After 4 days of climbing up and down the mountains along the Inca Trail, we were finally standing at Sun Gate. Excitement was high. And then slowly, the rising sun began to shine on the magical site of Machu Picchu.
The important Inca site of Ollantaytambo (Ollanta) is in the heart of The Sacred Valley. Since it is on the drive from Cusco to Machu Picchu many people make a quick stop here on their way to or from the Inca site. We visited it as a day trip from Cusco so we could have more time at this interesting place.
The steep river valleys of the Urubamba and Patakancha Rivers are covered in agriculture terraces. Because the area is very dry, the Incas built cisterns and elaborate irrigation canals throughout these terraces. At the top, 200 steps above Ollanta, are the remains of an Inca ceremonial centre and fortres.
The most interesting part of Ollanta though is what’s across the Patakancha River. On the rock face of Mount Pinculluna are stone storehouses where the Inca stored their crops. The higher elevation meant stronger winds and lower temperatures so the food wouldn’t spoil. Also on the cliff you can see the large face of Wiracocha, the Inca god who created the sun and the moon.
The Inca Trail
There are a few different ways to get to Machu Picchu. We chose to hike the Classic Inca Trail. It’s a multi-day hike in the Sacred Valley passing many Inca ruins. Portions of the hike follow roads that the Inca’s built centuries ago connecting various Inca settlements including the incredible Machu Picchu.
Day 1 – 620 m ascent, 12 km, 6 – 7 hours
We began our trek in Piscacucho (2,680 m) on the side of the Urubamba River. Anticipation was high in our group of 16 trekkers. Not long into the first day we started to climb and were rewarded with awesome views of the Urumbamba River Valley. The dry environment gives interesting vegetation like flowering cacti and scrub grasses.
Walking further we saw our first Inca ruin on the trek, Llactapata and its garden terraces. Archaeologists believe it was a rest stop for travelers going to Machu Picchu. We were to pass by a few more Inca villages over the next three days which is part of the draw for this classic trek.
Day 2 – 1500 m ascent, 16 km, 7 – 8 hours
The second day had the most elevation gain as we were to climb up and over two high mountain passes. Many parts of the Inca trail used the original Inca stone steps. It was incredible to think that is trail was made centuries ago and our feet are still using it today. Like many ancient steps we’ve taken, the riser heights are not consistent making it difficult to maintain a rhythm going both up and down.
In the low valleys we were surrounded by dense vegetation including the gnarled queuña trees and colourful flowers.
Climbing up to the passes, the landscape changed to a more dry, alpine tundra. The slopes were covered in small bushes, straw grass and bromeliads with their tall centre stalk. With the open landscape we could see our objective far ahead. Warmiwañusca, translates to Dead Woman’s Pass, and is the highest that this hike will take us at 4,215 m. This pass received its name because, when seen from below, its crests resemble the form of a woman’s body. Our guide joked though, saying its name is because it is so difficult that a woman died while hiking up the pass. It’s not that difficult, just keep an easy tempo and you’ll get to the top.
From the pass we had great views of a snowcapped Apu Salkantay. Apu is the Inca’s mountain god and also refers to a sacred mountain. After a rest at the pass we had a steep descent into the Pacaymayo Valley (3600 m) where we were back into the forest.
We climbed again, up to the second pass of the day and were back into alpine tundra. Runcuracay Pass (3970 m) is a broad, open pass. From it we had a fantastic view of Dead Woman’s Pass on the other side of the valley. There was a lot of climbing down and then up between these two passes.
Our campsite (3600 m) that night was on a ridge overlooking Sayacmarca, an Inca ruin on the other side of the valley. Some groups visit this ruin, but our guides had a different, less busy site for us to see the next day.
Day 3 – 115 m ascent, 900 m descent, 5 -6 hours
The previous day was all about climbing, today was all about the descent and returning into the dense forest. Twisted queuña and bamboo almost took over the trail. There are two tight tunnels to pass through. They are natural formations, but the Inca carved them to be large enough to walk through. It’s incredible to think they used only simple tools to create these tunnels.
We passed by the ruins of Phuyupatamarca (the Town Above the Clouds). Out of the structures remaining are 5 stone baths which were believed to have been used for rituals. After visiting these ruins, we descended a knee-jarring 2,000 stone steps to Wiñaywayna campsite (2,700 m).
Near camp is one the most beautiful Inca sites we had ever seen. Intipata, ‘The Town of the Sun’, was our favourite spot on the trek so far. It has a fairy-tale like setting with white stone ruins atop tall, steep terraces surrounded by a green jungle. Only our small group was visiting Intipata, so it felt as peaceful as it looks.
On the hike between our camp and Intipati we saw one of the most gorgeous orchids. The Quechua call it Waqanki or ‘Divine Goddess’. There are over 372 varieties of orchids on this trek, this is one of the most beautiful.
Day 4 – 100 m ascent, 300 m descent, 1 – 2 hrs
The Inca Trail is a very popular hike. The government has limited it to 500 people per day, the majority of those are on the same 4 day trail that we took. Having said that, there are enough campsites for the first two nights that it did not feel too crowded. There were many sections of the trail where we didn’t see any other trekkers. The last night however, all of those people stay at the same camp and try to leave for Machu Picchu at the same time the next morning. It was dark and crowded on a narrow trail with sharp drop offs. Hiking courtesy seemed to have gone out the window. After the first 30 minutes though, the crowd began to separate and the hike was much more enjoyable.
Finally, we arrived at the Sun Gate. And then we see it. Machu Picchu really does take your breath away. It is perfectly situated on the top of a col between Machu and Huayna Picchus, surrounded by tall rocky Andean peaks. It’s an awesome sight. From the Sun Gate we saw it come to life as the first rays of the sun shone on Machu Picchu. The site doesn’t open until 8 am, so we are able to enjoy the view with no one yet on the site.
Built in the 1400s, Machu Picchu (2,430 m) is believed to have been a royal retreat or a sacred religious site for Inca leaders. What’s remaining are stone walkways with thousands of steps that connect plazas, a temple and over 200 buildings. Archaeologists believe it has distinct sectors that including a farming zone, a residential neighborhood, a royal district and a sacred area.
Not only is it an incredible view from above, there are also many individual components to Machu Picchu that make it even more impressive. Many of the Inca steps and walkways are still standing. The walls of buildings are intact having only lost their thatched roofs. In between the top and bottom of the city are impressive crop terraces with complex systems for irrigation.
The Inca’s worshiped the sun god (Inti) and the earth goddess (Pachamama). There are many examples of their devotion in the citadel. Stones were carved to match the surrounding mountain landscape. They built a sundial so that the sun would shine on it during the equinox when it precisely rose between two mountain peaks. There are endless places to look and explore.
We also climbed to the top of Huayana Picchu (Young Peak) (2,693 m) for another look at the Machu Picchu (Old Peak) from above. It’s a pretty steep hike with 360 m elevation gain and a few exposed areas. There are more ruins on the top of Huayana Picchu. It’s staggering to think how they managed to carry stones and supplies to the top.
The view from the peak is why we climbed up here. We had a bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu. You can see that it was built in the shape of a condor, an important symbol to the Inca.
To get down from Machu Picchu there is a long winding road with dozens of sharp switchbacks and 390 m of descent. Thankfully our guiding company arranged for us to take a bus. We watched in amazement from our comfortable seats as kids ran between each switchback to sell drinks and snacks to bus passengers.
Aguas Calientes is a small tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. There are restaurants, hotels and hot springs. Many spend a night in town before or after their visit to Machu Picchu. A statue of the 9th Inca king, Pachacutec, stands in the town. He was considered to be the builder of the great Inca Empire.
The multi day Classic Inca Trail is not difficult, but it is at a high elevation. You reach the highest point on the trail (4,215 m) on the second day so you must be acclimatized before beginning the trek. Spending 3 days in Cusco at 3,400 m will help in acclimatizing. There is a limit of 500 people per day on the trek and this includes staff therefore you usually need to book months in advance.
The dry season is between May and October and peak season is in July and August. The rainy season runs from November to April. The trail is closed for the month of February every year. We did the trek in June and the weather was cool but dry.
You must take a guide to do the trek and there are many agencies in Cusco to choose from. The agencies provide guides, tents, food and for an extra fee you can hire a porter for your backpack. We used SAS Travel and were pleased with their staff, equipment and generous amounts of healthy food.
Climbing Huayana Picchu
Access to Huayana Picchu is limited so you need to book well in advance. Tickets should be purchased when you book your trek. The 260 metres climb itself takes about an hour and is often on steep, exposed stairs.
An alternative is to hike the higher, but less steep Cerro Machu Picchu (3,082 m). A permit is also required and should be purchased well in advance.
Getting to Machu Picchu
If you don’t want to trek, there other options to get to Machu Picchu. Many day tours are offered in Cusco. You can go on your own, by bus or train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, then walk up the steep hill (around 2 hours) or take a shuttle bus. These shuttles are very busy during peak season.
Entry to Machu Picchu
Tickets to Machu Picchu will be included in your trekking fee, but if you don’t trek you must purchase your entrance ticket in Cusco or Aguas Calientes. Tickets are not sold at the entrance. You must show your passport. They will even stamp it.
A guide is required to enter the site. We’ve heard it is easier and cheaper to use a tour agency in Cusco rather than hiring a guide on site.
There are many rules as to what is allowed on the site. Don’t bring things such as backpacks, drones, hiking poles or food. Storage is available at the entrance gate. Check with the park for the latest regulations.
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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