Unquestionably one of the greatest experiences of my life. Definitely the greatest physical challenge of my life. I regret nothing but I would not do it again! Hiking the Inca Trail is not for everyone and I don’t know why I chose to see Machu Picchu this way. There are easier ways. Perhaps after being cooped up for nearly two years during a global pandemic I simply yearned for the adventure of a lifetime and I GOT IT!
I spent my first week in Peru outside of Lima building houses with the Fuller Center for Housing and my Global Builders team, 16 volunteers who helped two families afford decent shelter in La Florida, a few hours outside of Lima. Many of us extended our stay and seven of us decided to complete a 27 mile 5-day hike of the Inca Trail to the famed lost city of the Incas. Our jumping off point was, of course, Cusco, former capital of the Inca empire.
There’s SO much that’s been said about this experience already. However, I’m going to give you some pro tips and hope they make your hike all the more enjoyable!
First Things First
- Check travel requirements and regulations for entering Peru. Check out my post on flying to Lima.
- Choose your group wisely. Consider booking a private tour. The price varies depending upon the number of people. I was so happy to have friends along for the ride.
- Choose your tour operator wisely. If you are going to hike the trail you’ll need to go with a guide who will get all your permits and generally take care of you. I chose to go with Evolution Treks Peru for a few reasons. They have high ethical standards, hire women porters, do not allow any of their porters to carry more than the maximum weight. The porters sleep under the same conditions as tourists, have proper food, tents and sleeping bags. They also have a unique employee-owned business model. You’ll see other companies abusing porters by bending the rules, so my group felt especially great about using Evolution. All of our porters and our guide were truly amazing professionals, always looked out for us, and were a lot of fun. Our chef prepared the most hearty and delicious food and accommodated both vegetarian and gluten-free diets.
- Choose your itinerary wisely. There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu. I didn’t think I was taking on more than I could handle with a 5-day hike, but if I had known the extent of what I was getting myself into, I’m not sure I would have done the same route. Ascending and descending staircases of massive stones of varying shapes and sizes at high altitudes takes not only physical stamina but mental toughness.
- Prepare your gear wisely. On the trail you’ll be sleeping in tents; bathroom facilities vary. None of us showered on the trail, although the option exists. Frankly it’s a lot of work to shower and it gets very cold at night. In September/October temperature swings can be from 80 degrees F during the day to 30 degrees F at night. I recommend you bring only a few basic toiletries, warm clothing to sleep in, a pair of underwear and socks for every day and at least two changes of clothing. I had zip off pants but never felt the need to convert them to shorts. The most important thing to keep in mind is to KEEP DRY. When your clothes get wet, especially at night, you’ll be very uncomfortable, if not be freezing cold! I bought a large rain poncho while I was there, but you could easily bring one just make sure it’s big and long enough to cover your backpack. Finally, get super comfortable waterproof hiking shoes. My new Hoke One One Speedgoats were amazing.
- It’s not a race. Go at your own pace and don’t worry about who might be ahead of the pack. Our guide was terrific at encouraging me, as I was one of the ‘slower’ hikers on the trail. Stop and catch your breath frequently, and when you do, take a look around! It’s beautiful. Listen and look for wildlife. Enjoy the views. Turn around and check out how far you’ve come! Once I understood all this I had a much better experience, even when the hiking got tough. You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually, you WILL get there.
The Sacred Valley (1 Night)
The Sacred Valley of the Incas, or the Urubamba Valley, is a valley in the Andes that winds its way between the towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, parallel to the Vilcanota River, a tributary of the Amazon. Its original name in the native Quechua language is Wilkmayu, which means Sacred River. It’s the region’s breadbasket and when you learn that those massive terraces populating the hillsides are where the Inca planted their crops, it’s easy to understand how they became true masters of agriculture.
Our history lesson began at the historical city of Pisaq and the impressive Ollantaytambo, former royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti. This night we stayed at the fantastic Chaska Ocupi Forest Glamping retreat. Our dinner here was one of the best I had my entire time in Peru and the accommodations are top notch.
The Inca Trail (3 Nights)
The Inca Trail presents its own version of luxury—the splendor of the land itself. Often I would remind myself, “Take it all in, with all your senses, because you might never be here again.” The weather this time of year, shoulder season, is ideal and the crowds were nonexistent. Most days we might see just one or two people on the trail, besides the passing porters.
Day 1 we got a great start, the elevation was relatively low and trail was relatively easy. We walked along the right bank of the Urubamba river toward Qoriwayrachina following an original off the beaten track trail to see sites other trekkers don’t visit.
Thank goodness we tweaked our itinerary at our guide’s recommendation and made Day 2 the most difficult, deciding to take a longer hike and cover Dead Woman’s Pass, rather than climb it on Day 3. We were all so grateful that we’d one it that way! For that reason Day 3 was my favorite of the hike and the reward was being able to stay at the best campsite on the Trail on our last night, Phuyupatamarca.
- BEST thing about being on the trail. Hands down, the company you keep! I was so fortunate to have wonderful friends with me. We all kept each other moving and laughing.
- Second best thing. The scenery and imaging all the Inca who came before me, who actually built the trail, and how it would be so amazing to meet them. They and their civilization were incredible! I enjoyed learning from our guide. After the rain one afternoon we were treated to a double rainbow at the best campsite on the Trail, Phuyupatamarca, the place of the clouds [PHOTOS ABOVE].
- Third best thing. The food! Our porters and chef were so impressive, easily accommodating vegetarian and gluten-free diets. They kept us safe, healthy, well fed and hydrated.
- Fourth best thing. Making it to the end, climbing the Monkey Stairs with hands and feet and walking through the Sun Gate to look down onto Machu Picchu! Only those who hike the Trail can enter the site this way. It felt good to be one of them.
- Fifth best thing. Despite the very physical nature of what I was doing, my body was never in pain. I attribute that to keeping fit and being active every day. Functional fitness people.
In retrospect I only really remember what I loved about being out there. But, there were some things I didn’t enjoy.
- WORST thing about being on the trail. I’m gonna go with having to get up in the middle of the night, exit the tent and go to the bathroom, which I only minded because it was super cold and dark and getting to the facilities wasn’t easy.
- Second worst thing. And it’s a very close second. I so cold at night despite being in the sleeping bag with most of my clothes on that I had a hard time sleeping. *SEE GAME CHANGER AT THE BEGINNING OF THE POST TO FIX THIS.
- Third worst thing. Climbing up those mountains was not easy and I often felt out of breath, which most people do. The highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass, is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and the day we climbed it, just before I got to the top, it started to hale. LOL.
Aguas Calientes (1 Night)
After four days of hiking and three nights sleeping on those mountains we were all really excited about a hot shower. That’s all we really wanted. And being in a small town with a name that means “warm waters” seemed like the perfect end to the journey. Aguas Calientes (aka Machupicchu Pueblo) is a short bus ride from Machu Picchu and it primarily exists to serve travelers who come to see the historical site. It’s not even accessible by car, only rail. As a result, it’s loaded with hotels, restaurants, bars and shops catering to tourists.
Machu Picchu Tour | Back to Cusco
The next morning our group got an early start to return to Machu Picchu for our tour of this massive historical site. There’s a lot to see and learn and we spent a few hours soaking it all in. The bus took us back to Aguas Calientes where we had lunch at the fantastic Mapacho Craft Beer Restaurant on the river and were treated to a live music performance by the energetic Pacha Mama Band. Spend whatever time you have left shopping in the market for souvenirs before catching the train back to Cusco.
Highlight of the 3 hour train ride was playing euchre with friends!
[PRO TIP: Never leave home without a deck of cards! The four seats in the front of each train car face each other with a table in between making it a breeze to play games.]