Cusco and the (Short) Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

“Machu Picchu, here we come!” How hard can it be, right? I mean, we’re already in Peru. Now we just have to hop a flight from Lima to Cusco….



Whoa, Nelly! The plane’s tight curve around the mountain to land at the Cuzco airport (you really had to be there), a short drive into town, a brisk walk in the chilly night air, and we arrive in Cusco’s main square, Plaza de Armas.



Make sure to stay hydrated! Coca tea may help with symptoms of altitude sickness…but not too much or you might have trouble sleeping. You’ll need that sleep; we leave at 5:30 in the morning for the town of Ollantaytambo and the train that goes to Aguas Calientes – the pueblo (village) at the foot of Machu Picchu.


Good morning! Since we like adventure, we’re going to kick it up a notch up and hike to the ancient Incan citadel. Ready? We’re jumping off the train at Kilometer 104. Queue cinematic disembarkation: jump off the train and roll to safety. Get ready…set…don’t jump! I was just kidding; the train is going to stop for us. There’s no station here, but I promise it’s safe.

We’ll be doing a looong hike today, so slather on some sunblock (it’s 9am, but the sun feels like noon) and let’s get going. ¡Vamos!



Not far from the point of no return (just kidding…mostly), we come upon an express hotel for commuters. By ancient Incan standards, not too shabby.



From here, we see the path diverge into separate trails for commercial use and for use by the upper crust. So, if you were royalty or if you were a priest, you took a different path from, say, a food porter from the Sacred Valley. We’ll be taking the path of the commoners, but it is no common path at all.



Chasquis (the native Quechuan word for “runners” or “messengers”) were thought to be able to run these paths, from Cusco to Quito (in present-day Ecuador) in 4-5 days. Impressive, or remarkably impressive? I’m struggling at even the 4-5 hr mark.

The sight of an occasional stream or waterfall is a welcome respite amidst a grueling climb upwards, under the beating sun. I feel like we could do a movie montage here where the heroines traverse deserts and perilous mountain passes in a quest to find something or someone to save the world. Or maybe too many cinematic moments play out in my head that don’t look anything like real life.



Just when I most fear I’ll need to be helicoptered back to civilization, the views open up to something even more wonderful than the vistas we’ve been hiking past. Another Incan site, Wiñaywayna, is accessible only via the footpath we’re on. From here, the glorious mountains are even more awe-inspiring. No wonder the ancient Incans worshipped them.



In the hierarchical society of the Incas, there was no currency. Sure, they had gold and silver (symbolic of the sun and moon), but the precious metals were used as offering rather than compensation for goods or services. In a place like this, why would you need currency? That window view: Priceless. Take that same view back to California, and you’re asking for a kidney, a lung, and a firstborn child.

A little further, and we finally arrive at the Sun Gate. It’s now 5pm and our bodies, unaccustomed to hiking, wanted to give up hours ago. But we arrive, and with the end in sight, we trudge towards the finish line.



Finally, we reach Machu Picchu at dusk.



And the experience is absolutely worth it.


Check out the next post, where we explore the citadel itself.