The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

In: Life & Everything Else

So this has nothing to do with my house, or building furniture, or online shopping, or any of the other things I usually write about. Still, it was pretty epic, so I feel like documenting it, since this blog is basically for my own entertainment as an online diary.

This year, for the Christmas / New Year’s break my family decided to do something awesome, and hike the Inca (Inka) Trail to Machu Picchu.

So the day after Christmas, amid a mini December snowstorm, we set off. In our group was myself & Alex, my sister Kat & her man Pat, and my brother John & his wife Amy.

First, we arrived in Cusco, and had a day to acclimate to the altitude (which wasn’t really enough time). Having lived our whole lives at sea level, the 11,152ft-above-sea-level Imperial City was a noticeable change, and all of us were affected at least somewhat. I didn’t feel short of breath, per se, just tired. The best way to describe it is that gravity felt a little stronger, and I often just felt like I needed to sit down. We weren’t really helping the matter, either, by enjoying some delicious Pisco (the “right” thing to do is give your body a few days to acclimate, rest a lot, and avoid alcohol — so we failed on all accounts). Also, I had just found out the previous week that I had pneumonia, so that wasn’t working in my favor (but several weeks worth of antibiotics and steroids got me cleared up enough for the trip).


Clockwise from left: Alex, John, Amy, Kelley (me), Kat, Pat

To attempt the Inca Trail, it is a requirement that you have a guide, which pretty much means you must book through a trekking company. Permits are limited to 500 people on the 50-km trail at any given time, including porters, so that usually leaves space for ~200 or so people per day. In the high season (North America’s summer), trail permits can sell out 6 months ahead of time, but since we were going in the height of the rainy season (South America’s summer), we were able to secure our spaces with about a month and a half ahead of the trek.

We ended up booking with Inca Trail Reservations, and I have mixed reviews. On the plus side, they offered easy online booking & payment, responsive customer service (via email) pre-hike, and an EXCELLENT guide for the hike. On the down side, the logistics during the hike were awful. We almost didn’t even leave for the hike because they couldn’t find porters (who are apparently all “freelance” and can’t be booked ahead of time, nevermind the fact that we booked and paid for them ahead of time). So when we were supposed to be on the trail by 10 am on day 1, we ended up sitting around anxiously hoping that porters could be found until about 4 PM (and ended that day hiking in the dark, with our headlamps). They claimed it was a seasonal thing (hard to find freelance people because of the holidays), which is possibly true, but our contention was that the holidays show up at the same time every year — be prepared, or don’t offer your services. The porters are necessary because they carry your tents & the kitchen (and the rest of your gear, if you choose to hire an extra). We were in such a state of near-revolt at the prospect of not leaving for the hike, that we offered to divvy up the gear between us if that’s what it took. But I digress ….

We passed the time spent waiting by playing the dice (To-Go) version of Apples To Apples. When you pack your backpack, you've gotta have priorities, and games is #1 (who needs a sleeping bag, anyway?)

We passed the time spent waiting by playing the dice (To-Go) version of Apples To Apples. When you pack your backpack, you’ve gotta have priorities, and games is #1 (who needs a sleeping bag, anyway?)

Day 1 (12 km, ~4 hours)

This day was the start of our adventure! The six of us were paired with two other groups — a family of 5 (parents and 3 sons) from Vancouver, and a newlywed couple from Melbourne. This first photo of our group should convey how happy (and naive) we were:

Our group at the start of the trail. Look at those happy (clean) faces!

Our group at the start of the trail. Look at those happy (clean) faces!

Once we finally got started (after being picked up from our hotel in Cusco, traveling via bus, waiting on said bus, and then waiting at the start for a few hours), spirits were high. Everyone was excited to finally be on the trail, and we got to witness a beautiful sunset as we walked. The first part of the trail is relatively flat (not a term I would have used to describe it at that time, however retrospectively it seems like a walk in the park). I was surprised at how many people actually lived along this part of the trail… we were passed by many horses / mules / donkeys carrying their loads, and were greeted by excited and (mostly) friendly dogs along the way (I think I could make an entire photo album titled “The Dogs of the Inca Trail”)

Perhaps because we were so full of pent up energy, we ended up booking it and completing the first day’s distance in about 3.5 hours (a distance which is “supposed” to take 5hrs), which still put us in camp after dark, but wasn’t bad, all considered. We probably had a delicious meal, but I couldn’t tell you because both my sister and I ducked out after the soup course since it was getting late (and by “late” I mean past 9 PM), and we had a series of early wakeup calls ahead of us. Plus neither of us likes soup, so we did the classic “Irish goodbye” and just got up and left the dinner table without explanation. I wish I could say this was the only time we did this during the trip ….(hint: it wasn’t).

Day 2 (11km, ~9 hours)

First, I should point out that the times I’m quoting are MY times, not the times you’ll see posted on any tour company site. Sadly, no amount of witchcraft can change the distances, so those are accurate. Some tour companies will have you believe that day 2 is only a 7 hour trek. They are lying assholes. Ok, ok…. perhaps it could be only 7 hours…. there are super athletes who can run the whole trail in a day, after all (or so I’m told). But it definitely took me longer.

I also feel like now is a good time to point out that our group of six contained an active soldier (fresh off of a deployment), as well as a recent graduate of the police academy. And while not marathon runners, the rest of our group are in relatively good shape — working out regularly, hiking regularly, etc. The other two parties were also in good physical shape. So even though we often bemoaned the fact that we should have exercised more in preparation, we weren’t total slackers, either.

We were fully prepared for the fact that day 2 is the “worst” day. What we weren’t prepared for was just how bad it would be. I am sorry, but there is no delicate way to put it — It. Fucking. Sucked. I knew that we would be climbing over 4,000 vertical feet in one day, before immediately descending 2,600 ft. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much that was. I believe most of us were at the level of “blackout rage” by the time we reached the summit (perhaps aptly named “Dead Woman’s Pass”, even if not intentionally for this reason?). The best way I can describe the ascent is to say that it’s like climbing on a stair stepper for 5 straight hours, while breathing through a straw (it is a cruel joke that the higher you climb and the more your legs burn, the less oxygen you can take in). And another point — the Incas were short people (my sister and I, at 5’2″, can empathize) — so why did they make such huge steps??

In any case, one redeeming factor is that the first part of the ascent is very beautiful (and more jungle-y than I would have expected), allowing us ample chances to stop & take photos (i.e., rest).


Ahhh, nature. Such a great distraction from pain.

Ahhh, nature. Such a great distraction from pain.

Once we finally made it to the top, we lingered long enough to take a few photos — somehow we mustered up enough energy to look happy, and then we took a photo showing how we really felt.

Atop Warmiwañusca -- look how happy we are!

Atop Warmiwañusca — we are so happy we could be in Glee!


And this is how we really felt.

And this is how we really felt.

Then (because some members were suffering from very real altitude sickness, and the rest of us just wanted to get to camp ASAP), we immediately started the descent. Which wasn’t particularly difficult, just steep. And pretty hard on the knees. Oh and at some point the steps coincided with the stream (Walking downhill in a stream = totally safe and not at all a slipping hazard for tripping-prone people such as myself). But after another few hours (or maybe it was only one hour, I honestly I have no idea), we arrived at camp. And then we had lunch.

Yes, you read that correctly — we climbed a total of ~6,600 feet (4,000 up and 2,600 down) before lunch. We spent the “free time” napping, playing cards, and nursing blisters. Then at dinner Kat & I peaced out after soup was served, yet again. Hey, if you’re going to be hiking so much, sleep matters.

Day 3 (18km, ~8 hours)

Perhaps it was the knowledge that the “hardest day” was behind us, but we had a little extra spring in our step when we departed camp for our third day. We knew this was the longest day, but we also knew we got to split it into 4 hour chunks, before and after lunch. Also, it was New Year’s Eve. So there was the promise of some celebration at the end of our day’s hike.

It was during this day that we coined the phrases “Inca flat” and “Peru minutes”. We had grown skeptical of our guide’s constant promises of “It’s a bit uphill, and then all flat until camp”, and “Only another 45 minutes”. Once we realized we were being lied to (perhaps to keep our spirits up), we started retorting with “So is it actually flat, or is it Inca flat?” or “Are we talking 45 Peru minutes or actual minutes?”. Fortunately our guide seemed to find this hysterical, before conceding with a smile that he actually only spoke in terms of Inca flat and Peru minutes.

The day was uphill, and then downhill. And then up some more, and down some more. Just when you couldn’t feel your legs any longer, you turned the bend to find…. yet another staircase (up or down …. at this point, they were equally painful). But it was a fairly pleasant day, especially given the lunch break. We got to rest, enjoy some delicious food (honestly, the food that the porters cooked up during this journey was truly fantastic), and even see some llamas (or alpacas?) before departing for the afternoon. And even though it rained almost the entire second half of the day, we were still pretty happy.


When we got to camp for the night, we finally realized we weren’t the only group on the trail. Given that it’s the last campsite before Machu Picchu, there were 9 other groups nearby (most of which we couldn’t see, but could hear). Still, it was New Year’s Eve, and the excitement over finally getting to Machu Picchu in the morning was contagious! One very awesome member of our 13-person party had brought a small bottle of whiskey to celebrate (and carried it!), and yet another had purchased a bottle of the finest champagne to be had on the Inca Trail. So we stayed up “late” (an unholy 9:30 pm) playing cards & toasting new friends and the new year.

No whiskey has ever tasted so fine

No whiskey has ever tasted so fine

Not a bad view for New Year's Eve

Not a bad view for New Year’s Eve


Day 4 (6km, 3 hours)

Hallelujah! The day had arrived! Even though we were awoken at 3 am, and even though we had to wait in line for an hour before being able to enter (I honestly don’t know where we were entering — it was just another checkpoint on the trail that necessitated our passports & tickets), it was a special day. One, it was January 1st, the start of 2013. Two, we had a measly 2-3 hours of hiking (yawn. We could probably do that in our sleep by now). Three, we were about to see Machu Picchu. And four (most importantly) — we were going to be able to have a hot shower before the day was out!

Maybe it was because we were so happy to be so close, but I honestly thought that the final day was the most beautiful. The trail was treacherous, no doubt, often allowing only enough room for single-file hiking. But the early morning light was beautiful, and we were back to a jungle-y forest altitude. I saw more orchids on the trail in this day than all the others combined.


Yes, those are orchids. Tiny, little orchids.

Yes, those are orchids. Tiny, little orchids.


We made it to the “Sun Gate” well after sunrise — we were taking it slow and steady, and weren’t rushing to get to MP (there was no way we were going to beat the crowds, anyway). But getting our first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the clouds was a huge relief.

First glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

First glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate … yep, we then had to climb all the way down

I’m not going to lie… when we finally arrived to the famed Inca City, it was a bit anticlimactic. It was certainly beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and breathtaking. But after the 4 day hike, I think my real reaction was “Cool…. now where can I sit down?”.

We snapped a quick group portrait, just to prove that we had made it …


And we couldn’t get rid of those “bus people” in the background. You’d think that we were smelly enough to ward off the train & bus tourists, but no luck.

And then we had to exit the part to check our packs & walking sticks, before re-entering to get our tour. It was fantastic, informative, humbling, amazing, etc etc etc….. But in this case, it really was more about the journey than the destination.

The bottom line: Would I recommend this? Eh…. yes, probably. It was one of the best (and worst) experiences of my life. It was a physical and emotional rollercoaster. One of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. But it was so rewarding, with a spectacular view to boot.

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  • Oliver

    January 23, 2013 at 22:58

    My friend just did the Salkantay Trek! Unluckily she didn’t book quick enough to score a spot on the Inca Trail :( When I went to Machu Picchu I didn’t have enough time to do a trek (so hopefully I can plan better next time, the Inca Trail sounds like my sort of challenge!) I actually went by train and found the articles in this Newsletter really helpful, as a guideline, maybe if you and your blog readers go back someday soon maybe this would also be helpful for you!


  • Kelley

    January 24, 2013 at 00:00

    Thanks! I hear the Salkantay Trek is a little harder terrain (steeper climbs), but you get the benefit of having horses & donkeys carry your stuff :-) The Inca Trail was definitely a challenge, but I’m glad I can check it off the bucket list. Hopefully you’ll get to do it one day!


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