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Machu Picchu is a wonder of the world, the fabled lost Incan city in the clouds, standing 7,970 feet above sea level and attracting one million visitors per year! An ancient citadel constructed by the Incan Emperor Pachacuti in the mid 15th century used as a royal estate and religious retreat. Miraculously during the 16th century as the European conquistadors arrived, this city was never found.
In 1911, when largely forgotten, an American explorer and academic, Hiram Bingham III identified and made public the existence of this “lost” city, which was called Machu Picchu ( “Old Peak” in Quechua, the language of the Incas).
Fun fact: Some believe Hiram Bingham was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones!
I did tons of planning for this trip and will share with you everything you need to know.
The Incas had thousands of miles of trails in South America with Cusco as their capital. A particularly beautiful stretch of trail that connects several important Inca sites and leads to Machu Picchu has been popular with hikers for the past 3o years is known as the Classic Inca Trail. It is usually done over four days and three nights culminating with a sunrise arrival in Machu Picchu on the 4th day.
It is recommended to spend a couple of days in Cusco before hiking the trail to acclimatize. You can easily spend two days visiting Cusco and nearby Inca ruins as well as exploring the Sacred Valley.
You must be reasonably fit to do this because there are six hours of hiking per day and the elevation ranges from 8,000 to 14,000 feet. The total distance is 35 miles. At high elevations, the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere is lower than at sea level. This can cause shortness of breath as well as headache, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. Good times!
Looking for other hikes from Cusco? Check out this Day Trip to Humantay Lake
We had a 5:30 pick up in Cusco followed by a three-hour drive to the starting point. Here we could use the restrooms, buy water, snacks and coca leaves. We gave our belongings in duffel bags to the porters, got our backpacks situated, then officially started the hike!
The start is from Piskacucho Km 82, named this because it lies 82 km along the railway line from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. The hike begins with what they call a “gentle climb”. I realize that in comparison to everything else, it is, but it didn’t feel so gentle at the time!
This part of the hike goes through a desert terrain with giant cactus and native bushes.
After three hours with occasional rest breaks, we arrived at the first major Inca site, Llactapata, aka “Terrace Town”. We learned about the terracing system used extensively during Incan times for growing corn which required irrigation in the dry highlands.
Shortly after this was the best part of the day…lunch.
We weren’t sure what to expect. We happily dumped our backpacks, some took off their shoes, and hot water and soap was provided for us to wash with. You quickly learn that the little comforts like this are EVERYTHING! We were served fresh local juice which was some sort of passionfruit (they have 16 kinds of passionfruit in Peru), which happens to be one of my favorite fruits. We sat for lunch and were blown away by the multi-course gourmet feast that chef Julio managed to prepare up in the Andes.
After lunch we had a 3o minute nap, which was divine, then three more hours of hiking. At one point we looked back and saw a rainbow. This did wonders to my mood because it had been a long day!
At camp we found that the porters had already arrived, set up the tents and our duffel bags and sleeping mats were there. Warm water was provided to clean up and “happy hour” starts. This is in the dining tent where they had cookies, popcorn, tea and hot chocolate. I recommend drinking lots of the various teas Anis, Coca and Herba Luisa, which are all great for altitude and digestion.
Bedtime is early. By 7:30 pm you are VERY ready for sleep!
Day 1 Stats
Minimum elevation: 8,790 ft Maximum elevation: 10, 824 ft
They woke us at 5:00 am with coca tea and more clean water to wash and brush teeth with. Breakfast was served and our water bottles or bladders were filled with freshly boiled water.
At 7:00 am we started the hike. This is the toughest day and I was kind of nervous because I thought the previous day was quite hard. I listened to my body and stopped when I needed to catch my breath, even if just for 30 seconds. I chewed the coca leaf and drank plenty of water.
Today there were steep climbs up to Warmiwanusca, Dead Woman’s Pass. We passed through many microclimates in the various altitudes, a jungle, a cloud forest, and treeless grasslands and finally saw the highest point ahead. My advice is not to look up and get discouraged, just take it slow and use the zigzagging switchback method to make the walk seem less steep.
Just keep on going!
Often we became hot, took off layers and then the sun hid behind the clouds and some light rain started, so we would stop, put our rain jackets on, cover our backpacks with rain covers, and five minutes later the sun was back out and we were hot again. I like to think Pachamama (“Mother Earth” in Quechua) was playing with us and laughing. It is a bit infuriating but Peruvian weather is famous for this craziness. We were lucky to have no drenching downpours. Of course, I didn’t mind stopping as much as possible.
Before collapsing at the top, I was greeted by cheers from not only my group but random guides and porters waiting to give me a high five. This was kind of awesome. It was very chilly at the top so once again…layers came out. The best part was this amazing rainbow that suddenly appeared. If you look close you will see it’s actually a double rainbow!!
My lungs loved the next part, a nice descent into the Pacaymayo valley to our camp. Another gourmet dinner and an early bedtime. This night was spent at high elevation and was freezing.
Day 2 stats
Minimum altitude 9840 ft Maximum altitude 13,776 ft
Distance 10 km/6.54 miles
Another early wake up for the longest day of hiking and the most beautiful day. There were many Inca Ruins to visit today, all spectacular.
This is Runcuracay, which was most likely an Incan “Tambo”, a place where the “Chaskis” (messengers) would stop for food and rest before continuing onward.
Looking back at Runcuracay
Unfortunately, we still had another steep incline today. After visiting Runcuracay we trudged along and after this lake could see the summit. I was over the uphill and shortness of breath that I couldn’t wait for the dreaded three hours of downhill steps that we were warned about. Silly me, only thinking about my selfish burning lungs. Little did I know what my poor knees were in for!
The second summit was amazing because the weather had become perfect.
Energized from this and good weather, we started the descent, stopping for photo shoots often.
We arrived at the impressive ruins of Sayacmarca via its entrance, a narrow steep staircase. This fortress was originally built by the biggest enemy of the Incas, the Colla. The Incas improved upon this structure, which had no room for agriculture.
This part was a solar observatory, the temple of the sun.
After this nice little break with a history lesson, more hiking. More hiking. More hiking. Eventually, we saw the ruins of Phuyupatamarca ahead.
It is a beautiful ruin. Phuyupatamarca means “Place above the Clouds” named for its typical cloud cover and location in the cloud forest. It contains terraces and an intricate series of ceremonial baths connected by water channels.
Day 3 Stats
Minimum altitude 8,856 Maximum elevation 12,300 ft
Distance: 10 km/ 6.54 miles
This is it…the day we finally see Machu Picchu. After a 3:30 am wake up, we walked a short distance the entrance which opens at 5:00 am, followed by a two-hour hike to arrive at Intipunku, the Sun Gate. I was so excited that I was able to ignore the pain in my legs with every step.
At the Sun Gate, we only saw clouds, but once we walked down the hill for a bit, we finally saw it.
The city is incredible. It is invisible from below (which is why the Conquistadors never found it) and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces sufficient to feed the population, and watered by natural springs.
The mysterious city has palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms, and over one hundred houses, all remarkably well-preserved.
If you’re still with me, check out my short video about the hike!
Read More: Cusco 3 Day Itinerary