Trip Report: Inca Trail

Rainy Season? Oops! We were extremely lucky with the weather – it rained only 2 days. Our Inca Trail was a magical experience of cities in the clouds, fog filled abysses, and rain forests. And the sun did come out as we arrived at the Sun Gate.

Fog Filled Abysses

Fog Filled Abysses.

Day 1:

After a 3:45am wake-up call, we are picked up at 4:30am at the hotel in Cusco. The night was especially short because 8h before we were at the clinic with two of the three kids and came back with cipro for the stomach, and amoxicillin for the ears. But at 4am everyone feels good enough go for it! We board the bus and after a quick stop at the Llama Path porter house and a longer stop for breakfast (i.e. no sleep on the bus…) we arrive at the trail head – km 82 of the railroad. As a private group of only 5 clients we organize and repack quickly. We cross the bridge minutes before 9am.

km 82 bridge

The bridge at km 82, the beginning of the Inca Trail.

And we are on our way. The trail starts with Peru flat for about two hours, then it climbs for real. After the first steep climb we find our first Inca city – Llactapata. We can only see it across a small valley, but it’s still pretty impressive. It also reminds me of some games we play, but that is another story.


Llactapata (sometimes referred to as Patallacta, e.g. on Google Maps) from the view point. There is another starting point below Llactapata if you arrive by train, but most tours start at km88, the end of the road.

Inca Ruins

Inca Ruins next to the view point. Because you cannot get close to Llactapata (it’s quite a detour), I think they restored some walls close to the train, so tourists can see them up close on the first day.

Around 3pm we reach the place where many groups stop (Wayllabamba, 3000m). But with Llama Path, we keep going for another 2 hours to Ayapata (3300m). There is not much to do in camp anyway, and tomorrow, we’ll be glad we climbed those 300m already. Minutes after 5pm, everyone arrived at the camp. We were on the trail for over 8 hours (including breaks), mostly uphill! The confidence grows that maybe, this can be done! Personally I was happy it didn’t rain, as that might have dampened motivation of the troops.

Day 2:

Today is the day! We will climb Dead Woman’s pass and go above 4200m. It’s the highest point on the Inca Trail and it’s almost 1km higher than where we slept. Which means another early start (5am wake up call). The support team serves coca tea in the tents, but we are way too excited to sit in a tent.

Luckily there is no rain, and breakfast includes pan cakes with chocolate sauce and fruit salad. Nobody wants to be carried back on a horse so – at 5:30am – we hike on. On the way up, we get a bit of hail, and a bit of rain. Once we reach the pass, we take a few pictures, and then the clouds come in all the way and the pour starts. The groups that stopped early yesterday will have lunch up here – in the pour. For us going forward is the way out, so we mount our ponchos, and descend into the rain clouds.

View back from dead woman pass

View back on the trail from Dead Woman Pass, displaying the sexy lama sign. We are at 4200m, and the next two hours will be downhill. In the pour! (Rain <-> Rain Jacket, Pour <-> Poncho)

We hike on, steep down to the temple of the lunch at Pacamayo. We’ll drop 700m over the next two hours.

During a break in the rain we can see the temple of the lunch at Pacamayo, and the Peruvian flat trail leading to it. Don’t be fooled, it’s (flat) steps descending all the way, and the uneven rocks require constant concentration. They Inca cobble stones beat a mud path, though.

By the time we arrive at Pacamayo, it’s pouring again, and heavier. But in the lunch tent it’s dry, and the food is delicious. It keeps pouring while we eat, and the porters crowd into the kitchen half of the tent, or seek cover in the bathroom buildings. We need to go on, there is the second pass waiting for us. So we put our wet ponchos back on, and march on. The 400m climb up to the second pass is the steepest yet. Sometimes the Inca Trail becomes a creek, but the centuries old Inca stairs are holding up very well.


Runkurakay on the way up is a small Inca outpost, and we don’t linger long and continued to the second pass.

Orchids on the Inca Trail

Orchids on the Inca Trail

We walk through fairytale Polylepis forests. Polylepsis are odd and rare and thrives only in the cold mist and thin air of the Andes Mountains. The orchids are beautiful.

The worst thing about the rain is that there are no views of the mountains, but the path and the ruins are beautiful in the fog. Mostly, it feels like Middle Earth, except the hobbits are a lot more colorfully dressed. Or maybe Dagobah?

When we reach the steps to Sayaqmarka a decision has to be made. We have been on the trail for over 10h, we climbed two passes, including 4200m Dead Woman Pass. It’s a no-brainer for everyone, although the group is split between no-brainer-no and no-brainer-yes. But we are not going to just ignore steps like this, are we? After all, it’s not even raining right now.

The 108 Steps to Sayaqmarqa

The 108 steep Inca steps to Sayaqmarqa. Do they look promising? Or dangerous? There is no way we are not going up these steps.

Sayaqmarqa means innaccessible town, and it’s a good name. The city is placed on a ridge, accessible only through two very narrow and steep stair cases (on of which is still covered by the jungle). It’s a fortress with an irrigation system that provides water to the inhabitants. They built a little aqueduct to bring the water in over the city wall, and irrigation canals throughout the city.



Sayaqmarka IrrigationSayaqmarka Irrigation

After 12 hours on the trail, we arrive in camp. We are hungry, wet, cold, tired. This was the most strenuous day in their live for most of us. But we all did it, and we arrived in day light. They guides tell many stories about this day, and what it takes to get clients to finish. Almost everyone makes it, but some arrive late at night, some on the back of porters.

Day 3:

Today we sleep in – 6am – as we have an easy day, and it’s going to be mostly downhill. The weather improved over night, and we are treated to a view.

View from Chaquiqocha

A promising morning: We wake up to a view.

Tomorrow, we’ll get up at 3am, so this leisurely morning is a great time to take a picture with our porters. The porters make the Inca Trail experience possible. We have a total of 11 porters, which include a chef, a sous-chef – learning to be a chef –  a waiter, a head porter – who has a different hat color – and security, who especially watches the tents when client gear is in them, but no clients, e.g. for dinner. All 11 carry full loads, including a mess tent (the grey tarp covered one above) that doubles as sleeping tent for the porters and three four-people igloo tents (green above). Llama Path puts 2 people and their gear into the four people tents, which is spacious. For our group of 5, we asked them to carry only 2 tents for the family (and one for the guide).

Inca Trail Support Team

Our whole support team (Lio, the guide, taking the picture). Dennis, the chef on the left, followed by the sous-chef and our waiter. On the right we have the head porter (black hat) and camp security (yellow vest)

The hike starts with an short twenty minute climb and then Peruvian flat to the third pass. That’s the first place with bars. Not the drink kind of bar, but the cell phone signal kind of bars. We don’t stay long, given there is no view, and nothing interesting happening on the Internets anyway.

Incatrail Day 3 uphill.

Inca trail Day 3 uphill.

We are ready for the over 3000 steep Inca steps down until the “gradual downhill” starts. It’s raining, but not pouring, so the ponchos stay in the packs. Earlier, I mentioned the word steep. Compared to what’s coming, that steep section yesterday was gradual.

Inca Trail Steps in the Rain

Rosalio pondering a short flight of stairs.

Our descent takes us down to Phuyupatamarca, the City above (or in) the clouds. Today, it’s in the clouds. And it’s even more awesome than what we have seen so far.

In Phuyupatamarca we find a black lama, which are extremely rare, and were favorite sacrificial animals of the Incas. Rosalio jokes about sacrificing it for better weather, and I am getting all excited, but we end up saving the animal.

About an hour before camp, there is another intersection: Take the a porter shortcut directly to camp at Wiñawayna, or detour to Intipata (Sun Place). Thanks to the Llama Path itinerary, we have plenty of time, and of course we head towards Intipata. However it’s pouring again, so we don’t spend too much time there, and just have a quick look at the convex terraces, then head down to Wiñawayna.

We arrive drenched at our camping spot, and head straight for the temple of the lunch. If we’d try to get into our tents, everything would be wet. In the afternoon, the rain stops for a few hours, and we use those hours to tour the amazing city of Wiñawayna.

For about the third time on this hike, this new city trumps everything we have seen so far. Wiñawayna is just beautiful and amazing. It has terraces, which are engineered for agriculture, and differ in clima from the top to the bottom, ancient temples, built with different walls, and aligned with the firmament, and residential houses and store-rooms. Wiñawayna also has an irrigation/plumbing systems, with a long row of fountains. You can spend hours just exploring this small city.

One geeky reason why these cities are so wonderful? They remind me of the dungeons we built at home to play games like Massive Darkness. You see, if you play these kind of miniature games, you need rooms and passages and you cannot really have roofs, because you need to move the miniatures. So we LARP for a few minutes.

Day 4:

The non-sacrifice worked! There is no rain, and you can actually see stars in the sky! You can also see far but it’s hard to tell, though, because we get up at 3am, and instantly head to the ranger station to line up at the entry gate. And we are the first group! After over 2 hours of waiting (and playing games on our phones) we pass the gate and start hiking towards the sun gate.

This trail brings more steep drops, amazing views (finally, more than fog filled abysses) and the steepest stairs of them all – You can touch the steps in front of you without bending over. In addition, they are a false summit. You think it’s the end, but it’s not, there is a final push after.

Steep Inca Steps, shortly before reaching the Sun Gate

The trail saves the steepest stairs for the last day.

Only a few people of the later groups catch up with us, so when we reach the Sun Gate, it’s pretty much just us. The other fast hikers have to wait for their groups, so we head out again as the first group, and arrive as the first Inca Trail group at Machu Picchu – and find a few hundred  people who arrived by bus!

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

We made it! Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. It’s less than an hour of gentle downhill from here.

By now the weather is fantastic, and a few hundred is still pretty empty for a city the size of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu will get it’s own blog post.

More Pictures

If you want more pictures, check out the 250 picture version!

By the numbers

  • Inca Trail with Llama Path, 4 days/3 nights.
  • Distance: 43km/26 miles.
  • Max Elevation 4300m/ ft at Dead Woman Pass.
  • Floors . Steps
    These numbers are measured by fitbit and cellphone (strava) and include some walking around ruins on the way. fitbit calories are for the full day.

    • Fitbit
      • Day 1: Distance: km/13.94 miles. Floors 341 . Steps 30,003. Calories: 6,852
      • Day 2: Distance: km/9.87 miles. Floors 382. Steps 21,237. Calories 7,298
      • Day 3: Distance: km/10.23 miles. Floors 85. Steps 26,384. Calories 4,547
      • Day 4: Distance: km/16.6 miles. Floors 135. Steps 35,784. Calories 5,714
    • Strava
      • Day 1: 8.4 mi, 3128 ft elevation gain, 2h:59min moving time
      • Day 2: 7.7 mi, 4443ft elevation gain, 4h:09min moving time
      • Day 3: 5.7 mi, 922ft elevation gain, 2h:28min moving time
      • Day 4:
  • Gringos 5: 2 adults, 3 kids.
  • Support 12: 1 guide, 11 porters – including 1 chef, 1 assistant chef, 1 head porter, 1 security, 1 waiter.
  • Backpacks
    • Porters (by 2003 law) are allowed to carry 20 kg/44 lbs each. 5 kg/11 lbs of this is for their own personal gear. Their packs get weighted all the time by the head porter (and re-distributed if needed), and at check points by the rangers.
    • With Llama Path, you can give 7 kg to a porter (if you pay for it upfront). This includes 3 kg for the sleeping pad and bag, which leaves you with 4kg – enough.
    • Porters make 43Soles or $15day. Tip recommendations on the Web vary widely, and are confusing as some numbers are per group, others per day, etc. and they don’t add up if you do the math. Llama Path recommends 65 soles per porter, twice that for the Chef and above that for the guide.

Picture of Inca Trail Elevation Profile on a sign on the Inca Trail

Inca Trail Elevation Profile


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