What is it like to Hike the Inca Trail?

A Comparison of Two Treks an Age Apart

As the fame of el Camino del Inca spreads and it grows more popular has the trek to Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, become any less of an adventure, or is it still an amazing experience?

P.S. The Inca Tail today.


The Peru of Sendero Luminoso

My first trip to Peru took place back in 1989, in a party organised by Journey Latin America. (See their Condor Journey dossier). We stayed in pretty basic hotels and used local transport. This was when the Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path were at the peak of their power and tourists, except in Cusco, were few in number. Everything about the country seemed fresh, exiting and exotic. Even the bus journeys seemed like an adventure. Britain, and the mundane world of our jobs, seemed very remote. Our present surroundings felt like the only reality.

From Lima we travelled to Paracas, then south to Nazca, inland to Arequipa. After visiting the Colca Canyon we flew to Juliaca, the nearest airport to Puno. From Puno we crossed over into Bolivia and travelled to La Paz, part of the journey being along the shores of Lake Titicaca. After returning to Puno we took the train to Cusco (or Qosqo in the Quechua spelling).

Walking the Inca Trail was optional and in the end only two members of the party, myself and Bob, decided to do it. By that time we were well acclimatised to the altitude. In Bolivia some of us had visited the world's highest ski resort on Chacaltaya and I had walked from the ski lodge to the summit of the mountain, about 5,600 metres and the altitude caused no problems. In Cusco we made arrangements with a local company to hire a couple of porters and I hired a tent. (Bob had brought a one-man tent with him from England).

We caught the 5:30 a.m. train from Cusco to Machu Picchu (the local train not the tourist one). Even at that hour it was almost impossible to move inside the station because of the crowds. On the train Bob discovered that his daypack had been slashed with a razor. Fortunately whoever had done it had just cut into one of the pockets and only his Swiss army knife was missing.

Each time the train stopped people would appear alongside selling things. In one place an Indian woman managed to clamber onto the train with a huge cauldron of steaming soup which she then dished out into bowls and sold to passengers. Another Indian woman had a huge tray of roast pork, with the pig's head in the centre of the tray, and sold chunks of meat which she cut off with a fearsome looking knife. Ever since Arequipa, however, I had been suffering from a bad stomach and so, despite my curiosity, I resisted the temptation to try the soup or the pork.

At Kilometre 88 Bob and I had to struggle to get off the train. It did not stop for long and the local people waiting to catch it did not wait for anybody to get off before clambering on themselves. We were immediately surrounded by men offering to be porters and we had to try and find the two that we had arranged to hire in Cusco. I am not quite sure that we ended up with the right ones!

Among the other people starting the hike were quite a few New Zealanders, most of whom were carrying all their equipment without porters, and some Germans - but no Americans, probably because of terrorism. I hardly saw a single American the whole time I was in Peru or Bolivia. (One of the rare exceptions was an elderly lady in Cusco who joined some of us for white water rafting. It turned out that the previous year she had spent her summer holiday in the Lebanon!)

After crossing the Urubamba we turned left and followed it upstream through the eucalyptus trees until we reached its tributary, the Kusichaca (or Cusichaca in the more familiar Hispanic spelling), which we followed instead, passing the terraces of ruins of Llaqtapata (Llactapata) on the way. Eventually we began the climb up towards the First Pass but before we got there we stopped at Llulluchapampa, a sheltered area where we made camp for the night. Many other people had used it too, judging by the toilet paper lying around in places.

Despite what had been arranged in Cusco the porters had not brought any of their own food or tents. They said they didn't mind sleeping out in the open and built rough shelters using the vegetation. We gave them our bed rolls and let them share our food. There was enough to go round because with my bad stomach I didn't have much of an appetite. Indeed, although slim to begin with I lost about a stone (14lbs for Americans) while I was in Peru.

Rather foolishly I had brought only a very thin sleeping bag with me and found I had to wear most of my warm clothing inside the tent. Even then the cold seemed to seep into my bones. The tent I had hired also turned out to have a zip that kept getting stuck with the result that getting out of it to attend to calls of nature was a fraught with difficulty as was closing the door again afterwards. If it hadn't been so perishing cold I would have left the tent door open.

The night before we left Cusco I discovered my water bottle had sprung a leak and I didn't have time to buy a new one. Bob had only a small bottle and had not done much hiking for some years so he needed every drop of water. Consequently I had to drink a lot a breakfast each day of the trek as I knew I would not get another drop until we camped for the evening. (I had not brought iodine or chlorine tablets with me to sterilise the water and did not want to risk even worse stomach trouble by drinking it straight from streams).

After crossing the First Pass, Warmiwañusqa or Dead Woman Pass, (4,198m) we descended to the Paqaymayo River (or Pacaymayo in the Hispanic spelling) and began the ascent to the Second Pass. Here Inca paving stones were much more in evidence. There had been little sign of them before because, it is believed, the section of the Trail up to the First Pass and beyond to Paqaymayo had been eroded by the hoofs of mules used by smugglers.

On the way the up from Paqaymayo the porters suddenly became alarmed by a snake which slithered across the path. They killed it with stones and although neither Bob nor I knew any Spanish (I am now learning it) and only one of the porters spoke a little English (the other one didn't seem to speak much Spanish either - just Quechua) they seemed anxious to explain to us afterwards that the snake was quite dangerous. We camped near the Runkuraqay (Runkuracay) ruins and had a superb view down the valley from where we had come and back up towards the First Pass.

The third day of the trek took us from the small Runkuraqay ruins to the much larger ones at Wiñaywayna. The Second Pass, or Runkuraqay Pass at 3,850 m. is not quite as high as the first one. From there the vegetation becomes steadily richer as the trail descends towards Sayaqmarka (Sayacmarca) (Inaccessible Town). A short path leads from the trail up to the ruins on the left. From Sayaqmarka the route continues downhill for a short distance and then begins to climb gently upwards through a thick forest. It dips down again through a 20 metre long tunnel that the Incas made through the rock and then continues to climb very gently to the Third Pass.

When we got there the ruins of Phuyupatamarka (Phuyupatamarca) (Cloud Level Town) were just a stone's throw below us. In the distance we could see the terraces of Wiñaywayna and, right at the bottom of the valley, the Urubamba river and a hydroelectric power station. After exploring Phuyupatamarka with its ceremonial baths, we continued down a seemingly endless series of steps which Bob and I found quite tiring on our knees. We were passed by heavily laden porters who simply ran down them!

Near Wiñawayna (Forever Young) there is a trekker hotel but as Bob was some way behind, instead of waiting for him I decided to take a quick look at the ruins. Unfortunately I took the wrong path and eventually found myself heading for the power station. By the time I had got back to the hotel Bob had enjoyed a long rest and I was exhausted! It began to rain and we decided we might as well spend the night in the hotel and gave the porters our food and my tent.

I went looking for the ruins again which are actually only a few minutes walk from the hotel. They were almost deserted which was not surprising since, although it was August, there were few people staying there. Despite the small numbers Bob and I had to wait almost two hours after ordering dinner before our food arrived!

We left Wiñaywayna at 6 a.m. and reached Intipunku, the Sun Gate, shortly before dawn. It was already light enough for our first magnificent sight of Machu Picchu. The feeling I had when I gazed down at it reminded me of the effect my first sight of the Grand Canyon 6 years earlier. The sight was familiar from photographs in brochures, magazines, television etc. and yet I was totally overwhelmed by the reality of what I saw.

A small group of hikers gathered at the Sun Gate and all gazed at Machu Picchu talking in whispers as if we were in a cathedral, while we waited for the dawn. Even in Eden, however, there was a serpent and we all agreed that the hotel near the ruins should never have been built in such a location.

Once Machu Picchu was totally illuminated by the sun we continued down the trail to the ruins and wandered around them enjoying the relative serenity of the place before the tourist train arrived and discharged its human cargo. When the tourists arrived I climbed the peak of Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu) and sat there in the sunshine for about 3/4 of an hour, with clouds of colourful butterflies for company, gazing at the view in all directions but especially at Machu Picchu spreadeagled below me.

Later that afternoon I met up with Bob again and we decided to walk down to the railway station instead of catching the bus. It was just as well because we had almost run out of cash (the rest of our money had been left in Cusco) and the tickets for the tourist train were slightly more expensive than we had expected and if we had caught the bus we would have only been able to afford the next local train, whenever that was.

Back in Cusco I went out for some drinks with the rest of the Journey Latin America party, the excitement (and the adrenaline it produced) of having done the Inca Trail keeping me up for much of the night. Or perhaps it was the combination of beer and mate de coca! Anyway, whatever it was I still had enough energy to go white water rafting on the Urubamba the next day, our final day in the Sacred Valley area.

After that, a few days spent in the jungle near the Rio Madre de Dios, one of many tributaries of the Amazon but a huge river in its own right, rounded off my first visit to Peru - one that had taken me from the coastal desert (one of the most arid on the face of the earth) to the world's longest mountain range, and finally to the world's largest rainforest. An unforgettable trip!


The Peru of President Fujimori

I knew the experience would be different this time. Part of the charm of travelling in Peru in 1989 had been the culture shock. On this occasion, in 1997, connections with home were awaiting me in Lima. I had always intended to return one day but had never expected that I would begin my second visit by staying with my sister, Linda Davies, and her husband Rupert.

 They had moved to Peru in 1995 because of his job and Linda had spent her time learning Spanish and gathering material for her third novel which is set in London and Peru - the thriller Into the Fire new! now available in paperback and also as an ebook in all the main formats. In her travels in that land, she had hiked the Inca Trail herself and made detailed notes as some of the key events in the book take place on the Trail and at Machu Picchu.

After one night in Lima I flew to Cusco. With me were two of Linda's friends from Britain, Louisa and Kami, who were travelling around Latin America. While I am sure that carrying all your own gear must give you more of a sense of achievement I had opted for the easy way again of using porters (this was before it was made compulsory to have guides) and had booked with Journey Latin America once again and was going to join a small group walking the Trail.

Louisa and Kami intended to do the same but having just graduated they had decided to wait until they got to Cusco so they could compare the prices of different companies and make their choice then.

I was rather surprised to find that when I tried to hurry just after arriving in Cusco my heart started to beat as if I was undertaking strenuous exercise. Fortunately I didn't have any other symptoms of altitude sickness or soroche but even so I was surprised because I had always tolerated altitude well in the past. However I had forgotten that on all previous occasions I had spent at least one night at altitude before doing anything remotely energetic.

Fortunately I had two days in Cusco and the surrounding area to acclimatise before starting the trek and used them to in revisiting places that had so impressed me 8 years earlier and in seeing some new ones, e.g. the market at Pisac.

Cusco had lost none of its charm. Somehow it simultaneously manages to be both more exotic and more cosmopolitan than Lima even though it is only a fraction of the size. Last time I was in Cusco the city was swarming with people offering to change money. So was Lima and almost every other town on the tourist circuit. Presumably it was a measure of the improvement in the Peruvian economy that unofficial money changers seemed scarce this time.

 Nevertheless I was slightly surprised to come across an Internet cafe in one of the main streets. That same night I was having a pizza in restaurant with Louisa and Kami when we got into conversation with some young Peruvians about contemporary authors. One of them mentioned that he was going to use the World Wide Web to order Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses from Amazon.com. Eight years earlier the idea of such a conversation, even in Britain or the United States would have seemed like science fiction.

I did not meet my companions for the trek until the morning it began although I recognised them as I had seen them in the Sacred Valley the day before. There were just three of us. The other two were an American couple, Bob (like my companion of 8 years earlier) and Martha. To my surprise they were also librarians. (Actually Bob was a professor of library science). At first I was a bit worried. The point of going on holiday is to get away from work, not to be reminded of it, but fortunately they proved good company.

We drove from Cusco through Ollantaytambo to Kilometre 82 to begin the trek so the first few miles were rather different from the previous occasion when I had caught the train and started at Kilometre 88. I kept stopping to look behind us because in that direction there were very good views of the snow-capped mountain, Veronica 5,750 m.

When we reached a ridge from which we could see the route taken by those starting at Km. 88 we had very good views of the ruins of Llaqtapata down below us. They seemed more impressive from that vantage point than when I had walked along their perimeter last time.

Unfortunately Bob was suffering badly from a stomach problem so when we got to the village of Wayllabamba (Huayllabamba) where the trail leaves the River Kusichaca and the climb up to the First Pass begins our guide Gus decided we had gone far enough and we should camp there. I was wondering where Louisa and Kami and their party had got and assumed that they were ahead of us so I decided to go and look for them.

I walked about half way to the First Pass and checked in a couple of campsites but there was no sign of them and I was beginning to be troubled by a blister so I decided to head back down and then I bumped into them. We had a long chat but after that I did not see them again until I got back to my sister's house in Lima as they were always ahead of me on the Trail.

Bob had claimed that he always made a fast recovery from illnesses but even so I was surprised by how much better he seemed the next day. Sensibly, however, he and Martha decided to take things quite easily at first so I pressed on ahead and kept up a brisk pace until I emerged from the forest and was walking through the barren final stretch up to the First Pass when I seemed to run out of steam and had to keep stopping every 30 yards or so to catch my breath.

Every time I stopped my heart rate seemed to drop very quickly and I felt fine again after only about 20 seconds of rest but once I started walking again it would take only a similar amount of time before my heart was pounding once more. I had not had such problems last time when I was better acclimatised.

Another difference was that there seemed to be a large crowd of people silhouetted against the sky looking like an army prepared to defend the pass Eight years ago it was just a few sentries. Eventually I joined that army and waited for Bob and Martha and after they had had a short rest we continued down to the Pacamayo where we stopped for lunch. To my surprise there were proper toilets at the campsite there. Despite the fact that the number of hikers had increased enormously the Trail seemed much cleaner. The Peruvian authorities are evidently doing a good job of looking after it.

After lunch we started climbing again stopping briefly at the ruins of Runkuraqay and then continuing until we came to two small lakes. By the higher of them we pitched our tents for the night. However, before having dinner I walked up to the Second Pass to admire the views ahead and behind. On this trek, unlike the previous occasion, I had a good 4-season sleeping bag but ironically the weather was much milder at nights because it was more cloudy.

When we got to the Third Pass I pointed to the terraces of what I assumed was Wiñaywayna. Gus replied that what I was looking at was Intipata and he pointed out Wiñaywayna lower down the hillside. That surprised me because I could only remember seeing one set of terraces from that point in 1989. I was pleased to learn that my memory was not at fault. At that time Intipata was still covered in vegetation and so would not have been visible from the Third Pass and Phuyupatamarka.

We camped near the trekker hotel at Wiñawayna. That night it was absolutely swarming with people. Inside there were lots of people sleeping on the floor and were always very long queues for the toilets. Outside almost every patch of reasonably level ground seemed to be occupied by a tent.

When the other Bob and I stayed there in 1989 there were only a handful of people there. Even though it had been obvious earlier that, as I expected, a lot more people were hiking the trail in 1997 I was astonished by the crowds in the trekker hotel. Presumably during the day the hikers were strung out along the route so although the trail seemed popular it was not too crowded. Similarly the campsites had not seemed too crowded because people camped in different places. In contrast nearly everyone doing the hike (including those just doing the shorter branch of the Inca Trail that was opened relatively recently) seems to stay in or just outside the trekker hotel at Winay Wayna before going on to Machu Picchu.

The next day we left while it was still dark in order to get to Intipunku, the Sun Gate, before dawn. Unfortunately although it was the dry season the weather had been a bit unsettled during the hike, the Peruvians blamed El Nino, and it was raining when we arrived and Machu Picchu was shrouded in mist. Fortunately the weather improved later but every now and then mist would swirl around the ruins giving them an even more ethereal look than normal.

We spent the night in Agua Calientes and the next day we returned to Machu Picchu. The weather was worse and it rained nearly all day. I imagine that El Nino was to blame and that in a normal year things would have been different.

Despite the weather we decided to go up Wayna Picchu and when we were on the summit the clouds lifted for about 5 minutes so we were rewarded with good views of Machu Picchu below. The path was more difficult than I remembered, particularly going down, and the wet conditions made it rather slippery.

For anyone used to scrambling in the mountains it is well worth going up Wayna Picchu for the views, assuming that the weather is OK. However, people who don't have a head for heights or who are unused to steep rocky paths with long drops at the side, or who do not have suitable footwear would be prudent to give it a miss.

After Agua Calientes I spent one night in Cusco before returning to Lima where I spent a couple of days relaxing at my sister's house before departing for Huaraz, the main mountaineering centre in Peru. There Louisa, Kami and I went on a trek that was reputed to be quite a bit tougher than the Inca Trail with two passes of about 4,750 m, roughly the same height as the highest point in the Alps, Mt Blanc but I did not find it any more difficult, presumably because by the time we started the new trek I was well-acclimatised.

The Inca Trail and the Huaraz treks were the first treks of any kind lasting more than one day that I had done since shattering my left femur in a fall in the Canadian Rockies in 1990 (while recovering I read Touching the Void, Joe Simpson's amazing account of how he survived a horrific accident in the Peruvian Andes) and so while they would not seem tough to real mountaineers I nevertheless felt quite a sense of accomplishment.

My appetite for hiking in the mountains had been thoroughly re-kindled and I wished that instead of going home I could fulfil another ambition before losing my acclimatisation by flying straight to Tanzania to tackle Kilimanjaro. A year later, in August 1998, I did indeed make it to Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro after first hiking up Point Lenana on Mt. Kenya. But that is another story!

The Inca Trail today

Jacquetta Megarry has hiked the Inca Trail starting from Mollepata, the longest and most arduous version, and the shorter routes, to gather information for the guidebook, Explore the Inca Trail, that I helped her to write. The book is also available in a new edition from the British branch of Amazon, Amazon.co.uk and from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca in North America.

For a description of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu in fiction see the novel Into the Fire which is available both as a paperback and as an ebook new! from the various branches of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other suppliers.

See also my links page for more information about the Inca Trail.

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Roy Davies - last updated 16 January 2013.