Hiking the Inca Trail is one of those bucket list items for anyone planning a trip to Machu Picchu, and it’s something that I had been contemplating ever since my first visit when I took the easy route and rode the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes. I knew I wanted to come back and walk the trail one day, and that opportunity presented itself when Sam’s parents decided they would be travelling to Peru. Just like that, the famed Inca Trail quickly worked its way up our travel itinerary!
There are a lot of different trek options out there for anyone considering the Inca Trail; you have a 2-day Inca Trail, the standard 4-day Inca Trail, and even a 10-day hike if you want to tack on Choquequirao, which is considered to be Machu Picchu’s lesser known and far more isolated sister city.
After much debating over which trek to do, we all settled on the 2-day Inca Trail. Since none of us had done anything longer than a 2-day trek before, we figured this one would be relatively easy (not quite!), plus we were also lured by the thought of having a comfortable hotel bed at the end of the walk rather than camping out in tents (I guess my taste in travel is changing).
We joined Action Peru Treks for our hike based on the recommendation of a friend of a friend, and they were amazing! (Seriously one of the best tours I’ve been on to date.) Our guide, Roxner, met with us in Cuzco a few days before the trek and he made sure we were prepared and knew what to pack. It was nice having this time to ask questions and go over the details, plus once we got on the trail we felt completely confident in his abilities. He was knowledgeable, let us set a pace we were comfortable with, made sure that no one got left behind, and he was also there to assist us through the tricky parts.
For anyone considering doing the 2-day Inca Trail, here’s a look at what to expect:
Day 1: Walking the Inca Trail
The first day of the trek started long before the sun came up. We had a 3 a.m. wake up call at the hotel to finish packing our bags for the hike, and then at 4 a.m. our driver came to pick us up and take us all the way to Ollantaytambo where would catch the train heading towards Aguas Calientes. It was about a 2 hour drive, and since it was still dark out, I took the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep.
When we arrived in Ollantaytambo at 6 a.m. and boarded the Peru Rail train, I was surprised to see how much the train had changed since my first visit some 7+ years ago. Gone were the hard wooden benches, and instead these had been upgraded to plush and comfortable seats. Not only that, but there were also additional windows on the ceiling so that you could enjoy the looming mountains along the way. We even got complimentary tea and pastries aboard the train. Peru Rail is getting fancy!
We were on the train for about an hour and a half before we reached our stop: Kilometre 104. This is technically an unscheduled stop, so the guides have to carry special permits in order for their hikers to be let off. We hopped off the train with our bags in tow and walked down to the shores of the Urubamba River where we were greeted with a wooden bridge leading into the thick jungle and a few clouds hanging in the morning air. Could you ask for a better welcome to the Inca Trail?
As soon as we checked in to the trail, we came across our first archaeological site of the day: Chachabamba. This site sits at 2,170 meters and it was one of the last shelters that the Incas used before reaching Machu Picchu. It also operated as a religious and administrative centre.
After visiting Chachabamba we began the slow ascent on the Inca Stone steps. The trail was steep for the first 2 hours, but it eventually levelled out (for a few brief stretches, anyway). During that time we stopped at 2 different shelters where we cooled off in the shade and enjoyed some snacks.
By lunchtime we reached a waterfall and unpacked our boxed lunches which were provided to us by Action Peru Treks. Inside our lunch boxes we had fried rice with chicken, crackers, bottled water, and lots of fresh fruit. I was so famished at that point in the hike that I could have eaten anything!
From there we continued on to Wiñay Wayna which sits at 2,650 meters. This was the highlight of the Inca Trail for me!
Wiñay Wayna is one of the most beautiful archeological sites I have ever seen, and I daresay it gives Machu Picchu a good run for its money.
What makes it special is that there is hardly a soul there, plus the terraces are built in a really cool amphitheatre formation that allows you to see the whole area. These terraces were built to grow different crops and you’ll also find a temple that was dedicated to the rainbow.
We also got to see Intipata in the distance (this is another archaeological site that sits at 2,750 meters), however, we didn’t get to visit since it’s on the other side of the valley and it would have involved a bit of a downhill-uphill detour.
I really enjoyed the section of the trail from the waterfall to Wiñay Wayna because the landscape changed quite drastically. As we trekked closer to the water, the temperatures became cooler, the vegetation became greener, and at times it felt like we were walking through a moss-covered forest. It was a welcomed change after the hot temperature and dryer landscape we had experienced near the start of our trek.
After visiting Wiñay Wayna we got back on the trail and charged on. Our next landmark on the trail was Intipunku, also known as the Sun Gate, and then after a long day of walking, we were there!
Here our group paused for a few moment to relish the moment: we had our first glimpse of Machu Picchu! All around us there were fellow hikers high-fiveing, crying, napping on the terraces and taking their first Machu Picchu selfies. It was a moment none of us will soon forget.
After getting our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, there was still some work left to be done. We continued along the same trail and inched closer to the city. I encountered some llamas and had to snap my first #LlamaSelfie, and then once we reached the gate to Machu Picchu, we hopped on the bus and took it down to Aguas Calientes. That’s right, Machu Picchu would have to wait until the following day.
Day 2: Visiting Machu Picchu
Our second day called for another early wake up call. We were up at 5 a.m., grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel, and then hightailed it to the bus stop where we caught one of the first buses up the mountain. The idea had been to watch the sunrise in Machu Picchu, but that was a bit of a bust. The first few hours were plagued with rolling clouds and light rain, however, by mid-morning things were starting to look up; the rain had stopped and the clouds were slowly starting to lift.
We then got a 3 hour walking tour of the site with our guide. (This is something that I had been too cheap to do the first time I visited, and as a result I hadn’t learned anything that time around.) So if you do decide to visit Machu Picchu, this is something you shouldn’t skimp out on.
After the tour of the Machu Picchu, we bid our guide farewell and had some free time to roam on our own and visit the places we were interested in. Sam and I ran around doing our silly video antics, and then we took a rest on one of the terraces.
I have to say, Machu Picchu was just as magical the second time around!
So would I recommend hiking the 2-day Inca Trail?
Since the 2-day Inca Trail only requires one full day of walking, I think it’s a good option for people who are relatively fit but don’t want to commit to the longer treks out there. It’s a beautiful hike with some impressive ruins (I’m looking at you Wiñay Wayna!) and you get to see some cool changes in vegetation along the way.
That being said, it is a full day of physical work, so don’t go into it thinking that it’ll be a walk in the park. Some sections of the trail have a really steep incline, you’ll be climbing tall stone steps, and there are parts where the ground is quite uneven. You’ll have to earn your admission to Machu Picchu, but I think it’s worth it.
In retrospect, I do think I could have tackled the longer trail, but maybe that’ll give me a reason to come back a third time one day. Who knows, maybe next time you’ll find me doing the 10-day trek to Choquequirao!
Have you hiked the Inca Trail?
Have you done any other hikes around the world that you’d recommend?