The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
It was 4am on a frigid winter morning. The sky was still dark and I could feel the lack of oxygen in the air. It was the morning that I had been both dreading and anticipating for months. With groggy eyes, Brian and I laced our boots, filled up our water bottles, and got buckled into our backpacks. We were about to start the Sacred Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
In planning our trip to Peru, we knew we wanted to join a trek to Machu Picchu. There is nothing like the satisfaction of approaching Machu Picchu on your own two feet. What we didn’t realize is that there are over a dozen different trails that lead to the ancient city. The most common of these routes include – The Salcantay Route (Trip Length: 5 – 8 days), The Lares Route (Trip Length: 4 – 5 days), The Scared Inca Trail (Trip Length: 2 days), The Vilcabamba Traverse Route (Trip Length: 9 – 13 days), The Lodge Trek (Trip Length: 7 – 11 days), The Chaski Trail (Trip Length: 3 – 5 days), and the most popular of them all – The Classic Inca Trail (Trip Length: 3-4 days). With limited time in Peru and other places we wanted to see during our trip, we opted for the shorter 2-day Sacred Inca Trail.
After spending a few days in Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude, we began our Inca Trail journey from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. We took the train headed towards Aguas Calientes, which made a quick stop in the middle of nowhere at KM 104 – the trailhead for the Sacred Inca Trail. As we exited the train, I took one look back wandering what I had gotten myself into and contemplating whether or not there was enough time to jump back on board and take the quick and easy way to Machu Picchu.
Before I had the chance to really make up my mind, the train had already pulled away and disappeared into the winding valley. Well, I was now committed to the hike.
Brian and I looked around to find our trekking group. Everyone’s faces were filled with both excitement and terror. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who was second guessing myself? We booked our trek through Alpaca Expeditions because they were rated the number one trekking company on TripAdvisor. Alpaca Expeditions is a locally owned company based out of Cusco who are committed to giving back to the local community, and provide their guides and porters with fair salaries and proper equipment. Because the tourism industry has only recently started to have been regulated by the government, many trekking companies treat their porters unethically, requiring them to carry excess loads, purchase their own hiking equipment, and provide their own food for the trek. Choosing a trekking company is an important decision and we are glad to have chosen Alpaca Expeditions.
Our group consisted of myself and Brian, ten other trekkers, our guide – Virgillio, one assisting guide, three cooks, and a handful of porters. As we went around the circle giving introductions, I began to size up each of the trekkers – yep, I think I could keep up with her – nope, there’s no way I’m going to keep up with him! I figured Brian and I would be about in the middle of the pack, not slowing anyone down but also not straggling along in the back. After all of that worry, of course we ended up in the front of the group trying to keep up with the guide’s pace. Within 60 seconds I was out of breath.
Lucky for us, this wasn’t our guide’s first time leading a bunch of gringos and Virgillio knew that the altitude would have an effect on all of us, no matter our level of fitness. He took the slow and steady approach, leading us uphill for about a hundred yards, stopping for a minute or two to catch our breath, then another hundred yards, and another stop. We repeated this process for most of the trek.
After about three hours we made it to a beautiful resting spot at the base of a waterfall. We hung out here for a little while and snapped a group photo before moving on.
Another few hours and we were all ready for lunch. Our porters had run ahead of us to set up a wonderful table with beautiful views of the Urubamba River Valley. A gourmet meal was waiting for us – soup, appetizers, entrees, and desert. I couldn’t believe that the porters could carry with them everything needed to cook such an elaborate lunch. The food was delicious; some of the best I had in Peru.
We noticed other trekking groups eating pre-made sandwiches out of a packed brown paper bag – we felt lucky and fully fueled for the next part of our trek up the mountain.
One hundred yards at a time, we made the three hour climb up to the famous ruins of Winay Wayna. If felt great to finally see some Inca ruins and know that Machu Picchu couldn’t be much further away.
Visiting the ruins of Winay Wayna is restricted to only those who are hiking one of the Inca Trails. Due to its remoteness, this well preserved, small Inca town offers a serene and tranquil surrounding that is hard to achieve at the very popular and busy site of Machu Picchu. We took some time to wander around the site and take in the extraordinary views.
With not a whole lot of time to waste, we were on the move again. It was our goal to arrive at the Sun Gate before sunset. Before we got there, though, we still had to conquer the infamous “Monkey Steps” – a never ending vertical climb up a stone staircase.
Using every last ounce of energy we had left in us, we pushed up the trail that the Incas had made hundreds of years ago and arrived at one of the most breath-taking views I had ever seen. More stunning and more beautiful than any photo or video could ever show, Machu Picchu stood before us for the very first time. The rays of the sun were shining over the ancient city off in the distance. THIS is what we came here for. The sight of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate is second to none.
The Sun Gate was used by Incas to observe the sunrise and sunset from Machu Picchu during the summer solstice.
It was another hour from the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu, and we hurried to beat the setting sun along the last portion of trail.
We arrived at Machu Picchu about an hour after the closing of normal visitor hours. As trekkers with an Inca Trail permit, we were allowed special privileges to enter the site after it had closed to the public. Our group had the space to ourselves for a short time before we needed to continue on and make our way to our campsite.
We were joined by a few other trekking groups who were also staying at the Puente Ruians campsite, a beautiful location nestled in the valley just below Machu Picchu. We were provided another amazing meal for dinner and shortly after we called it a night and settled into our tent. I was longing for a hot shower and comfy bed, but the sight of the night sky and sparkling stars made it all worth it.
We had a very early wake-up call the next morning, around 3:30am, to get a head start towards Machu Picchu. It paid off and we were one of the first groups into the site. Our guide led us to the perfect spot to sit and watch the sunrise over the mountains.
We were then taken on a tour by our guide, Virgillio, around the complex to learn the history of Machu Picchu. Afterwards we had a few hours of free time to explore on our own.
The day came to an end and we took the bus down to Aguas Calientes for a final meal with our trekking group and one last photo with our guide, chefs, and porters.
Alpaca Expeditions: www.alpacaexpeditions.com/