Your Guide on Hiking Machu Picchu
As one of the Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu offers Incan ruins and unbeatable views, all set to the backdrop of the Andes Mountains with the Urubamba River tumbling below. It is accessible via a 2 hour train ride from Aguas Calientes or by a multi-day trek from Cusco. If you’re looking for a relaxing journey and don’t want to spend too much time on Machu Picchu, the Aguas Calientes route is not a bad way to go. This could be a great option for those with kids or those on a tight schedule. Otherwise, I would highly recommend trekking as you get to learn more about the surrounding landscape as well as see several Incan ruins along the way. The team bonding, learning of Peruvian culture, and trekking experience made the multi-day hike an unforgettable journey.
Which Trekking Company Do I Go With?
Choosing a trekking company can be tough. There are so many options that when I first started researching, I felt more confused than ever. Did we want to do a 4 day hike? A 3 day? What was the difference between all these companies? How were the people who carried our belongings, the porters, compensated? Did we want to do the Inca trail? The Salkantay trail? How did we get permits? These were just a few of the questions running through my mind while searching for a viable trekking option and a reputable trekking company. Ultimately, after doing a mix of independent Internet research and good old worth-of-mouth by asking friends who had completed the trek, my friends and I chose to go with Alpaca Expeditions. The more I learned about Alpaca Expeditions, the more convinced I became that this was a great company, from their policy to pay their porters fair wages and limit the amount of kilos carried to 30, to learning that the founder of the company was actually an ex-porter who decided to set out on his own and create his own company.
Before the Trek
Before the trek, we flew in to Cusco from Lima the night before. I would recommend not doing this as it does not give you a lot of time to acclimate to the high altitude. Having said that, the altitude was not as great of a problem as anticipated. This was most likely due to the help of altitude sickness medication, Diamox (so clutch). I highly recommend getting a prescription for this before leaving. You can’t get it over the counter, but if you call/email your healthcare provider about going to Machu Picchu, they can most likely call in a prescription for you, saving you a pricey dr’s visit, which is great for those trying to ball on a budget.
Also, depending on who you’re trekking with, you may want to prepare for the weather and the trek by buying additional snacks or ponchos. The great thing about Alpaca Expeditions is that they provide you with a poncho for the temperamental weather and trust me, there is no need for additional snacks as you will be extremely well-fed. I joke with my friends that the best I ate in Peru was on the trek to Machu Picchu and I’m not kidding. I would recommend bringing your own toilet paper as the bathroom situation can be a bit dicey and a headlamp as well because it gets dark around 7pm and there are no external light fixtures in the moutains. If you choose to go with Alpaca Expeditions, they will provide you with a checklist of items that you’ll need before the trek so you will be well-prepared before embarking on this journey.
The night before the trek, Alpaca Expeditions met with us to provide us with the duffel bags that the porters would be carrying. This duffel bag includes your sleeping bag and can hold your clothes, toiletries, and anything else you want to bring along the hike. During this meeting, they will also prep you on what to expect the next day and answer any questions you may have.
Day 1 of the Inca Trail
Day 1 begins with an early pickup from your place of stay in Cusco around 3am. From there, you head towards km 82, or the start of the hike. After getting to the trailhead, it’s your first chance to see the porters, or the “Green Machines” in action. They set up breakfast and what I thought was going to be a simple breakfast of just bread and jam was a delicious affair. This was just a preview of what was to come. Since we were starting the hike on January 1, 2016, the porters came around with confetti and threw it at us in celebration of the New Year. After finishing breakfast, we set off towards the Inca Trail checkpoint, where they checked our passports and permits. The permits were already obtained by Alpaca Expeditions and so the entire process went very smoothly. And then, the trek began!
On the first day of the trail, it was very relaxing and almost felt like a jaunt through the mountains. The estimated walking time is about six hours but this can depend on how fast/slow your group is. You can go at your own pace and by doing so, you can meet people from other trekking groups. We were able to meet more people outside our trekking group this way and even ended up meeting back in Cusco post-trek with some of the other hikers.
The views along the first day’s hike are spectacular. Our guide spoke about feeling the energy of the mountains and it was true. Something about being in nature, away from technology, and with people who appreciated the surrounding natural beauty, was so damn satisfying and tranquil. We had a team dinner and then headed to bed pretty early, around 9pm. After hiking all day and without electricity or technology to distract us, falling asleep that early was a piece of cake.
I woke up, stoked for Day 2. Okay, maybe that’s not 100% accurate. My friend, Christine, is way more of a morning person than I am and she woke me up. After struggling awake, then changing in the tent, I became stoked for Day 2. Also, my normal getting ready routine of facewash and moisturizer didn’t really make sense in the mountains, so with the picture you see below, I literally woke up like dis.
Day 2 was the day I was the most apprehensive about. More than one traveler had warned us about Day 2 – with its steep stairs and the seemingly endless uphill. After having done it though, I didn’t think it was that bad. Maybe because everyone overhyped how soul crushing it was, but it wasn’t as strenuous as I imagined. It’s not easy, but you can set your own pace and you can rest whenever you need to. Our guide emphasized that speed wasn’t the main priority, finishing was. Props to the other members of our trek who were hiking for the first time. Machu Picchu was a hell of a first hike to pick. Also, with views like the one below, it wasn’t hard to stay motivated and keep going.
Day 2 requires an estimated 9.5 hours of hiking, but it’s really variable depending on how long you stop at the Inca trail sites and your pace. Whenever we felt like the hike was stretching on, we’d tell each other “Just 10 more minutes.” It was fun to push ourselves and see how far we could go. I feel like after a certain point, it became more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge. As someone who’s constantly striving for self-improvement, I felt like I was proving something to myself, that by doing this I was showing myself that I could do something that a couple years ago, I never would’ve considered doing. You can too.
Like Day 2, we were woken by our friendly porters asking if we wanted coca tea. The porters are the real MVP’s – they woke up way before us to prepare breakfast, pack our belongings including the toilet tent (hazing for the intern maybe?), and still found time to boil water to make us coca tea. Coca tea is supposed to help with the altitude and chewing coca leaves (there’s an art to it) is supposed to give you energy. You can see many of the porters with a bulging cheek or two, where they’re storing coca leaves. I tried it and it left my face numb and tingly. The Weeknd’s “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” lyrics never felt more real.
The picture above shows our guide Edy, teaching us about the rainforest we were in the middle of walking through. One thing I really enjoyed about this hike was the different types of terrain we came across. We saw bamboo, huge butterflies, moss covered rocks, caves, the “Tunnel of Love,” all in addition to the 500 year old Incan ruins, like Phuyupatamarca, or Village Above the Clouds, below.
Compared to Day 2, Day 3 was much easier. The greatest struggle was actually waiting for lunch. After 2 days of being regularly fed, almost too well-fed, we had gotten spoiled and were expecting to eat every 2 hours lol. Fortunately, we packed snacks (I’ve never loved Oreos and Cheese Ritz as much as I did on this trip), so we were able to nosh while listening to Edy explain the importance of the ruins. The ruin below is Inti Pata or Terraces of the Sun. This is our guide’s favorite ruin and with the stunning views, it’s easy to see why. We took a bunch of jumping pics here and were witness to one of our trekking member’s first jumping pictures.
After visiting these two sites, we continued to camp. Once arriving, we had a couple of hours to ourselves to either nap, take alpaca selfies, or play mafia. Guess which 2 out of 3 we did! After our free time (saying “free time” almost makes me feel like I’m a kid going on a field trip in middle school :D), our team left to visit another Inca site, Winay Wayna, which means Forever Young. I couldn’t help but think how sick it would be if Jay-Z were to come and perform “Forever Young” at the site.
With its numerous and narrow terraces, this was one of my favorite ruins. The terraces were actually used as an experimental lab by the Incans. They wanted to see which crops could grow in high altitude. It turns out, potatoes and corn did an excellent job growing here. In Peru alone, there are over 3,000 species of potatoes. It also explains why potatoes were served at every meal. One time we had a salad and there were even sliced potatoes mixed in with the cabbage! Also, due to its location in a very humid environment, irrigation was not a huge issue for this site.
One of the trekkers we met during the hike was an architect. She told us that the Incans were ingenius in planning and building these sites. They were able to build without disrupting the natural ecosystem and were able to use natural formations, like a granite foundation, to their benefit. She said the site was nothing short of a marvel.
After visiting the site, we went to “happy hour” which consisted of coca tea and snacks like popcorn. Then, we had our final dinner that was a feast, like usual, and even included a cake! How they were able to cook a cake in the middle of the mountains with no stove is quite a feat on its own and very impressive. During the dinner, we joked with our guide and with our team. Even though we had only spent 3 short days together, we had quickly bonded (mostly over physical pain). It was a dinner that brought out all the feels, especially when Edy started giving the team our Peruvian names. He named my friend Chris after one of the last Incan rulers, Manco Inca Yupanqui, stating that his personality brought people together and made them laugh. Christine was named Cusi, which meant happy due to her positive attitude even when she suffered through a rough bout of food poisoning. He named me Amaru, meaning wisdom, since I was always asking him questions. Then the porters joined in our celebration and we ended the night, together as one. #TAOPeru.
The final day! After hiking for three days, we were all pretty stoked to arrive at Machu Picchu. On Day 4, we woke up 3:00 am so we could be the first ones to the Machu Picchu checkpoint. The checkpoint opens at 5:30 am, but with 500 hikers gunning to the checkpoint and with limited seating, the race was on. We were lucky enough to be the first ones at the gate and we kept ourselves entertained for the next two hours by playing sober versions of drinking games and mafia. After getting killed off for being too ratchet (smh), it was soon time for the checkpoint to open.
At 5:30 am on the dot, the park ranger began checking off visitors and opened the gates. Christine, our teammate Meiching, and I were first in line and as soon as the gates opened, we bolted. From there, we walked/ran to the Sun Gate, where we glimpsed our first views of Machu Picchu. The adrenaline still pumping through our veins, we continued down towards Machu Picchu, jumping over rocks and getting closer and closer to our goal.
And then, we made it. All of the sweat, blood, and tears (just kidding, no blood, but lots of sweat) from the past three days were worth it. We looked at one of the Wonders of the World and it felt even more rewarding knowing that we had hiked our way there. In a scene out of a movie, we were reunited with our friend Cole, who had taken the train, and were able to take this group picture in front of a beautiful Machu Picchu.
And like DJ Khaled would say, here’s “another one.” I was extremely thankful for the good weather during the trip. Our offering to the sun god must have worked because it never rained heavily during our hike, which is pretty amazing considering that January is supposed to be one of Peru’s wettest months, with 26/30 days being rainy. We were especially lucky considering that other hikers who had completed the Inca Trail only a week before said it had rained the entire hike.
Once we arrived at Machu Picchu, we waited for the rest of our team to arrive. It turned out that one of our team members sprained her ankle and our guide was hanging back to make sure she was okay and to escort her to Machu Picchu. Even though it was unfortunate, Edy was prepared and had the proper first aid equipment to treat her ankle. She was also a trooper and didn’t complain, even though it must’ve hurt. Not only was her attitude impressive, Edy’s professionalism was also admirable.
After the whole team made it, Edy guided us around Machu Picchu and explained the importance of the ruins, the history of Machu Picchu, and further explained the architectural significance of the centuries old structure. It’s pretty incredible to learn more about how Machu Picchu was created and built, all without the modern tools that we have today.
This trip was everything I hoped for and more. I know that sounds cheesy, but it exceeded all of my expectations. It almost felt weird integrating back into society and seeing clean people, laptops, and cafes advertising wi-fi. It felt like something had changed on the trek and my eyes had opened up just a little bit more to the possibility of what was out in the world and what was still left to discover. It reminds me of Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s quote, “I am driven by two main philosophies: Know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” I’m still figuring out the second part of the statement but after getting a taste of the Andes Mountains for a couple of days, felt like we were pretty successful on the first part. And that’s not a bad way to end a trip.
- The porters were aces. I never saw them complaining, even as they were lugging huge loads on their backs and practically running the trail in sandals. They even put up with my horrible Spanish during my attempts to talk with them.
- Communicating with Alpaca was easy with their fast response times and courteous customer service. Not only did they answer any and all questions we had within one business day, they even emailed us a couple weeks before the trek asking us if we were getting excited for the hike. This personal touch made us feel more comfortable and was a sign of good things to come.
- If you’re planning on hiking the Inca Trail, I recommend booking early as permits tend to run out quickly. We originally tried booking a December hike in October but couldn’t due to lack of permits. I’d recommend booking ahead even further if you’re planning on going during high season (July – August).
- Camelbaks are CLUTCH, helping you stay hydrated as you’re walking up all those stairs.
- Bring insect repellant. I’m talking 100% DEET. We put on bug spray every day and it was a lifesaver from those persistent mosquitoes.
- If your trekking company offers walking sticks and/or mattress pads, rent them! Not going to lie, before I used to slightly judge people who used walking sticks. I have since seen the light. The walking sticks will be KEY when you’re on your third hour going up those knee-high steps on Day 2. The mattress pads also made a huge difference when sleeping.
- Now for the fun stuff, medications. Diamox, Cipro, and Immodium are crucial. Diamox will help with altitude sickness, Cipro and Immodium will save you in case you get food poisoning.
- If you can, try to arrive in Cusco a couple days early so you have time to acclimate to the high altitude. Without Diamox, I was short of breath just talking. Not a good look.
- The cost for the 4D/3N trek was $635 per person. This includes the cost of the guide, porters, transportation, all meals, equipment like tents, water, and first aid. At first glance, the trek might seem expensive in comparison to other companies, but I found that it was comparable. Other companies might be cheaper at first glance, but that may be because they do not include costs like transportation and porters.
- If you choose, you can decide to tip the porters, chef, and the guide. I would recommend bringing additional soles for this.
For more information on our 4D/3N trek with Alpaca Expeditions, you can check out a detailed itinerary on their website here. Also, sometimes the best way to learn more about something is to watch a video of it. You can check out some of the footage from my Peru and Ecuador trip here (feel free to skip to 2:50 to see Machu Picchu).
*Thank you to Alpaca Expeditions for the sponsored activity. As always, all opinions are solely my own.