Virtually a backpacker’s rite of passage, the Inka trail (“Inka” is the traditional spelling, not “Inca”) is difficult, exhausting, exhilerating, fun, wondersome, dangerous, and for those who aren’t fond of heights, scary. It’s the best thing we have ever done, and ever been apart of.
The Inka trail to Machu Picchu takes on many forms — it isn’t just the highly marketed “Classic Inka” trail that gringos often read about. In reality, there are several secret Inka trails leading to the ruins of Machu Picchu that people can choose to do. In fact, these secret Inka trails are still being discovered today. Only a few months ago, archaeologists discovered a new trail that is viewable from the peak of Machu Picchu — it seems they keep popping up, the more archaeologists get to explore the area.
We chose to traverse through the deep jungle and scale dodgy cliffs. It was physically challenging and mentally rewarding, although our knees were ready to break by the time we made it to Machu Picchu. Our Inka trail was known as the extreme one, and involved starting at the summit of snow capped mountains, and speeding down on off road bikes to the bottom of the jungle. It involved stopping off to spend nights in remote villages where one evening, a huge party was thrown to celebrate the local football team winning the league, which coincided with a local politician leading the polls to become mayor. A red truck filled with people blasting music and drinking beer drove into our small driveway in Santa Maria. The mayor and the local villagers were here to party, and we were invited!
The way to Machu Picchu via the dense Peruvian jungle also involved white water rafting and zip lining 300 metres above the ground over the forest. Since on the mountain bike ride from the mountains to the jungle, I flipped over my bike and sprained my wrist and knocked my head and neck, we missed out on white water rafting since you know, my wrist stopped working, since it was swollen black. Sam did the incredible zip lining while I continued walking with a group of really great Americans we became friends with. While Sam was superwomaning over incalculable heights and overcoming her fear of heights, Drew, Tom, Rose, and I were swimming in icy rivers and making our way over shoddy wooden bridges toward the train tracks. A dog followed us on the trek for about six hours that day, and we felt bad since we have no idea how he would find his way home.
Trekking through the jungle was one of the coolest things we have ever done. I’ve probably used that phrase a lot on this blog, but if anything, it’s testament to how much South America continues to impress, just when you think you’ve reached the peak of great impressions. South America is certainly the place for outdoor adventures, and when it comes to diversity, history, and the cultural experiences one receives from encountering indigenous tribes, it can’t be beaten. Machu Picchu is at the top of pretty much everyone’s travel list, and it doesn’t disappoint!
After our third day, when we hiked to the Inka oasis of Aguas Calientes, our legs were ready to snap. We started trekking at 6am and didn’t arrive until 7pm in town. Here, the group went on the hunt for food to bring with us the following morning, when we would scale up toward Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is a beautiful, small town with a fast flowing river intersecting it, magnificent Inka statues, and treasure-trove markets selling alpaca clothes, chess sets, and Inka relics. We saw a giant dog here, which none of us managed to get a proper photo of, but it was larger than a Great Dane and the talk of the town! It was an absolute beast, and I wish I had a better photo of it so everybody could understand just how abnormally large it was. It fumbled around, playfully stomping on a much smaller dog, who was probably frightened to the bone of the steroid beast chasing it.
On the final morning, we woke up at 4.30am to start the trek to Machu Picchu. There was a bus option, instead of taking the stairs (which are right beside the most awesome little Inka museum, which nobody seems to know exists), and our guide told us that the stairs were pointless since it’s pitch black and hard to get up. I really wanted to take the stairs anyway, but by now my feet were covered in blisters, my ankles, knees, and hamstrings twisted, and I was having trouble simply walking in a straight line, so we had to get on the short bus to the top. My body had failed at just the right time, although this meant that I had to forego the extra trek to the top of Machu Picchu mountain. Still though, I was happy to have made it through a four day Inka jungle trek to the main event — the Machu Picchu ruins. Many people we spoke to had experienced the same ordeal — by the last day, their legs or injuries just didn’t allow them to climb the mountains.
Our memories of Machu Picchu will last a lifetime! Our group was perfect, and we all became fast friends. On one of the nights, we headed out in Santa Theresa for a few Cuba Libres and beers, which turned into some late night fun with the guides Hugo and Dorian. Hugo had just opened up a new bar and restaurant two days before we arrived, so we all decided to stay for a drink. That drink turned into a 3.30am home arrival. Drew and I had a great night with the guides, which blurred into arm wrestling the locals and trialling Drew’s waterproof iPhone case in a jug of water (and almost a jug of beer)!
I wish we could do this all over again. As hard as some of the trek was, especially with its sheer cliff drops as you had but a foot and a half of space to walk while grappling the side of the mountain (there’s no margin for error, given the certain death at some points), we had the time of our lives and implore everybody to come here and do it! People die every year, and dozens are critically injured, but if you focus hard enough and are careful around the dicey bits (there’s a part where you practically rock climb unassisted around a bend, and somehow you’re expected not to fall all the way down to a river), you’ll get a real thrill out of it. There’s no way parts of this trail would be accessible or legal back home, but that’s all part of the fun. It wasn’t supposed to be easy or safe, after all, since it’s the Inka trail, which was designed to keep the Spanish away from Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was breathtaking. I don’t think it’s even worth trying to describe what it was like, with all its ruins, llamas, gardens, and views. I’ll just show you the photos instead: