Where: The Sacred Valley, Peru
When: November 2012
Want all the drama and beauty of Peru’s famous Inca Trail, but don’t have 4 days free to hike it? Or perhaps like us you’d rather opt out of camping? Well fear not, there is a less publicised alternative option – The Sacred (or Royal) Inca Trail. Given the 6.3-mile (10km) trail can be hiked in a single day, it’s surely a no-brainer for getting a taste of the ancient Inca civilisation, without any camping involved!
In 2012 our trek began as the early morning Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes Peru Rail train came to an abrupt stop at a seemingly nothing piece of track. There certainly wasn’t any platform, as we jumped straight onto the sidings of the narrow track that snakes through Peru’s Sacred Valley. Only 6 people got off the crowded train – Conrad and I, our guide Oscar, and another couple also with a guide.
After crossing a hanging footbridge over the Urubamba River, I was surprised to see two men sitting in a tiny palm-rooved kiosk in what appeared to be a deserted forest. They took their time inspecting our paperwork before stamping the permits. Once through, we somehow skipped over the archaeological complex of Chachabamba, a site dedicated to water with various channels and fountains, eager/ anxious to get going before the sun really heated up.
Starting at an elevation of 2,170 meters, we progressed along the narrow passage etched into the steep valley. The views were expansive, with the river below becoming increasingly faint, and distant peaks coated in heavy clouds as far as the eye could see. I’m not going to lie, the first part of the hike was arduous in the humid conditions. The trail offered no real shade – hence our cringe-worthy ‘on-trend’ headwear – but luckily Oscar coached us to take it slow. At this elevation, the first miles felt tougher than I had expected.
As we hiked Oscar entertained us with stories from the World of the Incas (most of which I have now helpfully forgotten!) But what I do remember is that the [full] Inca trail to Machu Picchu was originally intended as a religious pilgrimage. This made it almost unique, as unlike most of the thousands of miles of Inca trails stretching across the Empire, this one had no commercial use and hence was referred to as the “Royal Road”, “Royal Sacred Highway” or “The Road of the Inca King”. Whilst citizens completed their 26-mile pilgrimage, the shorter route we now treaded was believed to be reserved for nobles and religious leaders to access the royal city in relative ‘ease’, the ancient equivalent of travelling first-class!
After over 3 hours of hiking through verdant cloud forest, having had a brief rest stop at a waterfall, we arrive at Wiñay Wayna. The concave mountainside site is supposedly the second most important Inca Trail ruin. It consists of multiple agricultural terraces steeply cut into the mountain, and is believed to be the place the Incas used as a final rest spot before reaching Machu Picchu. A number of stone baths where Incas would have completed ritual cleansing before arriving in the sacred city are still distinguishable, and probably provide the symbolic meaning behind the name “Forever Young”.
At this point in the day we break for lunch, sat with our feet dangling over the suddenly vertigo-inducing terraces. But there is a problem. Our porter Eranjelio, who is charged with carrying lunch is no where to be seen. He had taken a later train because it was cheaper, but it’s only when we quiz Oscar about it that we discover the train in question was due to depart nearly 2 hours after our own! I instantly regret not packing some snacks in my day-pack (what an idiot!) So we take a few more pictures and patiently wait. Less than 10 minutes later a tiny dot appears further down the trail. It seems to be moving rapidly. As it gets closer Eranjelio can be made out, and he is an astonishing sight. The small-framed man glides along at a joggers pace complete with towering backpack, and a radio playing Peruvian folk music tied around his neck! Happy to see him, we eat a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and crisps, baffled as to how he had caught us up in little over an hour!
From Wiñay Wayna our path joins the main trail. As we pass through the camp where those taking the full Inca trail stay on their final night, a swarm of relief follows. I observe all the things I hate most about camping, such as being made to sleep in close proximity to toilet facilities, in dirty conditions whilst surrounded by other noisy people. I’m so happy to not be sticking around.
The remaining 4km of the hike felt less physically demanding, with the majority of the elevation gain past us. The landscape also changed quite drastically. The temperatures became cooler, the vegetation greener, and at times it felt like we were walking through a moss-covered jungle. It was a welcomed change after the hot temperature and dryer landscape we had experienced earlier in the day. That is until we reached what felt like a never-ending stone staircase. We crawl up the 50 steps, passing through the Sun Gate (“Inti Punka”) and it appears. In the distance our first glimpse of the one-time hidden City of the Incas, Machu Picchu sat saddled in the mountains below.
The last mile winding down the royal flagstone walkway to the citadel must have taken us an hour to complete, because each step brought even better views to photograph. Our pictures of the entire hike fail to do any of it justice – not only were we TOTAL photography ammeters, but during our tour around South America we travelled with a pretty cheap point-and-shot camera which washed out and over-exposed everything! Cameras have come a long way in the last 5 years.
Built over 500-years ago, Machu Picchu provided a sacred religious site for Inca leaders. Yet historians believe the site was only occupied for around 80 years before mysteriously being abandoned, some time in the sixteenth century during the Spanish Conquest. The site remained unknown to the outside world until Hiram Bingham, an American academic and explorer, ‘discovered’ ruins after stumbling across an overgrown section of adjourning trail in 1911. Today the site is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and draws visitors from all over the world.
Gazing down on the city as we inched closer, what struck me most was the dramatic surroundings. The city sits perched between two mountains, framed by steep, expansive valley drop-offs on either side. It began to make sense, in such a seeming isolated place, how over the course of a few hundred years of vegetation growth, an entire city was reclaimed by nature, and hidden from the unknowing eye.
With a tour of Machu Picchu planned for sunrise the next day, we didn’t hang around to explore that afternoon. It was hot, and after hours of hiking we felt tired and hungry, so we departed for the bus into town happy in the knowledge that the night would be spent in a hotel bed and not a tent! For now I wanted to share this hike because until I spoke to the tour company about the 4-day trail I had no idea that this route was even an option. It was hands-down one of the most spectacular hikes we have ever taken, and made all the more special by the comparative lack of foot traffic on the route.
I would classify the hike as ‘moderate’ if taken slowly. The route certainly follows an established path with no scrambling skills required. It also helped enormously that we only had to carry small day packs with our water, a few sundries such as suncream, and some toiletries for the overnight hotel stay (once again, I should have packed snacks!). So if you are running short on time, or feel the full trail maybe too physical, take a look at following the [shorter] route of kings!
Important Trail Info
Hiking independently along any part of the Inca Trail is no longer permitted, so bookings must be made through a registered trekking agency who for a fee will provide a registered guide and usually also arrange permits. Our permits, guide, and porter were all included in our wider Peru tour that we booked with the company Amazing Peru. If booked separately I believe that the approximate price of a basic group service is between US$320 and US$380 per person, with the price for a basic private group of just 2 persons about US$450-500 per person. It’s also worth noting that the Inca trail closes for a number of weeks each year for maintenance, so plan ahead. And lastly, remember to carry some cash to tip your porter and guides – they work hard for it!