Surviving the short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Since my last post, we have moved onto the Amazon jungle portion of our travels in Peru. It took me a few days to get a strong enough WiFi signal out here to upload my photos, so here is the belated recap of our short Inca Trail experience!

The classic Inca Trail hike requires 4 days/3 nights of camping over a 45 kilometre journey. This was too intense for me, so I suggested to Mr. Chuckles and our travel mates that we opt for the short Inca Trail trek offered by Sam Travel Peru. This is their ‘easiest’ hike, involving a 10 kilometre day hike on the Inca Trail, overnight in Aguas Calientes, and then a formal tour of Machu Picchu the following morning.

Getting ready

Although we planned and booked our trek 6 months in advance, I learned from speaking to our other group members that this was probably not necessary. There are a restricted number of permits for the Inca Trail: 500 permits for the full 4D/3N hike (including both guests and porters) and 250 permits for the short option we did. The full hike is incredibly popular and does really book up by about 6 months ahead, but the short Inca Trail is easier to arrange. One of our group members actually booked as late as 3 weeks prior to the trip, and when I looked at the listing on permit availability, there were still at least 150 remaining for our dates. This makes the short Inca Trail a good option for those who are rushed for time.

As for physical preparation, I probably could have done with more. Although the trek is described as being only moderate difficulty and I have managed some fairly challenging hikes in western Canada, Tanzania, and Uganda, the altitude of the Andes makes hiking here a whole other experience.

Unfortunately, Mr. Chuckles and I were dealing with minor health issues on and off all through the summer so were relatively sedentary in the 4 to 6 months prior to this trip. If I could go back in time, I would’ve worked a lot more on my cardio and hill climbing!

Day 1: Hiking the Inca Trail

Off we go to kilometre 104

The first day of our trek started at the brutal hour of 5:30 am when we were picked up in Ollantaytambo for the 5 minute ride to the train station. From there, we boarded the Peru Rail train. We were joined by 5 other hikers, making us a total group of 9 along with two guides. We had a mix of travelers from Canada, the United States, Germany, and Italy. There are no porters for the short Inca Trail hike.

The 1.5 hour train ride took us further through the valley and then stopped at kilometre 104. This was not an actual train station so we were seemingly dropped off in the middle of nowhere.

We headed down a set of stairs to cross a suspension bridge which would take us to the first checkpoint for the Inca Trail.

Then we took a short walk to the ruins of Chachabamba, where we would start our hike.

The agonizing journey to Wiñay Wayna

I had a decent level of energy up until about the 20 minute mark after starting. At that point, we went up a flight of steps and I just could not catch my breath and ended up staggering to the back of the line. The first 3 hours continued on as a torturous constant uphill climb. I will be forever grateful to the assistant guide Maribel and to Mr. Chuckles for staying behind with me as I wheezed my way along. My resting heart rate at altitude in Cusco was around 100 beats per minute; I can’t imagine how high it was getting while hiking.

The absolute worst part was our approach to the Wiñay Wayna archaeological site. We had to climb ‘3 sets’ of stairs but these were not like stairs I have ever climbed before. I have gone up 18 stories in our condo when the elevator is out of service, but that is like going up an escalator compared to this! We climbed up 350 steps gasping the entire way. I don’t even have any photos from the way up as I felt like I was on the brink of being sick.

Here is the waterfall we stopped at before climbing up those steps.

And the view from atop the stairs of doom.

In retrospect, this segment was truly a spectacular experience, because we had some amazing views that would never be captured unless we had been on this hike.

Lunch time

Once we reached Wiñay Wayna, we were able to stop for a lunch break. I actually had very little appetite so couldn’t finish my meal to lighten the load on my day pack. The tour company did pack us a very substantial lunch which included a quinoa salad, sandwich, orange, apple, banana, cookies, trail mix, and chocolate. I was also carrying about 1 litre of water. Looking back, I could have done with more water and less food in my pack.

This marked the point where our trek met with those doing the full Inca Trail, although I think they start their day 4 early in the morning so would’ve already left their camps by the time we arrived.

Relief toward the Sun Gate

The next part of the trek, taking about 2 hours, was considerably easier. It was mostly flat with a few short climbs here and there.

We eventually reached the half way point toward the Sun Gate (Intipunku).

Of course, before we could reach our peak moment, we were subjected to one last period of torture, in the form of 50 steep steps. They are called the ‘monkey steps’ due to the need to climb up using all fours.

Finally, we got our first view of Machu Picchu!

As you can see, this is not the postcard version of Machu Picchu but rather a peek of the mountain from behind. It was still stunning.

Onward for the postcard photo

After this, we started going downhill and this is when we were able to get that famous overhead view of the Machu Picchu complex.

The short Inca Trail hike is well timed in that we arrived at the top of Machu Picchu in mid afternoon, after the morning tourist crowds have dispersed. The majority of visitors take the train all the way to Aguas Calientes and then ride the bus up from town to see the complex in the morning. There is a lot of jostling around for photo ops as we would see the next day. However, for now, we were able to enjoy the viewing platforms pretty much alone.

An evening in Aguas Calientes

We took a 25 minute bus ride down from Machu Picchu to the town at its base, Aguas Calientes (formally named Machu Picchu Pueblo).

This is a small town with effectively no infrastructure for vehicles, so it is entirely walkable. Unfortunately it also sits on a hill so although we thought we were finished with trekking, we had an uphill walk all the way to our hotel. We checked into La Cabana Hotel which was quite nice.

We enjoyed a decent dinner (included with the tour package) in the company of our group and then called it an early night. There are lots of loud bars in Aguas Calientes and the town mostly comes to life in the evening when people are back from their treks. Our room was situated right over a place playing a series of 80s classics on a loop, but we were still able to fall asleep without much issue due to our sheer exhaustion.

Day 2: Touring Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was originally discovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham. It is thought to have been constructed sometime around 1450-1460, likely as a royal estate for Pachacutec Inca Yapanqui. It was used for approximately 80 years before it was abandoned, possibly as a consequence of the Spanish Conquest in other parts of the Incan empire, although the conquistadors never actually made it to Machu Picchu. Another theory is that the inhabitants of Machu Picchu died out from smallpox outbreaks introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

A group of Japanese geologists in 2000 discovered that the earth beneath the site is shifting at an alarming rate. This shift is probably exacerbated in part by heavy visitor traffic. Therefore, new restrictions have been put in place to limit the number of people on site at any given time. Whereas previously visitors could enter Machu Picchu at any hour and stay as long as they wished, the new policy as of 2019 is that each ticket allows for a timed entry of about 2 hours, and tours must follow a one way route through the complex. Hopefully this will slow down any further damage to the site.

Our tour was booked in the early morning, so we had a 6 am start to catch the bus from Aguas Calientes. Our guide Cliser took us around all of Machu Picchu, and as usual gave us a ton of information which I doubt I can summarize nearly as eloquently, so here are some photos.

Watching the sunrise.

Passing by some llamas.

Exploring the ruins.

Taking it all in.

Following the tour, some of our keen group members went on to hike Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu, the mountains surrounding the complex. We opted to head back to town and spent the rainy afternoon walking around and exploring the market, which was full of stalls selling the same overpriced souvenirs. There isn’t much else to do in Aguas Calientes and it’s quite the tourist trap.

End of a journey

We caught the train back to Ollantaytambo later in the afternoon. We were booked on the upgraded Vistadome train which offered some surprising entertainment, including a ‘cultural dance’ and fashion show.

On arrival in Ollantaytambo, we were picked up for a drive back to Cusco. The winding roads caused extreme motion sickness, so the last part of our return trip was unfortunately not as entertaining. As such, I didn’t have a chance to have a final farewell dinner with my friends from Vancouver so will have to plan a trip out west to reconnect one day.

In spite of the physical discomfort during and after our Inca Trail trek, I am so glad we were able to do this. Another once in a lifetime experience checked off my travel bucket list!

😂 Chuckles

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