Wow. The Inca Trail is one of the world’s most recognised treks, and having successfully traversed it we can see why.
We booked our trip with an operator called Alpaca Expeditions due to a combination of good reviews and the fact that they solely provided trips to Machu Picchu and a couple of other places close to Cusco – rather than being an agency doing multiple trips across the continent. We felt this would likely mean they would be focused on excelling at the one thing they did, and in hindsight we think we were right. They gave us a useful briefing the night before we began, as well as providing a helpful kit of ponchos, duffel bag for 4 days worth of stuff and bag covers for the inevitable rain. Lauren was naturally thrilled by the bright green…
We picked the ‘Classic’ Inca Trail trek. 4 days, 3 nights. Our guide Henri – apparently the great-grandson of the very first Machu Picchu tour guide – explained that this was the route traditionally taken by royalty upon pilgrimage to the Inca capital. Alpaca Expeditions’ website also gives a great overview of the day to day itinerary, so that we don’t have to write it out in full here!
For our part, as early on as the KM82 starting point, we were glad that we’d been staying at altitude already on the trip, as it became clear that the battle against altitude sickness was going to play a big part in how easily the trek could be managed.
The battle to breathe whilst climbing uphill provided a constant reminder of the impressive stamina of our porters, who lugged packs of up to 30kg along the trail way faster than any of us could manage even with only our little daypacks to carry. We were astounded at their ability to run past us after breaking down our camp so they could make it to our next spot before us. Our guide Henri explained that Alpaca had actually been started by an ex-porter five year previous so he knew exactly what the job was and ensured all the porters, guides and chefs were kitted out with great equipment (think branded North Face jackets and good hiking boots). Some agencies really don’t take care of their porters so we were glad to be supporting a company that’s clearly a sought after place to work!
Back to the trek – it transpired that those 30kg bags didn’t just contain us tourists gear, but also enough equipment and food to make incredible meals. We were expecting a lot of rice and beans – what we got was more on par with restaurants in Cusco. Some examples: sesame fried chicken, jungle potatoes, fried fish, nachos with guacamole, pizza, mango ceviche, a CAKE (actually, two cakes!)… and there was always too much to eat.
The difficult parts of the trek came in waves. Day 1 was hard in ways because we weren’t prepared for it, despite it being relatively flat and short (only 6 hours walking or so…). We had been warned about Day 2 – an 11 hour slog including the so-called ‘Gringo-Killer’ path up to the highest altitude of the trail at around 4215m – Dead Woman’s Pass.
We also had to combat wildly changeable weather. The Inca Trail itself includes 8 separate microclimates, which can drive you insane as you pull off your jumper 5 minutes before requiring your raincoat.
The microclimates tended to be associated with the various scenery, which was amazingly diverse. We moved from riverside paths, through barren mountainsides, across waterfalls, to humid jungle terrain.
No matter what terrain though, there was always some company…
And, of course, there were signs of Inca civilisation everywhere. Each day included stops at one Inca site or the other, ranging from lookout towers and farming communities to full-blown towns. Whilst they were wildly different in scale and purpose, they all shared absolutely stunning locations and views.
Every single corner of the trek required a moment to stop and appreciate your surroundings. The highlight may have been the ancient rounded staircase in the jungle, or the ‘mini Machu Picchu’ of Wiñay Wayna. It’s hard to say.
To make sure that we got the best experience of Machu Picchu possible, Day 4 was chaotic. Waking at 2:50am to rush to be first in line at the jungle checkpoint, before a mad dash to the Sun Gate from where we didn’t quite get our first views of the wonder (it’s called the Cloud Forest for a reason!). When we did arrive, busloads of tourists who had taken the morning train had already beaten us there.
Unsurprisingly then, the days of isolation on the Inca Trail preceding Machu Picchu were our favourite. The sense of accomplishment of those days was diminished somewhat by the (totally irrational) resentment for people who ended up in the same location anyway! Still though, hard to be too upset with this view…
After a two hour tour of the site in which the weather changed another 4 or 5 times, we made our way down via bus to Aguas Calientes where Alpaca had organised a restaurant for lunch and gave us our train tickets for the journey back to Cusco. They were pretty organised with picking us up in a minivan when we got to Cusco and dropping us back to our hostels where we promptly ate a McDonalds (!!), had a hot shower and watched (well, Lauren watched, Ben fell asleep) a Christmas Eve midnight fireworks show light up the Cusco Hills.
We’re still recovering.