Standing next to me at the wash basins in the first Western-style toilets I had seen for four days, a perfectly-styled day-tripper to Machu Picchu was touching up her lipstick. As I stood there in my trekking gear, no make-up, and a bandana covering more than one bad hair day, I smiled :-) Caked in four days' worth of sweat, sun-cream, and insect repellent, and knowing that I'd survived four days of no showers and squat toilets that brought a whole new meaning to the term “bathroom decoration”, it hit me just how amazing the journey had been.

Without a doubt, the 15th Century Inca City of Machu Picchu, located at 2,430m, is impressive. After the Incas abandoned the site as a result of the Spanish Conquest, the city's existence was only known to local farmers for hundreds of years – that is until 1911, when the American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, brought the site to international attention. Maybe it was the international attention and the masses of camera-toting tourists that dampened our spirits. Maybe it was the weather and the Sun Gate disguised more as a “Cloud Gate”, or the exhaustion of getting up at 3am to reach our goal ahead of the 80-strong “Swedish Army” with whom we'd crossed paths the past few days. Somehow, knowing what we had been through to get to Machu Picchu, arriving at the site was a just a little underwhelming.

Our German-speaking friends will know the popular phrase “Der Weg ist das Ziel” - which translates roughly into English as “the journey is the reward/it's the journey, not the destination”. For us, this sums up our four-day journey to Machu Picchu perfectly. Spent with fabulous guides and out-of-this-world porters, it counts as one of the most incredible experiences we have ever had.

This is a glimpse at our Inca Trail experience:

The Route

Day 1

The Stats:

Start point: Km82 along the railway line at a height of 2,800m

End point: Wayllabamba at 2,950m

We were pleasantly surprised by Day 1, which definitely eases you in gently. From Ollantaytanbo, we bussed to Km82 where our purple army of porters busily went about distributing our sleeping bags and weighing our duffel bags. Each trekker is allowed a maximum of 6kg to ensure the porters' load does not exceed 20kg.

After sighting some Inca ruins and gorgeous scenery....

...we reached our first stop where the porters – yes, they left us in their tracks! - clapped us on our arrival and had prepared lunch. And we're not just talking the bog-standard pasta and sauce combo that normally provides our staple camping diet, but rather a 3-course meal up at altitude. Considering that the porters carried all our luggage, plus the kitchen tent, cooking equipment, food, and goodness knows what else – AND they scurry past you at incredible speeds carrying all that weight, it's slightly embarrassing that they should applaud our accomplishments. The applause truly belongs to them.

At 2950m, we reached Wayllabamba where our tents were already pitched, hot water placed in front of our tents, and dinner was being prepared. Time for a bit of footie at altitude, then dinner, and day 1 was behind us.

Day 2

The Stats:

Start point: Wayllabamba, 2,950m

End point: Pacaymayo, 3,600m

Day 2 is notorious for being tough as you climb around 1,200m to reach Dead Woman's Pass (Warmi Wañusqa) at a height of 4,215m. I was hoping not to be another dead woman at the top. After our 5am wake-up call and breakfast pancakes, we set off through lush green woods, spotting the odd hummingbird and butterflies on the way. The scenery was “breathtaking” in more ways than one – darn that altitude! After a seemingly endless climb, it was time for a tipple of rum at the top, before starting the knee-jarringly steep descent to our next campsite at Pacaymayo. You guessed it, the porters were there before us, had set up camp, and were busy preparing our pasta bake and chicken dinner. Delish!

Day 3 

The Stats: 

Start point: Pacaymayo, 3,600m 

End point: Wiñay Wayna, 2,650m 

The third day is known as the cultural day as you pass numerous Inca ruins – not to mention the landscape changing to cloud forest with moss-covered trees, ferns, bamboo and orchids.

The highlight was this view at Intipata – how can you beat that? 

Knowing that the toughest part of the trek was behind us, and with the “Swedish army” and the tourists that would greet us the next day nowhere to be seen, it was a special moment to have this stunning view all to ourselves. 

Nearby our final campsite was the impressive ruin of Wiñay Wayna – and this, with only the odd weary hiker and llama in sight, was more atmospheric than Machu Picchu itself. 

On Day 3, the porters also introduced themselves to us – but I have such a soft spot for those guys that they deserve their own chapter below...

Day 4

Start point: ,Wiñay Wayna 2,650m

End point: Machu Picchu, 2,430m

Our Porters and Guides – The Heart and Soul of the Inca Trail

They fed us (and boy, how they fed us! We're talking 3-course meals each day), boiled the water to make sure we didn't get sick, carried our bags, tents for our party of 16, food for us and them, gas tanks for cooking, kitchen tents, stools, and goodness knows what else. They pitched our tents and placed the correct duffels in each one, brought us hot water and soap each morning to wash, woke us up with cups of coca tea at our tent doors, organized afternoon tea with bikkies or popcorn. The chef, complete with chef's hat, even baked/steamed us a cake – at 3,000 m, I tell you. I simply couldn't say “Sulpayki” (thank you in Quechuan) to the porters enough. And it was for that reason that I had a bit of a “Kleenex moment” when our group of shy, friendly-faced porters (Porter Group Number 12) introduced themselves to us after lunch on Day 3. Armed with a few sentences in Quechuan, we introduced ourselves, too: Nokaj sutimin Karen/Roland. Noka kani Inglaterra/Alemania manta.

Our 24 porters pulled out all the stops to ensure our well-being and enjoyment on the trek. The oldest porter in our group was 65, the youngest 19, and four of the team were from the same family. It was saddening to hear that porters earn on average just 25 Soles per day (just under €7), and we hope that the head chef, who distributes the tips down through the hierarchy, makes sure everyone gets their fair share.

The same praise goes to our three guides, Saul, Edwin (Chino), and Oliando. With an awesome sense of humour (how many Peruvians know colloquial British terms such as “hot toddy”?) and a natural talent for making the whole trek run like clockwork, we were lucky to have our Inca Trail experience with them:

Hats Off to G Adventures

When trekking the Inca Trail, you cannot go independently but have to go with a guide or organized group. We chose G Adventures – I believe the largest company leading tours – and we wouldn't hesitate to recommend them. They keep groups to a maximum of 16 people, which provides a more personal experience to the 80-strong Swedish group we saw. The porters seemed happy and properly kitted out, with sturdy trekking shoes and decent rucksacks. Our hearts went out to some porters from other companies who were wearing only flimsy sandals, and somehow managed to carry rucksacks with makeshift straps made from shopping bags or carry their load in blankets held around their necks. Apparently G Adventures offers everyone in the team the chance to broaden their perspectives, which includes supporting porters to get an education, learn English, and learn about tourism and first-aid, to move in the direction of becoming guides. We tip our hats to them.

Written by K & R