- AGUASCALIENTES, PERU
THE INCA TRAIL
"And at the end of the day your feet should be dirty, your hair messy, and your eyes sparkling."
For several years the idea of hiking the Inca Trail has been embedded in my mind. I periodically would put flight trackers to Peru on and drop hints to my brother and close friends, hoping one of them would eventually be on board. Over time, other trips and destinations took precedence, the timing was never quite right, and the elusive Inca Trail remained so. But at long last, with a confirmed stay in Peru for the month of April, I knew the time had come, whether someone wanted to do it with me or not (luckily I have good friends).
The Inca Trail is the most famous trek in South America, and is considered by many to be one of the top 5 treks in the world as it combines both beautiful scenery through mountains, the Andean cloud forest, and jungle, but also displays Incan construction at its finest through the trail itself, incredible retaining walls, a series of temples and sites, and of course Machu Picchu. Although there are are over 40,000 kilometers of trail connecting the vast empire of the Incas, this post focuses on the classic 26 mile / 43km stretch that typically takes 4 days and 3 nights to hike.
THE TRAIL MAP
For all those thinking of taking the train to Machu Picchu, I urge you to consider taking a hike of some sort instead. The trail is truly indescribable complete with a variety of stunning scenery, a whole collection of lesser known but equally impressive Inca constructions, and more flora and fauna than you would expect to see at such a high elevation including more types of orchids than I knew existed (I need to brush up on my flowers). Taking a break for a sip of water or to catch your breath along the trail, you will literally be blown away by the panoramic beauty surrounding you. I'm not a spiritual person by any means, but the Inca Trail made me feel something, perhaps a truer appreciation of the intersection of the natural world with the man-made, something I feel our current generations have lost.
I have immense respect for the porters and was able to exchange some words, smiles, and laughs with a few of them. As we struggled up more difficult passes, the porters surged passed us, arriving to the various campsites well before us. Hiking up to camp each night a friendly round of applause greeted you, reminding you of what you just accomplished. A neat row of tents was pitched, the eating tent was up, the smell of food cooking wafted through the air, and a hot cup of tea was in hand in moments. Without their efforts, the trek would have been a far greater struggle. With them, it was really more like glamping.
This brings me to the food. For those that don't know me, I am a bit of food snob (I blame the cooking prowess of my family), and obviously wasn't expecting anything gourmet during my trek. I knew by lunch on the first day that I was in for a treat. To start, avocado topped with some veggies, a light salsa and cilantro followed by a warm and homey vegetable soup. Next came river trout, rice, a fresh salad of cucumber and tomatoes, and steamed vegetables. Other notable dishes during the trek were the most delicate & fluffy scrambled eggs I've ever eaten, succulent herbed chicken, pollo saltado, A CAKE, A PIE, a different soup for every lunch/dinner, and so much more. Truly, the things these guys can make in a tent on the ground is amazing. Oh and the chef is a porter, so he not only cooks for everyone, but also hikes the trail with 25kg on his back.
Our guides Jaime and Elias were thoughtful and informative, remembering everyone's names quickly and providing unique insight on all the things we came across. When my friend was feeling queasy on the trail, Jaime had her smell this alcohol like substance and she was instantly cured. Magic.
I think I probably lucked out and had one of the best and most easy-going groups of all time. The cutest mother and her two 20-something sons from Cypress (good looking bunch!), a fun and talented Italian couple, the most humorous guy from Hong Kong who made me laugh uncontrollably several times, a good Remote Year friend and her cousin whose banter before going to sleep and overall positive attitudes were a joy to be around, and of course mi amiga Kaya, who trekked across the world to see me and to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The last morning we woke at 3am to allow the porters to catch the early train home and to be the first at the checkpoint. At 5:30 the gates opened and we nearly ran the hour uphill to the Sun Gate, feeling that the end was in reach. At the Sun Gate, we were fully enveloped in fog, but got a brief clearing where Machu Picchu was visible from a distance before being sucked up once again by grey.
The last gradual downhill hour of trekking was full of jelly legs, giggling, and a general sense of disbelief of what was about to come. At long last we made it to the classic Machu Picchu vista, only to see a sea of fog. Jaime was adamant that we should hang out and wait because it would most definitely clear for us. 45 minutes later, the outlook seemed bleak, but slowly the fog begin to lift and dissipate, revealing the magical site hidden beneath it. The sun started to peak over the mountains, illuminating this marvel of human creation (cliche, but true). No matter how many times you've seen Machu Picchu in photos, the real thing is still humbling, otherworldly, and mesmerizing.
WHAT TO PACK
The weather on the Inca Trail is mercurial, so it is best to come fully prepared. I recommend quality hiking boots, long socks, several pairs of leggings, heat tech shirts and longsleeves, layers in general, a light waterproof layer, a headlamp, gloves, a hat or headband, a packable jacket, and warmer clothes for the evenings. Baby wipes are also essential for your daily baby wipe shower, as is plenty of sunscreen, a camelbak (WAY better than water bottles for staying hydrated on this type of trek), bug spray, and ibuprofen.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
1| Although there are many many many tour groups operating on the Inca Trail, I highly recommend Alpaca Expeditions. They went above and beyond and pay attention to even the smallest of details. They also provide essentials like ponchos and waterproof backpack covers. The story of the company is also a great one as the owner was once a porter, then a guide, and now the owner of one of the most highly reviewed tour companies in the area.
2| The Inca Trail is closed in February due to heavy rains, so plan accordingly.
3| The high season is June-September so Machu Picchu itself and the trail will be busier.
4| April/May and October are mild weather months with less crowds - a good time to visit!
5| You reach 4215m or 13,830ft on the hike. Make sure to arrive in Cusco a few days early to acclimate to the altitude. Drink water!
6| Permits are required to hike the Inca Trail. Most tour operators will purchase these for you, but you still must book your trip with them well in advance. Permits are typically released in December for the following calendar year, so plan accordingly. May & June were sold out in about 36 hrs.