Hiking the Inca Trail is one of the best experiences in Peru. Curious about what to expect? Read on for an account of my adventure…
Hiking the Inca Trail
Whilst Hiram Bingham’s words were specifically about Machu Picchu, he could just have easily been describing the Inca Trail, which is the most famous hike in South America (and, arguably, the world). And it’s for good reason; the Andean landscape mesmerise at every turn and, certainly, you’d be hard pressed to find a hike with a more spectacular finish. The trail follows the Ancient route of the Inca between the Sacred Valley and Machu. Although the main part of the trail is only 39km in length, the altitude, combined with the ups and downs over the lofty Andean passes, makes it a tough one.
~ Hiking the Inca Trail ~
For travellers with the luxury of time, some of the longer options, which can take the best part of 1-2 weeks might be of interest. This National Geographic article helpfully summarises them. After discovering my own love of hiking in Nepal, I would love to return to Peru one day to take on one of the longer treks.
For those visiting Peru for the first time who are planning on seeing as much of the country as possible, a shorter hike might be more convenient. This was the case on my trip, so I opted for the El Camino trek: a one day hike, which culminates with the magnificence of Machu Picchu. I would recommend walking the abridged version of the Inca Trail at the very least. It’s very rewarding to arrive at Machu Picchu after a hard day (or days) of trekking. Something that an arrival by bus cannot possibly replicate.
For a more practical guide to the walking Inca Trail and visiting Machu Picchu, I’ll have separate articles coming shortly. My experiences along the Inca Trail remain some of my fondest memories from my travels over the years. For an overview of my experience and a little taster of what to expect when hiking the Inca Trail, read on below…
~ An early start ~
The harsh tones of an alarm jolted me out of deep sleep. A tired glance at my phone revealed the ungodly hour: 3:20am. Rolling over and going back to sleep seemed like the only sensible course of action. Then I remembered the reason for the early alarm – in fourteen hours or so, I’d be gazing upon Machu Picchu. With that I forced myself from the warmth of my bed, ready to experience the day’s adventures.
The drive, which takes us from our hotel in Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, to Ollantaytambo was a vague blur as I drifted in and out of sleep. We arrived with the first light, the Indigo silhouette of the Inca Rail train waiting for us. Proper introductions were had before we climbed onto the train. Our group was 8 plus our guide, Carlos. It’s small and personal.
~ The Inca Rail ~
The train travels alongside the Urubamba river, which cuts through a steep valley in the Andes foothills. On one side, a near vertical green wall flashes by, whilst on the other side we catch glimpses of the flowing river. At kilometre 106 we come to an abrupt halt; it was our stop. There was no platform to speak of; only a narrow grassy area alongside the tracks. We hopped off the train, ready to begin the hike.
~ A lost world ~
Already the scenery is pretty special. Feeling like I’ve stepped back into a prehistoric world, I marvel at the steep sides of the valley, draped in lush, tropical vegetation. Above me, low hanging clouds obscure the tops of the verdant Andean foothills. I’m almost surprised that a pterodactylus doesn’t materialise out of the mist. All the while the air is filled with the roar of the Urubamba’s white water rapids. We search out and cross a bridge, ready to take our first footsteps along the ancient trail.
Many historians believe that the Incas built the trail as a right of pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. Having walked a section of the trail its easy to see why; after a hard, sweaty day of hiking I felt worthy to gaze on the splendour of Machu Picchu. As we walk in the footsteps of the Inca, I can’t help but admire their ingenuity for all things construction. Considering the passing of time since the construction of the trail, the preservation of the stone path is remarkable.
We spend most of the morning walking up hill and, as the sun continues to rise, the air becomes hotter and stickier. This is my first experience of altitude, which carries a strange sensation of never quite being able to get enough oxygen, no matter how deep the breath. I’m in awe of the energy and ability of the porters who dash past us from time to time. I doubt I could make fifty uphill paces at their speed (and that’s without the bags they are carrying).
~ Forever Young ~
After a tasty lunch, Carlos takes us off on a detour to check out some nearby ruins. Wiñay Wayna means ‘forever young’, ironic given that I was feeling every one of my 31 years thanks to the morning’s uphill hike. A nondescript sign of ‘Wiñay Wayna’ marks the beginning of a narrow trail through the trees. I imagine it would be easy to overlook and miss. Especially for those on a longer iteration of the trail, what with the reward of Machu Picchu being only a few kilometres way. Those who take the time to check out Wiñay Wayna are in line for a treat.
I had no idea what to expect; earlier that morning I hadn’t even heard of Wiñay Wayna. After following the narrow path for 10 minutes or so the ground fell away as we emerged onto the side of a valley. There before us was the most pleasant surprise: unmistakeably Incan terraces tracing the concave curve of the steep valley side.
The majestic first glimpse of Wińay Wayna
The site is split into two tiers, with a circular stone structure and terracing at the top. A vertigo-inducing stairway, flanked by a thin stone water way, leads to the lower tier. At the bottom is a cluster of stone buildings with pointed walls, like daggers ready to be thrust upwards. Aside from the absence of the long lost thatched roofs, the buildings are remarkably well preserved. Given the Inca’s simple tools, the remoteness of the site and the steep gradient of the valley, it’s a remarkable feat of engineering. The Inca were master builders.
Right now, everything is awesome. I take some time to sit and attempt to take it all in because I am awed by everything about this site. Wiñay Wayna would be a worthy crescendo to the hike and its hard to imagine something surpassing this. But very soon, that’s exactly what will happen.
Clockwise from top-left: the well preserved buildings of Wińay Wayna; epic views across the valley; magnificent Inca terracing
~ The Sun Gate ~
Aside from an occasional break to rehydrate or take a photo, the next 3km breeze past. We’ve stopped for a water break as Carlos announces that the next section of uphill steps will bring us to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. Excitement and adrenalin propel me onwards and upwards. In my mind’s eye I can see the postcard perfect view: looking down over Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu rising behind. I’m buzzing with excitement a I step through the stone columns and brace myself for the view. Waves of disappointment roll over me.
Machu Picchu is still some 1.8km in the distance. At this time of the day, the sun’s light is harsh and the view is hazy. Even so, I take some photos but am unenthused with the results. The light is all wrong. The Sun Gate itself was the final checkpoint on the route to Machu Picchu. As with a lot of the Inca sites, the stone columns remain well preserved. We take a break on yet more of that Inca terracing and snack down on a packed lunch.
Not quite what I’d had in mind for my first glimpse of Machu Picchu
~ Machu Picchu ~
The sugary boost from a piece of cake lifts my spirts and we set off on the final part of the trail; a relaxing sixty minute stroll downhill. Due to the curvature of the valley side, we soon lose site of Machu Picchu. Every so often there are fleeting glimpses of the ancient citadel through the trees. Machu Picchu is slowly getting closer, and it’s tantalising.
As we reach the end of our pilgrimage, afternoon is giving way to early evening. Most of the day’s visitors have departed and things have quietened down. The sun’s golden hue take hold as the shadows lengthen across grass, which is neatly manicured by a roaming team of alpaca. But for those four legged inhabitants, Machu Picchu is all but deserted. A hush falls across the small crowd of travellers who, like me, stand in awe. I see that a number of jaws have dropped.
I always wonder whether a super popular tourist attraction will live up to the hype. Where Machu Picchu is concerned, it’s hard to do it justice with mere words and pictures – its setting is unparalleled. It rests, seemingly impossibly, on top of a plateau with severe drops down to the valley floor. Far below, the Urubamba’s curved meander wraps Machu Picchu’s base in a round embrace. Beyond this is a most stunning backdrop – the emerald Andean foothills wreathed in cloud. It’s everything I could have imagined and much, much more. You’ve got to experience Machu Picchu in person to appreciate its magnificence – it is the most incredible reward for hiking the Inca Trail.
Thinking of hiking the Inca Trail, or have you already experienced this marvellous adventure? Either way, let me know below…