I have had visiting Machu Picchu on my bucket list since I was a little kid. I had this ‘My First Amazing World Explorer’ game on CD-rom for PC and in it you had to go to different landmarks and look for stickers for your travel scrapbook, all the while it taught you about these places. One of the places you visited was Machu Picchu and I thought it looked amazing and I wanted to go there some day. Fast forward about twenty years and as soon as I watched Karl Watson’s Youtube channel episode on Peru, I knew I had to do the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Going by train just did not feel like the authentic option for someone who loves a good hike.
The Inca Trail Experience with G Adventures
Now the video that had inspired this hiking option was time captured on the trip with G Adventures, and the food and group vibe looked great. However I had also travelled with Intrepid before, so I did a contrast and compare of the options they both offered and decided G Adventures looked the better value for money at the time I wanted to go. The trip I picked was Inca Empire – from La Paz to Lima. A 15 day tour in a group size of approx 12 people. I could not have been luckier with my group, we had a really great mix of people, largely solo travellers but one couple and one father/son duo. We had a good age range, a variety of backgrounds and most importantly were all up for having a laugh and getting stuck in. A sense of positivity and seeing the trail experience for what it is even during the tougher parts was absolutely invaluable. Our guides were awesome as well, keeping us motivated, telling us fascinating history and making us laugh with their stories of previous trips the whole way.
Is the trail for me?
There are a few things you should know before you commit yourself to hiking the Inca Trail. If this puts you off I won’t be offended should you not read the further detail contained in the rest of this post!
- It is four days of hiking just over 40km and almost entirely up or down hill the whole way. There is no flat easy section. You don’t have to be super fit to do it, but you would be wise to have a basic level of fitness and some practice of sustained uphill walking.
- The highest point is just over 4200 meters above sea level, so make sure you have factored in acclimatisation time. If you are short on time and still want to go visit, the train ride is much easier, quicker, and unlikely to make you unwell. Altitude sickness is no joke.
- You do not have much packing space and you will be camping with increasingly questionable facilities over the course of the four days. We are talking freezing cold showers, squat toilets in the pitch black as it gets dark early and tents. No luxury to be found here, but it is all part of the experience.
- You have to have a permit from the Peruvian Government to hike the Inca trail which you can only obtain via doing a group tour with a licensed operator. The trail is capped at 500 people entering per day, and around 300 of those are porters who carry your equipment. I read lots of advice about booking early for your Inca Trail, I booked around 4 months before I went but some trips were already sold out. Don’t expect to be able to rock up and do it, plan in advance!
With that said, I would 100% recommend doing it to anyone who is planning to visit Peru and see this Ancient Wonder. It was such an unforgettable few days of stunning scenery, adventure and team camaraderie and it really made that view at the end all the more special. Not sure the impact of coming up on the bus is the same as looking down from the sun gate having already hiked for 2 hours after getting up at 3.30am…!
Day 0 – Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo
Yes I am including day zero – the prep day! Having already had our briefing session and picked up our duffel bags which would contain our stuff in Cusco, we set out bright and early for Ollantaytambo. This town is located in the sacred valley and is popular with tourists ahead of and after the trek. I actually wouldn’t have minded an extra day here, it was really picturesque with lots of cute restaurants and there were ruins to explore. We headed up for a little hike to the Ollantaytambo storehouses as soon as we arrived, as they have a strict closing time so we needed to get moving. Our guide was keen we go in order to get a feel for what the Inca trail path itself would be like. As it happens, the path is also quite steep, uneven and basically all made up of stairs. This is indeed good practice. A short 15-20 hike for stunning views.
On the way to Ollantaytambo we also had the opportunity to stop off at a local silversmith, a co-operative woman’s weaving community and another local community – good place to pick up unique souvenirs! Would recommend taking an extra bag for this night that your tour leader will take back to Cusco for you, as they do not join you on the trail. Not only is it great for any gifts but you can send extra clothes and toiletries back safely which is very handy.
We got back from the storehouse hike around 4pm, giving people time to go and change and hunt for any final trail snacks and essential items ahead of the trek. In time I will write a packing list with my recommendations which I will link here. Group dinner was a nice early one, ready for our 1 hour bus ride the next day to kilometer 82 – the start point of the trail.
Day 1 – The trail begins
I think it is fair to say all of us awoke slightly jittery with nerves and anxious to hit the trail and get going! The duffel bags and rucksacks were packed, armed with water, snacks, coca leaves and many layers of clothing and we snuck in a last breakfast, with no idea what kind of food awaited on the trail.
Arriving at the starting site, we were sent to drop our duffel bags with our group of porters. There were so many porters around preparing for their journey which would be even more gruelling than ours. Another reason for picking G Adventures is that they have a solid reputation for treating their porters well both in terms of pay and making sure they have adequate equipment to avoid injury. So with bags left and hiking poles collected for those who opted to rent them (everyone except me and one other guy), it was time to embark on our adventure.
First up, the visitors centre, which is open to those who don’t go on the trek as well. We learnt some history about the flora and fauna that we would encounter on the trail. Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and the Inca trail is the perfect showcase for it!
Then it was out and down to the river, just before which the starting ‘Camino Inca’ trail sign is located where everyone gets at least a group photo taken. This is right next to the railway where the cargo trains pass by – a different route to the tourist train that ferries travellers not wishing to do the trail. Then we headed over the bridge and officially started the trail.
Even within those first few hours, the full spectacle of the Andes presents itself. We spied a glacier that we were told would disappear from view but be back on our third day. The path was not too steep and flat underfoot at this point, which frankly was misleading! But we reached our first rest stop opposite some ruins which used to house soldiers and crops.
Digging in to our snack packs which were provided on day one, we felt good about the trek thus far. However, then began the ascending stairs. It is a little intimidating to look up and constantly see groups of brightly coloured porters winding their way up both in the distance and so much higher than your current spot!
Fortunately we all survived this first ascent and made it to our next historical point, having passed another little kiosk with snacks and supplies run by the locals. Lots of ruins to explore and incredible views.
When we finally got to lunch, we wandered over a rushing river and to a sort of encampment. We were amazed to find a little tent had been set up for us to eat in, which was really cute! The food was genuinely good as well, with a guac covered cracker to start, some thoughtfully presented trout accompanied by sweet potato and then some spiced carrot for dessert. Weird but quite nice!
We were given 15 mins of rest time by the river and some people dipped their toes in to cool down.
Then it was off again on the still fairly smooth path all the way on to camp. You cover 11km on this first day, although by my Apple watch count it was over 12km. Expect this was due to the fact we were the highest campsite up the mountain of them all! We were pretty exhausted when we got up there but it did have the benefit of meaning that we would have less to climb the next day, as well as the best view out of all the hikers. A win for sure. We also had our own little toilet huts for our group, which was not a luxury we had on the next two nights.
Water was provided to wash our feet and selves as we layered up for the sun going down, which happens pretty early in the mountains around 5-6pm! Then it was a dinner of chicken and rice followed by tea and hot chocolate, a minor camp scare courtesy of a rogue tarantula who thought the food tent entrance looked an inviting place to hang out, a few rounds of monopoly deal and then bed.
That first night was pretty cold, I definitely underestimated my sleeping layers and didn’t sleep too well as a consequence. But we had survived day on of hiking the Inca trail.
Day 2 – Dead Woman’s Pass
You may have to wake up at 5am on the Inca trail, but my god was the sunrise a spectacle worth that early start. We hastily dressed in our tents and removed all our belongings so the porters could get to work dismantling the camp and start off ahead of us with all of our equipment. Meanwhile our breakfast was served, in the form of breads with jam and omelettes. More coca leaf tea as well as coffee and regular tea were consumed, and then it was time to tackle the hardest day of the trek.
11km and 1000m elevation climb lay ahead of us. All of this through the jungle in the cold as the sun was yet to reach the lower levels of the land where we would be traipsing. It was pretty chilly and the only time whilst actually walking when I wore most of my layers. Otherwise they were relegated to night time camp duties! Not long after setting off we saw our first view of the dead woman’s pass, so called because the ridge pattern looks like a woman laid to rest.
The variation in plant life was impressive on the climb, and our guide spent time telling us about how these grow and the different eco systems. I wish I remembered more of it to share with you but alas. It kept us going though and allowed us to have little breaks to admire things like the Peruvian national flower.
The first rest stop that day is one of the last places you can purchase snacks and supplies from the locals who set up stalls on the trail. We even passed the house of a man who has lived on the trail into his eighties, with his children and grandchildren who work as porters at a stage of their life, still coming up to visit him. We even got a wave.
From there we continued, up and up and still more up. The steps wind their way through the jungle, and it really did feel like we could be on location for an Indiana Jones movie. Real adventure sense, much more than the first day. The stairs and slopes seemed never ending and we were envious of the babbling stream that effortlessly flowed down the hill. Little did we know the downwards stairs would be even more brutal than the up!
Finally emerging from the jungle canopy, we could again see the snowcapped Andes all around us. At this point we also progressed into the ever increasing sunlight, and were able to shed some layers. This lead to a fair bit of stopping and starting, but this was actually welcome given we were now approaching the 4000m meter mark whilst also hauling ourselves up steep stone stairs. Water was key here, as were Oreos, Haribo and Gatorade.
Fuelled with sugar and a steely resolve, we powered ourselves to the top with a fair bit of the group summiting just before it hit 10am. Having left the camp around 6:15am this wasn’t too bad going. Average time to make it is around 11am. Here we had a good long break with our guide entertaining us with previous group stories, including a guy who ended up proposing at this spot instead of his planned Machu Picchu due to a ring loss scare. It was apparently in his rain coat the whole time!
When finished with out victory photoshoot, we started our descent to camp. As we were due to be there by 2-3pm, we didn’t stop for lunch anywhere as we would be having our meal when we reached camp. Downhill stairs are much harder on the knees, even though it is less of a cardio workout. So you may enjoy it more or less. Personally I didn’t take the walking poles and so coming down was even more brutal. Nonetheless we wandered on, happy to no longer be short of breath from the altitude and spurred on by a well earned meal.
The second camp was much more compact than the first, where we had our own spot. This was row after row of tents, grouped all together in frankly identical looking tents as soon as it got dark! This is also where the toilet situation started to go down hill, with some of the facilities available being squat toilets. A number of us decided however it was time to brave the cold showers available, which made for a hilarious afternoon of squealing at the icicles that came out of the shower heads. Hands down one of the worst showers ever, but boy did it feel good to at least be clean!
That evening we gathered in a circle and learnt a bit about all our porters who had done so much for us, and told them all a bit about ourselves. They mostly spoke Quechua, the native language, but also understood Spanish – luckily our guide translated it all for everyone. It was a really nice experience and glad we got to interact with the people working so hard to try an give us the best experience possible. Then it was another delicious meal, a few rounds of cards and off to bed for that next 5am wake up call.
Day 3 – Will these stairs ever end?
After a better night of sleep, having worn every item I brought including gloves, hat and coat to bed, we were up again at 5am. Definitely the best day breakfast wise as we got pancakes with hot apple inside, complete with caramel sauce writing!
We were all so impressed by this touch, really made it extra special. Which is a nice way to feel at 5am in the pitch dark of the mountains.
Keen to set off we began ascending yet more stairs. Couldn’t help but feel it had begun very similarly to the previous day, which was allegedly the hardest…
The first rest stop came in the form of a circular stone ruin, which looked out over a funny shaped ridge. This was once a religious site with stunning views of the Andes. It was hard not to feel a connection to nature in this gorgeous setting.
We then passed a small lake, which was allegedly the site of a murder years ago. Our guide had told us the tale the previous night so was a bit chilling to see the place. I won’t ruin the story for anyone who is going, so if you want to know what happened lace up those hiking boots and get yourself a trail permit!
Near to here there was a high ridge that our guide said gave you stunning 360 degree views, so most of us embarked on the little scramble up there to take a peek. Despite nearly dying when attempting to take a selfie, it was incredible. Just not a very stable place for more than a few people to stand!
Continuing on we passed through some stone tunnels and out into a more jungly section of the trail. There was the option here to hike up more stony steps to go for a ramble around some further ruins. It is incredible to see the neatly designed structures created so many hundreds of years ago.
The path at this point lost a lot of gradient, and it almost felt flat which made quite a change. Nothing is really flat in Peru, so it was ‘Peruvian flat’! Our surroundings got pretty green again up here, showcasing the huge variety of flora and fauna once more. I will be honest I didn’t take many pictures on this part of the trek, as me and two of the guys were trying to name the original 151 Pokemon and as I didn’t have the burden of walking poles I was tasked with recording the list. We got to 140 pretty easily, then up to 149 within not much longer. The final two eluded us until the way down from the sun gate to Machu Picchu and frankly I am not sure which of those things brought us more joy!
Our final lunch stop was located on a large rocky outcrop. Apparently you sometimes see condors up here. We thought we found one but it might just have been an eagle. We had some sort of loaded nachos, but the real surprise was that they had made us a cake! It genuinely is mind-blowing what the porters can cook for you, on the side of a mountain, with such minimal resources.
Back to it for the final stretch. We passed through more ruins, observing the water systems that still have the good stuff flowing through them. To everyone’s initial delight, we encountered a llama roadblock. Then we were not sure how chill llamas would be if we walked past them. However a few porters came along and sort of nudged the llamas out of their way gently, so we figured they wouldn’t mind us passing!
The final set of ruins for the day was a great tiered set of walls build upon the mountainside. This site had the most amazing views of the valley and the river down below.
Naturally we decided this was the time to muck around and take some silly photos whilst we allowed the others to catch up a bit. Needless to say my handstands could really use a bit of work!
From there it was only another 15 minutes to our final camp. This time we were right up at the top as one of the first camps you came through and we were close to the facilities unlike the previous evening so no more trampling through everyone’s tents. We had our very last dinner, played some more rounds of Monopoly deal, and headed off to bed in our trusty tents for the last time. The altitude was much less here, so it was an awful lot warmer. Didn’t need my coat or anything and actually had a pretty good night’s sleep all things considered. We were basically camping pros three days in… All ready for that brutal 3.30am wake up call…
Day 4 – Sun gate and Machu Picchu
On the final morning of hiking the Inca Trail, we were awoken even earlier than usual. That is right folks, it is a gruelling 3.30am wake up call for this one! This is so the porters can get all packed up with the camp and make the 5.30am train that is put on for them to get back from the town of Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo. However, the actual path to Machu Picchu from that final camp site does not open until 5.30am. This meant after a hurried breakfast and walk down to the park gates, we had an hour to kill. Naturally out came the trusty Monopoly Deal cards. Innovative use of a Disney Parks poncho as a table, we played in the light of the head torches, as it is pitch black down at the entrance!
Finally the line began to move, and we were ready to walk the last hour to the sun gate, eager for our first glimpse of the great lost city of the Incas. Here they checked our guide’s passes and sent us out on to the path. Still in the total darkness with nothing but torches and phones to stop us plunging off the side of the mountain path. Reassuring. Fortunately the sun began its ascent and we were able to see much better and actually appreciate yet more incredible views. This was the only time on the trail we felt bunched up with the other groups on the trail. Also we were right at the back of the pack, having camped the highest and furthest away from the park entrance. This wasn’t a bad thing really but it did mean we were going at a slower pace than the previous days.
Soon after two slow miles we reached the very steep steps up to the sun gate. Think there are fifty odd big stone steps you basically had to use your hands for as well to scale up them.
But when you get to the top, there it is. That magical first view of Machu Picchu way down in the valley. It was all worth it for that view.
I won’t pretend photos and videos I had seen of people making it to the sun gate and Machu Picchu being totally covered in cloud, or even the entire view ruined by cloud and mist, did not have me worried! Alas, we had beautiful weather with mostly clear blue skies and a few wisps of cloud drifting by. The elation at that moment was pretty big. Similar to finishing a half marathon, or receiving exam results to compare to things I have done that have felt like big achievements! We had made it after four days of up and down and dodgy bathrooms and spiders and tents.
After some posing for pictures to try and capture that feeling forever, we began our descent to go and walk among the ruins and learn more about this unique city. Now this was where one of the boys suddenly remembered our missing two Pokemon from our game the day before. Having failed despite reciting them all again whilst waiting for the gate to open, it felt excellent to finally get there. Not quite Machu Picchu exciting, but it definitely cheered us all up!
On the path we were shown a few spots, including where a woman’s body had been discovered. They think she may have been a priestess. Also a place for leaving offerings to mother earth.
Here we laid the stone that we had each been told to select on the first day at the start of the trail to give our thanks for making the trip safely.
It was a good half an hour at least of walking until we finally reached the site of the city. We walked along a terrace to a view point. This was more the view I was expecting as it is the one you see all over Instagram and TV. If you do the hike, you get a slightly better view point than those who have gone up on the train and the bus, which felt like a nice touch. You cannot help bur feel a tad disgruntled towards the people in nice outfits, make up and shoes that are not hiking boots. They don’t truly experience Machu Picchu!
We had to walk out of the site then as you cannot access the main part from the trail entrance. The pit stop at real toilets was so welcome and we grabbed some sugary beverages before heading to our tour.
Here is where our passports got stamped – if you don’t have this with you then you cannot enter the site!
I suspect the day tourists had more energy to concentrate on the tour of the city. We were all exhausted, feet aching and ready for some lunch and a beer! The tour was good though and the history really is fascinating. If I had more time and had control of my own itinerary I would have liked to stay in Aguas Caliente for a night and then gone back and done the tour the next day. You can also walk up the peak next to the city, which is apparently a really scary hike, but they don’t let you do it fresh off the trail. Should I ever find myself in the area again I will be doing that!
Was hiking the Inca Trail worth it?
For me it 100% was and I would not have swapped the experience for the world. I was extremely lucky with my G Adventures group, who were such a fun and positive group of people. And I would absolutely recommend G Adventures. Their reputation was well deserved, they looked after us well and they seem to really look after their porters.
If you have the time to acclimatise and do the four day trek as well as a basic level of fitness, and a tolerance at least for hiking – do it! Hiking the Inca Trail is definitely one of the coolest things I have done on a trip, and is extra special as it was something I had been planning to do for years under different circumstances before covid and various other slight hiccups got in the way! Feels fantastic to have been on this adventure despite these set backs and made those memories!