Hiking the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

Description and History

The classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a hiking trail which brings you from the 82nd kilometer marker of the Cusco Railway to Machu Picchu. It was a route of pilgrimage used by the Inca (or Emperor) in the 15th century. It is the most famous trek in South America and is rated as one of the top five treks in the world. Along the trail, you’ll trek pass Inca ruins Llactapata, Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna. 

This particular trail, which attracts many hikers today, is actually part of an extensive Inca system of trails that consists of over 23,000 km of trails that integrated many different regions of South America. It was re-discovered by Hiram Bingham between 1913 and 1915 when he was clearing fields for planting crops.

Getting Permits and Booking a Tour

The first thing we needed to do in order to hike the Inca trail was to find a tour provider. The government of Peru only allows 500 people per day to enter the Inca Trail, this includes guides and porters.  A licensed Inca Trail Tour Operator must reserve these permits for hikers. Hiking the Inca trail alone is not allowed. We chose Alpaca Expeditions as they were highly rated on Trip Advisor. Please note that permits do sell out quickly. You’ll need to go ahead and book these well in advance. We booked ours about 8 months in advance to get these dates. To check for availability on Peru’s official website, click here. The website is not the most tourist friendly, and it still requires flash. You can also check for permit availability on Alpaca Expedition’s official website. On their website there is also a live chat and other useful information. We paid a $200 USD deposit via Paypal to reserve our spot, the rest was due when we got to their office in Cusco.

Arrival in Cusco – Orientation Day

After we arrived to Cusco and settled into our hotel, we checked in with Alpaca Expedition’s office. This is when the rest of our balance was due. IMPORTANT: At check in, please remember to bring your original passport and immigration forms to provide to the Alpaca staff. Immigration forms are given to you on your flight to Peru and you will need to keep it until you leave the country. They need a copy of both to present to the government for their taxes.

The night before our trek, at 6:30PM, we returned to the office for our briefing with our trekking guide and trekking group. At this point, we were introduced to our trail guide Wilson. Wilson was one of the best trail guides as he was very descriptive and entertaining. He was extremely fluent in English and the local dialects. 

After our briefing, we were given duffel bags to pack our belongings that we didn’t need during the day – i.e. extra clothes, sleeping mats, sleeping bag, pillow, toiletries, etc. Whatever we pack in our duffel bags would be with the porters all day and not returned until we got to our camp site each night.  It is important that total weight for the duffel do not exceed 7kg/14lbs. This has been regulated by the Peruvian government to safeguard the well being of the porters. That being said, the porters still carry a lot of stuff so tip them well!

Day 1 – Cusco – Piskacucho KM 82 – Llactapata Aypata

Walking distance: 8.7 miles/14 km (6-7 hours)
Elevation Gain: 3,500 Feet / 1,066 Meters
Campsite altitude: 10,826 Feet / 3,300 meters (high) above sea level
Difficulty: Moderate day (getting used to the Inca Trail) 

On the first day, Alpaca Expeditions picked us up from our hotel in Cusco at 4:30 AM. We then drove to Km 82, and arrived there around 7:00 AM. Most of us took a long nap on this delightful shuttle ride. After we arrived, our cook prepared an awesome breakfast for us complete with scrambled eggs and other delightful pastries. This was the only time we got to enjoy fresh eggs and pastries as these do not transport well on the trail. Proceeding this we went through our first Inca Trail checkpoint to begin our trek (please make sure you have your original passport with you to enter the Inca Trail).

Getting started on our hike
Group photo in front of km82 marker, the start of the Inca Trail 

The first 2 hours of the trek were relatively easy and we made it to our first Inca site, Patallacta, which is an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. We were completely stunned by our first view of ancient Inca ruins. If you haven’t seen any before, it is quite a sight and we spent a few minutes just taking in the awesome views. Wilson gave us a few minutes to walk through the upper portion of the ruins before continuing on our trek.

Patallacta

From Patallacta, it’s another 2 hour hike to our lunch stop. This was relatively easy but with the impending rain, many of us opted to hike a little faster to get to our lunch spot.

Some of the gourmet food buffets that we had on the trail
A lot of rain on the Inca Trail as we went during the rainy season

After lunch, we hiked for another 2½ hours until we reached our first night’s campsite at Ayapata (3300 meters / 10826 feet). On this last stretch we passed through two small communities.  If you want to buy any energy drinks or snacks you can do so here, you can also buy any essential items such as batteries that you may have forgotten. We arrived at our campsite by 5:00PM and it was quite a surprise to find all of our tents and belongings had already been set up for us! We had about 2 hours to rest before dinner was served at 7:30PM.

Our porter team at the first camp
The team preparing dinner inside the chef’s tent

Since this was many of our group’s first time in the Southern Hemisphere we attempted to get some astrophotos of the night sky in the south. As you can see we managed to capture a lot of the stars and the movement at camp.

Night time at camp

Day 2 – Ayapata – Dead Woman’s Pass – Runcuraccay Pass – Chaquiccocha

Walking distance: 9.94 miles / 16 km (7-8 hours)
Elevation Gain: 4,500 Feet / 1,371 Meters 
Campsite altitude: 11811 feet / 3600 meters (high) above sea level (chilly weather)
Difficulty: Top day (you will have survived the two highest passes)
Area: Andes and Cloud Forest

The second day is the hardest day on the Inca trail, however your porters will make sure to fuel you up in the morning. They delivered us hot towels and tea in our tents as we awoke early in the morning (around 6:30 AM). From there we got to enjoy a nice hot breakfast filled with delicacies such as a fruit turkey, pancakes, and more!

Getting up for the second morning
Breakfast turkey

Following breakfast we began our hike for about 4 hours up to Dead Woman’s Pass. From the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, we spent about an hour waiting for the rest of our group to catch up and also enjoyed some hot coca leaf tea. 

Unfortunately on our ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, one of the members in our party started to exhibit extreme symptoms of altitude sickness. Wilfred had to be helped by our tour guide Wilson to reach the pass.

On the trail
Our group at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass
At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass 4,215m (13,828 ft)

Once we reached Dead Woman’s Pass we descended into the Pacayamau Valley for 1.5 hours until we reached our lunch spot. Lunch was amazing as always and very much needed after getting up and over Dead Woman’s Pass.

Backside of Dead Woman’s Pass

After lunch we continued onto Runkurakay Pass where we passed by some smaller ruins. These smaller ruins are much smaller than the cities and towns that we previously passed. Archaeologists assume this must have been a small post house where messengers relaxed after Dead Woman’s Pass and before continuing on for the rest of their journey towards Machu Picchu.

Runkurakay
Checking out the bottom of the Valley

After reaching Runkurakay Pass, it was another hour downhill hike to reach the magnificent Inca site, Sayacmarca. To get to this particular ruin we went up some steep and narrow steps cut from stone. This was the biggest ruin we explored so far and is situated on top of a rock outcropping. The ruin is separated into two parts, a fortress on top and a farming section below. 

Sayacmarca
From Sayacmarca we can see our campsite already set up in the distance

We toured Sayacmarca for about 30 minutes and hiked for another 20 mins to our campsite. Our campsite was already set up upon our arrival and the dinner was well underway as well!

Sunset in our tent

Day 3 – Chaquiccocha – Winaywayna Camp

Walking distance: 6.2 miles / 10km (5 hours)
Elevation Gain:  1200 Feet / 365 meters
Campsite altitude: 8530 Feet / 2,600 meters (high) above sea level (chilly weather)
Difficulty: Easy day – all downhill!
Area: High Cloud Forest

After our breakfast, we hiked for 2 hours along what was known as “Inca flat” (gradual inclines) and begin to enter the jungle region, known as the Cloud Forest. As we hiked, we had the opportunity to see the majesty of Salkantay, the second highest snow-capped mountain in the Sacred Valley, and a fantastic panoramic view of the Vilcabamba mountain range. Towards the end of the Inca flats we began to make our way up to the last peak at Phuyupatamarka (3600 meters / 11811 feet) which provided great views overlooking the Urubamba River.

Getting the day started right with a group picture on the trail

Unfortunately during this part of the trip, Wilfred experienced serious symptoms of high altitude sickness including a fever and shortness of breath. He was carried to the next campsite by three porters who alternated carrying him down the trail.

Wilfred being carried

On our descent, we visited 2 Inca ruins, Phuyupatamarka (Town in the Clouds) and Intipata (Terraces of the Sun).

Phuyupatamarka
Phuyupatamarka
Intipata
Our group overlooking the valley at Intipata

Once we passed the two sites, we arrived at our campsite around 1:00PM to have lunch. We then got the rest of the day to relax and hang out before we had an orientation about Machu Picchu and what to expect the next day. In the latter part of the afternoon, Wilson took us to the near by Inca ruins, Wiñay Wayna. We spent 1.5 hours there exploring the ruins. The ruin was only a short walk from our campsite and it is truly an amazing ruin, which is second to that of only Machu Picchu.

Wiñay Wayna
Another view of Wiñay Wayna

This night, the team went above and beyond on their cooking skills as they prepared a cake for one of our group member’s birthday, Cindy. They managed to scrap together a cake from the ingredients they have, and it was quite tasty as well. We were pleasantly surprised by this as we had only mentioned Cindy’s birthday through our casual conversation with Wilson during the trek.

Amazing cake prepared by our chef Alberto

Day 4 – Machu Picchu – The Lost City of the Incas / Hyuna Picchu

Walking distance: 4.5 miles/ 7.2 km (5 hours) – distance includes Hyuna Picchu
Elevation Gain: 1900 Feet / 579 Meters 
Difficulty: The most exciting and magical day (early wake up 3.30AM)
Area: High Cloud and Subtropical Forest
Weather: Hot and very humid (bring lots of water)

On the last day of our journey we had to wake up extremely early – about 3:30 AM. We woke up this early in order to get a spot in line for hiking through the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu. The earlier we were in line, the quicker and less crowded it would be for us passing into Machu Picchu.

It was also at this time that Wilfred was having severe trouble breathing and was barely able to stand. Wilson radioed the staff at the Machu Picchu station to inform them of the situation. The staff let Wilfred and the three alternating porters carrying him into the Sun Gate early so he can be carried through to a medical facility. Wilfred later accounted that, while he was in and out of consciousness, he saw Machu Picchu in all of its glory while on the back of a porter on the way to the medical facility. 

Even though Wilfred was let in early into the Sun Gate, the rest of our group remained at the entrance. We found that there were many tour groups lining up for the opportunity to be first through the Sun Gate when we got in line at 4:30AM. We were given a very simple breakfast, a breakfast biscuit, an apple, and a juice box. It wasn’t a lot, but it was fulfilling enough to get us going to Machu Picchu. We then waited until the Sun Gate open at 5:30 AM. It was also at this point we parted ways with our porters (excluding the ones that were carrying Wilfred). The remainder of the trip was between our group and Wilson. 

Waiting at the Sun Gate

We reached the Sun Gate by 6:30AM and were greeted with a cloudy view of Machu Picchu. We decided to sit at the Sun Gate for 20 minutes to see if the clouds would clear and they actually did! You can see the time lapse of this towards the end of our Machu Picchu video.

Nice View of Machu Picchu
The clouds cleared in time for a group picture!

Once we reached Machu Picchu, Wilson explained the extended history of how the city came to be and what each different building in Machu Picchu was used for. We noticed there were extensive restoration projects underway on many of the buildings to try to restore Machu Picchu to its former glory. The awe of the city is something that cannot simply be described by words and pictures. It’s something you must truly visit yourself and see it with your own eyes.

Clouds rolling in on the city
Panoramic shot of the city

After we finished exploring around Machu Picchu, we had earlier arranged to hike Huaynapicchu at an additional fee of $65 USD.  It is well worth it to do this  hike. However, some people preferred not to due to the intensity involved in hiking this particular mountain after hiking the Inca trail. Much of the trail is very steep and involves getting on your hands and knees.

Cindy and Deb getting down on their hands and knees to hike up the stairs

Unfortunately when we got to the top, we were enveloped in clouds and could not see too much so there wasn’t much to take pictures of. However, if it’s a sunny day, you can be sure to see Machu Picchu in it’s entirety!

Jack and Aristo at the top of Huaynapicchu
All fog at the ruins near the top of Huaynapicchu
Entire GPS track

Tipping After the Hike

Alpaca Expeditions Tipping Verbiage: “It is customary in Peru to tip your crew at the end of the trek. Please know that Alpaca makes sure to give our entire team a good salary and they do not survive off only their tips. We do want to share some advice on how to do this, since different cultures have different preferences about tipping. Porters and chefs do prefer tips in soles. Often the entire team of trekkers will pool money together for the Green Machine and each porter will receive between 60 – 80 soles and the chef usually receives double. For your guide, this is often a personal decision and done by each separate group.”

For our group we pooled together all of our tips and gave each porter 80 soles, the chef 160 soles, and we gave our tour guide Wilson the most at 100 soles (per person from our group).

Post Hike

After our hike, we were given our shuttle bus tickets so we could make our way down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes.

Aguas Calientes – Small town at the foothill of Machu Picchu
Street shopping in Aguas Calientes – feel free to bargain!

Wilson met us in the village and took us to a nice local restaurant for our last meal together. He also gave us our train tickets at this time so we could return  to Ollantaytambo.

We were booked the Expedition class train departing Aguas Calientes at 4:20. Please make sure you are on the platform at least 30 minutes ahead of time. This train takes about 2 hours and has large windows. This allowed us to see views and ruins which we previously did not see on the trail.

Getting on the Peru Rail
Time to pass out from a long day

After our train arrived in Ollantaytambo, we were met by our Alpaca driver and Wilson who took us the rest of the way to Cusco by a 2 hour car ride. However, before stopping at our hotel, we went to visit Wilfred at the hospital.

Wilfred was carried to a medical facility at Machu Picchu and given oxygen for his altitude sickness. The doctor there then escorted him to the train station for a train back to Ollantaytambo. From Ollantaytambo, an ambulance picked up Wilfred and drove him all the way to the hospital at Cusco.

Wilson was kind enough to stop at a cake shop and pick up a cake for Wilfred as it happened to be his birthday also.

Celebrating Wilfred’s birthday in the hospital

After our visit to the hospital, we were dropped off at our hotel. We waved good bye to Wilson and this unforgettable journey. From there, we flew back to Lima where we sight-saw, paraglided, and fine dined at The Central. Post for Lima coming soon!

Credit to Deb LeMonds for the hike tracking data! 🙂

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