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August 3, 2016

Steff’s Incan Adventure: Hiking the Inca Trail (with tips and a ton of images)

Grymm and Frostbitten Lands, Steff

steff did it machu picchu

It was my Mum’s dream since she was a little girl to visit Machu Picchu. When I developed an interest in archaeology at a young age, she was overjoyed, because it meant she had someone to share her dreams and ideas with. She was one of the biggest influences and encouragement for my interest – taking me to meetings of the Egyptian Society, going fossil hunting, recording every documentary about archaeology that aired after my bedtime.

When I was at university studying archaeology, she came to visit me in Auckland during the holidays. This one time, we walked past a travel agent shop displaying a poster of Macchu Picchu. She stopped at admire it. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she said, in a wistful tone that clearly implied it was never going to happen. Ridiculous, I thought. So I dragged her inside. We emerged 30 minutes later, our arms loaded down with brochures for Peru and an adventurous plan forming in our minds.

We were going to go together an hike the Inca Trail after I finished my studies. However, in my last year I was offered a spot on a New Zealand classical studies expedition to Greece and Crete. Six weeks of travelling with fellow classics geeks, studying the ruins of Greece and Mycenae and the Minoan Empire, finding ancient tomes in some of the oldest classical libraries of the world … I couldn’t pass that up. So we put off our Peru trip. And then the next year I got married, and then I went to Europe, and then my mum went to Australia, and then she and Dad went to Europe … ten years went by and we still hadn’t gone on our Peru trip.

Mum was starting to say if she didn’t go before she was 60 then she’d never go. I didn’t want her to miss out on something that felt so far away to her but was so possible. When my books started taking off and I was able to set aside royalties for travel, we picked up the idea of going again. It just so happened our journey through the Andes would coincide with her 59th birthday. It was too good a chance to pass up. This time last year, we boarded a plane for South America for a month of adventuring.

I’ve already written about some of our adventures – Visiting the home of Pablo Neruda, Wandering the Witches Markets of La Paz, Living with the locals on Lake Titicaca, and Seeing Monkeys and Spiders in the Amazon. But here follows my account of the reason for our trip – our hike along the ancient Inca Trail – a sacred roadway used by people for centuries to reach the Incan city of Macchu Picchu.

Inca Trail: Day Zero

After a long bus trip north from Lake Titicaca (buses in Peru are LOVELY – this one had huge seats, movies playing, and a great view across the mountain pass), we arrived in Cusco. Cusco was one of my favourite cities we visited in South America. I loved the layout of the place, how the Spanish colonial architecture lay on top of the Incan foundations. It was little and vibrant, filled with eateries and little shops and beautiful colonial churchs. We spent a day in Cusco before the trail, exploring the ruins of the Incan sacred valley with our guide Reuban (who had his masters in Peruvian archaeology. Needless to say we had a lot to talk about!), and gathering supplies for the hike. After a fortifying meal of guinea pig (tastes a lot like duck. No joke), Mike and I spent some time perusing the whisky selection at the local supermarket before settling on a lovely bottle of $7 something-or-other.

Our team of porters would carry all the camping gear, including a bag containing up to 5kgs of our personal gear. We would be responsible for carrying anything else we wanted in a small day pack. I packed a sleeping bag I’d rented and a ton of warm clothes and socks into my porter bag, and loaded up my pack with snacks, more warm clothes, a rain poncho and – of course – the whisky.

Inca Trail: Day One

inca trail day 1 all small

We stayed the night in Ollantaytambo (the name just rolls off the tongue) in a little guesthouse in the shadows of the ruins of an Incan city. There were beautiful gardens and a cat to keep us company. After a breakfast of warm pancakes and jam, we travelled with the trek guide and porters to Kilometre 82 waymarker (2,680 metres above sea level) – the official start of the Inca Trail.

Reuban introduced us to our six porters – the amazing men who would carry the majority of our gear up the trail ahead of us, set up our camp each night, and cook our meals. The porters come from local villagers, and work on the trail carrying bags when they aren’t needed on their family farms. Some of our porters were over 60 years old, and had done the hike many times, others were much younger – in their 20s – with less experience. I must admit, looking at these tiny guys wearing nothing but tracksuits and sandshoes packing 50kgs of camping equipment into their packs, I felt like a real privalleged fucker. I was almost ready to grab all my gear back and take it myself, but luckily common sense stopped me.

inca trail bridge

It begins.

day 1 trail begins inca trail

Love the scenic traditional Incan pylon. This brings electricity to the villages that still exist in the foothills of the mountains.

day 1 mum

We took our photographs beneath the Inca Trail site while Reuban checked our passports and permits and paid the fee for us all to enter the trail. The Inca Trail is heavily regulated by the Peruvian government, in accordance to its status as a UNESCO heritage site. It used to be much less-so, with porters regularly carrying far too much gear, and tourists coming and going as they pleased, camping wherever they wanted (including on the archaeological sites). Now, the porters have their bags weighed to make sure they’re not carrying too much gear, and only 500 tourists a day are allowed to enter the trail. We have to camp at designated sites. This helps to protect the archaeology and the track, and ensure the whole experience is a bit safer.

The first stretch of track followed a winding, meandering river through a valley. We passed little villages of stone and wood houses and lots of donkey and alpacas. You could buy water and other supplies on the side of the track. There was a bustling, vibrant atmosphere, as though I were a traveller on a well-used trade route.

day 1 donkeys inca trail

day 1 river view

inca trail food

It’s a very strange experience hiking and stopping for lunch in your own tent with hot food already prepared for you. The porters run ahead and set everything up for your meals and sites. The food is incredible – hearty Peruvian fare like chicken fried with spices, rice and bean dishes, rice and quinoa cakes, dishes made with peruvian cheeses, stuffed peppers and chilis, and lots and lots of potatoes. All washed down with hot coca-leaf tea to help our bodies adjust to the altitude. At some stops, we even had local village cats coming by to see if we had any table scraps.

day 1 steff misty inca trail

inca trail terraces

Maik chilling with some terraces.

Because we’d arrived in La Paz and had been living at altitude for about a week already, we didn’t suffer much from the effects on the hike. It’s weird to feel short of breath all the time, but after a while you just get used to it, and enjoy the walk and the landscape. Being able to go at your own pace and stop whenever you want for a break also helped a lot.

The first day’s walk was around 12 kilometers on relatively flat ground. Reuban called it “Incan flat” which means that stairs go up, then they go down again. And again, and again. And again. Those wacky Incans sure had a sick sense of humour. We passed beautiful scenery, mountains and valleys and prehistoric rock formations.

day 1 ruins steff inca trail

Along the way we passed through many archaeological sites. The Inca Trail was a sacred way and a main throughfare for the settlements in the Andes, so it makes sense that along the way there will be the remains of other cities, some perhaps even grander than Macchu Picchu. I particularly enjoyed looking down over the city of Patallajta, “the town on the hillside.” This is a complex situated at the foot of a mountain, located at 2650m. Archaeological remains suggest that this settlement was taken over 2000 years ago from pre-Inca people and expanded by the Incas; it has more of a functional purpose, rather than ceremonial – evidenced by the impressive rings of terraces used to grow food to supply the other settlements and “tambos” (travelers’ rest stations) along the Inca Trail, and likely even Machupicchu itself. Though well planned and constructed, most of the architecture is utilitarian and repetitive in style, the stone work is solid but rough compared with the snugly fitted stones seen at later sites.

day 1 misty ruins inca trial

day 1 bridge safety

Yup. This looks totally sturdy and safe.

The first night we camped in the backyard of a kind family in Wayllabamba, the last village at the foot of the Andes – 3,000 metres above sea level. Beyond this point, no people lived permanently in the Andes. It was just mountains and ruins. We passed around the whisky and toasted our first day accomplished.

day 1 camping inca trail

Inca Trail: Day Two

day 2 steff horns

Day two started at 6AM, where we were roused with a hearty breakfast cooked by Pio, our amazing chef. We packed up all the gear and start with a gradual ascent, which soon becomes a steep ascent and then a why-the-fuck-did-I-ever-agree-to-do-this ascent. 9 kilometres later, I was the first in my group to hit the Dead Women’s Pass (Warmiwañusca). I must admit, I felt pretty damn pleased with myself!

day 2 where we going dead womens pass

We’ve got to get up there. Seems totally doable.

day 2 approach dead womens pass

Approaching Dead Women’s Pass

stairs inca trail

I hate stairs.

stairs inca trail

Seriously. Fuck this shit. I’m going home.

dead womens pass inca trail steffmetal

I made it! Check out my gleeful laugh of relief.

Physically, I am pretty fit, but I haven’t hiked a long distance in a number of years, and the stairs and the altitude make this a challenge for anyone. It’s amazing to be able to push yourself beyond what you normally believe you’re capable of and discover your limits are actually well beyond what you thought they were.

But more than that, I’m so proud of my mum, who made it to the pass only an hour or so after me. She took the day slow and steady, just focusing on the ground in front of her. She showed a remarkable spirit!

Dead Women’s Pass may have an ominious name, but I learned from Reuban that is is not named because women regularly fall off the perilous, windy precipace, but in fact because from the other side the shape of the mountain kind of looks like a women lying down. The Incas placed a lot of importance on shapes and natural forms – they often worshipped stones and stars and trees and rivers, and the construction of their cities mirrored the natural constructions around them.

inca trail scenery

day 2 toilet

The world’s most disgusting toilet. There, I’ve called it.

I waited at the pass for Mike and Ginny to catch up. We took some photos of the incredible view through the valley, visited one of the most disgusting long drop toilets I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve seen festival toilets, so you will understand the level of disgustingness I’m talking about here), and then tackled the downward track into camp. This is where Ginny and Mike pulled ahead, as I am slower on the downhill because of my lack of depth perception. That, and the Incan “staircase” is really just a pile of rocks arranged in a vaguelly steppish design. Even with hiking poles, navigating this path was a bit of a mission. Luckily, rainclouds coming over held off for the two hours it took for me to reach camp.

We ate our lunch and waited for my mum to show up. She had fallen back with Reubon, going at her own pace, which is exactly how you should tackle to mountain. As we were eating lunch, the rain rolled in in earnest, and I started to worry. Where was she? Was she OK out in the rain?

We played some cards and checked the time every ten minutes. Mike and Ginny were starting to get worried, too. We knew the porters were in radio contact with Reuban, so we were just trying to ask them in our terrible Spanish (well, Ginny had perfect Spanish, but she wanted Mike and I to try), to give us an update, when Mum and Reuben entered camp.

My poor mother was soaked through and her knee was a bit scraped up from where she had fallen over! I was so glad to see her! She was very proud of herself for making it over Dead Women’s Pass – it’s the toughest day of the trek, and she was over it! We ate warm food, played cards, and rejoiced.

day 2 storm a brewing

That night, we camped on a platform 3800 metres above sea level. The mists and stormclouds rolled in and enveloped us, becoming the darkness. This place feels magical. I have never in my life been more cold.

Inca Trail: Day Three

day 3 waypoint inca trail

At Runkurakay – the Oval Building.

Another day, another 6AM start. We hit the trail, heading uphill to the second high pass, Runkurakay (3,950 metres). This pass also includes another archaeological highlight – “the oval building”, which overlooks the valley and offers a view of travellers leaving and entering the area via the trail. It was probably an Inca tambo or lodge, which also served as a strategic vantage point for monitoring traffic on the highway. Food and other supplies were probably also stored there.

day 3 waypoint view

Further up the trail looking down over Runkurakay.

Once through the pass, we come across the fascinating ruins of Sayacmarca – the “inaccessible city.” Located on a spur joined to the main body of the mountain and only accessed by steep, treacherous steps winding along the edge of a sheer cliff, it is probably my favourite site on the entire trek. What kind of ex-archaeologist would I be if I didn’t clamber up possibly the most unsafe staircase on the entire trail to get a closer look?

day 3 inaccessible city stairs

But a small sample of the well-maintained staircase leading up to Sayacmarca – the Inaccessible City.

day 3 inaccessible city

Basically, this is me, being about as happy as it’s ever possible to be.

Mists rose from the valley below, curling around me as I scrambled up the path on all fours, while my mother clung to the small platform below and fretted (as mothers are want to do).

day 3 ruins etc inca trail

From the Sayacmarca, I’m granted a sweeping view over the Aobamba valley below, the entire land carpeted with rare orchids and colourful lichen. The snow-covered peaks of the Pumasillo massif fill the horizon to the west, the shapes of these peaks echoed in the construction of the town, and in the giant sacred stone placed on a prominent altar in its centre. There is also an astronomical observatory, and ample space for living quarters and the storage of food and supplies. What is particularly interesting is that here in Sayacmarca, there are no houses for the nobility – everyone had the same level of comfort and construction.

The scenery becomes more lush as we continue downward, and then upward towards the third high pass at Phuyupatamarca (3,580 metres). It begins to rain heavily, and we all take out our trendy plastic ponchos. The path ahead becomes obscured in thick cloud, giving the whole mountain an ethereal gloom. The rain dies away just as I emerge on Phuyupatamarca pass.

day 3 porter

Snapped this pic of one of our porters as he passed me on this staircase.

day 3 3rd pass inca trail

Looking down on the ruins of Phuyupatamarka from the 3rd pass.

The was one of my favouite spots on the whole trail. There was snow all around me as I rose out of the mists and moved across the pass. Up in the clouds, I could look out across the remarkable landscape. We scrambled up to a vantage point and ate the last of our snacks while gazing down upon the archaeological site of Phuyupatamarka or “town above the clouds.” Rising from the cloud forest, shrouded in mist, the site juts out over the side of a ravine looking down onto the Urubamba Valley and the terraces of Intipata and Wiñaywayna. As Maik and I are snapping pictures, an alcapa lopes across our view. “Now’s our chance to get the Incan trifecta,” Maik exclaims, lining up his shot. “Mountains, ruins, and an alpaca’s ass.”

day 3 trifecta

Maik’s “Incan Trifecta.” 

day 3 rd pass cool people

Just chillin’ (and chilly) on the 3rd pass with these awesome people.

The site is surrounded by terraced fields and ceremonial sources of fresh water. In the lower section there stands circular constructions that seem to imitate the forms of the surrounding landscape. This is a site built for the nobility, as the homes are stately and of beautiful masonry.

day 3 third pass ruins

From here we have a casual 5 kilometres downhill to reach the final campsite at Winay Wayna (2,650 metres). This section is pretty much entirely steps and took me a long, long time, and it was well past dark when I arrived at camp. My mum arrived some 45 minutes later, exhausted beyond belief.

The camp at Winay Wayna was a welcome sight and our porters greeted us with a beautiful hot meal. After dinner, they presented mum with a beautiful birthday cake they had baked. She was so touched that she cried. I may have cried a little, too. We thanked all our porters and all enjoyed cake and whisky together. It felt wonderful to be sharing this with my mum and all our new friends.

day 3 mums cake

Inca Trail: Day four – we made it!

On the last morning we rose around 4AM to begin the final section of the trail to the famous ‘Sun Gate’ (Intipunku) and on to Machu Picchu. After a light breakfast we said a final goodbye to all our porters, and then lined up at the last checkpoint to wait to be let onto the trail.

The track doesn’t open until 5AM, but most people line up from 3AM so they can be first through. There’s still a couple of hours walking to reach Macchu Picchu (approx. 4kms). Many like to reach the sun gate around 6AM to watch the sun rise through the gate, but Mum wasn’t able to walk that fast, and I wanted to reach the gate with her more than I needed to see the sun rise, so I kept a slow pace and we did it together. This sectio is “Incan Flat” which is really not bloody flat at all.

day 4 incan flat

Basically, the Incans are bastards.

day 4 steps of doom

Mum and Reuban tackling the stairs of doom.

Day 4 we did it incan sun gate

WE DID IT!

Reaching the sun gate was incredible. At 2,745 metres above sea level, the Sun Gate is 345 metres higher than Machu Picchu. Looking through the gate across the valley to the famous site, as a single ray of sunlight peeked through the clouds and illuminated the ruins in dappled, golden light.

From the Sun Gate, we half-walked, half-stumbled the final 2 kilometres downhill to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Because it was now around 9AM, the site was already teaming with tourists who had bussed there from Cusco. They commented to us about our smell as we came down the hill, and we commented about their lack of committment. It was all good fun.

inca trail finish

We did it. My mum did it. It took incredible courage for her to sign up for the trek, to put set out to do something she would never normally do, but here she is, at the end, standing in a place as a girl she thought only existed in books.

The trail is such a metaphor for anything you achieve in life. The reward at the end may be spectacular, but getting there is nothing special. It’s just one foot in front of the other, again and again and again. But when you’re the person who put all those steps together, it feels like something monumental. The achievement of actually getting there is even more spectacular than the ruins themselves.

steff did it machu picchu

Friends tell me they have a really hard time “connecting” with the ruins of a place and a people long since passed into myth. I am the opposite. I often have a much harder time connecting with modern landscapes, with places that are new and fresh and pristine, then with the remains of the past that reach out through the stones and the landscape to touch us here, now, in the present. As I walked through the Andes for four days, I became part of a great chain of people who had walked those same steps – many for a spiritual journey to visit the gods, some because it was on their bucket list, others because it was their job, and some, because they had nothing better to do that week.

The journey changes you. When you reach the end, you aren’t the same person as when you began. The change may be subtle, but it is there. The spirits of the Incan gods may be invisible, but they still watch the path. They still shake the mountains. They still touch your soul.

I am going to save talking about the Machu Picchu site itself for another blog post. The site is amazing in and of itself, and my hands are already quite tired from all the typing.

day 4 machupicchu

Steff’s tips for hiking the Inca Trail trek

  • Choose a guide / company you trust. I’d already been with  Tucan Travel on my trip through the middle east. They are South American experts with over 25 years of experience. I like that they use local guides wherever possible, and focus on budget, sustainable travel with an awareness of both the positive and negative impacts of tourism on indigenous people and natural environments. I did not regret my decision. Reuban was a wonderful guide and made the trip an absolute joy.
  • Set your own pace. When hiking long distances, it’s important you’ve able to go at the pace you feel most comfortable. I think this is more important than staying super close to your group, especially on a well-marked path like the Inca Trail. If you go too fast, you wear yourself out and might not be able to make the full journey. If you go too slow, you risk getting cold and sick while waiting for other members or the party, as well as not enjoying yourself as much. I prefer to be able to move as I want to move and then wait for othes in the group at lunch and snack stops.
  • Take hiking poles. These things are magical. They help save your knees and if you’re like me and have no depth perception, they act as a second set of eyes on the steps.
  • Stick to the left. Porters need to be able to get past you so they can keep up their pace. This is difficult if they have to constantly slow down to go around tourists. Stick left – left is also furthest from the edge of the track, which slips down into misty valleys hundreds of metres below. So you know, it’s safer, too.
  • Bring metal drink bottles. These things are hardy as fuck. AND you can get your porter to boil water for you before bed, then fill up your metal bottle and stick in your sleeping bag. Voila, instant hot water bottle!
  • Thank your porters. These guys are amazing. The work they do is just incredible. We shared our bottle of whisky with them (they liked that :)), and did our best to talk to them and ask about their lives (they won’t speak English, and only some may know Spanish. Mostly they will speak Quechua. Carry cash so you can tip your porters on the last night. Even if you don’t approve of tipping as a custom, these guys deserve it!
  • Follow all good hiking advice. You know, all the tips you hear about any kind of hike: wearring your shoes in first, keeping a pair of dry socks, packing lots of sleeping bags … follow them all.
  • Arrange time on your trip to get used to altitude. Most people hike the Inca trail after coming from Lima and then move south. This means that arriving in Cusco is usually their first taste of altitude, and then hitting the trail shortly after. We did it the opposite way, arriving in La Paz (which is actually higher than the highest point on the trail). This meant by the time we arrived we were well used to the altitude and what it does, and I think this helped all of us survive the trek. Also, visit your doctor beforehand and get the altitude tablets. Anything that can help is highly recommended.
  • At some point it will rain. And it will probably rain a lot. Bring waterproof gear and one of those hideous ponchos you think you will never want to wear but you will most definitely wear. You will look dorky, but you will not be damp.

You can find a ton of info about the Inca Trail – including a packing list and advice about when to go – on the Tucan Travel website

I enjoyed the Inca Trail so much I decided when I got back to New Zealand I’d make a real effort to experience some of our great hikes. New Zealand has some of the best natural landscapes in the world, and I should go enjoy them. So this year I’m hiking the Routeburn track with some awesome friends and some slightly more expensive whisky.

Have you ever hiked the Inca Trail or another multi-day hike? What are you tips? What were your impressions while en-route?

When I’m not hiking with Incans or adventuring around the world, I write science fiction and paranormal romance novels. If you want the details first when new books come out, then sign up for my newsletter (you get a couple of free books, too!). Or, better yet, become a Patreon backer and get all the behind-the-scenes info, more free books, bonus material, and my eternal gratitude.