Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, April 2013: Day One

Piscacucho to Wayllabamba

The minibus that had conveyed Martin and I, plus a middle-aged Brazilian couple and four young Argentineans, from our hotel in Cuzco, finally arrived at Piscacucho on the rail line at Kilometre 82, a village of small adobe built farmhouses hemmed in between the steep slopes of the Andes and the raging Urubamba River. We were met by a scene of hectic activity. Kit lay strewn about on large plastic sheets and porters from the company we were trekking with - Camping Tours – were rushing round almost tripping over fowls and piglets, readying equipment and supplies for our forthcoming 43 km 4-day trek. Between the ten of them, these hard working, polite, yet shy Quechua men from the highlands, carried impossibly large packs containing everything necessary for our group of eight to enjoy a comfortable 4-day trek. We hired ‘half a porter’ each to carry sleeping bags, pillows and personal items in a duffel bag. It’s wise to do this, as one of the Argentineans, determined to carry all her own kit, soon discovered to her cost how foolish this is. Although we brought our own, sleeping bags can be hired if required and good quality Thermarest sleeping mats were supplied by our trekking company. We also recommend that you keep clothing and equipment to an absolute minimum. Most people carry far too many unnecessary items.
We wore the same outer layers – woollen short sleeved base layer, lightweight fleece, and quick drying trekking trousers – and took along only a daily change of underwear and socks, a long sleeved woollen base layer to sleep in, one spare wicking tee shirt (for the last day), a Polartec pull-on for chilly evenings and a set of waterproofs (you can buy cheap plastic ponchos in Cuzco if preferred). A pair of comfortable Gore-Tex hiking boots are essential, plus a head torch, sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat. We carried our usual walking kit in a 35 litre Alpine rucksack into which a bladder (with electrolyte tablets to combat loss of salts) was inserted. Don’t forget a high factor sunscreen, loo roll, ear-plugs, microfibre towel, a First Aid kit and/or sanitising hand gel/wet wipes. We also carried a solar battery charger (attached easily to the exterior of a rucksack) to recharge our camera batteries, and used walking poles (rubber tips essential) which we found helped to maintain an upright walking posture making breathing easier. Anyone who is a regular hill-walker should not find this trek too difficult, but those who are not particularly fit are likely to struggle and will not be able to relax and enjoy the daily climbs and scenery on what is probably going to be a once in a lifetime experience for many. This is a trek at high altitude, so it’s wise to ensure that you have been in Cuzco for at least two days beforehand to acclimatise.
There was a palpable buzz in the air as we set off, swept along in a tide of colourful ‘fellow pilgrims’ from all over the world, a kind of modern-day version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales! At the entry post our tour guide, Elistan, a fresh-faced Quechua man with an excellent command of English, sorted out the paperwork for our group. You must present your passport and permit (covered in the total price paid to your tour operator), or entry to the trail is prohibited. You may get your passport stamped here as a memento. It is impossible do the trail independently. Numbers permitted entry each day are strictly limited to 500 persons (including porters and guides, so in reality there are permits for less than 200 trekkers) so booking your trek with a company several months ahead is therefore recommended. April to October are the most popular months as the weather is drier.

We then passed under the famous entrance sign to the Inca Trail, posing momentarily for the obligatory group photo, then crossed the suspension bridge over the foaming and seething Urubamba River. It was to be our companion for the first part of the trek along a dusty undulating route busy with mules serving local villages and running porters, eager to rush ahead to ready lunch for their trekkers. There are spectacular views of the Vilcanota mountain range, where the Veronica peak raises its snowy head with an arrogant nonchalance 5,832 metres into a cornflower blue sky and the first glimpse of an Incan archaeological site, Salapunku, an old resting place for travellers on the opposite side of the river. This first day is not hard, a 12 kilometre stroll with just 350 metres of ascent and there are several places along the way where you can buy cold drinks, snacks, coca leaves as well as walking sticks, hats and bandanas. The pace began comfortably but soon slowed as the Argentinean carrying everything but the kitchen sink began to lag behind. If you book via the Internet as we did (with a tour company named Intense Peru), you have no idea who your fellow trekkers will be or how large a group you’ll be in. We were easily the fastest and fittest in our group thanks to regular forays into our Irish hills! However, we were fortunate in that our group was small and Elistan, realising that we were both fit and experienced, did not hold us back, but over the course of the four days allowed us to make for camp at our own pace. A small group suited us, as we felt it might not have been as pleasant trekking in a group as large as some we encountered along the trial.

The route veered away from the river and began to gradually ascend towards Miskay (2,800 metres). Our group made several stops along the way to enable stragglers to catch up, or for Elistan to explain items of interest such as cochineal beetles, concealed within dusty white patches on prickly cactus leaves, which when crushed reveal their prized crimson fluid. After walking across a flattish grassy plateau we spied the fort of Huillca Raccay at the mouth of the river Cusichaca, perched high above an Incan town of some 115 houses which Elistan called Llactapata, discovered by American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, in 1911. Rising gently upslope from the fertile valley bottom near where the Cusichaca meets the mighty Urubamba, this terraced town that once housed a population of around 5,000 was strategically sited for Inca agriculture and trade and supplied many settlements with goods, including Machu Picchu. However, its actual name is Patallacta, and it was deliberately burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, who, retreating from Cuzco in 1536, destroyed many towns and villages along the Inca road system to prevent the Spanish from discovering Machu Picchu or any of its settlements.
Here, the cloud smouldering around the mountain tops which had been threatening rain finally delivered, and we were subjected to a steady downpour on the descent to the valley carved by the Cusichaca. It was a relief to get out of the rain when we stopped at a local farm, heralded by swirling clouds of blue wood smoke and ducks waddling along the muddy path. After a hearty bowl of hot quinoa and vegetable soup with thick chunks of bread rustled up by our cook, we left the relative comfort of the mess tent returning to the rain to begin a gentle ascent alongside the roaring Cusichaca River to the village of Wayllabamba (3,000 metres). Here we camped in a field by a rustic farm house for the night. Trekkers sleep for three nights under canvas so it’s wise to have had some experience of camping before attempting a multi day trek like the Inca trail, especially as the weather had turned inclement which, to pardon the pun, put a bit of a dampener on things! We hung our drenched waterproofs up to dry and arranged our kit inside the Doite tent supplied where everything must be safely stashed to prevent animals carrying off your belongings!

‘Agua caliente!’ became a regular and very welcome cry from the porters, and it felt good to have hot water supplied in a small bowl for a much needed wash. The facilities along the 4-day route are primitive to say the least, and unless you are prepared to brave freezing water, do not expect to shower! At least at Wayllabamba, the farming family whose land we camped on had a sit down flush toilet, albeit minus the seat! As darkness fell, we sat around the mess table listening to the rain gently pattering on the canvas, sipping coca leaf tea (which helps to stave off the effects of altitude sickness), enjoying getting to know each other a little better. In the silvery light of the gas lamp, we listened to Elistan telling us about the route we would follow the next day. After a delicious three course meal of soup, meat and vegetables, followed by fruit, we participated in the time honoured Andean ritual of respect: the alcoholic toast or challa to Pachamama, ‘the Mother Earth’, that consists of sprinkling some liquor onto the ground for a successful journey and safe passage through the Andes. We then retired to our tents where we enjoyed a sound night’s sleep. But others in our group whose bedding, footwear and clothing got wet, fared less well. A good night’s sleep is essential for the next day, the hardest of the four.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience! My friends and I are planning a trip this Nov 2014 to do a 4 day trek like you guys did. I was wondering what tour did you guys book and how much did it cost? How far in advance should I be booking the tour? Thanks again and hope to hear from you soon

  2. We booked the trek over the Internet with a Peruvian company named Intense Peru. It cost us 550 US dollars each, which included the pick up from our hotel in Cuzco, all the permits required to do the trek and enter Machu Picchu, an English/Spanish speaking guide, porters and all meals. It also included the tourist train ride from Aguas Calientes (and minibus) back to Cuzco. We chose not to use an Irish or British tour company wanting our money to benefit people and businesses in Peru, and we booked all our accommodation and flights to and from Dublin. You cannot simply turn up and do the Inca Trail as the number of people (porters, guides and trekkers) is strictly limited each day by the government and the trek gets booked out months in advance. We made all our arrangements about 6 months in advance. Hope this is helpful and enjoy the trek!

  3. Thank you very much for sharing your experience. We are planning a trip in May. We currently have 30 degree F comfort rating sleeping bags. Do you think this will be warm enough?

  4. Thanks, Pakebo. I'd recommend a four season sleeping bag down to minus ten to ensure you're comfortable at night. It can get pretty cold and damp on the trail. I used a Rab Andes 800 which was probably much warmer than needed, but I never once felt cold! Good luck with your trip.

  5. Thank you so much for your response!


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    1. Thanks, Incatreks. The Inca Trail is definitely one I'd do again. Very enjoyable, with beautiful scenery and fascinating culture, history and archaeology along the way, and the prize of seeing Machu Picchu at dawn to cap it off.

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  9. Thank you. Glad you found it useful. There are three more blogs for the remaining days of the trek too!

  10. Salkantay Trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.