Footsteps and thoughts from the Inca Trail

by Kim on October 15, 2012 · 41 comments

No one really knows why Machu Picchu exists. It may have been built as a resort for Incan royalty or as a retreat specifically for the king. It may have been a holy place.

Historians do believe, no matter it’s purpose, that walking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu was considered a spiritual pilgrimage for the Incan people.

The Inca Trail today is 26 miles long and begins outside of Ollantaytambo, though in Incan times the journey likely started in Cusco and took ten days to complete. Now, travelers from all over the world finish the trail in four days, walking up incredibly steep mountain passes that, at highest elevation, reach almost 14,000 feet.

Our trek on the Inca Trail was the first thing Brian and I booked when we began planning our trip. In fact, it’s the whole reason we decided to start our travels in South America. We were really excited for it to finally happen.

On the morning that our trek began we were picked up at 5:30 a.m. by our tour company. We loaded into a van with the other members of our group and were driven to the start of the trail.

Snapshots from the beginning of the Inca Trail

After a passport check by the Machu Picchu park service (and a special Inca Trail stamp to boot), we began a five-hour walk to our first campsite. The trail began in a gentle uphill slope and we talked with the other trekkers in our group: a couple from Chicago, an Indian couple living in Boston, a traveler from Kuwait, a man from California, and a woman from Korea.

We walked at a comfortable pace and I practiced my Spanish with Juan, the assistant guide. He told me about his village and a bit about his life as a guide on the trail.

The scenery was stunning. The mountains harsh and jagged, snowcapped peaks peeked through the clouds from time to time. The trail wound up and through a few small villages, past children playing soccer and women selling bottled water and snacks to trekkers.

Stunning scenery and locals selling snacks and water to trekkers

After a few hours of hiking we passed an Incan ruin. There are a number of Incan ruins along the trail which historians believe were built as resting places for the Incan people as they journeyed to Machu Picchu. Our guide, Will, explained that this ruin in particular was probably used as a military checkpoint to monitor travelers on the trail.

Scenes from the first ruins and our guide explains their purpose

In early evening we arrived at camp, the porters had already assembled our tents. Each day 200 trekkers and 300 porters and guides begin hiking the Inca Trail. We were a group of nine trekkers, two guides, fourteen porters and one chef.  

I was amazed at the strength and endurance of the porters. They rise very early in the morning, carry a heavy load all day, and then work into the night setting up tents, serving food and washing dishes. Though the weight that porters can carry is regulated by the government, I’d read that many porters are still forced to carry unreasonably sized loads, aren’t fed properly, and are paid very poorly. Brian and I chose Peru Treks because of their reputation for treating their porters well. There are cheaper companies out there but when you pay pennies for a tour it is likely that the porters will get the short end of the stick.

Dinner was served at 7 p.m. and the food was wonderful. Afterwards we emerged from the dining tent to a sky filled with thousands of stars. It was the first good glimpse I’d had of the stars in the southern hemisphere. Our guide pointed to the southern cross constellation and explained that, to the Incans, it represented the gateway between the physical world and the world beyond. To the Incan people, those stars were the center of the universe.

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The next morning we awoke very early and prepared to tackle our hardest day on the trail, a difficult climb up and over Dead Woman’s Pass, an altitude of almost 14,000 feet.

We climbed slowly up never-ending stone stairs built by the Incans and chewed coca leaves to combat the effects of elevation. Step by step we huffed and puffed our way up into the clouds until finally, with lungs almost bursting, we reached the top of Dead Woman’s Pass.

Clockwise: Brian climbs the steep stairs, coco leaves, view from the top, a porter climbs the pass

Maybe it was the elevation or my elation at summiting the pass, but as I started the steep, downhill walk towards camp I thought about all I’d learned of the Incan culture and how it innately made sense to me. Our guide, Will, had explained earlier in the day that the Incan religion consisted of three things: Love, knowledge, and reciprocity. Above all else, these were the things that mattered to the Incan people. Really, what else is there?  

Their Gods, too, were the mountains, sun, moon, and stars. Nature was holy and sublime. This I understand deeply because nature is holy to me as well.

As I continued my walk downward, the fog creeping low between the deep green crevices of the Andes, I thought of a line I’d heard from who knows where- A song? A poem?:

The universe does not belong to you, you belong to the universe.

I think the Incans had this figured out.

To be continued…

Read part 2 about hiking the Inca Trail here

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Patti October 15, 2012 at 5:59 pm

It was fun to see all of the photos on FB and now read the stories behind them.

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Kim October 15, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Thanks Patti, glad you liked hearing about the trek. More to come… :)

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Dalene October 15, 2012 at 5:59 pm

This is one thing we sadly never got to do in South America as when we had planned to do it, it closed because of severe rain and flooding. This was a very thoughtful piece (as always), looking forward to what follows! :)

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Kim October 15, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Oh, that is a bummer. I bet you will get around to it someday.

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Brendon October 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Sounds like an amzing exerpeince, I really hope to do the inca trail when I’m in South American early next year. cant wait for the next part :D

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Kim October 15, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Yes, you can’t miss it. It’s a great experience.

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Gillian @OneGiantStep October 15, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Brings back great memories of one of my favorite parts of our trip. Dead Woman’s Pass – that was hard, eh?

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Kim October 15, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Man, was that hard. Made the Tetons seem like a cakewalk.

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Hannah October 15, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Beautiful words and photos Kim. I can’t wait to hike the Inca Trail – we should hopefully make it to Peru towards the end of next year. I’ll have to get in plenty of hiking before then to prepare for Dead Woman’s Pass though – don’t want it to live up to its name!

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Kim October 16, 2012 at 7:19 am

Haha, it won’t kill you, it will just ALMOST kill you. So worth it though!

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Pramod Sharma October 15, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Wow, the pictures are just amazing. Love this. :)

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Kim October 16, 2012 at 7:19 am

Thanks Pramod :)

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Viviana October 16, 2012 at 1:00 am

Thanks for sharing this! We would have liked to inlcude Peru & the Inca Trail in our RTW trip, too, but the tiing just wasn’t right, so we had to leave that out.. I guess we’ll have to make a seprate trip there some day! ;)

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Kim October 16, 2012 at 7:19 am

It’s not going anywhere! You’ll make it someday :)

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Amy October 16, 2012 at 4:13 am

What an incredible experience – this is one of the things we’d love to do when we finally get to visit South America. Sounds like a challenging, but rewarding climb. Good info about choosing an ethical company to go with too.

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Kim October 16, 2012 at 7:20 am

Ah, yes, it is completely worth it. I’m already excited for you :)

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Caroline October 16, 2012 at 5:27 am

My husband and I hiked the Inca trail years ago, and it was a fantastic experience. As a history teacher though, I’d like to clarify just a few small points. The Inca trail is actually part of a network of trails that covered, cumulatively, hundreds of miles of trails that connected ancient cities and villages for messages or war strategy between locations during the height of the Inca Empire. The trail tourists walk to Machu Picchu today is just one small portion of that greater network. I’ve never heard of it being used as a spiritual pilgrimage, though there is plenty we (modern historians) don’t know about the trail so I don’t discount it’s possibility. However, since Cuzco was the center of Inca society, which was at its core a subsistence society, it doesn’t quite make sense for the trails to have served a pilgrims purpose. It looks like you’ve had a wonderful trip though, and I look forward to hearing more about it.

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Kim October 16, 2012 at 7:21 am

Yes, there are a lot of trails, not just the Inca trail, and many are open to trekkers and are growing in popularity. They are still uncovering Incan trails that lead to Machu Picchu!

I don’t know about the spiritual pilgrimage point- it is what our guide said (more than once!). I suppose any long, grueling trek through nature eventually turns into a pilgrimage!

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Kieu October 16, 2012 at 6:17 am

Were in Arequipa, Peru! After much thought, we decided not to do the hike to MP.. I have moments of regret but it really isn’t my thing. However, I LOVE hearing about others stories and seeing pictures from people who have done it. Makes me feel like I’m there too. Enjoy reading your thoughts on the trek.. thanks for sharing your experience!

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Kim October 16, 2012 at 7:22 am

How is it, we’re headed there next! Did you visit MP at all? The hike, I’m sure, isn’t for everyone. I even saw someone turn around and head back on day two. You should do what feels right to you!

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Carmel October 16, 2012 at 7:32 am

That looks amazing.

I often neglect to think about simple experiences of seeing the stars from a different side of the world. One of the things I look forward to most is being in the desert in Mongolia and seeing more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life.

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Kim October 17, 2012 at 5:24 am

The stars from the desert in Mongolia will be insane!! That, alone, is an exciting thing to think about.

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JoAnn October 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

Glad to see they didn’t have to change it to dead women’s pass! Your hiking skills must be amazing now!

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Kim October 17, 2012 at 5:25 am

Haha, no kidding. They ALMOST had to change it, but not quite.

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Sunee October 16, 2012 at 8:55 am

I sooooo want to do this! How fit does one have to be? I know you and Brian are avid hikers, and I know altitude is a huge issue, but would you recommend some training before taking this on are can anyone just get off the couch and do it?

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Kim October 17, 2012 at 5:26 am

Training cannot hurt. BUT, we were with a group of nine and Brian and I were the only regular hikers. There were people of all levels of fitness on the trail. I think that if you go slow and take your time you can do it, though training might make the experience a little more enjoyable.

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Sarah Somewhere October 16, 2012 at 9:17 am

Well done guys, if you think its gruelling, Id probably die! I think Id still like to give it a go some day. A few years ago we trekked in Nepal, and I will never, ever forget those stars!!

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Kim October 17, 2012 at 5:27 am

You should do it! You won’t die :) I can’t wait to trek in Nepal. That’s on the list after India.

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Ashley October 17, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Love this post! We so wanted to do the Inca Trail when we were in Peru but couldn’t since Justin had a leg injury he was still recovering from. We did manage to hike the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal recently though, and it was spectacular. Feel free to message me if you ever want any info about that particular trek :)

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Kim October 19, 2012 at 6:30 am

Oh, we are ABSOLUTELY going to hike the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, probably in late March or April. I would love more info and will get in touch at some point!

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Tracey October 19, 2012 at 9:37 am

Sounds like the experience was as amazing as the pictures:)A very thoughtful post indeed Kim. We want to do this hike when we visit South America,we have a young son, were there any kids on the hike?

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Kim October 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Tracey, I didn’t see any but our guide did tell us that he has had kids as young as seven and adults as old as 86 hike the trail- I think it is possible!

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Dustin October 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Stock up on Coca leaves! I missed them after leaving Peru (Bolivia); I think there is something addictive in them ;)

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Kim October 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I think Brian is addicted! I haven’t been “using” but perhaps I will start. We’re headed to Arequipa where the elevation is even higher, I think.

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Richard Crest October 25, 2012 at 12:26 am

Thanks for sharing historical Machu Picchu.
I love trekking,this time I’d like to visit Machu Picchu and have spiritual pilgrimage, where is the best place to stay there?

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Kim October 27, 2012 at 5:41 am

Hi Richard, there are a lot of hostels in Aguas Calientes which is the little town you will stay in before heading up to Machu Picchu. I can’t even remember the name of our hostel (we only stayed for one night) but there are high end hotels and cheaper places (we paid about $30 a night) so no matter what you’re looking for you should be able to find it.

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Yaseen December 25, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Recently Me with friends flow the Footsteps of Alexander The Great in North Pakistan. We saw a village named Kelash still follow Alexander’s traditions. That was an amazing trekking trips. You don’t mention about ruins civilization and tradition. It is part of our history. Thanks for sharing these pictures.

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