Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, is the base for the popular trek to Machu Picchu. 90-95% of the Tourists to Machu Picchu, use the traditional train route to Machu Picchu. Around 5-10% of more adventurous souls undertake the multi-day trek to Machu Picchu. Though the trek is tough and energy-sapping, at the end of it all, you will be thankful for the experience … Trust me!
1st Step: Making the booking ….
Machu Picchu is in the Bucket List of everyone. And 5-10% of these folks dream of trekking the Inca Trail. June-September is the peak season for trekking the Inca Trail and I intended to do the trek in June. For my massive South American trip, the “Lodge in Amazonas (Uacari Floating Lodge)” and the “4-day Trek along the Inca Trail” were the first two items I booked, even before I booked the flights!
I am a huge fan of Viator (www.viator.com) and have used their Tours in many Countries. This is the Tour I booked:
And I made the booking 10 months before the actual Trek. In order to preserve the Ecological balance of the Inca Trail, only around 250-300 trekkers are allowed on the Inca Trail per day. Thus you need to book well in advance to ensure that you are one among them.
When you book your travel to/from Cusco, I would recommend allowing for at least 2 days at Cusco, BEFORE the Trek. I did not leave any gap (I.e. I arrived at Cusco the day before the Trek started) and did have a bad day of Altitude Sickness (Mainly headache) at Cusco. I wish I had more time …
2nd Step: Preparing physically …
I consider myself a fit person and I exercise regularly. I climb stairs for Cardio and I can climb up and down 100 floors in 30 minutes. I.e. I should be able to climb Burj Khalifa, up and down, in under 1 hour. I was (overconfident) about the Inca Trail Trek and did not do anything special other than my regular routine.
In hindsight, I should have been aware of 2 challenges which I overlooked. About one of them, I could not have done much, but the other was something I could have done something about.
(1) Altitude makes a big difference. One tires more easily at higher altitude
(2) Climbing stairs is one thing, climbing stairs with 15Kg is a totally different ball-game 🙂
3rd Step: Making the necessary purchases …
Following are the items I purchased specifically for my Trek:
(1) Good quality and sturdy water-proof Trekking Shoes
(2) Woolen Hat, Woolen Scarf, Woolen Gloves, Woolen Socks Etc. (I bought these at Cusco, the day before the Trek, to avoid carrying it around)
(3) Trekking Pants (Lightweight, with lots of pockets)
(4) Altitude Sickness Tablets (I instead bought Coca Candy, which is freely available in Cusco. Also, Cusco being at higher altitude than Machu Picchu, once you spend a couple of days at Cusco, you should be good to go)
(5) Good Power Bank (I bought a 20000 mAh one. If you take a lot of photos and watch videos on the Phone (In the tent, for E.g.), you will need Power backup)
(6) Insect Repellent, Sun Screen Etc.
(7) Hiking Poles (I did NOT get these as I trusted my Knees. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have it, at least for balance. If needed, one can buy this at Cusco itself)
(8) Thermal Wear (I got it and it was quite helpful during the chilly nights. Keep in mind that you will be in close proximity of Glaciers Etc.)
Following are the other items I carried with me:
(1) Toilet Bag (Shaving Blade, Shaving Cream, Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Earbuds, Mouthwash, Hand Sanitizer Etc.)
(2) Multiple T-Shirts, Underwear, Socks Etc.
(3) Phone & Phone Charging Cable
(4) DSLR Kit (Body, Lens, Filters, Batteries, SD-Cards Etc.) Please note that they will NOT allow Tripods into Machu Picchu. So, I left my Tripod at my Hotel)
(5) Toilet Napkin Roll
(6) Some Energy Bars and Nuts (For a quick snack)
(7) Spare lightweight Shoes (I am very glad I carried it as my Trekking shoes was not broken into enough and I started getting blisters after the 1st day. Even though this lightweight shoes was not waterproof, it was a huge relief to use it for the remainder of the Trek)
4th Step: The Pre-Trek Briefing …
Typically, most Tour Companies arrange for a Pre-Trek briefing in Cusco. You get to meet the main Guide and also your Trekking Team members. We had an informal session where the Guide explained to us what to expect during the Trek and we all introduced ourselves to each other.
At this time, I also paid for my prior booking for the Trek to Huayna Picchu (from Machu Picchu). The headcount limit is there for Huayna Picchu as well and it is best to book months in advance, through your Tour Company. I also paid for Sleeping Bag and Tent (I did not have my own Tent and Sleeping Bag).
Reference: Tips, based on my experience …
(1) Please do not underestimate the physical effort that is needed … It is best to do some good practice before the actual Trek.
(2) Please ensure your Trekking Shoes are well broken-into … (See the issue I faced, above)
(3) Please do not underestimate how cold it is going to be … You will be sleeping next to glaciers and in windy conditions.
(4) I would recommend Hiking Poles … Though I do not think you need it for support (assuming your knees are strong enough), but it is a good idea for balance. I ended up twisting my ankle on the last day (near Sun Gate) and had to climb Huayna Picchu on a bum ankle! Maybe, Hiking Poles could have saved me …
(5) Toilet Rolls: Please note that in Cusco and during the Trek, you are not allowed to flush the used Toilet Paper Napkins. You are supposed to use a container kept specifically for that purpose. I carried my own Toilet Rolls
(6) Please have very low expectations from the Toilets … 🙂 It will be smelly and disgusting, though the Camp Site staff does try their best to maintain it.
(7) Please do not underestimate Altitude Sickness. It is best to have 2 days (at least) to acclimatize, before the Trek … Also, try to carry Altitude Sickness Tablets or at least the Coca Candy.
(8) Please tip the Guides and Porters generously. They make a very hard living and they pretty much live on tips. Once you see these hardworking Porters carry the loads they carry, I am confident you will tip generously … Porters help carry the tents, food, water, and other luggage and set up (and take down) the tents at each camp site.
(9) Leave the majority of your luggage at your Hotel. I booked the same Hotel for the night before my Trek and for the 3 nights after my Trek (for exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley). They held my luggage for me, as would most Hotels, from what I hear.
(10) Photo opportunity from the Sun Gate: On the last day of the Trek, you have to wake up by at least 3AM, stand in the queue for the Guards to check your Passport Etc. and then partake in a 2hr Trek to get to the Sun Gate. The photo from the Sun Gate is very popular and because of the crowds you may not get a lot of time for it as well. So, please be familiar with the Camera settings Etc. I would recommend taking a lot of photos on RAW/NEF mode to ensure you have a handful of good ones. Because you do not have your Tripod, it is more challenging in Aperture mode Etc.
(11) Once you reach Machu Picchu, due to the crowds, there is a chance of getting separated from the Tour Group. Be careful …
Reference: The typical Itinerary … (My Diary)
The Trek takes you through spectacular Valleys and Peaks and covers around 43 Kilometers. Over the course of the Trek, in my estimate, you will end up climbing about 4000 meters.
You get picked up from your Hotel at around 06:00, while the Van goes about collecting the Tour Group (in our case, 8 people) and the Guides (in our case, 3 Guides) and Porters (around 5-6 of them). Drive through the town of Poroy. We get to see snow-capped mountains, valleys … Etc. We reach Urubamba at around 08:00. We then drive through the beautiful valley around Urubamba. On the way, they stop at a Restaurant (at Ulayanatambu) where you can have Breakfast (In my case, I already had a heavy breakfast at my Hotel. Because most Tourists in Cusco have come to visit Machu Picchu and to visit Machu Picchu one needs to start early, most Hotels in Cusco provide Breakfast from 5AM!). Start again at 09:00. Go through more villages and the ride gets bumpier.
Mark and Dawn: USA: Mark spent 20 years in the US Military. Mark was based in Hawaii, Germany Etc. Mark is 59 and they have 3 kids and 9 grand-kids..
Cooper: USA: Graduated recently. Lives in Florida. Works in construction. Tall dude. Loves NHL and Hockey. Very talkative and friendly. Loves Obama 🙂
Tim: USA: Cooper’s friend..Well-toned guy. Had food poisoning, but still kept up a frantic pace. He loves sports. We discussed a lot of sports. He travels a lot.
Chris: England: 65. Elderly gentleman: Works in Education. Lives in Asia. Knows Kerala and India well. Online Education company, based in London. Traveled to 90+ countries. Travels a lot on business. Originally from London.
Svia and Miranda: Danish girls. 20 years old. They have been travelling since Mar 2018 (our Machu Picchu trek was in June 2018)! Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and Mexico. Taking a break from studies. Svia is studying Political Science. Miranda is studying Speech-Writing. Both met at boarding school 5 years back. Svia’s Mom is an Neurologist. Miranda’s Mom is Language teacher (German).
(There were 5-6 Porters and 2 other Guides. My Guide was Neyser)
We arrive at the start point of the Trek, where we get to assemble our luggage and in case one has luggage to be carried by the Porter(s) (For which one has to pay extra), this is the place to provide it. There is a check-point where they check our Ticket and our Passport. There is also a small Museum which displays the local Flora/Fauna (Raccoons, Puma, Condors, Guinea Pigs, Orchids, Moonya, Coca Etc.). After quick Tour Company Photo-Op, we are off!
AM (Before Lunch): Pretty level Trek without too much of an incline.
Lunch at a Camp-Site (02:00): We get a nice lunch with meats and vegetables and get a few minutes to relax with the group. They also serve Coca-Tea, which is good for Altitude-Sickness. There is a small restroom for our use. We have to tip the old Gentleman who maintains the restroom.
PM (After Lunch): The incline starts and what an Incline! There are quite a lot of mosquitoes in this stretch. We all used our Insect Repellents. We reach the 1st night Camp-Site at around 16:45.
We play cards and chatted with each other. There is also Beer available for purchase 🙂 For Dinner there was Fish, Meats, Fried-Banana (Dessert), Moonya Tea Etc.
I was wearing Thermals for the 1st time in my life and felt awkward 🙂
I accidentally woke up in the middle of the night and it was an adventure to use the restroom in the dark. The restroom is down a path, a bit away from the camp-site (Which considering the state of the rest-room was not a bad idea 😉
We started at 06:20, after an early breakfast of Bread, Jam, Pancakes, Tea/Coffee Etc. I had woken up at 03:00 and finished packing. Tried to roam around a bit in the semi-dark.
AM (Before Lunch): Steep and steady climb. We had to take several breaks in between. It was amazing to see the Porters carry 30+ Kilograms as if it was nothing. We kept chatting away in small groups, as we were trekking. We saw some ice-cold streams, flowing down from the Glaciers. We reached the Lunch Camp-Site at 10:00.
Lunch at a Camp-Site (12:00): Turkey, Cabbage, Picante, Potatoes Etc. There was a very nice restroom at this location.
PM (After Lunch): Had long chats with Chris and Neyser. We spoke about Sports (Peru had qualified for Soccer World Cup 2018), the various Countries Chris had visited Etc. All the while I was busy taking a lot of photos, both using the Phone as well as using the DSLR. Reached the highest point of the Trek (4200 meters) at 14:30. Then came a long phase of descent. My knees were sore after a couple of hours of descent (Steps!). The Inca Trail is quite clean, considering the number of people using it. Apparently, Government provides incentives to the locals to keep it clean. After reaching the 2nd night Camp-Site at around 17:00, had to crash and catch my breath for a few minutes. It was quite cold at this Camp-Site, much colder than the 1st night Camp-Site. We had a dinner of Beef, Vegetables, Noodles, Picante and even Pizza.
Had to wake at 03:00 to pee (It is cold!). It was quite an adventure to venture out into the darkness, locate the restrooms and return. I like to wake up very early and get ready, to avoid the rush once everyone wakes up. It helps that I am a morning person 🙂 We had a breakfast of Bread, Jam, Butter, Pancakes Etc.
AM (Before Lunch): We started at 06:15. It started raining and we had to use our Rain Ponchos. Climbing in the Rain and Cold was not easy. Neyser told me that a German guy had completed the entire Inca Trail in 7.5 hours! Impressive. On the way, we also had Snow and Hail! (What I would have given for a hot cup of Cappuccino!).
Lunch at a Camp-Site: Lunch of Fried Chicken, Salads, Sweet Moonya Drink, Bell Peppers, Mashed Potatoes Etc. It cleared up a lot, right after the Lunch and the Sun came back with a vengeance. Some of us changed back to shorts Etc.
PM (After Lunch): Some significant climb right off the bat … After a while, we could see the “Machu Picchu Town” (Aguas Calientes). At around 15:15, I thought to myself: “Did I pay money for this???” :-). My knees were really sore. Reached the 3rd night Camp-Site around 16:15. Towards the end, my mental strength took over and I flew over the terrain to reach the Camp-Site as quickly as I could. During an early Dinner (we had to wake up real early the next day), we all pooled money to distribute among the support staff (Cooks, Porters Etc.). We all got together and shared a nice cake the Cook had made for all of us. This Camp-Site was easily the biggest of them all, as it was the closest to Machu Picchu and also folks from the various Trails (not just the Inca Trail) and various tour groups assemble here.
Again, I woke up before everyone else and finished packing and got ready. At 03:00, we walked over to the Check-Point (to catch an early position in the queue), which only opens at 05:30. Tim, Cooper and I discussed Sports (NBA/NFL/Etc.) to pass time. The Gate opened at 05:30 and all of us started the 1hr Trek to Sun Gate. This is when I twisted my left ankle when I stepped between two rocks. We then crossed the “Gringo-Killer” (the very steep 70-80 steps). We reached the Sun Gate at 06:30. (This is the longest I have gone without a Bath! It was just too cold for me to even dream of a Bath). Even though there was a lot of Rain/Snow/Hail on the way, we had patches of Sun-Light and I managed to get some decent photos. From the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu, it takes around 1 hour. Neyser gave us our Bus Ticket (from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes) and the Train Ticket (from Aguas Calientes to Ullaytambu). Then at 09:00, Neyser gave us a conducted Tour of Machu Picchu. By this time, it was raining quite heavily. He took us through the Terraces, Temple of the Sun, High Priest Temple Etc.
Due to my ankle injury, I briefly thought of skipping the Huayna Picchu Trek (for which I had already paid and purchased the pass). But Neyser and the Danish girls inspired me to go for it and I am extremely glad I did! There is a special Check-Post for Huayna Picchu and they track the number of people who entered and who returned, a good way to account for everyone when the close up for the night. Even on my bum ankle, I climbed up and down in 1 hour 20 minutes. I was impressed when I saw a group of 65+ Ladies do the Huayna Picchu Trek. The climb is really steep and at many points I had to climb on all fours. By the time I came back to Machu Picchu, it was really crowded (Mainly Tourists who had come by Train).
After exploring Huayna Picchu, I took the bus down to the Town and met up the rest of the Tour Group at a Restaurant (About which we were told ahead of time). After lunch, we took the “Peru Rail” Train to Ullaytambu (2hr ride). From there, it was a 2hr ride in a Van back to Cusco.
Funny Incident (As soon as I got down in Cusco): An elderly couple approached me while I was checking the Google Maps (on the Phone). The gent asked me something in broken Spanish. I turned around and said, “I am sorry, I do not speak Spanish”. The gent walked away dejectedly and I could hear his exasperated wife tell him, “But he spoke to you in English!!!” 🙂
Once I reached Hotel, I had one of the longest Showers I have had in my entire Life 🙂
I injured my left ankle during the early morning trek to the Sun Gate on the last day. It was dark and since I was using my Phone’s flashlight and it was not clear enough, I stepped between two rocks and twisted my ankle. The rest of the trek was pretty painful. Even though I had pre-booked the trek to Huayna Picchu (and paid extra for it), I thought of skipping this leg, considering my injury. But then, Neyser, Svia and Miranda inspired me to try it since I came so close and it is once-in-a-life time opportunity. I am very glad I took up the challenge (even though I had to limp around in Cusco/Lima for the next 2 days), as it was well worth the effort (and the pain) …
Another item knocked off the Bucket List 🙂