The Inca Trail is one of the most popular hiking routes in the world. Not exactly unique or off-the beaten track. What can I write that’s not already been been said by the thousands of travellers that came before me? Though we all take the same path, everyone’s journey and perspective is different, so here are my Inca Trail highlights.
The gruelling four-day journey culminates with a 4am wake-up call and final hike for the much-anticipated arrival at Machu Picchu in the early morning light, before the bulk of the crowds arrive by bus. As expected, this was a magical and euphoric moment that really can’t be described; it has to be experienced.
Inca Trail Highlights
But this is a journey that’s not just about getting to the finish line of Machu Picchu. It’s four days of discovery and exploration, with many surprises along the way. So in an attempt to highlight a different perspective on this classic hiking journey, here’s my pick of six Inca Trail highlights.
1. The food: gastronomy trail to Machu Picchu
You’re hiking for four days, away from civilisation, refrigeration, and electricity. And yet, your Inca Trail chef with the support of a team of porters, whips up the most incredible Peruvian food three times a day. So in addition to a journey on foot, it really is like an incredible gastronomic adventure.
Using locally sourced ingredients, the diversity and quality of what is served up on the Inca Trail is truly impressive. On the first day, the chef and porters zoomed ahead of us, and a few hours later when we took a break for lunch, they had set up a dining tent, completed with napkins folded into swans, and presented us with an inviting spread. We started with an innovative twist on the Peruvian classic of ceviche, but with chicken, and fresh zingy flavours of mango and coriander (cilantro). Next came warming Andean vegetable soup, delicious stir-fried beef with rice and vegetables. The only complaint was how difficult it was to keep hiking after such a big meal!
As a coeliac, I was extremely worried beforehand about what I would be fed. I’m about to make a bold statement, but I have NEVER in my life had such attentive and inventive gluten-free food. The chef, working in a camper kitchen (with some kind of shaman magic I’m sure) made me the most scrumptious fresh corn bread for sandwiches, yucca (cassava) fritters, quinoa flatbread and more. On the last night, when there was a large celebration cake for our group, he made me a mini sweet potato cake, that was also decorated.
2. The flowers: delicate orchids on the mountainside
Along the Inca Trail, you’ll encounter incredible flora and fauna, passing through several distinct ecosystems as you ascend to high mountain passes, and into deep tropical valleys.
Like most ridiculous tourists, I chased the llamas around Machu Picchu, trying and failing to get that coveted llama-at-Machu-Picchu-selfie, but they were more interested in sniffing out Steven’s lunch!
But what really stood out for me, were the beautiful flowers along the way, including stunning orchids, many of which are endemic to the area. Often hidden, you have to keep your eyes peeled for the small splashes of colour along the way. Our guide Rolando was very good at pointing them out, and telling us their local names. We also spotted several species of vibrant hummingbirds and a wild hare called a viscacha.
3. The solitude: quiet time to reflect
The Inca Trail is one of the busiest treks in Peru, with permits necessary to limit the intake to 500 trekkers and support staff a day. So I was prepared for the busy campsites, and an ant-trail of hikers along the way.
However, there were times when we went hours without seeing anyone else on the trail, and moments when we were completely alone in Inca ruins, able to just sit in silence and soak up the awe-inspiring surroundings. Completely disconnected from WiFi and the outside world, I really appreciated the time spent off-grid.
Our guide was excellent at timing our hiking and exploration at important sites for the quietest times of the day. For me, these were magical moments that I’ll never forget.
4. The history: walking in Inca footsteps
Of course, I did some hurried basic research on the history of Machu Picchu and the Incas before starting the trail, and I’ve been to several museums in Lima and Cusco documenting the Inca Empire.
But none of that compares to living and breathing it all in along the trail. On day one, we stopped at the first ruin, and sat in the shade of an ancient wall as Rolando gave us the most interesting open-air history lesson of my life, which continued and was slowly developed over the four days.
Rolando, like many Cusqueños (people from Cusco) has mixed heritage from the Spanish conquistadores and the indigenous Inca that they defeated. Talking to him about the complicated and often conflicting relationships between the two, and the syncretism that defines the region today was fascinating.
5. The ‘other’ ruins: Inca Trail sites before Machu Picchu
All the hype is around arriving at Machu Picchu, but along the Inca Trail you get to experience many stunning archaeological sites that other visitors never have access to, as they are so remote.
For me the highlight was arriving at Wiñay Wayna on day three, and relaxing and exploring the ruins in the soft afternoon light. This impressive and sprawling Inca complex is believed to have been some sort of agricultural research centre for the Inca, and offers stunning views down the valley towards the river.
About a year ago, when we first arrived in Lima, Steven and I saw a model of Wiñay Wayna in a museum, and it was one of the main reasons we chose to do the Inca Trail, rather than the alternative treks which are growing in popularity.
6. The arrival: a sense of accomplishment
When you arrive at the Sun Gate, and set your eyes on Machu Picchu for the first time, the aches and pains and weight of the last four days suddenly dissipate. As you walk down to Machu Picchu, you’re likely to see the first of the day trippers who arrived by bus – heading up to the Sun Gate to admire the view.
At this point you’ll notice how nicely they’re dressed, and even how clean they smell. But don’t be ashamed of your dishevelled appearance. You’re allowed to feel incredibly smug – you’ve earned your arrival to the lost city of the Incas as you stride in, straight off the Inca Trail just like the Incas did hundreds of years ago. We felt absolutely euphoric, and the journey was worth every (painful) step.
You have to do the Inca Trail with a registered trek operator, and book up to 6 months in advance for a spot in the peak season. We used Cusco-based Llama Path, and would definitely recommend them. They have a great reputation for sustainable, eco-friendly practises, porter-welfare, and the service was excellent.
Spend at least 3 days in Cusco or the Sacred Valley to aclimatise to the altitude before starting the trek. We took Diamox (Acetazolamide) before and during the trek, which definitely helped, along with the natural local remedy of coca tea. Either way, do not underestimate how difficult it is to hike at altitude!
Blog adapted from original written for Aracari Travel.