The classic Inca trail is a grueling, yet amazing 4 day, 3 night trek covering 33 kilometres to Machu Picchu. Our trek began with an informational get-together with our group the night before our hike (Read: a meeting to size each other up). As usual, we are the weakest links. We are joined by several other fellow Americans from Chicago, most of them marathon runners, and four Germans that look like they hike the Alps on a regular basis. Carlos and Valetin, our guides for the trek, try not to scare us with the run-down of what to expect for the next few days but it sounds brutal. We are thankful we hired porters to carry our gear; we are astonished that most in our group decided to forego them. Crazy, we think. And, if we may offer one recommendation: hire a porter; this is a tough hike even for marathon runners.

Day 1
Team building exercises are a good way to get to know your group, and on our first day we experienced an unexpected team-building moment. About 2 hours into our drive to the trail head, we encountered a washout of the road. Many buses and trucks jammed the road while the Peruvian guides and porters worked to build a makeshift bridge. The first attempt failed, but on the second attempt fellow trekkers joined in on the effort by gathering stones to fill the hole. While some in our group worked to create the makeshift bridge, others (Chris included) chose to remain on the sidelines to “document” and “oversee” the construction.

With our first team building exercise a success, we moved on to conquer the Inca trail. The first day’s hike started out relatively easy meandering along valley walls and the rivers of Urubamba and Kusichaca. We rested several times along the way, taking in views of Llactapata, an Inca ruin, and the peak of Mt. Veronica. While many groups stop to camp after only 3 hours of hiking, we journeyed on further up the valley. It is a beautiful hike through green forest, but becomes difficult due to theconstant uphill for the last 3 hours. When we reached our campsite after 6 hours of hiking, we were greeted by applause from our porters. This seemed somewhat silly as they carry 25 kgs (55 lbs) each of tents, pots, food, benches, and other gear. If anyone deserves applause, it is the porters. But, we were elated to arrive nonetheless. Even more so, when they served us popcorn for happy hour.

Day 2
Fueling our bodies with apple and cinnamon quinoa, omelets, toast, fruit, and tea, we ensured our readiness for the grueling day ahead. We began day 2 by climbing steep stairs through the cloud forest for 1.5 hours to Llaluchupampa, a resting site before the final push over Dead Woman’s Pass, Warmiwañusca. On this first part of the hike, llamas navigated the stairs with ease, and we considered hopping on them for a quick trip to the top. There were several moths and centipedes creating obstacles on the steps; Chris attracted one moth that persistently attempted to reach his face. By the time I caught up to him, he was near panic as the moth was closing in on his neck. With the moth securely removed, we continued onwards to the resting site.

Looking up at the trail to Dead Woman’s Pass, we felt confident we could reach the top with little trouble. Although others told us us this stage of the hike was punishing, it did not look that difficult. After a nice rest, we started the climb to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,198 m (12,594 ft). At first, we felt great and estimated we could reach the top in 1 hour rather than the posted 2 hours. We were wrong. Dead Woman’s pass gets its name because it resembles a woman; you can clearly make out her face, breast, stomach, and elbow. The pass crosses just below her breast and over her stomach. As we rounded the bend of her elbow, we realized this indeed is a punishing hike. The last 45 minutes climb up the steep stairs is grueling. We can see the top of the pass, but with every shallow breath our energy diminishes exponentially. It is a slow climb, but we make it to the top in 1.5 hours. A few of the marathon runners and the Germans made it to the top before us and cheer us on on over the last few steps. There is little energy for celebration, however. With our lungs gasping for air and our chest heaving in and out, it takes us a while to catch our breath.

Hungry for lunch, we start the 1.5 hour descent down the other side of the pass toward Paqaymayu. This mind-boggling steep descent takes us past waterfalls and trickling streams. Our knees are continually glad we rented trekking polls as the stairs are incredibly steep. Most trekkers spend the night at our lunch spot, but not us. No, we continue on for another 3 hours. We can see the next bit from our lunch spot and the incline looks difficult. All of us are moaning and groaning at climbing uphill again. Anxious though to get to our final campsite, we start the climb up again. It is loaded with stairs and we are all happy when we reach Runkurakay, an Inca lookout, because it means we can rest. The lookout has sweeping views of the valley below us and the Inca trail we traversed in the distance. Our guides point out the half-way mark of our current climb, and I think all is lost. I am spent and do not want to climb further, but we push on. When we finally reach the half-way mark, I am overcome by a second-wind and quickly traverse the remaining climb with Chris bewildered by my sudden energy and mood-change.

We reach the top of the second pass just ahead of the Germans, which seems like a real feat. All that is left is a steep descent down to our camp. We continue our quick pace down until we reach the ruins of Sayaqmarca. Chris and a few others decide to explore theruins, while the rest of take a breather. In no time, clouds roll in and it starts to rain. All of us scamper to get our rain ponchos out, but within minutes we are all soaked. I meet up up with Chris as he is coming down the stairs from the ruins and we hurry as fast as we can to the campsite. We arrive wet and cold, but there is popcorn and tea waiting for us and somehow that makes our chilled and sore bodies happy.

Day 3
The day starts out with Chris stealing my chocolate pancake. If you sense a bit of bitterness, you would be correct. Everyone claimed they were really good pancakes. Day 3 was our shortest day, but we encountered some of our steepest terrain. The trail starts out uphill through cloud forest and crosses through a cave until reaching the third pass of the Inca trail. This part of the trek was relatively easy. However, the descent down from the third pass tired our knees and quads. Along the way, we visited the site of Phuyupatamarca. This site mostly served as an agricultural area with terraces for growing corn, potatoes, and coca. On this part of the trek, there are 2000 steps but our group lost track after only 100. These steps are incredibly steep and narrow. To give you an idea of the steepness, the width of the stairs were less than my shoe size (6.5 in) and the depth was the height of my knee. Needless to say, we moved slowly.

After 4 hours of hiking down steep stairs, we reached our campsite. Near the grounds, ruins of Wiñaywayna exist. We found these ruins really interesting. They served as an agciculture center,but also had a temple, the temple of the rainbow. The fountains in the complex still worked, delivering water to the terraces. Exploring these ruins tucked away on such a steep hillside made us excited for our next day of touring Machu Picchu.

Day 4
Day 4 began with a wake-up call at 4am. Upon exiting the checkpoint, our guide raced toward the sun gate with us in tow in order to be one of the first groups there. He kept such a fast pace that eventually we fell behind. We held hope that the race to the sun gate would be rewarding, but with the thick, low clouds there was really no chance of seeing Machu Picchu. The trail to the sun gate and Machu Picchu were cloaked in clouds well until 10am. It seems more reasonable to wake later and reach the sun gate as the cloud cover clears. We continued our descent down through the clouds, reaching Machu Picchu around 8am.

We explored Machu Picchu for the rest of the day. For a bit of a history lesson, when the Spaniards began conquering the Quechuans, it is thought the Quechuans kept Machu Picchu hidden and thus protected by destroying the roads leading to it. It is a massive complex of terraces, ceremonial baths, temples, and buildings. The stonework of the temples is incredible. The Quechuans did not use mortar for building their temples, and the fitting of the temple stones is perfectly flush. Walking amongst the ruins, you feel the sacredness of the grounds. Despite all the crowds, it is still a peaceful and beautiful place.

We would like to visit again when we are not so tired from the trek. We would recommend to those that do the trek to spend a night or two in Aquas Calientes and plan to visit Machu Picchu again afterresting. We wanted to hike back up to the sun gate and to Huayna Picchu for outstanding views of Machu Picchu, but we were too tired and sore. All in all, the trek was an amazing, beautiful journey through river valleys, cloudforests, and ruins.

As always, our recent photos can be viewed on Chris’ and Jodi’s flickr pages.

5 Responses to “Classic Inca Trek to Machu Picchu”

  1. townelin says:

    Trust me when I say the view of the sun alowly illuminating Machu Pichhu is well worth the 4AM wake up call and hustle up the hill. It is too bad there were clouds for your once in a lifetime visit. Great entry! It brought back many memories from our trip 4 years ago.

  2. Jeannie says:

    how big were those bugs? chris doesn’t seem the type to get in a panic over a moth….

  3. Aaron Masser says:

    Hey Jodi, I finally updated my blog and saw your comment. Sorry for the delay.

    That’s great that you’re traveling around the world. I’m going to S.America for a few months starting in February. I’m very interested in where you think I should go. I have some friends in Argentina and am definitely going there and then probably make my way up to Peru.

    email me if you’re bored aaron_masser@yahoo.com

  4. John says:

    Hi Chris and Jodi, great adventure! Really enjoyed your write-up of your trek. Now you know the differences between a llama and an alpaca too. Yes, Chris hates bugs; you should see him around those little “potato” bugs that are under wood that is on the ground. Can hardly wait until your next post. John

  5. Jamie says:

    Amazing!!!!! I am so proud of you guys for making the trek, and the photos are beautiful. I can only imagine the mental video that you will carry with you forever.