on the hike was at camp sites along the route, staying in three person tents shared between two people. The tents were put up for us in our camp site each evening by the porters. We had thermarests – padded air mattresses which made the ground a little more comfortable; these helped to reflect your body heat to keep you warm. Beware though – it still gets very cold, even through a four season sleeping bag! My tip is to take a metal water flask with a screw top – that doubles as a hot water bottle at night. When we arrived at the camp site at the end of a hard day’s hike, we got a washing up bowl of hot water to wash in and soak our aching feet – which was bliss and a wonderful little luxury! Sadly, there were no showers at the camp sites we were staying in.
The first day – 6km, flat
On our first day, we set off walking right after a full cooked lunch, stopping to pose for a photo next to the famous trail start railway sign. The map said our afternoon was a gentle 6km flat walk. At the checkpoint to the start of the trail, we had our passports stamped and made our way across a suspension bridge, which truly felt like the point of no return, only bouncy. We only jumped our way across a little bit, however, since we didn’t really want to be expelled from the trail before we had started it!
Then we climbed. And climbed. This was when we learned the concept of “Peruvian flat” – which means that if the uphill and downhill averages out to nearly flat, and the steep parts aren’t steep for very many kilometres then it doesn’t count. In this case, it wasn’t for very long, so we breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Although most of what we think of as “The Inca trail” is paved and does not permit vehicles or pack animals, for the first day or so of walking, there are settlements. This meant we did have to dodge many bicycles and animals being herded. We also saw small children hurrying home – apparently they have to walk many miles each day to get to school.
A few hours later, we arrived at our first camp site, which was below the ruins of Llactapata. After a restless night of sleep, we were awoken bright and early with a cup of tea in our tent. A quick repack and a cooked breakfast left us ready for day two.
Day two – travel 10km, mostly steady uphill
The day started with a steep downhill climb so we could cross a river. This was the first point that I welcomed having walking poles. But then, what goes down, has to go back up again, and a steep 20 minute climb followed, leading to spectacular views over the Llactapaca ruins.
Most of the first part of the morning was spent walking gradually uphill at a fairly easy pace. We passed several settlements and stopped for many flowers. I paled slightly at the sign showing a cross-section representation of our walk (i.e. altitude versus distance – it looked very steep!) . That morning, we got to the last settlement for two days. This is the last place to buy gatorade – a violently coloured sugary salty sports drink (that sadly also has lots of tartrazine) which is the drink of choice of hikers who aren’t asthmatic.
The rest of the morning featured an extremely hard uphill slog. By this point, the group had started to splinter and spread out over the trail, and I started to be able to take sneaky little 30 second rests every few tens of metres climb with nobody else noticing, because they were either 5 minutes ahead of me, or 5 minutes behind!
Our guide cheerily told us we would be walking until 1pm before breaking for lunch. After a while of gruelling uphill climb, I started to fear that I would never be able to carry on walking until lunch. Then, suddenly, I came across the front of the group who were stopped next to an area with a tent that looked very much like our dinner tent. Since it was about an hour before we were due to stop for lunch, this confused me greatly; it turned out that we had just done the morning’s walk in about an hour less than the recommended time, so no wonder I was feeling so tired! But because it was just high altitude tiredness (we hadn’t walked very far) after a hearty meal, we were ready for more and I knew I could take it at a much gentler pace and stop for breaks, to look at a view or take pictures whenever I wanted.
The afternoon took us through the cloud forest layer – subtropical type of forest only to be found at certain altitudes in tropical countries. It is a lush, green but misty world that would probably be described as glorious by anyone not currently trudging through it.
Eventually, we broke free of the cloud forest and reached the pampas region – a grassy plain forming a hanging valley. Our camp site that night was found there at Llulluchapampa.
Day three – 15km steep up and down
Day three is arguably the hardest of the four days, at least on the knees – walking poles or a staff are essential! It is an exhausting 8 hour trek up that for the first two hours takes you first to the highest point of the trail (4200m) – this part is a 450m ascent in only 2km! This is the famous Warmiwanusca, or Dead Woman’s pass – so named from the shape of the mountain from the valley – it looks like a woman lying down. Personally, I couldn’t see the resemblance!
At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass
Up to the pass, we were travelling through the grass land of the pampa. Up to the left of the trail is steep mountains, to the right was the wide valley, which also had steep mountains at the far side. Because the trail zig zagged so much, even though it was wide open land, I often could not see another soul, but was wandering around by myself in the wilderness, which was fantastic. It was less silent than it might have been because I was listening to the Lord of the Rings radio play: what more can one want to listen to when one is doing an arduous trek than listening to others doing an arduous trek!
After the stunning views at the peak of the pass, the path then leads down steep steps (600m descent in 2km) into a valley, then up over a second pass (Abra Runkuraqay), taking in the egg-shaped ruins of Runkuraqay (once a rest point for Incan travellers) on the way. The second pass was easier to do than the first, but of course we were tired by that point.
What goes up has to come back down. More irregular steps took us steeply down, through an Inca tunnel. Those of us who were slightly faster took a detour up to another set of ruins, called Sayacmarca. A few hours of “Peruvian flat” brought us to the top of the third pass, Phuyupatamarca, and our camp site for the night. I think I have never been so happy to stop and put my feet in a bowl of hot water as that day!
Day four – 11km
Day four started pre-dawn with a scramble to a nearby peak to view the dawn over the snow-capped mountains. From here, we could see down into the Inca’s sacred valley. After a farewell and gift giving to the porters, we set off on our final day, by now dosed up on ibuprofen gel and all hobbling wearing knee supports. The journey that day was through the forest, frequently with a steep drop of hundreds of feet to one side – I would not want to be afraid of heights!
On this final day, the route joins up with the one day trail, which leads past many sets of ruins – including some very well preserved ones at Winay Wayna (a name meaning “Forever Young”) – a location with a unique orchid found nowhere else in the world. We also had our first contact in days with civilization – the route goes past a small town, before it heads steeply back into the middle of nowhere, scrambling up slippery steep steps to the famous Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. Or, as we called it, the “throwing it down with rain” gate – sadly, thick cloud covered the iconic panoramic view over our destination. This gave the city a spooky, mystical feel to it as we walked down through its twisty maze-like passages.
Finally, we had arrived! All of us had reached our destination in one piece and uninjured. True, we were footsore and exhausted, but what an experience! It is one I will never forget as long as I live.
Machu Picchu is far too important a destination to leave to one small paragraph in this review – we spent two days exploring this region (thankfully with improved weather) and this will form a second review of its own.
This trek was the highlight of my holiday in Peru and forms one of the defining experiences of my life. To this day, I cannot believe how exhausting it was for only 42km! It is well worth a visit, but train hard and make sure you acclimatize first.
If you are interested in learning more about holidaying in Peru, you should also read about Arequipa – a Peruvian city with a very European feel to it.