Inca Trail – my knees will never be the same again

Regulations state that only 500 people can start the Inca Trail every day, and since this number also includes porters and guides, the actual number of tourists starting is around 200.

Rather than take a direct bus from Puno to Cusco we decided on the Inca Express, a tour bus that only takes a couple more hours but include a few stops en route. It was a mediocre day, we were stuck we a few weird couples that creeped us out massively and promised ourselves to be more selective with the organised tours in future. Move on…

So here we are in Cusco, for one of the highlights of our tour of the Americas – The Inca Trail. Over the past few months we have learnt there is a fair amount of snobbery around trekking to Machu Picchu. Many say the original Inca Trail is touristy and crowded, some same it’s not authentic, yadda yadda yadda. Our opinion is that these comments appear to be from people who didn’t book the trek in time and therefore didn’t have the option, the bitter and twisted souls. We, however, booked about four months in advance, and can’t see a reason to come all the way here and not actually follow the original Inca Trail and are very very excited (although the tour shops will tell you of the other one day Inca treks which is nonsense).

Start of the trail - Inca Bridge

Regulations state that only 500 people can start the Inca Trail every day, and since this number also includes porters and guides, the actual number of tourists starting is around 200. We have picked one of the biggest and best known companies, SAS, on the recommendation of friends, who follow a slightly different camping schedule, meaning we will miss most of the other groups along the way. Machu Picchu itself has lifted all limits on visiting tourists, what used to be a 2500 daily limit has gone, so you need to get there early to miss the hordes. If all goes well we will have most of the trail to ourselves and arrive at MP at the quietest time, just as the sun is rising.

We have a blissful five days in Cusco to acclimatise, although that’s nonsense really – we have got used to the altitude already, it’s just a bit of an excuse to settle and relax. Our hostel is only a 10 minute walk out of town and we make full use of the many restaurants and bars that Cusco is famous for. This is a very touristy city, full of two week holidaymakers, most of who seem to be American. For the first few days we take full advantage of the incredibly cheap deals on offer (£3 for a 5 course meal). Until I come down with a bug that is, and suspect the cheapo salad.
Whilst overcoming the curse of unwashed cucumber we watch lots of TV, take in the sights and smells of Cusco, and enjoy some more sunshine, we are both counting the days until we get to a beach again.

The night before the Inca Trail starts we decided last minute to hire some proper hiking books after we are told at a briefing that there are many thousands of metres of steep stairs, and well, I’m getting on a bit. We also stock up on snacks and water and treat ourselves to a huge McDonald’s feast in preparation – telling ourselves we will no doubt burn it off in no time!

So, back to the Inca Trail. We’re picked up around 5am from our hostel, then drive for three hours to the start of the trail. We have only our day packs to carry, but we have, as is usual, porters to carry the rest. It might be a tough four day trek but we are not going to ruin it by actually having to carry all our own stuff, oh no!

Leah walking action shot

The Inca trail is about 40km (25 miles) in total, which might seem such a short way for four days, but when you consider that we have to ascend up to 4300m from 2300m, taking in three summits along the way, with very few flat paths, then you begin to realise why it takes so long. We are advised to buy some walking sticks to help with the steep steps, which everybody in the group does. There are only 10 people in our group, as five people decided to pay extra and go private and there was a cancellation. That leaves us with a couple of really nice German/American friends and a bunch of American students who have come unbelievably prepared with pills, potions and paraphernalia that would make even an experienced Everest expedition feel ill-equipped. In contrast, we have stocked up on Mars bars, trail bars and a bag of coca leaves to help with the altitude.

Here is a fancy video showing a virtual Inca Trail using Google Earth.

Day 1

(Leah takes over the writing here as I got bored)

We’re told the first day is easy, a gradual climb, about seven hours walking starting at 10am and finishing around dusk. When we arrive at the start of the trail it seems we’re a couple of porters short, so whilst the guide makes some last minute phone calls, we head off. Don’t worry, they’ll catch us up, we’re told!

After a bit of a climb initially, it’s a nice flat walk for an hour or so – this is a piece of cake! But then we hit our first bit of uphill and we realise that perhaps it’s not quite so easy. We’re all huffing and puffing and glad of a ten minute sit down at the end of our ascent. And this is the EASY day. And it’s not even lunchtime. What about tomorrow?! But, as we settle into it, we all begin to find our own pace and start to figure out that if you just take it slowly, it’s not all that bad – it’s not a race after all.

Urubamba river and obliging Llama

Unfortunately, due to the porter shortage, lunch is a little later than anticipated as we have to wait for them to catch us up, but we eventually stop at around 3pm, with only a couple more hours of walking left ahead of us. We’re all expecting a few pre-packed sandwiches and a packet of crisps and we watch in awe as the porters unveil a marquee, complete with table and chairs and a two course hot lunch with at least five different dishes. This is much more than any of us had anticipated and we’re all quietly impressed.

After some grub it’s back on the road again. After half an hour, we pass the campsite where most groups stop for the first night but are told that we walking on further. It’s a stiff hour long climb to the finish, but at least it means one less ascent tomorrow! As the sun sets and dusk hits, we reach the campsite and collapse into our tents – the porters are all there ready and waiting and everything has been set up for us already. Perfect.

I should probably mention a little more about the porters here for those that are unfamiliar. As well as carrying all our belongings, including clothes, sleeping bags and sleeping mats, they also carry all the food, tents, chairs, table, and gas for cooking. Each porter carries up to 25kg each – which is a pretty hefty weight – yet they practically run through the Inca Trail, whilst wearing sandals made of old car tyres. They are truly superhuman.

Anyway, back to Day 1. That evening and it’s another delicious meal cooked by our chef, Mario, before we all crash into bed at about 8pm!! We’re all seriously shattered and struggling to keep our eyes open! Plus, we’ve got to be up at 5.30am the next morning for a long Day 2 so none of us are keen on staying up any later.

Day 2

We’re woken with a coca tea and haul ourselves out of our surprisingly warm sleeping bags for a breakfast of quinoa porridge and pancakes. We’re out of the campsite by 6.30am, leaving the porters to pack everything up behind us. Today is the tough one, lots of uphill, including the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass, and 16km to cover before bedtime. Eek.
Unfortunately one of the American girls is sick too so it’s a doubly difficult day for her. Poor thing.

Still, we all set off in relatively good spirits, despite the early hour, and start the day as we mean to go on with some seriously steep steps. Along the way, we buy a couple of bottles of rum to share amongst the group later. Our guide kindly offers to carry them for us, and it’s only later we realise he’s been taking a few cheeky swigs along the way!
Then it’s the long, but not quite so steep, climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, before an evil 20 minutes to the summit. I’m not going to lie, it’s certainly not easy, but it’s also not impossible. And as long as you take it at your own pace, you’ll be fine. You don’t even have to be THAT fit (as we both proved), and the American girl even managed it whilst simultaneously throwing up!! It felt great to reach the top, although as soon as we stopped walking, we started to feel the cold and we were soon piling on whatever clothes we had with us in an effort to keep warm whilst we waited for the rest of the group.

Top of Dead Womans Pass

After some group shots at the summit, and lots of cheering and back-patting later, it’s time to head down the other side of the mountain. Yippee! Downhill! Easy! Not.

Yes, believe it or not, downhill can be just as challenging as uphill. Ok, so you’re not huffing and puffing nearly as much but the steps can be very uneven and pretty steep so it’s tough on the knees. And ankles. And thighs. But after a few arduous hours, we reach the foot of the valley and our stop for lunch. It’s here that many groups set up camp for the night, but again, we’re heading on a few hours further, back up the hill. Oh joy.

Still, we enjoy the rest while we can, and the boots come off as we enjoy a delicious lunch of ceviche, amongst other local delights. Then, much sooner than most of us are ready for, we’re back on the trail again, climbing another summit and stopping of at a couple of Inca sites before a final 20 minute (flat!) walk to the campsite.

Inca ruins on the trail

That night at dinner and Aldo introduces us to the wonders of macho tea, a concoction of tea, orange and lemon juice, some spices, and the added kick of some rum. Despite our best efforts, we’re all too tired to overindulge and after one round we all slope off to our tents. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow night!

The benefit of having walked further than the rest of the groups on both Days 1 and 2 is that we have a pretty easy Day 3, and we are due to finish by 1pm tomorrow. It also means that you’re not walking in sync with 200 other people, so we’ve had a pretty quiet Inca Trail so far, something which I’ve heard friends travelling with other companies have been less lucky with.

Reaching the summit end of day 2

Day 3

After an omelette for breakfast, we head off for our final day of full trekking. Today is the easiest so far, fairly flat with only some gentle up and down hills, plus only five or six hours of walking – yay! I’m certainly not envying those other groups who won’t finish until this evening and still have some serious uphill hikes, feeling rather smug!
We arrive at the campsite at lunchtime, and after a bite to eat, we head to an Inca site a mere five minute walk away. We’ve decided to forego the hot showers (they don’t seem to be open yet anyway) in exchange for a dip in a nearby waterfall, a little further on. As we climb down the hundreds of steps on the way to the falls, we’re all too aware we’ll have to climb back up them on the way back, but at this point the lure of the cold, clean water is too much for us to resist. As we strip off to our swimwear, we’re the first in the water and it is FREEZING. The kind of cold that takes your breath away but is utterly refreshing and definitely worth it to feel even remotely clean after three days of sweaty trekking. Even the girls without bathing suits decide it’s too appealing to pass up and get themselves drenched in their clothes. After everyone is satisfactorily soaked, we head back up to the campsite for a spot of macho tea and a well-deserved rest.

Sunset on the trail

That evening, and after thanking and tipping the porters, who we’ll see the last of in the morning, it’s off for another early night before a 3.30am wake up call. Yes, that’s right 3.30am. If we want to hit Machu Picchu for sunrise then we have to set off as soon as the checkpoint opens at 5.30am. And if we want to set off from the checkpoint as soon as it opens then we have to be at the front of the queue, and start lining up from 4.30am. Urgh. Can’t someone else just hold my place?!

Day 4

( I’m getting bored now so Rich continues with the blog)

So after getting up super early and standing in line for 45 minutes, waiting for the checkpoint to open, we’re off on our final stretch to the magnificent Machu Picchu. Of the whole trail, this is the only point where things feel crowded as everyone races to the Sun Gate. It’s an hour and a half through the jungle before we reach the site, and the scenery is stunning. At this point, I (Rich) was really struggling, my calves were cramping and I’d slightly twisted my ankle. Thankfully it was nothing too bad; another in the group was wincing with pain at this point.

Hiking the Inca Trail, aside from the fun of it all, does have the benefit of an experience that no other trekkers or day-trippers will enjoy – watching the sunrise through the Sun Gate. This is where we first get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu itself. The truth is that the ruins are almost always misty in the morning and the chance of watching the sun striking the ancient structure is small. But luck is on our side and the sky is clear. In fact, we had pretty much perfect weather the whole trek. The days were dry and warm and every night we were treated to torrential downpours that left the mornings clear and fresh. At around 7:30am we peak through the Sun Gate to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu, the sky almost cloudless. Nice. If you have time (the first section drags on a bit) here is a video of me puffing and panting the final stretch to the Sun Gate.

Machu Picchu itself is stunning, a lot bigger than I expected and more impressive also. But I’m not sure it’s what I will leave remembering. The trek itself was a blast, it was difficult but not THAT difficult. Attitude more than exercise will get you through without complaint. The jungle sections were stunning, with waterfalls and hanging vines, Dead Woman’s Pass was surreal and the final two days were like walking through an Indiana Jones cum Tomb Raider set.


Jungle stuff

After our ceremonial group and individual photos, our guide gave us a short tour and then left us to explore alone. We found a nice little spot overlooking the whole valley and just took it all in. Around 12:30pm, dark clouds started to gather and as the place started to REALLY fill up with day-trippers we made our way down the hill to the nearest town, a bus taking about 15 minutes, passing hundreds of tourists going the other way, armed with cameras taking the easy route to the top.


Me with Inca stuff in background

Down in Agua Calientes we have a nice cup of tea and feel a little more human, the rain is now pouring down and we again realise how lucky we’ve been with the weather. After a spot of lunch with the rest of the group it’s a late train back to Cusco and hopefully a hot shower waiting. Here are some gratuitous photos that really don’t do the whole experience justice!

The full photo gallery can be found here or through the photo menu

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