The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the few “must-dos” on our travel list. It’s also one of the few activities we had to plan way in advance. You need a permit to hike the Inca Trail, and you have to buy the permit at least 5 months in advance. Luckily, Pete is a great planner and snatched us some permits right before the deadline!
We went with Alpaca Expeditions whose motto is “The Journey is the Destination,” which we didn’t understand until the very end of our tour -but I’ll explain that later. At #1 on TripAdvisor, they’re a very reputable company and they totally exceeded our expectations. We did the 4 day, 3 night tour and it was absolutely amazing. Here’s what our experience was like!
Day One – This Ain’t So Bad!
We woke up at 3:30am (!!!) to catch the minibus from our hotel at 4. Once we picked everyone else up, we drove about 3 hours to Km 82 – our starting point. The weather was…not optimal. It was rainy and freezing cold. This is about the time when Pete and I started to freak out about how vastly unprepared we were for this weather. While literally every other person in our group had waterproof hiking boots and really nice hiking gear, we were wearing our old, very worn gym shoes and basically nothing waterproof except our rain coats.
During breakfast, something magical happened. A couple of women came around selling some rain gear – woohoo! I bought some gorgeous rain-proof pants for 15 soles ($4.50).
After breakfast, we hit the trail, trudging along in the rain, doing our best to avoid all the donkey poop. We were a little bit surprised that the trail itself was lined with many family homes – we even had to step aside for a few motorbikes. Definitely not what I pictured! Our guide explained that this part of the Inca Trail had been restored; we’d be on the original path without the donkeys and motorbikes during the next few days.
After our first snack break, the rain stopped – and it didn’t return for the rest of the trip! PHEW! We dodged a huge bullet there – we would’ve been so soaked and cold.
The trail itself was really mild, with just a few pockets of inclines and descents. We stopped to admire a few archaeological sites along the way, which were absolutely incredible.
The last two-ish hours were definitely the most difficult – basically straight uphill until we got to our gorgeous campsite. I literally gasped when I exited the dinner tent – the stars surrounding us were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before; so bright and clear.
The night was definitely cold. I slept comfortably wearing almost all of the clothes I brought: long sleeve shirt, two sweaters, a scarf, a hat, big socks, and black jeans (lol yeah not the best choice for sleepwear, but they’re all I had).
Archaeological site visited: Patallaqta
Distance hiked: 13 miles
Day Two – The “Hard” Day
At 4:45 am, we were woken up by our friendly guides giving us some fresh coca tea. Honestly, this wasn’t too bad considering we went to bed around 8pm the night before!
We hiked from about 6am until 6pm, which is probably the longest day we’ve ever hiked. We hiked from our campsite at 10,800 feet up to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,800 feet – the highest part of the trek. The incline was steady and definitely challenging – it took us about four hours to reach the top.
After reaching the summit, we had two hours of a steep decline. It was a bit rough on the knees, but the poles helped a lot with that. So did the views of two gorgeous waterfalls along the way. When we got to the lunch site, we promptly passed out on our sleeping mats and had a glorious nap.
After lunch, we hiked up again for 2 hours – from 11,700 feet to 13,200 feet. There was a pretty cool site along the way called Runcu Raccay where we stopped to catch our breath.
After we reached the second summit, we hiked back down for 2 hours – to 11,800 feet.
Basically, this day was a lot of steep inclines and declines, but we took it slow (baby steps!) and really enjoyed every part. As our guides promised, there was no more donkey poop or family homes along the trail.
The last site we stopped at (Sayacmarca) was absolutely jaw-dropping. Some of us climbed up the ~100 steps to explore the ruins and watch the sun set behind the mountains.
Once again, the stars at night absolutely took my breath away – or maybe that was the freezing cold temperatures…
Archaeological site visited: Runcu Raccay, Sayacmarca
Distance hiked: 10 miles
Day Three – The Easy Day
We got to “sleep in” this time – our wake-up call wasn’t until 5:45am! The sun wasn’t out and it was absolutely frigid for about an hour as we walked in the shade, but once the sun reached us, we quickly warmed up.
After breakfast, we stood in a circle and met all of the incredible porters. These men ranged in age from 22-60! The porters continually impressed us by their strength, perseverance, and good spirits through it all. They carried our personal belongings the entire way, going ahead of our group to set up camp by the time we got there.
On this day, we only hiked until 1pm! The hike itself was pretty easy and mostly flat – what our guides liked to call Peru flat. Snow-capped mountains and a huge mountain range provided our backdrop for the morning.
Our afternoon was mostly spent descending some steep steps, stopping at two ruins along the way.
We took a nice siesta until 4pm, when we walked to see some ruins right by our campsite.
These Wiñay Wayna ruins were absolutely magical and probably our favorite of the trek. We basically had them all to ourselves and explored them for over an hour until the sun set.
Our last dinner was so much fun – the porters even baked us a cake! I’m still not quite sure how they pulled that off. This is the night that we all gathered up our cash for tips and gave it to the grateful staff. Bonus: this site was a lot warmer than the past two nights!
Campsite: Wiñay Wayna
Archaeological site visited: Puyupatamarca, Intipata, Wiñay Wayna
Distance hiked: 6.2 miles
Day Four – Sun Gate and Machu Picchu
Wake-up calls were at 3:30 this morning because the porters had to catch their train. We waited at the check point until the gates opened for Sun Gate at 5:30. After an easy hour-long walk, we reached the Sun Gate. The views of Machu Picchu were everything we had hoped for!
We couldn’t wait to get down there and explore, but in complete honesty, we were a little disappointed to see a bunch of tourists already exploring the ruins.
It was less than an hour from there on a gentle, downhill path to Machu Picchu. We spent about 2 hours getting a tour from our guide. This part was one of my least favorite parts, probably for a few reasons: it was exceptionally hot, it was ridiculously crowded, and the site was so talked up that our expectations were really high.
There’s no doubt that the site itself, Machu Picchu, is absolutely incredible – we were just a bit disappointed by how many tourists there were, and how many people were pushing and shoving through this gorgeous site. Plus, after not showering for days, our group didn’t smell or look our best, and we were a little bitter that so many people there got to look so good and clean!
After exploring the ruins for a couple more hours on our own, we took the bus down to the touristy town of Aguas Calientes for a final lunch with our group. After that, we took a really nice, slow train ride (gorgeous views, really great train!) back to Ollantaytamo, then got on the minibus that took us to our hotels.
Archaeological site visited: Machu Picchu
Distance hiked: 3 miles
I totally agree with Alpaca Expeditions – the journey really was the destination. This was the longest hike we’ve ever done and it was absolutely unforgettable. The views were indescribable, the Incan ruins along the way were jaw-dropping, the altitude added a fun challenge, and (bonus) the food was really delicious!
To be honest, I knew nothing about this trek going into it and I was mostly just excited for the hyped Machu Picchu, but the trek was the best part. Knowing that we were walking along a path that the Incas created and walked along all those years ago, seeing all the same sights they saw, learning about their culture and history while exploring the ruins…it was seriously magical. The way that the Incas respected “Pachamama” (Mother Earth), how they built all of their structures to blend in and work with nature, is so inspiring.
Side note: the temperature changes throughout the trek were insane – we were constantly taking off layers and them putting them on again. We were glad to have every piece of clothing we brought! If you’re thinking about doing this trek, check out our post for packing tips and essential info about the Inca Trail.
Have you done the Inca Trail? Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list?