Preparing for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Activities in and around Cusco
In the heart of the Peruvian Andes, at the gate of the Sacred Valley, sits the historical city of Cusco, known during the Inca time as ‘the navel of the world’. Less than an hour’s flight from Lima (or 22 by bus if like me you prefer the scenic route), it’s worth arriving at least a couple of days before beginning the Inca Trail Trek with Valencia Travel Cusco, to acclimatise as the city itself sits at a height of 3400 metres. I began my stay by preparing for the trek with a short climb to the statue of Jesus Christ which overlooks the city. You can find the steps leading there by heading north of the Plaza de Armas, until you reach Calle Pumacurco and turn left. Once at the top you will find the best view of the red roofs of Cusco and the mountains surrounding it.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Cusco from above
There is overwhelming choice for souvenir shopping in Cusco, with alpaca products everywhere you look. To find the best quality and understand the skill and technique required to make them visit The Centre For Traditional Textiles on Avenida el Sol where you can find traditional ponchos, scarves, bags and other Peruvian craft items, being hand woven on backstrap looms by weavers from surrounding towns in the Sacred Valley.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Craft in the Centre for Traditional Textiles, Cusco
My visit inspired me to travel to one of these towns, Chinchero, only 1 hour by local bus from Cusco. Once there you can find many weaving cooperatives in which they will demonstrate their craft & explain the process in Peru of making natural dyes for alpaca and sheep wool from purple corn, leaves, flowers and crushed insects. Valencia Travel Cusco also offers a day tour to the Sacred Valley in which you can visit the weavers with a bilingual guide.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – Luisa, a backstrap weaver from Chinchero, creating traditional Peruvian craft. this piece will take roughly 2 weeks to complete and is made from naturally dyed sheep & alpaca wool which she dyes & spins herself.
The Inca Trail
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Day 1
Valencia Travel Cusco collected us from our hotel at 4.30am in their spacious & comfortable bus, driving us through the Sacred Valley, home to one of South America & Peru´s most famous destinations, Machu Picchu. Try to stay awake for your first glimpses of snow-capped glaciers on the drive through the small towns Chinchero, Urubamba & Ollantaytambo where we stopped for a quick breakfast. This is not included in the cost of the Inca Trail but you will also have the chance to buy coca leaves & sweets to help with altitude adjustment.
At around 7.30 we continued to KM 82 where we left the comfort of the bus to meet our troop of 15 porters and chefs (catering for a group of 9) all local to this area of Peru. This friendly introduction began with a round of applause from the porters, later repeated on every arrival into camp!
After a quick snack and obligatory group photo underneath the entrance sign to the Inca Trail (El Camino Inca) we were on our way. I packed very light, my bag weighing only 8kg but for those choosing to take more home comforts Valencia Travel Cusco offers the option to take an extra duffel bag of 7kg for $70 which will be carried by a porter, this must be arranged in advance however, to ensure each porter carries no more than the regulated weight.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru -beginning the ‘Camino Inca’
Day 1 is classified as medium difficulty and begins at a gentle pace on fairly flat terrain, with several opportunities to photograph the valley divided by the Urubamba river (or Wilcanotta as originally named) meaning Sacred River in Quechua, with the glacier glistening in the distance.
Other sights on this first portion of the trek include two Inca sites which originally served as gateways to Machu Picchu for Inca pilgrims en route to the sacred site. This is a great opportunity to re-energise while the guide explains a little about the significance of the Inca Trail during the time and the importance of utilising all the available climates to cultivate and preserve food.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – crossing the Urubamba River
The trail continues much the same until lunchtime where we were greeted with a delicious 3 course meal served in a dining tent already constructed by the porters followed by tea and the chance for a quick siesta before continuing the trickier half of the day, mainly uphill! After roughly an hour we discovered the benefits of chewing rolled up coca leaves as done by many people in Peru to help with breathing in increasing altitudes.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – tea time at the campsite
After a further 2.5 hours nothing was more welcome than arriving at our camp to find our spacious tents already constructed, with bowls of water, soap & hand towels to refresh ourselves in time for tea. After a quick change out of hiking clothes the guides proceeded to introduce the 15 men who had made the Inca Trail possible for us. The men of ages varying from 21 to 65 all work on the Inca Trail to subsidise their income as farmers throughout the Sacred Valley.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – moral support from the Valencia Travel Cusco porters
On the first evening we were treated to a luxurious spread of teas and snacks including peanut butter, dulce de leche & popcorn. This was later followed by chicken & vegetable kebabs and a dessert of flaming bananas soaked in pisco, a typical alcoholic drink in Peru. Finally off to bed early for a 5am start of the most gruelling day.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Day 2
This wake-up call was made bearable by the coca tea brought directly to our tents, followed by an energising breakfast of porridge, fruit & even pancakes. You will need this to prepare for the next part of the Inca Trail, intimidatingly named ´´Dead Woman’s Pass´´ in which you climb continuously from an altitude of 3300ms to the highest point of the Inca Trail, 4200ms. It’s a tough climb for all levels of hiker but made completely worthwhile for the views at the summit of this mountain, our guides and porters kindly prepared more coca tea to help us adjust to the altitude before an interesting & thoughtful offering of 3 coca leaves to Mother Nature, or Pachamama, as she is known in Quechua, the indigenous language of the Andes.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – climbing the Dead Woman’s Pass
Now begins an altogether different challenge of descending the other side of the mountain via steep steps & narrow mountainside passes until the lunch stop at the base of the mountain. Take the chance at this point to refresh your tired feet in the stream before yet another elaborate lunch of mushroom ceviche, followed by Lomo Saltado. This typical Peruvian dish was even topped with vegetable art in the shape of a parrot, no detail spared on this trip.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – an offering to Pachamama
Foolishly thinking the climbing was done for the day, we found ourselves ascending again, not easy on a full stomach! Luckily we soon arrived at a small, oval shaped Inca ruin named Runkurakay. Our knowledgeable guide informed us this was thought to be a resting place for messengers travelling to and from Inca cities passing messages between important figures in South America using their craft of woven tapestries and in the form of knotted yarns.
The last uphill stretch of the day is somewhat more manageable with the distraction of small lakes nestled in the mountainside and possible deer sightings. Upon reaching the highest point of the path & meeting the rest of the group we were encouraged to scramble up another peak close by, on the top of which previous travellers had placed offerings of stone towers. We did so reluctantly, but were rewarded with indescribable views of the lakes below, framed by mountain after mountain, a perfect photo spot.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – a rewarding view
It’s all downhill from here, until the next Inca ruin at least. The name Sayacmarca means inaccessible place due to the 97 steep, stone steps leading to it which we climbed and took our places on the top to hear the next instalment from our guide. Inspired by the dramatic location & picturing Inca messengers running for miles to pass on their cryptic information, we explored the site taking photos before the last 15 minutes’ walk home.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – ‘Sayacmarca’ or Inaccesible Place
The higher altitude meant a colder night than the first; luckily we’d followed our guide’s advice of picking up some rum at a rest stop to add to a warm, spicy apple tea which we enjoyed with the porters.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Day 3
Next morning we were treated to a lie in, being woken up at 6am with a steaming hot chocolate. A little rain didn’t deter us and we were soon enjoying a slower paced trail, winding around the mountain range, passing under tunnels dug into the rock and more Inca ruins along the way. This route took us through a cloud forest in which the flora and fauna noticeably became much more lush & colourful.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – a precarious path
The shaded path eventually led us to one of the most impressive sites we had seen, encompassing an entire hillside with platforms, overlooked by a dramatic stone facade & steep steps running through the centre (see video with Eddy). One of these platforms provided the perfect viewpoint to sit on the edge, have a snack and marvel at the landscape in front as our guide explained its significance during the Inca time. The last stretch led us to our resting point for the night, close to a more recently discovered Wiñay Wayna (forever young) named after the Peruvian orchid that can be seen close to the site.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – an Inca ruin in the clouds
As this was our final resting point before embarking on the next day’s race to the sun gate, our porters were lined up to welcome and congratulate us with enthusiastic applause. Surprisingly none of the group took up the offer of a freezing shower, choosing instead to sleep off another generous lunch before exploring Wiñay Wayna and meeting its resident llamas & alpacas.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – Wiñay Wayna Inca Ruin and its resident llamas & alpacas
Our final afternoon tea also involved a customary presentation of tips for our porters, head porter, waiter, sous chef and chef. This had been arranged previously between us as suggested by Valencia Travel Cusco that it is customary to do so. They are all incredibly deserving of recognition for their efforts and we felt it necessary to give more than the amount suggested by the agency. Later they excelled themselves yet again, presenting us with an enormous, elaborately decorated cake for dessert and thoughtfully prepared alternatives for the non-dairy eaters of the group.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – exceptional service
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Day 4
The final morning began at 3am, once up and dressed we helped ourselves to tea and breakfast as the porters prepared themselves to run down the mountain in time for their train home, luckily with bags considerably lighter than at the start. The reason for such an early start is to get a good place in the queue to enter the trail leading to the sun gate which opens at 5.30. Once open the race begins and the excitement of reaching Machu Picchu gave us new energy. This is an undulating path, eventually leading to steep, stone steps, if you’re fast and lucky enough you may reach the gate by 6.30 to see the early morning sun shining over Machu Picchu in the distance.
The previous night we had been presented with complimentary t shirts which we changed into for a team photo before continuing the slow, winding, downhill path to the most famous viewpoint of the city and classic photo spot. Considering January is the rainy season we were incredibly lucky with blue sky, sunshine and few clouds to block our view of the spectacular sight below.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – the group at Machu Picchu in one piece!
After many photos we headed to the entrance to be given the final tour by our guide, first depositing our bags for a cost of 5 soles. You will see many sections of the city still under restoration and our guide took care to explain many details of this process, from the original state upon its discovery in 1911 as well as the original craft and construction techniques used by the Incas to break huge pieces of granite using just wood, water and pebbles.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – the construction process explained by our guide
After a fascinating introduction, those who had taken on the challenge of climbing the adjacent Wayna Picchu with a height of 2750m, 350 more than Machu Picchu, expected to be daunted by the prospect of more climbing. It’s a steep climb and at times requires some careful balance but we surprised ourselves, making it to the top in only 30 minutes. There are a very limited number of people permitted per day and you can understand why when you reach the summit, comprised of several large boulders precariously balanced to form a platform on which the views of Machu Picchu are unrivalled. The experience is made even more surreal with hundreds of butterflies circling above.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – at the top of Wayna Picchu
Vertigo sufferers may not enjoy the descent which is very tricky at points, but in no time we were making our way out of the site towards the bus to Aguas Calientes. The exit route leads you through the rest of the site not seen on the tour with our guide so there is chance to admire it in more detail. We re-joined our group at a restaurant in Aguas Calientes for lunch and to present our guides with their tip to show our appreciation for their enthusiasm and encouragement over the last 4 days. There is the opportunity to spend the night here and visit the hot springs as some of our group did, but included in the price of the Inca Trail is the Peru Rail train journey back to Ollantaytambo.
From here the bus is waiting to take you directly to your hotel in Cusco, to a welcome hot shower after a 4 day, marathon length hike through inca paved mountain passes, cloud forests and exotic jungle which, for me, amounted to a hugely rewarding and unforgettable experience.
Inca Trail – Machu Picchu – Peru – waiting for the Peru Rail back to Cusco
Note – This amazing Inca Trail – Machu Picchu adventure was made possible by the assistance of Valencia Travel Cusco, who provided the journey from Cusco, Inca Trail trek, to Machu Picchu and back again. All opinions and experiences however, are my own.