The Inca Trail is one of those traveler destinations that you have to see to believe. A four day walk to the ruins of Machu Pichu, it is the stuff of travel legends (both good and bad) and was something that we approached with a bit of trepidation – would it be too difficult for us and the kids, would it be over-run with tourists and porters, would it be worth both the time and effort? And, for us, the answer is a resounding YES! It is difficult (6200 meters – nearly 20,000 feet – of gain and loss spread over 43 km), crowded (there are 500 people allowed on the trail every day) and worth both the time and effort. Others may disagree, but to us, it was totally worth it.
When we were preparing for this trip, the Inca Trail was high on the list of “must do” hikes, but as I read more about it, many travelers felt that it was too crowded, too rushed, and not worth the effort when you can easily take a nice train to the base of the mountain and a bus up to the ruins themselves. I began to have doubts about hiking the Inca Trail. We also thought back to when we were in Turkey a few years ago. We went to Ephesus, a large well-preserved Greek ruin, that was literally jam-packed with tourists. While it was interesting to see, the constant jostling for a view and getting herded down a path with several hundred other tourists left us feeling a little disappointed. The next day we went to a lesser-known ruin, Priene, far off of the tourist path – no package tourists or cruise ships disgorging their passengers to visit this site. Although not as well-preserved as Ephesus, Priene allowed us to have the whole site to ourselves. The ruins were every bit as impressive as Ephesus and we were able to explore the site at our own pace. The original Temple of Athena at Priene is the second largest in all of the known Greek ruins – jus two columns fewer than the largest – and despite its size and importance, there were literally no other visitors their during our stay. We loved it – all of the grandeur of the more famous ruin without the crowds.
When I was researching the hike, I found several alternatives for the Inca Trail – Lares, Salkantay, Choquequirao, and others – so that you don’t have to be herded down the path with 499 new friends. Choquequirao was high on our list – a five day hike that visit ruins which Hiram Bingham actually found before Machu Pichu. The site is estimated to be twice as large as Machu Pichu yet receives less than 1,000 visitors per year – far less than what visit Machu Pichu on any given day. It seemed liked the perfect substitute – twice the size with essentially no people – it would be just like Priene.
Then I read Mark Adam’s book Turn Right at Machu Pichu. In this book, the author retraces much of Bingham’s original explorations for Vilcabamba, visiting Espiritu Pampa, Vilconta, and Choquequirao, but is encouraged by his guides to come back on a second trip to actually hike the Inca Trail to give him an understanding of the pilgrimages made by the Inca coming to Machu Pichu. They argue that it’s not about the destination, but rather the process of getting there, and that many tourists miss this aspect when they rush through the trail in a hurry to get to Machu Pichu. This was enough to make us reconsider our approach and we are very glad we did. They also suggested that the trail be done over five days, not four, because you need time to visit the other sites along the way in order to understand the importance of Machu Pichu. Since we have kids, it made perfect sense to have lower per day mileage too, so we sucked it up and booked a five-day trip.
We met our guide, Edwin, for a trip briefing the night before the trek started. We immediately felt at ease and knew that we would be well taken care of under his guidance. Young, intelligent, and passionate he provided an overview of what to expect over the next few days. He told us that we would have a total of ten porters (including a chef) to carry our gear and make sure that we were “comfortable” on the trail and reviewed trail and camp conditions. We would only need to carry our day packs with what was required for the day – jackets, snacks, water, etc. – the porters would take care of everything else including carrying our tents, sleeping bags, pads, food, etc. and we would meet them for lunch on the trail each day. With great excitement, we could barely get to sleep that night and we headed out at 6:00am for a two hour drive to the trailhead.
After much official paperwork and stamps, we began walking the Inca Trail around 9:00am. We were the second group on the trail so it was essentially a walk on our own – none of the hoards we had heard about. The first day is a bit long in distance, just over 12 km, but with very little elevation gain so we had plenty of time to stop along the way to learn about the flora and fauna of there area as well as to look at a beautiful set of ruins, Llactapata, only recently uncovered. The only people who passed us were porters from the other companies literally running down the trail with 50 lb packs. It was as if we had the trail to ourselves.
We arrived at lunch far ahead of schedule but found that the porters had already set up a cooking tent, a dining tent (complete with table, chairs, and napkin sculptures!), had warm water and hand towels for us to “wash up” with before lunch, as well as pads for us to “rest” on before we ate. This was not like any backpacking or hiking we had ever done. I kept telling the kids, “don’t expect every trip to be like this!” to which they would reply, “maybe not, but lets enjoy it while we can!” Lunch was never sandwiches and GORP – our trail staples. Rather it was a three-course cooked meal. Each lunch started with an appetizer (think ceviche, chicken-wrapped asparagus with a cream sauce, cauliflower fritters with a yellow pepper sauce, etc.) followed by a soup (quinoa, chicken noodle, etc.) and then a main of beef or chicken in a tasty sauce with a couple cooked side dishes too (broccoli quiche, steamed veggies, rice, lentils, etc.). After lunch was time for a siesta before heading back out again. The porters would break down our lunch camp, pack it up, run ahead of us on the trail and set it all up again at our evening camp. It was always ready when we came in, despite us being ahead of schedule several times. Dinners were just as luxurious as lunches with soup, mains and cooked desserts every night.
The second day is the most difficult – you have to cross Warmi Wañusqa, at nearly 4200mt (13,000 ft) it is the highest point on the trail. From where you camp, it is a 1,200 meter (4,000 ft) climb then an equal descent down the back side to the second camp. The path is not really a trail, it is rock steps, lots and lots of rock steps!
We were able to get in to and out of camp on the early side, so were some of the first folks on the trail again. Enjoying the coolness of early morning and the quietness of having the trail to ourselves, we took our time and learned a great deal about the cloud forest and how the trail was built. Soon the other groups were out of camp and our solitude was broken. We had not seen anyone the day before because we were the first on the trail and had stayed ahead of the pack the whole day. By the time we reached our first rest stop, there were several other groups hiking with us. Most of the other hikers were surprised to see kids on the trail but even more surprised to realize that the kids actually hiked better than they did! We had our snack with two guys from Mysore, India who said that seeing the kids was “inspirational” to them and helped them keep moving. Another gal who we paralleled most of the way up the steep section said, “Well, seeing them smile as they walk helps me keep going”. All of the porters, not just from our company, loved seeing kids on the trail. Lucia and Mac always received smiles, words of encouragement, and pats on the head. One group of young porters slowed down to walk with them a bit and gave them a great compliment by calling them “Vicuñitas con mochiltas” – little vicuñas with little backpacks. Vicuñas are very petite wild camelids whose wool is highly prized as the softest and most beautiful in Peru so it was quite a compliment.
Much like our time in Colca Canyon, the kids handled the challenge with great alacrity and grace, without whining or complaining. One of the benefits of doing a five day is that you don’t have to camp in the busy campgrounds and can take time to enjoy your surroundings. Our goal on day two was to make it to camp by lunch, which we did. After we finished lunch, a light rain started falling and we took a nap in our cozy tents while four-day folks walked on through the rain. We knew then that we were exceptionally lucky to have booked a five day.
After the physical challenge of day two, we reaped the rewards on day three with visits to three different Incan sites – Runkurakay, Sayamarca, and Cachaquaqocha. The trail flattens out and becomes the cliff-hugging path that you see in the pictures. In some places the path was atop a 30 meter high wall clinging precariously to the side of the mountain. In other places it was a “tunnel” that went through granite boulders, but always with phenomenal views of the surrounding mountains. The walking is easy compared to the day before and the focus is getting to know the different ruins, Incan culture, etc. It is the reward for the efforts expended getting there.
The campsite for the night is perhaps the most beautiful in all of Peru (some would argue the world, but that may be taking it a little too far), perched above the ruins at Phuyupatamarca and know for its quietness because only folks who are doing a five-day stay there. We were told by our guide, Edwin, that llamas frequently visit the campsite because it is sheltered from the prevailing winds. And, sure enough, when we woke up there were several llamas (including an adorable newborn) in the site below us! The llamas are accustomed to hikers so readily accept petting and good neck-scratches. Even the momma was OK with us being near her baby.
Much like day three, day four is at a leisurely pace with plenty of time to explore the less-visited sites. We had lunch just outside of Wiñay Wañya, perhaps the most impressive of all the sites we visited. Most folks arrive here late on their third day, tired from a long hike getting there and aware that they will be getting up before dawn tomorrow, few people walk the extra 10 minutes to see the ruins. We loved being at Wiñay Wañya because it was quite similar to our experience at Priene, without other tourists there we were able to explore at our own pace and get a much better sense of how the site fits in with the other sites. Phenomenal, really moving.
The second half of the day is covering the ground that most folks do in the dark as they walk in to Machu Pichu. The trail continues to hug the mountain, contouring horizontally around the back side of Machu Pichu, until you reach the sun gate and get your first view of Machu Pichu. Seeing it for the first time is exhilarating, especially when you have spent the past four days walking to get there. Again, the kids proved to be inspirational to the folks who were walking with us. The Sun Gate is still an hour’s walk from the city itself but we were able to take our time and visit the site at our leisure. We would come back on the final day to tour the city and learn about the history specific to Machu Pichu.
Machu Pichu itself is just as cool as everyone says it is. There is a bit of a mystical power when you go there and see up close how it was designed, built and has been preserved. Everything has thought – the shape of the doorways, how the terraces were backfilled for drainage, who lived where, etc. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to visit Choquequirao when it is fully uncovered or to have seen the Cori Concha before it was destroyed for its gold. But I can say that if you have even the slightest interest in Incan culture, ancient ruins, or are simply hankering for a Peruvian adventure, walking the Inca Trail is definitely worth the effort if you slow down and do it as a five-day journey. A four day moves too fast and is always about making the pace, not about exploring the area or understanding why the Inca built where they did (everything had a plan and a purpose – but that’s a whole different blog post) and what their views seemed to have been. Once again, we had a blast exploring the world with our children.