Category Archives: Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail: A Personal View

Steph from Into Latin America has spent many years leading tour groups in South America.  Here she gives a personal perspective on her favorite trek:  The Inca Trail

Steph enjoying the Inca Trail

Steph enjoying the Inca Trail

How many times do you think you have walked the Inca Trail?

25

Would you do it again?

Yes

Are there any memorable moments from your time on the Inca Trail?

I saw a bear!  It was from a distance but visible with the naked eye.  We watched it from Runcuracay ruins for a good 20 minutes.  Many guides who have done the trail for 20 years plus have still never seen one.

Often I missed the site of Sayacmarca as it would be down to me to go ahead with trekkers who were tired,  while the guide did a tour of the site.  One time though I had the chance to look around the Sayacmarca and pretty much had it to myself, looking out over the cloud forest and just taking in the peace and beauty of the place.

The cloud forest has a certain smell that I call the Machu Picchu smell.  It’s hard to describe but I love it.

What is your most and least favourite part?

Puyupatamarca

Puyupatamarca

Most:

Watching the sunrise on Salkantay from Puyupatamarca

The section between Sayacmarca and Puyupatamarca for its variety of flora and birds and views across the valley of dense cloud forest.

Seeing my group arrive at the Sun Gate and getting their first glimpse of Machu Picchu.  On the 5 day Inca Trail you get there mid afternoon and I have been able sometimes to sit there for half an hour or so with them, just contemplating Machu Picchu and reflecting on the achievement of getting there.

Yumm Pancakes

Yumm Pancakes

Pancakes with dulce de leche for breakfast at Puyupatamarca.

Least:

Being cold!  A down jacket and a good sleeping bag are essential.

Getting to Wiñay Wayna campsite where, if you do the 5 day Inca Trail, you see a lot of people for the first time on day 4.  t’s quite a shock after feeling that you are away from it all.  A reminder that soon you will be back in the real world when usually I would have been happy to stay out in the sticks for much longer.

What is the reaction of other travelers to do the Inca Trail for the first time?

It’s great to be there when people realize their dream of being in Peru and walking the Inca Trail; and then it exceeds their expectations.  I have seen people cry with joy, pain and tiredness but at the end everybody is always exhilarated and that’s great to see.

Porters at Deas Womans Pass

Porters at Dead Womans Pass

Who are the other people on the Inca Trail?  What’s it like to trek so often with guides and porters?

The Inca Trail team consists of a guide, assistant guide (or 2 if group is larger than 7), a cook, assistant cook, head porter, one porter per 2 customers, and horses (as far as Wayllabamba).  Over the years you see many familiar faces, most of them come from the same village.  When I first started working on the Inca Trail in 2004,  I practiced Spanish a lot by walking with the assistant guide and played countless games of cards with the team.  The cooks not only produce amazing meals every single time but also have a tea for every ailment you can think of.

What are your essential things that you always take with you?

From the Sun Gate, Machu Picchu

From the Sun Gate, Machu Picchu

Chocolate – you get given plenty of food and snacks but I would save this as a special treat to have at Dead Woman’s or the Runcuracay pass – or both!

A pillow that folds into a small bag,  given to me by a customer once.

Coca leaves to share with the porters.

Pack of cards

See here for more on the Inca Trail

Machu Picchu Anniversary

On July 24th 2011, Peru is celebrating the day, 100 years earlier, when Hiram Bingham quite accidentally discovered Machu Picchu.  He wasn’t the first person to find it, but he was the first to recognize its significance.  Thus began the dramatic rise of Machu Picchu as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the most visited tourist site in South America and the emblematic symbol of Peru and the Incas.

Machu Picchu in 1912

Machu Picchu in 1912

Build up to the Discovery

In July 1911, Hiram Bingham and his Yale University expedition team were roaming the mountains of Peru looking for Vilcabamba, the fabled last city of the Incas.  Records left by Spanish chroniclers led Bingham to believe that he could found the city in the continuation of the Urubamba River.  His team had been promised amazing Inca sites in the past, only to be let down when locals led them to some simple huts.  It is no surprise, then, that when local innkeeper, Mechor Areaga told Bingham of a city on top of a steep and slippery cliff, the explorer was a little skeptical.

Rout Along The Urubamba River

Rout Along The Urubamba River

An Accidental Find

As Bingham relates in his book, Lost City of The Incas, the team met Arteaga at what is now the outskirts of Aguas Calientes.  At the time he was the owner of the local ‘inn’, a grass roofed affair, and was quite put out that the explorers preferred to sleep in their tents.  When Arteaga heard the group were looking for Inca ruins, he offered to show them a city hidden on the cliffs nearby.  The next morning dawned drizzly and there was little enthusiasm for the trip.  Bingham’s companions chose to do their washing and look for butterflies rather than go climbing up an overgrown and difficult mountain.  Bingham,  Arteaga and the local Sergeant escort arrived at the top of the difficult climb to find a series of terraces being farmed by two men named Richarte and Alvarez.  These local farmers had unknowingly made the sacred Inca site their home; saying they enjoyed being hidden away from visitors.  Ironically enough, their once hidden home is now the most visited place in South America.

Bingham continued on to Machu Picchu proper and saw that the stonework was of incredibly good quality.  He claimed that he immediately recognized that the site was built for ceremonial purposes, though it is more likely that he only discovered this later. In short, you get the impression that Bingham was initially not impressed by Machu Picchu. After all, this was not the last city of the Incas that he had been looking for.

Hiram Bingham

Hiram Bingham

Hiram Bingham

Bingham was a man looking for a big find; something to make his fame and fortune. In 1911 he thought he might find glory with the discovery of some bones found in an ice hole.  Gradually he realized that the collection of terraces and white granite walls that make up Machu Picchu, were to be his legacy.

In 1912 Bingham returned to Peru with a team from Yale University to excavate Machu Picchu and the rest, is history.

Explore Peru

Nowadays, with the popularity of Machu Picchu as a tourist destination, it is difficult to recreate that sense of discovery experienced by Bingham.  On the other side of the mountains, though, Choquequirau sees just a handful of visitors and parts of the ruins are still emerging from the dense vegetation.  Kuelap, in the north of Peru, sits quietly and dramatically on top of a mountain as it has for 500 years.  Other nearby forts of the Chachapoyan people are completely covered by dense forest.  Bingham did finally get to the last Inca city at Espiritu Pampa and even now, the 8 day trek there is an Indiana Jones style adventure into the unknown.

Photos from National Geographic

Hidden Forts Near Chachapoyas

Hidden Forts Near Chachapoyas

Inca Trail: Whats the Big Deal?

This iconic trek to Machu Picchu is often misunderstood and confused with other alternative treks around Cusco.  Here we outline the basics on the Inca Trail and why it’s so special.

What is the Inca Trail?

The fact is there isn’t just one Inca Trail.  The Incas built a massive system of trails all across their empire for transporting goods, soldiers and sending messages.  Quapaq Ňan,  or Great Inca Road,  was the principal highway and it ran for a staggering  6,000km from Colombia, through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and down into Chile.  It is possible to follow the whole trail though only 25% is still visible.  Just ask Laurent Granier and Megan Soon who walked the whole Inca Road in a mere 18months!

Inca Road through Sangay NP, Ecuador

Kyle on the Inca Trail in Ecuador

What’s the Classic Inca Trail?

The best preserved part of the massive network of Inca Trails is the 43 km section running from the Sacred Valley to the Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru.  The normal time for walking along the Inca Trail section is the much more manageable 4 days, though the 5 day Inca Trail is highly recommended.

Why do the Inca Trail?

Hiking the Inca Trail

Hiking the Inca Trail

This fabulous trail through the Andes is an iconic trek.  The Inca Trail is consistently voted as one of the top 5 treks in the world alongside the likes of treks in Nepal and the Alps.  The Inca Trail offers an unbeatable combination of varied scenery, history and local Peru culture; not forgetting the spectacular finish as you descend to the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu.  The route is littered with birds, orchids, Inca ruins and spectacular views with a great variety of scenery each day.  A really great all round trek.

What is it like on the Inca Trail?

You walk through a variety of landscapes including traditional farming communities, cloud forest and high Andean paramo with beautiful views of snow capped mountain ranges; so each day gives you completely different scenery and experience.
The trail is sometimes on Inca-built stone pathways or even a few steep stone steps, at other times it is a regular, clear trail.
There are opportunities for seeing grazing llamas, humming birds and plenty of orchids and, if you are lucky, the elusive spectacled bear.
On each day there are impressive Inca ruins to explore (time permitting)
For the regular 4 day Inca Trail, the toughest day is the second taking you over the highest pass (appropriately named Dead Woman’s Pass) at over 4, 000 m.

Look into the 5 Day Inca Trail for a more relaxed pace and more opportunities for exploring on the way.

Orchids over Machu Picchu

Orchids Over Machu Picchu

It is a challenging trek but with full support from experienced guides and porters, anyone who is reasonably fit can achieve.

Is the Inca Trail overcrowded?

The Inca trail became a victim of its own success in the ´90s and suffered environmental damage.  To address this, the government imposed many  regulations including a limit on the number of people that can be on the trail at any one time.  Anybody wishing to do the Inca trail must do so as part of an organized group and must have a permit to enter the trail.  As the numbers of permits are strictly limited,  places fill up fast so you need to book your spot in advance.  To get away from the crowds you could take the 5 Day Inca Trail.

What is an Alternative Inca Trail?

Peru has some of the best trekking on the world.  There are plenty of alternative treks you can do BUT there is only ONE Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and this is the only trek that will take you directly to Machu Picchu.  Other alternatives such as Lares, Salkantay, the Weavers Way and the Inca Jungle Trail are all good treks – but they  end up at the train station, not at Machu Picchu.

Denise Van Outen, Fearne Cotton Machu Picchu Challenge: What did they really do?

More well known for their glamorous lifestyles, UK celebrities  Denise Van Outen,  Fearne Cotton, Alexandra Burke, Amanda Byram, Gabriella Cilm were all over the UK press when they did a trek to Machu Picchu to raise awareness for Breast Cancer Care.  They were joined on the trek by six ladies diagnosed with the disease, and a film crew.  Follow in their footsteps

The media said that they did the famous Inca Trail, but what did they actually do?

Here is what they most probably did plus some insights into the experience and what they might have seen on the way.

First of all they didn’t do the classic Inca Trail but rather a Lares Trek.

What is a Lares Trek?

Lares is a mountainous area outside the city of Cusco,  not too far from Machu Picchu.  There are various hikes you can do here – called Lares Treks because they start or finish in the town  of Lares.

Is it cheating not to do the Inca Trail?

Not at all.  Take a look:

Day 1: Hot springs and waterfalls

A car will have taken them from Cusco, through the Sacred Valley and up into the Andean Altiplano at heights of 3700m.  It’s a tough start on the steep zig-zag path that heads up to the pass at 420mm.  The rewards though are views of beautiful blue lakes and waterfalls as they head down to the town of Lares.   Just outside of town is the fabulous Lares Hot Springs.  The springs are operated by the community and consist of various pools.  There is one large pool you can swim in,  then three smaller pools that go from fairly chilly to ‘oh my,  I can only manage a minute’ hot.  It is a great place to camp the night but the celebs carried on that day to the small community of Cuncani . It’s clear from this Mirror article the celebs enjoyed the hot springs.

Local grandparesnt outside their home

Local grandparents

People in these villages grow potatoes and other root villages and keep llamas or alpacas to earn a living.  It is a very basic lifestyle.  Women  still weave their clothes in a traditional way.  People live in stone-built houses with thatched roves and cook on basic wood fires, and have no doubt never heard of the visiting celebs.

In the kitchen you are bound to find plenty of guinea pigs squealing .  These animals have special significance and are eaten on festival and celebration days, not a pleasant idea for the vegetarians in the group.

Young girls selling weaving Lares

Local girls sell weavings to make money for their families

Some villages in the Lares valleys have benefitted from tourism with organizations supporting local schools, and tourists buying small weavings as souvenirs, or bottles of cola,  but life is generally  hard and people are poor.  Trekkers are likely to see women and children looking after their alpacas, or men carrying goods by mule to the nearest towns for sale.

Definitely no phones, internet or other trappings of modern day living!

Day 2 : Snowy peaks and mountain communities

The ladies will probably have got up stiff after a night in a tent at altitudes.  No hot showers up here!  Some typical effects of altitude are difficulty sleeping, strange dreams and flatulence.

Camp site on Lares trek

Camp site in the mountains, Lares

A cook will have handed them a cup of hot coca tea to wake them up.  The coca leaves are enthusiastically chewed or made into tea in this area to help with the effects of altitude.  Breakfast will be hearty to prepare for the day ahead and served in a dining tent.

It’s likely that the large group of foreigners attracted the attention of plenty of local children who follow along asking for sweets.  It’s now the practice in the area that guides will advise people what to do about this and might suggest visitors give out bread or school supplies instead.

This day will have seen them pass some spectacular scenery.  The Lares area has some white giants brooding over it in the form of the snow capped peaks of Chicon and Pumahuanja and huge open valleys populated with azure lakes.

Finishing in the community of Huacahuasi  (pronounced wakawasi), the group might have set up camp in the stone shelter of a llama coral.  These corrals are a feature of the landscape here.  It is often the job of the children to bring the animals into the corrals at dusk to keep them safe from predators such as pumas.

Day 3:  High passes and lakes

This is the hardest day of the trek as it is a long day with a pass of 4200m.  Just to give an idea,  that’s more than three times  higher than Ben Nevis.

There are fewer communities here and no road transport but fabulous views of the snow capped peaks to the north covered in glaciers.

Tempted??

Glaciated peak, Lares

Glaciated Peak, Lares

Sleep is on the edge of a lake formed by glaciers – so definitely no swimming!   At this height, the sun is very strong.  As soon as the sun goes down, though, you’ll be putting on your alpaca hats and socks.  If your cold toes can stand it, it is worth sitting outside the tent for the fabulous views of the stars away from pollution and city lights.

Day 4; Machu Picchu at last!

Let’s give the ladies the benefit of the doubt and say they did arrive in Machu Picchu on the Inca trail; then the day went like this:

After an early start they walk downhill to where a car is there to take them down the bumpy road back to civilization. Then take a train to the practically named Km 104.

Here it is totally different terrain. It is an amazing experience to start the day in high Andean mountains with glaciated lakes, and then trek through lush cloud forests leading to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

Macchu Picchu

The final part is up 50 stone steps made by the Incas just to give that final challenge.

At the top, though, is the Sun Gate and the amazing, iconic view of Machu Picchu – a truly unforgettable moment for anyone!

After a much deserved rest and a tour of magical Machu Picchu, they could finally sleep in a hotel bed with hot showers, eat indoors in a local restaurant, and take the train back to the city of Cusco.

Are you up to the challenge?

Why the Lares Trek and not the usual Inca Trail?

  • The Inca Trail is a great hike but is very popular and some people want to be with less trekkers.
  • Because of the popularity the authorities have limited the number of tourists who can start the trek each day to around 200.   You need to apply for a permit to do the Inca Trail quite far in advance
  • On the Lares Treks you can hire horses and mules to help carry your bags – or you!  On the Inca Trail the porters carry everything on their backs.
  • The main reason many people chose a trek in the Lares area is for the chance to mix with local people and see a traditional way of life that hasn’t changed much for centuries.
  • There are less Inca runis on the Lares treks but the scenery is open and spectacular.

This sounds great but I’m not sure about all that hiking and tents

Have no fear!  It is possible to get to Machu Picchu in a more relaxed style – just hop on a train!

Coming up….what else is there around Machu Picchu for the girls?  Some top tips from the ladies at Into Latin America

Thank you to Al Toth for photos of Lares

Machu Picchu for Beginners

 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

What is Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu is a large complex of ruins.  It is the remains of an important city built by the Incas around 1400.  It’s also called the ’The lost City of the Incas’ and is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Where is Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu is located in the Andean mountains of Peru ,South America.  The nearest substantial city with an airport is called Cusco or Cuzco.  To get to Cusco you need to fly, or take a 22 hour bus,  from Lima, the capital of Peru.

Can I stay at Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu is perched in a stunning location on top of a mountain.  There is just one hotel near the site, or sanctuary. At the bottom of a hill is a town full of hotels called Aguas Calientes.  You can stay in a hotel or hostel in Aguas and then walk, or take a bus up to the site of Machu Picchu.

How can I get to Machu Picchu?

Train route diagram

Train to Machu Picchu

Apart from the very short road between Aguas and Machu Picchu, there are no roads to the site.  You have to take a train or walk.

Most people take the train.  Trains travel from Cusco (or Poroy just outside), through the Sacred Valley,  to Aguas Calientes.  You can get on the train in Poroy, or in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.

What is the Inca Trail?

The Inca Trail is a section of Inca pathways that lead to Machu Picchu.  To walk the Inca Trail takes around 3 days and passes many Inca sites along the way.

Many travel agencies now offer ‘Alternative Inca Trails’.  These are treks of 2 days or more that finish around Aguas Calientes.  None of the Alternative Treks finish at Machu Picchu and you will usually have to take a train at some point.  Examples of alternatives are Salkantay, Lares and the Inca Jungle Trail.

What else is there to visit near Machu Picchu?

Cusco is a beautiful historic city that was once an Inca capital.  Between Cusco and Machu Picchu is the Sacred Valley of the Incas, also full of historic sites.  The Amazon jungle is also easy to visit from Cusco.  There is a lot of biking and hiking and arts and crafts in the area.

To see what else there is to do and see in Peru, take a look at Into Latin America