It was five in the morning; it was still dark outside and the air was crisp and fresh. The only sounds were the ones made by us as we groggily packed our last essential bits ready for a four-day hike that would take us directly to the most famous Incan site in the world – Machu Picchu.
We were up excruciatingly early for our 6am pick-up, but despite the ridiculous hour we were all very excited to begin the journey that we’d booked six months beforehand. We were to become part of a privileged 500 people (including guides and staff) per day who are allowed to hike on the Inca Trail – following in the footsteps of real Incan people who made the same journey 700 years ago!
Our guide – Hugo – arrived bang on time to collect us and we were soon on our way to the trek’s starting point – picking up our chef, Armando, and four porters (Juan, Henardo, Ramon and Asmondo) along the way.
We began our journey 50 miles from Cusco at the Urubamba River and queued for what seemed like an age at the first of four check-points we would pass through before Machu Picchu.
We watched other groups heading off up the hill with anticipation and, when it was our turn, we sprang across the bridge and up the hill excitedly.
We even overtook one group before stopping at a resting place for Hugo to explain a bit about the significance of the Inca Trail we were walking on and what we could expect in the next four days.
He told us the Inca Trail is one of hundreds of pathways built to and from various sites of importance. What makes this one special (and why it is limited to just 500 people per day) is that it winds through the sacred valley and is the only route that leads directly to Machu Picchu.
It was used by Incan people of importance who would travel to Machu Picchu as part of a pilgrimage and much of what remains is the original paved path. In total, we would trek 42km at altitudes of up to 4,215metres – seeing a whole range of Andean environments, from cloud forest to alpine tundra.
Along the way, the trail is also littered with ruins to explore – the first of which was the sun-shaped Incan settlement of Patallacta and the hill fort Willkaraqay.
Hugo explained that when the Incans were retreating from the Spanish army in Cusco, they destroyed many of their own settlements – including Patallacta – and for this reason the Inca Trail (and Machu Picchu) was never discovered by the conquistadors.
After walking for six hours (and stopping for lunch) we eventually made it to our first camp for the night – Wayllabamba. From here we could see Warmi Wañusqa (Dead Woman’s Pass), which is the highest point we would reach. We decided to use our free time to explore another nearby ruin and Rossi ended up joining an impromptu football game between the guides and locals vs trekkers. She didn’t do badly at all, but she did almost break a guide’s ankle with a foul!
On arriving back at camp, we were greeted with a treat of popcorn, biscuits and hot chocolate before being given our starter (nachos and guacamole), a four-dish main course (roasted Guinea Pig with vegetables, rice and potato pie) and a dessert of toffee banana! To say we were stuffed was an understatement, but the food seemed to keep on coming!
We were all interested to try the cuy (Guinea Pig) and it tasted good, but it was a lot of hard work to get only a little meat. It’s also a little off-putting when your food still has a little paw attached to it!
When the meal was over, we crawled into our tents and settled down for our first chilly night on the Inca Trail.
At the crack of dawn we were woken by a cry of ‘buenos dias! coca tea!’ from a shadowy figure outside our tent. As we scrambled to get ourselves in order and look a little less bleary-eyed, the porter outside poured out steaming mugs of coca tea (made from the coca leaf and used to help ease altitude sickness) and handed them to us. No sooner had we left our tents, the porters were busy folding them away and ushering us into the ‘dining tent’ for a breakfast of banana fritters and bread with jam.
The second day was the one we were dreading the most as we’d heard from many (including Hugo) that it was the hardest. It was also the day the famous Inca steps would start – and the rest of the trail would be mostly stairs from this point.
It didn’t take us long to find the start of the steps, which ascended into jungle-like cloud forest.
Amongst the trees we could occasionally see hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower and we even saw our first llamas!
We also encountered our first injury on this part of the trail, when I managed to walk head-long into a tree hanging across the path (luckily, I was fine!).
Our next stop was for lunch, and the porters were ready and waiting for us at the camp. These people amazed us throughout our trip. Each day we would leave before them, while they were still packing up – and we would see them run past us along the trail later in the day, carrying bags that seemed to be twice the size of them! Despite the size of their bags, they would always be at our camps before we arrived.
We were surprised to find that far from being specially-trained, they were all lowly farmers from in and around the Cusco area who worked as porters to supplement their own income in between harvesting seasons. The only exception was our chef, Armando, who had trained for three years for his role (but he was also still a farmer for the majority of the time).
After our rest (and more amazing food), we were back on the trail heading up, but the steps were becoming steeper and steeper. Soon we would only be able to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other while trying to breathe as deeply as possible in the thin air.
When we finally reached the top of the pass (after some extremely steep and tall steps) we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the valley and the snow-capped mountains beyond.
The breath-taking scenery made the climb completely worth it and we celebrated by tucking into some of the snacks that the porters had given us for the trek. While we were here, Hugo taught us how to chew coca leaves and we picked three special ones to leave as an offering under a rock on the mountainside.
The end of the day involved making our way back down the other side of the pass – down to our next camp for the night – Pakaymayu.
We all felt like it had been a long day and were extremely glad when we reached camp (and of course the porters were there, set up and waiting for us with popcorn and hot chocolate!).
The only thing we didn’t look forward to on reaching the camps was the bathrooms. More like latrines, these things were simply holes in the ground and it became apparent very quickly that not everyone has fantastic aim… If you were fortunate enough to get one you could flush, you had to run quick before your shoes got wet!
After dinner, we were happy to settle down for an early night – ahead of another early start the next day.
‘Buenos dias, senorita! Coca tea!!’ – Another chilly early start, another hot cup of tea to wake us up. I had been looking forward to this day; apparently it was Hugo’s favourite because of the scenery and number of ruins (there were six to be seen).
Thankfully, the start of the day was fairly gentle, with a small climb up to a ruin called Runkuraqay that had an amazing view of the valley. Hugo explained that it was likely this building had the dual-function of a temple and a look-out because of its ideal positioning.
We also passed a pretty lake where a deer was drinking, and another great viewpoint where we could look out and see how far we’d come.
Soon we arrived at another ruin – a huge collection of storehouses known as Sayaqmarka.
Hugo explained that the Incas were administrators and rulers, but never workers – instead they used farmers, stone masons and iron mongers etc from the communities they conquered. In return, they would develop the communities with more advanced infrastructure and protect them with their mighty army. As part of this, the Incas would collect all that was produced by the workers across their empire, and then share out what was needed amongst everyone and save the rest for times of emergency in storehouses like these. Hugo also told us that the Incas were great at finding ways to preserve vital crops and had invented ways to dry meat and even potato so that it could last much longer!
We quickly passed another ruin of a priest’s house (Qunchamarka) before stopping for lunch. During lunch, Hugo told us that we’d been assigned to a camp that was a five hour hike away from Machu Picchu – which meant we would arrive very late in the day and we’d have to rush our tour. He said that there was a way we might be able to squeeze into the camp that was closest to Machu Picchu if there was space, and that one of the porters had volunteered to head on in front to see if we could get in. We agreed to try and head for the last camp and hoped there would be space when we got there!
The next part of the trek had some of the most stunning scenery, with tropical-looking orchids hanging from the trees and amazing views of the snowy mountains surrounding the sacred valley. We also got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu mountain, which was nestled in amongst huge peaks that rose around it on all sides.
We passed the point where we should have camped, and headed straight down a long set of stony stairs to the next ruin – the impressive-looking Puyupatamarca.
Here Hugo told us the Incas would have carried out religious ceremonies and showed us the man-made water channels – which still run with fresh water from the mountains during the rainy season.
Because we were enjoying the views so much, we were running quite a bit behind at this point so only had time to see the fifth ruin of the day – Intipata – which has many layers of stone terraces that would have been used to grow crops.
By the time we sneaked into the final camp (Winay Wayna) it was dark and we had trouble finding where our porters were. Starting to worry that we’d have to go all the way back to the previous camp with our torches, a shadowy figure approached us out of the darkness and said: ‘Hola, senorita!’ – it was Juan! We followed him back to where all the porters had arrived and set up camp and enjoyed another delicious three-course meal of empanadas, Alpaca steak and cake!
We said a sad farewell to our porters that night, because they would have to leave quickly in the morning to catch a 5am train home. Then we headed back to our tents for what we knew would be our last night on the trail.
It was 3.30am and still dark when we got the familiar call of ‘Buenos Dias! Coca tea!’ We were up early to let the porters pack up for their train and to join the queue for the last check point before Machu Picchu – which would open at 5.30am.
When the queue finally started moving, we were on the last part of the trail before we knew it. Because everyone had been waiting for the check point to open, all of the groups were bunched up and walking together – excited for a glimpse of the famous city. Eventually, after a two hour trek, we arrived at Inti Punku (the Sun Gate) for our first view of Machu Picchu, where we watched the first rays of sun streaming down towards the ruins.
Everyone was in very high spirits to have nearly reached our final destination. Although we’d expected to reach Machu Picchu before anyone else, we could already see people within the ruins and many busses running up and down from nearby town, Aguas Caliente. Hugo explained that because of an accident on the Inca Trail some years before, walkers were no longer allowed to start the trail until it had already begun to get light – which meant there was no way even the fittest of people could hike the three-hour journey to Machu Picchu before the first busses reached the site. We didn’t care though – we enjoyed our view of the sun rising over the city!
After enjoying the view for a while, we started walking down the path that hugs the mountainside towards the ruins. It was funny to see some of the tourists who’d taken the bus up to Machu Picchu huffing and puffing as they trekked the other way up the hill towards the Sun Gate – we even heard a friendly shout of ‘you’re going the wrong way!’ from fellow Inca Trailers!
When we finally reached the outer-edges of Machu Picchu, we were immediately taken aback by the size of the place and how well preserved the city is.
Built in the 1400’s it was abandoned, unfinished, and its inhabitants fled – most likely to escape Spanish invaders. It is believed the city itself was built as a kind of ‘holiday home’ for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, but there was also a huge area of houses that were built for workers who lived there to maintain the settlement and plenty of temples too.
Although it looks clear now, when it was officially ‘discovered’ by American Hiram Bingham it was covered with cloud forest and Hugo showed us some images of what it looked like before the restoration began.
After our tour of Machu Picchu, Hugo left us to carry on with our next adventure – a steep and exposed climb to Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind Machu Picchu). Only 200 people are allowed up this mountain at two separate times each day; and we had managed to book tickets when we’d initially booked our Inca Trail.
The climb was tough after four days of hiking, but the view was worth it and at the very top there was a kaleidoscope of butterflies!
After we finished exploring both Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu (and after trying to find Rossi for the umpteenth time) we set off on our final walk down to Aguas Caliente. In this quiet little town full of worn-out tourists clutching their backpacks and walking sticks, we celebrated the end of our adventure with a round of Pisco Sours and a pizza before our train back to Cusco.
Although the Inca Trail was hard work, we all agreed that it was an amazing way to see Machu Picchu; everything we learnt about the Incas along the way only served to enhance our experience on the final day. It was also a huge sense of achievement to know that we had followed in the footsteps of the Incas themselves and arrived at the famous city the same way they would have done hundreds of years before.