The bags were packed and we were ready. We’d explored Lima and Cusco, but the Inca Trail Trek was the main reason we traveled to Peru in the first place. Almost half a year of patient waiting, training, and planning culminated in this adventure, in what would become one of the most memorable trips I’d ever gone on. Read on for my day-to-day recap of the trek!
Day 1: Cusco to Wayllabamba (7.5 miles)
We woke up when it was still dark. Our crew was giddy with excitement as we hopped on the bus that would take us through the Peruvian countryside. After a couple hours, we arrived at a small town called Ollantaytambo, where we had breakfast and met the folks in our trek group. Ollantaytambo was the last “big” town before our hike so we made every minute count, scarfing down food and getting to know our fellow adventurers.
Before long, we’d arrived at the starting point, staring at the various bags and supplies set on the floor before us. The next 10 minutes was a flurry of activity as we packed everything and got ready. The official start of the trail is at km 82, marked by a giant sign next to some train tracks. Our group was all smiles as we took our commemorative pictures in front of that sign. And then the hike began. The first day was relatively chill, with minimal inclines and plenty of picturesque views of the valley and surrounding mountains. We passed by the Vilcanota River and several small villages, taking quick breaks at reasonable intervals.
I quickly found out that the rays of the sun were definitely stronger here than in California. Despite wearing 75 SPF sunblock, I was starting to burn a couple hours into the hike. For the next few days I hiked with my mini-towel draped over my neck to (literally) save my skin. Soon, the first set of ruins on the trek came into view. Llactapata, the upper town, was an agricultural station that supplied Machu Picchu. From our vantage point it looked like a maze jutting out from the mountain, and on closer look we could make out the multiple grassy terraces.
The highlight of Day 1 was actually the campsite at Wayllabamba and the camp activities. When we first arrived at the site we were surprised by how nice it was – the grass was manicured and the tents had been set up in a tidy row. As we stretched out on the grass, roosters and baby chicks casually strutted by. The porters had also set up the main tents and were already prepping food for dinner. That evening, we got our first taste of the delicious multi-course meals on the trek – all transported, prepped, and cooked by the amazing porters, the real stars of the hike.
Since we’d be up super early the next morning, after dinner we chatted a bit, cleaned up, and turned in for the night, around 9pm.
Day 2: Wayllabamba to Pacamayo (7.5 miles)
The word of the day for Day 2 is steps. Everlasting, unceasing, never-ending steps. And not just your normal run-of-the-mill steps. These were a solid mix of steep and rocky ones carved into the rock. Not surprisingly, the second day of the Inca Trail trek is also the toughest – both physically and mentally. The infamous Dead Woman’s Pass lies at the highest point of the hike, at nearly 14,000 feet. With this advance knowledge, we started our hike around 6am, nervously excited for the day ahead.
It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. We started the ascent early on and passed by the banks of the Llulluchyoc River to a small bridge. Soon after we found ourselves surrounded by a forest among the clouds, providing some much-needed shade as we continued to climb higher and higher, one step after another. After an exhausting morning, we arrived at Llulluchapampa for a lunch break, where we were greeted by porters who had arrived possibly an hour beforehand and were already cooking lunch.
We enjoyed a carb-rich lunch and I wandered out to the meadows at Llulluchapampa, where I stumbled upon one of the most peaceful, idyllic sights I’d ever encountered – a vast, grassy meadow dwarfed on both sides by even more massive mountain ranges. As the wind picked up I knew this was something I’d never forget.
The trek after lunch was the toughest of the entire hike. As we moved higher and higher, we had less shade and the air grew thinner. The sun was still shining brightly overhead, and we had to stop every 5-10 minutes just to catch our breathes as we ever-slowly reached the top. And then it appeared. The last of the steps faded out and we spotted flat land. A few more tentative steps, and we turned around to find ourselves staring out at the vast space below us, containing the very trail of rocky steps we had just conquered.
Too exhausted to do any victory dance, we rested at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, taking in the amazing views on both sides and snapping plenty of pictures. The rest of the day was a relatively easy descent to our campsite. We rolled in just as it started to rain, so we cleaned up, stretched well, ate another amazing dinner, and went to bed – at 8:30pm.
The rainstorm that night was loud enough to wake everyone up from their sleep, but by morning the sky was once again clear. Pachamama was on our side.
Day 3: Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna (9.3 miles)
It would’ve been easy to let up after conquering the second day, but our group knew better. Day 3 would be the longest hike of the trip, clocking in at 9+ miles. Despite the challenge, Day 3 was my personal favorite day of the entire trip – a day of exploring multiple Inca ruins, walking on original Inca-paved stone roads, and running downhill through magnificent cloud forests.
By now the early-morning 5am wakeup calls seemed as normal as commuting to work every day. We scarfed down another delicious breakfast and were on our way by 6. It was a misty morning as we continued our trip, spotting the circular ruins of Runkuracay, an old lookout point, before reaching the Abra de Runkuracay pass. As we took a quick breather at the pass, we looked ahead and saw the beautiful snow-capped Salkantay peak.
Our next stop was visiting the Sayacmarca ruins, the “Inaccessible Town.” Sayacmarca could only be accessed by climbing a steep and narrow stone staircase, with the ruins at the top protected on three sides by cliffs. We had a field day exploring the various stone rooms and passageways, noting the precise stonework and design of the ruins. We continued our hike, mainly in our own mini-group as our guides let us wander ahead.
I’d like to think we finally hit our stride with hiking – the next leg was a comfortable, fun, and eventful several miles as we encountered a couple of llamas on the trail, took selfies with said llamas, walked through a cave-like tunnel, and felt the first drops of rain. Thankfully, the rain didn’t pick up and we made it to lunch keeping our downpour-during-hike experience on the trip at zero.
The hike that afternoon was the most fun on the trip. We embarked on a thousand-step descent (nicknamed “The Gringo Killer”) that would take us through several huge ruins and end at our campsite. Since it was a linear path all the way through, I went ahead to get more time at the ruins. As I jogged downhill, taking care to find the right footing on the rocks, I found myself keeping pace with some of the porters. Soon everyone was so spread out on the trail that I found myself alone in a seemingly-enchanted cloud forest. I kid you not, this place had butterflies, greenery, and mountain ranges as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful.
I arrived at what would become my favorite ruins of the trek – Intipata, a massive set of stone buildings and agricultural terraces. I looked around and there wasn’t a soul in sight. I was awestruck by the sheer size of Intipata – it took me a few minutes just to walk the length of the structure. Soon I was joined by other trekkers, and I got to climb up the steps and explore the individual stone rooms. The view overlooking the river, valley, and mountains was breathtaking. I even got to climb down the terraces to find more llamas grazing.
After arriving at the campsite, some folks in the group went on a last-hurrah stroll to see the Wiñay Wayna ruins nearby, which was a similar massive set of stone buildings and terraces. By now it was late afternoon and I was content to sit on the grass at the ruins and relax, enjoying the scenery and chatting about life. Our trek was near-complete and it was a crazy whirlwind of adventure, and now was the time to let some of it process before the big day tomorrow.
Day 4: Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu (3.1 miles)
Excitement was in the air as we woke up at dawn and quickly packed all our stuff. We bid farewell to the porters and walked to the starting point of the last leg of our trek. This part of the trail is gated to keep people from hiking in before opening time, so there were already other trekkers in line. We waited patiently for an hour before the gates opened, and we were off!
This hike was a relatively easy and straightforward one, and would’ve been entirely unmemorable…had a person in our group not slipped and fallen off the trail. The guides did not waste time jumping down to check on that person, who was very luckily unhurt and stopped by the trees and bushes. Apart from that little snafu, the group made it to the Sun Gate, Intipunku. It’s difficult to capture our emotions at this point in words, but I think “relieved joy” described what our group felt. That’s definitely what I was feeling.
We could see the ruins of Machu Picchu down in the valley below, and in between pictures and excited chatter, I took a moment to take in the rays of light from the morning sun. We rested for a bit at the top, then made our way down to the Watchman’s Hut, where we spent an hour or so taking pictures of Machu Picchu from the classic postcard viewpoint.
The rest of the day was a combination of touring, exploring, and more hiking – the trek was over but our adventures continued. I’ll have to save those details for another time. Machu Picchu itself was as beautiful as it was in the pictures, but it was also crowded and our time there felt rushed. Still, it was an amazing set of ruins – well-kept, magnificent, and definitely the biggest and most well-preserved. I knew this was a real treat, and I felt lucky to have made it to the destination, through plenty of hard work and lots of adventure along the way.
Dates traveled: November 25-28, 2015
Trek group: Peru Treks – HIGHLY recommended! We had an amazing experience with Peru Treks. They had fair prices, treated their porters well, and planned everything comprehensively and flawlessly. Everything, and I mean everything, about the trek was covered in minute detail on their website, and the payment and check-in process was straightforward and painless. I can’t recommend them enough!
Special thanks: Our guide Elistan and assistant guide Marco – two very funny dudes with thousands of hours of experience on the trail. And who can forget the porters – truly the heroes of the trek, carrying 40-50 pound bags and running up and down the trail to set up camp and cook food for an exhausted group of trekkers. Many thanks to everyone involved in making this a memorable experience!