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I’ll be honest. I never did well in history class (AKA failed) which is why I didn’t know much about the Inca Trail when I was planning my trip to Peru to finally see Machu Picchu. Initially I was going to just take the bus from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and then the train that goes up to the ticketing area of Machu Picchu, because I thought that’s just how you do it. But luckily I decided to post my grand idea on the inter webs, which resulted in tons of people tempting me to hike to Machu Picchu via the Ina Trail over four days, instead of riding a bus and train there for 4 hours.
My initial thoughts were, “Ok, I’ll just take my backpack and hike on up.” However as of the year 2000, the only way to hike the Inca Trail is on a tour with a guide and the appropriate permits, since before then people were just setting up camp anywhere, including on the ancient ruins and even Machu Picchu!
There were hundreds of companies offering the Inca Trail tour, many of which seemed like over-priced, over-crowded tourist traps, which is why I only looked into tours that other travelers recommended. I ended up booking the 4 day 3 night Inca Trail to Machu Picchu tour with Valencia Travel Cusco, because they seemed the most organized, safe, and genuinely excited to show people the amazing culture and history behind the Inca Trail.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into, especially when reading the part of the itinerary that lists the distance, time, and elevation change of each day of hiking, but at the end, all of that was irrelevant compared to the overall experience! I had an awesome tour guide named Nicanor (Nico), three fun fellow hikers, nine on-point porters, and a chef that could make a better gourmet meal using camping supplies than most restaurants I’ve been to!
So if you’re thinking of doing the hike, or just want to hear about what it’s like, here’s a run down of what each day consisted of on the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu with Valencia Travel Cusco!
After prepping us the night before, and picking us up at 5:30am from Hotel Andina in Cusco, Nico brought us to a random cute little restaurant just before Ollytayambo to load up on energy (carbs) to get us ready to start the hike. Then, we drove through the ancient town of Ollantaytambo, known as the longest consecutively inhabited town in the world, until we got to Kilometer 82, which is the starting point of the Inca Trail.
It was funny (slash nerve-wrecking) watching the Machu Picchu Rail train go by us, knowing that the people on it would be at Machu Picchu in two hours, and we wouldn’t be there for four days, but I was super stoked on seeing the sites they’d miss out on, and especially having a fun time camping! We checked in, got our passports stamped (you get 4 stamps if you want them), took the token “Inca Trail sign” photo, and headed off.
Remembering to Breathe
The lady in my group from Sao Paulo described the first day perfectly, “I think that was the hardest day!” It’s technically supposed to be the easiest day since there’s no major inclines or declines, but none of us were prepared for even the slightest incline, which happened within five minutes of us starting, leaving us all out of breath! It was slightly embarrassing, especially since I forgot that the altitude makes hiking a lot harder. I tried really hard to pretend like my lungs weren’t going to explode, but in addition to an annoying cough I caught the week before, there was no hiding anything.
It helped that Nico gave us time frames and distances to the next milestone or meeting point; for example, “One hour until we get to the last Inca town”, or “Two hours until we get to our lunch spot”, that way I had an end goal to actually look forward to instead of just non-stop walking.
The Last Inca Town
The last Inca Town was very interesting. It had handmade houses, people in traditional Inca clothing, and even a little girl calling after her pet sheep which was frantically Baah-ing and trying to keep up with her. People would pass us either by foot, or by horse, usually with several other horses herding in front or behind them. Nico explained that the few people still living on the Inca Trail would have to walk for hours each weekend just to get to a market in town to buy or trade goods. He noted that now a few of them were getting motorbikes, but it was still something very hard to attain.
On our first stop, we sat to chug water while Nico gave us fake tattoos with the juice from a bug that eats the cactus leaves. I had seen them before in Chincherro where the Inca women demonstrated how they dye fibers and fabric, but didn’t know they could also be used to dye skin (not to mention makeup, drinks, and food). He made us the Southern Cross, a sacred symbol with four points, and three points in between each, and a circle in the middle that symbolizes the sun. After we got tatted up, we bought some snacks and water from the little town, and used the very interesting baño out back for 1 sole.
Llactapata and Willkarakay
Admittedly, I got extremely excited at the site of the first Inca ruins on the trail. But of course, low and behold, instead of them being some great historical discovery of where a llama whisperer lived or something, they were actually just thought to be store houses for food. Well, Willkarakay was at least.
If you look over the edge of the cliff, you’ll see a site that’s considered a bit more important, Llactapata. From above you can see that Llactapata is arranged in somewhat of a semi-circular pattern, and nestled in the middle of all the mountains and right next to the Urumbamba River.
Since there is no official evidence of anything, including the names or purposes behind the Inca ruins, everything is based on theories made by specialists. The theory for Llactapata is that it’s the “high town” since it’s up high in the mountain, or that it was built as some sort of sacred shrine or temple.
Chicha and Coca Leaves
Since Valencia Travel includes two nights of hotel accommodation in Cusco before the hike so that you can acclimate, I had already known about the coca leaves and coca tea that’s supposed to help with altitude sickness. I personally couldn’t tell if it really worked or not when I tried it myself, but that’s probably because I was straight up eating the leaves instead of chewing them like you’re supposed to.
When my head started to hurt when we got further up on the mountain, Nico showed me how to roll a few coca leaves up, blow on them into the wind to share with Pachamama (Mother Earth), then shove it in your cheek like tobacco, and chew on it a few times until your spit mixes with it. I did all of that, and tried to keep sucking on the juice, but it smelled like the alfalfa cubes I used to give my horse so I spit it out and opted for one of the coca candies instead.
Next I passed by some women who appeared to be selling a pink or orange drink out of giant white jugs to the shaskies. “What is that?” I asked Nico, obviously wondering if it was some sort of secret magical Inca potion. “The pink is jugo de fresca, and the other is Chicha.”
“Chicha?” It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. Turns out Chicha is an ancient traditional Inca beer that’s made from fermenting corn, and still quite popular today in Peru. I bought a cup of it for 1 sole, poured a little bit out on the ground for Pachamama like Nico told me to, then tasted the all-natural, ancient, alcoholic drink. What do ya know! It tasted like fermented corn! Nico also warned me not to drink too much of it since we still had a ways to go still, but that was definitely no problem for me or Pachamama who got the majority of it.
Luxury Lunch Surprise
When we finally got to our very first lunch spot, I wasn’t sure what to expect since we were on the trail. But to my extreme surprise, the shaskies had ran ahead to set up our lunch in a giant tent, that not only had an adorable table set for us, but individual plastic bins with water and soap for us to wash our hands!
We were served passionfruit juice and our first course, avocado stuffed with Andean cheese and potatoes strings, by our shasky-waiter Claudio. We all were so hungry and scarfed it down in seconds, followed by the delicious quinoa soup that was brought out next.
For the main course, our amazing shaky-chef, Luis prepared stuffed trout, quiche pancakes, broccoli and cauliflower, and mashed potatoes, with a heaping side of vegetable quinoa. Valencia Travel Cusco asks for food restrictions prior to the trip, and makes the dishes accordingly. We had two full vegetarians, me who’s a “pescatarian”, and two meat-eaters.
After the main course we even got dessert, and then finished with warm mint tea before getting ten minutes to rest and digest. As with most places, the bathrooms cost one sole to use, and you need to remember to bring your own toilet paper and wipes!