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Machu Picchu

Image Title: Machu Picchu from the Sungate. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Machu Picchu from the Sungate. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: The 800 year-old Inca Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
The 800 year-old Inca Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: View of the Urubamba River and the Sacred Valley from the Inca Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
View of the Urubamba River and the Sacred Valley from the Inca Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Sunrise on the Inca Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Sunrise on the Inca Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Rainbow Mountain, Peru (16,000ft). [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Rainbow Mountain, Peru (16,000ft). [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Skylodge Adventure Suites. [Photo: Skylodge Adventure Suites]
Skylodge Adventure Suites. [Photo: Skylodge Adventure Suites]

Machu Picchu


Flying into Cusco, Peru is an adventure in itself not to mention the adventures that await hiking the Classic Inca Trail. The airport is located in the center of the city . . . . in the middle of the Andes mountains. As the plane descends, you can see the Andes peaks above you on both sides of the narrow valley and you can feel the tension coming out of the cockpit while you hear mumbled prayers from fellow passengers. Once you arrive in Cusco, the city has a laid back, adventurous spirit vibe. There are plenty of tourists, but most of them are there for the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and all of the Inca Trails. There is a lot of polar fleece, gortex, and hiking boots.

At 11,000 feet, Cusco’s elevation is something to plan ahead and manage. Depending on your physical condition and your body’s physiology, the elevation may give you headaches and you may find yourself winded or more tired after relatively simple physical activities like climbing a flight of stairs. Our plan for managing elevation is two-fold. We started ourselves on prescription Diamox [Acetazolamide] to help our bodies make more efficient use of the reduced oxygen and we planned three days activities in the Sacred Valley at 8,000 ft to help ourselves acclimatize.

We travelled with another couple on this leg of our journey. We met in Lima with our friends coming from the US and us coming from the Galapagos Islands. We have planned our trip so we can explore the Sacred Valley together for three days and then split up. The boys plan to spend four days hiking the Classic Inca Trail and the girls plan to spend those same four days touring the Sacred Valley, Whitewater Rafting the Urubamba River, and hike the last section of a spur Inca Trail to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu. We will all meet at the base of the Machu Picchu ruins on the fourth day after the boys pass through the Sun Gate. Once we have met back up, the four of us will have a day to hike Huwayna Picchu overlooking Machu Picchu and explore the Machu Picchu ruins together and then another day to explore the Rainbow mountains. This ten day itinerary came off without incident thanks in no small part to our guides, Paco and Jimmy, from Q’inti Travel through our South American Luxury tour agent, VIP Journeys.

As a group, we spent two nights at the Aranwa Sacred Valley Resort and Wellness Spa on the banks of the Urubamba River near the village of Huayllabamba, touring the Maras Salt Mines, the village of Chinchero (12,500 ft) and the Moray Agricultural Circles. On the third day, we split up with the boys heading up the Classic Inca Trail and the girls continuing to tour the Sacred Valley. The girls took the 360 View, Vistachrome Inca Rail Train up the valley to the El Maipi hotel in the village of Aguas Calientes, the last village below the Machu Picchu Ruins. After a couple of days of rafting and touring Sacred Valley villages, the girls took the day trail from the train tracks at Km 104 to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu while their luggage was sent ahead to the hotel in Aguas Calientes. This ten-mile trail climbs 1,500 ft to the Sun Gate at 8,000 ft and then drops 1,000 ft to the base of the ruins where buses take tourists back to Aguas Calientes.

The boys adventure started at Km 82 on the Urubamba Train Tracks at 8,000 ft and followed the Classic Inca Trail for 26 miles to arrive at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu and meet the girls four days later. The Classic Inca Trail is truly one of the classic treks of the world. The trails wind through small mountain villages criss-crossing streams through valleys and over passes along side ancient Inca Ruins. About 60% of the trail is paved with Inca stonework and the rest is a collection of dirt, rocks, and some modern-day gravel. Our specific daily logs and camps looked like this:             

    Day 1: Km 82 (8,438ft) to Huayllabamba (9,843ft), 7.5 mi/1,500ft gain

    Day 2: Huayllabamba (9,843ft) to Pacaymayo (11,900), 5.5mi 4,000ft gain over Dead Woman Pass (14,000ft)

    Day 3: Pacaymayo (11,900) to Phuyupatamarca (12,067ft), 6.0mi/1,100 gain over 13,000ft Pass

    Day 4: Phuyupatamarca (12,067ft) to Machu Picchu (7,970), 5.5mi/4,000ft drop

    (It should be noted that every day, even the last day, with a net 4,000ft drop, had at least 2,000ft of gross elevation gain)

Nearly all of the Classic Inca Trail guide services follow some version of this itinerary from Km 82 to the Sun Gate, although your actual mileage may vary depending on camp site availability. There are also several guide services that offer private and semi-private guided treks on the Salkantay Trail, which may be a little bit more difficult but less crowded.

We booked a semi-private tour with Q’inti Travel that turned out to be a private trip for the two of us. Our camp traveled with: two clients; one guide; one chef; one waiter; two baggage porters; and one toilet porter. Two additional baggage porters were hired to spread the portor loads for the day we had to go over Dead Woman’s Pass. As guests, we slept in a Northface, Three-Person, Three-Season tent with sleeping pads and down sleeping bags. Porters carried our camp gear (tents, sleeping bags, food) and camp clothes while as guests, we carried trail food, water, and hiking gear. We were each carrying about 20 lbs in 30 liter packs while hiking. We also elected to bring our own back packs and hiking poles although both packs and poles are readily available for purchase or rental at several points before starting on the trail.

The food on the trail was amazing. Our chef, and his waiter created incredible culinary delights for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All of our meals were served on a folding table with folding chairs and white linen table cloth inside a dining tent to provide shade from the hot noon sun and wind protection from the cool evenings. Our waiter wore a white uniform and white gloves while serving the meals and was rumored to walk away from the trip with a pocket full of cash from playing poker with the rest of the porters over the three nights. Our chef even managed to bake a birthday cake and spelled out, "Happy Birthday Wayne" for my climbing partner. Listening to the porters sing, "Feliz Cumpleanos" in Spanish at our 12,000ft camp site was truely one of the highlights of the trip.


     1)  Research your guide service. Independant hikers are not allowed permits on the Inca Trail. Make sure you are using a service that regulates the amount of weight each porter must carry and ensures they are given proper clothing and packs for carrying your gear. You also want to make sure the provided gear (tents, sleeping bags, etc.) are in good shape.

     2)   Training, Training, Training. The Inca Trail at an average elevation of ~ 12,000 feet elevation and 2,000 to 4,000 feet of elevation gain per day is serious physical exertion. The trip will be much more enjoyable if you are in good enough physical condition to enjoy it. Lots of training hikes with significant elevation gains and full packs in your trekking boots is highly recommended.

     3)   Bring plenty of warm clothes. It’s hot during the day (90F) and cold at night (25F). Depending on the season, you can also get pretty serious rain that you want to be prepared to hike in.

     4)   Bring extra, old gear to give to the porters. An extra duffel bag of your old gear will go a long way with your porters and guides. And it gives you an extra bag to bring home interesting souveniers and new gear. There are a number of great climbing and trekking stores in Cusco where you can score some new stuff and interesting brands you don't find in the US for very reasonable prices.

     5)   Aclimatize before beginning the hike. Making the trip from the US to Cusco is a grueling travel day by itself. Attempting to head straight up the trail the next day will only take away from the overall enjoyment of the trip. Plan a day or two or even three to rest from the travel and acclimitize without unecessary exertion. Consider spending the night before hitting the trail in Ollantaytambo which is the climbing village that you will pass through on the way to the Km 92 Trail Head.  

     6)   Poles with rubber tips. It turns out, rubber tips are required for your hiking poles on the Inca Trail to prevent damage to the stones and you can be fined $100US if the park rangers catch you using poles with metal tips.

There are a number of great pre- and post-trips to do while you are in the area depending on your available time. We elected to do the Galapagos Islands as a pre-trip and Easter Island as a post-trip and both were amazing. We also elected to do the Rainbow Mountain hike (3 miles/2,000ft elevation gain at 16,000ft.) and to spend a night in the Skylodge Adventure Suites (1,200 foot Via Ferrata rock climb at 9,000ft to glass sleeping pods) as post-hike excursions and we would recommend all of these.

Phil & Diane

[Note: No goods or services were recieved for publication of this article]


Amazon Shopping List:

     Type C Electrical Adaptor fo Peru OR Three-Pack Type C Electrical Adaptor

     Hiking Poles

     Hiking Pole Rubber Tips

     30 Liter Back Pack 

     Sun Hoodie

     Rain Shell

     Rain Pants with full-length zipper

     Waterproof/Shockproof Trekking Camera

     Adventure Duffle Bag

     Camelback Hydration Bladder