The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a 26 mile section of the huge sprawling trails throughout the South American continent built by the Incan Empire. The trail has almost become as iconic as Machu Picchu itself.
If you want to read more about what The Inca Trail is, what other options you have to reach Machu Picchu or if you want answers to any Inca Trail FAQs, make sure you read this post. If you want to read more about my experience, carry on!
I booked my Inca Trail trek on a real whim. I’d already booked flights to Easter Island which were very pricey, so I told myself that I didn’t also need to spend money on the Inca Trail. I thought I would opt for one of the cheaper options (either accessing Machu Picchu by bus or choosing a shorter/lesser known trek). Then on one lunchbreak at work while I was daydreaming a little too much about my three month South American adventure, I decided to click the “book” button. Eek!
My spontaneous booking surprised most people as I’m not known for being the most active human being… and I have an undiagnosed condition which means I faint if I get too hot – something that you’d expect to be a hinderance on a multi-day hike (especially as I’d never done a multi-day hike before to test this logic prior to booking)!
I made my booking in January to hike in March – normally, you are not able to book only 2 months in advance. March is still within the rainy season, so most people tend to avoid it. When booking in January, all of the bookings for April, May, June and July were already sold out. So if you want to compelte The Inca Trail, you need to be proactive when booking!
Given that I left things until the last minute, I only really had one option when looking at tour companies. Thankfully, I’m very glad that Alpaca Expeditions had availability and I ended up trekking with them – I LOVED the experience!
RELATED: See my entire 3 month South American itinerary here!
I knew that I didn’t want to book with one of the large international comapnies like G Adventures, Intrepid Travel etc. While these are great companies with rave reviews, I wanted my tourist money to be given directly to a Peruvian company.
There are lots of very small Inca Trail tour agencies who I would have loved to book with, however, as they run less tours (as there are less guides), I missed out on this opportunity – you can find a full list of licensed operators here. Nevertheless, I’m very glad that I needed up booking with Alpaca Expeditions!
Alpaca Expeditions is one of the larger tour companies who offer Inca Trail guides within Peru. They have a large number of guides and porters, meaning multiple tours are offered every single day. There were 3 other Alpaca Expeditions groups hiking on the same days as my group and all Alpaca Expeditions groups used the same camp sites and resting spots, so the trek was very social!
The owner, Rahul, began his career as a porter on the Inca Trail before progressing to become a guide. When Rahul eventually established Alpaca Expeditions, his goal was to improve salaries and respect for porters and use the profits to give back to the community (particularly Andean Children).
Since then, Alpaca Expeditions became the first company to hire female guides and porters. You can read more about how they are empowering women with their #HikeLikeAGirl initiative here. The female guides and porters are even featured in Netflix’s Magical Andes documentary!
RELATED: As Alpaca Expeditions have such a great ethical standpoint and want to make sure their workers are paid fairly, prices can be slightly higher than other companies but I consider this to be a worthwhile investment. See how much I spent in my entire 3 month South American adventure here!
I had arrived in Cusco a few days before my Inca Trail booking (this is recommended to make sure that you have enough time to acclimatise before beginning the trek). I loved the city and really enjoyed exploring, especially as I had met up with a friend I’d met earlier in my travels.
Now, if there’s one place in Cusco that all backpackers know about, it’s Jack Cafe. After a few months of travelling, you’ll end up missing a few of your favourite Western foods/treats and Jack Cafe will offer them in abundance (as well as some great Peruvian dishes too)! The high quality ingredients, extensive menu and generous portion sizes mean that there is often a queue to enter the Cafe at peak times – we usually popped in for an early lunch/late breakfast to skip the queues!
Unfortunately, the generous portion sizes led to my demise on the day before my trek. I niavely opted for an absolutely ridiculously sized fry-up breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely delicious, but I could barely move after eating!
One of the rules while travelling at altitude is to eat “little and often” as altitidue affects your digestive system, meaning large meals can lead to some dire consequences.
After gaining enough energy to move, we decided to walk off the food and headed to the incredible ruins of Sacsayhuamán (pronounced “Sexy Woman”) which turned out to be a huge mistake…. this is the only time during my 3 months in South America that altitude got the better of me. I tried to explore Sacsayhuaman but the mixture of altitude and digestion gave me such crippling stomach aches and headaches that I ended up having to sit on a rock and wait for my friend to finish exploring before jumping in a taxi back to the hotel to rest for the afternoon.
At lunch time, I managed to eat a muffin from Starbucks. I’d never normally eat in a Starbucks while travelling but felt SO ill and wanted to eat something that I knew my stomach could usually handle.
As the day went on, my stomach and headaches worsened. At one point, I was barely able to stand up without becoming incredibly light-headed. Thankfully, I was just in pain and didn’t have any other symptoms, so things could have been worse, but still – I was extremely nervous at the prospect of beginning a hike the next day!
That evening, we all had to meet at the Alpaca Expeditions office in Cusco to meet our guides (David and Eric) and pick up our duffel bags.
We had a lovely group made up of a family of 4 from Canada, two sisters and one of their husbands from South Africa, 3 couples from Canada, Germany and The Netherlands respectively, a solo female traveller from New Zealand and me (a solo British female).
While everyone chatted around me and got to know each other, I stared into space, terrified at the prospect of beginning a 26 mile hike while feeling so ill. I definitely attended the orientation evening in body but not in spirit!
I felt so sick that I considered cancelling my hike there and then, despite the months of excitement and how costly that would be! I spoke to my guide privately who didn’t seem to be too concerned, told me to drink lots of water, stock up on cocoa leaves (which help with altitude) and get a good night’s sleep.
With that advice, I headed back to my hostel and began to pack my duffel bag ready for the next few days of adventure!
Walking distance: 8.7 miles/14 km (6-7 hours)
Campsite altitude: 3300 meters above sea level
Considered: Moderate day
Thankfully, I woke up and 99% of the pain had subsided – hurray! The mini-bus picked me up from my hostel at 4am to begin the 2+ hour drive to the beginning of the Inca Trail (named “KM 82”).
Before reaching KM 82, we stopped at The Porter House in Ollyantambo for a delicious breakfast cooked by our porters and chefs, who we were quickly introduced to. It very quickly became apparent how important these porters would be – without them carrying everything (all of the personal belongings, the sleeping tents, the dining tent, food and even a portable toilet), the trek would have been far less enjoyable! The porters and chefs march on ahead of the group each day and by the time the hikers reach the rest-points, tents are already erected and food is usually ready to be served!
After breakfast, we continued the drive to KM 82 where we had to officially “check in” to the Inca Trail and of course get a photo with the iconic Inca Trail sign! Passports were checked by the Inca Trail staff and the porter’s bags were weighted (this is strictly enforced on the trail).
Thankfully, the weather on our first day was incredible (I’m British, of course I have to comment on the weather). We had barely begun the trek and we were already ooh-ing and aah-ing at the incredible scenery. The first 2 hours of the trek were relatively easy, with only gradual inclines throughout, meaning we had plenty of time to admire the views!
After 2 hours, we got our first view of an Incan ruin, Patallacta! Patallacta is a large expanse of agricultural terraces surrounded by gorgeous rolling hills. Unfortunately, you can only view Patallacta from afar, but it was still exciting nonetheless!
After another 2 hours of hiking, we reached the lunch stop. This was the first time (and certainly not the last time) that we were amazed by the service that Alpaca Expeditions offer. On arrival, a large tent had been erected with a long dining table covered in buffet-style treats. Every meal time offered a huge array of different foods, carefully carried by the porters and prepared by the chefs each day. We certainly never went hungry and often had to remind our selves not to over-indulge!
Most of the other hiking groups began setting up their sleeping tents at this spot, after enjoying a relatively easy first day of hiking. However, if you book with Alpaca Expeditions, don’t expect such an easy ride on day one!
Dead Woman’s Pass is the highest pass on the trek and is without a doubt, the hardest climb. Rather than have to tackle the entire pass in one day, we tackled the first 2.5 hours of climbing on day 1. This is where things started to get more difficult.
I didn’t find the climb to be physically demanding on my legs, but the altitiude definitely took a toll on my lungs! It’s much harder to catch your breath at high altitudes (where the air is thinner) and I hated the feeling of not being able to breathe.
One member of our team really started to struggle on this section of the trail as she became extremely weak and light-headed. The guides and her husband helped to the campsite and ensured she received proper re-hydration medication – at this point, we thought she wouldn’t be continuing on with the rest of the trek. Thankfully she recovered brilliantly and managed to complete the trek with us! This proved to be a great reason why Alpaca Expeditions push you a bit further on the first day. If you begin Dead Woman’s Pass and feel like you can’t continue, you have the option to turn around at the beginning of day 2 and the team have enough time to organise which guide/porter will make the return journey with you. If you realise part way through day 2 that you aren’t capable of completing the trek, the options are very limited. There are no exit routes, you have to go back the way you came!
On arrival at the campsite, our dining tent was waiting for us once again, alongside all of our already erected sleeping tents. At this point, I was told I would be sharing a tent with Emma, the lovely Kiwi solo traveller. Let’s just say that Emma (who had run multiple marathons) was FAR fitter than me and also FAR better prepared. Her toiletry bag for the 4 day trek was double the size of mine for my entire 3 month trip and she generously shared the goodies with me (body wipes and dry shampoo are very valuable commodities on a multi-day trek)!
I had bought a large bar of Milka chocolate from a supermarket in Cusco and decided that I would treat myself to a line of the chocolate on the completion of each trekking day – I highly recommend bribing yourself with your favourite treats! Do not bring too many snacks though, you certainly won’t be hungry as Alpaca Expeditions provide A LOT of food!
Walking distance: 9.94 miles/16 km (7-8 hours)
Campsite altitude: 3600 meters above sea level
Considered: The hardest day
Despite my confidence rising as I’d successfully completed Day One and recovered from the sickness, I was still dreading the horrors that Day Two had in store for us.
Dead Woman’s Pass, a very steep pass reaching dizzying heights of 3600 meters above sea level, is known as the hardest section of The Inca Trail. We had already begun the assent the previous day, so we had a head-start on other tour companies (which was great as I didn’t have as many people to compare my shocking fitness levels to)!
I had really struggled to sleep the night before as I was sure that I could hear someone being sick (but couldn’t see them in the pitch black outside of my tent). Over breakfast, we learnt that the youngest member of our group, a Canadian teenager, had made the error of filling up his water bottle from a stream (something he was used to doing back home in Canada). After checking that he was okay and eating our glorious breakfast, we head off for the day.
Sumay, a lovely South African girl, and I quickly realised that we had a very similar hiking pace, so decided to stick together for the most part. Having a hiking buddy that moves at your pace definitely helps with motivation! Rest assured, if you are a very slow hiker, you won’t be alone as the secondary guide is required to hike with the last member of the group (with the first guide walking alongside the faster hikers at the front of the group) – everyone else floats about in the middle, hiking at a pace that suits them.
Some way up the pass, we caught up with a Canadian father and daughter from our group, increasing our spirits further! The four of us adopted a method that we called “hyper-resting”. None of us anticipated how much the altitude would affect our breathing – as we got closer to the top of the pass, we were stopping after every 15 steps to catch our breath (it did feel like we were spending more time resting than walking).
We were so happy when we finally reached the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass (it took us roughly 4 hours) Despite being fairly unfit, I managed to keep to all of the “average timings” provided to us by Alpaca Adventures – so I was very happy! The fitter members of our group had reached the summit at least an hour ahead of us, we all sat together enjoying the view and exchanging stories waiting for the last few members of our group to arrive.
When our youngest team member (the one who had spent the entire night throwing up) reached the summit, we were all so happy. He was the true hero of the group – we all struggled despite being well rested and hydrated – how he managed the summit while feeling that queasy is beyond me!
Now for the part I had been waiting for, 2 hours of downhill trekking – my favourite! I got quite the reputation within the for loving downhill sections, while the rest of my team mates complained about the pain on their knees while, I was loving life! This was an absolute breeze and I kept up with the front of the pack for the entire journey.
At the bottom of this section, we enjoyed lunch. This is where I realised that my left hand had swollen to double it’s size (clearly I was too busy enjoying the views up until that point). My lovely group pulled out all of the stops again – two of the girls were nurses and far more prepared than me! After a concoction of anti-inflammatory creams, I carried on and tried not to think about it. Thankfully, by the end of the trek it had gone down. It wasn’t until we had safely completed the trek that the guides admitted to me that they were concerned and had never seen anything like it before – I’m glad they kept that to themselves at the time!
Once again, Alpaca Expeditions choose a slightly different structure to other tour companies – as we were finishing our lunch, porters from other tour companies began to arrive and set-up sleeping tents. Despite summiting the highest pass today, we were going to push on and complete another pass in the same day.
The second pass was easier than the first, taking only 2 hours to summit and ending at Runcu Raccay, a small Incan ruin. After the second pass, we walked an hour downhill (yay) to Sayacmarca, a truly incredible ruin.
Sayacmarca is one of the most extensive ruins that you encounter on the trek and we spent a fair amount of time exploring. To access Sayacmara, you have to walk slightly uphill, so including it within your trek is optional (in case you are too exhausted by this time). I very nearly skipped the opportunity as my legs were killing but I’m very glad I didn’t!
The campsite (Chaquicocha) was a quick 20 minutes walk away and was my favourite campsite of the entire trip. The view was absolutely incredible and Alpaca Expeditions were the only company there (as everyone else would usually walk straight past this campsite during day 3 of their trek). Stargazing is meant to be incredible from this campsite, but unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worst and the fog had rolled in. Despite the weather, I had my next row of Milka chocolate, so I was happy!
RELATED: If you are interested in stargazing, you definitely need to visit San Pedro De Atacama as part of your South American adventure – read about my experience here!
Walking distance: 6.2 miles /10 km (4 hours)
Campsite altitude: 2600 meters above sea level
Considered: The best day – all downhill!
This was supposed to be the best day of the hike – arguably one of the most scenic sections of the trek and the easiest to hike (the first 1.5 hours of hiking are flat with the final 2.5 downhill) so where did it all go wrong?
We had been extremely lucky with the weather, especially as March is still within the rainy season in this area, but on day three, the heavens opened! We experienced torrential rain for most of the day and I quickly learnt that the grip on my walking shoes was lacklustre at best when trying to walk down slippery stone stairs in the rain!
Despite absolutely loving downhill hiking, I ended up at the back of the group with the support guide, trying not to fall over with every step! Sumay and I are both accountants, so decided that we were at the back because we were taking “an accountant’s risk adverse approach to going downhill”. Our cautious approach meant I only fell over twice (highly successful if you consider how slippery my shoes were)!
One of the best things about the slightly different route structure that Alpaca Expeditions undergo is the additional time to enjoy day three. During the decent, we explored two incredible Inca Ruins, Phuyupatamarka and Intipata. The latter was particularly special as the weather began to ease up and we could enjoy our time with the wild llamas roaming the site!
You also finish hiking earlier than other groups. We arrived at the camp site at around 1pm before an orientation afternoon where we had a briefing from our guide about the final day (the day we would finally get to see Machu Picchu), spent time thanking our porters and had a mini-party with the porters to celebrate the trip (the chef even managed to bake a cake – the porter who carried eggs for three days without breaking them deserves a medal). After our huge feast (and of course, a row of celebratory Milka for me), we headed to our tents for an early night to prepare for our super early start the next day!
The day we have all been waiting for is finally here! We get to see Machu Picchu!
Of course, no good things come easily. The day started with a wake up call at 3:30am (every day, your guide knocks on your tent and brings you tea to wake you up!), breakfast at 4:00am and waiting at the checkpoint (the third group in the queue) for the gates to open at 5:30am.
My legs were starting to feel the burn from 3 days of hiking, but with only two more hours of hiking to complete, the end was in sight! The two hours were rainy and included a real scramble up a rock wall (which I wasn’t expecting – especially while wearing a restrictive rain poncho)!
During the final hike, I started to become really disappointed that we may never see Machu Picchu in all of it’s glory due to poor visibility. Unfortunately, my fear was realised when we reached The Sun Gate (home of the iconic photo spot, the view that everyone has seen) and we couldn’t see a thing! Instead of wasting time staring at fog over the Sun Gate, we continued on to the next view point, by which point the sun had thankfully burnt through some of the fog.
Our team all donned their bright green Alpaca Expeditions t-shirts and marvelled in the glory of finally seeing this World Wonder! At this point we were all grinning from ear-to-ear. We may not have had picture-perfect weather conditions, but we had had the best 4 days and the remaining fog created a really beautiful atmosphere around Machu Picchu.
After continuing on and reaching Machu Picchu, the sun was out in full force and we enjoyed a 2 hour tour around the site by our guide before having plenty of time to explore by ourselves (two people climbed Huayna Picchu during this time).
The actual site and areas you could explore were so much bigger than I expected. In actual fact, I’m not sure what I expected as the only photos I’d ever really seen were the view from the Sun Gate!
While I’m sure that I’d have enjoyed Machu Picchu if I’d taken a day tour on a bus but exploring with a sense of achievement from the previous 3 days of hiking and experiencing this with a group of new-found friends that you’ve spent hours bonding with was really special.
By the time we were finishing up, we headed to the entrance/exit gates which were HEAVING; you really had to push your way through the crowds to get anywhere. Hiking the Inca Trail is brilliant as you are one of the first groups of people allowed into Machu Picchu; making sure that you get some time to enjoy the site before the hoards of day-trippers arrive.
After leaving the site, our last stop (before heading back to Cusco) was a celebratory dinner in Aguas Calientes with our two guides. A few of the team ordered cuy (guinea pig – a Peruivan specialty) which we all got to try (I do not recommend – very chewy). The dinner was the perfect way to end our trip together – laughing, eating and drinking. What more could you want?
In short, I wouldn’t change my experience for the world. We may not have had “perfect” weather, but I had the best time with an incredible group of people, some of which I have continued to stay in contact with. Of course, the views are stunning and Machu Picchu is incredible, but some of my fondest memories are the team sitting in our dining tent in the evening, enjoying a hot chocolate after dinner and discussing (and laughing at) everything and anything.
Alpaca Expeditions were incredibly professional throughout – from the booking process, to the pre-trek meetings at their office to our guides/porters/chefs on the trek.
In summary, if you’re looking for a truly magical experience, do it.
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