As I walked the final few steps towards the edge, the ancient mountain town of Machu Pichu appeared in view. I have watched tons of videos of the place and read countless descriptions but it did not prepare me for seeing it with my own eyes. The view was spectacular. It is not for nothing that its considered one of the wonders of the world. The site of this ancient town is situated atop a mountain with a taller peak just in the background. Far away the Andes mountain ranges forms the perfect backdrop. When the clouds roll in, obscuring the views of the faraway mountains it makes for stunning scenery. The Incas were master builders. They turned entire sides of the rugged Andes mountains into cities. Their stone work was unmatched. Their road network is still marveled for its extensiveness. This was the culmination of the 4 Day trek that I was a part of. Over the course of 4 days we trekked on the ancient Inca paths that were built some 500 years ago and reached the most famous of the Inca sites, Machu Pichu on the 4th morning. This was one of the highlights of my travels!
Ever since I moved to Canada in 2018, I was looking to do a multi day trek in this part of the world. The last multi day trek I did was back in 2016 in the stunningly beautiful country of Bhutan. But multi day hiking (or trekking. I am going to use these terms interchangeably here) in Canada is expensive and also Covid19 disrupted all my travel plans. Finally in 2022 I started looking at other options. I shortlisted South America and Africa as I had never been to those continents. Then looking at the trekking options these continents offered, South America had more options. It also had a lot of history as well as the stunning Andes mountains. I read about the Andes mountains in books and I always wanted to visit them. So, now my choice was between Colombia, Equador and Peru. I zeroed in on Peru and was looking to choose between Choqueqirao trek and the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu. Finally I chose the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu as I was going to do this trip alone and wanted a safe option. Looking at the operators I decided to go with Alpaca Expeditions who I read was one of the best and also their website is efficient and easy to navigate around. I do not regret the decision as I had a great time with them.
After selection of the site, came my one of my favorite parts; Reading about the history of the country. As usual I first read the Wikipedia and Wikitravel articles. Then I read the Lonely Planet guide to Peru and finally I read 2 books about the Incas; The Last Days of the Incas and Conquistadores. Both books are an excellent introduction into the Incas and their story.
Next came the packing part. Drawing on my previous multi day trekking experience, I packed, keeping in mind, the low temperatures I might encounter in the nights. I had multiple layers. New addition for this trek was the new GPS device that I got for myself. I also packed plenty of ginger candies to prepare for the altitude acclimatization. This was one of my chief concerns. I did not have much trouble in the 4000+ metres altitude in my previous treks so I was a bit confident about not having any altitude related issues but at the same time, having lived near the sea for more than 6 years now (Nellore, India and Vancouver, Canada) I was slightly worried. Cusco, the city in Peru which is the starting point of the trek is situated at around 3400 Metres which is pretty high. People take multiple days to acclimatize here before they start the trek but I had only one day and one night to do so.
Finally it was time to go! I booked a LATAM airlines flight itinerary which was in 3 parts; (Vancouver, Canada to Mexico city, Mexico), (Mexico City, Mexico to Lima, Peru) and finally (Lima, Peru to Cusco, Peru). The total journey was around 30 hours with long layovers at Mexico City and Lima. I started on a Saturday and finally reached Cusco on a Monday morning. My first experience with Spanish came during the interaction with the Air Hostess. They spoke to me in Spanish and I replied in English so they switched to English. One of the first words I picked up was ‘Gracias’ meaning ‘Thank you’. This was the only word I consistently used till the end of my trip. Thankfully I did not have much trouble during the entire journey with many people speaking English.
I found Cusco’s airport to be a small one. There was not much walking to do as soon as I left the plane, as I reached the exit gate quite quickly. Outside I could see a number of people waiting. I had earlier emailed to my Hotel and arranged an airport pickup. I spotted a man holding a placard with my name on it. I walked over to him, said hello and on we were to the Hotel. During the ride the taxi driver tried to make small talk but he didn’t know any English so we couldn’t talk much. I tried a bit with Google translate but it was a cumbersome process so we fell silent after a while. Looking out the window I was quite excited to be in a different continent and in a country whose language I did not speak. The city scenes were quite similar to India’s with the haphazard layouts and the traffic. Soon after a drive of around 20 minutes we reached the hotel.
My Taxi dropped me off at my Hotel, Eco Inn. It was situated some distance away from the center of Cusco but still within a walkable distance. This was a small backpacking style hotel which I found through Alpaca Expedition’s list of recommended Hotels. I checked in and freshened up and as I was very tired form the long journey, fell asleep. I woke up in the afternoon and was feeling hungry so I looked up some options for restaurants nearby. Since the trek was starting from the next day I didn’t want to try anything new so I opted for an Indian restaurant. I walked to this restaurant taking the back lanes wherever I could since I wanted to go through the less touristy parts of the city. My first impressions of the city were very positive. It was a beautiful sunny day. The people seemed kind, the roads were narrow but nice and as I moved closer to the central part of the city I could see more and more Spanish era structures. There were lots of small shops which I love. For lunch I had some egg fried rice which was decent. Most importantly it was a dish I was familiar with. After lunch I strolled to the main area of the city which is the Plaza de Armas. This is one of the most important sites of Peru in terms of its historic importance. Cusco used to be the capital of the vast Inca empire and this square used to be the central part of it. From here 4 roads shot off into 4 directions which stretched into the far away lands of the Inca territories in the four direction. I spotted lots of familiar cars like Toyotas, Kias but there were also many Chinese brands which I was not familiar with.
I spent some time just looking around. I did not want to exert myself too much since I wanted my acclimatization process to go smoothly. Keeping this in mind I limited my walk to around the plaza. I visited one of the churches which was magnificent inside. The view from one of the upper floors was amazing. Even though the buildings were beautiful I couldn’t help but think that all of this was funded by looting the Incas. I spent time looking around till it was time for my check-in process with Alpaca at 6pm. I made my way to the Alpaca office where I met the other trekkers who would be part of our group. We also met our guides Sabi and Fernando. They gave us a brief overview of the whole trek, answered our questions and gave us some last minute instructions. They also gave us a Duffel bag in which we were supposed to keep our clothes and other stuff that we were not going to keep in our day pack. After the meeting was completed we parted ways. There was not much time to interact with the other trekkers. Anyway we were going to spend the next 4 days together. We had plenty of time to chat.
Again, looking up another Indian restaurant I walked over to the plaza. Night time bought out a different view of the city. One of the striking things was the poverty. Lots of people could be seen selling bare essentials on the sides of the road. I wonder how much they earn from a day’s selling. Others were selling sweaters which, I learnt later, are sold up at higher prices in the more established shops. There are tons of shops selling these sweaters. You’ll find them everywhere.
After dinner I walked back to my hotel. All throughout the day I kept drinking coca tea to acclimatize myself. I had maybe 4 cups of tea the entire day.
Distance to be covered today- (~14 km)
Change in Elevation – from Piskacucho (2720 MSL) to Ayapata (3300 MSL)
Duration- Around 5-6 hours depending on your speed
I woke up around 3 am to do some final prep and get ready for the pick up. Around 4 30am I made my way to the reception where, having agreed with the hotel owner beforehand, I dropped off my bag which they assured will be safely kept in their storage till I return from my trek. I read that this is a common practice in Cusco. Soon the Alpaca team arrived in their bus and picked me up. I was the first one to be picked up and their was only Sabi and Fernando in the bus apart from the driver. Slowly we picked up the others. I did not talk much with the group as it was still early in the morning and many of them were trying to catch some sleep. Our group of 11 was quite diverse. We were 11 in all. Rajesh and Thabo were from South Africa. Mike, his son Nathan and Nathan’s friend, William were originally from Ireland but living in the Unites States. Christine and her friend were from Taiwan and living in Canada. Then we had the the husband and wife team of Rajiv and Pamela. And Thomas, who was from Canada as well.
The bus dropped us off at KM 82 from where our actual trek started. After a brief stop where we made some final preparations we started off around 8 am. Here we also saw our support staff which were a team of 16 people which included chef, head porter and other porters. They play a huge role in ensuring that the whole trek goes off smoothly. A huge shout out to them!
We took some pics at the starting point in front of the big board with the name of the trek in Spanish. After this we resumed walking and as it happens every time at the start of a trek, you get breathless quite quickly and then slowly fall into a rhythm. The landscape around was dry and with bushes spread here and there. Early on we passed by some stunning views of small villages set with a background of mountains. It was a clear sunny day and there were beautiful perfect blue skies. Sometimes, far away we could see snow covered mountain tops as well. Soon we passed by our first Inca site, Patallacta which was stunning. Perfectly laid out at the base of the mountain with a snake like boundary bordering the Urubamba River, it looked like a well thought out site. We resumed walking after a brief stop here. Now and then, Sabi, our guide stopped the group to give us a quick lesson on the history and the flora and fauna of the place.
Soon we reached a picturesque spot where we stopped for lunch. The group was quite curious about what would be served in lunch so were looking forward to it. A separate tent had been set up inside of which tables and chairs had been arranged. We were pleasantly surprised by the number of items offered to us. There was soup, bread, eggs, potatoes and a number of other things I do not recall now. But any apprehensions we had about the quality and quantity of food quickly vanished. After lunch some of the guys played football while I was content with taking in the beautiful scenery around. There was a small shop here selling drinks and other essentials one might need during the trek. Throughout the trek we found these shops at many stops. Another factor of the trek I found new was that there are washrooms situated at many stops along the whole trail and one has to pay a couple of sol to use them. Toilet paper is also provided if needed.
After lunch we resumed our hike and reached our campsite for the night by around 5pm. The campsite location was decent but I had seen far more beautiful campsites in India and Bhutan before so this was a slight disappointment. Campsites here are usually quite big with other trek operators also having their own sites nearby. We had a row of 6 tents side by side and the supporting staff slept in other tents nearby. Dinner was again quite delicious and soon we trudged off to our tents to sleep. There were three of us who had to share 2 tents. So we decided that Me and Thomas would be sharing a tent while Mike would use the other. I found it hard to fall asleep as I am quite restless while sleeping and move around a lot. Since Thomas was sleeping nearby and I didn’t want to disturb him I was extremely conscious of any moment I made in my sleeping bag. I fell asleep maybe around 1 am, a full 5 hours after we went to sleep. Even then I had a very disturbed sleep.
Distance to be covered today- (~16 km)
Change in Elevation-from Ayapata (3330 MSL) to Choquicocha (3600MSL)
Duration- Around 9-10 hours depending on your speed
After a restless sleep I woke up on Day 2 not fully refreshed but there was nothing I could do about it. Today was going to be the hardest day. We were to cross the highest part of the trek, the Dead Woman’s Pass which is quite an ominous name. After a hearty breakfast with some coca tea we started off. By this time our group became divided into 3 parts. The first was of 4 people which included Nathan, William, Rajesh and Thomas. The middle part had Thabo, Mike, Christine, her friend and myself. Finally the rear section was brought up by Rajiv and Pamela. We more or less followed this pattern for the next 2 days as well. The morning scenery was beautiful with clouds obscuring the far away mountain tops. The mountains on which we were walking and were surrounded by, were rugged with sparse vegetation growing on them. We had multiple stops along the way. Each stop was welcomed with relief as it was quite a tough hike up. At around 11 am we reached the Dead Woman’s Pass which is at a height of 4200 MSL. This is the highest part of the whole Inca Trail. Many other trekking groups were here as well. We took a long break here and took many pics. We met a group of Peruvian policemen who were also doing this trek as part of an exercise. I had a good chat with one of them who I encountered many times during the rest of the trek.
After the break as we were resuming our hike a thick fog rolled in a for a while at the top but thankfully moved away soon. Our next stop was for lunch. When we reached the spot we saw our sleeping cots laid out under the open sky. Sabi told us to take a nap or a siesta before we moved on to the next stop. We took up this opportunity with joy and soon everyone was sleeping under the bright warm sun. It was refreshing after that tough climb. Soon we had our lunch and on we continued for out next pass which is the Runkuracay which is at a height of 3680 metres. We crossed this site soon without any problem. By evening we were mighty tired. Just before we were to reach our campsite for the day Sabi told us there was a slight diversion to an Inca site nearby. We had the option to skip it or visit it. Some of the group chose to skip it but I did not. There was no way I was saying no to an Inca site even though I was mighty tired. This site is called Sayacmarca which means an inaccessible site and it was stunning it its location. The setting sun only added to its beauty. Since it was getting late there was no one apart from me here. Sabi joined in later to keep an eye on me. I took some pics here and rejoined the group at the campsite.
After dinner I had a chat with Sabi asking him if he had any extra tent by chance since I had a very restless sleep the previous night. Even though Sabi did not have one he somehow arranged one by speaking with the support team. I was extremely grateful for this gesture as I finally had a very good sleep that night after a very tiring day.
Distance to be covered today- (~10 km)
Change in Elevation – From Choquicocha (3600 MSL) to Winay Huayna (3680 MSL)
Duration- Around 4-6 hours depending on your speed
On Day 3, I woke up after a much better night’s sleep after the new sleeping arrangements. I profusely thanked Sabi again for that. The early morning scenes outside the camp were spectacular. I could see clouds floating below our eye line with majestic mountains far away as ever. Soon we were on our way. This was going to be the easiest of all the days. There was not much elevation gain relatively and we had two major Inca sites to visit. The day also offered some stunning landscapes. After a couple of hours of hiking we reached our first major stop of the day at a site called Phuyupatamarca. For some of the group members this turned out to be the most exciting and memorable part of the trek. This was mainly because of the number of Alpacas we saw here. This was the first time many of us were seeing these cute creatures for the first time. The group spent a lot of time clicking pics with them. I too posed for a few one of which turned out be memorable for me as well.
Our first Inca sit was Intipata. The approach to this site was quite exciting. I could see glimpses of this site from far away and as we moved closer and closer I could see it between the foliage of the surrounding vegetation. This reminded of those explorer type adventure movies and books. The entry to the Intipata site is beautiful. You enter onto one of the giant steps that the Incas cut out on the side of the mountain. To your left are steps rising to the top and to your right they continue down. Far below you can see a river flowing. I was mesmerized by the Inca’s ability to choose perfect spots and turn entire sides into their stone studded towns. We sat down at a spot where we had another of Sabi’s quick lectures. This point offered beautiful views of the mountains and the river below. The mountain stretched away in steps and the farthest of them was obscured by the clouds. The day was sunny with blue skies. It was so beautiful and comfortable that I wanted to take a nap there. But we had to move on.
After Intipata we soon reached our campsite for the day. After we took some rest Sabi took us to the next Inca site which was Winay Huayna. This was the site I had read about previously and was most excited about. Sure enough it was spectacular. It is said that this is the best preserved Inca site in all of Peru and we can see why. It had many house like structures still standing. The layout was similar to the other Inca sites. Rows and rows of steps cut into the side of the mountain. In the middle of this were few hut like structures. Sabi explained that usually villagers used to live in these huts at the center and did farming on the level ground provided by the steps surrounding them. We spent a lot of time exploring these ruins. Walking inside I couldn’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the Incas. One of most fascinating thing was that the water fountain network that they built 500 years ago was still operational with water still flowing in them. After wandering around to our heart’s content we made out way back to the campsite. Dinner today was going to be the last dinner for the group before our final day next day. Numbers were exchanged and promises made to keep in touch. We still had a day but sometimes we get so caught up with the things to do that we forget to share information. After dinner we bid our good byes and went to sleep.
Distance to be covered today- (~5km)
Change in Elevation-from Winay Huayna (3680 MSL) to Machu Pichu (2400 MSL)
Duration- Around 2-3 hours depending on your speed
For our final and most exciting day we woke up around 3 30am. In the darkness, using our headlamps we quickly got ready to leave. Today’s first few hours were going to be more about beating the crowds than anything else. This was a new experience for me. I never had to try to beat crowds before on a trek. Seeing the urgency in our guides I chuckled to myself that it was going to be a fun day. We were even handed packed breakfasts to be had later. So we started off around 5 am and reached the entry point in half an hours time. Here we found out that we were the second hiking group to have reached. The gates were to open around in an hours time so we settled down on the chairs nearby. Soon a huge crowd of different trekking groups gathered outside the group. Good thing was everybody was sitting in a systematic order. Soon the the gates were opened and we rushed inside. Now it was a quick fast walk without stopping anywhere. There was a continuous line of trekkers so stopping would just pull you away from your own group. This went on for around 1.5 hours. We did have stops called by our guides where entire groups were stopping. We could see the Machu Pichu site much before we actually reached it. Around 1.5 hours later taking the stone laden path which the Incas themselves would have taken 500 years ago we reached our destination.
The ancient city of Machu Pichu.
Hiram Bingham discovered this site by chance in 1911. I was here 112 years later. The entire behind this site’s discovery is quite fascinating. We were standing on a platform overlooking the city. Below we could see the city spread out over a mountain top. This was the biggest Inca site we had seen so far on our trek. The view is the same famous one that one can see on countless photos online. In person its even more beautiful. Fortunately we had clear blue skies and our view was perfect. We took a ton of pics here before we descended to the entry point. While we were descending the stairs, the day tourists were ascending it. Seeing us they all started shouting ‘Bravo bravo’ and started clapping. It felt good. At the bottom we exited the main gate and were immediately met with a huge crowd outside the gates. There were washrooms, vending machines and a café here. We felt a sense of relief to be back in civilization. We split up here do our own things and got back together in 30 mins when Sabi, who was looking quite dapper in his official uniform, joined us.
Soon we queued up in front of the gates where we had to show our passports to get in. This was the only landmark I have ever visited where I had to show my passport for entry. From here Sabi and Fernando took us around on a tour of the entire site. The overall site is pretty big and there are lots of different structures here including temples and animal shelters. Midway through the tour it started drizzling. Alpaca Team handed out ponchos for us and the tour continued. I was once again fascinated by the structures. It was pretty incredible seeing the mastery of the Inca stonework. I had a pretty good idea about the whole Inca history from the books I had read earlier. Machu Pichu, interestingly was not an important city 500 years ago. There is little to no mention of the city in both the Spanish sources and the Inca sources of those times. It gained prominence because of the fact that the Spanish never reached here and the structures are nicely preserved. And it was once believed by some scholars to be the lost city of Vilcabamba but that was disproved later. After the amazing city tour we exited the site and boarded a bus which was to take us to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes.
We reached Aguas Calientes after around 1.5 hours. It is a proper tourist town with souvenir shops everywhere and swamped by tourists. We were directed to a restaurant where we had lunch together. This was our last lunch together as a group. Everyone was proud to have completed the trek successfully and also relieved to be back in a city. After our lunch we boarded a Peru Rail train which was again packed with people. This was my first time taking a train in a country other than India, Canada and USA. It was pretty exciting. This train exists main to shuttle tourists around these towns. I usually like to go on trains which normal everyday people take. This was different. After a journey of 2 hours we reached Saqsaywaman which I later learnt most western tourists call ‘Sexy Woman’.
From Saqsaywaman another bus picked us up and finally were on our way to Cusco. Again I was the final one to be dropped off so I had an opportunity to bid good eye to everyone. It was a great day! One of my best!
I woke up quite late on my final day in Cusco. I needed the sleep. Sleep and food on time are very important for me. Prolonged carelessness in these 2 aspects can sometimes trigger my migraine. After waking up I lazed around for a while just chilling on the bed and finally got ready to go out by lunch time. I again had my lunch in the same Indian restaurant as before. Though there were tons of things to do like Museums and other places to visit I intentionally chose to skip them in favor of just casually strolling and doing some shopping. I did not want to rush into doing things just for the sake of doing it. I was content with just aimlessly wandering around. After a while I made my way to the shopping center where a huge range of things are sold. They had everything from meat to clothes sold there. It was a huge complex line with rows and rows of shops. After walking around just looking at all the things that are sold there I made my way over the shops selling sweaters. I am not much of a shopper and don’t have much experience with bargaining. Add to that many sellers did not know English. There was a young woman in one of the shops which sold souvenirs, who spoke good English so I chatted with her for a while. She had a good idea about India and the life there. After some conversation I asked her if the prices mentioned in the shops in the complex were reasonable. She said this is one of the best areas to buy sweaters as this whole complex is more popular with the locals and since its a bit away from the tourist circle its cheaper. I also asked her if she has any recommendations to which she smiled and said any shop is fine. I admired her neutral stance and smiled back. After buying some fridge magnets and wishing her well I moved on to other stores.
I had communication issues with many of the older sellers. But this experience of struggling to communicate with them was both fun and in some ways endearing. One old lady was very nice and asked me where I am from. I told her I am from India but living in Canada to which she replied by saying she loves watching Indian and Pakistani TV shows. I was intrigued and asker her why does she love watching our TV shows to which she answered saying that those shows do not have violence. She described them as being ‘tranquila’ which means peaceful. I bought multiple sweaters from here, wished her good luck and moved on to other shops. But not before I clicked a picture of her and her shop. In retrospect I think I should take a selfie. By the time I bought sweaters for my entire family my flight departure time was approaching so I made my way back to the Hotel looking around for one last time. It is highly unlikely that I will ever be coming back here. I had arranged for a airport drop service from the hotel which the owner confirmed as I checked with him again. I also had a good chat with the owner who is quite friendly and accommodating with the guests needs. Finally at around 5 pm I bid farewell to the owner and took the Taxi to the airport. It was the end to a beautiful trip in which had many firsts for me; first time in Peru, first time in South America, first time in the southern hemisphere and first time in a country whose language I didn’t speak.