Inca Trail: Once in a Lifetime Experience
Inca Trail seemed a surprising travel destination for us. Although we are very active and fairly fit physically, we are not hikers, and never campers. The idea of sleeping in a tent on the ground without proper shower doesn’t appeal to us necessarily. Our idea of a hiking trip includes a day hike in the nature, ending with a good meal, a glass of wine, a hot shower and a comfortable bed.
The idea of Inca Trail has been simmering for a while. Many of our friends have been to Machu Picchu, and are raving about the spiritual experience they had. Some of them went by train, and some took the trek. We figured that if we want to see Machu Picchu (definitely!), we should go earlier in our life rather than later, when we still have our healthy knees to take on the stairs. And we may as well do the whole Inca Trail to have the full experience.
We finally did it in May and what an experience it was! We splurged on a private tour with Alpaca Expeditions, the best tour company on the trek. There were a guide, a chef and six porters for us, and they are the nicest people on earth. The care, encouragement and kindness they had for us will stay forever in our memory and are the best part of our trip.
April to October is the dry season and the best time to do the trek. The weather during our trek was perfect and we had the perfect views of the mountains and the Inca ruins of the entire trek. Rainy seasons are not a good choice. Not only is the trail very slippery in the rainy seasons, there is also very little to see due to the fogs and clouds in the mountains. If you are planning the trip, you should start at least six months before the planned departure, as the licenses to the trek fill up quickly.
We arrived in Cusco, the Inca capital, three days before our trek to adjust our bodies to the altitude. At an elevation around 3400 meters, Cusco gives you a taste of altitude sickness for sure. We were OK when we first stepped out of the plane and got to our hotel, but felt increasingly worse throughout the day. Headaches, dizziness, nausea and tiredness, we experienced all. It took us about two full days to get adjusted. What helped us through the ordeal were the coca leaf tea and the muña tea. The coca leaf is a controlled substance in some countries, but has been used for centuries by Andean peoples for medicinal and nutritive purposes. Muña is a mint-like Peruvian herb and is particularly helpful to the altitude nausea. Coca tea and muña tea are everywhere in Cusco — in hotel lobbies, stores and restaurants.
It is a good idea to spend a couple of days in Cusco ahead of the trek aside from the need to get used to the altitude. The Incan capital seems like a city frozen in time: cobblestone streets and clay-tile roofs, men and women in indigenous garment, and meticulously preserved monuments.
But the most thrilling part of our trip is the classic 3 nights 4 days Inca Trail (not the ‘cheatter’ train version). Though challenging (very challenging for some), it is very doable for most healthy and active people. There were people on the trek claiming that they had been training for the hike, but we didn’t and we had been arriving the camping sites the first or second throughout the trek; and we are not even regular hikers.
The trek covers a total distance of 43 kilometers and the altitude from 2720 meters (about 8900 feet) to 4200 meters (about 14000 feet). It is a stunning hike with incredible Inca ruins, snow-capped mountain peaks, beautiful waterfalls and lush jungles.
Our favorite day was day 2, also the most challenging. Day 2 started with a straight-up steep 3 ½ hour climb to the highest summit of 4200 meters (from 3000 meters at our camp). It was a beautiful hike in the jungles early in the morning. The air was fresh and sweet, the huge trees and flowers decorated the trail, with waterfalls adding the perfect background music. As we climbed up, jungles gave in to shrubs, flowers were replaced by moss clinging to rocks, and the air was getting thinner and thinner. The last 80 meters were the toughest as the altitude took effect on us and we were completely out of breath. But it felt so great to be on the top! You can’t beat the view.
After we experienced the high of the first summit, we had to come all the way down to 3600 meters, and only to go back up to the second summit of 4000 meters. The best of the second summit was the lagoons along the way. We have seen them up from the air when we flew in from Lima. They look like mirrors dotted in a largely brownish landscape, reflecting the brilliant blue sky. Our guide Roro told us that these lagoons are getting smaller every year, another evidence of the looming climate change.
On our way down to the camp site, we passed by Sayacmarka, an Inca ruin meaning impossible fortress, hanging at the edge of a cliff. There is only one narrow staircase going up and down, hence the name.
Day 2 ended at our camp site of 3600 meters after 11 hours of intense hike. It was a cold night because of the altitude. The walls of our tent were wet due to condensation. But what a beautiful night! The mountain was quiet and dark, with the clearest sky I have never seen before. The Milky Way seemed to be just above our heads and we could just stretch out our arm and grab a star. Standing in the quiet darkness, we let ourselves floating in the Milky Way, undertaken by the marvel and beauty of the nature. It was one of the purest and most peaceful moments in our lives.
Day 3 was the easiest and prettiest day. Most of the hike was gentle downhill or ‘Peruvian flat’, meaning gentle ups and downs. Incredibly lucky, our morning started with a fantastic view of the snow-capped Salkantay, the second highest mountain in the Sacred Valley and is usually hiding behind clouds and fogs, even in the dry season.
Along the way, we descended into the Cloud Forest, where we were greeted by wild flowers, orchids, birds and butterflies. The air was no longer as crisp as the top, but humid and scented. Waterfalls appeared again, cascading down the mountain on the opposite side of the valley.
The finale of Day 3 was the Inca ruins of Wiñay Wayna, which was named after, very romantically, the orchid found in the surrounding areas, meaning ‘Forever Young’ in the native Andean language. What a perfect name for this ageless site! For me, Wiñay Wayna was the best Inca ruin we visited on the trek, and it beat out Machu Picchu, mostly because it hasn’t been overrun by the tourists, with only the Inca Trail campers in sight.
It was late afternoon when we visited Wiñay Wayna. The sun hung low in the sky and cast long shadows over the steep hills, turned the cloud forest into a deep green. Wiñay Wayna sits quietly on steep mountain slopes, surrounded by the lush forest, with mist rolling in and out, and a steady waterfall casually reclining in the distance. We were stunned speechless by its sheer scale and timeless presence, feeling small and almost irrelevant. Sitting on the narrow stairs, wondering around the curving agricultural terraces, time flew by. I would go back to Wiñay Wayna in a heartbeat to experience it again!
We finally reached Machu Picchu on the last day of our trek. Machu Picchu itself, though magnificent, was not the most enjoyable part of Inca Trail. The spiritual nature of Machu Picchu was lost to the crowds posing crazily and taking selfies. The best way to appreciate it is actually from afar, at Sun Gate. After some very steep stairs, ‘monkey stairs’ (as the need to climb up as monkeys with hands and legs), we arrived at Sun Gate early in the morning and were awarded with a spectacular view of the mountains and Machu Picchu. It was a very clear day. Machu Picchu was right in front of us in all its glory, decorated by the clouds as light and as delicate as chiffon.
Inca Trail was a trip of lifetime and will always hold a special place in our hearts. The beauty of the mountains, the history of the ruins, the sweet and crisp air, the flowers, the birds, the butterflies…But our dearest memory of the trek is the people we met and spent four days with. Our guide Roro, our chef Ramon and all our porters are the real treasure and real heroes on the trail. Their genuine kindness and warmth humbled us to our core.
Most of the crew work almost constantly in the dry season months to earn enough money to support themselves and their family, and it is VERY hard work physically, especially with all the weight they have to carry. Most of them may never have all the material things as we possess, but I’m not sure if they are less happy than we are. They are always smiling, laughing, giving high-fives to us, taking great cares of our needs, and addressing every concern we might have. The four days we spent with them made us rethink about our attitude towards life. It just felt wrong to compliant about the small things, like, bad coffee, crowded subways, broken AC…We learned to be more grateful about what we have, and maybe what we have is already more than enough.