Lost Worlds and Jungle Tracks: Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail have been on my ‘must see’ list for as long as I can remember. So as soon as we had a vague idea when we would arrive in Peru, we booked ourselves on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with Cusco-based company Peru Treks.

It’s not permitted to go on the Inca Trail these days without a guide. Both the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are threatened with degradation from mass tourism and irresponsible tourism practices of the past. The government imposed regulations and limits for the Inca Trail will also be enforced at Machu Picchu from 2012.

One of the main reasons we chose to travel with Peru Treks is because of their excellent reputation for porter treatment and welfare and their respect for the environment. They have an established responsible tourism policy, which is vital in one of the world’s most endangered tourism attractions.

With our two friendly and humorous guides William and Juan we set off on the four-day trek through high mountainous terrain, sub-tropical forest and jungle tracks until we reached the wondrous Machu Picchu.

We were 15 travellers from all around the world including the UK and Ireland, The Netherlands, the US, France and Australia. We took a bus from Cusco to Ollyantaytambo where we stopped for breakfast and picked up some very useful walking sticks from the local vendors. Another half an hour by bus and we were at the checkpoint and on our way.

Starting at kilometre 82 we took an effortless pace, stopping ever now and then for William to explain a little about the local environment. That was until we started ascending up stopping to admire the ruins of Patallacta, towards Wayllabamba, the last community on the Inca Trail.

The first day they call the ‘easy day’. Walking uphill for an hour and a half I found it hard to understand why it would be designated easy, but we were yet to reach the hardest pass of the whole trek. That was for the following day.

The second day is notoriously known as the hardest day of the trek. On this day we walked 10km climbing 1,200 metres up the steep dirt path known as ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. On the way up you could be forgiven for thinking that the name has something to do with the difficulty of the climb.

Down at the campsite we eased our fatigue with card games and a local brew called Té Macho, a mix of rum, hot water and spices to warm the cockles. William told us some myths and legends of the pass. It is actually named after a local legend of a girl that went missing here back in the 1980’s. Her body was never recovered, but locals say that her spirit has haunted the pass ever since and many claim to have bore witness to ghosts in the area.

Our group had a total of 19 porters and one cook, who defied nature running up and down the steep and narrow high altitude pathways to get to the daily destination. They carry ‘only’ up to the maximum 25kg, but they all do a fantastic job and the trek wouldn’t be possible without them.

Our guides introduced each and every one of them in Spanish or Quechua and they told us a little bit about their families, where they’re from and the local customs. It was a good way to show our respect and appreciation during the trek, as many porters in Peru suffer from mistreatment and a lack of porter welfare.

The third day was the one of the easiest in terms of trekking difficulty, but the hardest due to the fact that we were tired from the previous day and before us lay 10 hours of up and down. We visited the Inca ruins of Runkuracay passing through high jungle, thunderstorms and scattered showers.

Once we reached the last campsite, having passed the third pass at 3,970 metres and down through the ruins and Inca baths at Phuyuptamarca, we dumped our bags and rushed to get to Winay Wayna before dusk. What awaited us was the largest of ruins we had seen yet, stunning construction on a steep downward slope towards the valley far below. It is unknown exactly what the site is used for but the many, many terraces suggest that there was a lot of agriculture here. Llamas are still found grazing on along the way.

On the last two days, 80 percent of the route we trekked belonged to the original Inca route. The Inca Trail was allegedly used for the common people on route to Machu Picchu, but the elite and upper class of society had a special trail that took only 3 hours to reach Machu Picchu along the Urubamba River. This was used during times of special ceremony and public speaking.

From the campsite, we passed through hours of cloud forest weaving through the high jungle with the most magnificent views until we reached the Sun Gate. The flora was stunning and every now and then we would cross paths with a humming bird or two.

Arriving at the Sun Gate on the last day we were teased by only a glimpse of the ancient ruins by the cloud forest that was wafting back and forth just hiding our view. Once it had completely disappeared into a white oblivion we continued on our final quest.

Reaching Machu Picchu was as magical as I had imagined. When we had finally arrived, the clouds had parted to reveal spectacular stepped ruins complete with terraces and temples amidst massive granite mountains dramatically dropping into the valley below. There was an aura about the ancient city that is hard to place. In the words of Hiram Bingham, “It fairly took my breath away.”

William and Juan took us on a tour around the ancient site and explained the supposed many uses of the buildings that once stood there. Our imaginations ran wild with stories of Inca communities going about their daily business, and envisaging what might have gone on here.

Archaeologists and historians still have not agreed on what the Incas used the site for. Some say it was a fortress others say a ceremonial, but what has been proven to this day is that is was indeed inhabited by at least 1,000 Incas and it was an important destination on the Inca’s trade route from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south. Goods were traded and mummies stored here in sacred temples. Inca ruler Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui also owned land on the site and used it as a resting place.

It was also strategically placed in the region so that the people could read stars to know when the dry and wet seasons started and ended. The rows and rows of terraces were used to cultivate all types of fruit and vegetables. The buildings were adorned with gold and silver, which had no real value to the Incas. There was no actual currency but the people used to trade goods for goods.

In fact, Machu Picchu was a sophisticated city in its day. Archaeologists working here have found that although the Incas left behind no evidence of hieroglyphic communication there was even a university based here that is speculated to have been used to instruct astronomy, agriculture and construction.

Tired from our 4.30am start and the climax of reaching our final destination we crashed underneath a hidden tree for a much needed siesta amidst humming birds and scrambling lizards until dark clouds and thunder started rolling in and it was time to go.

The group reunited in the nearby Machu Picchu town where we finished the amazing four-day journey with pizza, beer and a relaxing bath in the ‘Aguas Calientes’ – natural hot springs.

One thing that William had said earlier on the trek rang true. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and the memories will stay with us forever. Although Machu Picchu is a magical place, it’s the journey to the destination that makes it special.

5 Responses to “Lost Worlds and Jungle Tracks: Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu”
  1. What gorgeous photos! In reading this I felt I was back there myself, thank you for sharing!

  2. Carole Malinda says:

    How I envy your experience of Machu Picchu!

Check out what others are saying...
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  2. […] this market then head uphill 4km to the Inca ruins, Inca Pisac. Having only freshly stepped off the Inca Trail, with aching legs we decided to skip the steep and painful hike and absorb the local village life […]

  3. […] standard trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of the biggest expenses to fork out for a lot of travellers to South America, but what most […]

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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