The epic journey to Machu Picchu is the expedition of a lifetime, and 1 million hikers, tourists and explorers all make the journey here annually to see the majestic city for themselves.
The mysterious ruins of an ancient civilization, Machu Picchu (Peru) is a 15th century Inca site which is 7,000 feet above sea level, nestled on a small hilltop between the Andean Mountain Range. The city soars above the Urabamba Valley, and was unknown to the outside world until its discovery in 1911.
How do you get there? Many opt for the train – a short 2-3 hour journey which takes you right into the heart of Aguas Calientes, your base for access to the ruins. Though those more adventurous who recognize the benefits of hiking take the Inca Trail, a 4 day journey which follows the same route the Inca’s and early explorers had to take to reach the city.
Today we’re hearing from Claudia Tavani about what it’s like to take the trek.
What inspired you to hike the Inca Trail?
The short and simple answer would have to be the challenge. But it was more than just that.
I had been dreaming to see the sun rising over Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku (the Sun Gate). I knew that the only way to get to experience that would be by walking the official Camino Inca and that solved any issues on whether I wanted to spend the money on it or opt for the cheaper alternative routes.
I had been to Machu Picchu 4 years before, with no time to do the Inca Trail, and I had promised myself that the next time around I would do the trail.
And yes, part of it was the challenge: would I manage to hike for 4 days on a row, sleeping in tents, without showering, going to extreme altitudes? I didn’t know!
How did you prepare for the journey? Did you train?
I did no more and no less than what I normally did. Back home in Italy I usually swim for training, so that made me really fit.
I had not been doing that in a few months as I was travelling, but managed to keep fit with the other hikes, the bike rides, the backpack carrying. And also read up on how to prevent injuries while hiking.
Also, I made sure to arrive in Cusco well in advance to get used to the altitude.
What did you expect from the journey before you began?
I am not sure what I expected, really.
Mostly, I was thrilled to see places that only those hiking the sacred inca trail are able to see. I felt like I was part of an elite.
Were your expectations met? Was it completely different than you had imagined?
They were exceded. I had an amazing time. I was lucky to be in a very good group, we supported each other, we chatted over meals, we made fun of each other. Even during the hardest times we managed to have a laugh.
We felt like survivors at the end, we bonded really well. Not to mention, seeing the sunrise over Machu Picchu brought tears to my eyes.
What was the weather like during your trek?
We experienced all seasons in the course of four days. Spring/fall, with lots of rain around lunch time every day: a good rain coat, waterproof hiking shoes and hiking pants are a must.
I felt the heat and got mosquitoes bites especially on the last two days.
And of course, it was really cold at night (especially at night, and on day two).
Tell us about your experience on the trail.
Anybody doing the inca trail quickly learns there is a routine. Each day, the porters waked us up well early in the morning (actually, before sunrise). We had about 20 minutes to pack our stuff and get ready for breakfast, we would then eat all together, make a quick stop to the toilet, and start walking.
We had snacks, water, and made several stops along the way till lunch time, when again we sat all together to laugh and – at times – complain about how sore or tired we were.
The guides were usually with us, to provide plenty of explanations on the sites we would see, on the views and the nature surrounding us.
When we did not need the guide anymore, we would be sent off to meet at campbase.
There, the first ones to arrive (I was usually among them) could rest, shower (well, only one of the group did: the water in those showers is FREEZING), chat along, read, wander around, take pictures etc.
What were your emotions once you reached Machu Picchu?
I was tired and sick – that morning we had to wake up at 3:00 am and even then we were not sure we would get to see the sunrise, as a lot depended on the weather. And I had a throat infection ongoing, yet, I could only focus on what I was about to see.
But we were lucky. We saw the most amazing sunrise: the light would quickly shine and invade the site, and we got to see all of this.
I was so happy that it brought tears to my eyes.
How long did it take you to complete the whole thing?
4 days for the trail, plus an extra one to do the Huayna Picchu mountain, that requires an extra permit and must be booked in advance.
The trail is extremely social. What kind of people did you meet along the way?
I had a really great group actually – we bonded really well and I made good friends with some of them. Months later, we still talk on a regular basis.
The majority of people on my group were from Argentina, then there were a few people from Chile, 3 from Spain, 3 from the US, my friend and I from Italy and one Norwegian lady.
The lady from Norway did not really bond with anybody and kept a lot to herself (despite the fact that we almost all spoke English). I guess it was her choice.
The rest of the group felt like one big family.
Does the scenery get monotonous?
It never did to me. There always is some interesting flowers, some waterfalls, a lagoon, snow-capped peaks, archeological sites, breathtaking views.
And as the weather conditions changed rapidly, the overall impression also changed.
Do you need a map or navigation skills to complete the trail?
No: there is a fixed itinerary, and those walking the Inca trail have to follow it. There are guides, porters and, most importantly, check points.
You need permissions and documents to get in and out. In fact, nobody can do the Camino Inca independently – you must join a guided group.
What are key considerations people should think about before attempting this trek?
It is hard, even for the fittest. You have to be in excellent physical conditions, and you have to carry all medications that you may deem necessary at some point or another. Never underestimate the difficulty.
Once you are on the trail, there really is no going back. If it is relatively easy to walk back after day one, it really becomes difficult on day two.
One traveler who felt sick in my group had to be secured on a gurney and carried down to Aguas Calientes after the second day, and this put a lot of strain on the porters who then had to come back up to re-join the group.
What kind of shoes did you wear? Were the blisters?
I had hiking shoes, and they are a must. I saw people on the trail who had plain running shoes but days later they had a sprayed ankle.
You do need the ankle support that only hiking boots provide, as well as the grasp over slippery surfaces.
What gear proved essential along the way?
Hiking shoes, fleece sweaters and a raincoat, a scarf and a hat were essential.
Obviously a good sleeping bag. Not to mention baby wipes – showering is impossible, so they do come in handy to freshen up a bit.
Did you have to carry food/water with you along the way?
We all carried our own bottle of water – it is important to drink a lot to avoid dehydration.
We were given snacks each day, but I would suggest to carry chocolate bars or peanuts for extra energy.
I’ve heard you have to book this trek months in advance. Which resources were the most helpful in making the journey happen?
I spent hours and hours on the internet checking and comparing prices through a number of well known agencies, and planning the dates – you see, once you buy the permit, there is no going back. It is not refundable and you can’t change the dates.
To make things easier, I actually have a few posts on how to plan the Inca trail on my blog now – so anybody interested can read them for some essential reference and starting point for further research.
How much did the experience cost you?
I spent $600 – that was the best deal I could get, and it included sleeping bag rental, porter rentals (to carry the stuff I did not need during the day, ie my bag with my clothes), and Huayna Picchu entrance.
Other agencies may charge $800 for the same package; others even more. Without the porters, the Huayna Picchu and the sleeping bag it would have been around $450.
When is the best time of year to go?
No matter on the time of year you go, you will at some point get rain and it will be cold. April and May, right after the rainy season, make the scenery very lush. I liked it.
Looking back, would you do anything differently? I.e. training, preparation, gear, decisions along the way?
I would carry more cash with me: it is a custom to tip the porters at the end, and I wish I could have given more than I had. They do a great job!
Why should people hike the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu instead of taking the train?
This is a no-brainer, really. Aside from the challenge of the hike, from the sites that one gets to see and which would otherwise not be seen, the main thing is being able to see the sunrise from the Inti Punku. It was simply magic.
I would do it again. In fact, I will do it again.
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