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I Tried It: A Four-Day Hike On The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu

It's official: A hike to Machu Picchu should be on everyone's bucket list.

Last week, I returned from a four-day Inca trail hike to Machu Picchu, an excursion my friend and I had been planning for over a year. Stone stair cases, high altitude passes, Incan history: The trail was every bit as challenging and breathtaking as I had hoped.

Who you travel with can make or break any trip, and I was lucky enough to have a dear friend from college join me—one who can handle extreme discomfort and emergency situations, usually while cracking jokes. This may not be Everest, but hiking and camping for four days on trails with names like Gringo Killer and Dead Woman’s Pass can raise even the toughest hiker’s eyebrows.

My favorite part of the journey, aside from the sight of Machu Picchu bringing tears to my eyes, was learning about the Incas from our native guide throughout our journey. I’m not gonna lie: None of our prep research included details about the spiritual trail built by the Incas. It was all about booking spots six months in advance (only 500 hikers are allowed to enter the trail per day), what equipment was needed, the weight limit for said equipment, and, of course, the climate and difficulty. Hardly any of our groundwork explained why this specific route was a pilgrimage for the Incas, and why so many people have wanted to conquer it in the last 100 years. Luckily, our guide filled in those blanks.

The trail itself is 45km (28 miles) long. Maps will often refer to the trail as starting at kilometer 82: Piskacucho (altitude 8,923ft) and ending at kilometer 45: Machu Picchu (altitude 7,873ft). But in between the “start” and “finish”, you’re exposed to many Incan archeological sites (we saw five), breathtaking mountain passes with serious altitude (13,800 feet being the highest), and multiple climates (arid and jungle).

The Inca’s architectural jujitsu, understanding of health, and knowledge of the stars is something still left unexplained. They had an expansive presence in South America with over 25,000 miles of trails connecting their short-lived 100 year rule (1438-1532AD) from top to bottom of the continent. This trail (which makes up a fraction of their legacy) is special because of the preserved Incan city of Machu Picchu at its end, a spiritual destination existing in stunning natural beauty. Only discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu was spared the standard Spanish destruction seen elsewhere in South America. Our fearless leader Juan Carlo spoke of everything from modern Inca Trail races to the medicinal plants that lined our trek. Though many of the Incas were wiped out in the 16th century (the population went from 14 million to 1.5million), there is still a large indigenous population in Peru to keep the memories of their ancestors alive.

One of my favorite stories was of a professional race completed on the Inca Trail in 2004. Sponsored runners showed up with the best shoes, running shorts, CamelBaks, and gels. And then one unsponsored porter showed up in his sandals, carrying only a wad of coca leaves to chew on. Instead of water, he downed a pitcher of chicha (the indigenous equivalent to beer), and proceeded to blow everyone out of the water with a 3 hour and 45 minute trail record. The next finisher had a time of 10 hours.

We had eleven porters supporting six of us, and we’d often get passed by our porters running by us on the trail (“Mountain-side!” our guide would direct us as we scooted out of their way) carrying 50-pound packs of everything from sleeping bags and tents to the food and dinnerware. We stopped every day for lunch (followed by a siesta) and at night for a “happy hour” of tea and popcorn before an elaborate dinner always made from scratch. (The food was off the charts and deserves its own blog post.) Every porter from the chef to the janitor carried 50 pounds, and every scrap of trash was removed from camp when we left.

Our guide was our leader, teacher and friend, and he got to know everyone’s hiking capabilities and personalities on the trail. My friend Liz and I joked that we became immediately lost after waving goodbye to Juan Carlos in Aguas Calientes, just hours after leaving Machu Picchu on our final day. We wouldn’t have anyone to tell us when to get up, when to eat, or when to throw our packs on anymore. As we forged our own way, limping, toward the train back to Cusco, a Peruvian hairless dog to my right and Liz and her new alpaca blanket on my left, we agreed that this glimpse into the Incan past truly had been the trip of a lifetime.

Heading to Peru to hike Machu Picchu?

The tour group we used (and highly recommend!) is Alpaca Expeditions.

Alpaca provides any tour you’re looking for around Cusco, including Salkantay and Rainbow Mountain. This company was started by a Peruvian Porter and he only hires locals. From the beginning, they have paid their porters well, served gourmet food, and clothed their porters in everything they would need for the excursions. No other tour group provided these essentials, though many have copied their model since.

Price: 4-day Inca Trail (pick-up at your hotel door in Cusco, entrance fees, buses and trains, all meals, tent, sleeping bag, poles, blow-up mattress, porter to carry 7KG for you, etc.): $680. To give some perspective, entrance fee for the day at Machu Picchu is $100 USD, entrance to the Inca Trail for 4 days is $100 USD, the one-way train ticket back to Cusco from Aguas Calientes is $85. Essentially, the $400 left covers 10 meals, snack packs for every day, porters to carry all of your things, a private bathroom for your group, tents, sleeping bags, guided tours of 6 archeological sites including a 2-hour tour of Machu Picchu, and much more.

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