What to expect hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Llactapata ruins, day one.
Scott Thornton

Llactapata ruins, day one.

Dawn was welcomed by a band parading through the streets and it was the perfect wake-up call for the first day of the Inca Trail.

It was 4.30am and coffee was scarce. My partner and I anxiously sat in the hostel foyer, in the muddled town of Cusco, Peru, watching other backpackers lug their impossibly large bags over their shoulders as they waited for their tour guides to arrive. We didn't know what to expect.

Cusco sits at about 11,000ft above sea level, and the highest point of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, 'Dead Woman's pass' sits at 13,800ft, or 4200m. Altitude sickness is something to watch out for, it can affect even the fittest people. We stayed in Cusco for three days before the Inca trail so we could adjust and for the first few days we both felt sick. Taking altitude sickness pills seemed to help (Sorojchi pills). What didn't help was getting food poisoning on the first day, from a local Irish bar we ate at the night before. But that wasn't going to stop us.

A porter makes his way down the steep slope.
Alexandra Nelson

A porter makes his way down the steep slope.

Day one: Cusco to Wayllabamba 12km

Our quirky tour guides Marco and Percy welcomed everybody on board the bus. We made our way through the mountains as drops of sunlight reached across the windows. The rickety dirt and cobblestone roads made it a wobbly 2½ hour ride. Parts of the road were so thin we had to back-up and wait for other cars to pass.

We passed the villages of Chinchero, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo and stopped in the Sacred Valley for breakfast before continuing for another 30 minutes to our starting point, at the Vilcanota River.

We stop for a short break to admire the view.

We stop for a short break to admire the view.

Sleepy tourists staggered off the bus and began preparing their belongings for the next four days.We decided to carry everything ourselves for the first day; clothes, toiletries, sleeping bags and two mattresses. Most people had hired porters, and by the second day we were lucky to hire one too. Peruvian porters are all about 5ft, small-framed, and unbelievably strong when it comes to carrying big bags, tents and god knows what else. We were amazed at how they do it. It takes four days to hike the Inca Trail, but the record for running it is set by a local porter, who did it in just under 3½ hours.

The first climb across the Vilcanota River was steep, everyone in our 16-group tour was wheezing - but this was meant to be the 'easy day'. We stopped after 20 minutes in the blistering Andes heat, surrounded by mountains to introduce ourselves and learn about the local fauna - and one that was going to help us: cocoa leaves. Yes, they are the same ones used to make cocaine and we chewed them to help give us energy and overcome altitude sickness. They're sacred to the Andes.

The next few hours we saw our first Inca ruins of Llactapata, discovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. We passe the ruins of the Inca hillfort of Huillca Raccay and Cordillera Urubamba mountains with the snow capped peak of Veronica in the distance. Sweating in the Andean sun was a strange contrast while gazing at the snow. Hours later, we arrived at camp Wayllabamba with our tents already set up by the porters and our dinner sizzling away, prepared especially for our tour from our designated chef.

Walking poles are highly recommended for the Inca Trail.
Scott Thornton

Walking poles are highly recommended for the Inca Trail.

Day two: Wayllabamba to Pacamayo 12km

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The toughest day began at 6am with a light breakfast and a side of sore legs.

Luckily we were able to hire a local porter from Wayllabamba who carried one of our 12kg bags. That was a lifesaver and made day two more manageable.

Taking some deep breaths to admire the cloud forest.
Scott Thornton

Taking some deep breaths to admire the cloud forest.

We continued for one hour to Tres Piedres, meaning 'three stones' and a small bridge over the Huayruro river for a break. Here we were lucky enough to take part in a ritual where our tour guide, Percy shared a part of his culture with us. We picked three stones out of a river which each represented somebody special in our lives. The ritual involved placing them on a ledge above the mountain and kissing them, it's a way of sending love and leaving all your 'bad energy' behind.

Along the way there are mini stores where hikers can buy gatorade and snacks which is exactly what we needed. I must have had at least two litres so far, because it was stinking hot and I still felt very ill from food poisoning. The tour guides are so understanding and supportive, and there was no pressure to keep up with the group if you feel like lagging behind.

After an encounter with a cute kitten, a few holes in the ground for toilets and little buckets to wash our hands, we continued on for three hours through steepening woods toward Dead Woman's Pass.

A popular photo spot on day three of the trek.

A popular photo spot on day three of the trek.

The steep climb to the peak of 4200m was tough to say the least. Our tired bodies were soothed by the sound of an old man playing a traditional Peruvian flute at the peak. The sound drifted through the mountains as we admired the view.

On the descent we were guided by cold winds, a nice change from the blistering heat - it was all downhill from there.After over six hours of hiking, we had made it to our second campsite - Pacamayo.

Day three: Pacamayo to Winay Wayna 15km

I had to take a break to pat the lamas in the middle of our trek.
Scott Thornton

I had to take a break to pat the lamas in the middle of our trek.

The longest but most beautiful day of the trek. We woke up at 3.30am and it was time for both of us to lift our heavy bags once again.

We were lucky to have 'tent service' and enjoyed hot cocoa tea and hot chocolate while snuggled in our sleeping bags.

The path today is almost all originally from the Incas. At one point, we had to climb up a staircase on our hands and knees because it was so steep.

The sun has just risen over Machu Picchu as we make our descent from the Sun Gate to the ruins.
Alexandra Nelson

The sun has just risen over Machu Picchu as we make our descent from the Sun Gate to the ruins.

We hiked through spectacular cloud-forests and a forest of local flora and fauna and passed through an impressive Inca tunnel.

We came across the Inca ruin Phuyupatamarca, meaning Town in the Clouds. Access to the ruins is down a steep flight of stairs passing six Inca Baths.

Winay Wayna is the last official campsite before Machu Picchu, and we celebrated the last night with a cake made by our incredible chef. Everybody was amazed that someone could bake a cake this high in the mountains, without a proper kitchen.

Two lamas casually stroll through Machu Pichhu.
Alexandra Nelson

Two lamas casually stroll through Machu Pichhu.

Marco and Percy introduced us to the porters, they didn't speak English but Marco translated our thanks to them - such humble, talented, amazing humans.

Day four: the final day to Machu Picchu 5km

We were welcomed by a light breakfast and the scent of cocoa tea hanging above the breakfast tent. Our legs were aching from hauling our belongings through tough waving terrain from the past three days.

Stone walls look over the surrounding mountains at Machu Picchu.
Alexandra Nelson

Stone walls look over the surrounding mountains at Machu Picchu.

We woke before sunrise so we could reach the ruins when the sun comes up, only 5km away which seemed like a walk in the park.

Fragments of light lit the final part of the trail for us as we moved toward the Sun Gate to make it in time for sunrise. Once we arrived, we could see the whole of Machu Picchu laid in front of us as the sun began to leak through the clouds.

A short walk down from the Sun Gate we reached the famous ruins. We had a two hours tour and celebrated the end with a crisp beer at the tourist bar. There was no better way to finish the tour than that. Not to mention kicking off our shoes and being treated to a hot shower and massage in the local town, Aguas Calientes afterwards.

The markets in Cusco, Peru are a rainbow of colours.
Scott Thornton

The markets in Cusco, Peru are a rainbow of colours.

We caught the train back to Cusco, arriving just before midnight and made our way back to our hostel for a good nights sleep.

What we loved: The views, the food (three meals a day), the campsites and tour guides.

What we didn't: The dirty toilets - of course we didn't expect first class while we were hiking, but these were beyond a joke. It would have been cleaner to use a bush for a toilet. Tourists who caught the train to Machu Picchu were swarming the ruins even when all the hikers arrived early. Priority should definitely be given to the hikers who did the hard yackka.

Our tour guide, Marco gives us a big hug at the end of the journey. We are all exhausted.

Our tour guide, Marco gives us a big hug at the end of the journey. We are all exhausted.

Advice: Take walking poles, altitude sickness pills, chew cocoa leaves and drink lots of water. Hire a porter! We did the tour with Peru Treks and highly recommend them.

More information perutreks.com

Getting there LAN flies from Auckland to Cusco, stopping in Santiago and Lima on the way. Once you arrive in Cusco you can arrange to be picked up by your tour from your hostel. From there the tour bus drives up to the starting point of the Inca Trail.

The writer travelled on her own dime.

 - Stuff

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