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Peruvian Serendipity: Cuzco and the Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

Updated on May 17, 2014
Llama in front of Machu Picchu
Llama in front of Machu Picchu

You’ve finally made it to Peru! You’re in the cusp of South America, at the crossroads of dazzling geography and diverse culture. Once you get away from Lima, you’ll be climbing into the Andes Mountains. From a plane, the long grooves that form the foothills look like ancient scars. It’s impressive to think of the Quechua messengers who bounded over this immense landscape hundreds of years ago. Soon, that will be your task. In a few days’ time, you’ll be acclimatized and ready to tackle one of the best excursions in the world: the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

It begins with a bit of cultural intake in Cuzco, where the architectural remnants of past civilizations exist in the form of perfectly-carved, precisely positioned massive blocks of stone. These serve as the foundations of the more “modern” Spanish buildings. Even before Machu Picchu, make sure you get a good guide for the city as well, because there are too many delectable details to leave to guessing. Plus, it’s always good to have a translator so you can interact with the cholitas (the Quechuan women who have bowler hats, petticoats and wool skirts or polleras—most vendors are cholitas). For sightseeing, the best ticket to purchase is the Boleto Turistico de Cuzco, which is the ticket that gives you pan-access to many of the sites. Don’t miss Sacsayhuaman—it has a rock as big as a bus and no one knows how it got there!

Mother and Daughter in front of Machu Picchu
Mother and Daughter in front of Machu Picchu

Eventually it will be time to hike to Machu Picchu. The best tour companies are the ones that handle everything for you beforehand. Don’t get me wrong—you will have your fair share of contributions to make, mostly in the form of muscular exertion! But if you can manage to get a good guide, you will be happy you took the extra investigative effort later on. Why? Because a guide who knows their stuff puts you at ease while at the same time offering an insight into a hike that maybe some of the other 500 people allowed daily onto the trail do not get. Look at client reviews!

The Machu Picchu hike along the Classic Inca Trail lasts from 4 to 5 days. There’s actually a way to cut it into a single day, but with all of the historical and cultural experiences you can immerse yourself in, along the way the full trek is surely worth your time and money.

Inca Trail hiker
Inca Trail hiker

So, where does it all begin? 50 miles outside of Cuzco you start at one of two distinct trailheads. The more popular one is Piscacucho, and you’ll arrive via a winding way through the gorgeous Sacred Valley. The trek begins right away, across a suspension bridge and along the Urubamba River (which is the river that flows around the base of Machu Picchu). If your guide is the talkative type, you might get to learn about the giant cactuses that speckle the way, with views onto Mount Veronica.

Here’s a tip: whenever you get snagged by a branch or trip on a rock, instead of English, say “Aii kay way-vada!” Your guide will love it; it basically means “oh! Damn thing!” It won’t take long for you to see how warm the Peruvian people are.

You’ll pass places with names like Patallaqta, Cusichaka, Wayllabamba. Some of these places are actually permanent population centers of just a few hundred people. Feel free to snap photos of the surrounds, but remember that you should always ask before photographing the people themselves.

Lares Trail 2
Lares Trail 2

There’s so much more to see, including arriving through natural mountain tunnels to the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, down thousands of steps to Wiñaywayna and to the farming terraces of the Aobamba Valley. But the final, blissful feeling comes at Inti Punku on the 4th or 5th day. This is the Sun Gate, offering the first view down onto Machu Picchu. The hike is complete, or almost; those who have managed to preserve enough energy might choose to next tackle Huayna Picchu, the highest point behind the main Incan site (you have to book this in advance, so don’t forget!)

There are many parts of the Inca Trail that are paved in stone. Steps will lead you you on an ascent into the Andean heights, reaching the highest point at Dead Woman’s Pass (you will hear different stories as to why it’s been called that, but it might be because the views are too incredible to pay any attention to while not falling down). Pacaymayo Valley follows, which is filled with spectacular waterfalls.

Soon after this discovery came another, the Runkuraqay ruins, an ancient Inca lookout post. Its circular shape and roofless stone buildings make it something that looks like it has been designed to be viewed from above. Beyond this site are more stairs of the Camino Inca, a second pass from which you can see Dead Woman’s, and then a steep descent via switchbacks, hence the name locals gave it. Eventually you come upon the Sayacmarca ruin, a mini-Machu Picchu prominent on its promontory. The guide will point out the strangely perfect state of the water canal system that once provided for this ancient fortress.


Bien hecho, you’ve arrived! Like I’ve said, the Peruvians are especially friendly, warm and personable. Everywhere you go on this trail you’ll be treated to Peruvian warmth, and after 4 arduous days of trekking to finally arrive at Machu Picchu, you can be sure that your guides will be all smiles and hugs. If you will allow yourself the breaking of etiquette, say to your guide “gracias, fuay day poota madray!” It’s an innocently vulgar way to say that hiking to Machu Picchu was absolutely rocking!

Gear List

Miscellaneous Gear
Clothing (packed)
Sleeping bag
Clothes bag
Insect Repellent
Bag liner
Spare batteries
Grooming kit
Medicated wipes
Hand sanitizer
Bug hat
Hiking shoes

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