I started in Huacachina which was a very small oasis town surrounded by amazing sand dunes. The journey ahead of us was around 745 miles which would take over 28hrs. There is a direct round from Huacachina to Cusco through the mountains from Nazca however this is not widely used due to the rise in hijackings. The bus was a great double-decker with wide reclining seats and extremely comfortable. Our first proper stop was the Nazca lines, they are believed to originate from the Nazca people between 500BC and 500 AD. The stop was by a tower which you climb up to look down on the lines, not all of them and not the best ones e.g. the monkey, however they are still Nazca lines and it still counts. It didn’t feel very safe going up or down and they do try to make sure people come down before they send the next group up but as always there will be a few tourists who ignore this rule.
I slept pretty well overnight on the bus, it did get pretty cold though so extra layers are recommended. We arrived in Arequipa very early in the morning to drop off most of the passengers and pick up some to take to Cuzco. From Huacachina to Arequipa we gained probably close to 2000m. From Arequipa to Cuzco the journey got harder as we started to gain a lot of altitude (4200m), I started to get symptoms of altitude sickness (severe headache and nausea). I took a few painkillers and tried to sleep through it. We arrived in Cuzco in the evening after over 28hrs on a bus. As the streets of Cuzco are quite small we had to get in taxis to get to our hotels. This took a long time as streets were closed off for a religious parade and there were a lot of cars crammed into a very small area.
Cuzco is a beautiful historic city with a population of around 420,000 people. It used to be the capital of the Incan Empire and is situated at 3400m asl and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The architecture within the city centre is amazing, lots of old beautiful buildings and narrow cobbled streets. However it is rather modern with most of the shops catering for tourists including a KFC and McDonalds. Cuzco does offer more traditional foods such as Llama and Guinea Pig, the latter looks more like its been steam rolled and fried, not appetizing. The Llama however was lovely and can highly recommend.
There are plenty of outdoor shops here for last-minute items and you can usually get a good deal due to exchange rates. In the branded shops there is no haggling as they are authentic. The markets in the centre are amazing, lots to see and spend money on! Most of the stuff in the markets is not hand-made no matter what they claim, it falls apart pretty quickly and I wouldn’t wash them in a washing machine, but they serve a purpose to keep you warm.
The main reason most people go to Cuzco is because it’s the gate to the Incan empires, the most famous being Machu Picchu. This was the reason for my visit, Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list a long time.
The Inca Trail takes a total of 4 days of hiking at altitude up thousands of steps and then back down them again, the highest point is Dead Womans pass which sits at 4125m. As the trail is extremely popular I booked it well in advance with G Adventures so they could organise the walking visa and the porters and guides etc. The Inca Trail visas can sell out very quickly as they restrict the amount of people on the trail to keep erosion down. From experience now I would hesitate on booking with G Adventures again for this trip as they are expensive and compared to other companies they don’t offer the best service. The guides and porters however were fantastic they were locals and very enthusiastic about their history.
The first day on the trip was a meeting which took place about a mile from the hotel at G Adventures headquarters. We went through what to expect on the trek, if anyone had dietary requirements and checking everyone’s details were correct. My passport number was wrong so I had to stay behind call my parents and get my dad to take a picture of my old passport and send it via messenger (a G Adventures mistake). Thankfully after 90 minute of hassle of them telling me I would have to pay for a new one it was sorted.
The next day we set off to Pisac we spent around an hour walking around the ruins and admiring the stunning view, it was also a great opportunity for us to get to know each other before the hike. From Pisac we headed towards the G Adventures supported Womens weaving co-op, this provides a great opportunity to local communities to provide housing and education to young families. The weaving is all done by hand and is amazing to watch these women at work, they use natural dyes and wool from Llama and Alpaca. The product produced is all high quality and is available to buy, if I had known how much they were before heading out I would have taken more money and bought a jumper (£70), it is always worth haggling as they are expensive. I did buy a beautiful scarf for £25. We stopped for lunch at another G Adventure supported Parwa community restaurant in Huchuy Qosco. The food here was very rich but delicious. After food we sat outside and watched our guides (Daniel and Alex) play a version of swing ball. After lunch we set off for our lodge in Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo is a beautiful spot, its also where tours take the train to Machu Picchu. We settled into our lodge, got our bags for our trek which the porters would be carrying and I tried to pack some of the stuff I would need for the trek. It didn’t work, I seem to have too many clothes to fit in the bag and I was way over the weight limit. Daniel arranged for us to have a tour around the Incan site there.
Ollantaytambo is a town and also an Incan site situated at 2700m asl. It is said that Ollantaytambo was the estate of Pachacuti who ruled the region. It was a stronghold during the Spanish invasion to hold off Spanish forces from heading on to the sacred city of Machu Picchu. However after defeating the Spanish in a fight near Ollantaytambo the rule Manco Inca withdrew to Vilcabamba leaving Ollantaytambo deserted. The ruins here are some of the most impressive Incan ruins I saw in Peru, with large granite blocks used as base stones for temples and houses.
The sites here are very impressive, Daniel was very enthusiastic in telling us about the history of the place.
That night we went out to a local restaurant and had some food as a group, afterwards a few of us headed out to a little bar where we had a couple of drinks (hot chocolate), some stayed out into the early hours where as the rest of us headed back to get some sleep.
First thing we had to do in the morning was sort out our tiny bags with everything we would need for the 4 day trek. We all knew of the strict restrictions for our little rucksacks so I was pretty tough on things that had to go in. First in was the sleep mat and sleeping bag so there went 4kg of my allocated 6kg, pyjamas, portable battery charger, spare trousers, underwear, deodorant, baby wipes, toothbrush and toothpaste, couple tshirts, socks, down jacket, and a spare jumper (waterproofs were in rucksack). Obviously this was over the limit, I ended up carrying my down jacket and chucking out a tshirt, trousers and a jumper. I didn’t have enough really to keep me warm and to change at camp if I got wet.
Our Inca Trail group consisted of 6 lasses (including myself) and 3 lads. 2 couples – Stijn and Alexandra and Alex and Shelley, then Sorcha, Kellie, Lindsey, Sean and myself. The couples had their own tent, Lindsey and Kellie shared, Sorcha and myself shared and Sean had a tent of his own.
We set off on our minibus to the start of the Inca Trail at a place called kilometre 82. Our porters had to sort through all of our bags and weigh each one and split the load of food and equipment between them. We were handed a little bag of goodies which we packed up, then I got harassed by women selling rubber bottoms for my walking poles. Apparently on the trek you must have the rubber bottoms on poles as they are worried about erosion on the footpath. I reluctantly had to buy them as I was warned if I was caught without them they would take the poles off me. We set off to the starting checkpoint and waited until our porters went through and then we set off after the mandatory starting team “sexy llama” photo.
It was an undulating start to the walk as we followed the river down the valley, we saw the tourist train taking people to Aguas Calientes where they can get the bus to Machu Picchu. The walking was moderately difficult but more to do with the altitude than the actual trail, there were a few very steep bits but Daniel made sure we had a few rest stops along the way, but he was adamant that we would all stick together on the first day. We came across our first Incan site of the trip called Llactapata, from the site itself you looked down onto farming terraces and across the Andean valley, the views are pretty spectacular.
We had a snack stop where everyone ate the snack pack we got given, to be told that was to last us for the full 4 days. When we set off towards our camp for the night the group started to break up a bit, the majority at the front, me on my own in the middle and Alex and Shelley at the back with Alex. The trail was rather quiet so it was a nice peaceful walk for me.
The Wayllabamba campsite was already set out for us with our tents facing towards a lovely view through the trees or the Andes at a glacier just about visible through the clouds. Daniel arranged for us to meet the porters and chefs that would be helping us over the coming days. They introduced themselves and Daniel translated Quechua to English for us and vice versa when we introduced ourselves to them. After this we headed into the mess tent to get ready for our food. There was a good choice of food available even for a fussy eater like myself and anything I didn’t want to eat did not go to waste. It was a great group and we all got along well straight away, Daniel ate with the porters while the other guide Alex sat and joined us, after food we played charades for a bit then headed out to get ready for bed. Unlike other companies we didn’t get a private toilet so we had to use the public ones which were disgusting, I won’t go in to detail but imagine the worse toilet you have seen and multiply by 10. A few of us sat outside for a bit star-gazing as the skies were clear and there was no light pollution, the milky way was clearly visible. After sorting our tent out me and my campmate settled in for the night.
We were woken early in the morning by the kitchen porter who brought us a hot cocoa tea to wake us up and a fresh bowl of hot water to have a wash and brush our teeth. The morning was pretty cold and we wrapped up to go to the mess tent for breakfast. Today was going to be the hardest day as we were heading over Dead Womans Pass which would be the highest point of the Inca Trail at 4125m asl. Our guidance today was that it would be extremely challenging and we could walk at our own pace, however we were to stop at dedicated checkpoints and wait for the others. We all set off together and soon the faster walkers broke off to lead the way. I wasn’t walking on my own today as Kellie decided to stay back and walk at a slower pace. I can not tell you how many steps there were but it was in the several thousands.
It is probably one of the toughest hiking days I have ever experienced and that includes summit day on Kilimanjaro . There were a lot of people on the trail today both going towards Dead Womans Pass and coming back the opposite way. I think it the trail is massively underestimated by people. We hit the first checkpoint (Ayapta) in good time however we were the only ones there, the lead group had forgotten to stop. We waited for the last couple to arrive with Alex and we set off again at our own pace to the next checkpoint. This section was a lot harder as it was straight up more or less, constant stairs, there was a group of 4 of us (Stijn, Alexandra, Kellie and myself) that more or less stuck together. The views looking back down the valley were fantastic, the higher we got though the colder it became and I could see clouds coming in. At the second checkpoint (Llulluchapampa) the lead group had stopped, we sat down here for a while and had a chat shared some biscuits etc and relaxed before the next big stint which was reaching Dead Womans Pass which we could see towering above us.
We headed off up the path together, but after putting on layers below I started to burn up so had to take some off, then it started to rain so had to find my waterproof jacket, so I fell behind the group. By the time I had reached Dead Womans Pass I was knackered, cold and wet. Daniel wanted us to stay there to wait for Shelley and Alex but it was freezing and we were all getting extremely cold just standing around. We decided it would be best if we headed on down and waited somewhere more sheltered. Turns out this would be back in camp.
The path down was horrendous, the steps had become death traps and the knees took a hammering even though I had my poles. Walking poles with rubber bottoms on didn’t really do much in the rain as they slipped as well. One or two of us took a tumble coming down, however to keep spirits up we played games. The rain was continuous and heavy, by the time we reached Paqaymayo Camp we were all knackered and wet through with most of us not having anything dry to change into (due to limit in luggage). As we reached our tents the porters were there to welcome us and applaud us. We chucked our things into the tents and headed for the mess tent to have a hot drink and to our surprise popcorn and lots of it! After a quick light lunch we chilled out in our tents trying to keep warm, I tried to write in my diary and had a chat with Sorcha, while snuggled in our sleeping bags. When we eventually clambered out of our tents the clouds were clearing and the sun was beaming down the valley, we had an amazing tent pitch for the views.
We headed over to the mess tent early to have hot drinks and a chat, followed by some dinner and then we chilled out for a bit afterwards and then headed out to our tents. The clouds had all cleared now and the stars were out and the view of them was spectacular. A few of us got our cameras out and were trying to take photos of them. It was a tad difficult without a tripod but I got a couple of blurry shots.
We woke up to the usual morning from the porter and a cup of coca tea, we were all in high spirits as today was an easier walk, the weather looked marginally better and it would be our last night camping. So we set off into two hours steep uphill to the Incan site of Runkuracay (3950m). The path up was packed with tourists, most of whom you had to carefully manoeuvre past as they were not in for giving you space . Runkuracay was used by runners as a resting point to get messages from different Incan Sites like Cuzco. The weather started to turn and we soon had our waterproofs on again.
After this first uphill stretch the walk was more undulating and a lot easier on the legs. There were still some steep up hill stretches and more steps downhill which were still challenging due to the rain. There would have been some amazing views had the clouds not been surrounding us, but it was probably best as there were some sheer drops off the footpaths and they were not fenced off. Most of the group stayed together today and we started to play a few riddle games like Around the world etc.
Our lunch stop was supposed to be one of the most beautiful views of the day however we couldn’t see 10ft in front of us so we missed out on that. The lunch today was incredible. It was a massive buffet lunch full of everything and anything you could wish for. The buffet included, pasta salad, chicken nuggets, mashed potato cakes, pizza, stew etc. but the best thing was the chefs had made us a personalised sexy llama sponge cake. We were all very full and in good spirits even though the weather was still damp and miserable.
I have no idea what they put in the cake but we were all in very high spirits and giggling (maybe lots of coca leaves were used) we started having a bit of a sing song as we descended down some steep steps to take our mind off them. Our next Incan site some of us decided to skip as it was up steep steps and it was pouring down with rain so we carried on to the next site which was where the Incans used to do their sacrificing – sometimes human sacrifices were used but mostly animal.
We had a choice when we came to crossroads to either descend directly to camp down some steep steps but get there early or to go the long way round to view Intipata, we all chose to go to Intipata, and we were all glad we did. The sun started to come out and the clouds lifted on our way around to the site.
Intipata “sun terraces” and is mainly used for argiculture with a lot of farming terraces and a few storage buildings and houses at the highest points. It is thought that Intipata was probably used as a farming land for Machu Picchu. It was forgotten about after the Spanish invasion and was left to be claimed back by nature, however since the 1940s archaeologists have begun excavating the site and they are still slowly uncovering new terraces and buildings.
We stayed around Intipata for quite sometime as the views across to the Andes and glaciers were spectacular, we could also see the back of Machu Picchu mountain.
We got to camp later than usual, we got settled into our tents, organised the porters tips as this would be the last time we would see them. After dinner Daniel(as our interpreter) and one of our group presented the tips to the porters. After the presentation and the thanks, Daniel discussed our options for tomorrow morning. We had 2 options, first was to get up very early, miss breakfast and get the to check point before other groups, or get up later miss the rush and get breakfast. We all decided that beating the crowds would be a great option even though we had to be up at 3am. Needless to say we had a very early night.
We were up at 3am, I went to bed more or less fully clothed so I didn’t have much to sort out in the morning. We set off to the checkpoint which I thought would be a few mile walk but turns out is 3 min down the hill from our tents. We were the third group there. It was freezing cold, we all huddled together and played charades to pass the time as we had to wait until around 5:30am for the sun to come up.
The reason you can’t go through checkpoint earlier is for health and safety reasons, there are long drops at the side of the paths and they don’t want any accidents.
When 5:30 arrived and we went through after having our permits checked, Daniel shot off at some speed. It was hard work keeping up with him but most of us managed it, I was jogging for some of the time to try to keep up. He set off at this pace so we would not be overtaken by other groups meaning that the Sun Gate would be quiet.
We were all layered up and as we were walking we got pretty hot so Daniel stopped after 20 min to let us take some layers off but he only gave us a 2min break before he was sprinting off again. We all started to separate, I was slowing down a bit but caught up with the group when they were having a breather so I decided to plod on knowing they would at some point catch up. The final challenge to get to the Sun Gate was climbing up “Gringo” stairs, so named as we climb up rather than walk up. The steps were not as bad as I thought but they were still pretty tough.
We got to the Sun Gate around 6:30/7 and we were awarded amazing views of Machu Picchu, the weather was perfect, the sun was burning the clouds away. I was surprised to see so many people already in Machu Picchu with us being the third group to set off and us overtaking a fair few people on the way to Sun Gate. It turns out that those who get the train to Aguas Calientes are allowed to get the bus and into Machu Picchu at around 6am, which was a bit unfair as we couldn’t go through the check point until 5:30am meaning there was no way we could beat the tourists there. You would think those that have hiked 4 days to get to this point could be given 6:30-7:30 to enjoy the sites alone!
We stayed at the Sun Gate while Alex and Shelley arrived and had a few group pictures and then descended into Machu Picchu. We went to the famous photograph point overlooking Machu Picchu and had around 20 minutes here to take photos, which is good as by the time we got here it was packed with nice smelling, clean and tidy tourists. After this we left Machu Picchu to hand in our walking poles which are not allowed in the ruins themselves, we had a light snack at the restaurant on site – which was expensive, and we got to use nice clean toilets.
We re-entered Machu Picchu to have a guided tour by Daniel. We sat down on the grass near Llamas which were free roaming the site, and listened to the information Daniel was telling us. After the brief introduction we had a walking tour and then we were left to explore ourselves. By the time we were off exploring the place was packed with tourists, slow tourists at that, and having been walking for 4 days and not had washing facilities etc it was a tad annoying. Around 8000 people a day visit Machu Picchu mostly by train/bus.
We saw quite a lot of the site but we were all pretty knackered so we found a place to admire the view and chill out in the sunshine.
After our free time we got the bus from Machu Picchu down to Aguas Calientes and had lunch there and then back to Ollantaytambo on the train. The train was fantastic, it had a partial glass roof and they gave out snacks and drinks. None of this mattered to most of us as we fell asleep.
From Ollantaytambo we had the very long journey back to Cuzco on the bus which seemed to take forever. The views were great though as always in Peru.
Back at the hotel we checked in, got washed up and headed downstairs for food and drink to celebrate our journey.
The overall experience of the Inca Trail is amazing, but what makes this trip extra special is the people you share it with. Being a single traveller can have its ups and downs but I thoroughly enjoyed spending the week with these guys and couldn’t have imagined better people to share this experience with.
It’s a tough trek and it is clearly underestimated by some, but keeping your head up and laughing through it is the best thing to do, otherwise the entire trip will be ruined. Some days it rains and you don’t get to see anything, and for the most part that’s what we got, bad weather and poor visibility so we didn’t get to see everything. However after 4 days hard work we got lucky on the last day, the day that what really mattered. From my travels I have met a lot of people doing this trek or just taking the train and bus up, and some of the photos you can’t see Machu Picchu at all, it’s the risk you take in the mountains. So go to enjoy the experience and to say you have done it!