Walking The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Pachacuti’s getaway spot in the Andes- he’d be shocked with all the traffic these days arriving at South America’s #1 tourist destination

To walk down from the Gateway of the Sun (Inti Punku) to the site of Machu Picchu is one incredible experience.  Having been on the Inca Trail for three days you are now rewarded with the stunning ruins of a site built for the Sapa Inca Pachacuti in the mid-1400′s as his private retreat from the bustle of the Inca capital at Cuzco- and then abandoned when the next emperor did not share the same desire to get away from it all. Abandoned and forgotten by all except those who lived nearby for almost 500 years, it would be “discovered” by an American archeologist (Hiram Bingham III) from Yale University in 1911.

Machu Picchu Satellite View

Machu Picchu Satellite View – click here to see the “live” Google view and to zoom in

If you want to see Machu Picchu, it should be noted right away that you do not need to hike the Inca Trail to do so. The easiest way to see it is by a day visit by train from Cuzco to the ruins via Pueblo Machu Picchu (aka Aquas Calientes). The town is at 2000 meters; the ruins themselves sit on a saddle between two mountain peaks at about 2400 meters. A bus ride up the switchback road to the ruins and you’re there.

the switchback road from Pueblo Machu Picchu up to the ruins

You could make it a bit more enjoyable by getting to Pueblo Machu Picchu the day before and staying at a guesthouse overnight; that way you would get up to the ruins long before the tour groups from Cuzco arrive.  Or you could get a room at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, located not far from the entrance to the site.  This way you could be sure of getting to the ruins even before the tourists started arriving from the town below!  Check this link to see how much it will cost you!

“custodian” of the ruins!

The nice thing about getting to Machu Picchu via the so-called Inca Trail is that walking past a number of other remarkable Inca ruins provides a context as well as a build-up for the ruins of  Machu Picchu.  Here is a graphic that I’ve “borrowed” from the SAS Travel site because it very neatly and quickly encapsulates the entirety of the trek.  (I hope they are okay with my use of it!)

You also get to experience the various ecological zones as you move up or down in altitude. And while you don’t have to be an elite athlete to do the hike, there are moments when you may wonder why you didn’t just take the train.  Stopping for a moment to catch your breath and registering another WOW vista will give you the answer!

a view of the Trail from the top of Dead Woman’s Pass (Abra de Huarmihuanusca), the highest point of the Trail at 4200 meters

The Inca Trail itself begins at Km 82 at the end of  the road from Cuzco. Since the rail line to Pueblo Machu Picchu passes right by and is 82 kilometres from Cuzco at this point, that is the usual starting point, since most trekking companies bus their clients to the starting point. (There is another trailhead at Km 88 which is sometimes used by groups getting off the train if they don’t get off at Km 82. The two starting points eventually join.)

the road to the start of the Inca Trail at Km 82 from Cusco

Click here for a “live” Google Version of the above map if you want to zoom in or out.

the train for Machu Picchu on the banks of the Rio Urubamba not far from Km 82

The first thing to do is get your park entry ticket. In 2012 the cost is $93.- it was recently doubled after a  fierce debate over pricing the ruins beyond the ability of many Peruvians to pay.

some of my fellow trekkers lining up to get their entry permits at Km. 82

And then it’s off!  No need for a map; just follow the guide!  (But click here for a good map of the entire Inca Trail.) The walk for the first day heads south along the banks of the Cusichaca River, which is flowing north into the Urubamba River.

looking back at a stretch of the trail on Day One

the terraces of Llactapata as seen from the Inca Trailnear the Rio Cusichaca

After perhaps three hours of walking we stopped for lunch. The cook team had pressed ahead of us so that when we arrived at the meadow lunch stop the eating tent was up and the food was ready. I was impressed with the quality of the meals they were able to prepare- and found that they made no fuss about catering to vegetarian needs.

trekkers chillin’ after lunch with the blue eating tent behind them

Before we got to the first day’s tent site the trail skirted the village of Huayllabamba. I had to chuckle when I saw this example of Quechua entrepreneurialship-

Inca stonework serves as the path along long stretches of the trail and adds to the mystique of walking it

The group of trekkers I walked with were mostly English-speaking, with  five from Canada, four from Ireland, two from England, and two from the USA.  Supporting us was a team of perhaps 15 Peruvians- 2 guides, a cook crew, and the porters.

some of my trekking pals- there were thirteen of us in  total with me being the only solo traveller- 

The second day, as the above chart makes clear, was the longest one and the one where we walked up and over the two highest points of the trek.  This is where hiring a porter to carry the bulk of your gear becomes a brilliant idea!  Of course, some are up to the challenge of carrying their own stuff- as did the American couple on the left of the group photo.

heading up to  Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200 meters

Another great lunch and rehydration and it was time for another nap!

Our goal for the day was the campsite on the other side of the second major pass of the trek; we would be on the move for another five hours.  On the way we passed this mega campground- I think it may be the one by the Rio Pacaymayo. I’m just glad I did the walk in mid-May and not in July or August.

the sheer number of trekkers passing through requires an infrastructure to match- imagine the logistics of human waste and garbage disposal!

To get to the Sayamarca campsite we went over the Runku Raqay Pass and saw the ruins of  a circular citadel overlooking the valley-

the circular ruins of Runkurakay

And then it was down to our campsite overlooking a valley. As you can see, the tents are pretty close together on our designated site-

the campsite at the end of Day Three of the Inca Trail

breakfast at the start of Day Three on the Inca Trail

and then the day’s walk begins- an easy day that is , believe it or not, mostly downhill!  We are not climbing up to Machu Picchu- we’re goin’ down!

At lunch we took a moment for another group shot-

nothing like a day of trekking to put everyone in a good mood!

the ruins of Puyupatamarca or “Town Above The Clouds”

more impressive ruins at the Puyupatamarca site

Here is something I usually forget that my camera can do- shoot videos. The camera I shot these pix with (a Sony H2) was my first digital camera- I come from a world of early 1980′s Nikon manual slr’s so the idea of shooting video hadn’t really clicked in yet. (To be honest, it still hasn’t!)  But here it is- my first insertion into a post of a video-

There you go- a tad lame. Camera is in the right place but technique and composition need work.  I will admit that this site, along with Winay Wayna and Machu Picchu, was one of the highlights of the trip from the point of view of Inca ruins.

mist adds to the magic of the “Town Above the Clouds”

And then it was onward- and downward. Some six-hundred-year-old staircases to negotiate and we made our way to the Day Three campsite located near the Trekker Hostel and Winay Wayna.

the Inca version of “Stairway to Heaven”

another stretch of the trail- and another dramatic staircase

An early arrival at the campsite meant that we’d have extra time to visit the Winay Wayna site around the corner and sip on a drink or two at the Trekker Hostel.  The tents were already up and I was pleased with the dramatic location the crew had secured for ours.

the view from my tent at the end of Day Three

Winay Wayna seems to have served as a bathing stop for people on the way to Machu Picchu; there is also an extensive agricultural terrace on the slope opposite the stone structures.

Winay Wayna structures from up above

standing within the upper level of Winay Wayna and looking at the valley below

a courtyard within the Winay Wayna complex

the agricultural terraces of Winay Wayna

Early-ish to bed on Day Three since we’d be getting up extra early in order to get past a permits check while it was still dark and to Inti Punku for sunrise.  This is the famous Gateway of the Sun and is the top of a slope from which you first see Machu Picchu.  Well, that is the plan.  Check out the scene when we were there-

pilgrims waiting at the Gateway of the Sun for Machu Picchu to appear

And where was Machu Picchu? Down there- underneath the clouds!

And here is the scene some fifteen minutes later from the same vantage point

Thirty minutes later, walking down the trail highlighted in red in the following picture and we were almost there-

By 8:00 a.m. we are almost there- and a good thing too. The tour buses will start arriving at 9:30 or so and it will be nice to have the site mostly to ourselves for an hour or so- one of the rewards of coming down from the Intipunku on the Inca Trail!

my telephoto lens has zoomed in on the heart of Machu Picchu but we still had a bit of walking to do!

And then we’re there.

Machu Picchu up close and vivid…it is 8:30 a.m. and Day Four of our walk. We’re here!

For a bit over an hour I walked around the site- it was indeed still pretty free of groups other than the Trail walkers- and then decided that the peak I’m staring at in the above photo- it’s called Winay Picchu- needed to be climbed.  The trail  spirals its way around the side of the mountain to the top and gets a bit sketchy at times- but the lengths of thick wire attached to the mountain face makes these stretches of the trail doable. Shades of the famous via ferrata in northern Italy!  We had until 2:00 p.m. at the site-in retrospect, too short a time. If I were to do this again, I’d arrange for a room in Pueblo Machu Picchu for that night so that I could stay longer on the first day and then return for another half day the next morning.

the central courtyard at Machu Picchu

The Intihuatana, the pyramid structure in the centre of the image, had a stone marker on the top used to determine the Winter Solstice

another view of Intihuatana, the pyramidal structure whose stone marker helped determine the timing of key festivals

The Royal Tomb beneath the Sun Temple

And here is a shot from Winay Picchu looking down at a couple from my trekking team. On the ridge you can see the Gateway of the Sun that we had come down about five hours earlier.

And then- much too soon- it was time to come down from on high!  Down From Winay Picchu summit to the saddle between the two peaks that the site of Machu Picchu itself was built on some 500 years ago, then way down via bus to Pueblo Machu Picchu, the boom town whose sole purpose is obviously to cater to the 400,000 or so  tourists who come through each year on the way to Pachacuti’s retreat.

the road from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu

Click here for an interactive Google map of the above image that you can play with!

Pueblo Machu Picchu is the gateway to Machu Picchu for those who arrive via train from Cusco or via other trekking routes.  For some it is a quick day trip, arriving in the morning and leaving by 4 in the afternoon.  Others overnight in the village and head up for the site as early as possible in the morning- either by bus or by foot (a tedious walk along the switchbacks that would have to be done before the busses started rolling).

one of the main streets of Pueblo Machu Picchu (or, as it used to be called, Aguas Calientes)

The Railway Station at Pueblo Machu Picchu- and the way back to Cuzco after the Inca Trail.

If You Want To Hike the Inca Trail:

If you’re interested in doing the Inca Trail yourself here is a good webpage to start with. It has a comprehensive list of dozens of trekking outfits keen to get your business; the site also highlights the main five or six.  As I mentioned before, I went with SAS Travel and was 100% impressed with the service their people provided.

The typical 2012 cost is in the US$580. range. You may have to add on the park entrance fees- currently in the $95. range- if it is not included in your trekking company’s package. There is an additional fee is you want a porter to carry the bulk of the stuff you’ll be bringing.  It is a worthwhile add-on since it leaves you with perhaps ten pounds (4.5 kg) on your back- your camera, some snacks and water, your rain jacket and pants, and a few other items you might need during the day.  The porters are local subsistence farmers who use this job to get some hard cash. They earn about $15. a day.

Remember, if you want to do the three-night/four-day classic Inca Trail trek, you need to book months in advance.  It is mid-April as I write this and SAS Travel is already fully booked until the beginning of September! Each company is allocated a certain number of places on the trail and once they fill those up, that’s it.

What to do if you are in Cusco and want to get a spot on the Inca Trail trek and can’t because all the permits have been long gone?  Don’t despair.  There are alternative treks which would also be worthwhile investments of your time and pay back in dramatic views and a great trekking experience.  Check out this National Geographic article – Top Six Alternative Routes To Machu Picchu - for some great suggestions!

Another possibility for those with less time – or less money! – is to do what john71 suggests in a Lonely Planet Thorntree Form post – click here for the details.  I call it Machu Picchu By the Back Door. This Youtube video will give you a feel for the ride from Cusco to Santa Maria, and then the dirt road from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa and on to Hidroelectrica and finally the walk to Pueblo Machu Picchu (aka Aguas Calientes). Check out the ride on this Google map.

Buen viaje!

4 thoughts on “Walking The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

  1. Thank you for your great blog. I am leaving for a tour of Peru early August and walking the Inca Trail days 10-13. It looks fantastic and your photos are awesome. By the way I’m 70 years old but in fantastic shape and only hoping that the elevation won’t give me too much trouble.

    • Anne, I’m glad the pix and the write-up were of some use. You will come back with your own stories and some great pix that will excite someone else!

      You’ll be okay with the elevation. Believe it or not, Cusco at 11, 200 feet (3400 m) is higher than Machu Picchu at about 7900 feet (2400 m) so if you’re okay in Cusco you should be fine on the trail. Just make sure you have two or three days to acclimatize in Cusco before you set off on the hike. Drink lots of fluids, take it easy for the first couple of days in Cusco, and maybe consider Diamox if you are really worried about it all.

      Buen viaje!

  2. Hello….just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the pictures and commentary of your Inca trail hike. In fact your whole site is awesome. This hike was of interest to me as I did the hike from kilometer 88 wayyyyyyy back in 1973 and was able to do it with a friend and a map, no need for permits, groups, porters etc. We obtained a map in Lima or Cusco, can’t remember which and just headed out on an adventure. As my photos have more or less disappeared over the years it was immensely gratifying to relive the trip through your photos. Thank you for such a wonderful site! Happy Trails. Janie

    • Jane, thanks! My blog started as an attempt to make use all these digital images I had sitting on my hard drive. When I retired from a 35-year stint as a high school teacher, the blog was something I found I could apply whatever skills I had developed over the years. Getting emails like yours makes it all worthwhile!

      I did the Inca Trail in 2007; it must have been an incredible adventure in 1973 before it became the groomed and managed hike it is now. Perhaps in 35 years someone will think the same about doing the Inca Trail in 2007! In the meanwhile, you and I will enjoy reliving our walks to the Sapa Inca Pachacuti’s weekend retreat at Machu Picchu as we look at the pics one more time.

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