Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Other than our roundtrip plane tickets to South America, our hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was the ONLY thing we’ve booked ahead for our trip. And honestly, it was the only thing we found that we needed to book beforehand. The real Inca Trail books up several months in advance (only 200 tourists are allowed on the trail each day). There are other options for getting to Machu Picchu (train and several other trek options including Lares, Jungle, etc.), but the Inca Trail is the most sought after.
Machu Picchu is the “Lost City of the Incas.” It was named one of the Seven New World Wonders in 2007. The city was built by the Incas in the 1400’s and was believed to have taken 50 to 60 years to construct. Sadly, the Incas had to abandon Machu Picchu when the Spanish began conquering the Incan empire. (I swear the Spanish just wanted to conquer everything). The Spanish never discovered Machu Picchu, luckily, so the city was largely intact. The Inca Trail is about 26 miles of the Incan road system that was used for transportation between the empire – it’s now a popular 4 or 5-day hike that ends in Machu Picchu. The entire Incan road system consisted of over 25,000 miles and went from Quito, Ecuador to Mendoza, Argentina. It was the most advanced Pre-Columbian road system in South America.
With several months of anticipation, I was a bit intimidated by the Inca Trail. Many people told us how tough of a hike it was. I ran the Richmond marathon before we left to help me get in shape for this trip, but that was almost 6 months ago. And I’m not used to exerting myself at such a high altitude. I was pretty worried I would be struggling.
Visiting Machu Picchu is on many peoples’ bucket lists. So I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who plan to go – I won’t reveal all of the details. I will say it’s spectacular, tough but totally worth it. The climbs were steep, but bearable. If it was an easy hike then it would have been boring and unrewarding. I felt completely prepared even though I hadn’t been doing any running or gym workouts lately (just plenty of walking and some hiking).
One of the many cool things about the Inca Trail is that there are Incan ruins along the way. These ruins are smaller and lead up to Machu Picchu as the grand finale. The views and large variety of surroundings and vegetation are absolutely spectacular. It was amazing to me to see the over 26 miles of stones and trail that the Incas had created hundreds of years ago. I can’t even imagine how long it must have taken to construct the thousands of steep, rock stairs.
If you want to see people that are in phenomenal shape – it’s the chaskies who carry all of our food, tents, cooking gear, and other items. Many people call them porters but our guide Juan told us to call them “chaskies.” “Porters” can be an offensive term that associates these hard-working men with mules. The chaskies are unbelievable. They are supposed to carry “only” 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds) but a lot of their packs looked heavier than that. One guy had a whole propane tank on his pack along with a bunch of other items. The chaskies literally run up and down the steep, rocky, often slippery stone stairs, many in their sandals or converse sneakers. By the time we arrived at our next camping spot, they had our tents and tables set-up and a several-course, delicious meal prepared.
But things weren’t all smooth for us. When he was least expecting it, Bryan woke up at 3 a.m. violently vomiting on the last morning of our hike. The final day is the main event of the hike – we wake up at 4 a.m. to finally arrive to the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu for sunrise. Poor Bryan. He had been looking forward to this for as long as I can remember. 🙁 Somehow he struggled through the rest of the hike and even managed to take some gorgeous photos. He was sick on and off all day.
Machu Picchu is beyond belief. It’s a vast, intricately designed rock city. I can’t even fathom how they were able to construct such a place, especially in the 15th century. Juan explained the complex system they had of bringing the enormous boulders and rocks from the quarry and splitting and connecting them. Some of the rocks that they transported weighed as much as 80 tons! The Incan style of architecture is much more impressive than the cheaply constructed homes we have today. The stones are so carefully pieced together that there is no need for mortar in between. They sized the stones to fit together exactly, like puzzle pieces. The style of rock building depicts the hierarchy of the buildings being constructed; the perfectly pieced together stones were used in the religious and astronomical buildings. The steepness of the surrounding mountains and the vastness of the green fertile valley was also breathtaking. We wondered what would possess the Incas to construct their enormous rock city on such steep cliffs.
There is one downside of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The last thing I felt like doing on our final day was climbing any more stone stairs. I wanted to explore all of Machu Picchu but my legs didn’t want to climb another step. Unfortunately, Machu Picchu is filled with countless sets of stairs. At that point, they looked more painful than impressive to me.
We were fortunate to be able to switch our train ticket to come back to Cusco the day we finished our trek. We had originally planned to stay overnight in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes but had heard bad reviews. The place is an overpriced, cheesy tourist town. Cusco, on the other hand, is probably my favorite South American city (so far). The city is quaint, clean, and filled with history, stone buildings, and peaceful parks and plazas. I especially loved Plaza de Armas with its two large stone cathedrals, a large fountain surrounded by a rainbow of flowers, and tons of restaurants, pubs, and shops. Just be prepared to say “No Gracias” all day to the constant flow of local people trying to sell you things. In honor of the Fogarty Family, we made sure to visit the World’s Highest Irish Pub (Paddy’s located in Plaza de Armas).
The food in Cusco is some of the best we’ve had in South America. I’m just not tempted by all of the guinea pig (“coy”), alpaca, and llama they serve. Some restaurants even have large guinea pig castles with them out to view before they are cooked. 🙁 The Cusco Cathedral even has an enormous painting of “The Last Supper” with Jesus and the disciples preparing to feast on guinea pig!
Another unexpected thing about Cusco is the enormous amount of Volkswagen bugs throughout the city. They were everywhere! Some streets and parking lots had several in a row. I made the mistake of initiating the “punch buggy” game with Bryan and ended up with bruises on my arm. We counted over 30 within a few hours.
The nearby Sacred Valley is another reason to love Cusco (just avoid the big, cheesy tours with guides who claim to speak English but really can’t). The fertile Andean valley is surrounded by steep, enormous green peaks and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The hills are covered with intricate terrace systems that were built by the Incas and are still used today for growing crops. The valley produces a variety of crops, including thousands of varieties of potatoes. There are plenty of impressive Incan ruins to see in the Valley including Pisac and Ollantaytambo (they are a good warm-up for Machu Picchu). Many tours include a trip to the town of Chinchero where the women still use natural sources (flowers, plants, lichens, etc.) to dye their handmade alpaca, sheep, and llama wool. They then hand-weave the colorful yarn into intricate designs.
The highlight of Bryan’s time in the Sacred Valley was Chicha – a traditional, homemade Andean corn “beer” in Peru. Bryan had heard about the odd drink years ago and wanted to try it. Some people (including many we saw) still begin the chicha’s fermentation process by chewing on the corn and then spitting it into a bowl. A batch needs to ferment for a few days. When a batch is ready, the Peruvians display a big pole with red plastic or other material outside to let people know. We found a mud hut in Pisac with an old woman selling her chicha. It’s usually only .50 or 1 sole for a huge glass (about 20 – 40 cents US). The chicha has a sort of lemony, sour taste (it doesn’t taste like beer). Chicha must be an acquired taste, especially with the thought of the women chewing and spitting the corn. Bryan was pretty pleased that he could experience it in such an authentic atmosphere.
We found a fantastic hostel in Cusco called Adventure Brew Cusco. It’s brand-new, affordable, extremely clean (they clean your room and change your sheets everyday) and they serve pancakes with chocolate for breakfast. What else could you possibly need?
We leave the comforts of Cusco this evening on a 21-hour bus ride to Lima. We will be spending a couple days in Lima before flying to Easter Island. Our time in South America is quickly coming to an end. Less than a month until we return to Virginia for a little breather!
– There are only 500 people (including chaskies) allowed to begin the Inca Trail each day
-The Inca Trail is closed for maintenance in February
-Buy or rent hiking poles (wooden ones for purchase are the best deal around)
-Prepare for possible altitude (or other types of) sickness – plan for the worst, hope for the best! Plan to spend at least a few days acclimating to the altitude in Cusco before your hike.
-Bring snacks – they are expensive along the way and it would have been nice to have a Snickers or something for a burst of energy between meals
-Bring rain gear and rent/pack a warm sleeping bag (the rainy season is from November to March)