Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Nate and I just completed one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of our yearlong trip so far.  We hiked the Inca Trail for four days to one of the ancient wonders of the world, Machu Picchu.

Our trek started at 4 a.m. in a plaza in downtown Cusco where we met up with our bus and fellow hikers.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco.

From there, we headed 30 minutes out of the city to pick up our porters, a team of Andean men who would haul our tents, food, water and gear.  The agency we booked with, Llama Path, is unique in that they provide lodging for their porters when they're not on the Inca Trail.  We were able to visit the inside of their building, four floors of bunk beds and a TV area that reminded me of a firehouse.  At 4:30 a.m., there were porters asleep who had just come off the mountain the night before.  

After visiting the porter house, we headed a few hours outside of Cusco to Ollantaytambo, a small town at the base of the mountains where we stopped for breakfast.  

We picked up the remaining porters on our team and headed to the entrance to the trail.

The first morning of hiking was the most difficult for me.  Not having done a lot of training, I was shocked to find out just how challenging the hike would be and didn't know how I was going to do that the following four days.  After some adjusting and a lot of water, I made it through.

Our first morning we hiked nearly 5 hours before reaching our lunch camp and eating.  We had a short nap and then took off again, arriving at our camp for the evening just before sun down.

Hiking/dying on the trail our first day. So. Hot. 

Hiking/dying on the trail our first day. So. Hot. 

Each time we arrived at camp, our porters had everything set up including a full dining tent with seats inside and small tubs of hot water so we could wash our hands and faces.  With no showers on the trail, these water tubs were a huge help!

Despite not being totally comfortable camping, I slept soundly our first night.

The second day of the trek is purportedly the most difficult as groups scale two mountain peaks and reach the highest altitude of the trek, 13,780 ft.  For us, though, we woke up to cool temperatures as if we were hiking through a cloud.  The change from the hot sun the day prior ended up being just what I needed, and despite the difficulty of hiking our second day, I found myself settling into the pace of the trek and enjoying myself more.

Our second day we hiked for 6 hours in the morning, 4 of which were entirely uphill.  The stress combined with the shortness of breath makes for a trying experience.  Luckily, our porters met us at the highest altitude for a quick break and coca tea, made from coca leaves that many of the porters chew as they climb.  The original ingredient in cocaine, coca leaves work as a stimulant to increase blood flow at high altitudes.

Lots of uphill on Day 2!

Lots of uphill on Day 2!

Having a snack and coca tea at the top on Day 2.

Having a snack and coca tea at the top on Day 2.

Lunch, like all of our meals, was enormous and delicious.  Afterwards, we had another 4-hour hike in the afternoon, reaching camp just as the sun was setting.

Our dining tent and fearless porters!

Our dining tent and fearless porters!

Again, we slept soundly despite it raining nearly the entire night.  Luckily our porters did an excellent job of rain-proofing our tents, so we only heard the noise and experiences the drop in temperatures instead of feeling wet and miserable.

Our very wet and chilly camp

Our very wet and chilly camp

Our third day was the easiest, although we all woke up sore and smelling terrible.  We had another 5-6 hours of hiking, arriving at camp at 2 p.m. for lunch and an afternoon of relaxation.  This was our final night on the trail, and we had a long debriefing about what to expect the following morning when we would hike the final leg to Machu Picchu.  

We decided as a group that we wanted to be one of the first on the narrow trail to the Sun Gate, which would open at 5:30 a.m. the following morning.  We set our alarms for 3 a.m., packed the night before and even slept in our hiking gear ready to roll out of bed in the morning and sprint to the security check point.  

By 3:15 a.m. the fourth day, we were heading that way, and our porters were already breaking down camp.  We ended up being the first group at the security check point where we had to wait in the cold dark until it opened more than 2 hours later.  We huddled together on the ground to nap, brushed our teeth and stretched.

Waiting in the dark at the check point for the trail to open on the last day.

Waiting in the dark at the check point for the trail to open on the last day.

At 5:30 a.m. on the dot, the check point lights snapped on, and the gate opened.  From there we began to almost sprint down the narrow path.  The sun was starting to rise, and we wanted to reach the Sun Gate in time to get our first glimpse of the expansive ruins that are Machu Picchu.

Exhausted and winded, we finally reached the Sun Gate and took a break.  We got to take some photos and then slowly made our way down to the site.

We spent two more hours being guided through Machu Picchu and learning about the history.  Then we collapsed at the entrance bar and celebrated with a much-needed beer and empanadas.  

A few of our group members went on to hike Hyuana Picchu, so we headed down the mountain to wait for them in a local restaurant where we ate lunch together, shared stories and had more beers.  

From there, we headed by train two hours back toward Ollantaytambo where our bus was waiting for us to take us the final two hours back to Cusco.  We were all exhausted and slept on the way back.  

On PeruRail headed back toward Cusco from Machu Picchu

On PeruRail headed back toward Cusco from Machu Picchu

When we got back to our Cusco apartment, it felt AMAZING to take a shower and sleep in a nice, warm bed.  The following day we rested and tended to our sore muscles.

All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I know we both felt really proud that we'd completed the trek!