The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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.”

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Getting ready to begin at kilometer 82

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.

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Our chaskis preparing their packs to hit the trail

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.

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This map shows the 26 mile hike to Machu Picchu

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.

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Patallacta

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.

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My spacious home during the trek

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Hard at work making a delicious dinner

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These meals seriously impressed me!

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Yummmm!

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.

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Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet)

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We all made it!

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.

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What goes up must come down, as they say.

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If you look closely you can see our chaskis making their way past these ruins

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.

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Our campsite on Day 2

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Sure you can brush your teeth, but first we take a selfie.

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).

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Salkantay Glacier

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Herlín and Manolo making rope from straw

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Well hello there!

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Phuyupatamarka was my favorite of the ruins

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Admiring what we’ve accomplished

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If you don’t take a llama selfie, it didn’t happen!

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Manolo speaks Llama.

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.

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Our campsite on Day 3

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View from my humble abode.

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Seriously, they made us a cake in the woods!

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.

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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!

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I added the top rock to this cairn in honor of Alex.

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.

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Among many other things, South America taught me how to fly!

 

On Hiking with Porters

The only way to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is by going with a guided group. This is because prior to 1990, the trail was unregulated and not all hikers treated Pachamama (Mother Earth) with respect. The trail suffered from trash left behind and too much foot traffic so in an attempt to preserve it, the Peruvian government only issues 500 permits per day to access the trail. Most companies employ porters to carry your belongings and my hiking experience was made immensely easier thanks to the incredible team of porters that travelled with us during the 4 day trek. I made sure that I chose a company that treated their porters fairly and paid them competitive wages but despite this, I don’t think it is something I will do again.

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Most of group at the end of Day 1

On average it costs $650 for a 4 day/3 night hike on the Inca Trail. This includes everything you could possibly need: food and water, transportation from Cusco to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. 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. It was a priority for me to find a company that had high standards for paying their staff. I went with Alpaca Expeditions and felt good about this choice especially after reading about their policies on porter treatment, including their wages and benefits such as health care and safe gear (hiking boots, warm clothing, etc.). Most of these porters come from farming communities in the Peruvian highlands, and Alpaca Expeditions also coordinates social projects that give back to these communities. It was evident throughout the hike that not all porters are treated so nicely by the companies they work for, and I really believe that AE does everything they can to make the experience safe and fair for their employees.

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 our team of porters. After driving for a few hours from Cusco on the morning of Day 1, we stopped in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis. This town is located closer to the farms where most of these men live, so this eliminates the need for them to travel hours to Cusco the night before a trek begins and stay overnight to travel with the group. Elio, the manager of the group, sat next to me for the remainder of the ride. He told me about the farms in the area and the crops that are grown there. I asked him to teach me how to say thank you in Quechua: sullpayki.

As soon as we arrived at the trailhead, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day. This included setting up tables and chairs, cooking eggs, making toast, boiling water for coffee and tea, preparing fruits, etc. Once we finished eating and were ready to hit the trail, the chaskis stayed behind to clean up and pack everything into their bags. I immediately realized how uncomfortable I was having a team of people working to make me comfortable.

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Hard at work getting ready to hit the trail

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The speediest breakfast table set up I’ve ever seen

An hour or so into our hike the chaskis passed us on the trail – something that would continue to happen every morning and afternoon after they had cleaned up from the meal they just prepared, packed everything up from the spot, and got on their way to beat us to the next stop. They always moved at a steady jog despite their enormous backpacks being almost twice their size!

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Our chaskis heading to the first checkpoint

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Passing us on the trail

Since the Inca Trail has such steep inclines and declines over the course of the 4 days, it is too dangerous to use animals to carry the heavy packs. This means it is human power that needs to bring everything up and down the mountains each day. Each hiker is allotted 7 kg (15 lb) of weight to be given to a chaski to carry for the duration of the trip. This isn’t a lot, but there were 10 people and 2 guides in our group. That meant that aside from a small day bag that we each carried ourselves, 16 people were carrying literally everything we would need for the 4 day trek, plus everything they would need as well. They carry tents (for sleeping, eating, and cooking), food, our belongings (clothes, toiletries, etc.), sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a portable bathroom tent and toilet, chairs, tables, pots, pans, plates, cups, napkins, utensils, all the trash produced throughout the hike…I’m sure there are things that I’m forgetting.

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On the left: my belongings they carried for me. On the right: what I carried myself

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Just a small part of the gear they carried. Not pictured: food, everything needed to cook and serve food, tents, etc., etc., etc.

Peruvian law states that porters are not allowed to carry more than 25 kg (55 lb) each. Their packs are weighed at 2 separate checkpoints on the first day. I have read that some companies ask hikers to carry some things through these checkpoints, making the porter’s bags lighter, and then have the porters take the weight back into their bags after passing the inspections. According to the website and from what my guides told me, Alpaca Expeditions’ weight limit per chaski is 20 kg (about 45 lb) – 15 kg of gear/hiker’s belongings, and 5 kg of things each chaski needs for himself. Having just completed the Ausangate trek where I carried everything myself over difficult trails, I felt terrible watching this team of people work so hard for me.

I like to ask a lot of questions, so throughout my hike I made this a big topic of conversation with my guides, Herlín and Manolo. I asked about the chaski’s wages, how much weight they were carrying, and how they were treated by Alpaca Expeditions. The Peruvian government sets standards for wages, and on average they make 45 soles per day ($13.50 usd at the time of writing this post). That’s $54 for the 4 days! Companies can then provide added benefits such as health insurance and free gear that they need in order to safely hike. I also asked where they slept during the hike since our campsites didn’t seem to have enough tents for them. Once they finished cleaning up after dinner each night, they cleared out the tent where we ate and placed their sleeping pads and sleeping bags in a long line through that tent. This makes a lot of sense in terms of having less to carry, but of course it offers absolutely no privacy, and 16 men end up sleeping like sardines for 3 nights.

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Our meal tent. The small green wall separated where they cooked from where we ate. 16 people slept in this tent!

During an introduction ceremony that we had on our first night together, I learned that our team ranged in aged tom 21 to 59. I asked our guides what other opportunities they would have if they weren’t working as a chaski. What I learned is that although it’s not a very good job, it is a decent one in terms of the cost of living in rural Peru, and it allows their children to go to school. The majority of these men are farmers from the Sacred Valley.

When I arrived at our first campsite, the team was working hard to set up our tents and get dinner cooking. I asked if there was anything I could do to help but they insisted that there wasn’t. After a few minutes of aimlessly walking around the campsite, I asked again but the answer was still no. After asking a 3rd time (it was really difficult watching them do everything and doing literally nothing myself), one of them finally let me finish blowing up some sleeping pads with an air pump. I had an entire tent to myself, which was a real luxury and not intentional. You can pay more for your own tent, but I was fine being placed in a tent with someone else in my group. Originally there were supposed to be 11 people in our group but one dropped out at the last minute. There was a miscommunication about how many tents to bring, so instead of sharing one with the 9th person, he and I each had our own tent. I felt terrible knowing that an extra tent was schlepped up that mountain for me when I would have easily shared. I also didn’t like having so much space to myself after learning where the chaskis slept. Although it was a service I was paying for, deep down it did not make me feel good.

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My spacious tent and the meal tent in the background.

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Our campsite on Day 1

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Our campsite on Day 2

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Our campsite on Day 3

Our amazing team stayed at each campsite and lunch spot after we had left in order to clean and pack up. They somehow scurried by us somewhere along the trail in order to arrive before us to set up at the next campsite. Each time we arrived at the next spot, they stood in a line to applaud us for making it. At each campsite and lunch spot they provided each of us with warm water in a small basin for us to wash our hands and face. (I felt so clean that I almost forgot I wasn’t showering this whole time!) They boiled, purified, and then cooled all the water that we drank throughout the hike. They kept a portable toilet clean and at our service in another tent. After dinner they stayed up later than us to clean and organize, and in the mornings they woke up earlier and provided hot tea ready at our tent as a wake up call. Not to mention they also hiked the same exhausting trail we did while carrying much more weight. I’m sure the experience of the beautiful nature and breathtaking views is much less enjoyable after hiking it day in and day out for years while working hard for other people.

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They even made us a cake to congratulate us on making it to Machu Picchu!!!

On our last night we had another small ceremony to thank the chaskis for everything they did. This is the time where it’s customary to give them tips for their service. Thankfully these tips are not factored into their wages. We each got a chance to thank them in our own words for all that they had done. I was happy to be able to speak to them in Spanish without a translator, however, it was so challenging to find words to express the immense gratitude I felt toward these men. To close the ceremony, we were taught the Quechua word haylli meaning happiness with nature. It’s tradition to chant this 3 times together at the end of all Andean celebrations as a way of saying sullpayki – thank you.

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Showing off my selfie stick skills

I’ve thought a lot about this aspect of hiking the Inca trail in the days and months after my trip. When people ask me about the experience, it’s hard to express how I felt about hiking with porters without sounding like I don’t appreciate their work, or the fact that I got to have the experience in the first place. I want to be clear that the hike, the Inca sites, the incredible nature, the history – everything about the experience was amazing and I am so lucky to have experienced it. However, observing how hard the chaskis work was a very important part of this experience for me, and I did not feel proud to be participating in an industry that employs humans to do such physical labor for the benefit of my vacation.

Having now completed this hike, I am interested in other hikes of this caliber in other parts of the word – mainly hiking to Mt. Kilimanjaro or maybe even Everest base camp someday. I don’t know if these are possible without the help of porters. I am aware that as a participant in an experience like this, I am contributing to the fact that these people have jobs and opportunities to support their families. This does help me feel better, but I’m conflicted as to whether I would feel comfortable hiking in this way again.

If you’re thinking of hiking the Inca Trail, I highly recommend booking your trek with Alpaca Expeditions. They are a wonderful company and having lived the experience with them, I can say that I do believe they are one of the better companies available in Peru. Here are a few other recommendations I have from my experience:

Inform yourself: Research is so important when it comes to traveling, and this is the perfect example as to why. When I first thought about hiking the Inca Trail, I wasn’t considering the lives of the people that would be working to make it possible for me. Go with a company that has high standards for how they treat their employees. It’s hard work out there!

Ask questions: Even after doing my own research and feeling good about the choice I made, I still asked my guides lots of questions because I wanted to know if what I had read was true. Luckily I didn’t find out anything that I didn’t want to hear.

Say thank you: Better yet, say gracias. Although these people are working, they are also human, and they are doing everything in their power to make this experience comfortable for you. Thank them for what they’re doing, and for goodness sake, say it in THEIR language. It made me so angry to hear people thanking them in English.

Talk to them: You’re in Peru surrounded by locals! Learn from their culture, listen to their stories. Although they’re working, there’s downtime at the campsites and I did my best to make small talk with them when it seemed appropriate.

Offer to help: maybe this is just me, but I don’t like being doted on. I liked helping out when I could, although they were very reluctant to accept. I suppose it’s possible they’re not supposed to let paying customers help with their work but it made me feel better to try.

Tackling the Ausangate Trek

While planning my trip to South America, I came across the Ausangate glacier hike that passed by Vinicunca, also known as the Rainbow Mountain, located outside of Cusco, Peru. Six days of walking and camping around a glacier at (a minimum of) 15,000 feet sounded very challenging. As I looked into it further I noticed that there’s almost no information about it online, and whatever you can find highly recommends hiring a guide as well as horses to carry your gear. Going as part of a guided group costs anywhere from $500-$600 – so almost immediately, I deemed the experience too expensive and something I wasn’t prepared for. I tossed the idea out the window.

After arriving in Colombia and posting the first picture of my travels on social media, a friend I met at UMass 11 years earlier wrote to me to say he was in Chile. Nick and I exchanged our vague itineraries, but since I was in the very north of the continent and he was in the very south, we figured it might be difficult to meet up somewhere, especially considering how little we were both planning along the way. As my time in Peru approached, he started mentioning that he and his friend Jimmy were planning to do the Ausangate trek and they were determined to do it without a guide. They kindly invited me to join them but I was nervous I’d be holding them back. This would be my first time backpacking and camping along the way, and we would need to carry all the gear and food we’d need for 6 days. These guys are very experienced hikers who had just spent 2 months exploring Patagonia. Nick’s response was that “this is a group effort” and so began the most laid back planning of the most difficult hike I’ve ever done.

Side note: if you’re looking for useful advice about how to plan for and actually do the Ausangate trek, check out Nick’s blog for lots of helpful information.

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Our goal: reaching this incredible glacier!


The only information available online about doing this trek without a guide are a few blogs that make it sound daunting. There’s no marked path and factoring in the elements of being at such high elevation, it’s considered to be a pretty dangerous experience. You’re completely remote since the only people you see during the trek are a few farmers who live in tiny villages, and only some of them speak Spanish in addition to their native Quechua. This also means that you need to carry all your food for the entire trek, and purify water along the way with either filters or iodine tablets. Finding a map of the trail is nearly impossible, and there’s only one person in Cusco who sells topographical ones. His office address is listed incorrectly everywhere online and his Facebook page said his office was now closed indefinitely. The best alternative we could find was a cartoon image of the trail that had no real information and no connections to the detour we’d have to take to get to Rainbow Mountain. We did buy map at a bookstore that highlighted most of the trail we wanted, so we finally decided to just go and hope for the best. We knew we’d run into other groups who had hired guides and figured they’d be kind enough to give us a little info here and there as we went along.

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All the essentials for 6 days of hiking and camping

After a few days of acclimatizing and gathering the essentials in Cusco, we started the adventure with a 4 hour bus ride to the trailhead located in Tinke (or Tinque) at 4,303 meters (14,117 feet). During the ride we noticed that the whole hike was marked on maps.me, the greatest app ever made for backpackers. It works offline and allows you to leave pins in places you’ve been. It works the same as other map apps, except it often includes hiking trails. Somehow we had missed this in our planning but it made us feel a lot better about what we were about to embark on. We dilly-dallied for a bit in the village square making lots of jokes about our survival, and finally hit the trail. We paid the 10 soles (~$3) it costs to enter the trail and noticed that a few other Americans and Canadians had also registered that day (albeit hours before our leisurely start time). We crossed our fingers that they weren’t too far ahead.

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My questionable editing skills – highlighting the trail on maps.me

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Getting ready to start! Bring what you need; there isn’t much in Tinke.

After an hour or so of walking, the weight of my backpack started to dig into my shoulders. The altitude is no joke, and the slightest incline made the weight I was carrying seem way worse. I never actually weighed my bag, but I’d guess it weighed somewhere around 25 pounds which frankly is too much for me. I tried to silently coach myself step by step, but after another hour I was almost in tears. I needed to ask Nick and Jimmy to carry some of the weight I had, and I hated admitting that. They were already carrying more than I was. Without even the slightest blip of a complaint, they immediately started rearranging weight to make things a little easier for me. My pack was still heavy but removing some food made an enormous difference. Before setting off again, we broke out the coca leaves that we brought which help with the effects of being at such high altitude. I was skeptical at first but it’s amazing how chewing them seems to lower your heart rate and reduce the pounding in your head from being so out of breath.

The first few hours were mostly rolling green fields covered in alpacas with a random house here and there and very few people. So when we stumbled upon a little girl who was lost, crying, and only spoke Quechua, we weren’t really sure what to do. Jimmy gave her a Snickers bar and let her play with his iPhone while Nick and I went on a mission to find another human being who could help. It took a while of climbing ridiculously steep hills, but we finally found a woman who spoke Spanish. They didn’t know each other, but the woman seemed to be familiar with the girl’s family name. We felt good about leaving them to figure the rest out on their own.


We hiked up and over a few more steep hills and finally came across a guided group. They confirmed that we were going the right way, and we more or less followed them to our first camp site located in Upis at 4,400 meters (14,435 feet). Right away we were surprised by how much more was available to us there than what we had read about online. We had anticipated a field with the slight possibility of other campers. Instead there were hot springs, toilets (but no running water), and a shelter under which we could put our tent. We did pay a few soles to the farmer who owned it all to be able to use these amenities, but it was a small price to pay for wind and (potential) snow protection. We swam in the hot springs, made some dinner, and were asleep by 7:30pm. Sleeping at such high altitude is very cold and a little bit scary. Both Jimmy and I woke up in the middle of the night feeling short of breath and very panicky. I remember feeling like my body had forgotten how to breathe properly and if I didn’t keep mindfully breathing I would stop completely. Of course that wasn’t what was happening and eventually I did fall asleep again, but it was definitely a reminder that this hike was no joke. On the bright side, 3 people in a 2 person tent means a very cozy and warm sleep.

We woke up early on day two and very leisurely got ready to hit the trail. We chatted with the French family and their guides we had met the day before and they were very helpful. We knew we had the app to guide us along a dotted line, but we were hoping to get some landmarks to base things off of. Unfortunately since there are no trail markers out there, the directions were more or less “turn left after the second reddish mountain.”

Day 2 was very difficult for me. The first pass we crossed was 4,850 meters/15,900 feet. It was a frustratingly slow and steady incline for 2 hours. We started off chatty and chipper but soon I couldn’t even hold a conversation. Nick and Jimmy were far ahead of me, keeping a steady pace while I stopped every 70 or so steps (I was counting to keep myself motivated). At one point I somewhat deliriously wrote a little song with my name in it telling myself that I could do it and to just keep going. Nick and Jimmy were so patient and every so often they’d stop and wait for me to catch up. They never seemed annoyed at my pace and were really supportive of our progress as a group. I can imagine that doing this with any other type of people would have been totally discouraging but they never let me feel like I was holding them back. In fact, we passed the French family and their guides where they stopped for lunch, and we were surprised to find out they left the camp an hour before we did! Maybe we weren’t moving so slowly after all.

And then around lunch time we got lost.

There were signs pointing to a mirador overlooking a beautiful lake so of course we followed them to see what was up there. After taking some pictures we kept going to the left around the lake which was the opposite of what maps.me encouraged, but it looked like a shortcut from where we were, and going right didn’t look like any sort of a path. So we bouldered around the lake for about half an hour only to realize that above it was another lake. Mountains can be tricky this way. Unless we had a canoe with us there was no way we were getting across dry. We found a spot that had enough rocks for us to make it across, but now we were cut off from the path by the first lake, and the only way forward was up and over the steepest grassy knoll I’ve ever seen. We really didn’t want to backtrack so we made the choice to go up and risk finding more lakes on the other side. It was the kind of incline that if you stumbled backward you would have tumbled down, which made hiking with all the weight on our backs very precarious. Slow and steady, we made it up. At this point we were all hangry so we found some nice rocks to perch on and eat lunch. From that perspective we could see exactly where we had gone wrong, and saw the guided group we had passed heading in the correct way. We scurried down the hill to catch up and follow them. We weren’t interested in any more detours.

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Happy to be back on track 🙂

The trail on this route is very different from any other hikes I’ve done. It never feels like you’re summiting a peak in the same way you notice when hiking a mountain. As I’ve mentioned, you can definitely notice even the slightest incline, but each time we reached the top of a pass, it was never the same sense of accomplishment that I’ve felt when summiting a mountain. The coolest part about the view is that since the trail goes around the Ausangate glacier, it’s always right there in the distance. It is enormous, emitting an almost overwhelming sense of awe. Every once in awhile, I would look up and remember that I was hiking around a glacier in Peru; that I was surrounded by thousands of alpacas, all with the same adorable/confused look on their faces; that I was in the most remote place I’ve ever been on this Earth. It was all so surreal.

We finally reached our second campsite located next to Lake Ausangatecocha where the only other people were the French family and their guides. Elevation was 15,233 feet, so it was COLD! While we still had some sunlight, we cooked the most delicious dinner you can imagine – ramen noodles with tuna and a cheesy sauce. Seriously, reminiscing about this meal makes my mouth water. I guarantee if I ate it for lunch today I would think it was disgusting, but after 15 km of hiking up and down multiple 5,000+ meter passes, ramen never tasted so good. Our evening entertainment included a few tunes on Nick’s ukulele as we passed around some whiskey. I tried to learn a few keys, but it was so cold that I couldn’t move my fingers. 

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This tiny tent was our cozy home on this adventure

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Look at that delicious ramen waiting to be enjoyed!


As soon as the sun went down we bundled up in our sleeping bags and watched a movie on a phone in the tent. Looking back, it’s crazy to think of being in such a remote place and having the luxury of watching a movie. When we turned it off and were surrounded by complete silence, we could hear parts of the glacier falling from the top. All I could think of was that we were living in an episode of Planet Earth live! I’ve never heard anything more majestic than that sound.

The next morning as we got ready for what was going to be the longest day of our hike, I ate a Snickers for breakfast. It tasted better than any candy bar I’d ever eaten. We took our time to get ready, something I really appreciated about Nick and Jimmy – they were never in a rush to get anywhere, and that took a lot of stress out of the situation. As soon as we started walking, we were met by a Quechua woman and her alpacas who collected 10 soles from each of us, apparently as payment for camping (that part was unclear), and we were on our way to the Rainbow Mountain.

Side note: The Ausangate circuit does not pass by the Rainbow Mountain as we originally thought. In fact, the easiest way to visit the Rainbow Mountain is with a guided group from Cusco. Buses leave around 3am in order to arrive by 7am, hike the 3-5 hours to and from the summit, and be back in time for lunch and a ride back to Cusco.

  

From our campsite it was a 2 hour hike to the base of Rainbow Mountain where we (luckily) got to leave our backpacks for free! We could see herds of people coming down the mountain after their early morning hike, and we seemed to be the only people walking up. We had a good feeling about how great the view was going to be. Somehow, out of the thousands of people hiking that day, I ran into my friend Tom whom I met in Chile and then later traveled with to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa, Peru. Small world!

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Bonjour Tom!

After 2 more hours of intense uphill hiking, we reached the top of the Rainbow Mountain. At 17,060 feet (5,200 meters), it’s the highest altitude I’ve ever climbed to. It is so hard to describe how I felt on the top of that mountain. Besides being very cold and hungry, I couldn’t stop staring at the incredible views. We could see the Ausangate glacier in the distance, and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that we walked from there to get to where we were.


The coolest part about it was that we were the only people at the top! I’ve read many travel blogs that talk about the crowds taking away from the experience at the summit and later having to photoshop people out of the background of the iconic Rainbow Mountain photo. I can say with 100% honesty that there was no photoshopping done to this picture. Nick, Jimmy, and I stood at the top taking in the insane views and hoping we didn’t get blown off the side of the mountain by the wind. We had the rainbow all to ourselves.

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Ausangate in the distance

When we reached the bottom, we had to make a decision to cut our hike short by 2 days. Jimmy was on a tight timeline to make it back to Cusco for a flight, and we were risking having to walk back to Lake Ausangatecocha mostly in the dark. We decided that the Rainbow Mountain had been the real goal of the trip and chose to make our way back to the main road to catch a bus to Cusco. This is where things got interesting.

The first person we came across to ask for some information was a potato farmer who had just finished planting some crops for the day and was headed back to the main village where we could find a bus. He offered us a ride in his car, from which he’d removed the back seats to make room for the potatoes, and he wanted us to pay him 60 soles (~$20) for the ride. Looking at the map, it was not a long ride so we decided it was too much. 

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Walking into Chillca, Peru

We walked to Chillca, the next closest village on the map, and asked the owners of the first shop we passed for the bus schedule. Turns out it only comes Saturday-Tuesday…and we arrived on Wednesday. But they did tell us that a man named Francisco lives in town and has a car, so he might offer us a ride. We walked down the one road in the village asking for Francisco and it seemed like the whole village came out to the street to curiously investigate the gringos. We were finally directed to his house/minimart (literally a room where his family sold things, cooked, and slept). His wife Olga was home, but Francisco was out for a few days herding the alpacas, and anyway his car wasn’t working. She offered us her backyard as a campsite and said we could cook/drink beer in her store.

Chillca has the nicest residents who were all very curious about where we came from and wanted to help us get back. Olga and her friends said there was a truck that usually passed through Chillca at 8am and the driver would surely give us a ride to Pitumarca where we could take a colectivo to the highway where the bus passed by. This all sounded crazy but we had no other option, so we settled into Olga’s store and enjoyed another delicious ramen and tuna meal.

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Olga’s backyard: our new address in Chillca, Peru

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El baño…

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Look at that ramen!!!

We started on our way at 7:45 the next morning and sure enough a truck came along at 8am. The driver and his 2 passengers work for an NGO that visits public schools to teach students good hygiene practices. We waved them down and they offered to drive us the 2 hours to Pitumarca for free. I can now say I’ve officially hitchhiked. We chatted with them about the school system in Peru, and about how children in these rural areas sometimes walk 1-2 hours to get to their schools. Yet another example of how travel constantly reminds me of the privileges I’ve had.

Everyone on the street and on passing buses in Pitumarca giggled and waved at us as we walked through town looking for breakfast and a bus stop. Keep in mind, we’d been hiking and camping for 4 days at this point – I’m sure we looked dirty and crazy. When we got to the main plaza we came across a group of high school boys in their school uniforms who yelled “Hello! Selfie?” Of course we said yes.  

Our tuk tuk colectivo brought us to the highway where waved down a bus to Cusco. Although it was different from our original plan, I loved the hilarity, adventure, and spontaneity of the end of our trip.

I finished this hike on June 8, 2017, 6 months after having first read about it and doubting my ability to actually do it. I saw and learned a lot on this hike, but what stands out most is the overwhelming notion that I am so much stronger than I think. I arrived back in Cusco feeling like I could do absolutely anything. So this one is dedicated to Nick and Jimmy who kindly took me under their wing and made this hike possible for me. Without their patience and generosity (and countless silly jokes) I would never have believed I could do it.