The Inca were one crazy-ass people. Genius-crazy, but crazy nonetheless. Which is why I desperately wanted to walk in their footsteps to catch my first glimpse of their cloud city of Machu Picchu.
The only problem with this plan was the fact that the Inca Trail isn’t your average walk in the park. First of all, the original ‘trail’ was a 40,000 km road system connecting regions as far north as Quito, Ecuador, and south past Santiago, Chile. So we weren’t going to be hiking that.
The Inca Trail we wanted to hike was of course the most famous piece: the 43km stretch leading into Machu Picchu. But even that marathon length was more hike than I was prepared to attempt. Firstly because the 4 days required to complete the hike involved some serious climbing at high altitude (Day Two you climb more than 1200 metres up to 4200 metres), and secondly we would be camping on the trail for 3 nights during the shoulder season – read ‘rainy season’. Not being a true camper (more on my type of camping here), it didn’t sound like my cup of tea (not even the local Mate de Coca (tea made from the cocaine plant).
Happily for me, there was a perfect option: a 1-day hike that begins at Kilometer 104 of the trail – a manageable 4-6 hour, 600-metre climb that still offered us the ‘ta-dah!’ moment we wanted.
The hike started quite unceremoniously, with our early morning train out of Ollantaytambo stopping on the tracks for a few moments to allow us to jump off. No platform, no fanfare, and only a small bridge and a sign to acknowledge we were setting foot on the hallowed path.
But as anticlimactic as the start may have been, the middle and end of our trek was everything we could have imagined and more. Starting with a moderately-paced ascent during the coolest part of the morning, we walked past ruins, through lush greenery, crossing narrow bridges across steep gorges, the whole while climbing further from the river valley below us.
There were wonderful surprises that awaited us along the way – like Winay Wayna, a spectacular ruin about an hour outside of the Sun Gate entrance to Machu Picchu, where we found ourselves with the huge ruin completely to ourselves! It’s these kind of unexpected, less-famous-but-equally-impressive discoveries that make trips more memorable, so we took advantage of our private visit by simply sitting and marvelling at the incredible effort required to carry up the thousands of stones used to construct the terraces and structures around us.
An hour or so later (you don’t rush moments like that), it was onto the final stretch where after climbing up through the Sun Gate, we finally set our eyes for the first time on the million-dollar view of Machu Picchu. Surrounded by terraces where grazing llamas roamed freely, the city perched on a rock below us, surrounded on all sides by cloud-topped mountains. Taking a cue from our visit at Winay Wayna, we parked ourselves on the grass overlooking the city, and for several hours just took it all in. This was one of the destinations we had anticipated for so long, so we wanted to take advantage of the time we had to really appreciate what we were seeing.
The decision to hike the Trail, albeit even a small part of it, had been the perfect introduction to Machu Picchu. Because even though we had seen all kinds of pictures of this storied site, no photo could capture the experience of following in the footsteps of the people who built this city. Entering this magical city via the Inca Trail helped us appreciate the sheer madness of building something in so inaccessible and beautiful a location. Crazy beautiful, in fact.
TIP: Although the 1-day hike is easily doable if you are even reasonably fit, there is always the option to continue on the train to the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu, where a shuttle bus can take you up to the site. I would highly recommend allowing a couple of days to visit the site, in case the summit is socked in with clouds or rain. Plus extra time gives you the chance to see the city at sunrise AND sunset.