When I first found out about Machu Picchu, I was 100% sure I was going to take the train up; hiking never crossed my mind. Years later, I somehow decided it would be cool to trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Maybe I wanted a challenge or a sense of accomplishment, or maybe it was purely peer pressure because most people I know had done it. Regardless of why I changed my mind, I’m so glad I did it and want to share with you my journey!
I will write a separate blog on how to prepare and pack for the trip, as well as reasons whether you should do it or not.
Know Before You Go
- Rainy season is October to April, it’s not the best time to hike because the ground gets slippery and you might not be able to see Machu Picchu due to fog
- Inca trail is closed every February for maintenance
- Inca trail requires permits and thus gets booked up very fast. Book yours at least 4-5 months in advance
- You will not be able to shower for 3 days, bring body wipes and dry shampoo
- You will be sleeping in a tent shared with someone else for 3 nights
- There are also 5 day hikes and 2 day hikes available
- You will not be the first one arriving at Machu Picchu on Day 4; you will arrive around 7:30-8am
- Different tour agencies have different itinerary. I went with Alpaca Expedition. We front loaded the hike so Day 1 and Day 2 were heavy and Day 3 was really chill.
- Tips are mandatory: suggested amount is 150 sol (~50USD)for porters and chef, and 100-150 sol for the guides
- Bring extra $300 (USD) in case you need to turn back during the hike due to illness or physical disability
- You can turn back during Day 1 and Day 2, but after that there is no turning back
Day 0 – Briefing Night
Every company will hold a briefing session the night before the hike. Usually you will get a confirmation email a week or 2 before the trek that tells you what to pack and the time of the briefing.
During the briefing the guides will tell you when the pick up was the next morning and you will also get a duffel bag and a scale so you can pack personal belongings into the bag for porters to carry. However due to regulation porters can only carry 7kg of your personal belongings for you, this includes 3.5kg of sleeping bag, foam mattress, air mattress, and tent. So you are really just left with 3.5kg for them to carry. What happens to the rest? Well you will need to carry them in your day pack. It sucks to carry a heavy day pack while hiking at 4000m (13000 ft) so efficient packing is key!
I would suggest the following things to carry in your day pack: water, scarf, bandanna, sunglasses, toilet paper, gloves, hat/cap, emergency kit (some medicine and band aid), bug spray, phone and camera. Snacks will be provided to you during every meal so you can carry that with you too!
Day 1 – It Has Its Ups and Downs
Distance: 14km (8.7 miles)
Day 1 was the start of our 4 day journey. Our guides Lizandro and Pamela (2 guides because we have 10 people in our group) picked us up from our hotel at 3:30am. After two hour drive, we reached our breakfast area before the hike. We also got our permits and passport checked and stamped and officially started our hike!
Sunny weather and flat trail together with excitement for the trek made Day 1 a very easy hike…until the last 1.5 hours where we started going uphill (pretty much uphill after lunch). Suddenly the hike was not so easy anymore and everyone had a taste of what’s to come on Day 2. The scenery also changed from hiking next to a river with views of snow capped mountain to hiking uphill in the woods. During the first day you also come across many villages along the way so bathrooms will be available.
Since it was our first day, we were all curious on the type of food and tents we were getting. Alpaca Expedition did a good job with stuffing us with multi-course meals everyday (salad, soup, rice/noodle, meat, veggies, etc). We had two vegetarians in our group and the chefs took extra care to provide them with good Vegetarian options. Water was boiled then cooled down at every meal so we didn’t have to worry about bringing our own water. Beverages generally included different types of tea, instant coffee and hot chocolate. Due to the weight limit, there was no soda or juice available on the trek.
Our tent was more than spacious for two people. What I really enjoyed was the fact they give us hot water to wash our hands/face when we get to camp after a long day. The porters also set up a portal toilet in a tent so you get the privacy you need and not have to go into the woods.
Day 1 is probably the warmest day of the hike. It was Sunny and hot the entire time, most people in my group wore t shirts, so bring lots of sunscreen! The weather will change drastically during Day 2.
Day 2 – What Goes Up Must Come Down
Distance: 16km (10 miles)
Elevation: 4200m on top of Dead Woman’s Pass; 3600m at camp
Everyone had warned me about Day 2 and oh boy everything they said about Day 2 was true. It was a true test of both mental and physical strength and determination.
We were woken up at 4:30am to get ready for breakfast at 5:10am and leave by 5:30am. It was a day of hiking up and down two mountains both at 4000m+. We hiked for about 3-4 hours in the morning to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. It was a slow and painful ascend due to the thin air and rainy weather, but having conquered Dead Woman’s Pass is probably the biggest accomplishment on the trek. The mountain is named that way because the hills look like a woman lying down facing up with two breasts. Don’t worry, nobody died there.
We explored a few ruins along the way
Little did I know that it was going to start raining and that made downhill extremely slippery and hard. I actually slipped and fell and injured my arm the first 20 min of downhill. Good thing our guides had band-aid and pain killer with them and literally walked down with me to the bottom of the mountain.
Lunch never felt so good after 3 hours of uphill and 2 hours of downhill. However that was only half way to our camp. We had to hike up another really steep hill for 1.5 hours after lunch, rest, then hike 1.5 hours down in the rain.
The elevation make hiking uphill extremely difficult as we struggled to breathe, but going downhill was equally challenging due to the slippery rocks and steep steps. I don’t think I’ve been so happy in my life to finish a day hike and get the warm welcome by our porters back at camp!
Since we were so high up in the mountain, it became extremely cold at night. Good thing our sleeping bags were really warm but I still went to bed with 2 layers! Make sure to bring a hat and scarf and gloves with you to stay warm. Fortunately the sky cleared up at night and we were able to see a million stars from our camp.
Day 3 – Down
Distance: 10km (6.2 miles)
After Day 2 we felt like we could do anything. It was a relatively easy uphill hike for about an hour before we started heading downhill for 3 hours till lunch (as well as our camp). Unfortunately it rained for the most part so we couldn’t see the view of the “cloud forest”, but I can imagine it must be beautiful on a sunny day.
We stopped by some ruins and tunnels while battling bugs (apparently these bugs only appear in the month of August and September). There were definitely steep parts of downhill but overall a relatively easy day.
After arriving at camp at about 1pm for lunch, we saw these cute llamas and started trying to take selfies with them. They seem to really dislike having cameras pointed at them though.
After 2 hours of nap time the day finally cleared up and the view of our tent was amazing! We even had time to explore this ruin called the Mini Machu Picchu (Winaywayna) 5 minutes from our tent. What’s amazing about the Inca Trail is that you will be the only ones who get to explore these Inca ruins and learn about them.
Also during Day 3, there is cold shower and bathroom next to our tent, but nobody from our group bothered with the cold shower since it was so cold and we were only one day away from real shower and beds.
Our guides and chef prepared a surprise for us during dinner! I will not spoil it but it was amazing how creative people are in extreme circumstances! Also during dinner the guides talked to us about tipping our porters and themselves.
One thing I want to bring up is the treatment of porters. I don’t think most people talk about it in their blogs but it’s important to me. During the trek I was really surprised at how much weight porters need to carry for us. On top of our 7kg of personal belongings including tents and sleeping bags, they also have to carry all the raw cooking materials, gas tanks, tables and chairs, and portable toilets. Regulation says porters can only carry up to 25kg but I’m sure they carry more than that in reality (not with Alpaca but maybe with other companies). If someone’s sick or injured or simply not feeling well, the porters will end up carrying that person’a day pack as well.
They often don’t have nice shoes either, yet they are running up and down hills really fast and probably not in the safest way. One may think that the $665 cost of the trip may be a lot, but it actually covers $80 of train ride, bus ride, permit for ourselves and our porters/guides, food, Machu Picchu ticket, etc. in the end there’s really not much left to actually pay the porters’ salaries. So tips are really important to them. That’s why I want to advocate tipping the porters more because their jobs are really hard and dangerous and they get treated unfairly. On the last day of the hike, Porters need to pack up and run downhill to catch their train at 5am. If they miss their train they either have to walk hours to the next stop or wait literally a day for the next train (with potentially no seats). So please tip them more as the money is probably worth a lot more to them than to you if you are able to spend thousands of dollars on a trip.
Day 4 – Machu Picchu
Everyone was excited to finally reach Machu Picchu on Day 4 but first we had to get up at 3am to wait at the gate till 5:30am when the rangers open the gate. Since there are only so many covered seating at the gate, our group decided to try to get there as early as possible so we have a place to sit under a cover in case it rains.
At 5:30am the gate opened and everyone literally powered walk/ran uphill for an hour to the Sun Gate. The last part of this uphill race was called Gringo Killer steps, where you have to use your hands and scramble up the rocks. But after that you are at Sun Gate! The Sun Gate is significant because it’s the first place you see Machu Picchu from the Inca trail. It also used to be guarded by the imperial guards so only the worthy could enter Machu Picchu.
Having started early means we were able to get some shots of it before it got really crowded with other trekkers. After that was a breezy 45 min gradual downhill to Machu Picchu. Like I mentioned earlier, you will not be the first ones at Machu Picchu as the train riders can get there hours before you.
Our guides helped us take the obligatory Machu Picchu before we had to leave and wait outside. We were able to use a real bathroom (with toilet paper), get our passport stamped with Machu Picchu stamp, eat and drink before re-entering Machu Picchu for a private tour. The Machu Picchu ticket also allows you to re-enter twice the same day.
Honestly after the 4 day hike we were all too exhausted to really care about Machu Picchu. It merely symbolized an end point of an amazing journey but it was far from the highlight and destination of the trip as it is for many tourists. It was great to learn more about the history of Machu Picchu but everyone was dying to shower and go home.
After the Machu Picchu tour we took the bus down to Aguas Calientes for lunch before taking the luxury train back. There are hot springs and massage places in Aguas Calientes, as well as many restaurants, shops, and cafes with Wifi! It’s a good place to buy souvenirs and just chill before the 2 hour train ride to Ollantaytambo (then another 2 hour bus ride to Cusco). The train ride itself was luxurious and has see through roof. It was interesting to look up at the mountains and wonder which one we hiked down from. The train ride also includes tea/coffee/water and snacks. Unfortunately there was no wifi.
The 4 day Inca Trail was definitely not an easy trek but I’m glad I did it. I also believe that everyone with reasonable fitness level and determination can do it. I saw so many amazing things and the ever changing landscape on the trail. If you are potentially interested in hiking it, I highly encourage you to!