Four Days on the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail in Peru is one of the most popular hiking treks in the world. It is suitable for a variety of ages and abilities. The 4-day, 3-night option is the most common choice and allows you to reach Machu Picchu feeling accomplished but without sheer exhaustion.
For the trail my partner and I used a company called SAS Travel and left from Cusco after 3 days acclimatising. Acclimation is a must before embarking on the Inca Trail. Cusco sits at 3999m above sea level and at the highest point of the Inca Trail you reach 4215m. It is therefore vital that you have a few days to acclimatise in Cusco to avoid altitude sickness and headaches. Cusco is also a vibrant and bustling city which should not be missed during your trip to Peru.
With SAS Travel we were in a group of 6 people with 1 guide. The groups can be as large as 16 people with 2 guides. We had 9 porters including a chef. As part of the service the porters carry your tents and food and you are responsible for carrying your belongings. You do have the option of booking a porter to carry your belongings and each porter legally can carry up to 20kg. We decided to book half a porter between us and this was to carry our sleeping bags and floor mats.
You get used to walking with a heavy backpack soon enough. My bag felt extremely heavy at the start but this was solely my own doing as I had rarely carried a bag on other hikes and generally avoid carrying a handbag whenever I don’t have to! I would definitely advise having a backpack with a strong waist strap as this takes the pressure off your shoulders and secures your bag into a more comfortable position for hiking.
We were collected from our hotel around 6:30am (this can be as early as 5:40am if you have a larger group) and we stopped outside of the SAS offices in the centre of Cusco to collect our sleeping bags, mats, our guide and remaining members of our group. We then set off and drove for around 1 hour 30 passing numerous, fairly healthy-looking stray dogs before arriving at our breakfast stop. This was our first taste of Inca Trail food and it did not disappoint. We had bread with scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, coffee and Coca tea. Once finished we jumped back into our mini bus and drove another 45 minutes to 1 hour to km82 - the start of the Inca Trail.
After a quick toilet stop and applying sun cream and insect repellent, we handed over our passports at the first check point and started hiking. It was around 9:30am by this point and the sun was shining bright. We walked for around 2 ½ hours to reach our lunch spot. This morning hike was fairly moderate with some uphill but nothing too difficult. It eased us into our trek nicely. There are plenty of stops along the way to visit points of interest and archaeological sites, snap some beautiful photos and have a snack. Make sure to look around as you’re walking and not just down at your feet as there is so much scenery to take in and it really is amazing.
We stopped at our lunch spot and refuelled with fresh ceviche and fried trout. One thing you can be sure of trekking with SAS Travel is that you will not go hungry. We ate so much food during the 4-day trail and we were treated to hearty and extremely filling breakfasts, lunches and dinners. We were also provided with snacks everyday including Chips Ahoy cookies, fruit and cereal bars.
In the afternoon we walked another 2-2 ½ hours and this walk was a little more tasking than the morning. The gradient was steeper and our full tummies made the trail slightly more challenging. It is a perfect day to ease you into what is to come but don’t think day one will be all smooth sailing, it’s still tough.
We arrived at camp at around 4pm. The camp was private and we were able to have hot showers for 10 Peruvian soles if we so wished. Make sure to bring some change with you in soles as you do need to pay for toilet and shower stops along the trail. The porters provide you with hot water to wash with and even just washing your hands and face with warm water makes you feel 10 times cleaner than before. We didn’t shower along the way and opted only for face and body wipes. You will feel a bit dirty and sweaty but that’s all part of the fun!
At 6pm each night, prior to dinner we had happy hour. Unfortunately (but sensibly) there were no Pisco Sours involved. Instead, we were offered hot chocolate, tea or coffee and snacks such as popcorn and biscuits. This was the perfect sugar boost we needed before dinner and a good way to debrief and check in with our group. At this point our guide often talked us through the plan for the following day. Our dinners, apart from the final night, were soup followed by a main dish with plenty of carbs such as potatoes or rice. We ended the night star gazing with our group under the pitch black clear night sky.
Day 2 - Dead Women's Pass
The mornings are chilly so you will start the day layering up with thermal tops, fleeces and jackets and throughout the morning begin to peel off items of clothing layer by layer as the sun rises and warms the air.
Day 2 feels like one infinite hill and you never seem to get to the top. The gradient is tough and frequent stops are needed to catch your breath and build up the motivation to continue. The morning walk will take between 4-5 hours depending on the ability of your group. You will then arrive at Pacaymayo Valley for lunch and a well needed rest. This is also the lunch stop for the majority of other Inca trail groups so it is a busy one. We hadn’t seen any other Inca Trail groups the whole of our first day but the moment we left our camp on the morning of day 2 we were continually following or passing other groups.
On Day 2 our lunch stop was the perfect sun trap and we used this time to lie down, using our backpacks as headrests. As you’re relaxing you may even catch Llamas walking right past your feet! We filled up our Camelbacks and water bottles then lifted our, now, very heavy bags and set off for the hardest part of the Inca Trail “Dead Woman’s Pass.” Our group starting calling it the ‘Sleeping Woman’s Pass’ which we thought sounded much more appealing.
This section is hard and it is extremely over populated as now all groups have gathered on the same stretch and are exerting themselves to reach the top. My advice would be - don’t rush. The guides give you more than enough time to get back to camp and base their timings on the maximum amount of time it takes people to complete this 900m ascent to the highest point of the Inca Trail. The whole of the afternoon is estimated to take between 3-4 hours and to get to the highest point around 1 ½ - 2 hours.
Once we’d reached the top we soaked up the view and had a snack whilst we waited for the remaining members of our group. We took some photos and enjoyed the views which stretched as far as you could see before beginning our descent down to camp. We felt a great sense of achievement knowing we had reached the highest point of the Inca Trail and were halfway through. The remainder of our day was an easy, steady downhill trek with some interesting archaeological sites along the way. Again, naively we thought we had escaped the effects of the altitude. It wasn’t until we arrived back to camp that our headaches sunk in. I’m sure this was a combination of dehydration, exhaustion and the altitude. It was an extremely hot day and although we tried sipping along the way it is difficult to carry and consume the recommended amount of water each day on the trail.
After a quick wash down with warm water it was time for happy hour and dinner. We inhaled some well needed carbs before saying our ‘goodnights’ and passing out in our tents around 8:30pm. We slept like babies.
Day 3 - Our Favourite Day
We woke up feeling refreshed and after another hearty breakfast we began day 3 of the Inca Trail. This was by far our favourite day. Although this is the longest day in terms of time and distance covered, the gradient is much more manageable and the terrain allows you to hold a conversation without panting like a dog!
The morning did start with some uphill walking but quickly levelled out and the remainder of the day was what’s known as ‘Incan flat’ which is up and down like a wave. We got to know our group members in more depth on this day and there are some outstanding view points along the way. There is plenty of time to snap photos and learn about the archaeological sites. The highlight of the day for me was the final viewpoint before you descend down to camp. You can see the camp from the top and the mountains create a valley with the most picturesque stream running down the centre. It is impossible to get a bad photograph here and many other trekkers were sitting on the edge of the mountain enjoying the views.
When we reached our final camp, we had our farewell meal and we were treated to some real comfort food of pizza and pasta followed by a steamed cake (how they bake a cake this way using camping stoves I have no idea) to celebrate one of our team members birthdays. Our evening ended with tipping our porters and thanking them for all of their hard work throughout the trail. We asked our guide how much we should tip the porters and I believe we tipped them around 200 soles each. We hunkered down for our final night and I was glad this would be my last night sleeping in a tent. Our internal alarms were set for 3:30am and knowing we had to get up so early we didn’t sleep well.
Day 4 – reaching Machu Picchu
Day 4 arrived and we were awoken by our porters for the final time. We ate as much breakfast as we could, packed our things, switched on our head torches and walked the very short distance (literally 2 minutes) to join a queue of other trekkers waiting to pass through the checkpoint to make our way to the sun gate. The sun gate is where you catch your first view of Machu Picchu. This queue wasn’t fun and we stood in it for around one hour. Once we passed through the check point and starting hiking it quickly became quite tough. This hike is not easy and there are some extremely steep steps to climb. We definitely felt like we had worked for the views when we arrived at the sun gate around 1 ½ hours later.
We got some group photos before making our way down to Machu Picchu. You can catch the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu so this section will make you rather jealous passing fresh faced and beautiful people who have arrived by train from Cusco. When we got closer to Machu Picchu the views were quite breath taking. We made our way to what our guide described as the ‘best viewpoint’ and this was a corner section on a platform overlooking Machu Picchu with no other tourists blocking your photo (other than tiny little ant-size people down below).
Exploring Machu Picchu
We made our way to the entrance of Machu Picchu where we collected our tickets to get into the citadel. We were provided with a second breakfast which was an avocado bagel, biscuits and juice. It was exactly what we needed as a boost after our morning hike. We also had the opportunity of going to a clean toilet with a seat, toilet paper, soap and water. After 3 days of squatting toilets believe me, this was heaven! We stamped our passports with the free Machu Picchu stamp and made our way through the turnstiles at the entrance.
Our guide began our tour of Machu Picchu and we learnt about the rich history and got an abundance of photos of the ruins at every angle we could capture. By this point we were flagging from our early morning and I was struggling to maintain my concentration and take in all of the facts and information we were being told about the Incan ruins. To be perfectly honest I was ready for bed but it was only around 10:30am.
Our tour finished and our guide gave us some time alone to explore the ruins ourselves. He headed back to the town below Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes where he would meet us later. We got the bus down to town fairly soon after this and here you have the option of going to visit some hot springs. We opted for some Pisco Sours in the sun and sat outside at a bar just a metre away from the train tracks. The drinks went straight to our heads as we reminisced about the Inca Trail.
After our sours we met our other group members for a buffet style lunch and then had around 30-40 minutes or so to wait for our train back to Ollaytantambo. It took 1 hour and 45 minutes to get back to Ollantaytambo. This train ride is very picturesque as you wind around the mountains and ascend around 700m. We got off the train and were transferred onto a large coach for just four of us. We all spread out, lay down and got some well-needed rest during the 2 hour drive back to Cusco.
After what felt like the longest day we arrived back into Cusco and made our way to our Airbnb which was located close to the market. Diving onto our king-sized bed was heaven.
Let’s Wrap Up
The Inca Trail is really an incredible experience and I would recommend it to anyone. It is a good length of time for those who aren’t huge fans of camping, difficult enough to make you feel like you’ve worked hard and achieved something great but also not too difficult meaning that only the fittest will reach Machu Picchu. You will meet some amazing people along the way and the porters will leave you in awe at what the human body is capable of. It was an experience we will never forget and we’re already looking for where to go on our next trek.
The Travel Story Society would like to say a big thank you to Sophie for providing such an inspirational guide to the Inca Trial. Sophie is from the website Take a Trip Travel where they provide holiday inspiration and easy to follow travel itinerates. Their most recent blogs take the readers through their amazing trips to Italy including an incredible stay in Naples.
You can also follow them on their stunning Instagram @takeatriptravel