Descending the Inca Trail into the jungle on the third day. We saw many orchids on this day.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

A Trip Report from the Highlands of Peru


September 26/30, 2006 



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To view some of our photos from the Inca trail:

The detail view provides descriptions.
The slide show is a nice feature to view the photos quickly if set at a high speed.

Below is text and select photos:


We spent three days in Lima, based out of the neighborhood of Mira Flores. One of the most amazing places was the Franciscan Monastery downtown. Our guide had worked at the Monastery for four years, and was able to give us an inside tour.

A view in the catacombs beneath the cathedral. The bones turn to dust over time. The skulls and the femurs are all that remain intact of these souls.

The monks did a lot of reading, and transcribing of books.

The Library in the Franciscan Monastery in Lima. 

A long narrow room, with two spiral staircases to the upper level.

This view alone is worth the trip to Lima!

Photo by Kenny!

Background of the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail actually refers to the Inca-built network of trails and roads that extend up and down the western side of South America in the Andean region.  The most popular segment of the Inca Trail is the hike to Machu Picchu from kilometer 88 of the Peru section of the trail.  This hike is 26 miles (about 50 kilometers), and ascends to an elevation of 13,775’ at Warmiwanusca - Dead Woman Pass. 

In Inca times, Chasquis, trained runners, would memorize important messages or commands from government and military officials and would carry them relay-style to another Chasqui so that the message eventually reached its recipient.  Today, many hikers struggle with the elevation, while local porters in tennis shoes or sandals who carry their gear speed up and down the trails, carry on the Chasqui tradition.

The area around Cusco is an agricultural based economy.

The closest city to the Inca Trail is Cuzco, 11,000’, with a population of 400,000. Cuzco is the old imperial Inca capital, Tawantinsuyo , which was both the administrative and the religious center of the Inca Empire. Its name likely comes from an ancient indigenous that meant center in reference to an extensive network of roads leading from this Capital of the Inca Empire to the regions that formed the "four parts of the world" in the Andean world view.  

Seized by the Spanish in 1533 after the murders of the Incas Huascar and Atahualpa, many of the original Inca buildings were destroyed and their stone used to construct palaces and churches for the Spanish invaders. Much of the city was also burned during the rebellion of 1534. 

A small village market.

The ladies are showing how they weave alpaca and baby alpaca wool into sweaters, blankets, and hats.

The city of Cuzco, is a unique and harmonious blend of a rich historical and archaeological legacy with a land studded with soaring mountains and valleys, steamy tropical jungle, turquoise lakes and thundering rivers. Cuzco is located in the Huatanay river valley in the southern Andes of Peru. Considered by the Incas as the dwelling place of the gods, Cusco is certainly the most fascinating city in the Andes. Its monumental architecture admirably combines the majestic stone foundations of Inca buildings with the handsome architecture of Colonial Peru. The city's proximity to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu has made Cuzco travel one of the foremost destinations for tourists around the world.  

The Incas conceived of Machu Picchu and the great trail leading to it in grand artistic and spiritual terms. Hiking the Inca Trail, the ancient royal highway, is hands down, the most authentic and scenic way to visit Machu Picchu and get a clear grasp of the Incas' overarching architectural concept and supreme regard for nature. It is truly an amazing life experience.   

Inca terraces at Pisac, a very large complex of ruins above the Sacred Valley. The views to valley below were stunning! 

As impressive as Machu Picchu itself, the Inca Trail traverses a 127 square mile national park designated as the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. The entire zone is replete with extraordinary natural and man-made sights: Inca ruins, exotic vegetation and animals, and amazing mountain and cloud forest vistas. 

Today the Inca Trail, which, as part of the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, has been designated a World Heritage natural and cultural site. It is the most important and most popular hiking trail in South America, followed by many thousands of eco-tourists and modern-day pilgrims in the past 3 decades. Its popularity in recent years has led to concerns among environmentalists and historians that the trail was suffering potentially irreparable degradation. Luckily, beginning in 2001 rules designed to limit the number of visitors and damage to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail were initiated. Independent trekking on the Inca Trail is now prohibited. You must go as part of an organized group arranged by an officially sanctioned tour. We were blessed with the best of all possible guides, Cesar. 

Cesar gives a lecture on Inca construction. This doorway, from Inca times is still in use in the beautiful village of Huayllabamba. 

There are two ways to hike to Machu Picchu: either along the grand and inspiring 4 day / 3 night trail with three serious mountain passes, or as a 2-day / 1 night trail.

Doerte in front of an original wall of Inca Stones. The construction was so precise that they did not use mortar.

Machu Picchu often called the Lost City of the Incas is a well-preserved pre-Columbian Inca ruin located on a high mountain ridge. Machu Picchu’s elevation is 7,710’.  Machu Picchu is located above the Urubamba Valley, about 44 miles northwest of Cuzco.  

Forgotten for centuries by the outside world, although not by locals, it was brought back to international attention by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham who “rediscovered” it in 1911, and wrote a best-selling work about it. Bingham was let to the site by a little boy, and found farmers tending some of the Inca Terraces. Peru is pursuing legal efforts to retrieve thousands of artifacts that Bingham removed to Yale from the site. 

Every country has beautiful scenery and Peru is richly blessed with majestic mountains and highlands, jungles, and costal areas for hiking. Although important, the awe inspiring scenery is only one of the attributes responsible for the magic of the Inca Trail. Can there be any walk anywhere in the world with such a combination of natural beauty, history, and sheer mystery and with such an awe-inspiring destination? 

The Highlights of the trip on the Inca Trail

Bartering for souvenirs
Chewing coca leaves
Coca tea
Pisco sours
Tents and very fine Peruvian food
Porter supported trekking  ( We carried only our personal belongings)
Hiking 4-8 hours a day, with elevations from 8,000-13,766 feet
Elevation gains averaging 1,000-1,500 feet, with one day of 3,934 feet
Walking 4-8 miles a day to cover a total of about 30 miles
Fairy tale, and fantasyland views, and views of high mountains
Learning about Inca culture
Learning about the Quechua culture
A challenging trek from sub-tropical forests to high mountain passes

on Machu Picchu 

Cesar took us on a bus from Cuzco to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The Valley of the Urubamba River is still a lush agricultural area and a very important source of produce. We visited the fantastic ruins at Pisac with its huge steep terraces. After a stop at the market and lunch we arrived in Ollantaytambo where we spent the night. Ollantaytambo is a former Incan town with a fortress, and more steep terraces. Some of the town is still original Inca.  

The Inca Trail 

Day 01 Kilometer 82 to Llulluchapampa 

We began our day at a hostel in the small ancient town of Ollantaytambo. As usual we were up early. Breakfast at 6 am and departure at 7 am for the Kilometer 82 Trailhead. Our guide, Cesar had us all weigh our duffels. Mine was the lightest at 10 pounds. The limit was 15 pounds and there were several that had to be repacked. Cesar was quite clear on what to leave behind, but people packed it anyway so he would make them take it out and leave it behind. Some folks did not seem to understand that our porters actually had to carry these duffels up the mountain! Finally, after pleading, whining, and negotiations, we loaded on our bus and were off.

Mike on the suspension bridge at the beginning of the fabled Inca Trail high above the Rio Urubamba.

The excitement and anticipation of actually beginning to hike the fabled Inca Trail was overwhelming. I even had a nervous stomach which is very unusual for me. After a short ride we were at the standard starting point for the Inca Trail along the Rio Urubamba, known as Kilometer 82. There were 14 of us, plus our esteemed guide Cesar, 20 porters and 2 cooks.

After stopping at the Control Station to stamp our passports and confirm we were the same people as on our permit we were allowed to proceed. The beauty from the very first step was amazing!  It was fun crossing the swaying suspension bridge over the Urubamba River. It flowed fast and there were rapids below.  

Our hike began at Kilometer 82 and ended at the fabled city of Machu Picchu.

On the other side the trail was fairly level as it followed downstream above the Urubamba River. There were huge Century Plants and Prickly Pears. We also walked through large stands of non-native eucalyptus forest. 

At our first break Cesar demonstrated how to bless the coca leaves, roll 3 into a cylinder, use a bit of an old banana as a catalyst, and chew them. We had been at almost 11,000’ in Cuzco and the effects of high altitude were evident on everyone. Head aches, nausea, swollen sinuses, and shortness of breath were the most evident symptoms. This quid of coca leaves placed in the mouth releases its juice, which helps for the altitude. Cesar explained that coca leaves was an important part of the Inca culture, and important in the trade of the day. Everyone in our group tried it. I found it beneficial. Our group was loaded (actually over loaded) with modern medication, and everyone was taking something for the altitude. Since Doerte and I have spent a lot of time at high elevations in Colorado, Arizona, the Sierra, and Washington, we preferred to actually adjust. 

We had a diverse group in respect to Nationalities. Three were from Denmark, three Canadians, one from Japan, plus one Aussie, four Asian Americans from NYC, and two from Seattle. Doerte and I were the only ones who were actually in shape and used to hiking and camping. Most of the others had very little to zero experience! Yet, here we were, one big team on the Inca Trail!  

The scenery was spectacular as we moved from the arid lands along the River, gradually gaining elevation over several miles. Occasionally we would pass by houses in the middle of nowhere. There was no electric or running water. The local people would be selling water, Inca Cola, Gatorade.  

Doerte high above the ruins of Patallacta. This large complex of agriculture, was located at the confluence of the Cusichaca River and the Rio Urubamba.

We reached the valley of the Cusichaca River and stopped for a break at a fantastic overlook of the large ruins of Patallacta. There are many Inca Terraces, and a small round tower. The Incas only built round walls when there the place was very important. We were in awe of the citadel below us! 

The Trail dropped steeply down from the high bluff overlooking Patallacta down to the Cusichaca River. We followed the river upstream, passing beneath cliffs covered with bromeliads. The view down the valley was excellent and on clear days Mount Veronica can be seen, covered in snow on the skyline.  

We had a hot lunch at the small village and campsite at Huayllabamba. From here the Inca Trail ascends steeply passing through a small campsite called Ayapata. We entered the beautiful and spectacular Cloud Forest while ascending our first steps on the Trail. The Cloud Forest is very rare in the Andes as it is self contained. I wish I knew more about it. 

The biggest geranium I have ever seen. This was a bush six feet high!  

At the top of the Cloud Forest we arrived at our first camp at Llulluchapampa, high above treeline at 12,000’. This campsite is on a grassy plateau with stunning views of the valley that we had just come up from and the snow capped peaks beyond. Below the valley dropped very sharply to the Urubamba River. We had wonderful views of a 5000 meter peak, Mount Veronica, first climbed by the Germans. Above us another 1,700’ was the Dead Woman Pass that we would go over in the morning. Doerte and I arrived with the porters, who although they carried 50-60 pounds always managed to arrive well before the clients. Over the next three hours our group arrived one by one.  

The campsite was spectacular! We were glad to have the afternoon free to enjoy the thin air and astounding views. Cesar showed us a little boy of 4 years whose family lived near our campsite. Cesar told us a story of how he had cut the umbilical cord when the child was born. It was on a July day when it had snowed 3 meters. He had to turn around his group, as they were not prepared for the winter conditions.  

We had a dining room tent where we could all sit and have our meals. Our cook was awesome! We enjoyed tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, appetizers, and a wide variety of Peruvian food for dinner and breakfast. That night we had a huge thunderstorm roll though. Rain, with lightning and thunder that echoed off the peaks!  

Our first camp at Llulluchapampa. This was our favorite campsite. The location and views were stunning!

Day 2 Llulluchapampa to Chaquicocha 

Morning brought cold temperatures and clearing skies. We had a big breakfast of hot coffee, porridge, and bread. 

Cesar took some time and trouble to introduce us to the porters, and the porters to us. As a present we brought the porters about 20 bags of coca leaves. Cesar blessed them and presented them to the porters. He drew a big map of the world in the dirt and showed the porters where everyone was from. Finally, we all walked around, shook hands, hugged, and said hello. Cesar explained that we were all in the same group, all on the same team, and all hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu together. “One team, one dream!” Cesar repeated. It was very moving. 

Alberto, the Cook, assistant cook and some of our wonderful porters at Llulluchapampa!  


Photo by Kenny!  

Finally, we started up the trail to Warmiwañusqa or Dead Woman Pass, 13,775’, 1500’ above our camp. It was good going and the altitude did not affect Doerte and I at all. It felt good to be acclimatized! 

Kenny, Mike, Doerte, and Laura arrived first in a group. As the others arrived one by one we gave them a big cheer. It made for happy times on the Pass. We were well above treeline, and in the middle of acres of lama grass. It was quite beautiful, and we had occasional views to the high peaks covered in snow. The pass was quite cold with low clouds hanging over but everybody's spirits were high with our accomplishment.  

First up on the summit of Dead Woman Pass! Laura, Kenny, Mike, and Doerte.

Our entire team on Dead Woman Pass. Jacob and Kenny in the front row.

We had a great team. Everyone was able to pull each of the difficult challenges that we faced on the Inca Trail.


Photo by Kenny!  


Crossing the pass was like entering another time and world. The trail dropped down to the other side of the pass, almost as drastically as it had risen. It felt like we left our world behind, and were truly entering the world of the Inca. The views during the descent were stunning. Cliffs, and waterfalls. Here Inca paving stones were much more in evidence. There had been little sign of them before because, it is believed, the section of the Trail up to the First Pass and beyond to Paqaymayo had been eroded by the hoofs of mules used by smugglers. 

We descended 2624’ to the beautiful Paqaymayo River where we rested and enjoyed a hot lunch before beginning the ascent to the Second Pass. From here we could see the pass where we had come from and the one we would ascend after our lunch. We also had good view down valley to the Urubamba Valley

The trail once again went up steeply, sometimes with steps to the Second Pass, or Runkuraqay Pass, 12955’. Just below the pass was another amazing ruin, the circular shaped ruins of Runcu Raccay. Discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1915, he envisioned it a fortress, but Dr. Paul Fejos concluded it was a tambo, or resting place for travelers.  

The ruin of Runcu Raccay. below Second Pass.

Second Pass was shrouded in fog. There are two small lakes there, where it is reported that Andean gulls can be seen. We didn’t see the lakes or the gulls. Down the other side we descended thousands of steep Inca steps to enter the jungle. At one point the trail dropped very steeply (enough to give a feeling of exposure and fright to some). The vegetation becomes steadily richer as the trail descends towards Sayac Marca, meaning Inaccessible Town.   

At the top of a series of 100 steep steps are the elaborate ruins of Sayac Marca. Cesar told us the story of this site and the purpose behind it. Sayac Marca was discovered by Haram Bingham when he followed the old Inca road from Manchu Picchu. In 1940 Fejos changed the name to Inaccessible Town. This name is a perfect description of the ruin as it is inaccessible on three sides by steep drops down to the jungle below. Sayac Marca also sets on a fork in the Inca Trail, with one fork going to Manchu Picchu and the other to the Aobamba Valeey and the Santa Teresa River. Scholars are still not sure as to the real purpose of this ruin, as it is not fortified, does not have enough terraces to be an agricultural site, and the stonework, although very impressive, is not of the caliber of the important religious sites.  

The ruin of Sayac Marca, or  Inaccessible Town  at a fork in the Inca Trail.

From  Sayac Marca  the route continues downhill for a short distance and then begins to climb gently upwards through a thick jungle forest. This was a very beautiful part of the trail. The Trail paving stones are original Inca. Our views in the distance increased with every step as the clouds retreated. The lush greenery and the fierce colors of the tropical vegetation took our breath away. Soon we arrived at our second camp of Chaquicocha. 

Day 3 to Chaquicocha to Winaywayna 

This was an easy day with less than 1000’ of elevation gain. The trail passed through a short 20 meter tunnel that has been made by the Incas. Cesar hid inside the tunnel to give everyone a fright! Cesar took his time, and showed us many of the natural wonders of the jungle. He became the naturalist, and showed us many varieties of orchids. Some so small we had to look at them through a magnifying glass, while others were quite large. He also pointed out humming birds, and many other things. I was amazed that the jungle on this side of the mountains came up to 12,000’!

The Third Pass was 11,970’. Just on the other side of the Third Pass were the ruins of Sayac Marca, which means Cloud Level Town. The views here were spectacular. It was interesting that the each ruin we explored was more impressive that the last. Besides the views, Sayac Marca offered six Inca baths, which were a part of the Inca ritual worship of water. Below the ruin we descended 1500’ of Inca steps, many carved into solid rock. One big boulder had over 30 steps carved into it.

Mike and Cesar reflect on the Inca civilization. 

The Inca Trail is not just any old trail through the mountains. It has fantastic ruins all along the way and every paved stone is steeped in history of the Incas. The ruins were absolutely spectacular, and they had me thinking what it must have looked like in the days of the Inca empire. The trail continued to drop steeply and many places had paved steps.  We really enjoyed the long descent, and the weather improved with every step. We regrouped at the ruin of Intipata, with many impressive agricultural terraces.

Early in the afternoon we arrived at the largest camp of Winaywayna. This last camp was the largest of all the campsites. Hikers taking the less desirable option of a one night trip would also camp here. Winaywayna has food, a bar, a trekkers hostel, and even hot showers. Taking the advice of the porters to save the 3 Soles I opted for a cold free shower. They all found it entertaining and got a good laugh out of it.

Cesar took us to Huinay Huayna ruin for the afternoon. Many in our group were really whining they were so tired. It was a shame since we were in the climax of our trip and surrounded by the Incas. Like Intipata, Huinay Huayna (which means forever young) has whole sides of the mountain terraced for agriculture. Many terraces are still covered by jungle. Here there is an amazing series of 10 Inca baths, and many gabled houses. Cesar encouraged us to look deep within, and remember why we had came on this journey. He asked us to take advantage of this special time in our lives. Cesar is an alchemist, as he integrates material, spiritual, and societal transformation.  

The stunning ruin and terraces of Huinay Huayna.  

Day 4  Winawayna to Manchu Picchu 

We were all up at 4 am for a fast breakfast. The porters were anxious to pack up and descend to meet the first train. We had to eat, pack, and be on the trail by 5 am. This was the day when we would finally see Machu Picchu!. We lined up at the gate with our headlamps with two hundred other people waiting for the official to check our permits and open the gate. The stars were big and bright, and the air was quite cool as we started at a brisk pace, everyone very anxious to see Machu Picchu. The trail was mostly level. Slowly the darkness gave way to the morning light. 

After about an hour of fast walking we rounded a corner, and climbed some steps that mark the final approach to Intipunku or “Sun Gate”. Looking over the other side, our first glimpse of Machu Picchu was framed in the doorway of the ruin. There before us was Machu Picchu bathed in the first glorious rays of the sun. It was a truly an amazing site!   

Arrival at Intipunku or “Sun Gate”. Mike and Doerte with Machu Picchu receiving the first direct sun light of the day.

It was just a coincidence that our shirts were similar in color that day!

We descended the last two miles of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The sky cleared for a perfect sunny day. Cesar gave an extensive lecture on the place, and emphasized how lucky we were to be here and how this would always be a special day in our lives.  

The ruins were spectacular to say the least! Intricate walls, stairways, water canals, baths, and huge agricultural terraces created sweeping views of the mountains in all directions! It was unbelievable what the Incas had built in just a few years.   

In 1911, Machu Picchu was brought to the attention of the world by Hiram Bingham, an American historian from Yale University. Legend has it that he was let to the site by a small boy. Bingham coined the name "The Lost City of the Incas", but Machu Picchu is not it. 

It is thought that the city was built by the Sapa Inca Pachacuti, starting in about 1440, and was inhabited until the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532. Archaeological evidence shows that Machu Picchu was not a conventional city, but a country retreat town for Inca nobility. The site has a large palace and temples dedicated to Inca deities around a courtyard, with other buildings for support staff. It is estimated that a maximum of only about 750 people resided in Machu Picchu at any one time, and probably only a small fraction of that number lived in the town during the rainy season and when none of the nobility were visiting. The Spanish never ventured to Machu Picchu. It is thought that they never became aware of it. 

Historians think the site was chosen for its unique location and geological features. It is said that the silhouette of the mountain range behind Machu Picchu represents the face of the Inca looking upward towards the sky, with the largest peak, Huayna Picchu (meaning Young Peak), representing his nose.  

The fabled City of Machu Picchu! A picture speaks a thousand words!

All of the construction in Machu Picchu uses the classic Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were masters of this technique, called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many junctions are so perfect that not even a knife fits between the stones. 

Machu Picchu is composed of 140 living spaces including temples, sanctuaries, parks and residences. There are more than one hundred flights of stone steps and a great number of water fountains, interconnected by canals and water drainages perforated in the rock, designed for the original irrigation system. Evidence has been found to suggest that the irrigation system was used to carry water from a holy spring, to each of the houses in turn, the order being dictated by the holiness of the residents. 

One of the many water fountains. Amazingly the original canals and aqueducts are still in sue today.

Regretfully, and way too soon for me, we had to leave the magical place. Our hike over, we boarded the bus for the ride from Machu Picchu to the town of Aguas Calientes.  The short 1.5 hour  train ride from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo  and then a 2 hour bus ride from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco completed our trip on the Inca Trail. 

Many thanks to our guide Cesar and our Quechua cooks and porters!!!

After Machu Picchu we went to the Caral ruins North of Lima

This was a 12 hour round trip from Lima. We hired a car and guide for day. Our car overheated numerous times, and hit bottom on the rocky road many times. I'm glad it wasn't my car. This was an excellent day that was one of the highlights of our time in Peru.
Buried by sand dunes until recently

Caral first made headlines in 2001 when researchers carbon-dated material from the city back to 2627 B.C. It is a must see for those interested in ancient civilizations. The 163-acre city was the administrative center for a complex civilization. Farmers, using irrigation canals, watered their crops of pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, corn, chili peppers and cotton from the Supe River.
Dotted with pyramid temples, sunken plazas, housing complexes and an amphitheater, Caral is one of 20 sites attributed to the ancient Caral-Supe culture that run almost linearly from Peru's central coast inland up the Andes.

The ruins changed history when researchers proved that a complex urban center in the Americas thrived as a contemporary to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, 1,500 years earlier than previously believed. It's very important because it's the oldest civilization in America. It's very important because it's the oldest civilization in America and on par with the ancient civilizations of the Old World.

The official website:

A recent travel article on Caral:


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