05 October 2018

Sunrise at Machu Picchu: My Four-Day Inca Trail Trek

Note: this is a long post, including my reflections on the four-day Inca Trail trek with Llama Path, and practical information on planning and packing. I hope you find this useful; please feel free to leave questions in the comments.

“This is ‘Inca flat’,” our guide Aiben tells us wryly as we walk along a rocky path with a moderate uphill incline. The Incas were made of extremely stern stuff, we soon learn. A Franco-German family and I are trekking the 26.5-mile stretch of the Inca Trail that runs from km 82, near Ollantaytambo, all the way to Machu Picchu, the stunningly well-preserved Incan site discovered accidentally by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. 'Inca' originally referred only to the king or ruler, and the trail we are following is one used by the emperor Pachacuti and his entourage when journeying to his ‘summer house’ at Machu Picchu.

Visiting Machu Picchu is one of main reasons people come to Peru and it has been on my bucket list for some time. Although you can take a day trip from Cusco or, more easily, from Aguas Calientes, I wanted to immerse myself more fully in the experience and take what is known as the classic Inca Trail trek, which involves three full days of trekking, three nights’ camping and a final, early-morning push to Intipunku: the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu.

Over 150 companies are licensed to run Inca Trail treks and the choice can be overwhelming. After some research, I decide to go with Llama Path, a Cusco-based company that prides itself on being a responsible and sustainable tourism company. They treat their porters — who haul all of the camping and cooking equipment along the way — very well, including by providing a boarding house for them in Cusco and taking them on a holiday once a year. They are environmentally conscious too: in four days, the only single-use plastic we see is the wrapper for one of our snacks. In addition, I have heard that Llama Path’s food is plentiful and good, the guides knowledgable and the trips well organised.

The Peruvian government only allows 500 passes to access the Inca Trail per day (including trekkers, guides and porters), which means you need to book well in advance, especially during high season (July and August). I opt to go in September to avoid the worst of the crowds while — hopefully — enjoying the good weather that usually comes during the cold but sunny ‘dry season’, which runs from April until October. I book my place in January, paying half of the $695 fee as a deposit. The fee includes transportation to and from Cusco, guide and porter services, meals, tent and other camping kit, and entrance fees to the trail and to Machu Picchu. I also pay extra to rent a sleeping bag, air mattress and two hiking poles; for half a porter (7 kg) to carry my personal belongings; and for a ticket to climb the Huayna Picchu mountain that overlooks the Machu Picchu site. In total, this comes to about $950.

Pre-trek briefing
Inca Trail hikers are advised to arrive in Cusco at least three to four days before their hike, a) to acclimatise to the altitude and minimise the risks of altitude sickness and b) in case any strikes, blockades or adverse conditions require an earlier departure. I get to Cusco three days before my trek and pay the balance of my bill at the Llama Path office. The evening before, I return to the office for a briefing with my guide and to meet the rest of my group.

I am expecting up to 15 other people in the group but there are just four of us. As a solo traveller, I am nervous about being in a smaller group — partly because in a small group, it can feel as though you are crashing another party’s holiday and partly because there’s a greater risk of not finding anyone else who walks at the same pace. I needn’t have worried as my group-mates are great: a French guy about my age, his German wife and his French mother. We get on well and walk at about the same pace. The ratio of porters is higher in small groups (so you will need to factor in more money for tips), but we have Aiben, our guide, to ourselves, so it is like being on a private tour. Our small size also makes us more nimble — we are ready to leave more promptly each morning and with fewer people to wait for at each break or viewpoint, we stay well ahead of schedule.

After running through the plan for the next four days and answering all of our questions, Aiben gives us each a duffle bag for our personal belongings and asks us to meet at Plaza Regocijo the following morning at 4:30 am. I ask how much money to bring — to cover breakfast on the first day, lunch on the last day, snacks and toilets (sold and provided by local people on the first day of the trek; there are free public toilets, of varying quality, along the rest of the trail), and (optional) tips for the porters and guide. He suggests bringing around 600 soles, but this would also cover unexpected emergencies. I end up spending about 400 soles in total. NB: try to bring small notes and coins if possible as change can be hard to come by.

Day 1
I don't sleep well the night before; I am excited and more than a little nervous. But I doze for a while on the Llama Path coach that takes us to km 82, via a visit to the porters’ dormitory and a breakfast stop near Ollantaytambo. Finally, we arrive at the starting point, and after getting ready, we show our passports and tickets at the checkpoint and then, at 8:30 am, we are off!

Everyone walks the same route on the classic Inca Trail, but different groups stop for lunch or to sleep at different campsites. Llama Path’s strategy is to have a longer day one, a steep (but less steep than for most other groups) day two, and a shorter day three, allowing for more rest on the third day, ahead of the 3:00 am wake-up call on day four. We are the first group to leave, which means we don't see any other trekkers all day, although we see their porters hurrying past. Our first day is hot and sunny — the sun remains throughout, although at higher altitudes, it grows cooler — with some introductory steep sections to help ease us in to hiking. We marvel at the views, including of our first Inca site, Llactapata ('elevated place'), and stop for lunch at Wayllabamba at noon. Our chef has created a three-course feast (a characteristic of most meals on the trek), involving chicken ceviche, soup, rice, avocado, fish and various other dishes. The food is filling and very tasty. Afterwards, we nap in the sun for a few minutes on the grass outside. Stage one: complete!

The climb up to our campsite is fairly steep and quite long, but Aiben reminds us that most groups will have to do this the following day, as well as the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass and Second Pass. We make good time and arrive at our campsite by 4 pm. The porters have already set up camp, so we settle into our tents, wash up (the porters give us a bowl of hot water and a towel), change clothes and relax. Llama Path provides one four-person tent per two people; you can pay a single-tent supplement if you don’t want to share. I don't upgrade but as we are only four and one person has paid the single supplement, I get a two-person tent to myself. The tent is weatherproof, my sleeping bag warm and the air mattress comfortable.

At 5:30 pm, we meet for tea in our dining tent. Every day, this includes a hot drink, popcorn (yes!) and another snack. We sit and chat, discussing the plan for the next day, and then it is dinner time. Time for another three-course feast! As we have had a long day and will wake up at 5:00 am, we retire to our tents at about 7:30 pm. I read for an hour or so and promptly fall asleep. I was worried about battery life for my phone, watch and camera, so I have brought a couple of compact chargers. It turns out, however, that if you keep your phone on airplane mode and low-power mode, it will still be at close to 80% battery charge even at the end of the day.

Day 2
In the morning, it is chilly but we warm up with coca tea, brought to us in our tents by the porters, and then chocolate pancakes. I also brew some coffee in my Espro Ultralight Press (I ground and bagged three servings back in Cusco). We are back on the trail by 6:10 am, rapidly shedding our top layer as we warm up. We are expecting a steep four-hour climb to Dead Woman’s Pass — at 4,215 metres, the highest point of the Inca Trail — but arrive at 9:00 am. It is a cool but clear day and with brief but regular breaks, we are able to catch our breath enough to continue. Chewing some coca leaves and having the opportunity to get up close and personal with a dozen or so llamas also boosts our morale.

Dead Woman’s Pass is so named because viewed from afar, it resembles a supine woman. Regarded as a ‘gringo killer’, it is hugely motivating to know that we have conquered the toughest part of the trek so early on our second day. We take some photos, including with our ‘red army’ of porters, who are an incredibly hard-working and tough bunch.

Then comes almost two hours of downhill steps. We lengthen our hiking poles and grit our teeth for the knee-jarring descent. I soon realise that I prefer the uphill sections, where I don't have to concentrate so hard on every step I took to make sure I don't lose my footing. On the way down, we do at least come across the cleanest toilets on the Inca Trail. That being said, all but one of the trail toilets I encounter are acceptable.

We break for lunch at the bottom at Pacaymayu, where most groups will pitch their tents for the night. We stay for lunch, before commencing climb number two to the Second Pass (4,000 metres). We stop on the way up at Runkuraqay, an Inca site named for its egg shape. Then we power on to the top, which has spectacular views back to Dead Woman’s Pass and over to the cloud forest valley into which we will soon be descending.

Soon it is time to re-lengthen our hiking poles for another downhill section, via the Inca site Sayaqmarka ('inaccessible place', rather aptly), to our campsite for the second night, Chaqicocha. After tea and popcorn, we have dinner at 6 pm, and I do a bit of star-gazing. Referring back to my lesson at the Cusco Planetarium, I can make out the Milky Way and Scorpius, but without a tripod, my photos are all blurry. Once again, I am sound asleep by 8:30 pm.

Day 3
We wake up slightly later — and colder — than planned, at around 5:20 am; nonetheless, we are off again at 6:25 am. Our first destination is the Third Pass (3,680 metres), which takes just over an hour. It is a moderate uphill climb ('Inca flat'), although nothing compared to the previous day. Now that we are in the cloud forest, it is amazing to see how much the vegetation has changed: there are dozens of orchids, countless moss species that collect and release water, and I even spot a coffee plant.

At the Third Pass, there are panoramic views into the valleys and over to nearby glaciers — and a few friendly llamas, one of whom allows me to cuddle him. It is fascinating to watch the clear sky rapidly become opaque with clouds, only for the clouds to dissipate as fast as they have formed.

It is another steep climb down to the Phuyupatamarka Inca site ('cloud-level town), where it is possible — clouds permitting — to see Machu Picchu mountain. Aiben outlines some history of the site and of the Incans more generally, and then we continue on to a second site, Intipata ('sun place'), with impressive agricultural terraces. We lie on the soft grass and take a few jumping photos (they are banned in Machu Picchu, which is already sinking slightly).

Soon, we reach our final campsite, Wiñaywayna. It's 11:30 am and there is a llama welcome party! This campsite is large — all groups camp here on the final day, although most arrive later. We have lunch (featuring birds intricately fashioned from cucumbers and courgettes) and then visit the nearby Wiñawayna Inca site ('forever young'), also known as 'Mini Machu Picchu', where we experience a brief rain shower — our only precipitation of the trip. We climb down the terraces, admiring the view of the Urubamba valley, and then visit the nearby waterfall before hiking back up.

The rain has stopped by then and we have an hour to relax in our tents before tea time. Wiñawayna has the cleanest bathrooms so far and cold showers, but we decide to stick to the makeshift 'tent showers' using our hot water bowls. For tea, as well as popcorn, the chef has somehow magicked up a chocolate cake. It is delicious, which means I don't eat as much of my dinner as I would have liked. After dinner, we say thank you and goodbye to the porters, and present them with our tips (I always find these ‘ceremonies’ excruciatingly awkward, even though our porters absolutely deserve every sol).

Day 4
The alarm goes off at 3:00 am, and we are en route at 3:15 am. We don't eat breakfast or even visit to the bathroom as we only have five minutes to walk: to the gate to Machu Picchu park. The gate opens at 5:20 am, but as we are first in the queue, we get seats on a bench under a shelter (handy if it’s raining, although it isn't) and will probably also reach the Sun Gate — where you can catch your first glimpse of the Machu Picchu site — first. We take it in turns to visit the bathrooms, and a porter brings us breakfast sandwiches, snacks and coca tea. I am very grateful for the coffee I prepared the night before in my Espro Press.

Shortly before 5:20, we strip off our top layers and do a few star jumps to warm up. Then the gate opens, Aiben signs us in and in we go. The path is fairly flat, with a few steep and/or precarious moments. Worried about being overtaken by another group, I jog on the flat parts, not stopping to take off more layers. Just before Intipunku (the Sun Gate) is an exceptionally steep flight of steps known as the ‘gringo killer’. I press on, hoping I haven't used up too much energy.

But by 6:00 am, the four of us and Aiben are revelling in the magical views of Machu Picchu with a pink-tinged sky in the background. I worried about cloud cover, but the site and mountains are perfectly clear. We take a few photos — and enjoy a few minutes of being the only people there, before the other groups begin to arrive. It is a unique and special moment.

It’s another 30 minutes to Machu Picchu central. We take what Aiben calls the ‘postcard’ Machu Picchu photos and then leave the site to drop off our backpacks, eat our snacks, use the nicest bathroom in four days, and add the Machu Picchu stamp to our passports. Just before 8:00 am, we go back in for our two-hour guided tour of the site with Aiben. It is already starting to get busy and by noon, when I leave, the place is rammed.

At 10:00 am, I have a date with Huayna Picchu, the mountain I have paid extra to climb. Aiben assures me I’ll be at the top in 30-40 minutes, which is accurate, despite the precariousness of the climb and the traffic jams behind climbers ill-equipped — physiologically and practically — for what is a tough climb. There is a 10-minute queue to have your photo taken at the very top, but the views are well worth the wait and the climb. There are even more bottlenecks on the way down and the descent takes almost an hour. On exiting the Huayna Picchu site you can continue to explore Machu Picchu, but I have to meet my group in Aguas Calientes, so after taking a few moments to reflect on everything I have just done, I make my way to the exit

Buses to Aguas Calientes leave frequently ($12 one way; our ticket is included in the cost of the trek) but the queue is long and I have to wait about 30 minutes. It is a bumpy, 25-minute ride down the snaking road to Aguas Calientes. I meet my group at our appointed restaurant — the food is fine, service OK and prices on the high side, but I suspect every other restaurant is the same. I finally take my phone off airplane mode and let my family know I am OK. I am surprised by how unwelcome I find the return to civilisation — digitally and otherwise. We take the 2:55 pm tourist class train to Ollantaytambo (comfortable and with big windows and air conditioning). We get into Ollantaytambo at 5:00 pm and take a bus to Cusco, arriving at 7:30 pm. After I check back in to my hotel, my priorities are: shower (so good!), food, re-packing (I have an early bus to Puno in the morning) and well-earned sleep.

I relished every single moment of the Inca Trail. I learned a huge amount about the history of the trail, the Incas and the region. It was fascinating to watch the ecosystems change so dramatically with altitude along the way. We saw many different plants, birds, insects and animals, from hummingbirds and ‘baby condors’, to butterflies, llamas and orchids. I also enjoyed the opportunity to push myself to do something challenging, although it wasn’t as difficult as I was expecting. And other than a few insect bites, it wasn’t painful; my legs didn’t ache the following day and I didn’t get blisters (thanks, Cotswold Outdoor, for fitting me with these Merrell walking boots). The route wasn’t as wild as I was expecting — we saw a few hamlets on the first day, and after that there were regular campsites with running water (if not sit-down toilets).

We were also extremely lucky with the weather. The nights were cold but the days were clear and often sunny and it only rained briefly one afternoon when we had already deposited our day packs in our tents. I brought my raincoat, a cheap plastic poncho and diverse plastic bags just in case. I also brought more clothes than I needed (see my packing list below), but I think that's preferable to running out of dry clothing.

My top 5 Inca Trail moments 
  • Being the first group to reach the Sun Gate and savouring those first, magical views of Machu Picchu
  • Reaching Dead Woman's Pass in glorious sunshine and ahead of schedule
  • Llama cuddles at the Third Pass 
  • Our awesome guide Aiben, who ran a great trek
  • All of the amazing meals created by our Llama Path chef and porters

My top 5 Inca Trail tips
  • Enjoy being completely offline for four days — I had no cellular signal until Machu Picchu, but it was nice to switch off
  • Keep your camera handy at all times — you never know when you’ll spot a llama, or another great photo opp.
  • Bring an inflatable pillow, sleep mask and ear plugs for optimum sleep; some of the camp sites — particularly Wiñaywayna — get busy and thus noisy.
  • Hire half a personal porter, rent two hiking poles and wear walking boots rather than running shoes; your ankles and knees will thank you, particularly on the downhill sections.
  • If you are a coffee geek, bring your own coffee-making kit. I brought my Espro Ultralight Press and some baggies of pre-weighed coffee I ground back in Cusco.

My Inca Trail packing list

For a full list of packing tips, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel, but here are my particular suggestions for the Inca Trail:
  • Passport — you can’t get on the trail or into Machu Picchu without it.
  • Money — our guide suggested that about 600 soles in small notes and coins should be more than enough (I ended up spending about 400 soles in total, mostly on tips). I kept a couple of credit cards with me just in case.
  • Day pack — Patagonia Women's Refugio 26L.
  • Tiny Quechua 10L ultra-compact backpack (I used this on day three during our rainy visit to Wiñaywayna, and at Machu Picchu when I’d checked my main backpack).
  • 1-litre collapsible water bottle, plus a 650 ml plastic bottle to go in the fabric bottle-holder I bought in Cusco to wear over my shoulders — this is a good idea if you don’t have an ‘octopus’ as it makes it easier to take sips of water without taking off your pack. The porters refilled our bottles with boiled water several times per day.
  • Sleeping bag, air mattress and two hiking poles (rented from Llama Path).
  • Walking boots — Merrell Women's MQM Flex Mid GTX (light and incredibly comfortable — I didn't get a single blister).
  • Trainers — I brought these to wear around camp but as my feet felt fine, I could have done. without. I didn’t bring flip flops as I didn’t fancy braving the camp loos without closed-toed shoes. 
  • Clothes — two pairs of leggings, three short-sleeved tops, two sports bras, three pairs of hiking socks, four pairs of underwear, a fitted long-sleeved Lululemon running jacket, Patagonia Micro Puff jacket, Mac in a Sac, plastic poncho, jersey scarf, gloves, Alpaca wool chullo, merino wool headband (useful for hiding dirty hair as well as for extra warmth), and thermal leggings and a top to wear as PJs. It didn't rain, so I could have culled this further. 
  • Baseball cap and sunglasses. 
  • Headlamp (I brought a mini-torch too but you really need a headlamp for walking around camp after dark or early in the morning). 
  • Inflatable pillow, sleep mask (I'm a sleep mask addict, but this is my all-time favourite) and ear plugs.
  • Silk sleeping bag liner.
  • First aid kit (I brought plasters, blister plasters, ibuprofen, paracetamol, Imodium and Pepto Bismol tabs, bug spray, anti-histamine cream, antiseptic wipes, tape.
  • Loo roll — I brought about half a roll, which was more than enough — and baby wipes 
  • Minimal toiletries (moisturiser, face cleansing wipes, suncream (factor 50), deodorant, lip balm, toothbrush and paste), mini hair brush and hair bands.
  • Diverse plastic bags (to organise clothes within my duffle bag, and if needed to separate wet and dry kit) and smaller Ziploc bags to keep smaller items dry and clean.
  • Camera — I brought my Canon G7X II rather than my DSLR, partly for weight reasons and partly because the compact camera was easier to keep dry, clean and safe — and one spare battery (this was more than sufficient and I took over 600 photos).
  • iPhone and ear buds (I listened to a few podcasts during nap time), Apple Watch (for tracking distance, steps climbed and calories burned), and two portable chargers (this one and this one from Anker). As it happened, I kept my phone and watch on airplane mode and used them so little that I could have made do with just the latter.
  • Kindle Paperwhite (useful for the bus and train journeys and for downtime).
  • Small notebook and a couple of pens — for making old-school notes about the trip and other blog post writing.
  • Espro Ultralight Press and three servings of pre-weighed pre-ground coffee. 
  • Snacks — I brought a few Cliff bars, several small packs of nuts and dried fruit, and a pack of jelly sweets to reward myself at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. We were given snacks each morning and the meals were plentiful, but I was grateful to have some treats of my own. 
  • Chewing gum, ginger sweets (in case I was feeling sick) and coca sweets.

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  1. This will be so helpful with our upcoming trip in October. Thx

  2. Glad to hear that. Hope you enjoy (or have enjoyed!) your trip.