September 2011 • Canon 40D camera
UNESCO World Heritage site
Part of the Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System
The classic Inca Trail (Camino Inka in Spanish) is a dream for many people to hike and a must on anyone’s bucket list. Today I get to full fill that dream I had since I was a kid—to hike the Inca trail and visit the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. The classic trail would take four days to complete, camping at night at designated campsites. This spectacular trail would take us through a variety of ecosystems filled with plants and wildlife. You hike up high on mountains and through cloud forests. Along the trail there are also many archaeological Inca sites that you can visit before finally arriving at the finale destination of Machu Picchu.
It was a chilly grey morning as we waited at the small town of Piscacucho. The town is also known as Km82 as it was 82 kilometers by train from Cusco. Silvia our guide on our full Peru tour would be guiding us also on the Inca trail. On the trail we would be joined by an assistant guide, Juan Carlos, our cook Onorato and an assistant cook, Evra. We met our porters who would be carrying our bags to the campsite. It was pretty amazing to see how much these guys could carry. On the trail the maximum they could carry was 20kg. This weight is strictly enforced as each porter is weighed before setting off. But–wow–to see the massive packs strapped to their backs ready to carry was really impressive. I noticed most of them did not have proper footwear. They wore trainers that were worn out and some had flip–flops.
We stopped to take a group photo with the sign of the start of the Inca Trail and made our way towards a bridge to cross the Rio Vilcanota (often referred to as Urabamba River). Just before the bridge there is the checkpoint that everyone has to go through to start the trail. Here you get your passport stamped and all passes, permits and identification checked. After this formality, you cross the bridge to begin the Inca Trail. The roar of the river is quite loud as you cross over to the other side. I was feeling really excited to begin this journey.
The chilly morning had now given way to a hot temperatures and a sunny blue sky. The start of the trail was quiet easy and relaxing. Following a flat, dusty path we hiked along the west bank of the river. The area was rocky and dry. Certainly different then what I expected. I was imagining trekking through deep jungles and forests... maybe that would come later on in the trail.
There was also a train track on the other side of the river so once in a while you heard a train go by. For now I was happy to strip off some of my layers and feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Silvia mentioned that we would be passing through different ecosystems depending on the elevation we were at. There was a variety of different types of desert plants and cacti in this area. From time to time Silvia stopped to explain some of the different plants to us.
Along the way we passed a lot of locals who used this part of the trail to go down to town at Km82. The locals stayed in small huts and villages in this area. Donkeys and horses are used to transporting goods. And every once in a while you heard people shout ‘porters’ letting everyone know to move aside and let the porters with the heavy packs walk and in some cases run by.
The Inca trail is part of an extensive road network known as Qhapaq Ñan, (Andean Road System). Built by the Incas over 400 years ago, it stretches from Columbia through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The Inca road system is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the first time six countries represented one site.
The trail was now ascending gently up the Kusichaka valley. Walking up hill the rocky scenery gave way to more greener surrounding of trees. From this elevation we were treated to some spectacular views of Vernoica mountain behind us. It’s Quechua name is Wakay Willca, which means ‘Sacred Tears’. Part of the Urupampa mountain range, this mountain stands at 5,893m (19,334 ft).
As a group we were slowly going at our own pace and were spread out along the trail. We met fellow hikers that was not part of our group along the trail. As you can imagine this trail can be very popular during the high season. September was towards the end of the high season so luckily there was not a lot of people. The sun was now shinning bright as we continued slowly uphill. There was amazing cloud formations in the sky that from time to time block the sun.
After hiking gently up we reached a tableland where we all stopped to take a break and admire the beauty of the scenery. However there was another reason that we stopped here. Below the tableland was the beautiful inca ruins Patallacta or as it is sometimes refereed to as Llactapata. The name means elevated or high above town. Looking down at the ruins it almost feel other worldly. The terraced Inca site carved against the mountain face looked like a crashed flying saucer!
The American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins in 1911 on the way to discover Machu Picchu. The ruins is thought to have been used as an agricultural settlement. The Kusichaka River can be seen flowing beside it. This was definitely the highlight of the trail for me so far.
After a short break we continued onward, passing by another set of ruins called Willkaraqay. This was a watch tower and has fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and Patallacta below. From here it was a gentle walk downwards towards a valley.
At the village of Wayllabamba, we arrived at our campsite Huayllabamba just as the sun was setting. The area was nicely surrounded by mountains and lush green trees. The porters had gone on ahead and everything was set up for us. Our tents were up and dinner being cooked. We were all so tired it was an early night for all of us.
The first day was not as difficult as I expected it to be. More of a gentle walk, with some parts a gentle gradient uphill. As with any type of hiking, come with layers of clothes so you can strip off and back on again depending on the weather (it did not rain for us today but make sure you have a poncho or water proof jacket with you). We had good weather after a grey start so I was glad to get some sun. You will be hiking at high altitudes so bring sun block, sunglasses and a hat.
The porters will be carrying your bags and camping equipment leaving you to carry a small day backpack. Make sure it is light–weight for the trail—unless you are a photographer like me where my backpack was filled with equipment! If you can pack the essentials than do that. Otherwise, you might get a bit frustrated with carrying the backpack all day. Remember to bring plenty of spare batteries as you will not be charging anything for days. And a lot of memory cards!
Pack plenty of water as you will need it. Help the environment and make sure you invest in your own water bottle that you can refill. It might come in handy to bring some small snacks to eat along the trail (but make sure you keep the litter with you). Come prepared with toilet paper so you can use it not only to make a pit stop along the trail, but also at the campsite. Insect repellent is a must and it goes without saying a good pair of walking boots.
Hiking up to the highest and most challenging part of the Inca Trail
Misty forests to ancient ruins along this enchanting part of the Inca Trail
The grand finale: the classic Inca trail comes to a close
A picturesque journey to see a panoramic view of Patagonia
Short hike for a closer look at the horns of Cuernos del Paine