The Inca Trail, leading to Machu Picchu, has been named as one of the best trails in the world by numerous publications. Following Inca roads through the exotic geography of Cusco and exploring well-preserved ruins is an experience like few others in the world.
Getting started on a day on the Inca Trail
It is 5 o’clock in the morning. It is still before dawn and it is very cold. The porters call out “hot water!”, to wake up the walkers, as they leave a jug of water outside each tent. Porters light their lamps. Mist covers the high jungle hilltops of Wiñay Wayna, a complex of ruins on the Inca Trail and the last stop on the great trek to the citadel of Machu Picchu. The cook is already making breakfast, and the porters, hardy men who hail mainly from the Andean communities in the Sacred Valley, prepare to strike camp before continuing to the citadel.
Breakfast on the trail
Breakfast consists of hot drinks, fruit, oats, bread, and cheese. A hearty breakfast is necessary before facing this long and complicated route. The walk —of approximately 40 kilometers, depending on the starting point— begins with a descent down stone steps, lasting three hours. You start to warm up after only a few yards. The sky starts to turn blue and the mist begins to dissipate. Machu Picchu is not far away.
Sights from the trail
We have had three grueling days of climbing and descending steep stone stairways and unpaved tracks between 3,000 and 4,200 meters. Nevertheless, it has been worth it. This trail is part of an enormous network of roads amounting to approximately 50,000 kilometers, which once joined the remotest parts of the continent to the city of Cusco and was used to govern the empire. Information, armies, and workmen could be moved quickly around this network, the central route of which is known as Qhapaq Ñan.
Along the route are numerous ruined buildings, still in an excellent state of preservation, that were used for different purposes during the Inca Empire. Many are small settlements hundreds of years old, located in hard-to-reach places on hillsides, hilltops, and cliffs, which suddenly appear when the enshrouding mist clears. The stone-paved road, complete with irregular stairways, connects them all perfectly through variations in altitude and difficult terrain.
The road starts in the Urubamba Valley, 82 kilometers along the Quillabamba-Cusco railway line, at a place called Piscacucho. From there it runs along the left bank of the River Kusichaca as far as the Llaqtapata ruins, which is thought to have been a sort of resting place for groups heading to Machu Picchu. The Vilcanota Mountains rise impressively, and the curve of the valley reminds us that thousands of years ago a glacier passed this way. The first campsite is at the village of Huayllabamba, where walkers take hot tea to prepare them for the chill of the night.
Day 2: the climb to Warmihuañusca
The second day starts very early. In contrast to the first day, the trail now leads up a long, steep stone stairway through cloud forest inhabited by hummingbirds, other birds and spectacled bears, which are difficult to spot but can appear when you least expect them. “How much further?”, is a common plea from hyperventilating walkers. “Not long now”, say the guides, whose sense of distance is certainly not like ours. The climb culminates at the Warmihuañusca pass, 4,200 meters above sea level, where your lungs seem smaller and your legs weaker. Sparse vegetation is evidence of a lack of oxygen, little grows except ichu, clumps of coarse grass that are an essential part of the diet of llamas and alpacas. When descending, the land becomes greener. Queñual woods (Polylepis) and flowers appear, together with hummingbirds and as you approach the high jungle the scent of herbs fills the air.
Day 3: Just try to keep up with the porters, another climb
The trail is not easy. You have to be in good physical condition, or have great strength of will. The third day involves another climb as far as Runkuraqay pass, at 3,800 m.a.s.l., after a visit to the ruins of the same name. And even if you leave first, the porters soon catch up. While you are pacing yourself, breathing in time with each step, the guides over-take you easily, and instead of trainers, they wear rubber sandals called ojotas. Born and raised in the Andes around Cusco, they are perfectly adapted to the altitude and difficult trails of the zone. They carry the tents, rucksacks and food, the gas bottle and cooker, while you carry just your daysack.
Getting to know the guides
They are the heroes of the trail and companions with whom you develop a close relationship. The majority come from highland communities in Urubamba such as Huilloc, Soqma, Misminay or Pallta, where Andean traditions are still maintained. Their mother tongue is Quechua, the colors of their clothes distinguish them from the people of other places, and their main occupations are farming and weaving of elaborate fabrics. The men can work as porters on the Inca Trail and over the years have established certain rules: the minimum tariff is 40 soles a day plus tips, and the law says that they cannot carry more than 20 kilos.
Wiñay Wayna, the last stop before Machu Picchu
The porters cover the second stage quickly because they have to get to Wiñay Wayna before the walkers, to set up the campsite. On the way, the visitors have the opportunity to explore places such as Sayacmarca and Phuyupatamarca, which is probably the best-preserved site on the route and includes stretches of stone-paved road beautifully built into the mountainside and a tunnel through the living rock. And finally, after descending a stone stairway, you arrive at Wiñay Wayna.
Wiñay Wayna, as we have said, is the last stop before Machu Picchu. The camps are set up on a large flat area adjacent to Inca terraced fields and the excitement of being close to one of the great marvels of the world is shared by everyone. The site is located at 2,650 meters. The sun sets behind the mountains and Wiñay Wayna, an astonishing settlement that contains dozens of perfectly designed terraces, is enveloped in the darkness. Lanterns light up peoples’ tents, and the travelers enjoy a final meal. The stars shine in the night sky. It is 8 o’clock in the evening and time to get some sleep.
Final stop, Machu Picchu
Getting up on the small hours is hard, but the end of the trek is at hand. You dress, prepare your rucksack and have breakfast, and then the porters arrive one by one. It is an emotional moment. And then it is time to get started. Machu Picchu is not far away. The reason for the early start is to see the citadel at dawn when it is still partially covered by mist and you can experience the mysticism of Andean culture. The trail descends and encourages the walkers to step out. And then, without realizing it, you reach Intipunku (Gate of the Sun), the entrance to the citadel. Behind it, as if protected by the clouds, is the world’s best-known Inca citadel: Machu Picchu.
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Credit: Lima Tours
Cover Photo: Ultimate Journeys Peru