Earlier this month, we realized a dream a year in the making when we walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was one of the more physically challenging things we’ve ever done, and also one of the most rewarding. There’s so much to tell that we’ve decided to split this post into two. Here, we’ll talk about the Inca Trail experience. In a subsequent post, we describe our encounter with Machu Picchu, the fabled city that so many have tried to understand but to this day remains shrouded in mystery. We’ll also throw in a few tips for folks that are considering a trek of their own.
It’s worth mentioning that “Inca Trail” is a bit of a misnomer. The stretch we walked, almost 28 miles, is actually just a tiny fragment of a huge network of trails that criss-cross the Andes and link important Inca and pre-Inca sites. At the height of the Inca kingdom, these trails comprised an extensive and advanced road system that ran from Colombia in the north, all the way down through Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.
We picked the right outfitter
We joined only six other hikers on the “Classic 4-day, 3-night” Inca Trail trek with Alpaca Expeditions. For a set fee of $690, Alpaca provided all logistics including proper permits and transportation to and from the trek, all camping gear including tents and air mattresses (we rented sleeping bags and hiking sticks as extra), more delicious food than we could ever eat in two lifetimes, and our gem of a guide, Américo. In a very competitive field, Alpaca really is the crème de la crème.
We were in awe of our team of 14 porters (dubbed the “Green Machine”), who hauled huge loads of gear from one lunch spot or campsite to the next. Honestly, some of those loads looked like they weighed twice as much as the guys themselves. If they could schlep those huge packs over Dead Woman Pass, we could get our lazy butts up there!
Cecilio, our “super chef,” not only hauled an impressive load along with the other porters but miraculously served up three incredibly sumptuous and tasty meals a day. We mused about what he might be capable of in a real kitchen, if he could produce such beautiful dishes out in the middle of nowhere in a dirt-floor cook tent, with a cutting board balanced on his lap and two gas burners on the ground.
One of the things that impressed us the most about the Alpaca team was their incredible organization. Américo knew where to pick up each of us on the first day and had bus and train tickets for everyone at the end. He handled getting us checked in at the trailhead and other checkpoints including, four days later, Machu Picchu. He made us feel individually cared-for, and he really meant it when he called us his “lovely family!” But best of all, Américo’s pride in his Quechua heritage shown through. He shared his knowledge of each Incan site and its impact on the Quechua culture with such passion that I got goosebumps every time. Américo, if you read this (and I hope you do), a heartfelt SULPAYKI, mi amigo.
Here’s one more reason to choose Alpaca. You might have read that some of outfitters don’t pay their porters well, force them to carry loads that are too heavy, or don’t outfit them properly. Alpaca, on the other hand, was founded by a former porter who grew up in a Quechua village, just like all of the porters on our trek. Alpaca porters receive better-than-average wages and are provided with excellent equipment, including Keen hiking boots (unlike some other porters we saw that were hiking in sandals and flip-flops), and their loads are kept under the legal maximum. Based on our research, we felt Alpaca was the most socially conscious choice.
How Fit Should You Be?
Alpaca lists the Classic 4/3 as doable for anyone with a moderate level of fitness. Honestly, we’d bump that up a notch, especially for people that live at sea level or a lower altitude. The days are long and the elevation gains are significant, particularly on Day Two. That said, we were the “old farts” in the group at 59 and 63, and some of the younger members of our team had an easier time of it.
John and I prepared for months with interval training classes (thanks, Muzz Laverty!), running, and LOTS of hiking, including intense hikes up Volcan Baru, the 11,000-foot volcano near our home in Panama. Here’s our advice:
- Concentrate on cardio fitness and strength-building exercises for your legs including squats and lunges with weights. Your quads and knees will thank you!
- Try to do some hiking at altitude. Build up to successively higher elevations. And make sure you spend several days in Cusco beforehand to acclimate before the trek.
- You will be ascending and descending TONS of steps on the trek. Run bleachers or do as many stair-climbing exercises as you can.
Day One: Easing Into Things
We began the day just before 7 a.m. when Américo picked us up at our hotel in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. In the van, our six sleepy compatriots had traveled all the way from Cusco and, as such, had had their wake-up call two hours earlier. A short ride later, we arrived at Km 82, the official start of the Inca Trail. After breakfast and a quick gear check, we passed the first checkpoint (don’t forget your passport!) and hit the trail.
For most of the morning we ambled over what is commonly called the “Inca Flats” – mostly gentle uphills and downhills through several small Quechua villages. We made a stop overlooking our first archaeological site, the impressively gear-shaped Patallacta. The final couple of hours were more challenging and mostly uphill, giving a prelude to what we’d face the next day: the dreaded Dead Woman Pass.
We arrived into our first camp at Ayapata (el. 3300 meters) at about 5:30 to the cheers of the Green Team, who had beaten us by a wide margin and had our tents and gear all set up. During our coca-tea-and-popcorn “happy hour,” we had a formal meet-and-greet with the Alpaca crew and got to practice our ragged Spanish introducing ourselves to them. After a delicious meal served up by Cecilio and his ace server, Virgilio (the dishes just kept coming and coming!), we hit the hay for the next day’s big challenge.
Total distance: about 9 miles, with an elevation gain of about 600 meters.
TIP: Arrange for Alpaca to pick you up in Ollantaytambo rather than Cusco the night before the trek. You’ll have to receive your orientation earlier and separate from the group, but the couple of extra hours of sleep are so worth it!
Day Two: Dead Woman Pass? We Kicked its A**!
Ah, Day Two. The hardest and longest day. The day that we had been anticipating for months. The day that we would traverse not one, but two mountain passes, the highest of which is 4200 meters (almost a 14-er, in North American backpacker parlance). And no, it’s not called Dead Woman Pass because some exhausted hiker met her untimely end there. Rather, it’s because the profile of the pass resembles a woman lying on her back (if you squint at it the right way). We had an early wake-up for this day because Américo wanted to give each of us the time we needed to attack the pass at our own pace.
After all the buildup, DWP was definitely challenging but not as as exhausting as we had expected. We reached the pass about mid-morning, to the cheers of the rest of the team (we weren’t the last to get there, but almost!).
A sharp descent brought us down to our lunch stop a couple of hours later, and it was another two-hour climb to the second pass, Runkuracay (piece of cake, as Américo was fond of saying).
The top of Runkuracay is what I think of as the gateway to the magic. We had our first panoramic view of the Vilcabamba range, whose highest peak is Salkantay at 6200 meters. As we headed down to the campsite at Choquicocha, the views just got better and better. At twilight, we reached the Sayacmarka ruin, a high fortress that served as an astronomical observatory for the Incas and, like so many other sites we saw, is perfectly aligned to the cardinal compass points.
We arrived in camp just in time for a spectacular sunset. And speaking of celestial bodies, the stars . . . the stars! This is the only campsite where I actually got up in the middle of the night, on purpose, to do nothing but look at the stars. The cathedral of mountains, decked by those brilliant points of light, was far more spiritual than any of the gaudy Catholic churches we toured during our time in Peru. Absolutely transcendent.
Total distance: my hiking app recorded close to 12 miles, although Alpaca’s stated distance for the day is about 10. I’m going with 12! Net elevation gain was about 1000 meters.
TIP: Seriously, you NEED hiking poles. They were a godsend, both for leverage on the uphill steps and for purchase on the steep downhills. We rented them from Alpaca so we wouldn’t have to schlep them for the rest of our Peru trip.
Day Three: The Easy Day that Turned Into a Loooong One
Day Three is the day that you’re supposed to get some downtime, because the schedule calls for the group to arrive at the campsite by noon and then spend the afternoon relaxing and visiting the Inca site at Wiñay Wayna. I dunno, maybe we were just wiped out from the previous day’s exertions, but no one seemed in a hurry – not even Américo.
It was a lovely and relaxed morning, but by the time we dragged our lazy butts into camp, it was almost 3:30. Poor Ceclilio – he kept having to delay lunch. By the time we finished eating and started enjoying that coveted downtime, it was almost 4:30.
Choices: do we take the coldest shower of our lives and then chill for a bit before dinner, or do we join the folks that are making the 10-minute hike to tour Wiñay Wayna? We chose the cold shower, and when I say cold, I mean I’m sure I raised every long-dead Sapa Inca ruler with my yells when I jumped into that thing. But it did feel good to wash off some of the sweat.
Honestly, I regretted not going to see Wiñay Wayna. The trekkers that did go showed us amazing photos of the ruin, one of the largest and most spectacular on the trail. And they talked about how magical it was, just as the sun was going down.
Total distance: about six miles, with an elevation drop of about 1000 meters.
TIP: This is the day of the dreaded “gringo killer” steps, which are indeed steep and seem to go on forever. Take it slow and use those poles!
Day Four: The Magical City Reveals Itself
“Oh God, is it really 3 a.m.?” Sure enough, the Green Team was rousting us out of our warm sleeping bags at that ungodly hour with a hot cup of coca tea. Why? You’ll just have to read our next installment to find out!