Last January I was sitting in a café in Raleigh, NC with my best friend Claire. For a few months prior we had been vaguely talking about backpacking together, but she had decided it was time for her to look for a more stable job that allowed her to live closer to her family. I knew this was a possibility, and as she finished the sentence that I knew was hard for her to tell me, a question popped into my head. It actually felt like this question landed on the table between us and slapped me in the face. It said: “So Kelly, are you going to go backpacking alone, or are you going to forget about the idea entirely?”
I asked the question out loud to Claire, and her response was exactly what I needed to hear. “You can absolutely do this!” And that was that. The decision was made. Claire had done some backpacking in South America after her study abroad semester in Cusco, Peru, so we pulled out Google Maps and she started rattling off a list of must-see places in Bolivia and Peru. She also knew a little about the gringo trail in other parts of the continent, and soon I had a rough itinerary of places to visit. I ordered Lonely Planet: South America on a Shoestring and began researching my first solo adventure. At the top of my list of priorities was how to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was Claire’s biggest recommendation and it required some advance planning.
At the height of their history, the Inca Empire spread from Ecuador to Chile and east into Bolivia. Cusco, Peru was the center of their empire, and the Inca Trail was a 40,000 km network of highways to connect the various places to Machu Picchu, one of the most sacred of all the Inca sites. In an effort to preserve this Inca citadel, the government of Peru only allows 500 people per day to begin the 4 day, 26 mile (43 km) hike on the Inca trail which leads you along a mountainous path of Inca ruins and stunning nature. Hikers must be accompanied by a licensed guide employed by an authorized company for the duration of the trek. Permits must be purchased months in advance because of their limited quantity, and for this reason, many backpackers I met chose to hike other routes to Machu Picchu since planning is the last thing most backpackers are doing. (If you’re interested in how to hike to Machu Picchu for free, check out my friend Nick’s blog about the Salkantay Trek!)
Claire convinced me that the Inca Trail was the way to go and when I looked online, June 15 was the earliest date I could get a permit. I knew I would need to be back for my summer job the following week, so I bought the permit with Alpaca Expeditions before I purchased any flights. I remember receiving my confirmation email after paying a deposit and thinking, “okay, I guess this trip is really happening.”
The price tag for this trek is no joke: $650 is the average cost! You can find companies that offer the trek for less, but I had read that they cut costs by paying their guides and porters lower wages. I wanted to make sure that the company I chose had high standards for paying their staff, and Alpaca Expeditions also seemed to follow environmental and sustainability best practices. The cost includes food and water, transportation to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. I felt good about my choice, and continued to feel good about it after asking my guides lots of questions about the circumstances under which they and our incredible team of chaskis* worked.
*Our guide Herlín taught us the Quechua word chaski which means messenger, and out of respect for the job they do, this is how we referred to the group of porters who traveled with us.
Hiking with a dedicated group of porters made this trek immensely easier, and to be honest I will probably never do a hike this way again. These men worked so hard for the sole purpose of my happiness over these 4 days, and the humanitarian in me couldn’t believe that I was participating in this type of industry. I am aware that for many people this is the only way they could have completed this hike, and I both respect and understand that. From a humanitarian perspective however, although the porters in my group seemed to be paid well and treated fairly by the company they work for, it is not an industry that I want to support again. I don’t want to disrespect anyone who disagrees with me, but I don’t feel I can write about my Inca Trail experience without being honest about my thoughts on this topic. For this reason, I have decided to elaborate in a separate blog post in an effort to not take away from the experience of the hike itself, and you can read more about it here.
The day finally came to start the trek and I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco at 4:30am by our chipper guides, Herlín and Manolo. We drove for about 5 hours and made a quick stop in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis before arriving at kilometer 82 where the hike begins. As soon as we arrived, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day.
Claire had described the experience as the physical feat of her life so I was nervous. I had read a lot about the difficulty of the trail because of the altitude and the steep inclines and descents. It turns out that having just finished the Ausangate Trek the week before was incredible training for this hike. The altitudes on the Inca Trail are lower than where I had been for 2 and 1/2 weeks, so I was definitely acclimatized. I wasn’t going to be carrying nearly as much weight in my backpack thanks to the chaskis. For the first time in my life, I was one of the more athletic people in the group. If you know me, this has never, ever been the case for me. Although I love hiking. exercising doesn’t bring me joy (especially cardio) and I’ve never been an athlete. During these 4 days, I was primarily at the front of our group instead of bringing up the rear like all of the other hikes I’ve done. I promise I am not trying to brag, but I was quite proud of my ability and felt stronger than ever.
The first day starts out at 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in the Inca jungle – on a sunny day (which we were so lucky to have the whole time) it is hot! As we hiked up, we could see the Urubamba river below surrounded by lush green mountains. As we got a little higher we could also see a glacier in the distance (I sure do love looking at glaciers!!). We passed Patallacta, an archaeological site believed to have been a common place to stop and rest for Inca travelers along the trail on their way to Machu Picchu. The hardest part of the day came after lunch with a steep incline before arriving at our campsite.
When we arrived at our campstie our chaskis were there working hard to set up and cook us an incredible meal. Seriously, the meals they prepared each day were impressive! I don’t think I could make this caliber of food in a full kitchen with all the amenities, never mind in the middle of nature with a camp stove lit up by a few headlamps. After dinner we gathered in a big circle with our guides and chaskis, and everyone introduced themselves and where they were from. Our guide translated to Spanish and to their native Quechua*, and I was so proud to be able to communicate my story in Spanish! The chaskis also told us what they were each specifically carrying in their bag. I was really happy that we had this time to learn a tiny bit about them and to make them feel like they were also a part of our group. After learning a little about the constellations thanks to some amazing stargazing, we were off to bed early to rest up for another long day of hiking.
*Although many Inca traditions were lost during the Spanish invasion, the Quechua language was kept alive and continues to be spoken in the Peruvian highlands. The Spanish were mainly interested in cities and places at lower altitudes. This was not so much the case for other indigenous populations in South America such as the Muiscas from Colombia.
Day 2 was by far the most challenging day of the trek because it involves hiking to two summits and then ascending them both. After an intense ~3 hour uphill climb, we reached Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet), the highest point of the trek. The top is incredible, complete with more glacier views. You can also see the trail leading from the campsite where you start the day, and I felt a huge sense accomplishment seeing what I’d just done.
Hiking down the other side was much harder than hiking up in my opinion. It’s the first time that I’ve ever used hiking poles, and I was so thankful to Justin in my group who had rented them but didn’t want to use them. We basically spent the next hour and a half walking down steep stone steps. Justin let me hang onto the poles for the rest of the trek, and they made the downhill parts SO much more manageable.
After lunch it was uphill again for another 2 hours where we saw some waterfalls and more breathtaking views. We passed two Inca sites this day, Runcu Raccay and Sayacmarca. Inca sites had various uses depending on their location. Some were temples used for religious ceremonies and celestial observations while others were centers of urban life and agriculture. Agricultural sites are located at different elevations based on the crops growing there, which included potatoes, coca leaves, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and corn.
I was beyond exhausted at the end of day 2, and it was a struggle to stay awake through dinner. When we woke up early the next morning, the spectacular 360 degree view which had been covered by clouds the night before was the first thing I noticed.
We hit the trail again after breakfast for a much less strenuous and equally beautiful day. We had the Salkantay glacier in the distance and passed two more Inca sites: Phuyupatamarka and Wiñay Wayna. Both of these are only accessible via the Inca Trail, and they were two of my favorites. Since there weren’t many people around, it was easy to walk around and enjoy the structures without any crowds. We took some time at both sites to learn about some history from our guides (the details of which I really wish I wrote down or could have retained).
After dinner on our last night, we gathered up as a group with the chaskis again to thank them for all the hard work they had done to make this trek possible for us. I was so happy to not need a translator for what I wanted to say, but even still it was difficult to find words to express the gratitude I felt for what these men had done for us. They even made us a cake on the last night – in the middle of nowhere in the woods! Using a campstove! It was truly incredible.
Day 4 begins very early as groups rush to make it to the entrance of the last part of the trail. The gate doesn’t open until 5am but people start lining up to wait there at 3am. We were the second group in line. When they opened the gate, I walked right through and kept a steady pace until I arrived at the Sun Gate two hours later. I was among the first 10 or so people to arrive, and although I am not motivated by competition, I was happy that I arrived before 490 others obstructed the views. It made up for the hoards of people I was about to bump into walking around Machu Picchu who had arrived from the train that morning. From the Sun Gate we looked down over Machu Picchu and watched the sun rise before the final descent into the ancient citadel.
Machu Picchu itself is amazing, but I have to say that after 4 days in the woods, being surrounded by chipper, freshly showered tourists is quite annoying. I was so thankful for all the time spent listening to the history with our guides in some of the more peaceful sites because it was hard to focus on our tour inside with thousands of people pushing through the narrow walkways. The most impressive part of this ancient city is that it was built completely by hand without the use of modern technology, high up in the mountains. I don’t know how people weren’t careening down the sides with the pure weight of the stones they were carrying. Also amazing is the fact that when they were taken as slaves by the Spanish Conquistadors, the Incas kept Machu Picchu (along with some other sites along the trail) a secret, and instead purposefully led them to other sites with less importance than Machu Picchu in an attempt to preserve it.
I dedicated this hike to my cousin, Alex David who passed away in Peru in 2010 while fulfilling his dreams of seeing this beautiful world we live in. He shared my deep love for travel, and I’m told he especially loved Machu Picchu after hiking the Inca Trail. I’m proud to be following in his footsteps and aspire to be a great adventurer like him!
I spent a lot of time hiking by myself during this trek because I was moving so much faster than my group. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to hike with them, or because I was trying to be as fast as I could, but it turned out that I was very prepared for the challenge and I was moving at a pace that felt good to me. I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences of the past 3 months and try to make sense of how fast it flew by. In the end, it felt symbolic that I was often hiking on my own. I came to South America by myself to see if I could do it. I had a lot of doubts and I was really scared to be alone, but I’ve come a long way since the planning had begun in that little cafe in Raleigh.
My flight back to Boston was the following day. The Inca Trail was the first thing I planned and the last thing I did on my 3 month adventure. There was something strangely satisfying about ending my trip at the exact spot that made me make this trip happen in the first place. As I sat watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, both for completing this hike and for successfully living out of my backpack and moving around South America on my own. I listened to my favorite song, We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow, which I discovered on my Camino De Santiago, and took a moment of solitude to reflect on how far I’ve come. I couldn’t help but cry happy tears. I’m so proud of myself.