At the end of the second day of the Inca Trail, I felt a massive relief that the hard part was over and that it would be non-stop fun all the time from there on out — and hoped I wasn’t fooling myself.
Turns out, I wasn’t. Day three would be my favorite day of the Inca Trail.
We woke up on Day Three to the most beautifully clear skies we’d seen thus far — in fact, we wouldn’t see a drop of rain all day. Finally free of our ponchos, we were able to slow down and enjoy the beautiful vistas and lush plant life along the trail — and most importantly, photograph it.
It was an easy day compared to what we’d been through the previous two. The total hiking time was less than six hours, and though we started the morning with a mild incline we soon started a knee-pounding ascent that would bring us from 11,800 feet to 8,792. Throughout the day we’d also pass three spectacular Incan ruins.
The first ruin was Phuyupatamarca, an impressively intact site and, in my opinion, by far the most beautiful we had seen thus far. Though I’m willing to admit that it may have been the blue skies getting the better of me.
I didn’t quite realize yet the best part of the day — each site would be more spectacular than the last. We could see Intipata as we approached, giving us ample motivation to push past the soreness in our joints. As we grew closer, we noticed signs of civilization — a cell phone tower, some railroad tracks, and the teeny tiny roofs of buildings in the valley deep below.
Being towards the back, our mini group found the speedier members of the team napping on the grassy terraces when we arrived. We were now so close to our final campsite that we could see it; an unbelievable feeling of victory.
We arrived in time for a late lunch and an afternoon of lazing around the campsite. In the dining tent we all vowed not to nap — thirty minutes later, our little tent village was lights out. We rallied for a short sunset walk over to one more Inca site — Wiñay Huayna, Quechua for forever young. As soon as we arrived I couldn’t believe I had almost skipped it in favor of one more hit of the snooze button — for me, it was the most intricate, intact and fascinating site of the entire four days.
Our guide explained that this site had been a kind of Incan laboratory, where different agricultural methods and materials were tested throughout the endless terraces. Today, it is frequented by photogenic llamas and tired Inca Trail hikers. With just one other group on the site in addition to our own, it was a truly peaceful visit. It wouldn’t be until the next day, when we reached the circus that is Machu Picchu, that I would truly appreciate this moment for all that it was worth.
The fourth day of the Inca Trail doesn’t start during the day — it starts in the middle of the night. The knocks came at our tent at 3:00am, at which time we sleepily packed up our things, scarfed down breakfast, and then sleepwalked towards the control station, where we would sit in line until the gate opened at 5:00am.
When planning this trip I had read many reports of how unpleasantly overcrowded the Inca Trail was. I don’t know if it was our trekking company, the season, or just luck, but I had not felt that to be true for the first three days. On this morning, however — I felt like I was part of a flashmob. I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole race to the control gate and the sounds of what seemed to be hundreds of people rustling and complaining and jollily chanting at four in the morning, and so using my backpack as a pillow I tried unsuccessfully to drift back to sleep.
Little did I know that was just the beginning. Our group was the second in line and as we set off at 5:00am our guide warned us to be careful — this was a narrow path with a steep dropoff, and every year people injured themselves in a pointless hour-long race to Machu Picchu. Still, my mini-group and I set off at a much faster pace than we had been going, hyper-aware of the restless crowds behind us.
I soon realized that I was miserable. The scenery on this part of the trail is stunning, especially in the pre-dawn light. But don’t you dare stop for five minutes to enjoy it lest a moisture-wicking mosquit0-repellent zip-off pant wearing European cobble you with their walking stick in order to be the first one to the Sun Gate. At one point I heard our guide raise his voice for the first time on the entire trek to admonish a pair of eager-beavers trying to dangerously pass us on a set of narrow, slippery, guardrail-less steps. It was without question the most unpleasant part of the Inca Trail for me.
But I had the last laugh because when I arrived at the Sun Gate, having been aggressively passed by at least a dozen hikers, we were met not with a sunrise view over the famous Incan city but rather a thick wall of white fog. Ha ha, jokes on them! Okay, I guess the joke was on me as well. It kind of sucked.
Eventually we gave up on seeing the iconic Sun Gate view and continued the additional hour-long descent to the site. When we arrived, we could barely see a single stone — the fog was thick as ever. After four days of work, it was fairly anticlimactic and spirits were about as high as a bunch of deflated balloons. Eventually, though, the fog began to lift, and we cheered with each increasing millimeter of visibility.
After days of camping in the remote Andes mountains, it was somewhat shocking to see so many signs of civilization. And the crowds! Day-trippers became visibly irritated by the time it took us to take a group photo, which really amused me. I think there should be an official rule at Machu Picchu: If you appear to have showered within the past four days, you must yield a respectable amount of photo time and space to those who have used bushes as bathrooms for the previous 96 hours.
Of course I always dreamed of seeing Machu Picchu the way it appears on postcards — I have never quite considered it would be blanketed in a stubborn fog when I arrived. Normally quite the Negative Nancy, I was actually surprised to find that I didn’t seem as bothered as the rest of the group by the weather. I think that I was so relieved that the physical challenges were over, and so proud of myself for having survived them, that there was pretty much nothing that could get me down.
The collective mood of the group started to lift again as we discussed what overpriced delicacies we would have for lunch, and how long we each expected our first hot showers to last. We didn’t stay at the site as long as I had expected, probably owing to the weather. When we left at noon, the skies were just opening up as raindrops began to fall.
I hiked the Inca Trail, following in the footsteps of one of the most fascinating ancient civilizations to ever walk this planet. Along the way I faced physical and mental challenges, witnessed scenes of unreal beauty, made some fantastic new friends, and was almost charged by a llama. There isn’t a thing — bad weather included — that could take that away.
Note: I will do an entire post on logistics, costs, tips and practical information about the Inca Trail and Llama Path. Stay tuned!
Great photos – and video!
Shame about the thick cloud though :/ had the same problem myself trekking to Everest basecamp for a few days!
How much did the whole trip set you back?
Hey Adam, thanks! And congrats on making it to Everest Base Camp! The base price of this trek through Llama Path was $600, but there were a lot of additional costs that I’ll be outlining in Friday’s tips and logistics post. Check back then for a more itemized list!
Great, looking forward to it! (it’s on my bucket list) 🙂
Sweet Llama! What’s his name?
Great feeling to accomplish that! No doubt. I don’t think the weather could get me down either. Some pictures I’ve seen makes it look small but yours gives a much better perspective.
Glad your guide said something to those people. My grandfather use to call people who do that “me first”
Ha, I call them “Safety Seventh!”
Bummer about the weather and the tourist flash-mob. I don’t think the weather would get me down after a hike like that either, you kind of just have to take what you can get. The group shots are amazing, those day-trippers can’t say they truly experienced it like you guys did.
One huge benefit to hiking is I think had I paid a fortune for a day trip and arrived to bad weather I would have been devastated! Doing a single day trip puts a lot of eggs in one basket…
The pictures look amazing! This may be a stupid question, but how did you get back down? Did you hike or take the train?
Not a stupid question at all! We took a bus down to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu) and spent a night there (not included in the tour package) and then the next day took a train/bus combo back to Cusco! I don’t believe it is possible to double back along the trail.
Was the bus down included in the tour? Or did you have to ‘arrange’ it yourself?
I enjoyed reading about your Inca trail trek. The journey may have been more exciting than Machu Picchu. I had no idea it was so very crowded. I have seen photos where it was empty, but that was long ago, guess times change. Thanks for the story.
I don’t know how people get those photos! I’m guessing the famous ones are from photographers given permission to stay after the 5pm closing (a friend of mine was able to with special permission.)
Wow. Too bad you couldn’t have stayed at the Ag Lab site under clear skies with no crowds. But getting there is really the adventure. Such incredible rock work.
Did you hike back too?
I don’t believe that you are permitted to walk along the trail in reverse. We took a train/bus from Aguas Calientes to Cusco, and that was included in the price of our trek.
Oh darn, I asked too quickly:)
Yup, included 🙂
I second the rule that the showered have to cede the way to the non-showered – I had a similar reaction when I got to Machu Picchu. Between letting that get to me and knees so beat up I could barely walk, I did not enjoy the time there nearly as much as I wish I had (my own fault – like your guide said, it’s all mental). Glad you were able to maintain your positivity! Congratulations on making the journey!
I know how you feel — if there is one piece of advice I’d give to future Inca Trail-ers, it would be to really cherish the sites along the way. In the end, they were more special for me than Machu Picchu thanks to the lack of crowds!
Looks amazing even with clouds! I was meant to be in south america for 6 months and had to scratch the trip, so reading your blog is just about killing me!! Good for you for making it to the end!
I’m sorry to hear that Rachel, I hope you get to put the trip back on the table sometime soon 🙂
Incredible hike! Not sure I could do it as I’m guessing you have to be incredibly fit for it. Another thing that’s on my bucket list and it’s nice to hear first hand about the ups and downs rather than the glossy reviews trying to make you buy an experience. Excited to see what you’re up to next *cough* New Zealand *cough*!
I think you need a reasonable level of fitness but I saw people of all ages and sizes on the trail — I wouldn’t tell anyone to count themselves out without a little soul searching! And New Zealand sounds fantastic, but I’ve got quite a bit of time left in Peru yet 🙂 Hope you guys aren’t bored of reading about it already!
Definitely not tired of reading about it yet! I have a dream of doing a trip round South America, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina etc. One day! Your blog always provides inspiration 🙂
FANTASTIC pictures, as always.
The fog would’ve been a major bummer… glad it dissipated a little.
I honestly (maybe naively) didn’t realize how breathtaking so much of the hike is.
I didn’t really, either! I think I was too focused on the end game! Which made for pleasant surprises along the way and a bit of disappointment at the end 🙂
I have been to Machu Picchu, but I didn’t get to hike the length of the Inca trail and I have to go back to do it again. I’ve really loved reading your review posts because the Inca Trail is definitely a must do on my list, and it’s fun to see the little bit that I did hike (from Machu Picchu mountain to the Sun Gate and back).
I was lucky enough to stay in the Sanctuary Lodge when I went. The park opens about an hour before most people can get up the mountain on the buses, so since I was already up there in the lodge my partner and I and his family had the place basically all to ourselves. I was stunned at how few people staying in the lodge (which is literally steps from the entrance, and the only lodging anywhere near the site) took advantage of getting up early to enjoy the site in isolation. It was eerie and beautiful how quiet and empty it was. We hiked up to the very top of Machu Picchu mountain and saw a cloud free sunrise, which we were not expecting. However, the other day we were there was misty and beautiful, and I loved the magical feeling the mist gave everything. Plus, with mist comes rainbows.
I’m shocked that guests stay at Sanctuary Lodge and don’t take advantage of having the place to themselves in the mornings! I was lucky enough to say somewhere super plush post-trek (stay tuned for post!) but you can’t really beat the location advantage there.
Day three was definitely my favourite too
The weather probably swayed that call, but wow — those sights were amazing!
Your photos took my breath away! PS So sorry about the fog!!!
Thanks Andi! What can you do about the weather! :/
I hope you don’t get tired of hearing me say you totally got my stuck on the idea of going to Peru to hike the Inca trail. Your photographs are beautiful and I love how honest you are about the struggles and the not so fun parts of the trip.
Still music to my ears! Thanks Breanna 🙂
This wasn’t on my bucket list until I read your posts! The trail looks amazing!!
Thanks Rekha! Glad to hear this got bumped onto your list — it deserves to be there!
Fantastic photos as usual. I love your token llama shot!
Thanks Kristin! Those little dudes were everywhere!
Oh wow, I am so behind your posts. I need to catch up! This looks so amazing! I just cannot wait to do the trek. I felt like I was hiking right there with you.
Thanks Tammy! That’s a great compliment to a writer, I’m sure you know 🙂
Great post, and looks like it was an amazing trek. Your photos are fab as always! can’t wait to hear more about your experiences in Peru!
Thanks Ayngelina! I can’t believe my time here is almost over… 2.5 months flew by!
Hi Alex! Long time reader from outside Buffalo, NY. I have a friend going to Peru soon and was wondering a good company to get to Machu Picchu without hiking the Inca Trail. Any recommendation?
Hey Kellye! In that case you really don’t need a tour company, you can just book the train and buy a ticket yourself! But if she wants to go with a company, I think Llama Path (who I hiked with) could arrange that. They’re the only tour agency I used so they are the only ones I could comfortably recommend — though I do warn they are on the more expensive side. I hope that helps!
I was wondering: did anyone in your group suffer from vertigo?
It’s something I hadn’t thought about before but when I see some of those photos…
Several suffered from altitude sickness as mentioned, but I don’t believe there was any issue with vertigo!
I just read your blog and it was great. My husband and I just booked our trip during thanksgiving and I have to say he kind of pushed me to do it. We are not hikers or campers and I’m getting anxious about it. I consider myself in decent shape. I exercise regularly but I just don’t know if I can do this. I know I need to be positive. can you give me an idea of your level of fitness and thought about ability to climb with no hiking/camping experience? Any tips? Thx so much!
Raju, I think you’ll be fine! If you are a regular exerciser and in decent shape you’re perfectly prepared. Add in some hiking to your routine before you leave if you’re concerned. As my guide stated, most who turn back do so due to mental limitations rather than physical ones — so staying positive is the right idea 🙂
Excellent information and insight. I’ve added several questions to ask the trek companies – all the knowledge gleaned from here.
But another couple of questions … Someone told me to interact with the porters as you can learn a lot about their culture and lifestyle, all you have to do is ask. My question is whether you talk much to the porters. I thought there might be a language barrier, but maybe not. Your thoughts?
Also, I read your comments on the toilets and using the bushes, but did you use or see something called a toilet tent? I see some companies advertise this, but I’m not sure if would be an improvement.
We didn’t have a toilet tent and I didn’t see any along the way. Interesting idea though! As for interacting with the porters, there was indeed quite a language barrier (they don’t speak Spanish but Quechua). The guides are more fluent in English and often Spanish so it’s much easier to converse with them!
In looking for information on how to prepare for the inca trail I came across your blog and I found it as helped as given me most of the answers I needed
I am booked on it in September and like you was I am really nervous about my fitness levels although I am a keen hiker back in England
Glad you’ve found this series helpful, Rob! I’m sure you’ll do great. Good luck!
Hi Alex – the trip looks like it was absolutely fabulous, no showers and all! Maybe it’s just me, but the pictures look amazing, fog and all (unless these are well edited… 🙂 )
I’ll be completing the 4 day hike with my mother in October, which we are both looking forward to. I hope it will be just as an amazing experience as it looks/sounds like it was for you!
Thanks for the article, by the way. Really helpful info, in a (web) world of lots of articles in varying degrees of usefulnes…!
I really appreciate that, Karin! So glad you found this useful. Best of luck with the hike — I’m sure you’re going to love it! What an experience to share with your mom.
I’ve found your blog posts about the Incan Trail so helpful! I am going in December and am wondering if anyone in your group did the extra hike to Machu Picchu Mountain or Huaynapicchu? Or were you pretty tired and likely would not have enjoyed an extra rigorous hike after three days of trekking and sleeping outside? I’ve read that the views from both are great, but also similar to what you see from the Sun Gate. I’m thinking I’ll be pretty tired after the Incan Trail so I may not want an extra three hour hike, but at the same time don’t want to miss out on anything!
Hey Adair, we assumed we’d be too tired to enjoy it and so didn’t book the extra hike to Huayna Picchu. So glad we didn’t — we were wiped!
Beautiful pictures and writing. It sucks about the pushy crowds and fog but it’s great that you got to see beautiful sites on your way there so the journey wasn’t a loss. I’m surprised but how crowded it was, makes sense that there is a limit on the daily permits for the trail. Makes me want to risk the rain just to have less people.
Actually we were there are the start of the rainy season! I can only imagine what it’s like in the truly peak weeks and months!
Hiya, love this review so much! Hubby and I are doing the Inca Trail in May. What leggings did you wear? I’d rather wear leggings than trousers but so stuck on where to look!
Thanks again for this one. Can’t wait to see what you’re upto next 🙂
Hey Meg! Thanks so much 🙂 I believe if I recall correctly, at the time I was traveling with a pair of Calvin Klein leggings that I got on sale at Marshalls or TJ Maxx. They were perfect! Good luck with the trail!