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Walking the Inca Trail: A personal experience by Hannah Holden and Ross Lewis

The Inca trail has been on many people’s list of things to do in their lifetime. Peru and South America have always interested us, with its rich, vibrant culture, not to mention the interesting pre-Columbian history. Last year we were given the opportunity to join a group of friends, hiking the four-day Inca Trail to one of the seven ancient wonders of the world – the world-famous Machu Picchu. This would end up being an experience we will never forget.

For some reason we had not previously paid much attention to the trail itself, and had instead focused our attention towards the history of the Incas, the magnificent settlements and structures built on impossible Andian mountain ledges. We were always curious why the structures were built so high up, away from water sources. We wondered how they were constructed and why they were located there in the first place. The four days we spent hiking the Inca trail, unexpectedly, answered many of these questions and much, much more.

The first day we woke early in our hotel room in Ollantaytambo, had a quick breakfast, jumped onto the bus, and we were taken to the starting point of our trek. Everybody was well rested and prepared, but also nervous with excitement. To us, the Inca trail had always been known as something special. Before we began we needed to pass through a check-point, where our group needed to have their passports cross checked with their trail permits. Only 500 people are allowed on the trail at any one point, with two thirds of that being porters and guides. This was nice to know, as the Peruvians clearly want to look after the trail. After this we crossed a bridge and set off.

Lunch time – a tent pitched by the porters to prepare lunchThe first section of the walk ran parallel to the train track. Many people wanting to visit Machu Picchu take the train to Machu Picchu village, and then get on a bus to travel through the weaving mountain road to the top. Not in our case. After about 2 hours of walking, we broke away from the train track, and turned left into another valley system, only accessible by foot and horseback. To us, this is where the trail truly started, as we had left all civilization behind, and now it was just us and the Andes. The path turned into our first climb, and we had our first experience of walking uphill at altitude. At the top of the hill we rested for a bit, had some water, and pushed on. Five minutes further we were at the top of a steep edge, and in front of us was the first of many Inca settlements, Llaqtapata (2650m). The ruins took our breath away. Little did we know this was only a small taste of what was yet to come. Further on we had our first lunch on the trail. The porters, supplied by the adventure travel company, had set up a large tent. They were busy preparing some soup, and this gave our team an opportunity to take off our bags and rest our feet. The lunch spot could not have been more idyllic, situated next to a beautiful river, with horses and llamas in the field with us. The rest of the day we spent walking through the quiet valleys alongside a beautiful river, watching humming-birds, insects, lizards and other local wildlife. Our first campsite was located in the village of Wayllabamba (3000m). Here we had the privilege of meeting our porters. The porters played an important role in the adventure. Their jobs included carrying all food supplies, setting up and taking down the tents. We also used this time to practice some Spanish, and eat the amazing food prepared and cooked by the chef. A typical dinner would include anything from trout, chicken and a large array of potatoes and vegetables.

Ross Lewis approaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca TrailOn the second day we were woken up by the porters at 5:30 am so that there would be enough time for them to cook breakfast, pack up and make their way to the next campsite ahead of us. There were no Inca settlements on the second day of the trek. This was just as well, as although this day covered the shortest distance, it would also prove to be the most demanding of the four. We picked up the trail from where we left off the previous day. The path disappeared deeper and deeper into the mountains. The feel of the trail changed as we walked from an open grassy Adean path into the dense jungle. Sunlight was dimmed by the high trees, and heavily vegetated flora. After another hour, we exited the jungle to an open section. From here we could see the trail rising steeply into a long climb to the top of our first mountain pass, Dead Woman’s Pass (4200m). The photograph opposite shows Ross Lewis near the top of Dead Woman’s Pass.

Although the top looked close, it took us a further 2 hours to reach. Everything at altitude was so much more taxing. Walking could not be done at a usual pace; instead it was more akin to a group of penguins waddling on the ice. In spite of this, our hearts were racing and breathing was difficult. Our bodies were desperately trying to find every last trace of oxygen available to carry our heavy bags. When we finally arrived at the top we were rewarded with breath-taking views, snow-capped mountains and a beautiful view into the valley below where we had journeyed from. After this point it was all downhill for the rest of the day. It was nice to give the lungs a break, but instead our knees were taking a royal Incan beating from having to negotiate the challenging steps. Trekking poles are highly advisable, as they help to protect the knees. We continued until we reached the second campsite at Pacaymayo (3600m). On­-site we ate a late lunch, and had a few hours to rest before our porters once again served up dinner. The view from the tent was almost haunting. The clouds rolled in, hiding the tops of the surrounding mountains. As the night drew closer, visibility dropped, and we all decided to have an early night.

Day three arrived. This was the final full day of walking. We were once again woken up 5:30 am. It was dark as usual at this time of the morning. We made our way to the breakfast tent, and ate our quinoa soup. Upon leaving the tent, the sun had come up and revealed the most breath-taking view we have ever seen. We set off, putting the struggles of the previous day behind us. Day three covered the longest distance, but as we discovered this was to become the most enjoyable day of the four. Almost instantly we tackled another climb, leading up to our second Incan site. Runkuraqay (3800m) is a guard post balancing on the edge of a steep cliff, positioned to keep a close watch on all travelling through the valleys. We pressed onwards and upwards to our second mountain pass, leading into another valley. The path travelled under fallen boulders and out into a lush open area. The trail led down to another Incan site, Sayacmarca (2650m). At this point we could only imagine how busy Machu Picchu would be with tourists, so the opportunity of exploring these perfectly preserved settlements exclusively with the fellow hikers you have come to know on the trail was very humbling. We travelled up and down, along the mountain ridges, into caves and through bamboo fields. Up on the mountain ridges we witnessed the extreme micro-climates found in the Andes. The valley to the east was covered in thick cloud, making it impossible to see anything. To the west it was completely clear, with views of the valleys steeply dropping to the jungle below.

We continued for another few hours before stopping for lunch. We shared the spot with some llamas and alpacas. The trail continued down into thick jungle, and out into another Inca site, Phuyupatamarca (3640m). From here the trail moved into even thicker jungle, populated by colourful birds and brightly coloured flora. Maybe this was the inspiration for the brightly coloured garments worn by the locals, and possibly even the Incas too? The trail opened out to another huge Incan site, Winayhuayna (3640m). This site was heavily terraced, more than the other sites. It was interesting to know that the terraces were only built on the north faces. This was so the crops being grown on them could catch most of the sun’s light. The trail led through the site, down some incredibly steep and uneven steps. There were times when we were down climbing on all fours. Another 30 minutes and we arrived at the final camp. A long day, enriched with Incan culture, beautiful scenery and unforgettable moments.

The descent down the Inca Trail into Machu PicchuOn the final day the porters woke us up extremely early, 3:30 am to be precise! This was because we were finally gaining access to the Machu Picchu national heritage site, and we hoped to arrive at the Sun Gate (Intipunku) for sunrise. After finishing breakfast, we all set off at an unusually fast pace, because this was the big day – the day we were all rewarded for our struggles. The day we finally got to explore Machu Picchu. The distance on the fourth day was very short in comparison to the previous days. It only took around 90 minutes to reach the Sun Gate, and Machu Picchu was another 45 minutes from there. After walking in the dark with head torches on, and one final ascent, we arrived at Intipunku. It was nice to know that this was the trail the Incas used to access Machu Picchu, hundreds of years ago. As we arrived to see their royal city, the sun was rising over our shoulders, lighting up Peru’s wonder of the world. Everybody was in awe of the view, taking pictures from every angle imaginable. After a few more group photos we set off on the final 45 minute walk down to the Incan citadel. We were fortunate enough to see the site in the early hours of the morning, before the hordes of tourists arrived. We soon arrived at the car park, where the buses were dropping off tourists. We were allowed to take off our heavy bags and explore the area bag-free. Included in our package, supplied by the adventure company, was a guided tour of Machu Picchu. Explained on the tour was knowledge on the Incas, the temples within the complex, crops grown there and other facts about the people and their culture.

Machu Picchu at the end of the Inca TrailAfter the whole experience was over, we all had a much deeper understanding of the Incan civilization. When you have walked in the footsteps once walked by the Incas, the answers to many of the questions previously asked suddenly seem so clear. High up in the mountains was actually the ideal place to settle. Crops and vegetation thrive, natural protection provided within the valleys, building materials are readily available –­ these are just a few of the reasons for constructing Machu Picchu where they did. On the journey home, most of our group came to the same conclusion. The initial reason for taking the trip was to see the world famous Machu Picchu, but looking back, it wasn’t the wonder of the ancient world we will remember most. It was the Inca trail, los Camino Inka, that was more special. This amazing trek had brought the Incas to life, we understood more about their way of life and it made visiting Machu Picchu (shown opposite) even more special, not to mention rewarding.

Authors Hannah Holden and Ross LewisIf you are considering travelling to Peru and walking the Inca trail, here are some useful tips for your adventure. In terms of vaccinations, we would recommend you get advice from specialist travel clinics such as Nomads. You will need to tell them exactly where you are going, as different areas require different vaccinations and/or medication. Tips! Tips! Tips! We were not told at the point of booking that you are expected to tip the porters and your guide for a job well done. The porters do work very hard and deserve every penny.  We were individually expected to tip the porters 100 Peruvian Sol (about £25), and the guide 30 – 40 Sol. It doesn’t sound like much, but we had not budgeted this on our adventure. Trekking poles are required to have rubber tips to help protect the trail against erosion. Due to the altitude, it is advisable to acclimatise as much as possible. You will enjoy the experience more whilst reducing the risk of altitude sickness.

Hannah Holden and Ross Lewis (pictured opposite) hope this article has inspired you to take on this once in a lifetime challenging adventure.

The Inca Trail, Cusco and Machu Picchu Walking GuidebookWhat guidebooks and maps are available for the Inca Trail?

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu Trekking Map is scaled at 1:50,000, and also includes the Sacred Valley, Cusco, Choquequirau, and the Apurimac’s Canyon. The ultimate guidebook is called the Inca Trail, Cusco and Machu Picchu Walking Guidebook. In addition to the Inca Trail, there are 4 other treks along with 40 detailed walking maps.  In addition to Lima and Cusco city guides, ground plans of the Inca ruins, and practical information about getting to Peru, it is the all-in-one guidebook for the Inca Trail.

Are you a budding travel writer? 

Climb Europe are looking for exciting destination articles about various rock climbing areas around the world.  Earn money from your travels by sending your articles to Climb Europe.  Contact Us directly.


The Inca Trail, Cusco and Machu Picchu Walking Guidebook

The Inca Trail, Cusco and Machu Picchu Walking Guidebook

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu Trekking Map

Are you a budding travel writer? 

Climb Europe are looking for exciting destination articles about various rock climbing areas around the world. 

Earn money from your travels by sending your articles to Climb Europe.  Contact Us directly.