Hiking the Inca Trail

A family poses in front of Machu Picchu after hiking Peru's Inca Trail

I remember learning about the Incan Empire in school and seeing pictures of Machu Picchu in books and on TV, but nothing prepared me for seeing it in real life. 

A few years ago I traveled to Peru with my family. We were there for a 6-day guided tour with Wildland Trekking and the trip was truly magical. I’m excited to share a bit about my experience here. 

Getting There

Long flights are always a bit exhausting. But coming from sea level Chicago to Cusco, at 11,200 feet, posed an additional challenge – trying to avoid altitude sickness. That’s why some of my best tips for this trip apply before arriving.

On the plane ride, try to get plenty of rest, move around a bit, and hydrate as much as possible. Also, if you enjoy experiencing a culture through food and drink, try a cup or two of coca tea, a common Peruvian tea and remedy for altitude sickness! Coupled with that, the first night’s traditional Peruvian dinner is also a great introduction to the team and to the local culture.

Welcome to Peru

Cusco peru The first full day starts with an amazing Peruvian breakfast before heading to Saksaywaman (to get pretty close to the right pronunciation, you can just say “sexay woman” and go from there). Wow, were the Incan engineers, architects, and builders incredible! It is a marvel to realize that they were right here, as early as 1100AD, cutting these huge rocks so perfectly that they’re still standing without any mortar. Not to mention how they got the giant rocks in place without any machinery.  

Another of my favorites from this day was the painting of the Last Supper in the colonial cathedral in Cusco. The cathedral itself is beautiful, covered in gold and full of sculptures; but what makes it especially unique, is a painting of Jesus serving a dish of guinea pig. “Cuy” (pronounced “kwee”), as the dish is called, is an ancient traditional food served on special occasions since the time of the Incan Empire (or for about 5,000 years).  

This painting illustrates the blend of the Spanish colonial style with the influence of the local Incan culture of the time. On this day we also checked out Qoricancha (the Sun Temple) and had some free time to walk around the main square in Cusco, called the Plaza del Armas. 

The Sacred Valley

Ollantaytambo ruins, sacred valley, peruThe next day we made our way to Ollantaytambo, the main city of the Sacred Valley. Here we took an acclimatization hike to an ancient Inca rock quarry with fascinating history and amazing views. The hike lasted a few hours and we had the trail largely to ourselves. It was a great opportunity to enjoy the seclusion and reflectone of my favorite things about hiking. At 2,100 feet of elevation gain, it was definitely a bit of a challenge, but a great preparation for the next day’s start to the Inca Trail. 


PeruRail to the start of the Inca TrailDay four was my personal favorite. Our hour and a half train ride on the famous PeruRail took us through the Sacred Valley past some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes I’ve experienced. Along the Urubamba River, there were Quechua villages scattered among farm fields, cloud forests, and mountains. It was surreal getting to see all the quinoa fields and other common crops, being worked by the local people just going about their daily chores. What a stunning place.  

After a ride that passed in a flash, the train came to a stop in the middle of nowhere – the drop-off point for the Short Inca Trail at KM 104. The stark contrast between the constant noise of the train to which we had become accustomed, and the complete, secluded silence as it disappeared around a bend in the distance, made us immediately aware that we had been transported to another world – another time.  

The Inca Trail

Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu in PeruThe hike begins at Chachabamba, and for the next 7 miles and 1,805 feet up, it follows the original path of the Incas. Peru limits the number of permits given out for hiking on the Inca Trail, making us lucky to find ourselves winding along the steep mountainside path, past and through various ruins. People say that these mountains are alive with their own spirit, Pachamama, or Mother Earth. It’s easy to see and feel why.  

Rounding a corner, we get our first glimpse of one of my favorite Inca ruins – Wiñaywayna (Quechua for “Forever Young”). We are still some distance away, but even from here it is easy to tell how grand this feat of engineering is. The bench terrace farming and irrigation canals brilliantly facilitated growing crops on the steep Andes’ slopes. Fantastically uncrowded, Wiñaywayna is only accessible by hiking the Inca Trail. 

Machu Picchu

Llama photobombs Machu Picchu viewAfter eating and resting here where the Inca people did, we pack back up to continue our journey to Intipunku, the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. Catching the first glimpse of the Citadel through the gate, just as the Incas did as they traveled here so long ago, was incredible. This was the highest point of our trek (8,860 feet), and arguably some of the most outstanding views. 

As we head down towards the citadel and the bus stop there, we capture tons of iconic photos of Machu Picchu and its famous llamas.  

It’s tempting to want to stay up there forever, but remembering that we will explore more the next day helps make it easier to head down to dinner. So we hop on a bus that zig-zags down the mountain to Aguas Calientes (Machupicchu Pueblo). 

The cool thing about Wildland Trekking’s Short Inca Trail itinerary is that you still get to enter the Citadel through the Sun Gate without having to camp overnight on the trail. So, for people who like to hike, but not necessarily sleep on the ground in a tent, this is a great option! My biggest advice? Enjoy the whole journey today, because the destination arrives faster than you think! 

The day to explore Machu Picchu has finally come and we have options. We can either get up early and get to the citadel for sunrise, or we can sleep in. I recommend the former. I am not a morning person, but even I have to admit the sunrise was spectacular.  

Regardless of what time you arrive, the tour is fantastic. There is so much to learn about this New Wonder of the World, and it is more magical and engaging in real life than I could have imagined.

Saying Goodbye 

After exploring to our heart’s content, we make our way back to Aguas Calientes, board the train back to Ollantaytambo (make sure you’re awake for the views and surprises), and then hop on a shuttle bus back to Cusco for our last night.

One of the best parts of traveling is meeting new explorers. The culmination of the trip with a last Peruvian breakfast together builds on those relationships. Connection is what it’s all about, and what better way to connect than over great food and shared memories before heading off to our next adventures!

About Amanda Peterson

Amanda Peterson wildland travel blog contributor

Amanda grew up with a love of travel and nature. She studied food, agricultural, and biological engineering at Ohio State University, where she also played on the volleyball team. She went on to play professional volleyball in Europe and started a travel blog while there to share her passion for exploration.

Amanda enjoys hiking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, surfing, skiing, scuba diving… and really anything active outside. Some of her favorite endeavors have included summiting Kilimanjaro, trekking to Everest Base Camp, scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef, and hiking and sightseeing around the world.

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