Inca trail to Machu Picchu for Dummies

dummy. that is what I feel like for seriously underestimating how physically demanding this trek is. and so I keep telling myself ‘better regret something you’ve done rather than regret what you haven’t done’.

truth is I still believe there is no more rewarding way to see Machu Picchu other than by going through the trails. To be one of the first people at the sun gate, to see Machu Picchu for the first time as the sun hits it without other people jostling for the same view is magical and made it truly special.

10 May 2013, Friday

pre-trek briefing was at 7pm at the tour operator’s offices. Duffle bags were distributed for those who hired a porter (1 porter=7kg=US$70).

We have paid for the full amount last Monday (US$599/person) + duffle bag deposits (returnable US$10/person) + sleeping bag rental (US$30/person).

11 May 2013, Saturday

4:30am meetup at the plaza. Can’t believe that provincial Cusco is still buzzing this early with a few drunken teenagers still in a party mood. Boarded the bus to Ollantaytambo. There were 9 people in the group + 14 porters + 1 chef + 2 guides.

Porters cheered us on as we boarded the bus.

Breakfast ($7/person) was at a hut at Ollantaytambo. Only managed to smell the pancakes, never saw a single piece – they disappeared as soon as they hit the table, which was before and after I got there. Last chance to use a ‘proper’ toilet.

breakfast hut at Ollantaytambo
breakfast hut at Ollantaytambo

Another 30 minutes in the bus and we were at Km 82, the starting point of the Inca trail. The porters were loading up their bags with our stuff and lots of food. All bags are weighed in and distributed. Watched the porters with their 25kg loads, their smallish frames and sometimes paunchy bellies and I wonder how they managed.

I silently watched the sunrise and the magnificent views of the mountains right before us.

KM 82

A few photos, tickets and passports checks + an optional passport stamp and we’re off crossing the bridge on the Red de Caminos Inka.

The gate at KM 82

We quickly learned what ‘mainly flat’ or ‘Inca flat’ terrain meant – it’s a combination of ups and downs and flat terrain. The ups can be quite steep and the pacing was a lot quicker than I expected. We started at 2720m above sea level, lower than Cusco, but the air here is still quite thin and I was catching my breath all the time, even in the flat areas.

never mind how hard it is, just look at the view!

This is mountain trekking and it really is difficult, contrary to what the sales guys at the outdoor shop says. Sure there is a path, but it felt the same as if there weren’t any. I felt the Incas laughing at us as we scramble through.

The first day of the trek is supposed to be the easiest. It was really difficult for the first hour and then gradually, the inclines started to ease a bit. It was really sunny and the trails were dusty. I started off with a light jacket and stripped to t-shirts and folded trousers by the next hour. Drank 1.5L of water by lunch time. SPF50 sunscreen and I still got sunburnt (and I realised, my brown skin is not immune to sunburn at this altitude). Lots of things needed to be accessible as you walk, I am not sure if it was because we had some really fit people in our group or if this is the normal pace, but there is hardly any time to stop. We only really stop if there are inca ruins. We stop to take photos, and then try to catch up with the rest. I thought I already walk quite fast, but this is hardly a sightseeing pace. Different groups started at different times, I didn’t see many people as we set off and had the trail pretty much to ourselves.

you have to agree, this is a steep climb
you have to agree, this is a steep climb

It was past 12 when we reached our campsite Wayllabamba, 3000m up for lunch. This is when you start appreciating the role of the porters. They carry 25kg loads each and they get to camp way ahead of us. They offered a basin full of warm water and towels and soap to wash. We’re seated in a tent with a 3-course delicious meal that I’d struggle to make in my own kitchen. As we rested for a bit, they eat, wash dishes and were still packing up as we set off for the afternoon trek.

We reached camp Ayapata past 4pm. Our varying fitness levels were showing and practically were 2 different groups with some 45 mins between us.


Tents were already setup with our duffle bags inside. Porters were hurrying to meet us with cheers and basins of water for washing.

We had time to rest, change and be ready for ‘happy hour’ at 5:30 – popcorns, water and tea.

Dinner was ready at around 6:30 – another 3-course meal of soup, rice, meat and veggies and a showy flambeed bananas for dessert.

Had seen the toilets and was thankful for my waterproof, closed-toe slippers. It was a squat toilet and it does flush. Some doors have locks – a rusty nail you swing round, others don’t, and some doors have holes. It wasn’t as bad as I had expected, but I was ready to retch if I didn’t hold my breath.

We were ready for bed before 8pm. I was shivering before we went in as it quickly got cold. It was a clear night, we were probably only 3-4 groups in that campsite. We had a foam and we brought our own inflatable mattress, the all-weather sleeping bag we rented was warm but did not really smelt like it was freshly washed, thank goodness for sleeping bag liners we brought. The tent had space for our things (4-person tent shared by 2 people). And if you expect it to be quiet – the croaking frogs were unbelievably loud – that and the cold kept me up almost all night. And I thought I was dead tired.

Today, we were up from 3:30am, walking from 7:30am. Walked some 14km. Reached camp at 4/4:30pm. Highest altitude was at 3300m.

12 May 2013, Sunday

I was dreading the second day. We had breakfast (still quite a feast, only I can’t eat a lot at breakfast this early 5:40am). Half of us were hurried off and we were away at a few minutes past 6am to give us a headstart. It was a cold day, and slightly overcast, but I still started off with a light jacket. Did not had the chance to put on sunscreen and even though the sun only came out for a few hours, it was enough to give me a really bad sunburn.

Llama traffic
Llama traffic

In the morning, we hiked from 3300m to 4200m. It was a steep, unrelenting climb that took us about 5 hours. Al had a bad case of altitude sickness and we slowed down considerably.

steep and steeper
steep and steeper

Dead woman’s pass, the highest peak we had to go through, is probably just living up to it’s name. We had snacks, a bit of rest at the top to soak in the view and had 1 hour’s walk downhill to the campsite for lunch. Al was treated with condor pee to ease his headaches. And if you think going downhill can be a treat, it wasn’t. It was a very steep climb down across very uneven stone steps with sheer cliff at the other side. ‘hugging the mountain’ was almost too literal for me and truth is I hate going down steps more than the steep climbs up. I was breathless and my nerves were frayed.

We left camp at around 2pm to begin another round of 500m hike up where we will spend the night at the second pass.

I can see the clouds closing in. Mountains were all around us and if it rains, it will not go away soon. Halfway through to the second pass, it started raining. These area is as beautiful as it was depressing with all the clouds swirling around. Our second guide was with us. Sometimes I find it annoying that he hung around looking bored, but most times i was thankful that he was at our side in the most dangerous areas, ready to pick us up before we fall into the cliffs should we fall because of exhaustion.

It rained and rained. Al gave his extra poncho to our guide who was clad in a couple of small plastic bags.

We reached the peak and making our way downhill to camp at sun set. A couple of porters met us and I was asking if that meant we were near. Our guide answered with a laugh. So much for wishful thinking, our camp was still a full hour ahead in total darkness. Believe me when I say the Inca trail is no fun when it’s dark. I slipped quite a few times and picked myself up like it didn’t happen. The porters were there to help us carry our backpacks. We refused, truth is, my backpacks will keep me from hitting my head on the rocks should I slip (oh, i slipped quite a few times).

We reached camp Chaquicocha around 6:50pm and went straight into the dining tent after washing. On the second day, it would be really helpful to have snacks with you, as the packed snacks will not be enough.

It was a wonderfully clear but really cold night. I had a glimpse of the milky way after dinned, but just do not have the energy to stay out and watch the stars. Turns out nobody else did care too much for stargazing.

Slept with a fleece and 2 jackets. Wondered if my sleeping bag was the same sleeping bag I had the previous night (it wasn’t), but I didn’t care.

Today we were off walking at 6am. From 3300m to 4200m at dead woman’s pass to 3600m at camp. 16km walk. Total of 30km so far.

13 May 2013, Monday

A chance to sleep in. We left camp past 7am today. It is ‘Inca flat’ for an hour or so, and then all downhill from there, the dreaded ‘3000 steps’ down. There will be a few Inca sites on the way, but there will be no more hiking from lunch. Al was feeling much better, but we need to still take it slow as the days has worn me out and these downhill climbs are what I am worst at.

I think I had the chance to really appreciate the views today as my mind and body have been resigned to just keep going on. There is pretty much no choice of turning back now. And I am just thankful we had not been injured.

We took our time and remained unworried should we be the last ones to reach camp. Today, we just savoured being out here – how wrong or how right we were, and revelled in the beauty of what is around us. It was surreal to be here.

The llama and Intipata

Every time porters came along, my spirits were renewed – who am I to be complaining when I only have this much to carry.

The 'Red Army'
The ‘Red Army’

This camp, Winay Huayna was were most of the other groups are settling down as it was the campsite nearest to the gates of Machu Picchu. Showers are available, but I can hear the girls screaming as they turn the water on – it was mountain cold. So i thought I content myself with my baby wipes for 1 more day.

After lunch, we walked (no more trekking!) to Winay Wayna (Quecha for ‘forever young’), a wonderful Inca site of agricultural terraces.


This was our last night, and the last night our porters are going to be with us. We had a wonderful meal and a special cake (imagine baking a cake whilst camping!). Our porters congregated in our dinner tent as we said our farewells. The next morning, they’ll leave our stuff at Aguas Calientes and head on the 5:30am train back to Cusco. We put together 75 soles/person as tips for the porters and chef (recommended tips of 65 soles for each porter and 130 soles for the chef because he was chef and porter). I thought it was well-deserved, I couldn’t imagine trekking for 4 days and having to set up my own tent and cook my own food.

14 May 2013, Tuesday

Last day! But a really early start at 3am. We were off walking at 3:40am after a light breakfast. The porters are packing hurriedly as soon as we cleared our tents.

It was dark and a 10-minute walk to the gates of Machu Picchu. It was a race to which group gets there first. There is a covered area with seats which could only fit around 4 groups. So if we’re late, we would have to wait until 5:30am standing up and quite possible getting drenched if it rains.

We were the 2nd group. Spent 1.5 hour sitting in the dark, some of us feasted on by mosquitoes.

And then the rangers come in at 5:30am and after passport and ticket checks, it was another race to get to the sungate. I was half swearing because it was dark and the route was dangerous. We started really cold and I was wearing 2 warm jackets. Quickly, I was drenched in sweat and as the light comes up, we had to stop to catch our breath and peel off our jackets.

It was crazy, I really don’t care if I did not catch the sunrise at sungate anymore. Then I realised, with some 400 people behind us, there weren’t really a lot who overtook us when we stopped. Everybody else was worn down quite quickly.

And then it was the dreaded ‘gringo killer’ or the monkey steps, named so because it was a very steep 50 steps up where you have to use your hands to climb up. I don’t think the pictures will do justice to how hard climbing these steps are.

And we reached the sungate, with the sunlight not quite reaching Machu Picchu yet. It still seemed quite a distance away, but it was our first glimpse of this holy Inca site.

We spent a bit of time taking photos and then we started walking a bit nearer.

The Machu Picchu site is still quite a trek in itself, oh how the Incas love their steps! And considering that some 15% of Machu Picchu is still hidden in the jungles below, we’re still not seeing how enormous this site is.

Machu Picchu!
Machu Picchu!

2 hours were spent waling up and down Machu Picchu as our guide talked to us about Hiram Bingham and the ways of the Incas. I listened and found it hard to remember.

IMG_6326 IMG_6365

At 10am we made our way to Huayna Picchu and started to climb one of the mountains in Machu Picchu. After Al hurting his now very weakened knee and me stubbing my big toe and fearing I sprained it, we chickened out at the last minute and made a turn to climb the smaller mountain. It was still quite a climb up, a series of ‘gringo killers’ as I’d call it and the view, though much higher, is not much different.

up at the small mountain beside Huayna Picchu
up at the small mountain beside Huayna Picchu

We quickly made our way down and jostled our way through the crowds at the gate of Machu Picchu that the magic of the place has pretty much left me.

At the gates of machu picchu, you can store your bags for 3 soles. And stamp your passport yourself after 9am.

Equipment we thought were necessary: trekking poles, sleeping bag liners, rain jacket (i hate wearing a poncho because it blocks my view of the ground), head torch (for toilet trips and when you get to camp after sunset and 4th day start is before sunrise), quick dry shirts and trousers (because cotton shirts will not dry overnight), alcogel and baby wipes, sunscreen and hats, lots of socks, a thin and thick jacket (layering is the key), hiking boots with ankle support (i think without them, i’ll end up with broken ankles on the first day. though most porters are in trainers and even flip flops!), bug repellant, snacks, i use vicks vapor rub to help me breath better in high altitude and to help me not retch when i use toilets.

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