The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Oct 18, 2011
Inka Trail by Faride Altamirano
The Incas made trails that made up their empire far and wide.
The most important was the Capac Ñam or royal trail, with a length of 5.200 kilometers. Starting in Quito (Ecuador), it passed through Cusco, and ended in what is now Tucumán, Argentina, crossing mountains and hills, with altitudes over 5,000 meters.
The famous Inca Trail that links the Sacred Valley of Cusco to Machu Picchu is only a fraction (42kms) from the vast network of Inca roads.
Throughout the year (except in February when it is closed for maintenance), thousands of travelers from all over the world undertake the journey along the Inca Trail from Cusco to access the green mountains of Peru, as well as the ancient mysteries that the stones of Machu Picchu still contain. Along the road, the remains of several forts in relatively good condition visually dominate the whole picture.
The tour begins in the town of Ccorihuayrachina at the 82nd kilometer of the Cusco-Machu Picchu railroad. The Inca trail passes through an impressive range of altitudes, climates and ecosystems as diverse as high Andean highlands and cloud forests. Two passes must be crossed at high altitude (the largest, Warmihuañusca approximately at 4,200 meters of altitude, also known as the “Dead Woman’s Pass”), finally the trail takes you to the entrance of Machu Picchu through the Inti Punku or “Sun Gate”.
During the walk, the weather tends to be dry during the first two days and humid on the third and fourth. The nights on the other hand are different; the first two camps are usually cold, while the third has a milder climate.
There are millions of Inca Trail descriptions; I’d like to share the “experience.”
We left very early in a private transfer across the Sacred Valley down to Ollantaytambo. The commercial activity there at that time of the day is tremendous; trucks full of products coming from Quillabamba make it difficult to access the town.
We stopped here to get the last supplies for the trip.
If you forgot to bring walking poles here you can find them at 35 soles each one, if you lost the rubber protective tips for your walking poles, you can purchase them here at 16 soles per pair.
Bear in mind that it is forbidden to enter the Inca Trail without these protectors because without them the stones covering the trail get damaged. It should be noted that it is totally forbidden to enter Machu Picchu with walking poles (even with the rubber tips on).
If you think that the walking poles will be a hindrance rather than help, you are mistaken, you save about 30% of energy using them and they give you a lot of security, especially on steep slopes.
We continue our way walking through farmlands along a road next to the railroad. We arrive in Piscacucho at kilometer 82. Here we find a checkpoint for passengers and another one for the porters. They are very careful checking the accuracy of the information contained in their list, and if it differs from the one in your documents, you will not enter.
Just a hanging bridge separates the real world from the wonderful and surreal territory that we are about to explore, and so we begin the difficult ascent through this bumpy road…
The first hours pass by slowly, we look like a line of ants walking towards the same point. People of all nationalities carrying sophisticated equipment quickly make their way as if they were trying to get somewhere before the rest.
Although there are only small houses along the way, they all have something to offer, candy, water, snacks or even bathrooms for rent.
The hours pass by, the sunshine gets stronger and groups have already left, walking becomes more peaceful.
The first day of walking hasn’t been so hard, it takes about 4 to 5 hours depending on where you’re going to camp or how fast you walk. During this first day, the first archeological remains you will see are the ones in Llactapata or Patallacta. The path by which we are going goes along a small stream, not very steep and the walk is pleasant.
We continue the journey. When we get to Huallabamba , we get ready to spend our first night camping.
We wake up surrounded by fog, with fresh but not frozen air, very pure.
It was already 7:00 am. when we were ready to start the day. Today, we would have to cross three “Abras” (passes), the highest of 4200 m.a.s.l. We were ready for the challenge!
The first part of the road crosses a small forest of queñuales (native bushes) and passes through a trail in very good condition. We passed the Llulluchapampa camp, as we move forward we can see in the distance the Wuarmiwañusca (dead woman´s) “abra” at 4200 meters, the highest point of the tour. Getting to it took four grueling hours, not because of it being a long way, but because most of it goes uphill.
Reaching the top was quite a party! Receiving words of encouragement in all languages to keep you going on… A small run of 5 minutes crowned me as the winner! I finally arrived! (Out of breath for running at 4,200 meters of elevation, but very happy to feel that I was touching the sky). The rest of the day from here was long, the scenery was wonderful, we began the descent into the valley of Pacaymayo. The road is narrow in some parts and with steps of irregular size, so you have to be careful. Your knees are the first to suffer but having our super “walking poles” to cushion every step is of great help. We arrived in Pacaymayo, the camp was already set-up and hot food was waiting for us. We were ready to spend a starry night.
With a lot of energy, we started what´s for me the most beautiful day of the Inca Trail. The cloudy forest, the weather, the humidity and the smell of wet soil makes every step unforgettable.
From Pacaymayo, following a zigzag ascent we arrive to the circular ruins of Runkurakay, an strategic place where the Inca messengers (chaskis) stopped for food, to rest and get more water to continue their trip.
The road continues up until the second pass also called Runkurakay.
Here’s the kicker, a pretty steep drop by a well-preserved Inca Trail, a cool minty weather, and a kind of gloomy fog will not let you see what´s coming up. The vegetation from this point is much more varied.
I was obsessed with finding some Wakanki (a type of orchid whose name translated into English means “you will cry”). The Wakanki is the emblematic flower of Machu Picchu.
Gradually we got to the ruins of Sayacmarca (3.620 m), from where everything changes, we enter the forest and continue on a very easy path to Phuyupatamarca (translated into English, “high village surrounded by clouds”) …. The road, with a few drops of rain became nice, fresh and mystical. We went through “The Tunnel” a natural cavity produced by the erosion of the wind and rain and used by the Incas as part of their trail.
We passed through narrow roads up to Phuyupatamarca, a ceremonial center (3650m); here we had lunch surrounded by clouds.In this place there is mobile phone signal, so we took out all necessary equipment to return to the real world for 3 minutes. Down the road we could see the valley and the Urubamba River, which at this point is renamed Vilcanota.
We descended quickly down a road full of all types of orchids, up to Winay Wayna, the last campsite.
Here there is a hostel, very basic but it is the first contact with civilization. Here you can rent hot showers, at the reasonable price of 5 soles for 5 minutes.
This night is very long as everyone is celebrating at the hostel, music, beer and a sense of self-accomplishment surrounds us.
There is no rush this day, we stayed longer than usual enjoying the ruins in Winay Wayna under a shy drizzle. After all groups have left the camp site, we are ready to start again. Today, we will only walk for just one hour.
By a narrow road full of orchids we arrive to a very steep stone stairway that leads us to the Intipunku or Sun gate.
We arrive to Machu Picchu!
I’ve never seen Machupicchu from this angle; it is awesome, great and rewarding!
With parents that worked for the U.S. Foreign Service up until he graduated from high school, Chris was raised to have the heart of a nomad throughout his life. He has resided in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador throughout his years, and just recently spent the past four up in Canada finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy & English at the University of British Columbia. He is now devoted to writing about all things related to travel in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.