The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

by Dan Fey on June 29, 2012

Machu Picchu

The ancient city of Machu Picchu

For me, hiking the Inca Trail for four days with my mom Sandy, dad Michael, and brother Alex followed by a spectacular experience at Machu Pichhu was the highlight of my three months in South America. Machu Picchu lived up to all of the amazing things I heard about it before seeing it for myself. I was blown away by the history, culture, and architecture of Machu Pichhu and the Incas. Follow along the four day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu below.


Day 1: The Test Day

My family and I boarded an early morning bus from our hotel in Cuzco, the Rumi Punku at 5am, grabbing a few bananas and pieces of bread along the way.  We were greeted by our guides, Carlos and Manuel.  We also picked up a few other groups headed for the trail who would be trekking with us.

We didn’t know it at the time, but our fellow trekkers and our guides would become great friends along the way as they were a huge part of our amazing Incan experience.

After about an hour, we arrived in the small town of Ollantaytambo.  Our guides took us to a small restaurant for breakfast and told us we could buy some coca leaves and lifta after if we wanted.  You can chew on the coca leaves to help you with the altitude and give you some energy for hiking.

At breakfast after we briefly met the others on our trek, Mariangee and Marco, a Venezuelan couple living in Ohio, Kerri and Andy from Chicago, Margo and Ryan from Canada, Nora, Winnie and Amy, three sisters from New York City, Cristal and Nicole from Sweden, and Tsvetomira from Bulgaria.

From there we boarded the bus and started driving on a small dirt road to the Inca Trail trailhead.  The road was bumpy and big enough for only one car or bus.  It was parallel to a river on one side and small brick houses on the other.  We were surprised to find out this was the only way to the trailhead.

We arrived at the trail and deboarded.  We took our 3 kilos of clothes and personal items and packed them in duffel bags with the included sleeping bags, stapling the mats on the outside.  These duffels were for porters to carry to our camp each day.

Inca Trailhead

Our whole group at the start of the Inca Trail

Next, we waited about 20 minutes in line at the start of the trail to show our tickets and passports.  We took a picture with all of us at the trail head.

Finally, we started our adventure into the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  The views were already spectacular with snow capped mountains at our backs and the beautiful valley ahead of us.

We hiked flat for an hour and the about 30 minutes up hill to a lookout where the valley spit into two valleys.  We all sat down to rest as Carlos explained a little about the Incas, the valleys, and Macchu Pichu.

The name that we use to describe the civilization is acutually a misrepresentation of the people.  The ancient civilization is Quechua and the people and language are Quechuan.  Inca is the word for king in Quechuan.

Feys on the Inca Trail

My family and I. The right is the Scared Valley of the Incas, the left is the four day religious road to Machu Picchu

For the Incas or Quechuan, Macchu Pichu was a sacred, holy place hidden in the beautiful mountains among nature.  The valley to the right was the direct route to Macchu Pichu, a commercial trail for transporting supplies and about a days walk.  The valley to the left was the sacred road, about four days of hiking for those to have a spiritual experience with time to reflect on their life before reaching the sacred city of Macchu Pichu.  Our journey was to the left along the sacred road.

We continued on down into the valley and across the river to our first lunch.  It was an incredibly delicious three course meal of salads, grilled trout, sautéed vegetables, rice, and dessert.After the first lunch, we knew we were going to enjoy the meals prepared by chef Luis.  We continued up the trail, passing some Incan ruins to our first camp.  It was already getting dark.

Our tents were already setup and our things were already carried up by the porters.  We chose our tents and had a little down time before dinner.  It was another great meal, rice and chicken finishing with a banana flambé desert.


The tarantula was hanging out in my parents' tent!

My mom and dad were met with an unwelcomed visitor when they returned to their tent.  It was a huge tarantula!  I could hear my mom screaming while my dad was laughing.  The guides helped the spider out of the tent and we played around with it for about 15 minutes.  The spider was very photogenic.

It was already dark after dinner and getting cold, so everyone retired to their tents.  Alex, Tsvetormira, Nora, and I bought some beer and we all hung out in Alex and my tent.  We played a card game called “Shithead” the entire time, laughing and appreciating that we were camping around the beautiful, sacred mountains of the Incas.

Day 2: The Challenge

The next day, we ate a quick but hearty breakfast of hot drinks, bread with butter and jam, and eggs before continuing up the trail.  We had to mentally prepare ourselves because, as we learned from our research and from our guides, the second day was the longest, steepest, and most difficult, aptly named The Challenge Day.

Snack overlooking the valley

Snack overlooking the valley

It was absolutely gorgeous as we climbed up the valley toward the first pass.  We took it slow, climbing uphill for about two hours before reaching the last snack and drink stands.  There, we had a small snack of cheese sandwiches with popcorn.  Alex and I bought a bottle of rum and some Coca Cola for the next two nights.

We struggled to get started again, as we weren’t at the top of the pass yet.  We had to climb another hour.  At the top of the pass, we had beautiful views of the valley we just climbed and the mountains on the other side.  Carlos told us this was the last time we would see the Sacred Valley of the Incas before reaching Machu Picchu.  We snapped a few pictures and continued on, this time a welcomed downhill hike.

We descended into the valley, walking at our own paces until we reached some Incan ruins.  There, Manuel spoke to us about the construction of the lookouts that were at strategic points on the journey to Machu Picchu.  The Quechuan religion respected all things natural.  They believed in an underworld signified by the snake, this world signified by the puma, and the upper world signified by the Condor.

Second valley after the first pass

View into the valley after the first pass

Whenever the Quechuans built cities or outposts, they did not want to “level” the mountain.  Instead they wanted to respect the geography and build them with the mountain.  The buildings and outposts were often constructed in some pattern signifying something religious.

After another short hike, we made it to the second camp.  We were all tired from the long climb and hike down into the valley.  Fortunately, we were met with claps from the porters, a refreshing drink of chicha de morado and a delicious dinner of pasta and veggies with sauce over rice (see the pattern of rice at every meal?).

The meals were great because they brought everyone together.  We would reflect on the day and get to know each other better.  Going through a challenging, but beautiful experience like this together really allowed us to open up and become friends quite quickly.

The night was again chilly, but Alex, Tsvetomira, Nora, and I had another “party tent” playing Shithead and laughing.  This time we had rum and coke!

Day 3: The Unforgettable Day

We had a wonderful breakfast the third day consisting of French toast with plantains, and a sausage omelet.  We needed a big breakfast, as the unforgettable day was not only extremely beautiful, but also very long.

Third day ruins

Exploring some ruins overlooking the valley on the third day

We started the day out walking downhill into the beautiful valley below until we reached some ruins.  We explored them briefly and took a look back at the pass we came across.  We took some pictures before continuing on.

Next, we had to climb again, up through the second pass, which though difficult, was not as long or as steep as the first.  This had equally stunning views at the top down into the next valley that we had to get all the way down in order to reach our third camp.

About halfway down, we reached another set of Incan ruins.  This time, Manuel spoke to us about the Incan farming techniques.  He told us about the amazing and beautiful things the Incans were able to accomplish.  Many of the ruins that were not destroyed by the Spanish still remain in great shape and were constructed with quality.  Their farming techniques were also the most advanced at the time.  Near every outpost or city were terraces constructed in layers into the mountains.  These layers collected and maintained optimum water levels and flow and were perfect for farming whichever crop was appropriate for the altitude.  Usually, corn, potatoes, or coca leaves were grown.

We continued on the trail, which at this point was mostly the original trail built by the Quechua.  The trail was built with stones dug into the ground along the side of the mountain with a sheer cliff on one side.  At one point, there was even a small tunnel.

Third pass view

View after the third pass, Machu Pichu mountain is on the left

After crossing the third pass, now Machu Picchu Mountain, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and the Urubamba River were clearly in view.  We could also see the camp below, which was still a ways away.  Our guides gave us two options, we could either take the shorter, steep way down straight to camp or take the longer, more scenic route with some more ruins.  Even though we had already been hiking for about eight hours, we decided to take the longer route.  We had been walking downhill for most of the day and the steep steps are what really tire you out.  We also wanted to investigate the terraces.

Over an hour later, we made it to camp, just as it was getting dark.  This was our last camp and had actual showers!  The only problem was the water was ICE COLD from the mountains.  I decided to shower anyway.  I felt refreshed afterwards and was just in time for another delicious dinner.  For dessert, somehow the guides produced a cake.

We all needed an early night, as we would be waking up at four am for the two hour hike to Machu Picchu to get there before the wave of tourists.

Day 4: Machu Picchu

We woke at 4am, quickly gathered our things together, ate breakfast, and headed out on the trail in the dark with our headlamps.  We hiked for about 30 minutes until we reached the gate to the trail to Machu Picchu from our camp.  There were probably five or six groups ahead of us.

Machu Picchu in clouds

You can just make out Machu Picchu through the clouds

From here we had to wait for about an hour, leaning against each other trying to catch a few more minutes of sleep.  Once they opened the gate, we had about an hour hike to the sun gate, which overlooks all of Machu Picchu.  From the trail leading up to the sun gate was an almost vertical set of 50 steps.

When we arrived at the sun gate, all we were met with were clouds.  Bummer!  We waited for about a half hour to see if the clouds would clear.  It didn’t, so we continued on the trail towards Machu Picchu.  A half hour later we reached Machu Picchu.  The clouds were just staring to burn off and we could just see some of the ruins below through the fog.  We could feel the weather changing.

Over the next hour, the skies slow broke and clouds continued burning off.  It was an absolutely spectacular, almost spiritual experience to see the clouds slowly break, rising off of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains.  The ancient city and mountains were full of natural, serene beauty.  We had a firsthand view of why the Quechua chose this place to be their sacred retreat.

Clouds burning off of Machu Picchu

It was magical and awe inspiring as the clouds slowly burn off to reveal Machu Picchu

Next, Carlos gave us a tour of Machu Picchu, describing the architecture, temples, culture.  To see pictures of Machu Picchu and the tour, view Touring Machu Picchu here.

Have you ever been to Machu Picchu or thought about visiting Machu Picchu.  What have you heard or read about it?  Leave a comment here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

drew July 2, 2012 at 10:55 am

Hey Dan, glad that you and the rest of the Fey family had an awesome time. Did you said you enjoyed this more than hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro? How did it compare?


dan July 12, 2012 at 6:49 pm

I did enjoy this hike more than Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro also was absolutely amazing, and it was more about the challenge of reaching the top of Africa. Reaching the top of Kilimanjaro was much more difficult and more rewarding. Machu Picchu was much more beautiful and picturesque. You were hiking through many beautiful mountains with Incan ruins scattered around. The Inca Trail was more about learning the Incan history and culture. The experiences were different, Kilimanjaro was a bigger challenge/achievement, but Machu Picchu had more beauty and cultural learning.


Caite July 12, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Fantastic story, Dan Fey! I’m inspired and I want to take this 4 day trip someday. Thanks for sharing this experience 🙂


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