Inca Trail to Machu Picchu 2008
land of the Inca and the spiritual site of Machu Picchu have long been near the
top of our travel wish list. In the spring of 2008 we finally got around to
plan and book a 2 week trip to
After flying from Miami via Lima to Cusco we are spending 4 days in Cusco and the nearby Urubamba Valley to acclimatize a little bit. Cusco is at an elevation of 3300m (11.000ft), which initially makes walking up the stairs at the hotel a heart-pounding exercise for us Floridians who live at sea-level.
Here is how the lonely planet guide to Peru describes Cusco:
“Cuzco – pop 322,000 / elev 3326m
The high-flying Andean city of Cuzco … is the uneasy bearer of many grand titles. It was once the foremost city of the Inca empire, and is now the undisputed archeological capital of the Americas, as well as the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Few travelers to Peru will skip visiting this premier South American destination, which is also the gateway to Machu Picchu.
Although Cuzco was long ruled by an inca (king) or a Spanish conquistador, there’s no question who rules the roost in the 21st century: city life is almost totally at the whim of international tourists. These days nearly every building surrounding the historic Plaza de Armas seems to be a tourist hotel, restaurant, shop, travel agency or busy internet café.
While Cuzco has rapidly developed infrastructure to at least partly cope with the influx of tourism over the last few decades, its historical past retains a powerful grip on the present. Massive Inca-built walls line steep, narrow cobblestone streets and form the foundations of modern buildings. The plazas are thronged with Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas, and ancient treasures are carefully guarded inside colonial mansions and churches.”
We visited a couple of local Inca sites (Sacsaywamán, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray), took a one-day horse-back riding excursion and on Day 5 of our trip we were ready for the Inca trail.
Nowadays graphical details about the trail can easily be found via Google search. For example, here is a graphic from AndeanTravelWeb (spellings often slightly different, yellow circles added to indicate our 3 camp sites):
We meet with our tour guide Wilbert in Cusco and drive in a small bus from our hotel near Urubamba to km 82 of the train line to Aguas Calientes. This is the official entrance gate for the Inca trail.
It feels a bit again like at the beginning of last year’s Kilimanjaro trail with meeting cook and porters: I find that at the trail-head there is often some mix of nervousness and excitement about the next couple of days. Nervousness due to being away from the trappings of modern day life with electrical power and infotainment, with hot showers and meals always conveniently available in just a few minutes… Excitement because there is the great outdoors, the star-studded night-sky away from light-pollution of the cities – and all the more fascinating at high altitudes – the walking on the paths of 500+ year old history. All that combines to the great adventure of such a mini-expedition.
The 5700m high Veronica Peak is visible from here – a steep and glaciated peak. It rises more than 3000m above us (trailhead is at 2450m) and above the clouds, which makes me feel insignificant and small. Here are some additional peaks we saw on the first and last day of the trail (Veronica Peak and Salcantay) as well as from the airplane flight:
The Alpinist in me is longing for a challenging mountain like these ones - but we have our sights set on the trail ahead…
We register with the park service and pay the fees. Then we cross a suspension bridge across the Urubamba River which symbolically marks the beginning of the trail.
The trail leads along the river for the first couple of km parallel to the train tracks on the other side. This helps us with acclimatization, as we don’t need to climb a lot of altitude today.
Several porters pass us by with heavy loads. Unlike the African porters in Tanzania, the local porters here seem to be better equipped (boots, backpacks, clothing), and they strike us generally as a bit smaller in stature than their African counterparts. The loads are limited to 20kg per porter, and the strength of most of them is simply astonishing.
After only about 2 hrs of hiking we reach the lunch spot, a nice place with running water and some green terraces. We certainly are not alone on this trail – the number of people (trekkers, guides, porters included) is limited to 500 people per day.
After lunch we continue by crossing a 100m steep ravine and then coming upon the extensive ruins of Patallacta (some maps depict it as Llactapata).
While we don’t cross over the little river and visit the ruins up close we still get a sense of the scale of this place. The highlighted small spot on the right side is a circular temple, as can be better seen using the zoom lens of Jill’s Olympus SP-570 camera:
(Note the cow for size!) I didn’t know about the many ruins along the way, much less the size and extent of the path and fortification system the Inca had built in the 14th and 15th Century. This will be just one of the many interesting sites, making the Inca Trail such a great way to get to know the Inca culture.
We turn to the South and follow the Rio Cusichaca upward, leading away from the Urubamba. After another hour and a half or so and about 400m of elevation gain we reach the first camp-site at Huayllabamba at an elevation of ~3000m.
A few rays of sun paint a warm, yellow light on our tent as well as the ruins just a few hundred meters behind our camp-site. We relax and get served hot tea after washing up with warm water and soap.
After sun-down the air gets cold quickly; the stars come out and the milky-way is clearly visible. At 7:30 it is dinner time: We are treated to a delicious four-course meal prepared by our cook Aquilino, who together with his team definitely set a new high bar of culinary excellence on trails. We know that we won’t be hungry at any time on this trail!
After dinner and brushing our teeth I step outside in the cold and clear mountain air, star-gazing and marveling at the clear display of the milky way – something we don’t get to see very often in Florida… I try to take a night time picture, but don’t have much success with finding the right settings…
After a quiet and restful night we wake to the first light around 7:00am. The porters always start our days by bringing hot water and soap to wash as well as tea or coffee to wake up. We are a bit stiff fter our first night in the tent, but we quickly warm up over breakfast, which is a real feast this morning (and will stay that way for the rest of this trip).
After a little while we pack our large duffle bags which the porters will take and ready ourselves with just the small daypack. It is very relaxed this morning. It is almost 9:00am by the time we are ready to depart.
Today we will have to cross the highest pass on this trail, so we are hoping to have achieved enough acclimatization to get across without any trouble or headaches. We start slowly – Pole Pole, as they say on Kilimanjaro J
After about an hour and ~400m elevation gain we get to some terraces and a nice rest stop. Here locals offer soft drinks, fruit and other snacks to the trekker. Local farmers make do with what little land they can make use of by terracing it off the steep slopes. Many of these sites have been terraced many centuries ago, quiet witnesses of enormous manual labor done over many generations.
Here we are also entering a beautiful patch of cloud forest, reminding us of the jungle at lower elevations on Mt. Kilimanjaro. The dense forest provides a cool, almost mystical stretch of hiking. Thick mosses hang from the trees and large flowers mix with old trees.
The trail leads up like a stairway to heaven. It is generously wide in most places, and must have taken a lot of work to have been built 500+ years ago. It also holds up quite well, despite up to 500 people passing on it per day in the modern times…
After this short stretch we reach the lunch spot called Llulluchapampa. At 3600m it already provides a great view down the valley we have hiked up this morning. Here we also see some domesticated llamas, the famous South-American camelids:
We have lunch and relax a bit more. There is a chilling wind which requires us to put on jackets, and some clouds are forming and draped over the peaks, forming a vertical ceiling for our views of the surrounding mountain peaks.
At 1:00pm we are getting ready to continue and tackle the pass. Again we walk very slowly, so as to not “run out of (oxygen) gas”. On this stretch we pass a group of German trekkers, who either have less acclimatization or who started too fast. They are in stop-&-go mode and one of them describes the slow going as “hellish”. By contrast, Jill and I get into a good rhythm, and slowly but steadily climb watching the altitude increase on our wrist-watches.
Soon we climb above the 4000m line and the pass is less than 200 vertical meters above us. A great feeling of contentment rises up when Jill and I walk the last few steps jointly up to the Warmiwańuska pass. Our tour guide Wilbert catches up with us after a few minutes – he had let us go ahead after lunch, figuring he would catch up along the way… He takes a picture of us at 4215m.
My friend and former work colleague Sencer had shared his pictures of the Inca trail from last year. He experienced some snow, but also clear views from this very same spot:
We won’t have a view like this today, and the cold wind on the pass forces us to keep going anyway. For a short stretch we walk down through drizzle and don’t see much. Soon we drop below the cloud base, though, which opens up the view. We marvel at the width and high quality of the Inca trail in this section.
As we also carry our video camera, I frequently switch back & forth between still and video camera. Here I explain to Wilbert how to take a shot of Jill and me.
The clouds are at times pretty low-hanging and dark; they rise up from the steep, green flanks of the mountains, which gives this range a mystical quality. After less than 1 hr we can see our camp site for the day at Pacamayo (3600m) as well as the slope up left for our continuation and next pass tomorrow.
We get down and are happy to see our tent already set up by the porters. It is just so much easier with porters, especially when the weather is not as good. Just drop in the dry tent, have a cup of tea and relax until dinner is served!
Well not quite: It is about 4:00pm and we still have plenty of daylight. So I decide to go for a little walk to explore. I climb up the steep stairs toward tomorrow’s pass to get a different view of the camp site. Without backpack I feel almost weightless and remarkably well, given that just two days ago I lay in bed a couple of hours with a brief bout of fever! So I keep going up until I reach the site of the next ruins, Runkurakay at 3800m. I need to climb up a bit higher to get some good pictures. At times the clouds lift and allow the sun to paint stark contrasts of yellow light.
Suddenly I figure I might as well climb past two small, picturesque lakes all the way up to the second pass at 3950m. I’m almost running up the ~400m and feeling great, not bothered by the 4000m altitude. Unfortunately the view at the top isn’t clear, so I can’t see the high mountains in the distance our guide had been talking about. However, the bright and dark contrast on the way back down to camp come to live in a panorama picture with the Runkurakay ruin and our Pacamayo camp:
After a little more than 1 hr I’m back in camp. It’s pretty full here with maybe 200-300 people in camp. But I find there is a relaxed atmosphere with most people just taking in the view and waiting for dinner.
We have a four course meal for dinner, and we chat with our guide about the Inca culture and the issues of modern day Peruvian life and politics. It was a long day in pretty remote scenery. The cold is creeping into our bones and we need to bring out the down jackets while sitting at the dinner table.
Afterwards we brush our teeth and crawl into our sleeping bags almost immediately after finishing with tea in the dining tent.
By now we are getting used to the routine of early morning wash, tea, packing, breakfast, and departure. We are almost the last group to leave the camp site, which looks very different when we leave due to all the tents from the day before being packed away. Here is a view of the camp site the evening before (left) and the next morning (right):
Soon we arrive at Runkurakay, an old Inca ruin which is believed to have been a rest-stop along the way as well as a watch tower due to its excellent vistas.
Here is what “The Inca Trail” guide by Richard Danbury has to say about Runkurakay:
“The small circular site of Runcu Raccay was discovered by Hiram Bingham when he was searching out the entrance roads to Machu Picchu. He considered it to be a fortress, dominating the highway. It was explored in more detail in 1940 by Dr Paul Fejos, who thought it was a tambo, a rest-place for passing travellers. In design it’s a transitional building, a bridge between the practical styles of the Cusichaca river and the more elaborate designs of Machu Picchu and the Cedrobamba sites (Cedrobamba [= Cedar Plain] is the name given to the areas around Machu Picchu).” (p. 192)
After another ½ hour we reach the crest of the Second Pass. The view is even more cloudy than yesterday evening, so we will have to make do without the glorious panorama of the distant 6000m peaks (which our guide keeps telling us are there…) As there is another group resting up here we just keep going and start the descent West-ward down towards the Aobamba river valley.
Here we encounter the large number of trekkers who left the Pacamayo site earlier than we did. At one spot there is almost a traffic jam behind a large Dutch group. With all the different languages one overhears here on the trail it becomes clear that this is a classic trail with visitors from all over the world.
Our next stop is the ruins of Sayac Marca and Concha Marca.
The dramatic setting of Sayac Marca is built at a fork in the old Inca road. Today’s Inca Trail follows one fork to Machu Picchu, but the other fork descends to the Aobamba Valley. There is only one steep flight of stairs leading into the fortress. Despite its precarious location it had permanent fresh water supply – one can still see the various water canals in the walls and rock formations. Here is a 360 panorama from the highest point:
A little below there is Concha Marca, a much smaller outpost surrounded by some farming terraces. There are competing theories about the purpose of both these ruins, including fortress, tambo (rest-stop) or religious center. It still seems to be a mystery as to the exact purpose of these buildings!
We descend a bit further through lush cloud forest again. We soon arrive at a large camp site called Chaquicocha. Some groups have lunch here, but we decided to continue on to our overnight camp site and just have lunch there. So we just rest a little bit, use the facilities and keep going. This may also help us avoid rain, which it looks like we could get late afternoon.
After a little while we get to a highlight of the trail, the Inca tunnel:
It is an astonishing accomplishment to have built this tunnel some 500 years ago! The path stays high up on the ridge between Urubamba and Aobamba river. And before long, we step out on the ridge with views on both sides:
Only a little further and we reach the Third Pass, a high point on the ridge with stunning views on multiple sides. This site is just a hundred meters above the ruin called Phuyu Pata Marca. Here is also an exposed camp site, our highest place to stay overnight at 3700m.
The following panorama shows another German group’s tents in the middle and our tents on the right (yellow tents for us and tour guide, as well as square dining and round kitchen tent):
Since it is only about 3:00pm we still have plenty of time for an excursion down to the ruins of Phuyu Pata Marca. Our guide knows a small path – somewhat overgrown and hardly visible – to get to the top of a small dome above the ruins. From there we follow another steep path down to the ruins.
The terraces are set in very steep terrain, and it is just remarkable to have these stone walls and buildings sitting up here on the ridge. Here is what “The Inca Trail” by Richard Danbury writes about Phuy Pata Marca:
“Phuyu Pata Marca’s function, like that of Sayac Marca, is unclear but the fountain or baths suggest that the site was associated with the ritual worship of water, and perhaps it was a place for ritual cleansing on the final leg to Machu Picchu. It could also, of course, have been a guard settlement, or a remote hunting lodge.” [p.196]
This evening we are treated to the most special dinner, with four courses and some chocolate banana crème that is flambé in the cold night right outside our tent. No effort is too much for our cook and his crew - very nice touch!
After brushing our teeth I step outside one more time around 8:30pm. I can see the Milky Way again in its full glory and hope to be treated to a morning with clear skies and view to the high mountains.
Unfortunately, less than 3 hrs later we experience torrential rain up here. I hope there will be no thunderstorm with lightning, as this would be dangerous on this exposed spot. It rains and rains, I am concerned about walking tomorrow’s last leg of our trail in full rain gear…
The loud noise of heavy rain paltering on our tent woke us up several times over night. At least at daybreak around 6:30am the rain seems to have abated and we did stay dry in our tent. Clouds are still floating around and fog is rising from the lower ranges. We’ll see how this will evolve.
Today on day 4 we need to descend a long way, as our camp site lies ~1300m above Machu Picchu. After breakfast today we get the porters together. We thank them, cook Aquilino (left) and our tour guide Wilbert (right) for their efforts over the last couple of days and give them a tip of approx. 1 extra day’s worth of income.
Then we say Goodbye to the porters as they will head down much faster and take a short-cut down to the Urubamba river to take the next train back to Ollantaytambo or Cusco. Wilbert stays with us of course, and our first stop is the Phuyu Pata Marca ruin just a few minutes below the camp site. We take a few more pictures and then start the long descent.
At first there is a 500m steep slope with all stairs – 2400 steps or so. That’s one and a half times the Empire State Building descending via its stairs! Good thing to have the walking poles here… Again we are marveling at the effort it must have taken to construct this trail so many centuries ago.
After about an hour of descent the path levels off a bit and we can see the next destination, some steep terraces facing North with lots of sun called Intipata.
Until just a few years ago these terraces had not been discovered yet as they had been completely overgrown by the forest. Makes you wonder how many other structures are still to be uncovered! Our trail passes by this structure, entering near the top and descending right to its bottom.
We stroll down the path and linger among the steep terraces and stairs. It’s an eerie feeling to just sit there and imagine the farm work and comings and goings of the Inca at this site. The sun comes out and we just enjoy the day. From the bottom one gets a good feel for the size of this site.
15 minutes after this stop we reach the Trekkers Hotel, a camp site with a small group of concrete buildings and a restaurant. Now the tour guides don’t have a lot of good things to say about this place as it’s usually quite crowded and dirty. However, we’re having lunch there and it’s the first time in four days that we’re sitting in a building with electricity and normal infrastructure. I don’t mind this as a first reminder that we’re getting back to civilization today…
Just prior to lunch we undertake a little side trip to the nearby ruins of Huinay Huayna. The name means ‘forever young’ in Quechua, and the place is named after a pink orchid of that name that grows there.
The size of this place and the magnificent series of 10 baths suggest that this was some religious center with ritual worship of water playing a big role. The pink orchid and other yellow flowers grow on the stone walls of this site. There is a trail coming up from the Urubamba valley below which allows for some day trips – most of the people coming up here are struggling with the altitude, though, and need to take their time going up the many stairs.
These last two sites – Intipata and Huinay Huayna – are another good example of the for me unexpected number and size of Inca ruins along the trail. There is definitely more to see along this trail than just Machu Picchu at the end…
We have lunch at the Trekkers Hotel, and then leave in the early afternoon. The level trail traverses the flank of Machu Picchu Mountain, about 500m above the Urubamba river. The thick forest occasionally gives way to open views down to the river with its hydro power station and the jungle-like forest all around.
After about 1 hour of walking we finally reach Intipunku, which means ‘sun gate’. This is the first time we will see the ruins of Machu Picchu, and the last couple of days have built up our anticipation. Jill accelerates her final steps, and the view coming around the corner is truly breath-taking.
There are many more people here, most of which have walked up from Machu Picchu. Jill and I pose for our guide Wilbert to take a picture.
We literally just stop and stare, taking in the exquisite view, probably the most famous and definitely most anticipated of our trip. Jill leverages the zoom lens of her Olympus SP-560 camera and takes a few wonderful pictures:
The size, history and grandeur of this place are breath-taking. One feels a bit like an explorer on the brink of discovery. After a little while we continue to walk towards the ruins. Dark rain clouds are building all around us now, and the occasional sunlit spot makes for dramatic views:
We actually experience the first sprinkles of rain just as we walk onto the grounds of Machu Picchu. We first walk to a small hut seeking shelter from the short rain shower. After a few minutes the sun breaks through again and creates a rainbow over the Urubamba valley below. Then we continue walking around the site, more or less oblivious to the residual rain. We have arrived.
A lot has been written about the legendary discovery of Machu Picchu by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. In fact, he wrote a report about this discovery and subsequent expeditions sponsored by National Geographic and published this under the title “Inca Land – Explorations in the Highlands of Peru” in 1922. You can download a free electronic copy of this original document from www.gutenberg.net (direct link is here). I downloaded this while we were in Peru and read excerpts from it, very fascinating! Here is a copy of an image from this report, taken almost 100 years ago from Machu Picchu Mountain, above the sun gate:
Note the few terraces – all of what we can see today was overgrown by the forest back then and needed to be cleared through subsequent expeditions. Of course, there was also no switch-back road, no restaurant, and no 2000 visitors per day. It is undeniable that the half million people walking the grounds of Machu Picchu every year have some impact. Back in 2003 UNESCO considered to strip Machu Picchu from its status as a world heritage site unless Peruvian government would enact some reasonable restrictions (which it partially did).
We spend the rest of this afternoon with a 1 hr ‘abbreviated’ tour of the grounds. Then we descend via bus down to the little town of Aguas Calientes. There we will rest in the fine Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, taking our first hot shower in four days and enjoying the warm atmosphere of several open fire places and candles over dinner.
We get back the next day and spend another ½ day up here, including a hike up to the Huayna Picchu peak with its Temple of the Moon perched near the top on the steep citadel. What follows is a collection of some of the pictures we have taken up here. A separate photo collection can be found on our Web Gallery here.