INCA TRAIL - 4 DAYS, 3 NIGHTS
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
A detailed guide to what you can expect from hiking the Inca trail over 4 days and 3 nights
For the trail we used a company called SAS Travel. We would highly recommend this company for their organisation, food and keeping us safe throughout the hike. We had one guide to a group of 6 people. Our group was supposed to be 8 people but 2 dropped out last minute. The groups can be as large as 16 people with 2 guides. We had 9 porters including a chef. As part of the service the porters carry your tents and food and you are responsible for carrying your belongings. You do have the option of booking a porter to carry your belongings and each porter legally can carry up to 20kg. We decided to book half a porter between us and this was to carry our sleeping bags and floor mats. We opted for the 4 day and 3 night trek however there are many you can choose from depending on your ability and how much time you have.
You get used to walking with a heavy backpack soon enough. My bag felt extremely heavy at the start but this was solely my own doing as I had rarely carried a bag on other hikes and generally avoid carrying a handbag whenever I don’t have to. I even handover my cards and phone to James when we’re out for the evening (I know, who do I think I am!) so I struggled to get used to hauling around a large backpack. This eased however and I quickly got used to having the extra weight. I would definitely advise having a backpack with a strong waist strap as this takes the pressure off your shoulders and secures your bag into a more comfortable position for hiking.
We were collected from our hotel around 6:30am (this can be as early as 5:40am if you have a larger group) and we stopped outside of the SAS offices in the centre of Cusco to collect our sleeping bags, mats, our guide and remaining members of our group. We then set off and drove for around 1 hour 30 passing numerous, fairly healthy-looking stray dogs before arriving at our breakfast stop. This was our first taste of Inca Trail food and it did not disappoint. We had bread with scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, coffee and Coca tea. Once finished we jumped back into our mini bus and drove another 45 minutes to 1 hour to km82 - the start of the Inca Trail.
The trek begins
After a quick toilet stop and applying sun cream and insect repellant we handed over our passports at the first check point and started hiking. It was around 9:30am by this point and the sun was shining bright. We walked for around 2 ½ hours to reach our lunch spot. This morning hike was fairly moderate with some uphill but nothing too difficult. It eased us into our trek nicely. There are plenty of stops along the way to visit points of interest and archeological sites, snap some beautiful photos and have a snack. Make sure to look around as you’re walking and not just down at your feet as there is so much scenery to take in and it really is amazing.
We stopped at our lunch spot and refuelled with fresh ceviche and fried trout. One thing you can be sure of trekking with SAS Travel is that you will not go hungry. We ate so much food during the 4 day trail and we were treated to hearty and extremely filling breakfasts, lunches and dinners. We were also provided with snacks everyday including Chips Ahoy cookies, fruit and cereal bars.
In the afternoon we walked another 2-2 ½ hours and this walk was a little more tasking than the morning. The gradient was steeper and our full tummies made the trail slightly more challenging. It is a perfect day to ease you into what is to come but don’t think day one will be all smooth sailing, it’s still tough.
We arrived at camp at around 4pm. The camp was private and we were able to have hot showers for 10 soles if we so wished. Make sure to bring some change with you in soles as you do need to pay for toilet and shower stops along the trail. The porters provide you with hot water to wash with and even just washing your hands and face with warm water makes you feel 10 times cleaner than before. We didn’t shower along the way and opted only for face and body wipes. You will feel a bit dirty and sweaty but that’s all part of the fun!
At 6pm each night, prior to dinner we had happy hour. Unfortunately (but sensibly) there were no Pisco Sours involved. Instead we were offered hot chocolate, tea or coffee and snacks such as popcorn and biscuits. This was the perfect sugar boost we needed before dinner and a good way to debrief and check in with our group. At this point our guide often talked us through the plan for the following day. Our dinners, apart from the final night, were soup followed by a main dish with plenty of carbs such as potatoes or rice. We ended the night star gazing with our group under the pitch black clear night sky.
Dead Women's Pass
We were awoken gently the following morning by our porters saying “wakey wakey” through the door of our tent. After forcing our eyes open and slithering out of our cosy sleeping bags, we unzipped the front of our tent to find one our friendly porters with two hot cups of Coca tea. We were then brought some fresh hot water to wash with and we got changed into our hiking gear ready for day 2.
The mornings are chilly so you will start the day layering up with thermal tops, fleeces and jackets and throughout the morning begin to peel off items of clothing layer by layer as the sun rises and warms the air. Breakfasts were our favourite meal of the day and we had everything from cinnamon quinoa porridge to omelettes and pancakes. Although a little early to be wolfing down a large breakfast, we made sure we had as much as we could to store our energy ready for the day ahead.
Day 2 feels like one infinite hill and you never seem to get to the top. The gradient is tough and frequent stops are needed to catch your breath and build up the motivation to continue. The morning walk will take between 4-5 hours depending on the ability of your group. You will then arrive at Pacaymayo Valley for lunch and a well needed rest. This is also the lunch stop for the majority of other Inca trail groups so it is a busy one. We hadn’t seen any other Inca Trail groups the whole of our first day but the moment we left our camp on the morning of day 2 we were continually following or passing other groups. Due to the fitness level of our group, we frequently had to take extra long stops to allow the porters to get ahead of us and usually arrived shortly after them at our lunch stop. This meant we had a good 30-45 minutes to relax and drink some water before our food was served.
On Day 2 our lunch stop was the perfect sun trap and we used this time to lie down, using our backpacks as headrests. As we were relaxing my partner woke me from my daydream saying “look”, I lifted my head to find 3 large Llamas walking right past our feet and strolling through the busy camp. I was amazed at how close they were and how they weren’t at all phased by the numerous humans, bags and tents surrounding them. Our lunch was Lomo Soltado served after a starter of Doritos with a fresh avocado dip. After another short lie down and toilet stop our porters provided us with litres and litres of water to fill up our Camelbacks and water bottles.
We then lifted our, now, very heavy bags onto our backs and set off for the hardest part of the Inca Trail “Dead Woman’s Pass.” Since our pre Inca Trail meeting our guide would speak of the Dead Woman’s Pass and would make it sound as eerie as he could. It’s not a great name anyway but saying it in a ghostly-like voice makes it all the more daunting. Our group starting calling it the ‘Sleeping Woman’s Pass’ which we thought sounded much more appealing.
This section is hard and it is extremely over populated as now all groups have gathered on the same stretch and are exerting themselves to reach the top. My advice would be, don’t rush. The guides give you more than enough time to get back to camp and base their timings on the maximum amount of time it takes people to complete this 900m ascent to the highest point of the Inca Trail. The whole of the afternoon is estimated to take between 3-4 hours and to get to the highest point around 1 ½ - 2 hours. When you are struggling on this section just continue to remember it’s going to be over soon and the time will pass quicker than you think. We were close with our group by this point and motivated one another to keep on pushing. Our guide left four of us to walk ahead and he stayed behind with the the two remaining members of the group. One of the girls in our group took the lead and during a requested rest stop we looked up as we could hear cheering and saw the top of a hill with arms flying in the air in celebration. We had no idea what they were cheering about and presumed they were just trying to get the generic v-shaped arm photo in front of a great view. We carried on for another 20 minutes or so and reached the top of this hill to discover we had arrived at the top of the Dead Woman’s Pass without even realising. A member of another group was there to welcome us with peanut m&ms and believe me they were the best I’ve ever had. We soaked up the view and had a snack whilst we waited for the remaining members of our group. It was nice to be able to encourage them during their last stretch and congratulate them when they had reached the top. We took some photos and enjoyed the views which stretched as far as you could see before beginning our descent down to camp. We felt a great sense of achievement knowing we had reached the highest point of the Inca Trail and were halfway through. The remainder of our day was an easy, steady downhill trek with some interesting archeological sites along the way. Again, naively we thought we had escaped the effects of the altitude. It wasn’t until we arrived back to camp that our headaches sunk in. I’m sure this was a combination of dehydration, exhaustion and the altitude. It was an extremely hot day and although we tried sipping along the way it is difficult to carry and consume the recommended amount of water each day on the trail.
Our camp on day 2 was a public camp and this was shared with a number of other groups. The toilets at this camp left a lot to be desired and the preferred option was the trusty nature toilet. After a quick wash down with warm water it was time for happy hour and dinner We inhaled some well needed carbs before saying our ‘goodnights’ and passing out in our tents around 8:30pm. We slept like babies.
The most enjoyable day
We woke up feeling refreshed and after another hearty breakfast we began day 3 of the Inca Trail. This was by far our favourite day. Although this is the longest day in terms of time and distance covered, the gradient is much more manageable and the terrain allows you to hold a conversation without panting like a dog. The morning did start with some up hill walking but quickly levelled out and the remainder of the day was what’s known as ‘Incan flat’ which is up and down like a wave. We got to know our group members in more depth on this day and there are some outstanding view points along the way. There is plenty of time to snap photos and learn about the archeological sites. The highlight of the day for me was the final viewpoint before you descend down to camp. You can see the camp from the top and the mountains create a valley with the most picturesque stream running down the centre. It is impossible to get a bad photograph here and many other trekkers were sitting on the edge of the mountain enjoying the views.
When we reached our final camp there was an option to have a cold shower but be opted to use the warm water bowls instead. For our farewell meal we were treated to some real comfort food of pizza and pasta followed by a steamed cake (how they bake a cake this way using camping stoves I have no idea) to celebrate one of our team members birthdays. Our evening ended with tipping our porters and thanking them for all of their hard work throughout the trail. We asked our guide how much we should tip the porters and I believe we tipped them around 200 soles each. We hunkered down for our final night and I was glad this would be my last night sleeping in a tent. Our internal alarms were set for 3:30am and knowing we had to get up so early we didn’t sleep well.
The Sun Gate
Day 4 arrived and we were awoken by our porters for the final time. We ate as much breakfast as we could, packed our things, switched on our head torches and walked the very short distance (literally 2 minutes) to join a queue of other trekkers waiting to pass through the checkpoint to make our way to the sun gate. The sun gate is where you catch your first view of Machu Picchu. This queue wasn’t fun and we stood in it for around one hour. We were behind a lot of other trekkers who were walking at a slower pace so we tried to overtake where we could at the dismay of some other trekkers. Due to the cold we were wrapped up in all of our layers but quickly warmed up as we were walking. Trying to remove buffs, hats, coats and fleeces whilst hiking isn’t easy but we didn’t want to stop or slow down so proceeded whilst struggling. This hike is not easy and there are some extremely steep steps to climb. We definitely felt like we had worked for the views when we arrived at the sun gate around 1 ½ hours later.
Unfortunately day 4 was the worst for weather but we couldn’t complain after the 3 previous days of glorious sunshine. The clouds overcast the views of Machu Picchu and there were showers on and off. The sun gate was busier than we had hoped and we did wish our guides had given us the option to get up earlier to join the queue for the sun gate as we would have jumped at the opportunity. We were already feeling tired and exhausted so getting up 1 hour earlier wouldn’t have done us any harm. I do think it would have been magical to have that final moment arriving at the sun gate with our group alone before the crowds arrived. Maybe that was a little too much to ask for.
We got some group photos before making our way down to Machu Picchu. This section will make you rather jealous passing fresh faced and beautiful people who have arrived by train from Cusco, making their way up to the sun gate. When we got closer to Machu Picchu the views were quite breathtaking. We made our way to what our guide described as the ‘best viewpoint’ and this was a corner section on a platform overlooking Machu Picchu with no other tourists blocking your photo (other than tiny little ant-size people down below). We stopped to take a group photo and then shimmied over to the corner section once it was free. We were then taken aback by a lady shouting “there’s a queue” and unbeknown to us and our tired eyes we looked away from the camera to find a queue of 8-10 people waiting for this photo sweet-spot. Our guide snapped a quick photo as we were already in position and just as we were about the pass those queuing and apologise, one of the ladies in line said “f**k you.” I was taken aback after having little human contact over the past few days and this felt like one big reality slap in the face.
We made our way to the entrance of Machu Picchu where we collected our tickets to get into the citadel. We were provided with a second breakfast which was an avocado bagel, biscuits and juice. It was exactly what we needed as a boost after our morning hike. We also had the opportunity of going to a clean toilet with a seat, toilet paper, soap and water. After 3 days of squatting toilets believe me, this was heaven! We stamped our passports with the free Machu Picchu stamp and made our way through the turnstiles at the entrance.
As soon as we passed through the gates, the main thing I noticed was the sheer volume of people visiting the sight. It was still fairly early at this point so we were surprised at how busy it was already. We were told that the amount of people who visit Machu Picchu each day is 3 times the amount recommended by UNESCO. Our guide began our tour of Machu Picchu and we learnt about the rich history and got an abundance of photos of the ruins at every angle we could capture. By this point we were flagging from our early morning and I was struggling to maintain my concentration and take in all of the facts and information we were being told about the Incan ruins. To be perfectly honest I was ready for bed but it was only around 10:30am.
Our tour finished and our guide gave us some time alone to explore the ruins ourselves. He headed back to the town below Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes where he would meet us later. We got the bus down to town fairly soon after this and here you have the option of going to visit some hot springs. We opted for some Pisco Sours in the sun and sat outside at a bar just a metre away from the train tracks. The drinks went straight to our heads as we reminisced about the Inca Trail. Whilst sitting we watched the trains go by and shop assistants carrying piled up boxes on trolleys over the tracks. We saw the Belmond Hiram Bingham train pass and it looked like a murder mystery train. Hiram Bingham re-discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 and made it public. This luxurious train experience is named after him and for a rather hefty price you can enjoy, what I imagine to be, the best train journey of your life. You are treated to a 3 course dinner, all of the Pisco Sours you can possibly consume and live music and entertainment during your journey from Machu Picchu to Cusco. The train does look incredible and from researching and watching videos online it does make you envious however the price tag attached quickly changed our minds. James was going to get us tickets for my 27th birthday but knowing I am a bit of a princess and would not have been feeling/looking my best after 4 days hiking, he decided against it. I felt so tired and exhausted that I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much as I should so he made the right choice. Some of our family members took the Hiram Bingham train and advised that it is most enjoyable if you are confident or ideally fluent in Spanish to be able to truly understand and appreciate everything on offer. If your budget allows, book the journey. I do imagine this would an experience of a lifetime.
After our sours we met our other group members for a buffet style lunch and then had around 30-40 minutes or so to wait for our train back to Ollaytantambo. It felt as though there was a lot of hanging around this day and we really just wanted to get back to Cusco as soon as possible to freshen up and jump into bed. It took 1 hour and 45 minutes to get back to Ollantaytambo. This train ride is very picturesque as you wind around the mountains and ascend around 700m. We got off the train and were transferred onto a large coach for just four of us. We all spread out, lay down and got some well-needed rest during the 2 hour drive back to Cusco. We were however awoken during our journey by our driver telling us we had to get off the bus. We didn’t understand why at first but noticed we were at the entrance of a bridge. We soon discovered the bridge was unstable and the guard would not allow the coach to pass with us inside. We ran across the bridge which soon woke us up whilst our coach followed behind and we jumped back on. That experience all seemed a bit surreal but it was definitely one for story book.
After what felt like the longest day we arrived back into Cusco and made our way to our Airbnb which was located close to the market. Diving onto our king sized bed was heaven.
The Inca Trail is really an incredible experience and I would recommend it to anyone. It is a good length of time for those who aren’t huge fans of camping, difficult enough to make you feel like you’ve worked hard and achieved something great but also not too difficult meaning that only the fittest will reach Machu Picchu. You will meet some amazing people along the way and the porters will leave you in awe at what the human body is capable of. It was an experience we will never forget and we’re already looking for where to go on our next trek.
Next up: What to pack for the Inca Trail