Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

By Meng Tay

The name Machu Picchu needs no introduction.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it was unknown to the outside world until it was “discovered” by explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  A visit to this 15th century Inca citadel, situated about 8,000 feet above sea level, is a revelation into the astonishing engineering ingenuity of the Incas.  Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu opens up photographic opportunities of the Peruvian mountains and the thriving Inca population of the period.

There are a few ways to travel to Machu Picchu.  The most popular and easiest way is to fly into Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas, then take a train or bus to Aquas Calientes, followed by a winding bus ride up the mountain.  You may make a stop at Ollantaytambo and see some of the other ancient ruins in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  Although not well known, this area has some of the best preserved and impressive ruins in South America.

The most rewarding and challenging way to visit Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail.  The Classic Inca Trail hike takes a grueling 3 to 4 days, up and down passes at elevations as high as 4,250 meters or about 14,000 feet.  However, you are rewarded with some of the most scenic places in South America.  In addition, you get to learn something about the advanced Inca civilization.

A limited number of hikers are allowed on the trail plus a staff of supporting personnel such as porters and cooks.  The porters carry some of your hiking equipment but you carry your own immediate necessities for the day.  This is where you decide whether you should bring along a heavy digital camera, a lighter mirrorless camera or just a pocket or phone camera.  On the hike that I was on in 2018 we were each given a duffel bag to put our personal belongings and give to the porters to carry.  This bag cannot be more than 5 kg or about 11 pounds.  The rest you have to carry yourself.

The night before the hike we checked into a small hotel in Ollantaytambo.  This puts us closer to our starting point.  On the way from Cusco to Ollantaytambo we stopped and visited many archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  This fertile valley, irrigated by the Urumbamba River, was the bread basket of the Inca empire.  Its warmer climate and ample rainfall makes it suitable for growing maize, a staple crop.  The natives here are Quechua People.

Sacred Valley of the Incas
A Native Quecha Woman

On the first day of the hike we rendezvous with our guides and porters near the starting gate of the Inca Trail.  There were 14 porters and 2 guides to support 10 hikers: six from Australia, two from Sweden, and one each from Belgium and the US.  The porters carry everything we need: tents, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, water, food, etc.  On some parts of the trail you are essentially on your own.  What you bring is what you have.  There are no places to shop or buy.  Therefore, the porters serve a very important function for us: to make our hike as comfortable and stress-free as possible.  I can’t stress enough how much we depend on them.  Each porter carries about 25 kg or about 55 pounds of assorted support equipment and foodstuff.

At the gate to the Inca Trail we showed our passports and our guides showed our permits.  The Peruvian government allows only 200 hikers per day plus another 300 support personnel, i.e. porters and guides.  This is due to concern over erosion and overuse of the areas surrounding the trails and archaeological sites.

Entrance to the Inca Trail

The first day is a long hike, to cover as much distance as possible.  It was not a particular difficult hike but it was long and there were several trails where we have to climb.  We took breaks whenever our guides feel we needed it.  There were candies and snacks passed around.  Our guides showed us how to chew coca leaves which is supposed to give us a boost in energy.  Cocaine is derived from this same coca plant through a complicated chemical process.  Maybe I was not doing it right but I didn’t feel any numbness or boost in energy.  But our guides swear by it and were chewing them throughout the trip.

Coca Leaves

At about midday we stopped for lunch.  Our porters had already set up a tent, which is to be our dining room.  It has tables and chairs.  The meals were delicious, considering where we are.  To make things even more difficult, there was a couple in our group who are vegans and one hiker who had to have gluten-free meals.  The porters also topped up our water bottles with boiled water.

Lunch in a tent
A Nutritious Lunch

We continued our hike after lunch and reached our first day’s destination at about 4:00pm.  When we arrived, our tents were all set up and our extra belongings were in the tent.  We were camped next to a couple of buildings belonging to a family.  These families have lived there for a long time and therefore have rights to remain there.  We ate inside the building.  We had to pay to charge our phones and use the toilet.  But the toilet was so filthy and smelly that the ladies refused to use it.

Campsite for the first night

We woke up at 6:00am on day 2.  Our porters brought us a cup of hot coca (not cocoa) tea and a basin of warm water for us to wash up.  After a quick breakfast we were ready to start hiking at 7am.  This is to be the toughest day, with a lot of climbing, all the way up to the highest point called Warmi Wañusqa or “Dead Woman’s Pass” at an altitude of 4,250m or almost 14,000 feet.  There was a light rain and some of the granite rocks that are used to pave the trail are slippery.  It’s easy to slip and fall.  It’s a slow steep climb.  Even the porters have to stop often.  When we reached the top there were vendors selling water and snacks.  This is the last stop where we see vendors selling drinks and snacks.  Local residents are not allowed to sell beyond this part of the trail.

A Trail Going Up

Not long after we climbed Warmi Wañusqa we stopped to camp for the night.  Some of us who are in better shape arrived at about 1pm.  Some slower hikers took an extra 3 hours.  The elevation made hiking difficult.  As difficult as it was, one must not forget why we are here in the first place – to enjoy the beauty of the Peruvian mountains.  Occasionally, I would pause to catch my breath and look around me.  What beauty, the verdant mountains and valleys, the colorful flowers, the singing birds and the fluttering butterflies.  Even with an iPhone I was able to capture some beautiful images.  At one bend in the trail I was surprised by three llamas standing on the trail.  It was like a welcoming party.  These are gentle animals.  We ended our day at 6pm and were fast asleep by 8pm.

Warmi Wañusqa – “Dead Woman’s Pass”
Day 2 Camp – High in the Mountains
Surrounded by Tall Mountains

Day 3 is not the most difficult but the longest, about 15 km.  Not a lot to dwell on except to look ahead, take one step at a time, and keep going.  By now it’s more of a mental than a physical challenge.  You try not to think of the distance.  You think of the next rest stop and when you are going to reach camp.  It’s easy to miss the beauty of the mountains.  I try to stop once in a while to take pictures, to record where I’ve been. We are getting closer to Machu Picchu.  We are starting to see archaeological ruins and our guide, Santiago, will gather us and explain what the ruins mean.  The Incas did not have a written language, so much of it is conjecture.  Regardless, they are impressive structures built in the middle of nowhere and with no modern tools and machinery.

Intipata Ruins, one of a few in the area

We finally made it to our last camp in the late afternoon.  There are many groups here.  This is a gathering spot before we enter the gates into Machu Picchu.  There are showers and bathrooms here but as expected, they are not the cleanest.  I think I can put up with my filth and smell for an extra day.

A Llama Welcoming Party

After another excellent dinner by our porters, Santiago gathered us together for a farewell gathering and speech.  I spoke for our team and thanked the porters and chef for their excellent support.  It’s hard to underestimate how big a role they play in our completing the hike.  Then I handed them their tips in an envelope.  We each had contributed 150 soles, or about US$46 each, for the tips. They were divided into four envelopes:  one each for the guides, one for the chef, and one for the rest of the porters.   I don’t think the porters get paid a lot of money.  The tips always help.  The lead porter, Chris, thanked us for coming to Peru and hope we’ll bring our friends too so that they will have more jobs.  What a gracious speech.  In return, I thanked them for sharing the beauty of their country with us.  We all shook hands and some of us hugged.  Some of us may have shed tears in the dark.  Then the rain started to fall and it’s time for an early bedtime because we have to get up early at 3:30am the next morning.  Quickly, the porters put our things away and get ready for the next morning and for the final leg of our hike.  The excitement is mounting.

We could hear the rain beating down on our tents when we woke up at 3:30am.  The plan is to be in line at the control station to the final part of the trail as soon as possible, before it opens at 5:30am.  We were all packed and ready for breakfast by 4:00am and by 4:30am, we were in line wearing rain gear.  In front were a few other groups.  Our porters were very efficient in serving us breakfast, while others were packing up the camp.  Some were to hike straight down to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of Machu Picchu, and take the train back to Ollantaytambo.  About 3 or 4 were to follow slightly later and take our duffel bags to a pizza restaurant, where we would meet after visiting Machu Picchu.

The sky starts to brighten at about 5:00am and miraculously, the rain starts to lighten.  At 5:30am, the line starts to move.  The rain stopped.  Our guide checked us in and alas, we are on the final leg of our hike.  Our first stop is the Sun Gate or Intipunku, about 30 minutes before Machu Picchu.  A group of 4 in front hiked at a fast pace.  This part of the trail has gradual ups and downs but some parts are slippery from the rain.  I hiked alone at a brisk pace, making sure that I didn’t slip.  I wanted to avoid any fall when I am so close to the end.

Just before 7:00am I arrived at the Sun Gate.  This is where you get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu.  The place was crowded.  Many of the hikers stop here to catch their first view.  About 30 minutes more to go.

First Glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

As we descend from the Sun Gate, we start seeing visitors coming from the other direction.  We also start getting better views of Machu Picchu.  I took my DSLR camera and attached my zoom lens to get a better close-up shot of the complex.  The Urubamba River is just below us.  We can also see the serpentine road that takes visitors from the town of Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu.

We arrived on the site of Machu Picchu at about 7:30am.  It was an extraordinary sight.  It was a clear sunny morning with blue skies.  Wisps of clouds were floating below us.  When we stood on the platform with the postcard view of Machu Picchu, it was like being in heaven looking down.  Already there were visitors below.  The gate opens at 7am and tourists who stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes got there before us.  The crowd was still sparse so we were able to get some excellent photographs from the top with minimal people.  At about 8:30am we gathered at the main gate to start our guided tour by Santiago.  He walked us through the different parts of the complex and explained their history and significance.  The tour was over in about 2 hours and we were free to roam the area until about 12:30pm.  Some of us hiked to the Inca Bridge.

A Postcard View of Machu Picchu

At about 1pm we took the bus down the winding road to Aquas Calientes.  The road was built in the 1940s and I understand that Hiram Bingham, the explorer who “discovered” Machu Picchu, came to dedicate it.  Today there is still a legal tussle between the Peruvian Government and Yale University over artifacts that Hiram Bingham took with him when he first visited Machu Picchu.  The Peruvians don’t view Hiram Bingham with as much reverence as one might expect because of some of the damages that he did to the ruins and the artifacts that he took.

This is how most tourists see Machu Picchu.  They take a bus from the bottom of the ruins to the top in about 30 minutes and spend perhaps a couple of hours to see Machu Picchu.  Regardless, it’s an amazing sight and an amazing achievement by the Incas.  Sadly, they were driven away by the Spanish Conquerors and no one knows where they went.  The Incas are a lost civilization.

After a pizza lunch at the Pachamama Restaurant in Aquas Calientes we took a train back to Ollantaytambo, then a van to Cusco.  It was a tiring four days of hiking but a wonderful finale to see Machu Picchu.

Meng Tay is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes